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Freeing up LAUSD

A decade ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District centralized authority over education, including over reading instruction. The district had recently gone on a hiring spree to achieve smaller class sizes in primary grades. Many of those new teachers came with little or no pedagogical training, so the district adopted Open Court, a rigid, heavily scripted literacy curriculum. Teachers chafed at the lack of instructional freedom, though test scores improved markedly among younger students.

Another few years, another swing of the educational pendulum. The school district and leaders of United Teachers Los Angeles have reached tentative agreement on a new contract that would phase in extraordinary new autonomy for individual schools so that they could determine curriculum, hiring, work rules and expenditures. Neither district administrators nor union officials would be able to interfere, at least for a while.

In ways, the agreement makes sense for these times. The L.A. Unified teaching force is better qualified than it was 10 years ago. Many charter schools have modeled success by empowering teachers while also holding them more accountable. Teacher morale has been sinking under the weight of ever-heavier state and federal requirements and ever-more-inadequate budgets. And teachers often find themselves hampered by the very union contract work rules that were written to protect them.

If free to innovate, some schools will rise brilliantly to the occasion. They will find ways to spend their scant financial resources to have the most impact on students. Weak teachers will respond to peer pressure and support from their more accomplished colleagues. Educators will create exciting instructional methods.

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Yet such independence comes at a price. One reason that former Supt. Roy Romer adopted a one-size-fits-all philosophy is that more than 1 in 5 students move during any given academic year, often to another district school. When education is consistent at all campuses, these students are less apt to be lost academically.

And just as not all charter schools do sterling work, not all L.A. Unified schools would thrive under greater independence. So far, this agreement is worrisomely stronger on autonomy than it is on accountability. It also, for at least three years, keeps charter organizations from bidding to run failing schools under the Public School Choice initiative, possibly depriving students of their best educational options. The ultimate success of decentralized authority depends on the whether schools are responsible for results — and, paradoxically, on whether L.A. Unified’s historically slow-moving central office can muster the nimbleness and vigilance to effectively oversee hundreds of schools and their disparate education plans.


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