Piece of Mind: Let's talk openly about teachers

With the exception of a refreshing few, we're all a bunch of wimps in this town. Hardly anyone wants to go public with their criticism of any local institution.

I was reminded of this Monday when I received a phone call from a woman who has children attending La Cañada public schools. She had read the L.A. Times' in-depth report Sunday on the Los Angeles Unified School District's methodology for assessing teachers. In case you didn't see the report, here's a very brief recap: The Times found that instead of reviewing individual students' standardized test results from year to year to help pinpoint classrooms where effective teaching skills might be lacking, the Los Angeles district relies on other measures and therefore might be short-changing the students' learning experience.

My caller suggested it was time La Cañada schools came under such scrutiny. My answer to her was that we were already working on a story detailing how La Cañada teachers are evaluated because we knew a lot of people would be asking the same question after reading The Times article. We aren't doing the same kind of study that compares seven years of individual test scores — and it turns out we wouldn't be able to do that since the La Cañada teachers' contract prohibits releasing that information — but we wanted to give our readers a glimpse at the local process for assessing the educational experience.

In the course of our phone conversation I mentioned it is very difficult to coax La Cañada residents to go on the record when they have concerns. There is a very real fear of reprisal here, especially when it comes to the schools. Parents are scared stiff that if they speak out, a targeted teacher will take any resulting anger out on their child. I've heard it over and over again for years, even from some very well-respected leaders who are active in school affairs.

And I've been there myself, biting my tongue to keep from complaining about a teacher so that my child would not suffer the outfall.

My caller said she'd be willing to talk on the record, maybe not by calling out specific educators, but relating her experience with the La Cañada schools in more general terms.

A few hours later, she reneged on her offer in an e-mail to me, which she agreed I could quote from as long as I didn't identify her. She'd decided to bail after talking about it with her teenage daughter, who nixed the idea.

"It's amazing that we have this culture of fear talking about our schools or teachers," my fellow wimp wrote. "I made a bunch of phone calls to people I thought would be comfortable talking about teacher accountability, and no one wanted to touch it. You were absolutely right about parents not going on the record. I think we'd all be better off if we did. The sad thing is the toughest thing we'd be going up against is the teachers union. What if we were inner-city parents who had to stand up against gangs or something really scary?"

True. Los Angeles Unified parents have far more to deal with than we do in our corner of paradise. And La Canada schools outperform most others in the state, so what do we have to harp about beyond a few ineffective teachers? Or are there more than a few? How will we know if it's not discussed publicly? Could we be doing better by our kids?

CAROL CORMACI is managing editor of the Valley Sun. She can be contacted at ccormaci@valleysun.net.

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