Guest Column: School district fails to learn from history

As the Valley Sun reported last week, the LCUSD Governing Board recently voted 4-1, with Joel Peterson dissenting, to cut four complete days of school next year, replacing them with four pupil-free days for teacher professional development. The district will add a few minutes to each school day to keep the total annual minutes about the same or even a little higher, but the four days will be gone.

The basic agreement was made during teacher contract negotiations, behind closed doors, with almost no input from parents or members of the community, who are paying more, yet getting less. The four days off is not a consequence of a weak budget. It is a completely voluntary district experiment.

Sadly, this major decision follows the same path the district and board took regarding the high school’s experimental STEP program. Starting in 2008, that program slashed valuable instructional minutes to make room for mini-courses, including table tennis and football study hall. Heralded by the district as an important enrichment program for students and teachers, STEP is now a shell of its former self, and instructional time has been restored to teaching core classes.

Unfortunately, the similarities between STEP and this new experiment are ominous.

Neither program had a written plan with specific measureable goals, leadership responsibilities or, most importantly, an “external” evaluation to determine if the program worked. Would anyone build a house, or even a simple home addition, without a written plan? A sketch?

Neither had a budget. Launching new programs without funding virtually dooms them to failure, however well intended. In the STEP program, many teachers expected a stipend for teaching what they saw as an extra class. As I warned at the time, the lack of funding would lead many teachers to refuse to teach a STEP class. That happened, especially in seventh- and eighth-grades, leaving many students without the advertised number of STEP classes.

In this new experiment, the lack of funding means that LCUSD teachers will teach other teachers, rather than drawing from any knowledgeable outside learning experts who charge nominal fees for their services. No budget for materials, either.

Neither had a solid research base. Admittedly, STEP did some unique things that no one else was doing, cutting class time from already short school days to make room for weekly mini-classes. It was hard to find research about any program that had tried anything similar. In this new experiment, research is quite solid that even well-funded teacher professional development programs, such as the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project, have few or even no positive effects on student learning. The Annenberg Metropolitan program had $100 million. The La Cañada district’s new experiment has nothing.

Both lacked accountability. The STEP program was so poorly planned that it produced a major absentee problem. With numerous STEP classes scheduled for first period, many students showed up late, leading to the creation of a STEP Tardy Committee. The new district experiment schedules days off on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, in the hopes that teachers, parents and students will not take advantage of the time to create longer weekends. Results from the STEP program suggest that attendance and accountability will again be a major challenge.

Both lacked external evaluation. Evidence of the many STEP problems was eventually documented in an “external” evaluation, which I had urged, conducted by the nonprofit WestEd organization. Among WestEd’s specific findings: “Only 2% of staff respondents had no concerns about STEP; 47% of staff were concerned that STEP is a poor use of instructional time; and 53% of staff had implementation concerns about the program, including scheduling.” The report also concluded “The intent to provide time for teacher collaboration has not been served well…”

Not learning from the many STEP troubles could make this new experiment even more problematic. Consider the following:

Because of a lack of budget, there will be no “external” evaluation. Instead, the district will evaluate the program itself. In the first year of the STEP program, the district reported substantial success, based on its own “internal” evaluation. A year later, the “external” WestEd evaluation brought many problems to light. While those problems impacted just the high school, this new experiment includes elementary schools as well. “Internal” evaluations lack credibility.

Per incoming Superintendent Wendy Sinnette, who played a major role in the STEP program, teachers will donate the extra time to create the new professional development without extra compensation. But the evidence from the “external” STEP evaluation again doesn’t support Sinnette’s contention. It concluded: “Sixty percent of staff were concerned that they didn’t receive compensation for the extra preparation.” Describing lack of leadership, the evaluation also asked: “Who are the administrators that oversee STEP?” Here are few more important questions.

Where will students be during their four days off next year? Day care at extra parent expense, home alone, on the streets?

What will non-teaching staff do during their four days off? Or teachers in one-deep positions? With no children in school, will security staff be needed? Cooks, administrators, counselors? How will the LCUSD ensure that staff attend and stay at the professional development programs? Will they need another committee like the STEP Tardy Committee? Will administrators stand at the door?

Can the LCUSD point to another school district anywhere that is cutting nearly a week from its school calendar for a similar purpose? Can the school board say that this decision was done in a transparent manner, with review and input from school site councils, parents and the community, including the Community Prevention Council?

In the midst of an unknown state budget, larger class sizes, a parcel tax and urgent requests for more money from parents, cutting four school days for an unfunded new experiment is a terrible idea. Our schools should practice what they often teach, learning from history so that we don’t repeat our past mistakes.

RON DIETEL is a former member of the La Cañada Unified School District Governing Board and is assistant director for research, use and communications at the UCLA Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing. He can be reached at ron@ucla.edu.
 
 

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