Saturday, January 27, 2007

Flaws mar plan to fix our schools

BY JOSEPH STAUB, Guest Columnist LA Daily News

01/22/2007 - AFTER reading Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's "Schoolhouse" plan for improving LAUSD schools, I have to admit, that, as a teacher, there's a lot about it I like.

The mayor and his team describe a schoolhouse roofed with an excellent goal: "All children receive an excellent public education to cement the opportunity to realize their dreams." Fair enough, although somebody should tell the mayor's analogy squad that a roof metaphor, like a real roof, probably shouldn't contain cement.

Still, it's a good start. The problem is, like with many schoolhouses in the Los Angeles Unified School District, once you look a little closer, flaws start to appear, and questions start to arise. Assuming that maybe the roof won't collapse under the weight of an ill-made metaphor, let's look at the six pillars that hold up that roof.

Pillar 1 is called "High expectations" and in it the mayor calls for an end to blaming families for school failure. He doesn't mention who is to blame for student failure.

He also wants to "demand results." Again, nothing about parents being held accountable, only schools, which probably means teachers, not administrators or LAUSD suits. So much for partnership.

Pillar 2 is "Safe, small, and clean," which is what the mayor wants all schools to be. Part of "safe" means going after gangs. But if this happens, we better have the nerve to really break them, or it will be the schools that pay the price in a protracted gang war. Too many parents complain when a school employee asks them to go to the office for a visitor's pass, so most people have stopped asking. As a result, schools are largely open and dangerously undefended.

Pillar 3, "Empowered leadership," says: "Principals must be liberated from the central office mandates for compliance and given more autonomy to manage their schools." This always sounds good, but it is fraught with peril. I have known only a few principals I thought wouldn't try to get rid of a teacher for a purely political reason.

Pillar 4 is "Powerful teaching and rigorous curriculum," and pillar 5 is: "Family and community involvement." These platforms include some great ideas, as long as the mayor can help find the money, space and personnel to make it happen.

If you're going to have arts, vocational classes, sports, literacy academies, foreign language classes, parent centers and classes, job training, health clinics, and all that at schools - including an extended school day - I have one question: Where are all the people doing all this teaching going to park?

Pillar 6: "More money to schools."

Ah, this is how the other five pillars get funded. But wait, what's this? An audit of the district? Cut the downtown bureaucracy? A service-minded central office? Wow, when did Mayor Villaraigosa join United Teachers Los Angeles? Well, you can have a red T-shirt, Mr. Mayor, but we'll be watching you.

There are indeed a number of good ideas in the "Schoolhouse" plan, but if the mayor wants his plan to work, he has to do one thing first: help rein in those who want to break up the district.

In the first place, breaking the LAUSD up now would send the district into a paralyzing tizzy of fragmented priorities and lawyer-to-lawyer combat over money and property. Second, if the district gets dismantled, all the little districts will attempt to renegotiate their teacher contracts, probably downward as the budget types panic, or pretend to. Poorer neighborhoods would be hard-pressed to retain experienced teachers when the richer ones begin to offer better pay, benefits and working conditions.

The mayor also needs to put more trust in the people. In the introduction to his plan, Villaraigosa attempts to strike an inclusive note. But if that's the case, why did he ignore that very constituency, and instead resort to political maneuvering in Sacramento to gain control over the LAUSD? The "Schoolhouse" can work, but only if the mayor leads, not commands.

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