Wednesday, August 22, 2007

DUST UP – THE LA TIMES ONLINE DEBATE: Kids, grownups in school showdown,1,6373266.storygallery

Are class sizes too big? What would reducing class sizes achieve, and would it be worth the cost? All this week, former LAUSD board member David Tokofsky and a group of Los Angeles high school students debate the future of the school district in the LA Times "Dust Up" blog.

August 20, 2007 Dust-Up: Teacher Motivation


By Carla Hernandez

Carla Hernandez is a 10th-grader at King/Drew Medical Magnet High School, and an active member of the Watts Youth Collective.

Thank you, Mr. Tokofsky, for having this debate with youth. Nobody ever really listens to our opinion, when in fact we do have some important things to say.

Most teachers in our schools don't know, or want to learn, how to change the problems in our communities.

More than 60% of students in schools like ours — mostly black and brown — are dropping out (or, are being "pushed out" systemically) of school and relying on their streets to provide answers. Teachers are not trying hard enough to prevent students in our communities from falling into these traps.

If you look at it, most of our teachers can't make a subject interesting. (They're boring!!!) And to make it worse, most of us are learning from uncaring teachers who don't support us in our learning. Seeing life through the students' eyes, you'll see that they find what they don't get in school in the streets. When this happens, you have students interested in a life that has nothing to do with what they learn in school. This results in students falling into the school-to-prison pipeline.

This is our reality! Because of this, we need teachers who can create activities that involve their students, their communities and their problems. This will attract the students' attention instead of causing them to daydream in classrooms over-packed with unqualified and overworked teachers.

The No Child Left Behind Act and its definition of a highly qualified teacher does not work well in our communities. The act defines a teacher as "highly qualified" when he or she has subject-matter qualifications and university teaching credentials. But how about communication qualifications and culturally empowering credentials? If you don't have credentials we can respect, then you don't have the quality we need.

We need teachers who can prepare us to resist failure and transform our communities. A qualified teacher can go beyond teaching us how to read and write. Quality teachers can empower us to make a change. According to our research in the Crenshaw High School community, a highly qualified teacher can also 1) motivate students, 2) care about the problems in students' lives and 3) have a passion for teaching students of color.

Our community wants teachers who care about us. We are struggling in our communities and we need teachers who can understand that. Most teachers in our schools don't have that quality. Teachers need to take time out of their schedule to share ideas with their students, and to be able to encourage us when we are in need of support. Teachers should worry about problems beyond the school, helping their students feel safe with them and one another, prove to us that they are people we can rely on when everything in our world seems wrong. As Crenshaw High School teacher Monique Lane said, we need to "replace teachers with people who care!" Do you think it's fair for students to go through schools where no one seems to believe in them? Or seems to care? We don't! Would that motivate you, or your children, to keep striving for more, when all you see is failure and poor teaching around you?


By David Tokofsky

David Tokovsky is a former board member of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Carla, thank you very much for being involved in school and community issues. You are to be commended for your engagement, and I respect your feelings, thoughts and research. Above all, you are right to focus on the quality of teachers as the core issue for P-12 education.

You are lucky to attend King/Drew Magnet. We can be proud of its successes. The recent closing of the county government's King/Drew Hospital reminds us that although challenges in public education are numerous, in many ways the school system is doing better than other areas of government service.

Let me start with a few key facts. California has had tremendous population growth over the last 20 years. With population growth comes a requirement to find a sufficient number of teachers. When I first came to L.A. Unified as a teacher in 1983, the pay was $13,000 a year and the district needed to find 12,000 new teachers for that year alone (the state of California as a whole was short 150,000 teachers). At that pay, and the low pay over the last 20 years, we have not been able to attract enough new -- let alone quality -- teachers. While the search for a massive quantity of teachers is not an excuse for the quality question, we must be aware of the magnitude of the problem.

Your references to No Child Left Behind are misplaced on the local level. These are federal regulations and rules. We in the local school boards have opposed such laws from afar as they do not take into account local circumstances. Yet we locals embrace the higher standards and increased accountability of NCLB. We also know that NCLB is really the same federal involvement that brings Title I money and other entitlements that we use in our urban schools.

School districts can do a lot to excite teachers to teach passionately, but ultimately that goal rests with the adult teachers themselves. Now that we only have a need for 2,000 new teachers a year, you are right to ask all L.A. County school boards to raise the requirements to become a teacher in urban and inner-city settings.

But students also need to shoulder a lot of the responsibility for learning. You casually say that 60% of kids drop out or get pushed out. First of all, that figure is inaccurate. Many students in L.A. County's overcrowded system fall into a variety of categories such as continuation schools, independent study, community day schools, adult schools, and so on. They also move frequently from district to district, making their status harder to measure.

Students may in fact have too many alternative choices for schooling in California, which is the conclusion that the State Legislative Analyst reached in February of this year. Students want choices, but much of schooling requires discipline.

While money is not the answer to all these recruitment, retention and training issues, we must remember that California ranks in the bottom third of states in funding. Recently, education activists passed SB 1133, which took money from good schools and gave it to some of the state's lowest performers. This transfer of the limited existing monies exacerbates the funding problems at quality campuses like King/Drew, a school with the highest API in the inner-city southern parts of L.A. County.

We need this extra money to pay all teachers more, and to establish higher standards and training for content instruction. I think you are right that teachers should know more about students' communities, but they ought to know Science, Literature, Math and Social Students first and foremost. Good teachers will know their subject matters well; great teachers will, as you rightly say, will also know their students well.

August 21, 2007 Dust-Up: Too many kids


By David Tokofsky

Class size matters. When it comes to class size, California is near the top of the 50 states. We in Los Angeles County not only have high class size but are among the poorest of California's 58 counties. Our diversity is tremendous; our city police stretched over vast terrain; our county physical and mental health systems strained. How can we reach our secondary students with classes numbering more than 40 and teachers who must serve 200 students a day?

Under Gov. Pete Wilson, California lowered class size ratios in the lowest grades, kindergarten, first, second and third, to 20 students to one teacher. Those 20-to-1 classrooms often have a teaching assistant, thereby making the rooms really 10 kids to one adult. In kindergarten, parents also volunteer more than for any other grade through grade 12. We have made a great investment in California to show that class size matters.

Is the investment yielding the results we need for all of California's kids? In Los Angeles, the lower grades have improved significantly, but are the results only attributable to class size, or did the managed curriculum, training and focus matter too? Why hasn't the kindergarten-to-third-grade improvement affected fourth grade significantly? If students are getting lower class size from kindergarten to third grade, shouldn't they be in some way ready for the content of fourth grade? Or is the fact that fourth grade holds 34 or more students to one teacher the reason for the fourth-grade drop. Remember that fourth grade is just when math, science and history kick off at high speeds?

And what about grades four through 12, shouldn't they share in the massive class-size funds? If you reduced kindergarten, first, second, and third to only 26 to 1, you could have, for no greater cost, class-size reduction all the way to sixth grade? Is reducing class size from kindergarten to third grade to 20-to-1 worth sacrificing fourth, fifth and sixth grades?

Everyone always says that class size matters the most. Our King/Drew researcher and the UCLA team started us off with a different challenge: Does the quality of the teacher matter more than the number of students in a class? And if you were to have a quality teacher, one who in fact knows the subject matter, the students and the students' community, would we be better off investing in the teacher or reducing class size?

I don't want to appear to jaded, but could the constant call for class-size reduction be overstated? If we answer the call for more teachers, more teachers will need to be hired. Then we are back to the quantity-over-quality issue we discussed earlier. Teachers unions may need more members to pay dues, but that could be balanced by higher-quality teachers being paid more than today for quality output.

Finally, I want to remind the students that class-size-reduction money essentially comes from the Assembly members and state senators in Sacramento. These legislators have chosen to let California schools fall behind nearly every other state in the Union. Is it time for local students, parents and school boards to solve the problems themselves, as we have begun to do with school bonds to reduce overcrowding in schools by building new schools? Do we need a county parcel tax or sales tax to reduce class size? Who will take the lead there? The school board? The mayor? The city council or the supervisors?

Private schools have class sizes of 12 or fewer to one. Gov. Schwarzenegger and Mayor Villaraigosa send their kids to these elite private schools at a cost of nearly $30,000 per year per kid. Who could blame them for investing that much in the most important part of a parent's life? Are we telling the rest of the families that their children are only worth one-quarter of the value of politicians' children when we give only $7,500 dollars per public school kid?

I am sure the students on this dust-up will remind us additionally that we spend a lot more on California prisoners than California students. We are never short on ballot initiatives to get tough on the very people who could not find success in their early years.

David Tokofsky is a former board member of the Los Angeles Unified School District.


by Leslie Campos

Leslie Campos is an 11th grader at Crenshaw High School, Los Angeles.

I agree with a lot of what you're saying, Mr. Tokofsky. In classes with a lot of students, we don't get the attention that we deserve. It's too easy to go to class and just "chill." These overcrowded classes hinder students' opportunity to engage in real learning.

All anyone has to do is to take a walk in our shoes and experience school with densely populated classes and teachers who cannot handle a large number of energetic students.

It's not fair to teachers or students to learn like this!

Decreasing class sizes will directly result in a rise of student engagement and bring down the disappearance rate.

There are geniuses sitting in the back of our classes, but they don't get properly taught in classrooms with more than 30 other kids. So, what happens to our geniuses? Some might break out of their self-destructive cocoons, but most fall to the fate of low-paying jobs or the school-to-prison pipeline.

There shouldn't be a choice between quantity and quality. Both are necessities in school. Both quality teachers and the class size play a large role in the education of students.

As well as having smaller classes, teachers should receive better training in order to prepare them for their students' diverse learning capabilities. They also should learn how to move at a steady pace in order to keep all students on their toes academically, meaning the ones who don't understand the material and the ones who do. Teachers also should be trained to keep lessons interesting and not repeat the same style day after day after day.

It's easy to tell us to participate in school, but in our communities, it's not that simple. Often, schools do not have programs that increase student and parent participation. In fact, some school leaders keep students, parents, and community members out of the decision-making. Instead, the district and schools in our community must try their hardest to include parents, students and community members in the decision-making.

I agree, though, that the governor and mayor can't possibly know what it's like for students in public school to experience large class sizes, especially if their children attend $30,000 private schools. The fact that their children do not experience what LAUSD students go through impairs their ability to make decisions regarding public school students. I would advise that they experience what inner-city LAUSD classrooms, with 40-students-to-1-teacher ratios, are like on a daily basis. Political leaders should try to see what it's like to learn from teachers who can't relate to this generation of minority students.

If the mayor and the governor really want to understand what our schools and classrooms are like, they must respect and listen to the students they are making decisions for. Having conversations with us would give them a much better understanding of the difficulties facing the very people they are supposed to be concerned with. Maybe then they would be able to make heartfelt decisions for the youth in our communities.

I understand that money is not easy to come by, but our schools should be top priority. I don't have the answers for that, but the fact that we give so much of our national budget to our military and so little to our schools tells us that our priorities are more on aggression toward others than affection toward our youth. Let people live, and let our children learn! Students should not go another day with unqualified teachers, overcrowded classes and low-quality schools.

August 22, 2007 Dust Up: Premature promotions

Are too many kids getting promoted to the next grade before they're ready? Why is that a problem? What would be an ideal policy? All this week, former LAUSD board member David Tokofsky and a group of Los Angeles high school students debate the future of the school district.

- Today, Tokofsky and high school senior Amandla discuss social promotion. Yesterday, they debated class size, and Monday they chewed on teacher motivation. Later in the week, they will focus on the real-world relevance of curriculum and the biggest obstacles to quality schooling.


By Amandla Traylor - Amandla Traylor is a 12th grader at Opportunities Unlimited Charter High School in South Central Los Angeles.

Yes, too many students are being promoted to the next grade when they're not ready. When these students get a serious teacher, they don't know what to do. That's when the truth is found out; and the teachers who didn't teach them are nowhere to be found. It's the students who are blamed.

When they continue onto higher education, they won't know how to handle it because they never learned any of the skills and ideas that are important for succeeding in college. If these students just get passed on, when they're adults they will not succeed in getting or keeping higher-paying jobs. If this continues, we will never be able to improve our lives, and we will always be among those communities that are "left behind."

To fix this problem, we need to have policies that encourage teachers to live in the same area as their schools, so they can better learn about the challenges their students go through instead of being on the outside, looking in. Or, we could recruit teachers who are from the neighborhoods that our schools are in.

Some of the most influential people in our communities are gangbangers. They do whatever it takes to get what they want. Most people feel the gangbangers' goals are wrong, but at least they follow through on what they started. Teachers who just pass students along are giving up on their goals and quitting on what they came to our schools to do.

If schools gave gang members more opportunity, they could become positive role models instead of negative ones. Don't give up on them so easily, because if you believed in them, they could be future teachers. Instead of discouraging them, we need to uplift them to use their leadership qualities for something positive.

They were taught to be self-defeating by society. A lot of youth don't think they're going to survive in the streets, so they learn to become tough. Schools aren't providing them a way out of these problems, so what the system is really telling them is to be happy with what they have. Gangbangers are not going to be happy with the problems in their communities, so they find a way to change it the best way they know how. And they learn these tactics from one another.

When most of us are just passed along grade to grade, that means we are being taught by peers who were given the same poor education. If everyone is learning from people who haven't learned anything positive in school, then they're going to repeat the same mistakes.

We need to find a way to make these people the teachers. Gang members are not just ignorant; they're misunderstood. No matter which gangs you talk to, most of the older gang members don't want the younger ones in their communities to end up like them. That shows caring. If we did everything we can to put them through college, then that would change what everybody in our community wants to do.

I know most of the people reading this are thinking, "Why would we do this?" For those readers, my response would be, "Why wouldn't we?" Gang members are already educating our children negatively, so why shouldn't we try to change their teaching to be positive?

This would influence the children of the community to do better. Students wouldn't run over them the same way we're running over teachers in our schools today. I've seen so many gangbangers change their attitude toward learning when they have teachers who care about them, and can tell them why the work is important to do.

As a researcher and community insider to the problems facing us, I have first-hand knowledge about these gang members. They aren't all the negative stereotypes that the media makes them out to be. They are humans with good hearts, who just didn't have the same opportunities as others. Since they have strong leadership qualities, we need to educate them so they can teach in our communities.

One member of the Rollin' 60s Crips said to us, "Don't they say education is everything? Well, maybe if we would've had some of that, we wouldn't be here." Until we talk to them as people, and not be afraid of what they tell us, we shouldn't reject them as possible leaders in our schools. Why can't that be the policy? We're the ones who go to our schools, so why can't we be the ones who think of new ways to teach ourselves? If we just pass students along, then the teachers are helping make gangbangers, too.


By David Tokofsky

Well, Amandla, we definitely agree that students pass to the next grade without learning the fundamental skills. I think most Californians agree. In fact the state Legislature outlawed this practice some six years or more ago. School districts violate that law daily.

We do not hold students, parents/guardians, administrators or teachers responsible for the fact that kids move from third to fourth grade without knowing such fundamentals as their multiplication tables. Your response focuses more on the older students; but so much easier to fix would be the younger kids.

Again, I ask how in the world can students in grades kindergarten, first, second and third get all the investment to reduce class sizes to 20-1 as well as teaching assistants and yet students go to fourth grade without the basics of reading and math? I know educators do not believe in retaining kids in the same grade for two years, but something must be done.

Here are some suggestions. First, schools across California should follow LAUSD's new model of full-day kindergarten. Most of L.A. County's kids are from the working class and are from immigrant families. A full day of English without causing parents to leave work at 11:30 a.m. to get their kids is a sane policy and educationally beneficial.

Secondly, kids who are not ready to leave kindergarten or first grade should be put in specially designed multi-age classrooms (K-1 or K-2) with talented teachers to catch them up before subject matter gets really hard in fourth and fifth grade. Experienced teachers choose lower grades, in fact, because class sizes are lower than in upper grades.

Thirdly, we need to help fourth- and fifth-grade teachers with specialists, not just in music, but in math and science. Many upper-grade teachers do not have the love and/or skills to teach the joy of science and math the same way they approach reading stories and artwork. Lastly for today, we need more money from Sacramento and Washington to help with the number of immigrants learning English and the number of poor kids who need mental- and physical-health support for learning the basics.

If all kids left K-3 skilled, and left elementary school solid, then they would be innoculated for the middle-school years ... the wonder years? California's middle schools are huge and impersonal. In the LAUSD, almost all the middle schools have 2,000-plus kids. There is little time for exciting electives and little money for summer or inter-session help for those falling down in their studies. In L.A. County, the poorest of California's 58 counties, the disease of illiteracy grows in the middle years without the kind of help you must have found at Youth Opportunities Unlimited, where some adults are caring for you. No wonder kids can't survive the ninth and 10th grades.

Before ending, I want to say that your idea on teachers living in the neighborhoods where they work is interesting. I did that for 10 of my 12 years teaching high school. Teachers are underpaid and under-valued. I think that the city or county of Los Angeles should develop workforce housing adjacent to schools where we could help fire and police, teachers and publicly committed folks to gain income through reduced loans or cheaper housing. As we write, more and more people are leaving L.A. County, headed for Riverside, Imperial and northern San Diego counties because housing is cheaper and there is a perception of safer neighborhoods and better schools. Let's not see another L.A.-developer housing bond without help for working families.

And finally, today state Sen. Darrell Steinberg in Sacramento begins hearings on bills to fix California's Alternative Education "drop in" programs and the persistence of dropouts. We ought to help his agenda succeed for the millions of kids like you. Promoting kids from grade to grade just for the self-esteem of kids and adults has run its course.

August 23, 2007 Dust-Up: Real-life learning

Are schools teaching subjects that are relevant to students’ lives? All this week, former LAUSD board member David Tokofsky and a group of Los Angeles high school students debate the future of the school district.

Today, Tokofsky and Wilson High School's Paola Tejeda discuss whether curriculum is relevant enough to students' lives.


By David Tokofsky

We love debates in America; it's part of the democratic republic. I think, however, that there ought to be some checks and balances when it comes to the subject of "relevance" in schools.

Today, leftist educators teach students that Relevance, Rigor and Relationships are more important than the old, right-wing "Three Rs" of Reading, Writing and 'Rithmetic.

But relevance without rigor means that we will discuss science without math and physics. Someone has to teach kids their times-tables (and by third grade at the latest). Relevance without rigor will lead to social studies teachers bemoaning the war in Iraq without teaching Physical Geography, the Economics of Oil, and World History.

Similarly, relationships without rigor and the original Three Rs will end with kids sitting in circles discussing their feelings about their families, or issues such as gangs, without any grounding in the great thinkers of psychology, sociology and anthropology who help us frame these debates. Structure and discipline are not the enemies of relevance.

Kids need to develop critical thinking skills, but the search for relevance and relationships without rigor will end up with teachers and students picking and choosing their topics like morsels in a cafeteria or items for sale on EBay.

Granted, the narrow-mindedness of Sacramento politicians and Washington reactionaries drive curriculum toward requirements rather than electives. Nonetheless, teachers can teach the standard curriculum -- which today is rather strongly driven by multicultural voices and bottom-up relevance in science and social studies -- and still cover all Six Rs at once.

Everything in our debate this week comes down once again to great teaching. This naturally requires teachers to develop relationships with students and their communities. Great teaching implies teachers framing and even leading discussions of relevance without making every topic link to MTV or the Disney Channel. Only rigorous work, involving research, discovery, imagination and discipline, drives young people to value their efforts.

Can you imagine the head football coach at Fremont High having his players sit around and discuss their feelings about upcoming games, without any drill-and-skill activities such sit-ups, bench presses, blocking and tackling? Can you imagine the musical instructor at Washington Prep High just sending the kids on stage without rehearsals? I imagine the repetition of rehearsals will indeed work to strengthen the weaker scenes, rather than happily repeating the most popular scenes to the detriment of the musical as a whole.

Many teachers in America don't relish engaging students. This good work is tiring and undervalued. Additionally, the state and national standards too often become the catechism of autocratic discipline; thus instruction degrades the very meaning of the word "discipline."

Didn't "discipline" derive from the same root as "disciple"? Isn't a school really a place for the teaching of schools of thought, and not just some widget factory named PS 1, PS 2, or Public School No. 3? We give our schools separate names; our Bill Gates-funded schools-within-schools have separate identities of their own.

Still, students can smell form without substance. By high school, students almost instinctively know that calling a school a "social justice academy" does not mean that they will become fluent in the history of social justice. If they are not taught the basics -- if they do not know history, and don't read the seminal writings about justice, peace and community -- the students will only be able to mimic some ranting newscaster on Fox News. Discipline matters; relevance reinforces. Reason ultimately requires passion, but also knowledge and structure.


By Paola Tejeda - Paola Tejeda is a senior at Wilson High School in El Sereno.

Like Amandla and Mr. Tokofsky said, not teaching students what they need to learn in order to go to college and be critical thinkers is oppression, too.

Since before the East Los Angeles Chicano blowouts of the 1960s, students have been asking their schools to make learning more relevant. This is not an excuse. It's a demand!

Most schools teach a negative view of our culture. Doing this makes students of color disinterested in education. Instead of using curriculum that disengages us, we need to learn from the places that really empower students to do better with their lives. If schools do that, then we would be more interested in reading, writing, math, history, geography and public speaking.

For example, Somos Raza attracts students to learn because they study the problems facing them as Latinos, and challenge what they are taught in regular classrooms. Members meet after school and on the weekends, organize rallies, unite black and brown students, and clean the streets to improve their communities. They believe that schools are lying to them, so they study the beauty of their culture and learn about their true history.

By not learning the truth, Latinos are learning how to continue their own oppression. Crenshaw High School Somos Raza member Jonathan said, "They're brainwashing us in school.... Learning is about knowing the truth." When it's the truth, it's relevant, and you want to learn more.

The Nubia group at Crenshaw High School studies topics about black culture, especially African American women. Since the media portrays black women negatively, and since they barely exist in school curriculum, members are challenged to think differently about themselves. They study hyper-sexualized images of black people, mistreatment by men, European women's standards of beauty, and self-hate.

Like Somos Raza, students have a voice in the group. As Crenshaw High teacher and Nubia founder Monique Lane says, "Their ideas are just as valuable as mine and other adults'." They consider themselves a "family" because they have different opinions, sometimes argue about ideas, and always learn from everyone else's story. Most classes just tell you what to believe, and don't give you a chance to challenge one another.

Crenshaw Cougar Coalition (CCC) and the Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ) motivates students to be involved in their school. They discuss political topics and are educated about their community. They see themselves as the extension of the School Site Council, stay informed about the school's budget and hiring, and, like student Jerome says, "fight for democratic control over schools."

They are tired of the problems in their schools, and they're even more tired of being disrespected by a school system that doesn't believe that they are a strong and intelligent community. These organizations are engaging their students because they actually address and change the problems they face.

What can teachers learn from these groups? Instead of teaching one-sided information, teach students what they need to know to be strong people. That would be "relevant" teaching. It's more engaging to learn how to become strong than to learn how to stay weak.

If students of color can engage with their culture first, it's easier to learn about others. Schools become even more empowering when people learn how to resist being controlled by society. We have a right to an education that empowers us and helps us succeed in trying to make a difference for ourselves, our cultures and our communities.

Instead of books written by people from far away, schools can teach from programs that are doing empowering work with local youth. This would help students of color become more informed about their world, more engaged with their learning, and more successful with their education. Instead of boring students with irrelevant activities, we can teach them to be leaders who can change their own personal lives and eventually the history of the world.

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