Saturday, July 11, 2009


Op-Ed By John Perez | LA Newspaper Group/Daily News

Sunday, 12 July 2009 -- DURING 36 years as a teacher and union leader in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I ran across teachers who clearly should not have been at the head of a classroom.

They were, however, far fewer than commonly thought. Calls to fire "bad" teachers always fire up a crowd, but few of the 650,000 LAUSD students would even notice if all 160 teachers reportedly serving a form of "house arrest" while charges against them are being investigated were gone tomorrow.

As a member of the California Postsecondary Education Commission since 2005, I have read a series of academic studies warning about a greater - and largely unreported - challenge to our children's education: We are not training enough new teachers to fill the vacancies in our state's classrooms.

Part of the solution, of course, is making the profession more attractive so more talented students will set their sights on a classroom career. But we can also avert the imminent shortage by retaining thousands of struggling teachers. Raising their skills would have a deep, broad, long-lasting effect on our kids' education.

The good news is that several methods have been proven to work.

Too many teachers quit before completing their fifth year in the classroom, but mentor programs can cut the "dropout" rate in half. LAUSD provides coaching for language arts and math in elementary schools, but that doesn't compare with new teachers learning their craft for their first five years under the guidance of an experienced mentor.

Teachers who lose their effectiveness can regain it with Peer Assistance and Review programs. In school districts with effective PAR programs - like Poway in San Diego County - more than 90 percent of ineffective teachers rejoin their colleagues as good teachers.

Students do best in classrooms with experienced educators, especially when the teacher has achieved National Board Certification. Their secret is developing lessons that teach the standards that students must learn. Teachers learn to do this through a process called "lesson study." More than half the new grants made annually by the California Postsecondary Education Commission to improve teaching skills are for lesson study.

There's more good news. United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents about 40,000 LAUSD teachers, is well-versed in all three methodologies. UTLA has consistently called for a mentor program for all new teachers, not just those learning to teach the Open Court reading program.

UTLA proposed a PAR program in the 1990s, but the state Legislature didn't get around to passing a watered down version for a decade. As for lesson study, UTLA has copyrights on two books about the process, along with an institute that has helped more than 300 teachers to improve their practice.

After the calls to "fire bad teachers" die down, the challenge of raising struggling teachers' skills will remain. LAUSD professional development programs have had little lasting effect on the quality of teaching.

It's time to give teachers the tools they need to teach their students more effectively while drastically reducing the number of ineffective teachers.

John Perez was president of UTLA from 2002 to 2005, and currently chairs the California Postsecondary Education Commission.

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