Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Teacher designed school reform

http://www.latimes.com/news/education/la-me-teachers3dec03,1,4883369,full.story?coll=la-news-learning&ctrack=2&cset=true
From the Los Angeles Times
Teachers draft reform plan
Union's proposal calls for local, grass roots control over schools and gives instructors more breathing room to formulate curricula.
By Howard Blume
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

December 3, 2007

In this education nirvana, teachers would decide what to teach and when. Teachers and parents would hire and fire principals. No supervisors from downtown would tell anyone -- neither teachers nor students -- what to wear.

These are among the ideas a delegation of teachers and their union officers are urging L.A. schools Supt. David L. Brewer to include in the school reform plan he will present to the school board Tuesday.

If Brewer passes on the delegation's proposals, the union can go directly to the seven-member Board of Education. Employee unions recently have had success in getting the board to overrule the superintendent on health benefits for some part-time workers and on school staffing.

At stake now is the Los Angeles Unified School District's effort to turn around its 34 most troubled middle and high schools. The data suggests the urgency: As many as three-quarters of the students in these "high priority schools" scored well below grade level across multiple subjects on last year's California Standards Tests.

Whatever remedy emerges is likely to become a blueprint for widespread reform efforts. Brewer and his team are working on their 11th draft; the drafts have evolved significantly since September because of resistance inside and outside the school system.

At a meeting Friday between the district and the delegation from the United Teachers Los Angeles, union leaders were pointedly clear about what they want -- local, grass roots control over schools.

"This is what we think makes for a good education," said Joel Jordan, the union's director of special projects, who took part in the meeting. "We don't want to continue what hasn't worked and has demoralized teachers and students."

Rhetorically, Brewer has endorsed local control, but elements of his proposal cut both ways.

The separate plans of the union and the superintendent, as well as a "Schoolhouse" framework offered in January by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, all cobble together widely accepted strategies, such as smaller classes and schools, and better teacher training.

But union leaders said they felt compelled to take on some elements in Brewer's plan. One sticking point is Brewer's intention to use, in upper grades, an approach to instruction similar to the one used for teaching reading to 6-year-olds: emphasizing a unified, paced curriculum that includes periodic tests to make sure students are learning. The goal is to give all students exposure to rigorous academics.

With that approach, under previous Supt. Roy Romer, elementary test scores soared in most schools. But across the district, many English learners and African American students still struggled.

From Brewer's perspective, the problem at middle and high schools is that curriculum directives haven't been consistently followed. To the teacher delegation, the directives themselves are the problem.

"Narrowing the curriculum, top-down management, teaching to the test, expanding pacing plans and periodic assessments -- we think that has been a detriment to education," Jordan said. "The idea of uniformity when trying to meet the needs of individual students is a contradiction."

The union acknowledges that instructors must teach the skills and facts the state requires. But they believe a school's staff and individual teachers should decide how to accomplish that.

The district's view is that its curriculum guides specify "what is to be taught versus how it is to be taught," leaving ample room for teacher creativity, said Michelle King, interim chief instructional officer for secondary schools.

The union's ethos of local control extends to hiring and firing principals, which the union wants handled by a school site council made up of parents, teachers and older students.

Brewer's plan doesn't speak to hiring principals, which is currently the purview of the regional senior administrator.

As for dress codes, the union's six-page treatise states: "There is no research that indicates that teacher attire has any effect on student learning or respect for adults," and "uniforms for students should not be required but decided upon by the school's governing bodies with input from each constituency."

Participants from both sides said they expect no brutal fight over dress codes, but key differences remain over who controls what happens at schools.

Brewer has had difficulty developing a plan with broad support. This fall, he backed away entirely from placing the lowest-performing schools into a separate, mini-school system. That plan was opposed by the union and also encountered resistance from top administrators and from schools principals, who felt their campuses were being labeled "failed" schools.

The superintendent's reform effort was treated dismissively last week by Villaraigosa, who was addressing a faculty gathering at Roosevelt High School on the Eastside. Villaraigosa was urging staff to vote to enter his reform "partnership," which, he said, would be under his stewardship but led by teachers and parents. The lesser alternative, he said, was Brewer's plan.

"In the high-priority program, you're not going to have a say," he told the teachers. "It will be status quo."

Brewer, for his part, has embraced the mayor's partnership as an element in a package of reforms.

Sitting near the mayor at Roosevelt was school board president Monica Garcia, a Villaraigosa ally who, with the other board members, will have ultimate say over Brewer's approach.

In an interview, Garcia suggested that the mayor's statement was not intended to be derogatory: "If by status quo, he means that the provider of the reform is the district, that description is fair."

Garcia said she needed to see more details on how Brewer would find and use money for his reforms. She also said that no single reform style would fit every school.

Local control takes vastly different forms in different places, said UCLA professor Bill Ouchi, a school-reform researcher and management expert who has examined the issue for decades. Ouchi favors the system being tried in New York City, which gives principals near total say over their budgets. These principals sign a five-year performance agreement, on which they must deliver to keep their jobs.

"In none of these schools is there a required school site council," Ouchi said. "A principal might establish an advisory council but it has no governance or negotiating powers." And, he added, there's good reason why: "There's no practical way to hold parents or community members accountable. And there is no way outside of the teachers contract to hold teachers accountable."

Yet Ouchi doesn't fault teachers for wanting control: "They've observed for 30 years the failure of the management of the LAUSD. You can understand why the teachers say, 'Those people have amply demonstrated that they are incapable of running a school, so let us run it.' "

howard.blume@latimes.com
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