Commentary: Report on parent engagement meeting showed heat but not the light


Kathy Kantner at the Feb. 2 meeting of the LA Unified school board’s Early Childhood Education and Parent Engagement Subcommittee.

By Kathy Kantner, Rachel Greene and Juan Jose Mangandi

Readers of LA School Report’s coverage of the Feb. 2 meeting of the Board of Education’s Early Childhood Education and Parent Engagement Subcommittee can be forgiven if they only perceived the heat in the boardroom but not the light. It would be unfortunate, however, if LA School Report’s overly dim view of the state of parent engagement in the district was the last word on the subject.

In fact, we, the parents who chair the district’s central advisory committees, feel a budding optimism about parent engagement efforts within LAUSD. Now more than ever, LAUSD realizes that to increase enrollment in our schools, staff must commit to creating welcoming environments and truly partner with parents in word and deed. We believe a cultural shift is taking place.

For starters, the chair of the ECE/PE, Dr. Ref Rodriguez, asked us to present on the challenges and opportunities experienced by our committee members. This is the first time, to our knowledge, parents have been offered such a chance. Dr. Rodriguez invited us back to present recommendations for improvements at an upcoming meeting. We will certainly take him up on this.

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Commentary: Why do many big donors prefer charter schools? (Hint: It’s not because they hate unions)

KIPP Raices

Students at KIPP Raíces Academy in Los Angeles

By Richard Whitmire

Recent big-dollar donations from pro-charter philanthropists leave traditional educators sputtering: Why don’t they just donate their money to us?

Good question, and one that was raised in Los Angeles recently in light of a possible huge gift from philanthropist Eli Broad and others that appears headed mostly to charter schools. LAUSD board member Scott Schmerelson wondered out loud, the L.A. Times reported: Why not us?

The same questions are being raised about the recently announced $100 million education fund coming from Netflix’s Reed Hastings. If past predicts future, most of that money will end up in charter schools — which critics say is part of a larger plot to destroy traditional public schools.

So why do these guys (and they are mostly guys who made it big in Silicon Valley) seem to distrust our neighborhood schools?

The answer offered by charter critics is pretty simple. Big money hates big unions. That’s the take of charter antagonist Diane Ravitch. Her comments about the Walton Family Foundation, which has announced it will invest $1 billion over the next five years to back new charter schools: “The Walton Family Foundation, which was created by the billions earned by Walmart, is anti-union,” wrote Ravitch in her blog. “Walmart does not have unions. It has fought unionization and had to be pushed kicking and screaming to agree to pay minimum wages, eventually.”

So that’s it? Big money hates big unions?

Based on several years of reporting on charter schools, especially California charters for a book about Rocketship charters in Silicon Valley, I see a somewhat different narrative.

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Commentary: Torn by the ‘twoness’ of teaching and leading

Image: Presentermedia

Image: Presentermedia

By Latosha Renee Guy

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eye of others…one ever feels his twoness—A teacher, and a teacher leader: two souls, two thoughts, two sometimes conflicting ideals in one body.”

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Dubois

Driving home one evening, late and exhausted, I thought, “Latosha, you are burned out.”

I had been asked to create and present a professional development workshop. Initially, I was stoked about this project. But then, when informed that the workshop would be held the first Tuesday after the Thanksgiving holiday, I balked. I respectfully declined. After all, I thought, no matter how committed to and knowledgeable of the needs of Standard and English Learners, I am a teacher first and foremost: “I don’t wanna (my angry kid voice) plan a full staff PD during MY Thanksgiving holiday.”

I followed up with the Title I coordinator and sent some links of research pieces on incorporating speaking and listening, but I felt her surprise (“WHAT? Ms. Guy declined to do a PD?”), annoyance, and disappointment in me. I was disappointed too. I simply wanted more time to prepare — time I did not have.

Driving home on another evening, not as late and not as exhausted, I had a moment of clarity. I realized, “Latosha, you are not burned out.” Rather, my flame has been pulled in two different directions as a teacher and as a leader. And during this time, to borrow from W.E.B. DuBois, I felt my twoness—my being a teacher, and a teacher leader; two identities; sometimes reinforcing, sometimes conflicting loyalties in one body.

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Commentary: LAUSD should be wary of single-sex schools

Los-Angeles-Times-logoBy Juliet A. Williams

In her first days on the job, L.A. Unified’s new superintendent, Michelle King, suggested that single-sex education might attract more families to the district and improve student achievement. She wouldn’t be the first district leader to vest hope — not to mention public funds — in all-boys and all-girls schools. But LAUSD should be wary of segregating its students by sex.

The notion of boys’ and girls’ schools conjures rosy images of elite private institutions, but the history of single-sex education in the United States is rife with misguided prejudice. In the 1870s, retired Harvard professor Edward H. Clarke ignited popular interest in single-sex education — by arguing that exposing adolescent girls to the rigors of a standard education would cause their reproductive organs to wither. In the 1950s, after racial segregation was declared unconstitutional, sex-segregated public schools were created across the South to keep boys and girls of different racial backgrounds apart.

Supporters point to a few carefully chosen examples to prove that single-sex education raises test scores and boosts students’ confidence. But the larger story is the overwhelming number of single-sex public school programs that haven’t produced any positive results.

Click here for the full story.


Commentary: Reimagining middle schools in LAUSD and beyond

Ref Rodriguez

Ref Rodriguez

By Ref Rodriguez

Middle school can make it or break it for a student.

Close to 200,000 students in Los Angeles public schools are middle grade students. That’s 200,000 students who are either launched onto the path to high school graduation or knocked off track. And even though research has definitively shown that middle grades experiences have substantial impact on high school graduation and success in college, not enough attention has been paid to these formative years.

That must change.

Many of our middle grade students face a range of challenges that can severely impact their academic performance. Three out of four attend overcrowded campuses, according to a United Way report. One of three show signs of depression. One of every two eighth-graders does not take algebra, a gateway to higher-level thinking.

That’s shameful because the biggest threat to our public education system has now become a complacent attitude toward dismal statistics such as these. If we want to strengthen our local, state, and national economies, we can no longer remain silent in the face of inadequate and unequal learning conditions and opportunities.

Beyond academics, the middle grades are a time when adolescents experience immense social, emotional, and physical changes. Put simply, they are figuring out who they are.  We can help middle grade students become who they want to be by providing innovative and meaningful learning opportunities. For example, the middle grades are a good opportunity to introduce a new language, whether it’s a student’s second or third.  And, let’s encourage our teachers to loop with their students to the next grade, which gives them a sense of continuity that’s absent in the class-shuffling middle grades. 

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Editorial: Charter expansion proposal improved by including district schools

Los-Angeles-Times-logoBy The Editorial Board

The controversial Eli Broad-backed initiative that was designed to double charter-school attendance in the Los Angeles Unified School District has been shape-shifting ever since an early draft was leaked months ago.

The goal of enrolling half of the district’s students in charter schools within eight years has been dropped. Now, those involved in the planning say, no specific enrollment goal will be included in the eventual plan. Seed money would be disbursed not just to open more charter schools, as originally intended, but to help fund new high-performing district schools of all types — including magnets, pilot schools and neighborhood schools — using successful existing schools as models.

If that’s how things actually work out, it would be a real improvement on the original concept. There are all kinds of excellent schools in L.A. Unified — just not enough of them, especially in neighborhoods where low-income students live.

Click here for the full story.

Commentary: King is a safe choice, but was she the right one?

Los-Angeles-Times-logoBy Steve Lopez

No question about it. The selection of Michelle King as superintendent of Los Angeles Unified comes with what PR folks call a nice narrative.

King, 54, attended district schools as a student, got her first job as an LAUSD student aide in 1978, became a teacher and a principal, and worked her way up to second-in-command under the last two superintendents.

We all want to root for someone who came up through the ranks, right?

But does any of that make her the best choice — or even a good choice — to lead the district?

Commentary: King was the right choice for LAUSD right now

Michelle KingI’ve never met Michelle King, but I’ve read enough about her and listened to enough people discussing her that one thing makes perfect sense to me:

She’s the ideal superintendent for LA Unified. For right now.

After all the time and expense — especially the time — district officials spent searching for a successor to Ramon Cortines, the decision to remove the “interim” from King’s job title was the right call —  but maybe not only for the obvious reason, King’s three decades of experience in LA Unified as a teacher, principal and administrator.

More critically, she was the right choice for this particular board — seven people who have lost their taste for a free-lance thinker and would prefer a leader whose problem solving more comports with accepted custom and tradition in LA Unified. In other words, the board wanted someone whose vision was more in line with board group-think than a superintendent clambering along a road less traveled for novel solutions.

Part of all that is the familiarity these board members have with King, a trusted, efficient, loyal aide whose career trajectory was a testament to such old-fashioned concepts as success, collegiality and collaboration.

But there appears more to the choice, as well, and it has to do with the new superintendent’s inheritance — a district on the edge, always on the edge, through serious and unrelenting structural issues that threaten a quality public education for children through no fault of their own.

Unlike new superintendents elsewhere, King is assuming command at a time the spectrum of challenges makes it easy to raise the district’s ultimate and existential question: Is it simply too big to deliver the kind of education hoped for and promised by those in charge of delivering it?

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Commentary: Is it right to flee to a better school district?

New York Times logo

The Ethicist, By Kwame Anthony Appiah

A reader’s question: My wife and I are an interracial couple living in Oakland, Calif. We are both first-generation college graduates for whom solid public-school educations made all the difference. We are struggling with choosing a public school for our son, who will enter kindergarten this year.

State test scores came out recently, and our neighborhood public school, which is filled with some of the city’s poorest kids, scored very low. I have to believe there is something seriously wrong with how the school is educating kids. (Otherwise, the school, which we know fairly well through volunteering, seems perfectly fine.)

My wife and I both work full-time and also care for her mother and disabled sibling, so we know that we can’t put in the kind of time that would be required to turn the school around. We also fear that we cannot teach our son enough outside school hours to make up for a significant deficit in his education.

Do we let our neighborhood kids and our own values down by fleeing to a higher-testing public school in a richer part of the city? Or do we let our son down by sending him to the neighborhood school, which we fear will not put him on solid educational footing?

Click here for the full story.

Commentary: Don’t expect ‘super’ in LA Unified’s next superintendent

superintendent searchThe finish line is in view. In all likelihood, by this time next week, LA Unified will have its next superintendent.

Just who that will be remains uncertain to the world beyond the seven board members and a few district officials. The process has been moving along at a relatively brisk pace, considering the enormity of the job, and to the board’s credit, there have been no leaks.

But it’s not that difficult to speculate on the kind off superintendent this board wants to lead the district: In short, the person selected will have qualifications, background and political savvy as close to Ramon Cortines and as far from John Deasy as possible.

More than anything, this board does not want a superintendent with a strong, independent vision or aggressive agenda: Cortines won the board’s love by anticipating where the majority of support lies on a given issue, then acting on it. He also offered wise counsel, reflecting his decades of work in administration.

But as in any other high-profile election —  and that is what this is, with board members who view public education through vastly different prisms — the winning candidate will not satisfy every constituent group on every important issue.

More than likely, the new superintendent will come from a mid-sized to large school district that has been run effectively and without the drama usually present here as it plays out in opposing philosophical views about charter schools and the ever-present challenge to satisfy the district’s largest labor partners.

Given the size of LA Unified as measured by its budget, student population, facilities and needs, there is likely not a Super-superintendent in the wings. The choice will be a mortal, with more strengths than weaknesses, but weaknesses nonetheless; more of a collaborator than a decider, more a steady doubles hitter than a home run threat who strikes out as often as clears the bases.

If that is, indeed, the ideal candidate, and more than one candidate remains under consideration, the final choice in a city as diverse as Los Angeles could be determined by demographics: Since 1937, LA Unified boards have tended to choose white men, with an occasional black (David Brewer) and Latino (Ruben Zacarias, Cortines). What they have never chosen is a woman.

The guess here is that any of the remaining candidates would be acceptable to the board, and the person selected will be the one judged to have the highest ratio of assets to liabilities, gender notwithstanding. And the only element of skin that will matter is not the color but the thickness, for the criticism sure to follow.

Point/Counterpoint: Did LAUSD make the right call on closure?

BeckZimmerCortinesOur two reporters here at LA School Report, Craig Clough and Mike Szymanski, both have kids in school. What they don’t have is a shared opinion about LA Unified’s decision on Tuesday to close down schools in response to an emailed threat of violence that proved to be empty.

So here, in a reasoned conversation, are their views on the situation:

Q: What did you think when you heard all the LAUSD schools were being closed due to a terror threat?

SZYMANSKI: I was getting Donovan ready for middle school, when my sister (who teaches at the school) went in early only to learn there was a Level 1 threat alert and no one could enter the school. She stayed to help parents and kids, explaining that school was closed for the day.

Of course, after watching the televised press conference and making a few phone calls and posting a story, I went back up to check on the young teenager. He was back in bed with the covers pulled up. He had been ready for finals that he studied for late the night before and had a project ready to turn in.

“Are you glad you’re not going to school?” I asked

“Yeah, I guess, it sounds pretty crazy out there,” he answered. “It’s a day off.”

CLOUGH: I have a daughter in a transitional kindergarten program at a school in Pasadena. We were in the car about five minutes away when I heard over the radio that all LA Unified schools had been closed due to an emailed terror threat.

Pasadena wasn’t mentioned in the report, but it is certainly close enough to LA to be alarmed — if there were anything to be alarmed about. My reaction to the news? I drove her to school, dropped her off and waved goodbye.

Coordinated terrorist attacks don’t come with a preview warning. There was certainly no warning before 9/11, no warning before the San Bernardino shootings, no warning before the Boston Marathon bombing and no warning before the Paris attacks. I dropped my daughter off because of all the bad things I knew that could happen in the LA area that day, a coordinated terrorist attack on schools was clearly not going to be one of them.

Q: Was it the right decision to close all district schools?

SZYMANSKI: I’ve heard parents say they were inconvenienced; I heard other critics say LAUSD overreacted, but then I saw at the press conferences the faces of the school board, Ramon Cortines and the mayor and the sheriff, and I knew they had the best interest of our kids in mind. None of the school board members or Cortines have kids going to district schools, but they all have people close to them attending the schools and working there.

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Commentary: Opportunity and Challenge in ‘No Child’ Rewrite


President George W. Bush signs the No Child Left Behind Act into law in 2001.

By Chris Hofmann

President Obama last week signed the most important education legislation in over a decade, the long-awaited reauthorization of ESEA and No Child Left Behind. The provisions of the law will have a profound effect on what school is like for my class of 26 fourth graders and will reverberate throughout the everyday educational experiences of our nation’s 50 million K-12 students.

The bill, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), is a significant improvement over earlier versions and makes key changes to the way we hold schools accountable for what students learn. It also provides a critical opportunity for experimentation and research in what makes a great school. That said, the law is not without its challenges. Ultimately, it will only live up to ESEA’s legacy as a seminal civil rights law if educators, parents and students hold state lawmakers accountable for learning from past efforts and making changes that improve outcomes for all students.

One way that ESSA improves upon No Child Left Behind is that it recognizes that proficiency on state tests is only one dimension of a school’s quality.

When I think about my fourth graders, I realize that no single data point can truly capture who my students are or what they can do. Likewise, no single data point linked to a state test score can truly capture the educational experience of a school. ESSA recognizes this and requires states to include at least four academic indicators: proficiency on state tests, English language proficiency, high school graduation rates and a fourth state-determined factor of academic quality.

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Editorial: Compliments to Cortines for pursuing Esquith probe


By The Los Angeles Times Editorial Board

When famed teacher Rafe Esquith was yanked from his fifth-grade classroom and an investigation was opened into possible sexual and financial misconduct, parents in the Los Angeles Unified School District— and the larger education world — gasped.

Esquith was as iconic as he was iconoclastic. A winner of the National Medal of Arts and Disney’s Outstanding Teacher of the Year award, he was known for breaking down traditional walls of elementary education, inspiring students to love and perform Shakespeare, and teaching, as he put it in one of his books, as though his hair were on fire. Students, parents and pundits rallied to his side, bolstered by support from actor Ian McKellen, claiming that L.A. Unified administrators simply couldn’t stand the attention that such a great teacher attracted.

Recent documents released by the district provide a more off-putting glimpse of Esquith’s behavior.

Click here for the full story.

Commentary: ‘Miscommunicating’ and the decline of LAUSD enrollment

Parents and students protest outside of Playa Vista Elementary

Parents and students protest outside of Playa Vista Elementary

By Nicholas Melvoin

If members of the LAUSD Board of Education are curious as to why the district’s enrollment is declining, they should review how the district treated parents over the last few days in the Playa Vista and Westchester neighborhoods for some clues. In a tale that is unfortunately all too familiar to many LAUSD parents, district leaders publicly promised one thing, parents relied on that promise, the district broke the promise at the eleventh hour, parents were left scrambling.

It is no way to treat constituents — let alone run a school district. And the response from Board President Steve Zimmer acknowledging that parents may have felt communication was “inconsistent and at times confusing,” is quite the understatement. Parents were “confused” because they were misled.

In negotiations over the past year, the district promised parents in Playa Vista that, in exchange for relocating some grades to a nearby campus, the district would help them create a new middle school, open to residents of neighboring communities, that would have its own administrator and greater autonomy.

Late last week, these same parents learned that LAUSD would no longer honor these promises. Superintendent Ramon Cortines acknowledged that there were “promises [he] maybe should not have made.” And yet, they were made. Instead, the board on Tuesday passed a resolution allocating $10.25 million to “define and approve project definitions” at local school campuses — i.e., study the feasibility of a new plan.

Not only did district leaders agree to an enrollment growth plan only to then reverse course at the last minute, but even the initial plan was devised without the input of all parents in the community. The district consulted some parents while leaving others in the dark.

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Commentary: Will the successor to ‘No Child’ be an improvement?

New York Times logo

By David L. Kirp

The No Child Left Behind law will soon be consigned to the dustbin of history. With a rare display of bipartisanship, Congress has overhauled federal education policy. The law’s successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, is headed for the president’s desk, and he has signaled his intention to sign it. (He did, this morning.)

Good riddance to a misbegotten law. Will its replacement be any better?

No Child Left Behind, on the books since 2002, was supposed to close achievement gaps for disadvantaged students (racial and ethnic minorities, low-income students, youngsters with special needs and English learners) and to eliminate what President George W. Bush decried as “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” The goal was audacious — by 2014, the law decreed, 100 percent of students would perform at grade level.

Click here for the full story.

Commentary: Actually, American students are under-tested


By Jill Barshay

Andreas Schleicher, an international education expert based in Paris, attended a summit at the White House last month and left feeling frustrated by the anti-testing backlash in this country.

“I listened to several presentations. You got this impression, if they would only get rid of tests, everything would improve,” said Schleicher, who oversees the education and skills directorate at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). “That certainly isn’t the bottleneck for improvement. The U.S. is not a country of heavy testing.”

That last statement would shock many parents and activists who believe the opposite. But according to Schleicher’s reading of the data from more than 70 countries, most nations give their students more standardized tests than the United States does.

Click here for the full story.

Commentary: A better way to compare charters, traditional schools

New York Times logo

By Roger Altman and Robert Hughes

Are the student achievement scores at charter schools too good to be true? Every year, urban school districts across the country release test scores showing dismal student proficiency in math and reading, especially for students in poverty. At the same time, parents in those same cities often hear claims by many charter schools that their students score two or three times higher than their district school counterparts. Are these results accurate?

Unfortunately, conflicting claims make it difficult for parents to get the information they need. Charter proponents point to studies like the one from the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, which demonstrates better performance by some urban charter students on standardized tests. Critics challenge these studies by arguing that charter schools cherry-pick students, discourage the enrollment of students with behavioral problems or disabilities, and discharge underperforming students.

Based on our experience running both district and charter schools, we believe that charters have shown real gains and can play a transformative role in educational reform. But we also think the data comparing the schools and the enrollment process are not clear enough for parents to make informed decisions.

Click here for the full story.

Commentary: For LAUSD, maybe it’s not the time to hire an outsider

superintendent search LAUSDIt’s getting down to crunch time: Thanksgiving . . . Christmas . . . Last day on the job for LA Unified Superintendent Ramon Cortines.

By next week, names for his replacement will begin to flow with a list of candidates that could include such well-regarded figures from across the county as Rudy Crew, a former Chancellor of New York City schools; Alberto M. Carvalho, Superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools;  Valeria Silva, superintendent of St. Paul’s public schools; and Richard Carranza, superintendent of schools in San Francisco.

No doubt all of them have fine resumes.

But in thinking about what awaits the next occupant of Cortines’s 24th floor office, one might wonder if an outsider with little knowledge of the district would necessarily make the best choice for LA Unified, given the issues at hand. Never mind the larger question, why would anyone even want the job. Consider the current state of affairs:

  • An independent financial review panel just reported that the district is facing deficits that could reach $600 million within four years.
  • The district is hemorrhaging students, nearly three percent a year, costing hundreds of thousands in lost state and federal revenues.
  • Pressure is mounting on the district to reduce health care benefits and increase employee pension contribution, already triggering union opposition.
  • Academic performance across the district was abysmal, judging by the most recent statewide tests.
  • The charter war within the district is intensifying, with a plan by outsiders to create hundreds more charter schools to serve as many as half the district enrollment.
  • The seven members of the elected school board, who serve as the superintendent’s bosses, are hard-pressed to agree on what day it is, let alone on how to solve intractable problems.

No doubt, the winning candidate would convince all or most of the board members that the challenges are not insurmountable. Pay and benefits are not likely to be issues. The winner can expect a deal worth upwards of $300,000 a year with lots of perqs.

But here’s the thing. The learning curve to run a district of this size and complexity is long and steep even in normal times, with uncountable numbers of students, teachers, assistants, deputies, administrators, schools, labor leaders, political operatives, state officials —  and issues: Difficult, politically-charged, financially-challenged, board-polarizing issues.

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Commentary: LAUSD robocalls confusing and infuriating


By Kerry Cavanaugh

I am the parent of a Los Angeles Unified School District student, and I get robocalls from the district probably two times a week. These are not calls from my son’s elementary school. These are recorded messages from various district officials, informing me of some meeting or workshop or that parents should fill out some paperwork.

I admit, these calls come so frequently and are so rarely useful that whenever I see the (213) 241 prefix, I let it go to voicemail and only occasionally listen to the message.

But last night’s call was so frustratingly useless that I had to listen to it several times to figure out if I was confused or if the district was just being confusing. Guess which one it was?

Click here for the full story.

Commentary: No single solution to the making of great schools

Ama Nyamekye

Ama Nyamekye

By Ama Nyamekye

What makes a great school? This fundamental question has been lost in a heated debate about a draft proposal spearheaded by the Broad Foundation, the most controversial part of which includes a plan to accelerate charter school growth in LAUSD.

This idea has sparked concern and curiosity among parents, community members, philanthropists and most certainly our teachers. It has inspired a proposed school board resolution opposing charters, and a series of protests led by UTLA leadership who are not only concerned about the expansion of charters, but are also skeptical of philanthropists investing millions of dollars in public education.

Every group is raising related questions: What will this mean for parents waiting on long charter school lottery lists? What will this mean for our students, particularly those still served by non-charter schools? What will this mean for the future of my job and my school; for the future of our union and district, both entities facing declining enrollment and, with it, declining dollars? Will this spark a real conversation about school equity and innovation or will this bring more polarization and turf wars in public education?

Put another way, these questions come down to one thing: Whose side are you on?

As the head of a local teacher leadership organization working with educators across the district, I stand with our most dedicated teachers who often tell me that no single solution, like charter schools, will be the silver bullet for ensuring access to a high-quality education for all students. It is equity that is at the heart of a great school, and that is the goal teachers are working towards. I know this because I have witnessed equity arguments echoed in every teacher-written policy paper, teacher-led advocacy campaign, and teacher-penned media article produced by E4E members.

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