Commentary: To improve LAUSD graduation rates, let’s revisit A-G

graduationBy Martin Blythe

In a commentary last week, four LA Unified students demanded that the district retain the A-G college-prep graduation requirements —  Cs or better for a diploma — despite warnings that it would lead to tens of thousands of students not graduating in the years ahead.

While more money and resources often solve problems, they will not address the core issue here, which I believe is the A-G requirement itself. The A-G requirement was designed to fix one problem, but it was far too simplistic, and we are now seeing the unintended consequences: it is hurting too many students.

It is now time to ask whether every one of the A-G courses has to be a requirement for high school graduation.

Advanced algebra? Two years of a language?

This quickly becomes a zero-sum game, I know, but couldn’t we offer several different pathways to graduation – some semi-academic ones in addition to the specifically academic one? Instead of throwing money at remedial summer school, a better choice would be spending on oversight for assuring true choice and for tutoring, options that have not been available for some college-aspiring students.

I am not arguing for a return to the segregation of the vocational track. I am arguing for flexibility.

Why not take the non-required “electives” that are worth 25 credits and boost them to 40 credits, and allow students to take more ROP (Regional Occupational Program) and CTE (Career and Technical Education) and Linked Learning courses — agriculture, automotive, technology and other specialized trades — on the way to 210 total credits?

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Commentary: A plea to the LAUSD board to make us all college ready

GRADUATIONAn open letter from four members of the Community Coalition Youth Leaders to the LA Unified school board, which is considering a resolution tomorrow from Mónica García and Steve Zimmer to enhance support for improving the district’s college-ready graduation rate. 

Dear Board Members:

On behalf of the thousands of students in South Los Angeles, we are frustrated and angry. We can’t believe adults are still debating whether or not we should be college-ready.

We can’t believe adults are still saying that “A-G” college-prep classes are too much for us to handle.

We are writing to let the district know, that our “Equity on A-G” resolution, is a step forward towards bringing quality education for all.

Ten years ago the LAUSD school board took a bold step forward by agreeing that all students should be prepared for college. The members’ decision helped move the school district in the right direction, and there has been progress towards this goal. But we shouldn’t give up now, just because the task seems challenging.

You have the opportunity to reaffirm this goal and can implement solutions to accomplish it. Students in school districts across the country receive this college prep curriculum, and there is no reason why we can’t also receive these same opportunities! We strongly urge you to make the right choice on this resolution and allow L.A. Unified to continue moving forward on a path towards equity.

We look at our stories and reflect on how our path towards college has been a fight for justice.

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Commentary: A message from McKenna that he has nothing to say

George McKennaClose readers of LA School Report might notice how infrequently LA Unified board member George McKenna is quoted in any story, apart from comments he makes at board meetings.

There’s a reason for that, as I was reminded again yesterday in an email from him, and it’s a reason that both saddens me and, I believe, deprives the public.

Let me start from the beginning.

About a year ago, in the closing days of his campaign for the school board, McKenna was questioned at a candidate forum about his level of support for then Superintendent John Deasy and his overall performance. He declined to answer.

As reporters approached him after the forum, LA School Report pressed him under the assumption that voters might want to know his position, just as appointments to the Supreme Court and the cabinet undergo questioning on key issues prior to confirmation.

Again, he wouldn’t answer, saying, “I cannot tell the voter what my position is on John Deasy. I’ve never supervised him, I never have.”

That was the beginning and the end of LA School Report’s access to the newest board member. Weeks later, another of our reporters approached his chief of staff in hopes of establishing a line of communication, and she was told that neither McKenna nor his staff would ever speak to us again.

In the months after the election, McKenna moved seamlessly into his role as a board member, revealing himself to be a studied, compassionate, and thoughtful contributor on a wide variety of subjects. Listening to his observations on contentious and complex issues, I’ve been impressed by points he made and questions he raised that have elevated the debate, adding perspectives unseen by other board members.

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Commentary: Let’s not perpetuate the cycle of poverty

Passport parent's education portalBy Misti Kemmer

I grew up around drugs and alcohol.  At nine years old, I manned the kegs at weekend barbecues for my aunts and uncles where I was surrounded by a cloud of marijuana smoke.  But even at that early age, I knew that I wanted something more.  I was determined to be the first person in my family to attend college.

I applied to several California universities and was denied at every single one. There were requirements that I didn’t know about, like Advanced Placement courses and minimum SAT scores. When I told my family that I wanted to enroll in a community college, it was suggested that I apply to beauty school to save me the trouble. I followed my family’s tradition and became a teenage mom instead.

Eventually, I made it to a major university in California where I learned about something called the cycle of poverty. I understood for the first time that I had been part of a cycle that was incredibly hard to break, but had managed to struggle through. I made the decision then to become a teacher in urban schools, in the poorest areas, so that kids who grew up like me would know a different way. And I wanted to teach in “Title I” schools, because that’s where kids with stories like mine go to school.

When I read that Title I funds under the new Elementary and Secondary Education Act might be funneled away from areas like the one where I teach in south Los Angeles, I was appalled. In fact, LA Unified would experience the largest reduction in Title I funding, losing $80.6 million dollars, for a cut of 23.8 percent under a bill the U.S. House of Representatives plans to vote on later this month. If it becomes law, it could lead to significant teacher layoffs, and up to 1,000 LAUSD teachers could lose their jobs. These layoffs most often disproportionately affect children in the poorest neighborhoods, like my students who attend an urban Los Angeles school.

Children in schools like mine fall directly under the criteria to receive Title I funds. These are the kids from homes with drug and alcohol abuse. These are kids who live in severe poverty — one child told me that his home has dirt floors….dirt floors! They are the kids like my own fourth graders, who hear gun shots and see gang violence and have, on a regular basis, homeless people wander into their yard.

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Analysis: Primaries over, LAUSD races now seeking voters and money

Red Rodriguez supporters

(Credit: Twitter @Casey_Horton)

Now that the primaries are over, it’s time to ponder a few issues they raise. And perhaps nothing is more ponderous than turnout.

Los Angeles is growing notorious for the pathetic number of voters who show up at polling places. But if you thought Tuesday’s less-than-10 percent turnout was bad, just wait until the May 19 runoffs, when Angelinos have only one City Council race to decide and three LA Unified board seats, in Districts 3, 5 and 7.

This poses enormous challenges for political action committees that may need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for the handful of votes that would translate to victory.

Already, the school board District 5 race shows the certainty of another big spend. The California Charter Schools Association’s political arm put out $421,000 to help Ref Rodriguez, who finished first, while the PAC for the teachers union, UTLA, spent about $463,000 to support incumbent Bennett Kayser, who was second.

Together, they polled fewer than 16,000 votes. 

The challenge for all political action committees is how much more to spend in an 11-week general election campaign, with the charter group sure to write checks, as well, to support the incumbents in District 3, Tamar Galatzan, and District 7, Richard Vladovic.

The charters, of course, have the deeper pockets, drawing on help from such beloved/reviled education reformers as Michael Bloomberg and Eli Broad. The teachers union has to decide how much from dues of 35,000 members aching for a pay raise it needs to remain competitive.

The expectations of a big spend in District 5 reflects the importance of the seat to both sides, and the winning effort could well reverberate beyond LA Unified.

This is the latest showdown between the polar opposites in American education policy, pitting those who support charters as a preferred option to traditional public schools against those who believe the charters contribute to the challenges in traditional schools by bleeding them of human and financial resources.

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Analysis: Graham lawsuit poses serious questions for LAUSD board

LAUSD Superintedent Ray Cortines

We’ve all seen this in person or on TV: One lawyer says something provocative or inappropriate, and the opposing lawyer leaps to his feet, saying “Objection, your honor.”

“Sustained,” says the judge. “The jury will disregard that last remark.”

After yesterday, we’re now all in the jury box, trying to figure out what to make of Scot Graham’s third and latest lawsuit against the district with his descriptions of sexual misconduct by Superintendent Ramon Cortines and the atmosphere of intimidation and sexual intemperance inside LA Unified headquarters.

We also have to decide whether unseemly remarks Graham attributes to Cortines about Monica Garcia and the rest of the board deserve to be carefully considered or summarily disregarded.

Sadly, though, in the confines of LA Unified, a school district that seldom gets out of its own way, it really doesn’t matter.

Whether true or false, the images shaped by Graham’s characterizations are hard to shake: Cortines, as a sexual predator; Cortines, describing Garcia as a “fat slovenly lesbian”; Cortines, regarding the board as a group of special interest ciphers.

Only a court can decide the veracity of such claims as they create a hostile work environment. But the possibility than even some of it might be true will linger, undermining whatever trust parents, teachers and board members have in a man who led the district as superintendent twice before, making him the board’s singular choice to succeed John Deasy last year, paying him $300,000 for an eight-month contract. 

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Analysis: A big week for the teachers to demonstrate what they want

UTLA rally at James Monroe High School Nov. 20, 2014

UTLA rally at James Monroe High School Nov. 20, 2014

“Most of our early escalation tactics are about building solidarity among members, because a 35,000 member union can’t win a fight against the corporate education ‘reformers’ lined up against us with anything less than 35,000 members active in the fight.”

That’s what it says on the UTLA website, which makes this a critical week for teachers in their fight for a bigger raise than LA Unified is offering so far.

Scheduled for Thursday is the latest of the teacher union’s “escalating actions,” a rally planned for downtown called, “Making Our Stand at Grand,” a reference to the downtown location. It’s a chance for the union to stand up to the district with a show of unity and resolve.

But it represents something else, as well, coming at a time negotiations for a new contract have gone nowhere, with both sides calling in a mediator and Superintendent Ramon Cortines, as he did on Friday, affirming his belief that closing a $160 million deficit takes preference over giving UTLA more than the 5 percent raise on the table.

Thursday is a also referendum on the Union Power leadership team led by President Alex Caputo-Pearl, whose ascension to office last year was built on the possible need of a final showdown, of sorts, with a district that has made teachers collateral damage in the nation’s long recession.

For nearly eight years, teachers have soldiered on, enduring layoffs and furloughs without so most as a Christmas turkey, let alone a cost of living raise.

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LAT endorses only 2 incumbents for LA Unified school board

Los-Angeles-Times-logoBy the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board

The LA Times weighed in today with its endorsements for the LA Unified school board, backing two of three incumbents in the March 3 elections but both with language that suggests moderate misgivings.

The editorial board recommends Tamar Galatzan for board District 3 although the support “comes with misgivings.” Board president Richard Vladovic gets the endorsement for District 7 with the admonition that “he has not been the leader we had hoped for.”

In District 5, the editorial board bypassed the incumbent, Bennett Kayser, calling him “easily the weakest of the three contenders.” Instead, the paper picked Andrew Thomas for his “expertise in such areas as school software programs and program effectiveness.”

The editorial is available here.


Commentary: The anti-Kayser flyer ‘a new low in campaign tactics’

Board Vice President Steve Zimmer

LAUSD school board Vice President Steve Zimmer

By Steve Zimmer

The vicious lies contained in the California Charter School Association (CCSA) mailer represent a new low in school board campaign tactics. They attack not only Bennett Kayser’s service to his district but his heart and his soul as well. I know these attacks.  They were leveled at me, my life work and my person. So I don’t expect them to have any concern for Mr. Kayser or his family. But I expect them to have a modicum of concern for Los Angeles.

The racially incendiary content of the mailer was about more than just a school board election or control of the District. It was an intentional effort to further destabilize public education and ignite a tinder box of ethnic hate in a city reeling from decades of inequity and institutionally racist school, public safety and economic systems. There are real issues. There are open wounds. The power systems that oppress directly and indirectly are still intact.

The intensity of issues that intersect race and public education in Los Angeles require authentic introspection and intentional action. When we are able to identify the instruments of institutional racism, we have a moral obligation to blunt the instruments and dismantle the structures through which they operate.

That is what the Board of Education did when LAUSD became the first large district in the nation to discontinue the use of suspensions that were disproportionately affecting students of color and institute restorative justice as the progressive discipline policy in every school.

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Analysis: LAUSD board contemplates enrollment drop

George KcKenna Dec. 8, 2014

LAUSD board member George McKenna at Tuesday’s board meeting

“Forty years ago we were in competition with private schools. Now, we’re in competition with charters.”

That was LA Unified board vice president Steve Zimmer yesterday, speaking at a board committee meeting where the issue at hand was district enrollment. The number of kids attending the district’s traditional schools has been declining since 2003, now hovering around 650,000, from a high of about 750,000, according to a presentation to the committee.

The dip reflects, in part, a slowing birthrate in the district that began in 1996 and is projected to increase only slightly over the next few years or so.

But the rise of independent charters is an unmistakable factor, as well: Data from the California Charter Schools Associations shows that the number of independent charters within LA Unified rose to 206 this year from 132 in 2009.

And more are on the way. KIPP, for example, has opened two of nine planned for the district.

The impact of charters on LA Unified is something of an evergreen debate among board members, faced with the district’s losing revenue for every child who forsakes a traditional district school for a charter. It’s a trend with heavy ripples, as lower enrollment leads to fewer dollars, fewer dollars lead to flat wages, flat wages lead to fewer and angry teachers, and angry teachers are now talking about a strike.

But this week, the discussion of charter impact took on a slightly different tone, as board members at their meeting on Tuesday and again yesterday turned introspective, questioning themselves over how to mitigate some of the enrollment trends.

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Analysis: LAUSD offer to UTLA a march to progress or a strike?

UTLA rally at James Monroe High School Nov. 20, 2014

UTLA rally at James Monroe High School on Nov. 20, 2014

LA Unified’s latest offer to the teachers union, UTLA, represents either a hint of progress in negotiations for the teachers’ first contract in more than seven years or fertile ground for moving toward a strike.

Here’s why the uncertainty: The 6 percent package includes the same salary increase that the district has offered all its other bargaining units —  2 percent, and for just one year.

It also includes the same lump sum payout of 2 percent for last year that was included in previous offers. The sweetener is an additional lump payout of 2 percent for next year, with an offer to negotiate the out years, starting with next year.

Depending on what the sides might agree upon for 2015-2016, the sweetener is, indeed, a bonus. It becomes something less than that if the raise for 2015-2016 fails to reach 2 percent. The district calculates that every 1 percent increase amounts to $24 million in spending, which makes the 6 percent package equal to $144 million in budget impact at a time the district says it’s facing a $326 million deficit.

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Commentary: Please, school board, focus on our children

Hispanic children LAUSD school board

By Michelle Crames

My daughter started Kindergarten this year, and part of why I enrolled her in public school was that things were getting better, and my belief that our family’s energy and resources could contribute to bettering our community. Two months after her start, we learn that Superintendent John Deasy, who has provided leadership during this turnaround, turned in his letter of resignation to the school board.

As a parent of three young children, I know it takes at least two parties to fight. Regardless of what you think of Deasy’s resignation, we all want to minimize the impact and distraction inevitable with such a leadership change. Can we please refocus our energy on what matters most, our children’s education?

I believe Deasy achieved a lot, but he certainly made mistakes. However, during the last several months, like many parents. I am most disappointed that our focus has shifted away from what is important, which is the kids. As an outsider, I feel that more time is being spent bickering and politicking than working to provide students with the best possible education.

The parents’ voice was largely absent in the recent feud between the school board and Deasy, but now needs to be heard. Lets put this behind us and get back to work on what matters.

In a city where 80 percent of LAUSD students live around or below the poverty line, the American dream requires great schools for our children. America is a land of equal opportunity, and access to quality education is the basis of that.

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Commentary: Ray Cortines, the once and future

work begins zoneProbably no one has flunked retirement worse than Ray Cortines.  At 82, he’s signed on to steer the Los Angeles Unified School District for the third time.

Twice before he served as an interim superintendent, and he held the post for three years immediately before John Deasy’s tenure.

Cortines understands big city school systems.  In addition to Los Angeles, he was superintendent of New York, San Francisco, Pasadena and San Jose.  But why Ray again?

The answers are straightforward: peacemaking and getting things done.

The school board and the education policy elites (maybe) are tired of toxic warfare.  Cortines has a reputation of someone who can have a constructive relationship with the teachers and administrative unions without being a doormat.  He both charmed and bludgeoned the school board, threatening to resign if they misbehaved.  (Unlike most superintendents, he had a 30-day contract, which he would periodically threaten to not renew.)

And then there is the craft and politics of getting things done.  Most politicians, and most journalists, ignore the politics of implementation.  To them, reforming schools is about getting the right law passed or achieving a favorable court decision.  But as past school reform efforts in Los Angeles illustrate, the heavy lifting starts after decisions are made, not before.

Holding the school board together, implementing an agreement with the union when some teachers balk, attracting administrative leadership: all this is part of the political kitbag of seasoned superintendents.  Cortines is one of them. Continue reading

Commentary: On a momentous day, where was Vladovic?

Richard Vladovic

Richard Vladovic

What a momentous day it was. One superintendent out. Another steps in.

The LA Unified community and social media were alive with chatter — people sorry to see John Deasy go, people celebrating his departure, people happy to see Ray Cortines return for a third deployment, people wondering what the school board was smoking in bringing him back.

So many comments, opinions and responses.

But one person was conspicuously absent.

Board President Richard Vladovic had nothing to say.

Apart from whatever contribution he made to the district’s “joint statement” from the board and Deasy, he issued no press release. He made himself available for no interviews. He made no public appearances to talk about the day’s events.

He appeared to be missing in inaction.

At times of crisis and change — in a family, an organization, even a public agency — constituents want a comforting word that everything will be okay, that problems will be solved, that divisions will be closed, even if it’s more hope than certainty.

In the case of the LA Unified family, teachers deprived of raises for years might like to know there could be better times ahead, parents might like to hear that their kids’ schedules will be straightened out, students might appreciate encouragement to stay the course despite the messes created by the grownups.

If there were ever a moment for a leader to step forward at a critical time from within a bureaucracy wracked by divisiveness, technological dysfunction and public discontent, this was it. And the logical person to utter those soothing words would have been the school board president, the elected face of the school district, second-biggest in the country.

But in this case, the school board president had nothing more to say beyond the joint statement, or so his office advised.

Other board members were quiet, too, but they don’t set the board agenda. The board president does. Continue reading

Analysis: A deal between Deasy and the board? No real surprise

Superintendent John Deasy LAUSD

LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy

So now we have a hint of what the LA Unified board members were discussing during the four hours they met in private Tuesday night.

Part of the conversation dealt with finding a way to reach a financial settlement with Superintendent John Deasy to remove him from his post, as the LA Times reported this morning.

Who could be surprised?

The talks suggest that a majority of board members want Deasy gone, and Deasy himself has told people he has grown weary of dealing with incessant criticism — some deserved, some irrational — from board members who do not share his vision for the district and from a teachers union that views him as the embodiment of evil.

Setting aside all that toxicity, what the board doesn’t want is for Deasy’s employment to come down to a show of hands. That’s the plan for now. His performance review scheduled for Oct. 21, and a negative vote could start the countdown.

It seems apparent by the talks that the board would prefer a swifter resolution. Why? Lots of reasons.

Let’s start with the most obvious: Each member of the board would have to defend the vote he or she casts. Four of them are facing re-election early next year, and voters in their districts might not have the same feelings toward Deasy as a board member who follows him blindly or as a member who parrots the teachers union.

Yes, Deasy has ultimate responsibility for the disruptive events in the iPad and MiSiS programs. But he has also presided over improved academic performance and steadily rising graduation rates.

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Commentary: Deasy’s impatience eclipsing accomplishments?

Logo_LATimesVia LA Times | by Jim Newton

There’s a storm cloud gathering over Los Angeles politics these days, and the man at its center is schools Supt. John Deasy.

In office since 2010, Deasy has fenced with his bosses, the seven-member school board, almost from the get-go. Lately, however, the situation has deteriorated: United Teachers Los Angeles, the union that represents teachers in the L.A. Unified School District, has sharpened its critique of the superintendent, calling for him to be held “accountable” in his upcoming evaluation. A recent election to fill a vacancy on the closely divided board went to the candidate, George McKenna, considered less friendly to Deasy.

Deasy has made matters worse by some admittedly sloppy handling of a deal intended to put iPads in the hands of students. The board is scheduled to deliver its performance evaluation of Deasy next month, and that could turn into a major confrontation.

Read the full commentary here.

Editorial: Pre-Deasy days weren’t as great as you thought

Logo_LATimesVia LA Times | by the TImes Editorial Board

At L.A. Unified, tensions are high and crisis is in the air. The relationship between Supt. John Deasy and the school board that oversees him is at what is perhaps an all-time low. Deasy is again muttering about quitting; others are grumbling that he should be fired.

Not surprisingly, United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers union, is practically giddy. The union has regularly lambasted the superintendent, calling his performance “anything but satisfactory,” suggesting he be placed in “teacher jail” like a teacher accused of misconduct would be, and making it clear that it would like him to resign. If Deasy resigns, the leadership no doubt figures, it can go back to the good-old days.

Read the full story here.

Editorial: LA Unified schools won’t get better if leaders fight

Logo_LATimesVia LA Times | Editorial Board

This would be a difficult period for Supt. John Deasy and the Los Angeles Unified School District even if he and the school board were intent on working together for the benefit of students. But these aren’t the most cooperative of times, to put it mildly. The questions surrounding the superintendent’s 2012 emails with Apple and Pearson, well before the companies were picked as the winners of the contract to provide thousands of iPads for the district’s students, have further damaged the already tenuous relations between Deasy and the board. Nothing is likely to get better until the matter is resolved by further investigation.

Read the full story

Commentary: Vergara could be a win-win for students and teachers

EdWeekVia EdWeek | by Carl Finer

As a veteran urban educator and career union member, I care deeply about both my students and building the systems to ensure that all students and teachers have what they need to be successful. In the legal precedent laid out in the controversial Vergara decision relating to teacher tenure in California, I see a potential window of opportunity opened for all of us to rethink our current conceptions of accountability and advocate for something that will serve both students and teachers better.

Registration is required, but you can read the full story here.

Commentary: The problem with teacher tenure

NYT logoVia NY Times | by Frank Bruni

There are perils to the current tenure talk: that it fails to address the intense strains on many teachers; that it lays too much fault on their doorsteps, distracting people from other necessary reforms.

But the discussion is imperative, because there’s no sense in putting something as crucial as children’s education in the hands of a professional class with less accountability than others and with job protections that most Americans can only fantasize about.

We need to pay good teachers much more. We need to wrap the great ones in the highest esteem. But we also need to separate the good and the great from the bad.

Read the full story here