Commentary: The absurd logic behind a Vergara ruling that tells parents they have no recourse

VergaraThis month, a California appeals court restored the state’s teacher tenure laws, which had been ruled unconstitutional by a lower court two years ago. But the ruling was hardly a ringing endorsement of California’s approach to tenure.

Here’s what’s not in dispute in the case, Vergara v. California, even after the appeals court’s decision: Thousands of teachers in schools across California — a small percentage but still a huge number — are not up to the job. These grossly ineffective teachers are derailing their students’ academic futures. Poor and minority students are more likely than others to be assigned to one of these teachers. And all of this is happening because of state laws that make it practically impossible for schools to replace the relatively few teachers who shouldn’t be there.

The nine public school students who brought the case painstakingly proved all these points during a trial. In striking down the state’s tenure laws, the presiding judge wrote that the damage they’ve caused “shocks the conscience.”

The appeals court justices challenged none of these facts. Instead, they overturned the verdict based on the most technical of legal technicalities. They decided that the tens of thousands of “unlucky” students assigned to ineffective teachers aren’t a group that deserves any special legal protection. As for poor and minority students being disproportionately taught by ineffective teachers — the court decided that’s not a violation either, arguing that local school systems could remedy the situation in spite of the law.

• Related commentary: Dmitri Mehlhorn surveys the ruling’s fine print and identifies three key arguments that may sway California’s Supreme Court.

The court doesn’t elaborate on how local officials might do that, though, because there are no plausible explanations. Schools could fire their ineffective teachers, but the court admits this is nearly impossible under the law. Alternatively, schools could spread the harm around by assigning ineffective teachers to classrooms with affluent white students — hardly anyone’s idea of a “solution,” and something that no district has ever actually done.

Still, according to the appeals court, the theoretical possibility that a district might be able to circumvent all evidence and experience is enough to absolve state laws of the actual damage they’re doing to students.

That means we’re left with a situation where the justice system has acknowledged that California’s tenure laws are robbing tens of thousands of students each year of the education they deserve, but claims the state has no obligation to fix the problem.

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Commentary: In the fine print of the Vergara ruling, 3 key arguments that might sway CA’s Supreme Court

Elizabeth Vergara, at the press conference

Elizabeth Vergara at a news conference. She and sister Beatriz are among the nine student plaintiffs in the case.

On Thursday, a three-judge Court of Appeal overturned a trial court’s decision in the case of Vergara v. California, upholding the state’s existing education laws in a ruling of significance for millions of public school students in the state and across the country. (Read more about the sharply divided reactions after the ruling).

The real implications of Thursday’s decision, however, may be even more far reaching, as the appellate court’s semantic choices could hamper broader civil rights enforcement in education and elsewhere. The appellate ruling language, therefore, sets up a far-reaching controversy for review by California’s Supreme Court.

Beatriz Vergara vs. the State of California

Nearly two years ago, at the conclusion of a two-month trial, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu found that California had denied Beatriz Vergara a decent education.

The California laws at issue mandated that teachers receive specific job security protections, known as tenure, after two years in the classroom. Judge Treu found that this time period was far too short to exclude ineffective teachers, and that the job security protections made it onerous to remove ineffective teachers from classrooms. The operational and political reality of public school systems, therefore, led these ineffective tenured teachers to be highly concentrated in schools that served low-income students of color.

Judge Treu further concluded from the evidence at trial that good teachers were the linchpin of a decent education.

Since Vergara and several of her fellow plaintiffs were students of color from low-income families, and since education is a fundamental right under California’s constitution, Judge Treu’s findings of fact made the relevant education laws constitutionally suspect. In legal terms, that meant that the laws were subject to “strict scrutiny,” so they had to be “necessary” to achieve a “compelling” state interest. Judge Treu did not find them necessary for a compelling state interest.

Thus, Judge Treu struck down the laws in question. His decision met with immediate and widespread approval. Almost every major newspaper editorial board of the left, right and center — including the San Jose Mercury News, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Wall Street Journal — applauded the ruling as creating an opening for public schools to better serve students like Vergara. Even President Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, said that the decision presented an opportunity to build a new framework that better served teachers and students.

Unfortunately, the decision was decried by the California Teachers Association, by far the most powerful lobbying group in California. The CTA invested heavily in a local and national campaign to undermine the legitimacy of Judge Treu’s ruling, while also bringing high-powered legal resources to appeal the decision.

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Commentary: College remediation is not just a problem for those ‘other’ kids

unnamedThis is college acceptance season, the weeks when millions of high school seniors pore over their offers and agonize about which campus offers the best fit and the best financing. The real pressure is off, the essays and test scores a distant memory.

Until you consider the results of a new study that revealed this:

More than half a million college freshmen—approximately one in four students who enter college the fall after high school graduation—had to enroll in remedial coursework during their first year of college, costing their families nearly $1.5 billion annually.

My bet is a lot of parents read these kind of reports about struggling students and education problems and think: That’s a bummer, but that’s someone else’s problem.

That someone else being, um,  low-income families or kids of color? Students in chaotic urban schools or remote rural schools? Or maybe new immigrants or students with disabilities? All those students not “cut out” for four-year-colleges?

Pick your “other,” but the problem is not about you or your kid, not about anyone comfortably striving or hailing from the honor roll of all those so-called good high schools, right?

Wrong, in this particular case.

Some 45 percent of those students came from middle- and upper-income families, according to “Out of Pocket: The High Cost of Inadequate High Schools and High School Student Achievement on College Affordability,” a new research report written by Education Reform Now and sponsored by Education Post.

Not only does college remediation cut across all income levels, it’s also not a problem confined to community colleges. Nearly half – 40 percent – of remedial students were enrolled in public and private four-year colleges.

While underprepared students average two remedial courses each during their first year, higher-income students at private four-year colleges take more remedial classes than lower-income students at those same colleges, suggesting these schools enroll many lower-achieving but higher-income students.

Which means this: If your kid attends an expensive private university but isn’t ready to write college papers or pass a college math class, you will be paying an extra $12,000 for material he or she should have learned in high school.

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Commentary: Time for Trump to get honest with his coalition of fear. It’s not walls they need, but better schools

Donald Trump

Donald Trump

How to explain the baffling rise of Donald Trump, the bullying, narcissistic real estate mogul dominating the Republican presidential primaries? How did a celebrity talk-show host with so little grasp of public policy — or good manners — come so close to becoming the GOP nominee?

Economic anxiety is clearly a big part of the answer. Trump has managed to tap into a rising tide of fear swamping working-class voters as they have watched their jobs disappear, wages stagnate and savings vanish — a coalition of fear that unites the underemployed, undertrained and the xenophobic. They have little hope for a financially secure future, and they now believe their children may be even worse off.

Against that backdrop, you’d think Trump would have a lot more to say about K-12 education. While the basic governance of public schools remains in the hands of governors, state legislators and local school boards, presidents from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama have shown the out-sized influence that the nation’s chief executive can exert over education policy.

And the next president ought to use every bit of that influence. After all, guaranteeing schoolchildren a high-quality education is among the most certain solutions to the problem of restoring the great American middle class. It would do more than igniting trade wars, banning immigrants or building walls. It would convert fear into hope.

A focus on revamping public education would help repair not only the economy but also the nation’s civic fabric, which Trump, instead, is threatening to rip to shreds. He plays to the basest instincts of some of his supporters, pandering to their xenophobia and lending legitimacy to their resentment of people of color.

A more thoughtful candidate would explain that the real problem is an economy transformed by the forces of globalization and technology. That means that today’s workers must know more to command good jobs.

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Commentary: Progressives like Bernie Sanders may be confused about charter schools, but black parents aren’t

Bernie Sanders isn’t the only progressive who is confused about charter schools. On the left, misunderstandings and mischaracterizations about non-traditional public schools abound, many of them spread by an educational establishment that fiercely guards its turf.

One of the most popular misconceptions is that charter schools represent “takeovers” by wealthy corporate interests or rich conservatives who are indifferent to public education and greedy for the tax dollars that keep public schools open.

That helps explain Sanders’ bungled response, during a recent CNN Town Hall, that he didn’t support those charter schools that are “privately run.” (More from The 74: Feeling Confused by The Bern? 4 Theories on What Sanders Actually Thinks About Charter Schools)

In fact, public charters are no bastions of 1 percenters. Instead, many of them serve as lifelines for poor kids, rescuing them from schools where little learning takes place. That’s why they are so popular with black families.

The contentious debate over charter schools is a fault line through the political left, a divide pitting public education reformers against those who favor the status quo. Though many black educators, especially those employed in grades K-12, are fierce opponents of charter schools, black parents take a different view.

Last year, the Black Alliance for Educational Options released a survey of black voters in four states — Alabama, Louisiana, New Jersey and Tennessee. It found that majorities in each state favor charters. Roland Martin teamed up with TV One, where he hosts a black-oriented news show, to sponsor a similar poll, and it showed similar results: more than 70 percent of black voters support charter schools.

It’s easy to see why if you take a clear-eyed look at the state of traditional public schools, especially in poorer neighborhoods. Lots of them are sub-par, with low scores on standardized tests, principals and teachers who fail to inspire and mediocre graduation rates.

Given limited means, many black parents feel trapped. They have neither the resources to buy homes in neighborhoods with good schools nor the money to afford private or parochial schools. Suburban school districts, by the way, punish parents who enroll children who don’t live in the district — some going as far as to make arrests. (The 74: Opinion: Why Are We Arresting Mothers for ‘Stealing’ An Education?)

(The income gap helps explain the difference in support for public charter schools. In 2011, the median wealth for a white household was $111,146, while it was $8,348 for a Latino household and $7,113 for a black household, according to government data.)

Public charter schools are free to attend, just like traditional public schools. They have open attendance policies. (Many public charters have more applications than seats; those schools usually select students through a lottery.)

To be sure, charter schools are no panacea. Some have failed; others are not doing any better than nearby traditional schools.

But the best among the charters are posting substantial gains, even among students from less-affluent families. Those are kids whose best chance for gaining a toehold in the economic mainstream is through a first-rate education.

Progressive politics are supposed to promote the poor, stand up for the weak and advocate for the voiceless. If so, the progressive movement ought to be a strong supporter of public charter schools.

Cynthia Tucker Haynes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist and a popular radio and television commentator. Her weekly column, which appears in newspapers around the country, focuses on political and cultural issues, including income inequality, social justice and reform of the public education system.

This article was published in partnership with

Commentary: Cirque du LAUSD


Representatives from charter schools line up outside LAUSD headquarters for this month’s board meeting.

By Nick Melvoin

Last week’s Los Angeles Unified School Board meeting was a political circus. Scores of parents, students and advocates in a packed boardroom vied for a chance to speak as the board debated their futures in real time. And while the politics may interest an arm-chair social scientist—“everyone is in such a bunkered battleground” as board President Steve Zimmer put it, before climbing back into his bunker and abstaining on the most contentious vote of the day—our children deserve better than a trip to the circus. Putting aside the merits of the issues discussed, the manner in which the board makes its decisions—and, superficially at least, invites community input—is absurd.

Parents, students and teachers waited more than eight hours to be given a chance to speak. And their futures were left to a process by which the board “cobble[d] together a plan, concocting at least half a dozen proposals and amendments during a lengthy and at times contentious discussion.” And this comes months after the school had to submit their petition.

Unfortunately, dysfunction is the norm, not the exception, for school board meetings. When schools are up for renewal, parents—many of whom have to take hours if not the entire day off work to advocate for their children—often line up starting at daybreak. In many cases, they don’t speak until late in the day, if at all. Parents and community stakeholders are left outside for hours or are relegated to an “overflow” room where they can watch the board meeting (unless, of course, the live stream doesn’t work). And despite stories of parents who are unable to speak after hours of waiting, board members at times let their supporters speak even when resolutions are postponed or abandoned.

Democracy is messy, but it doesn’t have to be dysfunctional. And despite lip-service about the need to engage parents and the community, nothing says “we don’t want your input” more than making parents line up at 5 a.m. to maybe, just maybe, get two minutes to speak before midnight.

When I was a teacher, I streamlined processes to ensure instructional time wasn’t lost and my students and I had a clear understanding of what was expected of us. I encourage the school board to do the same.

Here are a few ideas for new processes that could increase parent engagement and allow for more productive board meetings.

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Commentary: The political grandstanding of the LAUSD board

(From L): LAUSD school board members Monica Ratliff, Ref Rodriguez and Richard Vladovic

(From L): LAUSD school board members Monica Ratliff, Ref Rodriguez and Richard Vladovic

By Caroline Bermudez

With the Los Angeles Board of Education poised to consider the expansion of another successful charter school at its March 8 meeting, parents demanding more choice deserve to know what is driving the district’s questionable practices around charter review.

There is an anti-charter narrative so strong that it defies reason, and few illustrate it better than the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The board, according to charter school organizations, is denying their petitions to open new schools. Since last July, LA Unified has turned down seven petitions and approved seven others. Just two years ago, the approval rating for new charters was 89 percent.

The reasons LA Unified cites for some of these charter schools not being allowed to expand? The handling of food contracts and problems with signatures.

And while established charter schools tend to have their contracts renewed (this academic year, the approval rate was 100 percent, the previous year it was 97 percent), the process is not without pain.

Charter leaders have long complained that the list of items a school must “fix” to secure a renewal is onerous, time-consuming and has little to do with students or outcomes.

Hillel Aron of L.A. Weekly wrote about the efforts of a former LA Unified board member, Bennett Kayser, to turn down charter school applications at every opportunity or even close down high-performing schools.

According to Aron’s article, Andrew Thomas, an education researcher who ran unsuccessfully for an LA Unified board position last year, said of Kayser at a candidate debate: “To vote on principle or ideology to close a school—it’s beyond the pale for me.”

But intellectually dishonest (or bankrupt, as was the case with Kayser) criticisms of charter schools certainly do not begin or end in Los Angeles. Policy researcher Conor Williams has written about the petty battles waged against charters across the nation, silly squabbles that include allegations of copyright violation.

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Commentary: At 25, a new face for Teach For America

Lida Jennings with kids with students at Camino Nuevo Kayne Siart.

Lida Jennings with students at Camino Nuevo Kayne Siart.

By Lida Jennings

In many ways, Los Angeles is the birthplace of Teach For America.

It was at University of Southern California 25 years ago that Wendy Kopp gathered 500 idealistic corps members for the very first summer training institute and launched them into teaching positions at high-poverty schools in Los Angeles and across the country.

Today, more than 2,600 teachers and alumni work inside and outside of Los Angeles schools toward our big goal – that one day, all children will have access to an excellent education. Our national footprint is now 50,000 teachers and alumni strong.

The Teach For America model has become familiar. We recruit top college graduates and professionals to teach for at least two years in hard-to-staff, low-income schools and to go on to fight for educational equity wherever their lives take them. That model has produced countless education leaders, including LAUSD Board President Steve Zimmer and UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl. Since joining the TFA corps, they have dedicated their lives to public education.

Twenty-five years in, our organization has evolved. While our critics rely, sometimes loudly, on outdated notions of who we are and how we serve, one need only look at the way our corps has changed to see the new face of Teach For America-Los Angeles. We are proud to have one of the most locally connected, diverse and persistent teacher and leadership corps to date. Continue reading

Commentary: LAUSD should reverse cuts to immersion program at Broadway Elementary


LA Unified school board President Steve Zimmer at Hamilton High “walk-in.”

By Jennifer Pullen

Tens of thousands of people, including Los Angeles Unified School District Board President Steve Zimmer, participated in a “walk-in” last week to show support for traditional public schools at a time when they are facing increasing pressure from — and loss of students to — charter and private operators.

Staged in partnership with local and national unions and other interest groups, it was a great photo op for Mr. Zimmer. But the truth is that when the cameras are gone, the district too often closes the door when parents choose to walk away from non-traditional schools and walk into LA public schools. We know, because they are closing the door on us right now.

We are proud that we walked in to the economically and racially diverse Broadway Elementary School in Venice in 2010 when it was facing closure due to low enrollment. We stepped forward with time and resources to support the launch of a Mandarin immersion program at Broadway that was championed by Mr. Zimmer and was designed to help make this traditional public school more attractive, and to create the type of learning opportunities our kids need to compete in 21st century Los Angeles and the global economy.

With the strong parental support, the program has flourished, and each year we have seen families literally camping on the street to enroll their kids. Broadway wasn’t closed, and the program was expanded from two classes to four, and there has been enough demand to support two additional classes for a total of six. The district’s response? They recently decided to cut the program down to two classes. This is unacceptable and the district must reverse course and maintain four classes in a program that has been proven successful and for which there is proven demand.

With this decision, the district is failing our kids. In the battle against charter and private operators, the district is shooting themselves in the foot. And here is a crucial stat: if the district stands by its decision to cut the number of immersion seats from 96 to 48, there will be an almost zero chance for new families to enroll their children in the program because 47 seats are already claimed by sibling-priority students. This directly disserves the local student population served by Broadway Elementary.

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Commentary: After Scalia’s death, 3 ways the Supreme Court could change course on education reform

Antonin Scalia

Antonin Scalia (Credit: Getty Images)

It seems fitting. In life, Antonin Scalia was perhaps the most influential and controversial jurist of the modern era. While his admirers cherished his powerful mind and his detractors considered him a bully or worse, virtually no one denied his impact over three decades on the United States Supreme Court.

It therefore seems somehow appropriate that his death will have far-reaching implications. Prior to Scalia’s death, education law was on the brink of revolution, as I wrote about in this January essay for The 74 that surveyed a series of cases set to make their way to the top court. Although Scalia was not a central player in that revolution, his death immediately changes some things about these pending decisions — and his successor could change everything.

Friedrichs: From Victory to Defeat

The case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association provides an instant case study of the impact of Scalia’s death.

As The 74 explained earlier this year, the Friedrichs case considered whether and when union leaders speak for all teachers:

Today, anti-reform teachers dominate low-turnout union elections; so pro-student teachers have little voice. The leaders chosen from this skewed process, however, collect compulsory dues even from teachers who disagree with their policy views.

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Commentary: All families deserve good school choice options

Shirley Cap and Gown

Shirley Ford

By Shirley Ford

I realized there was a problem as early as elementary school. I always knew that my boys were smart – they started reading me the newspaper in the evening when they were 6 years old – but they were clearly bored and not being challenged in school. Like so many young African-American boys, they were quickly labeled with alleged “learning disabilities” when they starting committing normal, minor infractions in class. At a young age, they started to become disengaged and apathetic about school.

I quickly started to become desperate. I knew that my sons needed a great education if they were going to be successful, and I realized it was my job to make that happen – nobody else was going to do it for me.

So over the next few years, I tried everything I could to get them into a better public school. When that didn’t work, I applied for financial aid at a local private school, but was denied.

As my sons started to make their way through middle school, falling further and further behind, I began to feel angry and hopeless. I began to blame myself – was I a bad mother? In my worst moments, I began to blame them. As high school began to approach, I was terrified of what would come next for them.

One day, I came home to find a flyer on my door that said something about a new “charter school” opening in our community. I had no idea what a charter school was, but I was out of good options, so I decided to go check out their upcoming meeting.

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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?

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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?

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