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Q&A : Old Yardstick Doesn't Apply With Schools

August 04, 1991|Times staff writer Nancy Hill-Holtzman

Mark Slavkin, 29, Westside representative on the Los Angeles Unified School District board.

Claim to fame: Slavkin won an upset victory in 1989 over incumbent Alan Gershman to become the youngest person ever elected to the board. He appealed to voters by promising parents more of a say in the running of their local schools, and vowed to reform the district's bureaucracy.

Background: Slavkin was raised in a political family in West Los Angeles, and co-chaired a statewide campaign to enlist student support for the Carter-Mondale ticket when he was 18. A product of the public schools he now oversees, Slavkin graduated Phi Beta Kappa from USC with a major in political science and went on to earn a master's degree in the same field. Before his election to the school board, he was a deputy for County Supervisor Ed Edelman. He lives with his wife, Debbie, and two children in West Los Angeles.

Interviewer: Times staff writer Nancy Hill-Holtzman.

Q: In 1989, right after you took office, you described the Los Angeles Unified School District as on the verge of a "total collapse and disaster." Are things still so dire?

A: I'd like to think that we're better off today than two years ago. I'm much more positive and comfortable with the leadership we have in Supt. Bill Anton. He makes a big difference.

Q: What's the difference?

A: There's a sense that there is someone who has a plan and a notion of how things should be organized. And I think there's a sense of direction and cohesion with the new board that has just been elected.

Q: What is that sense of direction?

A: I think we've built a consensus over the last two years that the future of the district really depends on our ability to push decision-making down to the local school level, and to move in some more radical directions. We're now talking of shifting to local schools the entire school budget as a lump sum. The school would have autonomy and discretion and flexibility to spend that money without the regulations and constraints that are now in place.

Q: How does that translate into better schools, better achievement?

A: It's a necessary ingredient, because we've learned that school districts can't effectively educate kids with a one-size-fits-all approach. The needs of children are far too different--from classroom to classroom, from school to school, from area to area. Unless we can capitalize on those differences, we're not going to get the job done.

Q: Go on, what else?

A: The critical piece that's missing is accountability based on student outcomes. To really improve schools we need to create an environment in which everyone is judged based on how well the kids do. That's not the case today. We essentially are judging the adults in the system based on how well they follow the rules.

Q: How would you create that environment?

A: It is such a foreign concept in public education that our first challenge is to get educators to accept the idea. Teachers, principals and administrators would be rewarded because kids are making progress--or face sanctions and intervention and ultimately may be transferred or fired because kids aren't showing improvement.

Q: Those are provocative words coming from somebody who was elected with the endorsement of United Teachers-Los Angeles. Can you get the union to go along with the concept of firing teachers whose students don't progress?

A: I think we have an opportunity with a new president at UTLA, Helen Bernstein, to put issues like this on the table. She is somebody who understands the need for these major structural changes in the system.

Q: When you say reward, you're talking about monetary reward, correct?

A: I think money has to be part of it. I don't think we can fool ourselves that teachers and educators can be in a profession that is devoid of monetary rewards or sanctions, and feel that, just on the basis of their dedication and caring, we're going to make a system work. That to me is rather naive.

Q: Under School-Based Management, individual schools have petitioned for more autonomy. Yet it looks to me as if a whole new central bureaucracy to regulate them is being created as fast or even faster than the schools can gain a measure of freedom.

A: I think you're right. In a system that has operated like this for so long, the first instinct is to regulate and bureaucratize everything. And the irony is that here's something that is in the direction of flexibility, changing rules, waiving the rules, creating room for people to try new things. Yet institutionally, the instinct of the system is to try to attach the same kind of rules and systems on top of this reform.

Q: Has it stymied efforts to make individual schools self-governing?

A: I think it has served to frustrate people. Some of the first group of schools found themselves going through a protracted process where their plan is dissected into itsy-bitsy parts. And part A and B are held up while part C is allowed to move forward.

Q: Does this mean the reform is ultimately doomed?

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