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LAUSD: Make Merit Count

March 29, 1998

Accountability should not be a hard concept to understand, but it has yet to sink in at the Los Angeles Unified School District, where a "task force" has been created to come up with workable methods of ensuring responsibility and accountability in the schools.

As it is now, few district employees face consequences for mediocre performance or flat-out failure. That runs all the way from poor management to ineffective teaching to barely visible janitorial service. The frustration among parents and competent, hard-working employees with this situation has properly turned up the volume on calls for accountability. That means specific performance standards, goals and other yardsticks that measure improvement or decline in our public schools. And it should mean hard consequences if the performance falls short, as well as clear rewards when excellence is achieved.

Any real increase in accountability will require cooperation from the unions and persistence from the school board. Failure to deliver by either source will be noted.

In what the district considered a big step toward accountability--but in fact was a tiny step--the board voted last Monday to create an accountability task force to study solutions, despite opposition from the teachers union.

Supt. Ruben Zacarias has until April 15 to name the members of the advisory group, and their report is due at the end of July. The superintendent, publicly keen on increasing accountability, should stack the task force with outside experts, educators and parents with the aim of producing strong recommendations that are impossible to shelve. Ultimately, the task force will open up the process and make a public report in a district where too many decisions are made behind closed doors.

Some goals are obvious. The best teachers should be paid more. Merit pay is not popular with unions, which argue that principals could "play favorites." Memo to the union leadership: In most of the rest of the working world, raises are based on performance. While that process can't be guaranteed as fair, it surely is not equitable to pay whole categories of employees the same, whether they do superior work or barely passable work.

Salary is a major incentive, but the task force should also consider rewards to an entire campus, a faculty group, a department or a team that routinely excels despite obstacles. And even as rewards are increased, so should the consequences be increased for subpar performance by teachers and other employees.

The school board and Zacarias have already linked pay increases for senior management to student performance. The same rules should apply to other employees. During upcoming negotiations with teachers and administrators on accountability standards, the school board and superintendent need to hold out for more than lip service and familiar promises of some kind of accountability, someday. Where, for instance, are the intervention teams for failing schools that were agreed to more than a year ago by the district and unions? How much longer will it take before they can get to work to help--and in some cases help get rid of--weak principals and ineffective teachers?

It's a shame that this school district needs a task force to recommend ways to hold employees more accountable for student performance. But now that a committee is being formed, there should be one less excuse for allowing anyone to get away with failure.

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