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'Mini' Paths to Good Schools

March 19, 2000

The proposed reorganization of the Los Angeles public school system into 11 subdistricts could begin to revamp a district best known for broad and enduring failure. This major overhaul, drawn up by interim Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, would shift the emphasis from the downtown headquarters and administration to schools and instruction. Because Cortines believes that dramatic improvement will require an intense focus on a single subject, the greatest priority would correctly be placed on reading.

Cortines emphasizes reading because of its role as the most important academic skill. He is asking the school board to spend more money on professional development so teachers can do a better job of teaching reading in every grade. The superintendent seeks greater support for teachers, stronger supervision and better classroom materials. Unlike other reorganization plans, the Cortines proposal links improved reading instruction with a reduction of the district's headquarters and a major decentralization.

Each mini-district would operate more or less autonomously. The 11 subdistricts each would serve up to 75,000 students, a number consistent with the target set by those who support breaking up the district. That might briefly placate the advocates of school district dissolution, but only if test scores rise quickly and dramatically.

Other ways in which Cortines' reorganization differs from past decentralization efforts: the provision of greater local control for schools, the push to hold teachers and principals responsible for measurable improvements in student achievement and the link to improved reading instruction at all levels.

Cortines promises no miracles. His plan would reduce the central administration by 834 positions and save an estimated $46 million. Most of those educators would be returned to schools as teachers, principals, deans and extra administrators. Some would be welcomed there for their expertise; others would not be wanted. Unless all can be held accountable, this reorganization would only rearrange the deck chairs.

Accountability requires linking the pay of teachers and administrators to student performance. They should be rewarded handsomely for outstanding work, especially for significantly boosting test scores at low-performing schools. Those who fail repeatedly should face consequences far greater than a transfer to another school or a cushy job downtown.

United Teachers-Los Angeles is expected to fight merit pay because it runs counter to the union mission of protecting members. School board members, especially those elected with strong UTLA support, should recognize that protecting jobs conflicts with the more important mission of providing excellent teachers for all children.

The superintendent also wants to return management authority to principals. They should be able to assign teachers based on their strengths and the instructional needs of children. Teachers are expected to fight to keep their right to pick their assignments based on seniority. Again, the school board should not yield during labor negotiations on a practice that allows some weak veteran teachers to bump stronger teachers who have less experience. Adult agendas should no longer be put ahead of children.

By any measure, most children are failing in the Los Angeles district. Most do not perform at grade level. Most do poorly on standardized tests. Most schools rank near the bottom of the new state academic performance index. Yes, seven out of 10 students are poor enough to qualify for free lunches. Yes, most speak a language other than English when they enroll in school. Yes, many are the sons and daughters of uneducated and even illiterate parents. Yes, their families often move during the school year. These and other challenges make the job harder. That's all the more reason that educators who succeed should be better compensated. But compensation should be tied to performance measures, not the ability to hang on.

The school board is expected to vote on the Cortines plan April 11. Those who count themselves among the reformers should stand up to the union. They should vote for greater accountability throughout the school system. They should support a streamlined and more efficient central administration. They should say yes to more money for reading instruction and less for downtown jobs that produce no results.

The Los Angeles Unified School District will not survive without fundamental change. Nor should it if its leaders fail to make the tough decisions that must be made.

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