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Centralizing Authority Puts School Reform at Risk

January 14, 2001|Les Birdsall | Les Birdsall, of the 21st Century Schools Partnership, directed the California School Improvement Network and, most recently, worked as a teacher and principal

The most defining characteristic of the Los Angeles Unified School Disrict, one year after the Belmont Learning Complex fiasco, is the ease with which bureaucratic forces have further entrenched themselves in power and gained a greater share of the financial resources. As a result, schools have been left weaker, with fewer resources and less authority. This jeopardizes reform.

Late last year, Supt. Roy Romer was poised to further consolidate the LAUSD's traditional top-down management. For nearly a decade, the district's bureaucracy has been trying to jettison school-based reform, which was pressed on it by Mayor Richard Riordan and the business community. The argument that a school-site partnership--among principal, faculty and parents--in governance and academic improvement erodes principals' authority is the lament of weak principals and of those unprepared to pursue reform.

Fortunately, Romer temporarily backed off after talking to his counterparts in other cities, including New York and Chicago. Improvement in a system in which quality is determined, in large part, by thousands of teachers working alone and using their own rules, methods and standards requires more, not less, school-based teamwork. Schools need the participation of parents if reform is to occur because they are not organized for change. Romer's decision will be critical to the future prospect of school improvement in Los Angeles.

Right now, there isn't much improvement. One reason is a lack of clear goals and strategies needed to achieve them. That's a responsibility of the school board, as well as the superintendent. But over the last year and a half, the reform-minded board has failed to set forth goals for the performance of the district and its schools. State goals are too modest, for even if achieved, they don't produce literate students.

The school board has embarked on only two major instructional initiatives, both originating, more than a year ago, with deposed Supt. Ruben Zacarias. The first initiative--reading instruction--illustrates the weakness of board policymaking, while the second--standards-based promotion--is, essentially, a nonexistent program, despite central-office pretensions to the contrary.

When the district decided to mandate a new reading program in underperforming schools, the central office selected Open Court, one of three reading programs then considered for use in the district. In a strange twist, a higher percentage of schools using the other programs were achieving better reading scores. This information was not made available to the school board during policy deliberations. Too frequently, the board is asked by district leaders to make policy decisions without critical information. This was one of those times.

The central office has provided the school board with a detailed program description of standards-based promotion that, unfortunately, bears little relationship to what actually occurs in schools. For such a program to be credible, uniform standards must govern the promotion and retention of students. But few schools use such standards. Truth be told, teachers, of which there are 36,000 in the LAUSD, rely on a standard that is more personal and idiosyncratic than uniform in making their decisions about promotion and retention.

Most students lacking literacy skills are regularly advanced each year. This, however, is not the most serious problem: Students without proficient skills, whether retained or advanced, seldom receive the instruction required to become proficient. Underdeveloped skills produce high levels of student underperformance and failure in LAUSD.

The central office has advised the school board that it intends to bring before it a new "comprehensive" standards-based-promotion proposal next month. Will this program have uniform standards? The board and central office appear reluctant to adopt this approach. Will the program assure that every student, including the more than 75% of middle and high school students not proficient in reading and writing skills, be placed in an instructional program capable of developing these skills? When Interim Supt. Ramon C. Cortines grasped the extent of this problem, he sidestepped it. If Romer and the board follows his example, most students will be doomed because they are not now scheduled to receive the instruction required to make them proficient learners.

These issues are among the challenges the school board and superintendent have managed to avoid so far. To address them, the board needs to develop a stronger policymaking capability. This requires leadership, verve and an expanded agenda. It also requires independent staff support. The existing board, like its predecessors, is bogged down by the bureaucracy. One way to alleviate this is independent staff support for school board's subcommittees. The board's independent analysis unit was established decades ago to do this and should be made equal to the task.

No single public issue is more important to Los Angeles, the state or nation than improving school performance. The challenge before the board and superintendent is unprecedented. The current instructional system was designed 100 years ago to meet the more modest educational needs of the Industrial Age. It is incapable of producing the kind of education needed in the 21st century. Centralizing authority downtown, rather than setting clear performance goals and insisting that each school pursue and achieve them, will not produce higher student achievement.

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