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Yesterday's Failure Is Tomorrow's 'Reform'

August 17, 2003|Jeff Horton | Jeff Horton, a recruiter at the L.A. County Teacher Recruitment Center, is a former teacher, a former member of the LAUSD Board of Education and a former president of the California School Boards Assn.

When I began teaching in 1975, students were taught to read with phonics. They learned to break down words into sounds, to approach language as a code that needed cracking. Some kids were turned off by this approach, or failed to learn, which led to an entirely new teaching method known as "whole language." The new method emphasized language as an organic part of life experience. Students were immersed in language and books rather than in decoding. Many students learned to read; others didn't. Now we've abandoned whole language and returned to phonics. And it's all happened in the name of reform.

The approach to reading isn't an isolated example. Time and again in education, "reforms" are embraced wholeheartedly, then abandoned. Think new math. Think bilingual education. Think school-based management.

The L.A. public school system, like others around the country, has flirted with and abandoned dozens of reform efforts, many of them promoted by interest groups with particular agendas. Sometimes these changes have grown out of solid research or community discussion. Other times they've simply reflected a politically popular idea of the moment. We've abandoned successful "reforms" and embraced unsuccessful ones.

These swings back and forth in curriculum rarely hit the right balance, but they have become a fixture of education policy and philosophy, especially in a system governed by elected local boards and state governments.

Recently, two L.A. school board members were defeated for election to a second term. A short four years ago, when these same board members were elected, they were hailed as part of a wave of reform that would save the district. In this latest election, they were attacked as representatives of the failed status quo. Both the challengers and the incumbents in this election claimed to wear the mantle of reform. The schools' stakeholders -- parents, teachers, students, administrators -- will have to decide for themselves what constitutes reform, but a little recent history might help.

One outgrowth of the Los Angeles teacher strike of 1989 was a program that gave more authority to local schools. Shortly after the strike, a group of businesspeople, civic leaders and teachers launched a process of discussion and study that led to the implementation of a program called LEARN (Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now).

The group concluded that the key to better education lay in strengthening the local school site's ability to develop and carry out educational decisions. This philosophy was in part a response to a movement to break up the district and to long-standing complaints about a top-down, over-centralized decision-making process. The LEARN principles were designed to ensure that those closest to the children of a community -- parents and teachers and other school staff -- made important decisions about what best served their children.

In 1991 the L.A. Unified Board of Education adopted the LEARN approach. Millions of dollars were invested in training parents and teachers to use a democratic and inclusive process to develop school policies and practices. In the end, many schools succeeded in building a strong foundation of mutual respect and cooperation that led to a reinvigoration of educational programs.

There were some spectacular successes among the LEARN schools. Foshay Middle School in South Los Angeles raised student scores and expanded to include all grades from kindergarten through 12th. Caroldale Elementary in the harbor area used the flexibility of LEARN to follow the community's wishes and include grades six through eight. Kester Avenue Elementary School in Van Nuys developed a schoolwide curriculum with extensive participation of parents and teachers that led to higher student scores. At many other LEARN schools, parents enjoyed a new, higher level of participation in decision-making, and teachers embraced new and effective approaches to teaching.

But like all reforms, LEARN wasn't a magic bullet. Although schools that embraced the LEARN reforms showed greater improvement in student performance than other schools, the task of getting parents and teachers to make decisions together proved to be laborious and time-consuming.

Not all schools were willing to take this step. The habit of central decision-making was a hard one to break for both district administrators and the teachers union. Schools that languished at low levels of student achievement and parent involvement were not helped enough or held sufficiently accountable. The district found it difficult to maintain its financial commitment to the intensive training called for in the LEARN plan. And everyone wanted a quick cure for what ailed the schools.

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