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LOS ANGELES SCHOOLS

Learning Curve

From the superintendent's chair, things are looking up, with systemwide gains

September 07, 2003|Roy Romer | Roy Romer is the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

With budget crises at every level of government, a surreal recall election heating up and the economy stagnant, people have reason to question the effectiveness of California's public institutions.

But here's some good news. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, where the new school year is just beginning for thousands of children, test scores are climbing. New literacy programs are bearing fruit. Desperately needed new schools are being built. We're recruiting better teachers.

It's true we have a long way to go before we'll be able to give all children the education they deserve. But after three years as the district's superintendent -- a job much tougher than my earlier one as governor of Colorado -- I can say with certainty that the district is making significant progress in the face of overwhelming challenges.

Skeptical? Compare the situation today with that of just three years ago.

* More classrooms. In 2000, as a result of surging enrollments, our overcrowded district faced a looming shortage of 200,000 seats. In the previous decade, the district had built fewer than two schools a year, which didn't begin to keep pace with increased enrollment. When I arrived, it looked as if Belmont High, on which huge sums had already been spent, would never be finished.

Today, the district has a plan to build roughly 120 schools with 110,000 desks in the years ahead. It also has undertaken hundreds of smaller but critical repairs and additions to existing schools. Measure K, the bond issue funding this ambitious agenda, was passed by a 68% majority last year. A new bond measure planned for next year would put in place funding to help close the remainder of the long-term classroom gap and move us toward our goal of having every child attend a neighborhood school on a traditional nine-month calendar.

There's even good news on Belmont. After contentious debate and analysis, the school, in an altered form, will be finished -- and rechristened Vista Hermosa -- by 2007. Its design will provide an innovative model of joint-use development, with a neighborhood park sharing the land.

* Better instruction. A few years ago, schools were free to pursue a variety of reading programs and approaches. The result was an educational hodgepodge that made it hard to assess the progress of students or the skills of teachers -- until year-end test scores proved disappointing. Today, we have a standard reading curriculum (called Open Court) and school schedule that assure a deep and consistent focus on literacy each day. Included are diagnostic tests every six weeks that tell teachers which skills students have mastered and where they need help. A newly trained corps of more than 600 reading coaches works with teachers to improve the way they teach reading.

* Improved test scores. Over a three-year period, Los Angeles elementary schools have seen scores increase at double the rate of schools statewide on California's new achievement tests. An increasing portion of our elementary students are scoring above national norms in reading and math. Perhaps most encouraging, the latest results from new statewide tests released in August confirm the upward direction of student achievement in virtually every category.

* Higher-quality teachers. In 2000, half of the new teachers hired lacked basic certification. Some 25% of the district's teachers were uncertified. We frequently lost top candidates to posts in better-managed -- and better paying -- suburban districts. Since then we've revamped our recruiting strategies. L.A. now makes offers immediately to top talent rather than waiting to know for certain to which school a new teacher will be assigned.

As a result of such reforms, 73% of the 3,800 teachers we've hired this year are fully credentialed. But that doesn't fully capture L.A.'s progress. Last year, 69% of our new teachers were what we term "highly qualified" -- meaning they were either fully credentialed or had demonstrated competence in the subject matter they teach. This year the comparable figure will rise to 95%.

* Math testing. Building on the success of our reading program, we have embarked on an ambitious introduction of standardized diagnostic tests every 10 weeks in math. When fully implemented, this system, which is largely computer- assisted and thus reduces paperwork for teachers, will not only help teachers judge their students' strengths and weaknesses but also automatically tailor specific assignments to individual needs.

None of this is to suggest that we've solved all of our problems. The LAUSD is a huge urban district, and we're facing a daunting mountain of need. Each step forward is frustratingly slow.

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