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Brewer offers his vision for L.A. schools

In a meeting with The Times' editorial board, the schools chief says superintendents need at least six years to see their reforms implemented.

June 15, 2007|Howard Blume and Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writers

After giving his first State of the Schools address Thursday, Los Angeles schools Supt. David L. Brewer, a retired Navy vice admiral, answered questions from the L.A. Times editorial board. Here are excerpts from the questions and his responses.

The Times: What do you do about schools that have been failing for years and lack the capacity to improve?

Brewer: I'm going to have the right to tell some people to innovate.

We need to be pushing support down to what I call the level of execution. We learned this in the military years ago. The reason we win wars is because that sergeant and that petty officer can make decisions. We are pushing $11 million from headquarters to the local district superintendents and several people down from headquarters.

Would you reconstitute any schools, that is, close them down and rebuild them with new leadership and staff under the authority of the federal No Child Left Behind law?

To the extent that we can do that. But there are some union rules there.

I will be very frank with you. I'll have to do a little bit more research on that. I asked the question: Why can't I just shut it down and then reopen it?

I was told ... [the] local union contract trumps federal law.

What's an example of something you'd like to see more research on?

We're having a tremendous problem with young men, especially African American males and Latino males. We had two principals go out and put in all-male academies at their schools -- Jordan High School and King-Drew.

The preliminary results look very good, [but] we need to go in and do research on single-gender classes. Not only for boys but for girls. Now some of that research is already out there: That says if you put girls in classes alone, they tend to do better in math and science.

If you put [boys] in classes together, as we've seen in Jordan and King-Drew, you get a reduction in discipline problems and you get the kind of results you see at Jordan, where 99% of those boys in the 11th grade have already passed the high school exit exam. The overall district average is 88%. So that's encouraging.

What is your view on charter schools?

Charter schools -- even though they've been effective individually -- have not been effective systematically. They sit outside of you. They clearly can create some excellence, but there are a lot of charter schools that are not doing well and failing worse than some of our schools.

We do not do a very good job of looking at charters.

Aren't charters supposed to be an alternative or a spur to the system to improve?

The unions now are being a little more flexible in the rules of what they want to do, [so] the charters are accomplishing their mission. They're putting pressure on us so that we can start to force our own change.

[Across the district] you have pockets of excellence. The problem seems to be benchmarking that and replicating it.

What about the issue of ineffective teachers?

In the public sector, you can't just go in and fire somebody. In our business, people have rights. [Teachers] have tenure after two years. So the real drama is how do you either get them up to capacity or find some other seat for them on the bus. It is extremely difficult. This has been plaguing not just education but lots of organizations.

We told the unions we need to work with you a little bit better. First of all, in the teachers' defense, we've got to come up with better professional development training. That's clear.

We have a lot of good people working heroically in a bad system.

You [also] get a lot of questions about Open Court [a district reading program that some teachers say is limited]. It's almost like a carpenter. You give one carpenter a saw and another one a saw and you can get two different results. Same saw. Why? Because one's a journeyman and one's a master.

You can give two different teachers the same tools, the same instructional model and get two different results, normalizing for the same kinds of kids. Why? Because one is a journeyman and one is a master. My job is to make those teachers masters.

In your speech you talked about the district's interaction with parents.

When [parents] go into our schools they aren't treated very well. This has nothing to do with socioeconomics. I'm going to have to push more customer service into our schools to make them feel more welcome.

[During a recent Town Hall with parents] there was so much frustration in that room. I had to take off my coat, take off my tie. It was one of those sessions, because there was so much frustration.

We're not listening to these people. We need to get out more often.

Some give the mayor credit for bringing a sense of urgency to local school reform. Do you think the system is as broken as the mayor does?

Probably not as broken as he sees it, because I'm on this side and I see a lot of excellence. But I clearly see some significant challenges. The mayor and I don't disagree on much.

Where are you looking to be in, say, four years?

If you look at the "Good to Great" model [outlined in a book of the same name by author Jim Collins], it takes you about six years before you see what they call a flywheel effect.

[In other large urban school districts], one of the reasons they can't sustain change is musical superintendents. You can't do that. I'm not begging to keep my job, but you cannot change superintendents every three years and expect to effect change. That's out.

You gotta stay in that job at least six years. [Former L.A. schools Supt. Roy] Romer stayed six years. That's why you see that big change at elementary [schools] and all this huge building program.

Because people who don't want to change will simply sit back and say, "Well, we know he's going to be gone in three years. I'll just outlive him."

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