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Reform, not research

Supt. Brewer took office with a sense of urgency about fixing L.A.'s schools. Where has his fire gone?

June 15, 2007

WHEN LOS ANGELES schools Supt. David L. Brewer was on his honeymoon tour of the city, the former Navy admiral's glaring lack of education experience was offset by his charismatic determination and encouraging sense of urgency. He understood that the L.A. Unified School District is a disaster and that he had no time to lose in implementing big ideas and big plans. He hit the right notes, speaking of troubled middle and high schools, the dropout rate and incompetent teachers.

It was only a matter of time before the complexities of the district would temper his can-do attitude. The superintendent gave his first "state of the schools" speech Thursday, and although he still hit some of the right notes, most notable was what was not said.

Brewer spoke of using research to guide reform, of involving parents and creating an innovation division, of improved professional development for teachers and managers and of school safety. Asked how he would grade the district in those areas, he gave out mostly Cs -- generous marks, given that the record reflects more failure than success. Admirably, he noted that the charter school movement is creating new impetus for innovation, a force for change in a district that needs more of it.

Yet neither in his speech nor in a subsequent meeting with Times reporters and editors did the superintendent offer any substantive discussion of instruction or convey any sense of urgency at righting his district. In fairness, he has always been clear that his skills are managerial -- not educational -- and he plans to hire a chief academic officer. But his emphasis on organization is hollow without reference to educational goals.

Brewer's acquiescence to L.A. Unified mores is the deeper cause for concern. When he arrived, he was passionate about removing ineffective teachers from the classroom. Now, apparently stymied by union opposition, he talks of moving failing teachers from school to school, but he has resigned himself to keeping them on the payroll -- and thus subjecting new students to their failings.

Brewer inherited a school district in dire shape, but he also inherited a gift, thanks to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. In the mayor's struggle to take over the district, he made the entire city understand the crisis. What's troubling is that as the city has awakened to that catastrophe, Brewer seems less convinced of it. Here, then, a reminder: Los Angeles schools are failing, and taking with them the lives and futures of hundreds of thousands of children. It is a crisis deserving an urgent response, not a call for research.

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