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EDITORIAL

L.A. Unified, it's about time

It shouldn't have taken outside pressure for the district to act on teacher evaluation and Fremont High. But at least it responded constructively.

December 27, 2009

These are welcome, if basic, changes for L.A. schools: Evaluating new teachers properly and letting go of the substandard ones before they gain tenure. Restructuring a high school that despite years of effort has remained in the basement of educational achievement.

As glad as we are to see Supt. Ramon C. Cortines institute such reforms, we wonder why Los Angeles Unified School District hasn't been doing these things for years. Instead, the announcements came only when the district was under heavy outside pressure. The first came just days before The Times was to publish an expose of the district's lackadaisical evaluation of new teachers. The reconstitution of Fremont High School was announced on the day U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was in town. Duncan has made hard-nosed reforms such as restructuring failing schools a priority, and the school district is hoping to get a sizable chunk of the $4.3 billion in grants he has to bestow.

That's not to diminish Cortines' role in pushing the pace of educational change. He has been superintendent for just one year and has accomplished more than his predecessor, retired Vice Adm. David L. Brewer, did in two.

But these two long-overdue changes demonstrate that although district officials have historically and to some extent legitimately blamed the teachers union, lack of money or state regulations for achievement lapses, they also have failed to undertake meaningful improvements that were within their grasp. Teacher tenure laws and the district's contract with United Teachers Los Angeles may make it nearly impossible to fire bad teachers, but there's nothing to stop L.A. Unified from firing unpromising instructors during their first two years.

Meanwhile, L.A. Unified did so little to improve Fremont High School that eight years ago, the state took on decision-making authority over the school and nine others in L.A. Unified. Students were reading primary-grade picture books; dropout rates were legendary. The state was supposed to provide an improvement plan that would show results within 18 months; if that failed, it would take over the school entirely or impose other sanctions. But no sanctions were imposed, and here's where Fremont is now: 12% or so of students are proficient in reading and writing. About 2,000 students start out as freshmen; by senior year, there are proficientless than 600.

Reconstitution is a fresh-start attempt for failing schools. The staff is let go, but can reapply to continue working there. The school would require uniforms or a stricter dress code. These restructured schools don't always succeed, and Duncan's push to increase their numbers might be misplaced. But Fremont can't do much worse than it has since the beginning of the decade.

We admire Cortines for responding to Duncan's visit and to the Times story on teacher evaluations with corrective action instead of defensive posturing. We just wish the district hadn't waited so long to do the right thing.

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