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In reforming schools, quality of teaching often overlooked

Years-long efforts to improve Markham Middle School in Watts included changing the curriculum, reducing class sizes and requiring uniforms. But real progress occurred when more effective teachers were brought in.

December 21, 2010|By Jason Felch, Jason Song and Sandra Poindexter, Los Angeles Times

For a decade straight, Maryvillehad the greatest gains of any middle school in the state, with improvement far exceeding the national norm.

In Los Angeles, much-heralded turnaround efforts are under way at numerous campuses.

Fremont High School in South Los Angeles made its teachers reapply for their jobs and fewer than half were rehired. Management of 30 other schools was put up for bid last year, and the majority of successful bids were submitted by teacher groups. And in 2007, a nonprofit controlled by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa took over management of several of L.A. Unified's lowest-performing schools, betting new leadership could change their course.

None of these efforts, however, has been guided by value-added analysis. The district has long had the necessary data but only this year announced plans to analyze it.

Nevertheless, some educators at struggling schools have, without much fanfare or credit, reviewed test score data they do have to guide decisions leading to significant improvements, if not full-scale turnarounds.

When Veronica Aragon was appointed principal at Wilmington Middle School in 2006, she pushed the staff to look more closely at scores. She began a voluntary program of posting students' results during grade-level meetings.

"It was a little uncomfortable at first, but that level of transparency really helped," said Scott Paek, a math coach at the school. "We were able to see where we needed to improve and see how we could help each other."

Since 2006, the percentage of students proficient in math went from 21% to 32%, while in English it climbed from 19% to 31%.

Because the district hasn't used value-added, it seems to have taken little notice of some of its own success stories.

Park Avenue Elementary, a long-struggling school in Cudahy, had among the highest growth in math of any of the 470 elementary schools analyzed by The Times.

The key, according to school officials, was teaching the teachers.

The school hired veteran math coach Judy Sugimoto, who found a group of instructors eager to improve.

"They were teaching the old-fashioned way," Sugimoto said. "There wasn't much emphasis on helping students understand the logic."

Sugimoto began encouraging instructors to use different methods or make better use of existing tools. Teachers had all been given blocks and other props to help students visualize more complex equations, but "they were in the closet, gathering dust," fourth-grade teacher Maria Corona said.

Now, Corona regularly uses the blocks. During a recent lesson, Corona's 24 students spread a series of squares and rods before them, dividing them into equal piles as they tried to divide 643 by five.

"What's the problem here?" she asked one boy whose piles had an uneven number of blocks.

The boy rearranged his piles, and Corona gave him a quick smile. "Good," she said.

The approach might not have worked at another campus, or with another coach. Sugimoto gave credit to the Park Avenue teachers.

"They were open to making a change," she said. "Not everyone wants to do that."

At Markham, a majority of teachers and parents was willing to gamble on one more change. They voted in 2007 to bring the school under the management of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's Partnership for Los Angeles Schools.

Even so, many teachers left because "they were tired of the changes," said Woodley, the teacher who has been there since 1986.

She was tired too. But she decided to stay after getting a promise from the new principal, Tim Sullivan, that he would stay at the school for at least five years, she said.

Sullivan's first year was focused on restoring order, and test scores actually fell.  That summer the school suffered what appeared to be another grievous blow: More than half of the teachers were laid off, based on their low seniority, and many were replaced by more experienced instructors from around the district.

Undaunted, Sullivan and his largely new team of teachers tried many of the reforms that had been attempted before at Markham: reopening the parents' center, breaking the school into smaller learning groups and continuing intensive teacher training.  

This time, the results were different: Markham had the fastest rate of student progress among district middle schools last year, The Times' analysis found.

Apparently, the layoffs had an upside. Many of the replacement teachers Sullivan picked from the district's hiring pool proved more effective than their predecessors.

Twenty-one teachers who were laid off in 2009 ranked, on average, in the bottom fifth among district teachers in raising students' English scores and in the bottom third in boosting math scores. They were replaced by teachers whose effectiveness was close to average in both subjects.

In addition, many of the low-performing teachers who survived the layoffs got significantly better, jumping to near average effectiveness compared to their peers districtwide.

Markham had not been "turned around." Its students still were significantly behind their peers statewide. But if they could repeat last year's gains for several years running, they had a chance of catching up.

Last summer, however, layoffs came again. Sullivan had had enough, and left to join a charter organization.

His replacement, Paul Hernandez, took over in September. As the partnership's reforms proceed, including plans to try value-added analysis, he has run into skepticism in the hallways.

His first week on the job, he said, "two or three teachers asked me, how long are you guys going to be here?"

Times staff writer Doug Smith also contributed to this report.

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