Reforming public education at LAUSD or throughout the United States is really not that difficult. While there are heated arguments for and against charter schools, small learning communities, magnet schools, teacher competency, student deficits, and parent involvement, the clear answer without minimizing the difficulty of the task involved is that its not rocket science to give students an excellent public education. As Charles Kerchner points out in his book Learning From L.A. - Institutional Change in American Public Education, there was a clear path to academic excellence pointed out on many occasions during the long history of LAUSD that he discusses. So why didn't it work?
At the beginning of his book, Professor Kerchner talks about the awareness in the mid-1980s that "substantive change was necessary" to address the needs of "disadvantaged children." It was also clear to all reformers, witnessed by the similarity of the plans they proposed, that "the District's failure to educate ... created a crisis." Virtually all these plans proposed the following four pronged approach: decentralization, standards, choice, and grassroots participation. So why didn't it work?
Three factors stand out in my mind that continue to contribute most profoundly to the premeditated thwarting of any meaningful reform of LAUSD:
1. The intelligent and well thought out foundational principles of those who proposed these reforms unrealistically projected their own education and experience onto the much referred to education stakeholders -- parents, teachers, and administrators taking as a given that they possessed the higher levels of thinking described in Bloom's Taxonomy necessary to understand and more importantly implement these reform ideas without being manipulated into just making vacuous slogans out of them.
2. Successful implementation of reform required the politically difficult honest recognition that one could not just overlay a conceptually functional system onto one that was populated with dysfunction within the student, teacher, administrator, political, and business interested who made up LAUSD. Like cleaning out an infection in order to allow a wound to heal, any reform approach had to be willing to deal with the difficult reality of uncompromisingly holding all public education stakeholders to a contract with swift, rational, and clear consequences that ensued for the permissive waste and failure that was and still is endemic to LAUSD.
3. While progressive reform of any system is difficult even if the majority of people want it, maintaining the status quo of any system is much easier, because it doesn't ask people to think and change and, most importantly, it already has a party line which those who support it can use to balance out and thwart change by co-opting the rhetoric of reform to ultimately look, smell, and taste like the failed status quo.
In applying these ideas to the four factors that most reformers agree would bring about positive change, one easily sees why LEARN (Los Angeles Alliance for Restructuring Now) et. seq. continue to fail:
1. "LEARN was considered a threat to the administration" of LAUSD because it clearly was designed to compete for power with the District. It wasn't that LAUSD "never could deliver the budgetary flexibility" that was called for under LEARN. Rather, it was clear to LAUSD leadership that to do so was to undermine their own power and privilege. So, LAUSD developed the costly skeletal structure that was supposed to service a decentralized public school model, but in so doing consumed the financial dividend that LEARN had anticipated by better and more cost efficient local school oversight. One of the best examples of this decimating of assets: the building of eight mini-districts with the eight-fold multiplication of an already top heavy administration at all levels of LAUSD. Suddenly, the behemoth structure put in place to "facilitate" small accountable and locally controlled schools made LAUSD even more unwieldy and unaccountable than it had been before which only increase the District's decline.
2. Another project that keyed off LEARN was LAAMP (Los Angele Annenberg Metropolitan Project), while one of its goals was to "nudge the agenda toward more parental involvement," it failed to take into account that being a parent, especially an LAUSD parent did not give you the education, knowledge, and sophistication necessary not to be manipulated by the old guard at LAUSD administration. As I have mentioned before on this site, having children at 14 or turning 18 might change your status personally or under the law, but it is not by any means a guarantee of having the ability to deal with the sharks that inhabit LAUSD with a clear common interest of protecting their personal perks that is antithetical to the interests of children going to LAUSD schools. LAUSD had always been first and foremost about jobs and fat contracts that state ADA pays for irrespective of how or whether the students actually get educated. So all that LAUSD loyal administrative party members did was co-opt the language of reform by constantly repeating the idea of teaching to grade-level standards. The only problem was that teaching to grade-level standards logically presupposed that the students had mastered the previous grade-level standards which was not only not the case, but was actively thwarted by the LAUSD policy of social promotion that continues to this day.
3. Since any reform regime requires a very detailed and well thought out plan of implementation, choice although offering some success for raising levels at LAUSD was sabotaged at the District level by edspeak platitudes that proposed alternative models of public education without the specificity to assure that they would work or could not easily be sabotaged. The beauty of what LAUSD called "Choice" was that it gave the appearance of reform while undermining the leadership of any reform movement. Parents who had the education and skill to do something as simple as filling out the forms necessary to apply for a charter, magnet, or other reform program were necessary to spearheading any real reform on behalf of the majority of LAUSD students and parents who did not. Once these parents were given a non-regular LAUSD school option, the wind was taken out of the sails of reforming LAUSD. Something as basic as knowing how to fill out a form or requiring a the enforcement of a behavior code and school work ethic are still being used to call reform school models elitist.
Charters schools, while conceptually independent public schools that offered school based management, independent financing from the state, and accountability were easy for LAUSD to undermine. All charters needed an LEA oversight entity to approve their charter and monitor that they were living up to the charter they had submitted. With very few exceptions, LAUSD and other school districts that have ever incentive to see charters fail or at the very least poorly perform were that exclusive oversight with the ability to annul a schools charter -- the fox guarding the chicken coop.
Charter law required that each charter had to be part of a SELPA (insurance for special needs students) to provide the potentially exorbitant costs that special needs children might cost any school and bankrupt it. There are few school districts that have the size to function as their own SELPA, but LAUSD was one. If you wanted LAUSD to let you into their SELPA, you had to do what they asked, which often required that you make a side deal with them to agree to pay your own special education costs except in the most extreme of circumstances.
Even if charter law clearly says that students and parents who violate their charter commitment are a "must place" for the district, in practice charters like Accelerated Charter are actually forced to take difficult students from LAUSD, if they want to stay in the District's good graces, when they have thousands on their own waiting list willing to abide by the schools charter. This contradictory reality of charters assures that charters success will not embarrass LAUSD to their achievement with students the District fails with as a matter of course.
4. Grassroots participation works if the parents and teachers participating in reform have the education and sophistication -- social capital -- that is anticipated by all reform models to create local oversight. As already stated, the parents in a district that is 73% Latino with as much as 1/3 being illegal in the United States do not themselves possess enough of an education to be an effective counter balance to LAUSD's entrenched bureaucracy. In a culture that is either frightened of government authority or naturally defers to it, principals pact their LEARN councils or new Pilot Schools councils with parents who rubber stamp the proposals of the LAUSD administration.
Teachers have watched the reform process throughout their career and by and large have never bought into any reform. Most of my colleagues know everything I know and more, but for the most part repeat the litany, "Oh, you'll never change LAUSD" or as my principal once said, "The students come and go, this is about our jobs." Until those in power at the state and federal level are willing to balance the disingenuous edspeak rhetoric with reasonable and measured consequences, nothing will change. Ironic, that is exactly what is needed to turn around student achievement as well.