There’s been a disturbance in the force, a dark ripple that has sickened the hearts of talented master teachers at the city’s 660 schools, left City Hall’s most optimistic education reformers in a foul mood, and sent despair through the Sacramento offices of the State Board of Education.
The cause of this shared civic grief was the almost unbelievable announcement by Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Roy Romer that he has selected an unsuccessful and unaware “educrat” named Maria Ott to be his reform czar.
Barring a sudden miracle awakening of Romer from his catatonic stupor by napping members of the elected School Board, Ott will become the all-important Superintendent of Instruction on July 27.
Ott will be paid the staggering salary of $170,000 to oversee the largest attempted turnaround of a school district in the history of the Western United States. Yet she has spent the last seven years running the tiny Little Lake City School District of just 5,500 children, and doing only a barely passable job. Even more distressing, Ott is an honorary member of L.A. Mummified’s Third Floor — the downtown headquarters of hundreds of incompetent district bureaucrats who still blindly worship the discredited fads of whole language and bilingual education.
“It didn’t look good from the beginning, with the school board picking Romer,” said Douglas Carnine, a respected public education researcher at the University of Oregon. “It’s just really, really sad news. If only it weren’t so many kids.”
In the offices of the reform-bent State Board of Education, one top official lamented, “We knew something bad like Ott was coming the moment they picked Romer. We cried.”
Ott, like so many of the people Romer is hurriedly elevating to lavishly paid jobs as “reformers,” was a mediocre principal during her years with L.A. Mummified. She was principal during the late 1980s and early 1990s of Hart and Sheridan elementary schools, and proved incapable of turning either school around.
She was, and still is, a vociferous backer of the Spanish-only “bilingual education” that gripped — and still grips — heavily Latino schools in L.A. She argued, like her Third Floor brethren in LAUSD’s fanatical Language Acquisition Branch, that the children of immigrants would flourish academically if taught in the language of their parents and denied English for several years.
But instead, as we now so painfully understand, the children who were “educated” in Spanish not only broadly failed in Spanish, but were rendered illiterate in English — and that disaster led to the passage of Proposition 227.
Tellingly, at the two grade schools where Ott laid her theories on the backs of Latino children, the reading, math, and language test scores rarely rose above the 40th percentile on a simplistic Spanish test known as Aprenda, and often sank to the 30th and 20th percentiles.
But Ott was unaffected by her legacy, leaving Hart and Sheridan near the bottom of the barrel in 1993 to run her own miniature district in Santa Fe Springs. Ott’s district has just nine schools, but no high school. Its students are 78 percent Latino and working class. No serious reformer would emulate this small band of schools, which gets highly mixed results on the Stanford 9 test despite free spending by Ott — on the wrong things.
Ott is a slick operator, pulling in grants from such ineffectual groups as the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project, which sees itself as a reform body but is, in fact, nothing more than a costly music man peddling nonsense to the townsfolk.
The money never helps. Yet Ott finds her way onto “advisory groups” for the puffed-up buffoons who run our misguided teacher colleges — including the ones at USC and Loyola Marymount — which both still revel in the failed fadista theories of whole language, “bilingual” education, and whatever else the music man is peddling.
So how has Ott done running the postage-stamp-sized Little Lake City School District? For starters, the district has been embroiled in a dispute over teachers’ wages for the past two years. Since March, fed up Santa Fe Springs teachers have picketed and protested during school board meetings overseen by Ott and an elected school board.
The dispute was finally settled recently, after teachers bitterly complained of low wages, plummeting teacher morale, and the flight of young teachers to other districts.
Now Ott is moving from a district with the population of a single Los Angeles high school to a district of 710,000 children mired in the exact kind of foolish antiacademics that Ott has long embraced.
When I heard the news about Ott, I wanted desperately to talk to some of the elected members of the school board, who were swept into office last year by fed up Los Angeles voters. I keep assuming that the school board understands that the reform of classroom instruction is the answer to fixing the schools — as the Inglewood School District is so deftly proving with its skyrocketing academic scores amid poverty and entrenched social ills.
David Tokofsky was the only one willing to talk. He was incredulous that Romer did not pick a proven reform czar from one of the 10 or 20 most-improved districts in California. “What the hell are we doing?” he said over his cellular phone. “The board just isn’t focused on curriculum. Board members , I don’t think, are understanding that this is about teaching and how it needs to be fixed. Romer’s choice is like having former district bilingual czar Forrest Ross back in charge.”
(I would like to humbly suggest that Mr. Romer read my stories and columns on the nature of the problem inside L.A. Mummified. Last November, my cover story, headlined “Emporer of Ignorance,” explained the shell game known as bilingual education and the ongoing movement inside L.A. Mummified to ignore the law and continue withholding English from Mexican children. The previous year, my cover story, titled “Krashen Burn,” profiled the single worst fadmonger in California, USC’s insidious Professor Steve Krashen, who has never taught small children in his life yet has had a bizarre Pied Piper-like hold over bureaucrats who insist that whole language works but that teachers just don’t “understand” it. Ott is a hard-core devotee of both Krashen and “bilingual” education. And, finally, Mr. Romer really ought to read my column from 18 months ago thrashing the goofy Delaine Eastin and her even nuttier aide, Judy Codding, whose half-baked theories ruined the Pasadena schools. Romer, apparently, is actually considering bringing Codding to LAUSD to help him muck things up even more. Please, don’t do it. Wake up, Roy!)
Wayne Bishop, a college math professor who belongs to the inspired educational reform group Mathematically Incorrect, says, “What Romer is doing is so hideously self-defeating. We get the kids here at Cal State L.A., and they are bright people who cannot carry on a conversation at a normal educational level because they graduated from LAUSD.”
Since this is the crucial window in which Romer either does or does not create a team capable of reversing the dumbed-down, feel-good educational practices within L.A. Mummified, the big question right now is, how does Romer pick these people?
According to Tokofsky, Ott’s name was suggested to Romer by outgoing Acting Superintendent Ramon Cortines. But Cortines, sources insist, only suggested Ott as a possible candidate for one of the district’s 11 new minisuperintendent jobs — not for the big duty of Superintendent of Instruction. (Romer royally screwed up the selection of the 11 minisuperintendents, hiring mostly a bunch of butt-protecting insiders. And Dale Vigil, his single vaunted outsider, it turns out, was fired as superintendent of the Santa Rosa School District.)
Apparently, ol’ shoot-from-the-hip Roy decided on a whim that Ott was perfect for the top job. Looks like he did less research into her history than he’d have done on a used car — a lot less.
But there’s still time. This week, Romer could awaken from his stupor and withdraw his job offer to Maria Ott. Or the reformers on the school board could tell Romer that Ott is a nonstarter and insist that he find a true reformer. Or the board could send him packing.
So far, our school board has displayed only occasional flashes of courage in fighting the powerful legacy of the Third Floor. But if they have the moxie to reverse Romer, the children they serve will be eternally grateful.