Get off Your Knees!

Will LAUSD reformers have the guts to fire top bureaucrats and advisors, like Vilma Martinez, who have fought change?

As Los Angeles Unified School District hurtles toward reform on July 1 — when the new superintendent will be named, a dramatic reorganization into 11 “minidistricts” goes into effect, and a massive reeducation of 8,000 reading teachers begins — it would be wonderful if the architects of reform had a weapon other than fervent prayer to fight the troops of antireformists ready to stop them.

I respectfully suggest that interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines, Chief Operating Officer Howard Miller, Chief Reorganization Planner Gordon Wohlers, Lead Counsel Dick Sheehan, and Director of Policy Research and Development Joe Rao abandon what could only be called the Prayer Strategy.

Instead, guys, get off your knees and show us your coj?nes. Call the airlines, buy everybody in the reform team a bunch of tickets, and fly en masse back to Chicago or Houston — urban school districts where serious reform is under way because they had the guts to reject the Prayer Strategy.

Chicago and Houston went with the only approach that seems to work, which I will dub the Adult Behavior Modification strategy. Chicago and Houston chose ABM (notice how this acronym is identical to the one for Anti-Ballistic Missile, which is apropos for what Cortines, Miller, et al. are up against) because they realized that no matter how many schools they built or repaired, no matter how much money teachers were paid, and no matter how many cathartic “reorganizations” they launched, only one reform mattered: Dramatically altering the way teachers impart knowledge to children inside the classroom.

But Cortines, Miller, Wohlers, Sheehan, and Rao are still stuck in the praying stage. They are starting to realize that several thousand teachers need to be retrained from scratch. That’s because only a small percentage of L.A. teachers know how to teach a child to write a grammatical sentence in English, or how to teach a child his or her multiplication tables, vocabulary words, or scientific principles.

It’s not the teachers’ fault, by and large. For 20 years, they have been pressured and cajoled by their teaching colleges and by LAUSD bureaucrats into following every passing fad, from whole language and Spanish-only for immigrant kids, to fuzzy math for all the “dumb” kids they created.

Fed by a powerful, feel-good philosophy in which traditional academics were put on a back burner, teachers were shamed and pressured not to be “a sage on the stage” when imparting information to children. In L.A., children were to “teach themselves,” “learn by doing,” and become “lifelong learners.”

What a tragedy those armchair philosophers created. Today, 40 percent our “lifelong learners” drop out of school, and L.A.’s flailing teachers are so disrespected that they are openly ridiculed by students. Horribly, only 30 percent of eighth-graders can do grade-school multiplication tables.

So please, Cortines and Co., get your butts to Chicago and Houston.

They will show you pretty much what I am advising here today. Under Adult Behavior Modification, here’s how the reform should proceed:

€ All the boneheaded bureaucrats who pressured and cajoled teachers into relying on failed fads must be fired or retrained for lower-level work. Despite the threat of lawsuits, Chicago has fired more than 1,000 benchwarmers from the administrative and teaching staffs who refused or resisted change.

In L.A., this means firing on July 1 or retraining hundreds of powerful school district figures like Liliam Castillo and Carmen Schroeder, the dual queens of whole language and bilingual education. Even well-meaning Assistant Superintendent Judy Burton, who has been awarded a key role in reforming the L.A. Mummified reading program, still has one foot solidly stuck in the feel-good camp and is in need of serious be-havior modification.

If you can’t afford to send Burton and her staff to Chicago or Houston, then require them all to attend elementary school classes at the incredibly successful schools right next door in Inglewood for the next two or three months. It will be far more effective in jump-starting reform than any plan the “Reading Matters Task Force” will produce by talking amongst themselves.

It is crucial to remember that, for years, Burton and her feel-good camp ignored Inglewood’s Kelso and Bennett Kew elementary schools, even as the schools became famous nationally. Only recently, with public outcry over L.A. schools refusing to subside, did the downtown bureaucrats begin to grasp the reforms at Kelso and Bennett Kew, where the mostly minority and low-income students consistently score above the 50th percentile in reading, writing, and math because they are not mired in whole language, bilingual education, or fuzzy math.

By comparison, in L.A. Mummified schools with identical demographics, students are mired below the 20th percentile.

€ Almost every single “bilingual coordinator,” “language acquisition” person, and “English language development” person must be fired or seriously retrained before being allowed near children. Today, these jobs are largely held by true believers sworn to fight Proposition 227 and preserve the old bilingual education fad. As we speak, these employees are leading a pitched battle to make sure tens of thousands of immigrant children are kept out of English-immersion classrooms.

During the behavior modification retraining for these aggressive antireformists, it must be assured that they will not hold back Latino children. This will be tricky.

As I showed in my November cover story, “Emperor of Ignorance,” since the passage of Prop. 227, the bilingual true believers have diverted more than 25,000 children into the old bilingual program through aggressive lobbying of immigrant parents. They are also the architects of a supposed English-immersion program known as Model B, which the L.A. County Grand Jury has found to be an illegal guise for continuing to withhold the teaching of English reading and writing from immigrant students.

€ Even before July 1, fire outside legal counsel Vilma Martinez, of Munger, Tolles & Olson. Martinez is an ardent opponent of English immersion, yet is being paid a huge hourly fee to represent L.A. Mummified in a lawsuit filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The lawsuit aims to hamper English immersion in L.A. schools and preserve the old bilingual program.

Incredibly, Martinez is one of the founders of MALDEF, and she has proved herself incapable of representing the district due to her extreme bias in favor of her former organization. MALDEF has tried to overturn Prop. 227 in the courts, with its leaders hysterically claiming that English immersion will cause widespread failure and suffering among immigrant children. Not only has MALDEF lost every single court case, but the group has been deeply embarrassed by the broad success Latino children are showing in English-immersion programs across California.

Yet, behind closed doors, Martinez is pressing the reformist school board to settle the MALDEF lawsuit, which would turn back the clock and create tremendous hurdles for immigrant children.

€ The entire Los Angeles Systemic Initiative (LASI), which uses federal dollars to persuade and train principals and teachers to use fuzzy math and fuzzy science, must be disbanded and its coordinators, trainers, and staff reassigned to do something useful.

The fuzzy math and fuzzy science bureaucrats should probably be reassigned in jobs involving noncollege prep math in L.A.’s inner-city high schools, where it is already too late to teach real math to the kids, and those enrolled in lower math aren’t bound for college anyway. In this way, the LASI crowd can do all their “hands on” and “children teach themselves” stuff, and they won’t really be causing any new damage to students.

However, the LASI crowd should not be allowed to set foot in grade schools, where they inflict permanent damage by withholding from children the direct training all students need in numbers and arithmetic — the necessary basis for all higher math.

But don’t just read my list of ideas. Call Chicago and Houston. They will tell you how strenuously the antireformists will resist, and how much fuss they will create by claiming that the district’s academic tests “don’t test for what we are teaching our students.” (Well, yes, it would be hard to create a test that could measure such student achievement as a passion for dropping out and a hatred of reading and writing.)

So we return to the question of whether change is truly going to begin on July 1. And, unfortunately, all I can divine thus far is a lot of praying emanating from Cortines, Miller, Wohlers, Sheehan, and Rao.

According to a top source who speaks on a daily basis to members of the school board, “One real concern with the 11 new minidistricts is that we might end up putting antireformists into the curriculum departments at the school level. But we have to do a real balancing act because of the due process problem.”

Let me translate that last part: It all comes down to job protection. Because antireformist employees will sue if they are fired, one of the only ways Cortines or the new superintendent can get rid of them — without risking lawsuits — is to change the employee’s job description enough that they no longer have a job and can be reassigned for the same pay elsewhere. Another way to squeeze out antireformists and incompetents is to alter their job descriptions to include adherence to the new reforms, and if the employee refuses, resists, or subverts reform, then they can be fired. But that can take a year or more.

So, under the prayer-based reform plan, bureaucrats and other employees who oppose reform will actually be in charge of overseeing reform.

The worst example of this will occur in jobs awarded to the district’s “language acquisition,” “English language development,” and “bilingual education” coordinators and bureaucrats. These hundreds upon hundreds of highly politicized employees are the core power group at L.A. Mummified. The vast majority of them cling defensively to both the failed “bilingual” education theories and the failed whole-language theories. Yet many will be sent into the 11 new minidistricts to oversee the curriculum for teaching immigrant children. The damage they wreak could be mind-boggling.

I spoke to Joe Rao, director of policy research and development, who was reluctant to discuss this fascinating problem in detail. However, Rao did confirm that: “Some of those positions will be new hires, and some of those will be ‘rollovers.’ We are working on that right now. But I wouldn’t frame it as if we are looking for people who are anti-English immersion or pro-English immersion. Some of that will be controlled by contractual obligations and the rights employees have to keep these jobs.”

The district’s so-called Implementation Team, headed by Ann Valenzuela, is trying to decide how to rewrite crucial job descriptions. The rewritten descriptions will be used to hire outsiders and, down the line, assess whether existing employees are helping or hindering reform. Unfortunately, nobody with experience in actual school reform is running the Implementation Team. Nobody from Chicago, Houston, or any other reform-minded city is around to give them the coj?nes they need.

So we hurtle toward July 1 with a lot of people working very hard on a number of fronts to launch the first major reform of L.A. schools in 20 years, yet most of it rides on hope, fate, and luck. I guess we can now say there is a second reason for opposing prayer in the schools.

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