Herding Cats

LAUSD's literacy czar's teaching teachers how to teach reading, and kids are responding marvelously.

It’s been such a down year for Americans, hit by massive tragedy and by a slumping economy, that I feel it’s important to thank some people who have nudged — nay, catapulted — things forward in a way that could profoundly affect our world.

If you’ve ever wondered why I spend so much time examining the Los Angeles Unified School District, the answer is that our 700 schools in L.A. educate one of every eight children in California. As goes L.A. Unified, so goes California. And, although it is horrible to contemplate, California’s public-school education ideas, many born right here in L.A., are then copied by other states at a rate that is exasperating.

Whole language, “bilingual” education, dumbed-down math, child-directed learning, child-centered learning, the “self-esteem” movement and invented spelling are all experimental and damaging fads that became the core approach in Los Angeles and California, and eventually many other states.

California’s negative influence is well understood by the indefatigable Ron Unz, who spends a lot of time pleading with educators and voters in Colorado, Massachusetts and other states that have doggedly copied California’s Spanish-only “bilingual” education programs.

Unz was chief architect of Proposition 227, the English-immersion law in California. He patiently explains to education leaders in copycat states that California realized “bilingual” education was crippling immigrant children’s chances for success as adults by withholding English reading and writing in the crucial first years of grade school. Like a chorus of trained parrots, education leaders in these other states have called Unz racist, bigoted, and blah, blah, blah.

Now something amazing is happening in L.A. Unified and in the school districts of a handful of other California cities, and this time I am praying we are copied by the copycat states.

Superintendent Roy Romer and his chief literacy and reading czar, Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Ronni Ephraim, are turning the grade schools around. Dozens of schools are enjoying big, fat, double-digit leaps in reading, math and language test scores — the first really good news in the 10 years I have covered Southern California public-education issues.

Everybody knows why, too. Thousands of local teachers have been shown how to actually teach reading to small children.

Ephraim says she “wasn’t really surprised, because we were counting on these test-score results.

“You have to give credit to the teachers,” she says. “Even though they were reluctant at first, they did what we asked. I would walk into classrooms and see teachers teaching well-planned lessons and giving the students the instructions that needed to be given. I was pleasantly pleased, if I can use that phrase.”

Before I explain how Ephraim and others figured out how to herd cats, a bit of background: Training teachers how to teach reading is something that our overly theoretical, highly politicized, left-oriented and arrogant teaching colleges have failed to do for years (yes, I mean you, UCLA, USC, Cal State Northridge, Cal State Long Beach, Cal State Riverside, et al.). Pop into any one of them today, and you will still hear whole-language theory taught like a religion.

In part to undo this damage, L.A. uses Opencourt, a step-by-step curriculum that teachers follow each day. Opencourt has no script but does use rigorous phonics, frequent repetition and (horrors!) memorization, blended with fun activities and great storybooks. Kids love it.

Opponents tried hard to stop Opencourt by attacking it as a “one-size-fits-all” curriculum. Actually, Opencourt leaves plenty of time for fun and teacher creativity. Yet it also acknowledges what the top research shows, including longitudinal studies from the National Institutes of Health, which prove that the vast majority of children learn to read written language in exactly the same way, with the same brain process and using the same sequence of skills.

Now the research is finally getting to classrooms, where kids are soaring with Opencourt. But Ephraim’s job is to get even greater results. She must do so, because grade schools in L.A. are so bad that many who showed double-digit improvements are still well below the 35th percentile (meaning that 65 percent of America’s schools do better).

Ephraim hopes to get a lot more kids reading at normal levels by expanding Opencourt into grades three through five and by connecting the district’s Saturday and after-school intervention classes to what the children are actually struggling with during the normal school day. “If you see a student’s test-score data and they are struggling with fluency, you don’t send them to Saturday school to relearn their letters, because that is not their problem,” she says.

My, how very rational the district is sounding these days.

Ephraim’s very existence is still a shock to me. I am used to highly politicized left-of-center education “reformers” who oppose standardized testing and insist California’s badly drifting teachers are teaching “things that cannot be tested for.” Their worst crime, as lefties, is their heavy reliance on badly flawed “studies” to justify their fight against raising the bar for minorities. Such educators heavily influence minority parents, who show up at school board meetings to demand that their children not have to take such difficult classes. It’s damn sad.

Ephraim seems wondrously free of these unfortunate political views. “There’s nothing like a test score to change a parent’s mind, when they see their own child in the 50th or 60th or 70th percentile of all children,” Ephraim says. “Parents are saying to us, “Oh, this really does work!'”

In which alternate universe did Roy Romer mine such a gem? I asked Stephanie Brady, director of communications and media relations for L.A. Unified. “Ronni was right there all the time,” says Brady. “She was working as a principal at Limerick Avenue School, and before that was a teacher.”

But it was later, when Ephraim worked under former superintendent Ruben Zacarias, that she began on her current path. Two years ago, the new, reform-minded L.A. Unified School Board approved a pilot program to reform reading, including testing out Opencourt at several schools. Ephraim was familiar with Opencourt, so she fielded all the questions about it, and had to learn fast.

That’s when Ephraim met two of my heroes, reading expert Alice Furry of Sacramento, probably the most influential educator in California today, and Marion Joseph, the endearing/imposing member of the California Board of Education whose name is becoming synonymous with improving student achievement.

The gracious and easygoing Ephraim would never describe it this way, but Furry and Joseph radicalized her. Joseph calls Ephraim “a godsend for the city of Los Angeles.” Ephraim is a strong believer today in testing children, including a mini-assessment after just six weeks of school — but not so that teachers will “teach to the test,” as critics charge.

“The real important reason we do this is to provide the teachers data about themselves. If all the kids did poorly in spelling, that teacher needs to read the data and reflect on, hmmm, am I really using all the sound/spelling cards in Opencourt? And if the data show a colleague teaching the same grade has done really well, maybe a coach should take over their class so they can go watch their colleague in the classroom.”

Ephraim and Romer will probably throw up their hands, because I am about to ask them to do something even harder than to create a solid academic system, which they appear to be doing.

Los Angeles needs to export what is working here to the rest of California and to other states. We need to pay back a debt we created when we exported our unproven fads all over this nation and robbed an immeasurable number of children of the ability to fluently read, write and compute.

I recently attended a mid-career program for education writers in Seattle. It was led by some Washington-state education experts, all self-identified liberal Democrats, who told us journalists that “the skills-based pendulum has swung too far toward repetition and memorization” and that “studies show that children who do well in traditional math cannot translate those skills to real life,” and that “Republicans say the schools are worse off than they were 30 years ago, and that’s been shown not to be true.”

Watching other journalists nod their heads in agreement with this unsupportable drivel made me realize that Romer needs to get on the horn with superintendents in other states before the media help put the kibosh on academic reform nationwide.

I was telling Ephraim my little theory about all this when she politely interrupted. Actually, she said, “The other states are calling us. [Chicago] Mayor Richard M. Daley’s office called me, and officials from Detroit are coming to see us. Even Oakland is calling, because they have Opencourt but don’t know how we got such huge reading gains.”

The difference in Los Angeles has been close attention to retraining more than 6,000 teachers, a bill paid by California taxpayers. In addition, the trainers themselves are getting coaching, using a grant from computer billionaire David Packard.

Ephraim, of course, is not focused on the world outside Los Angeles. She is doing what she should be doing, spending long hours trying to change L.A. and keep it changed.

She marvels that her boss, Romer, “keeps reading and teaching reform at the forefront of the million things on his mind.” And she has something to say about long-disdained local school bureaucrats that I am pretty sure I have never heard before.

“Working with the people in our 11 [mini-districts] has made the work joyous for me because they are so committed,” she says. “And of course, the test scores make me really joyous.”

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