The media frenzy over the Los Angeles Unified School District seems destined to go the way of most media frenzies. That is, it will obscure the biggest story of all.
This story of stories–if it went Hollywood–would be titled The Third Floor. It would be a tale of a powerful group of creepy adults who, behind closed doors, control what happens to children in Los Angeles. The story line would parallel the movie Soylent Green, in which a futuristic society subsists on a supposedly wholesome green food product, only to discover that the authorities are using the ground-up bodies of people who were euthanized .
In our version, the authorities would claim to be teaching the city’s children to read, but in fact would be lining the pockets of their friends with contracts, playing nasty tricks on their political enemies, and churning out a society of functionally illiterate kids.
Pardon my impertinence, but this is a much bigger story than the ones that have fed the media frenzy over L.A. Unified. The media has focused on juicy developments such as last week’s forced retirement of timid Superintendent Ruben Zacarias, the ascendance of interim superintendent and supposed reformer Ramon C. Cortines, the fate of the methane gas-plagued $200 million Belmont High, Cortines’ plan to carve LAUSD into 11 semiautonomous “minidistricts,” the national search for a permanent superintendent, the disastrous $30 million blown on the abandoned site of South Gate High, and the need to build 100 new schools in L.A. using the gut-wrenching power of imminent domain.
Every story I have just cited is huge news. Huge! These are front-page stories in the Daily News and the Los Angeles Times and are being heavily covered by the top TV political reporters, including my friends Linda Breakstone at Channel 2 and John Schwada at Channel 11.
In fact, these stories are so big that they have sent California’s Democratic Party-controlled Legislature into a positive tizzy. In Sacramento, ideas to break up the scandal-plagued district of 710,000 children into smaller districts abound, which somebody then might be able to fix.
But none of these historic struggles is the big story for anybody with their eye on the true prize: raising test scores and actually teaching children.
It doesn’t matter whether Cortines spends the next few months creating 11 minidistricts, or whether 100 new schools finally get built. It doesn’t even matter if toxin-plagued Belmont is built or abandoned. It really, truly doesn’t. The Third Floor is all that matters.
The Third Floor is a real place. It is inside the aging district headquarters on North Grand Avenue, a complex on a small hill between Chinatown and the Hollywood Freeway downtown. It is occupied by the infamous and intractable Department of Instruction and Curriculum, which is famous for hiring people who fanatically enforce Third Floor fads. School-based employees (such as principals and bilingual coordinators) who are the most successful at force-feeding teachers and students become bosses in the department.
Suffice it to say that the Department of Instruction and Curriculum is what’s made L.A. Mummified so frightful.
Whole language. “Bilingual” education. Fuzzy math (as in don’t worry about learning to multiply). For more than a decade, these three disastrous fads have been the cornerstones of the Department of Instruction and Curriculum. No matter how low test scores plunge, the department sings its own praises. It is a backward subculture of self-protecting adults, whose work is more akin to that of a secretive religious organization than a department pledged to help teachers impart knowledge in the city’s 23,000 public classrooms.
Teacher retraining and instructional reform are the stories behind how to raise test scores and reform the city’s horrific school district culture. In Chicago, Texas, and other areas that are now undergoing true and measurable school reform, teacher retraining and curriculum reform have been at the heart of the changes. Both Chicago and Texas are documenting historic jumps in children’s skills, test scores, and academic success.
Yet here in L.A., the Third Floor reigns. It is overseen by Deputy Superintendent Liliam Castillo, a longtime promoter of bilingual education and whole language who today gives lip service to phonics and English immersion, even as her staff of 50-plus schemers quietly cook up various plans to resist and shoot down such reforms. I would start this week by firing Castillo and the powerful dunderheads beneath her, who last year got caught ordering a ban on the teaching of phonics and other skills to Latino kids–but were never punished by the weak-kneed Zacarias. In addition, pink slips should go out to zoned-out Instruction and Curriculum honcho Carmen Schroeder, her manipulative sidekick, Toni Marsnik, and the clueless Geri Herrera, among others.
Thanks to the department’s obstinate obsession with whole language, the vast majority of younger teachers in Los Angeles do not know how to teach grade-schoolers to read. Because the department has forced fuzzy math on the schools (if your kid is taking Mathland, you ought to sue), few teachers are left who know how to teach such basics as junior high algebra. Moreover, the politically correct Department of Instruction and Curriculum has helped produce thousands of teachers who are afraid to control their own classrooms.
Today, the district’s embarrassing test scores reveal that about 400,000 perfectly normal children in Los Angeles cannot read, compute, write, or understand history or science–except at pathetically rudimentary levels. Those test scores will not change, no matter how many new schools Chief Operating Officer Howard Miller helps the district build, and no matter how many minidistricts acting Superintendent Ramon Cortines creates.
Only by upending the Third Floor will reform of classroom instruction finally take place.
Yet I despair while reading the daily newspapers these days, because I have been waiting for months for our great school leaders to unmask the disaster that is the Third Floor. Where is the outrage from the reformers on the L.A. School Board–Genethia Hayes, Caprice Young, Mike Lansing, Valerie Fields, and David Tokofsky? Why haven’t Cortines and Miller announced top-down reform of the Department of Instruction and Curriculum?
Last Thursday, the media ignored a huge story that involves the Third Floor, which just goes to prove my point. It was a presentation made to the school board’s powerful Curriculum Committee by school board member Mike Lansing, a longtime math teacher and administrator in private schools. Lansing knows what works inside the classroom. He wants to sweep “fuzzy math” out of elementary schools in L.A. and bring back a rigorous, traditional math program based on adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing. Lansing’s reforms would use math specialists to teach all grade-schoolers. Today, Lansing notes, grade schools are dominated by perplexed “non-math” teachers who “often cannot even pass the simple math test on the CBEST (teacher’s) exam” and who are steeped in the antiskills philosophy of the Third Floor.
“Kids who can memorize how to get to the 12th level in a video game can memorize eight times eight,” Lansing argues. “We have got to bring back the multiplication tables and all the other basic skills we have been withholding from these children.”
In his presentation last week, Lansing urged the district to hire permanent math coaches for junior highs (for the teachers) and buy rigorous math textbooks. In high school, Lansing says students who are up to speed in math “should be pushed toward traditional math. There is a huge war over fuzzy math, but it is obvious that the children who have good math skills need to stay on the path of traditional and more rigorous path.”
As a compromise to the fuzzy-math fanatics, children who lag in math by the time they hit high school should be moved into fuzzy math (which is far easier), Lansing says. Whether you agree with the details of Lansing’s plan or not, the truth is that this is big news. If the Third Floor is not upended and if new leaders are not hired to bring back traditional math, phonics, and other known methods for reforming classroom instruction, forget all the rest.
“We have to retrain our teachers in reading and math; everything else is way behind in importance,” says Lansing. “The search for a superintendent, the South Gate debacle, the minidistricts, yada, yada, yada. You get slapped so many times, you get reactive to that stuff. But it isn’t the problem. The classroom is the problem.”
I wish Lansing and the rest of the school board would turn to David Tokofsky for wisdom about the Third Floor. A former star teacher now in his second term on the board, Tokofsky could be the board’s Yoda. Unlike the newcomers elected last June, he understands the crucial role of Third Floor officials in the district’s downward spiral and their vicious fight for their own survival.
“Cortines has not declared to anyone that one of his first duties is to nuke the Third Floor,” says Tokofsky. “He isn’t dealing with the virtual cult that’s running instruction at district headquarters.”
If somebody doesn’t wise up, and I mean now, Los Angeles will end up with a strange new disaster on its hands. The city will have its 100 new schools and its 11 new minidistricts and its nationally vaunted new superintendent and its plethora of new reading books, but if it doesn’t scour the Third Floor right down to the tiles, test scores won’t move up an iota.