Weak Links

There's still a big problem at L.A. Unified:

Society has a rather destructive habit of “backward masking” those moments that bring change to the world, and that is certainly one of the biggest problems facing the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Backward masking is defined by psychologists as a distraction that makes one forget the important event preceding the distraction.

Often, backward masking is done to us on purpose. Maddeningly, it often succeeds in making us forget things we want to remember. We end up paying historians and journalists to try to remember for us. In the L.A. schools, most of the people in charge cannot remember what caused most of the bad things or most of the good things, because of all the distractions that come after the true cause. In a continuing effort to do my journalistic duty, I’d like to dwell on the two most important, but already backward-masked, moments that led to last week’s jump in gradeschool test scores in California and Los Angeles.

The news in virtually every media outlet was that public grade-school children, tested statewide in second and fourth grade since 1998, have shown progress over last year, and some schools have seen significant improvement. Sadly, eighth-graders and seniors, who are also tested yearly, have not improved — but that’s a story for another time.

If you fear, as I do, that L.A. could become a place where you can’t bear to live in eight or nine years, the rise in second-grade and fourth-grade scores in three key subjects — reading, mathematics and language arts — is a huge deal.

Maybe L.A. won’t turn into a Third World city-state where street traffic is gridlocked by what I like to call Abandoned Sofa Syndrome, or ASS. And maybe our worship of “multiculturalism” won’t finally devolve into its ultimate manifestation, “multiracism.”

But there’s just one way to ensure the latter, and that is to figure out how to fix public classrooms so that children are educated enough to attend college if they wish and educated enough to find work if they do not.

Right now, we have rising test scores, yet the backward-maskers are busily distracting everybody from figuring out how we got here.

It was nice of Superintendent Roy Romer to attribute the improving academics to “a new focus on reading instruction,” as well as “teacher training” and “our full-court press…to improve instruction.”

Might I offer less distraction and more reality?

The truth is that Romer has not had any real effect yet. His key edicts have only been in place for about half a school year. Because of this, Romer’s reforms cannot possibly be the explanation for the significant jump in math and reading scores at many grade schools citywide.

Let me explain: First, the math books that were adopted by the Los Angeles Board of Education under Romer this spring, in an attempt to bring kids up to tough new statewide math standards, will not arrive in most classrooms until this fall. Some schools started getting them in July.Sadly, Romer has made certain that no children will get the best math book of all, Saxon Math. Romer buckled to anti-reformists who hate Saxon, an amazing textbook whose late creator, John Saxon, delighted in showing the world how bad the “new math” and “fuzzy math” crowd was at teaching the subject.

Luckily, two math books are arriving that appear to be big improvements over the district’s fuzzy math programs, the worst of which was the Mathland series. But meanwhile, little has changed in years in math teaching in the elementary schools. Second, Romer’s teacher-training efforts in math are thus far reaching only a small percentage of the grade-school teachers. The vast majority of L.A. grade-school teachers don’t like math and are bad at it. Unfortunately, I am getting reports that some of the math-training for teachers is useless. For example, teachers aimed for urban schools are being sent to the so-called Center X training at UCLA. Center X should be teaching these teachers math, period. But Center X is instead teaching the teachers how to use brightly colored blocks, play games and utilize other ” manipulatives” in the classrooms.

Such games are usually techniques for avoiding having to face the pencil and paper that must be used to learn math.

If nothing has changed in the classroom teaching of math, how can math test scores be spiking so high at some schools? For insight, I called George McKenna, the mini-superintendent who left his job largely because he was demanding real change in his troubled South L.A. mini-district and Romer undercut him.

“No real math reform has gotten to the children yet,” he confirms. “It is very likely the math scores are up because the children are learning to read.”

Thank you, Mr. McKenna. The children are being taught to read. And why? Because of Roy Romer and the L.A. school board?

Not exactly. That is what the backward-maskers are saying in order to distract us.

Children are being taught to read because the state board of education, led by heroes like Marion Joseph, forced L.A. to use intensive phonics. L.A. Mummified fought phonics virulently, as well as the tough state reading standards.

The other big reason for the jump in test scores is the switch from ” bilingual education” to English immersion. English immersion was forced upon L.A. Mummified by California voters, even though the district sued and lobbied hard to get out of it.

Outrageously, LAUSD has diverted some 25,000 hapless children into the Spanish-only “bilingual” program using parent-approved “waivers.” But most kids are in English immersion, as voters wanted under Proposition 227.

“Children learning English has been a big help,” McKenna agreed when I asked. Indeed, according to Proposition 227 sponsor Ron Unz, second-graders identified as “English learners” jumped three points in reading and math statewide — twice the gain of kids who already knew English.

So, what should Roy Romer have told the media, instead of gushing over the district’s “teacher training” and “full-court press in instruction”?

He should have said that the scores are up because “the state stepped on our necks on reading standards and finally won,” and because “the district’s battle against phonics failed,” and also because “this district’s strategy to torpedo English immersion is proving to be only marginally effective.”

It was fun to talk to McKenna, probably because he is freer now to speak his mind. Some people might argue that he has an ax to grind, since his departure was the result of a big crisis he had with Romer. But he seemed extremely fair, and was far more magnanimous toward Romer than I have been.

Here’s another insight I got from McKenna: “With all the resources and reforms that are going to elementary schools, if you find schools whose test scores are stuck, you have to look toward the leadership. The principals.”

What he means by “resources and reforms” are methods like Opencourt. Many schools have been using Opencourt reading instruction for a year or more. Opencourt is a highly effective program that uses intensive phonics and popular storybooks and requires that teachers follow highly scripted lesson plans.

Many principals who are failing to show progress have been lavished with resources and help. The ones who have not shown improvement need to be fired.

But since Romer has been queasy about firing anybody, I’d like to help that along by giving him a list of schools to start with.

First, fire principals at schools where 65 percent or more of children scored “below basic” or “far below basic” — meaning essentially they are D and F students in English and language arts, and at schools that generally failed to show the big double-digit improvements in reading or math common citywide. (Of course, don’t fire any new principals who have not had time to turn things around.)

The schools in this sad group are: 49th Street, 66th Street, 92nd Street, 95th Street, 109th Street, 122nd Street, Albion, Bassett, Broadous, Budlong, Burton, Canoga Park, Dena, Elizabeth Learning Center, Esperanza, Graham, Grape, Gratts, Hawaiian, Holmes, Hoover, Magnolia, Main Street, Malabar, Manchester, Menlo, Miramonte, Napa, Nevin, Noble, Pacoima, Park, Parmelee, Ritter, Telfair, Trinity, Wadsworth, Weigand, West Vernon, Western and Woodcrest.

In addition, fire the principals (except for those newly assigned) at troubled schools where test scores barely moved or actually dropped.

Those schools are: 112th Street, 118th Street, 153rd Street, Buchanan, Canterbury, Carthay Center, Compton, Cowan, Delevan, Dyer, El Dorado, Encino, Evergreen, Fair, Ford, Franklin, Gault, Gledhill, Glenfeliz, Hamasaki, Hammel, Herrick, Humphreys, Lankershim, Loreto, Los Angeles, Manhattan, Marianna, Mayberry, Multnomah, Osceola, Rio Vista, San Pascual, Sheridan, Shirley, Vena, Walgrove and Westport Heights.

The reason you will be hearing more and more calls for an end to “all this testing” is because testing is showing us the weak links. In L.A. we have 100 or more of what I have been calling “lemon principals” who have caused much of the ruin in the schools. But we also have a superintendent who either lacks the stomach or is just plain too pigheaded to fire these weak links.

Romer, that ol’ backward-masking seasoned politico, is already in the hot seat. But that perch is going to get even hotter if he doesn’t do what the test scores are screaming for him to do.

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