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By Joseph Tsidulko
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Photo by Debra DiPaoloLAST SPRING, LOS ANGELES VOTERS MADE CLEAR WHAT they wanted from their school board: change. Three incumbent board members were defeated at the polls in favor of candidates running on a reform ticket endorsed by the mayor. And while it's too early to tell if its actions will produce the desired transformation of the massive district, the new board has certainly shaken things up.
In a highly controversial action last fall, board members bought out the contract of Superintendent Ruben Zacarias. They then brought in interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines with a mandate to rethink every aspect of how the schools function.
From the beginning, Cortines has made clear that despite his limited tenure -- he will remain on the job through June -- he plans to act quickly and decisively. Calling the district "dysfunctional," he has moved to completely restructure the massive system, to institute districtwide reading and math programs aimed at improving student performance, and to relieve student overcrowding with an ambitious building program.
As he neared the end of his first month at the helm, Cortines spoke to the Weekly about what he hopes to accomplish.
L.A. WEEKLY: You've been interim superintendent for a little more than a month now. You've made clear that you think the district has some serious problems. How do you prioritize them? What do you fix first?
RAMON CORTINES:After looking at the data, I see what the focus should be. And that's on reading and math. This is especially true at the primary level, where 70 percent of the district's Latino students are scoring below the 20th percentile. For me, that's not literacy. Most urban school districts are trying to buy painkillers and so get caught up in the gimmicks of the year. We have to remain focused on the mission. That's the reason I've been very insistent on a reading program for the children. The reading program, Open Court [a heavily phonics-based system for teaching reading], wasn't picked out of the air. Sacramento has had good results with Open Court. Several of Inglewood's schools have had [good] results.
WEEKLY:This sounds like a real departure from the LEARN model of reform that goes from the bottom up. This seems like a very top-down kind of approach, imposing from above how all the schools will teach reading.
CORTINES:I don't believe one size fits all. I want to celebrate what's working. But the district has allowed schools just to do their thing. I think that because too many of our elementary schools are failing, we have to be benevolently dictatorial. I'm not telling teachers or administrators to throw out what works, but I am asking if they have evidence of improved test scores with what they have been doing. If so, they can fold that into the Open Court process. In other words, I am saying, "This is the reading program, but if you've been a teacher for 20 years and you've had some success with kids, and there is evidence of that, I expect you to use, not discount, the strategies with which you have created that success."
And you're wrong about Open Court. If you were to talk to the union, which is made up of teachers, they would say this is the right thing. I believe it is time that we take what we know from research and from evidence of what works, and say, "Hey, this is what we're going to do." And let me tell you that a new superintendent should not come in here and say, "Okay, but I have my own ideas." Open Court needs to be given a chance of three years at a minimum to make it work. What does that mean? That means ongoing training of teachers.
WEEKLY:You say this isn't top-down. On the other hand, it is getting away from site-based management.
CORTINES:I don't think so. All I'm doing is setting the parameters. How a school carries that out is based on the people there -- teachers and administrators. I'm just saying you have to do it. And I'm saying to the central staff, "You need to provide [the teachers] with the tools that they need to do the job." So don't see this as big daddy telling them what to do.
WEEKLY:And with math -- do you have a program in mind, the way you have Open Court for reading?
CORTINES:I'm not ready yet. I will be in a month. You know, there is a great philosophical divide in this system and this nation between proponents of traditional basic math versus integrated math. If we put as much effort into teaching kids as into arguing ideology, we wouldn't be at the stage we are, because we're at the bottom of the barrel in math, too.
WEEKLY:And where do you come down in the debate?
CORTINES:Let me compare it to reading. I don't think you can enjoy literature if you don't have some basic skills first, if you don't know how to sound out words. It is ã no different with math. I think that you have to master certain math facts. But just rote memorization of facts doesn't help you solve problems, engage in scientific discovery, do collaborative kinds of projects. I want kids to learn the basics so that they can solve problems, so that they can be employable in any kind of job. And that's the kind of program we'll be rolling out. We've been a little too tolerant, I think, having these math meetings and all of these discussions. I can find good in all of it. I say, let's get on with a math program that teaches our kids mathematics.