By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Lenicia B. Weemes Elementary School sits tucked away on a densely populated block of apartment complexes a short walk from the USC campus. As inner-city public schools go, Weemes is not a bad place to be: It boasts better test scores than other local schools with similar demographics, an energetic principal and a host of enthusiastic teachers. But in many of the classrooms here, as at many Los Angeles schools, enthusiasm -- and whatever skills they can pick up in a hurry -- is just about all the teachers have. Nearly a third have no state credentials and little formal training or experience. They, and the children they teach, are part of an enormous social experiment that’s been quietly taking place over the last three years, since the statewide reduction of class size in some grades exacerbated an already urgent need for qualified teachers, particularly in low-income areas. Whether its results will be as damaging as some critics fear won‘t be evident for years, but the winners, no one should be surprised, will almost certainly be affluent, white suburbanites, and the losers the black and brown children who fill the classrooms at high-poverty schools like Weemes.
In a first-grade classroom, its walls covered with posted classroom rules and the letters of the alphabet, Kim Kameoka leads her students in a writing lesson. ”Let’s say it together: ‘eagle,’“ she says. ”Now write ‘eagle.’“ The kids dutifully labor over their e‘s. It’s mid-February, but Kameoka started working as a teacher just four weeks ago. Weemes principal Annette Kessler, standing in the back of the room, explains, ”One teacher left and then another teacher left, so she‘s got a real challenge here.“ The original teacher moved back East in October, and her replacement, like Kameoka new to the job and working on an emergency teaching permit, ”fell apart after a month.“ ”And this kid in the green,“ Kessler says, pointing to a child seated at a desk in a far corner of the room, chewing on the drawstrings of his sweatshirt, ”he’s enough to drive you to drink.“
Kameoka is among the 29 percent of the teachers at Weemes working on emergency permits, temporary teaching licenses issued to teachers who don‘t meet the state’s mandated requirements for the profession, which include a bachelor‘s degree, graduate-level course work in pedagogy, a year of supervised student teaching and the passing of subject-matter exams. (All that’s required for an emergency permit is to have a bachelor‘s degree and to pass a basic literacy test.)
Another 10 percent are similarly unlicensed but are working toward their credentials in district or university-sponsored internship programs. Among them is Jody Feldman, who started at Weemes two weeks after Kameoka. Her second-grade class, Kessler explains, had been taught by a former T.A. ”who came in as an emergency, but he really wanted to be an actor.“ He resigned shortly before Feldman started. Now Feldman, who has never taught before, has to try to catch her kids up without any of the necessary materials. ”They don’t know the clock, they don‘t know money, they can barely write their names,“ she explains. ”We’re starting from scratch.“
The challenges faced by Kameoka and Feldman -- and, more important, by the children they teach -- are not unusual in Los Angeles, or in large urban districts in the rest of the state. Over a quarter of the teachers now working in the L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD) are not fully credentialed. Some have taught before in private schools or in other contexts, but most, like Kameoka and Feldman, are learning on the job, and more will be as the state is forced to hire more than a quarter of a million new teachers to meet an increasingly urgent demand over the next 10 years.
In growing districts with teacher-turnover rates as high as L.A.‘s, the need for qualified educators is nothing new, but it has exploded since 1996, when Pete Wilson signed a bill encouraging schools to shrink first-, second- and third-grade classes to no more than 20 students per teacher, a move which at $1.5 billion per year may be the largest state education reform in history. As a direct but unintended consequence, a major redistribution of educational resources took place: The most qualified teachers were pulled to the richest -- and whitest -- districts, and poor, urban, largely black and Latino districts like LAUSD were left to scrounge for whomever they could find. Today, less than half of the teachers at some schools in L.A.’s poorest neighborhoods are fully credentialed.
How well new teachers educate the next generation of kids will depend largely on how much support and training they receive from the district. Thus far, optimism seems premature.
In 1996, California had the highest average class size in the nation. No one opposed changing that. Teachers were for it, parents were for it, and some limited aresearch suggested that smaller classes would particularly benefit poor and minority students. Early that year, the California Teachers Association (CTA) started a statewide television ad campaign pushing for class-size reduction. And in 1996 the number of uncredentialed teachers for the first time in years, the state ran a budget surplus, a large portion of which, in accordance with Proposition 98, had to be spent on education. Wilson, who still fancied the possibility of his name on a Republican presidential ticket, was looking for something big and flashy. The state‘s per-pupil spending was among the lowest in the country, an embarrassment even to Wilson. But if the governor released funds to school districts to spend at their discretion, they might use them for purposes undesirable to a conservative executive, like raising teacher salaries. Randy Ross, vice president of the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project, puts it bluntly: ”The governor wanted to do his damnedest to keep those bucks out of the pockets of teachers.“ So, in the words of United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) president Day Higuchi, as ”a way for him to lock up money into a single program, Wilson said ’Let‘s give [CTA] what they want in a way they won’t want it.‘“