By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
How are principals doing overall?
In this district, you can ask a principal how he's doing managing his school, and he says, "Well, I've got my site-based management team, which is half teachers and half parents, and I'm doing a lot of politics with them, and I'm trying to get them to agree to implement the things I consider important." Do you understand? A principal doesn't have real authority. And now I'm coming in and saying, "I'm holding you responsible." We need to get back into more balance in the area of shared authority.
That's a major departure from the previous direction of school reform. The LEARN program gave more authority to individual schools, but it was a shared authority in which decisions were made based on input from teachers, parents and others in the community. The principal was considered more of a consensus builder.
My view is we've gone too far on the pendulum. You can't put principals in charge of schools and hold them responsible for performance without giving them authority -- of course, they would need to use it appropriately. There's value in site-based management; there's value in including people in decision-making. But in the end, you need to demand certain levels of performance from a school, and make the principal responsible for meeting those.
The district has adopted Open Court, which is a very teach-by-the-book phonics program in which nearly every minute of instruction is standardized and mandated. For beginning teachers, this kind of program may be very helpful. But isn't it awfully restrictive for experienced teachers? What about that superb teacher who's devised a way of teaching reading that works for him or her but isn't the Open Court way?
You're partly right but not totally right. The Open Court reading program is certainly a very prescribed program. To institute it, we trained 8,000 teachers in three- or five-day programs, and they learned to teach in the prescribed way. You have to remember, we have huge numbers of inexperienced and uncredentialed teachers. And we have many youngsters who are new to English-language learning. So for that reason, a very prescriptive phonics program is helpful. What you're raising, though, is the question of what we should do beyond that. Once you have a basic comprehension of phonics, you certainly need more literature and enrichment. But here is the way it ought to work, the way I hope it's working: Every six weeks, teachers will administer a diagnostic test in Open Court. And that diagnostic test will tell you what's happening. Let's say in a class of 20, you've got 14 kids who are on grade level and you've got six who are just not getting it. You'll look at what it is those six are not getting, and then you begin to bring them back up into the regular curriculum by extra attention and extra effort. At the same time, let's say there are five first-grade teachers in this school; we also need to have those five in a reflective grouping periodically, so that they can share their experiences in the presence of a coach. We have coaches assigned to the schools. The way I'm hoping it will happen is that every week or two these teachers will get together. And they'll take the data, the hard data of their periodic exam, and they'll really examine them. They might discover one teacher is doing a heck of a lot better job on teaching consonant blends than all the rest of them. So they'll ask how she's doing it. They'll observe her in the classroom. And they'll improve as a result of that.
Yes, but with Open Court, isn't there a risk of teacher-proofing the curriculum on both ends? On the one hand, you want to teacher-proof the curriculum from the inexperienced teachers so that the curriculum overrides their inexperience. But you don't necessarily want to teacher-proof the curriculum on the other end, where you have the benefit of experienced teachers who actually know what they're doing.
I have on my desk a file about criticism of Open Court. And I'm sensitive to the questions you raise. This is a program that has some real benefits. It also has some problems. I'm not a reading expert, but my instinct is that a teacher ought to have the flexibility to make a judgment as to whether you keep all the students in one pattern in the room, or whether you have them in two patterns. You've got to judge the glitches against the totality of the program. I do think the Open Court program is good. It has really focused us on reading. It has set the time aside to get it done. This is a prescriptive program, yes, but it is well-researched. It works. Now we need to take these specific items that you bring up, and correct them.
Let me explain something about standards. I used to teach people to fly airplanes. There are certain things you have to know to be able to fly a plane. Some people will need 36 hours of instruction to learn enough to get their licenses; others will take 46 hours. What is fixed is what you need to know how to do. What's variable is how long it takes you to get there. For the last hundred years, public education has reversed that: What's fixed is how long you sit in the seat. What's variable is what you learn. We're reversing that. What's fixed is what you've got to know.