By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
All this costly brainpower didn’t stop Brewer’s in-house district PR staff from making their boss look foolish a few weeks ago when they published — apparently with Brewer’s go-ahead — an awkward one-year-anniversary pamphlet featuring the superintendent’s “highlights and accomplishments” for 2007. By giving Brewer’s first 12 months the theme “Year of Listening and Learning,” however, they clearly opened him to ridicule. (Just as awkward, 2008 is deemed: “Year of Action, Leadership and Accountability.”)
“It’s a very transparent way to confront criticism of the superintendent,” Schmidt says disapprovingly. Board president Garcia also was “not pleased with the wording.”
Beyond his motivational speeches, self-advertisements and adventures in politics, critics believe Brewer has not spent nearly enough time in the classroom. “He’s not aware of what’s really going on,” says high school teacher Doug Lasken, a 24-year veteran.
Lasken, for example, says the district’s new high school and middle school English-literacy program is actually a “throwback” to the dismal 1990s, when grammar, spelling and writing skills took “a back seat.”
“It’s a safe, feel-good approach,” says Lasken, that emphasizes things “like learning how to read manuals. Its goal is to create good self-esteem.” But, he warns those promoting it, “there’s really no way around the hard part of learning how to read and write.” For that reason, he says, “The teachers are totally against it. I’ve never seen teachers this angry before.”
Lasken wonders if Brewer knows what is contained in the dumbed-down literacy program. “I don’t see his name associated with the secondary literacy program,” the teacher says. “He’s a very hands-off guy. I guess he’s into motivational theory, but he doesn’t really seem interested in the nuts and bolts of reading instruction.”
Secondary school teachers, he says, are being told to devote 60 percent of classroom time to the program and just 40 percent to state-approved English textbooks, which “are much more rigorous in their coursework.” According to Lasken, many teachers are flatly refusing to follow this directive.
Brewer also seems to have made little headway in the other key subject where L.A. high school and middle school students fail in large numbers: math. “The numbers don’t look pretty,” says UCLA School of Education professor John Rogers, who recently released UCLA’s annual Educational Opportunity Report. While 80 percent of California’s class of 2006 passed the math section of the high school exit exam, 74 percent of students in Valley schools passed, and a much worse 64 percent passed in L.A.’s citywide schools. Districtwide, only about 9 percent of the class of 2006 were enrolled in college-prep Advanced Placement math during their senior year.
Rogers says the district lacks credentialed math teachers coming out of state colleges. Instead, undertrained teachers — some of whom don’t know math well — are given the district’s confusing “pacing” system of instruction, which moves students through textbooks by skipping to and from various sections of different chapters. “It’s an incoherent plan,” blasts L.A. Unified high school math teacher Richard Wagoner. It renders carefully designed support materials meant to back up each chapter “useless — and kids don’t get a good feel for the textbooks.”
Martha Schwartz, a math consultant who regularly serves on the state’s Instructional Materials Advisory Panel for Mathematics, says, “The district keeps revising the pacing system year after year.” That’s a big mistake because “with math, you have to build from one piece to the next. That may be why they keep having to do it over.”
David Klein, co-founder of the advocacy group Mathematically Correct and a math professor at Cal State Northridge who teaches the subject to future teachers, advocates more rigorous, straightforward instruction. He says LAUSD administrators reward sexy-sounding math “innovation” — whether it works or not — far more than they reward actual “effectiveness.” He blames the inner politics of the district, where “the least knowledgeable [educators] in math are elevated.”
Brewer, according to Wagoner, has been silent on the math debate. “I don’t know what he knows,” says the teacher. “I feel bad for him. I think he took the job without realizing what it was about. He could easily say, ‘This plan isn’t working,’ and dump the whole thing.”
Harvard professor Elmore sees the potential for an academic free-for-all in which the district’s 660-plus principals, eight local superintendents and scores of other administrators push a mishmash of highly localized approaches, whether their pet ideas result in students learning the subject matter or not.
“If you don’t have the presence of the superintendent,” Elmore says of the world of public education, “then people consider everything as optional.”
Reaching the children: Brewer walks among L.A. Unified students, whoseeducation should be the bottom-line focus for the superintendent. (Photo by Ted Soqui)
Brewer was once againspeechmaking on November 15, standing behind a podium at 8:30 a.m., facing a room full of civic and business leaders at the Omni Los Angeles Hotel. He was guest speaker for the city’s ultimate power breakfast, Town Hall Los Angeles, touting his High Priority Schools plan as well as an “innovative” breakthrough idea — to lure dropouts back to school via text messaging. He didn’t get into the specifics of how to find these disaffected kids’ phone numbers — or what kinds of mind-jarring messages would suddenly make them want to learn algebra. But he was overjoyed with the idea.