The View From the Classroom

Photos by Slobodan Dimitrov

L.A. WEEKLY: The people of Los Angeles seem to have lost faith in their schools. Are the schools really as bad as the people of the city perceive them to be?

MILISSA GLEN-LAMBERT: I think that public schools in general are good schools, with hard-working teachers, with results, with good kids working hard, and I think a lot of the people who criticize public schools don't go to them and don't really see them.

LYNNE SHEFFIELD: I've been teaching at public schools for 10 years, and I've seen and worked with many great teachers who have a lot to offer our students. As a mother I trust the system to work with my girls, who attend my school.

ANA VALENCIA: I think there is a tremendous amount of teacher bashing going on lately. Also, it's very fashionable right now, for some reason, to attack public education instead of trying to make positive changes. People are trying to implement Band-Aid remedies at a very rapid pace. I think we need to stop that.

ALAN KAPLAN: I teach at a high school, and my school is not working. We have both a magnet school and a regular high school, which we call a community school. The average community-school student I encounter is three years below grade level. These are kids who were born in this country. If I have an average class with 30 ninth-graders, and the first day I give them a problem such as "You've received a 30 out of 80 on a test, what's the percentage?" I have no more than five kids who know how to attack that problem. I have very few kids who can write a sentence, who know the mechanics of writing. They're very intelligent -- they understand concepts when they want to. These kids have come from somewhere that's not working well. I'm not blaming the teachers. There's plenty of blame to go around. It's very hard to work with this school district, very hard to work with administrations. But my evaluation is that public education as I see it in Hamilton High School, outside the magnet school, is not working.

SHEFFIELD: I believe that many issues out there are not really the school's problem, but the school and the teachers seem to be expected to solve these problems. When I say that public education is working, I'm thinking of the many excellent teachers out there trying really hard and helping many students. But I do also have middle school students who are at a lower level than my third-grade daughter, which presents a problem. Is it my problem exclusively? I don't think so. It's also the parents. It's poverty. It's the language. We need to have a lot more parent involvement. I believe my daughter succeeds because I'm involved with her education. Teachers can't do it alone, but a lot of parents send their children to school and just expect us to solve all problems. At my school we're lucky to have a health clinic and other social services. We need that in all our schools if we're to be expected to deal with societal problems.

GLEN-LAMBERT: Let me state the obvious: If you want an excellent system, you've got to make teaching a profession where teachers are paid a good, fair salary, a salary that is comparable to what they could make doing something else. You would then have people sticking around longer.

 

Over half of the newly hired teachers are uncredentialed, and 21 percent of all teachers haven't received their teaching credential. How does that affect schools?

SHEFFIELD: It affects schools hugely. I know I don't want my daughter in kindergarten with a new teacher who really doesn't know how to teach. I want the teacher to teach my daughter to read.

LUCIA ARIAS: The problem isn't as much the new teachers as it is that the district isn't giving these new teachers support. They're spending the money on these new minidistricts, on offices, phone machines, faxes, clerical support. But the new teachers are just put in classrooms -- if they have them -- with no support, with nobody to help them or even to show how to fill out paperwork or do the testing.

VALENCIA: I think that one of the main reasons why we have so many new teachers is because of the class-size reduction that Governor Wilson put together. That was done very quickly, without a lot of thought. We have no room oftentimes for these additional classes. We've had to build modular classrooms and bungalows that take up needed playground space. And we have all these new teachers with just a college degree, no credential, stepping up to the plate. I think it takes a lot of courage to do that, and I'm not knocking them at all. But the whole thing was not well thought out in advance. CONTINUED ON PAGE 24

KAPLAN: New teachers aren't just thrown into a school: They're thrown into a district culture. It's a culture of arrogance, it's a culture of denial, and it's a culture of incompetence at the district level. I know stories at my school where the new teachers are fighting for books because we experienced teachers are hoarding them. We're hoarding them because the school district has been run by superintendents -- and I don't mean the current one -- who come out in the paper saying things like "I wasn't aware there was a textbook shortage." Now, this is what you're throwing new teachers into. It's dog-eat-dog.

GLEN-LAMBERT: I appreciate that that's what your school is like, but at my school it's very much the opposite. My school has more experienced than inexperienced teachers. We try to pull new teachers in. We try to help them, especially in the beginning. We work together. We give them the materials they need.

SHEFFIELD: But often, I do think we're throwing these new teachers to the wolves. We're throwing them in the worst places they could possibly be, where there are already serious problems. They're out there on their own, in classrooms by themselves, at poorly functioning schools where most of the other teachers are also emergency-credentialed.

 

So what do we do about that? When Superintendent Romer came in, he agreed with you that this is a problem, but pointed out that under the union contract, the district has no right to assign teachers -- either to schools or to grades within the schools. He says that the senior teachers want the choice assignments at the better schools, and that leaves the inexperienced teachers the toughest jobs.

GLEN-LAMBERT: The choosing of the classes by seniority enables us to keep the same grade levels we've been teaching. I think that actually is very much to the advantage of the student. At my school, we have teams of teachers who work well together, so we choose to continue working together. The flip side of what Romer says is that if you don't have the teachers choosing their classes, it's fine if you have a good principal. I do have a good principal, but I've seen others who will capriciously move you around, break up teams or just put you in fifth grade when you're good at teaching first. That's a terrible situation for children.

 

So what would get a great teacher, what would motivate any of you sitting at this table, to go to a troubled school that could really use great teachers?

VALENCIA: I think a guarantee that the materials -- books, pencils, erasers -- are going to be there. I still don't have all my books for my students. I only have 21 students. My book request supposedly went in over the summer. But the books never came, and now there's a hold on all of the materials that were ordered. Promises are being made -- they're not being kept.

GLEN-LAMBERT: What would get me to go to another place is if it wasn't just me, if it was a number of people coming in who wanted to work hard together. Also if the school had a principal who was really good. I'd also want appreciation. When you go into a school that's really difficult, you tend to get all of this criticism for how your children are doing. I would want to know that I'm not expected to have results tomorrow.

 

One thing that I've heard both from you at this table and from Superintendent Romer is that new teachers need to spend time with their more experienced colleagues discussing instruction.

GLEN-LAMBERT: In the last three or four years at my school, we've been doing that. At least at my grade level, teachers meet regularly and work together. It's made a tremendous difference.

VALENCIA: The concept sounds as if it would work. Individual attention anytime works really well. But the thing is, a lot of our seasoned teachers won't agree to become mentor teachers. Everyone just feels overwhelmed. Another question I have about Romer's proposal to have beginning teachers observe in experienced teachers' classrooms for three weeks is, what would happen to the new teachers' students for those weeks? Observation is definitely a plus. The only thing is, the district needs to decide where these students are going to be placed during that time.

ARIAS: It's a problem. The new teacher's students are losing their teacher for three weeks. That's the first 15 days of instruction. Does this mean they're going to have a sub for 15 days? Logistically, there are still a few little bugs to be worked out in this, because someone is losing.

 

Who should select these mentor teachers? The principal?

KAPLAN: No. I think a master teacher should be selected by his or her peers.

ARIAS: There's also the issue of teacher coordinators. I also believe that we should continue to select our curriculum coordinators and department chairs. It shouldn't be the principal doing this.

 

That statement reflects a lack of faith in principals.

ARIAS: It goes back to the potential for capriciousness of the principal.

VALENCIA: Because we are the ones who work with coordinators and with mentor teachers, we should be the ones to select them through faculty elections, as we do now.

 

In Romer's view, this cripples a principal by not letting him or her pick a management team.

SHEFFIELD: We're just saying that a teacher's peers have better knowledge of what is going on within the classroom, and we should be able to pick people who will support us in the classroom. If I'm going to vote to choose a dean of students, I want a dean who will support me when I send a student to the dean's office.

 

But isn't the principal really in a better position to pick who should lead? You're each in your classrooms teaching, but the principal is more of a honeybee who visits all the classrooms and has the best sense of the strengths and weaknesses of everybody on staff. I mean, how do you as teachers know what's happening in the classroom next door? Let's say that principal is a dynamic, empathetic leader. Wouldn't he or she be the right person to spot and nurture talent?

GLEN-LAMBERT: That's a hypothetical question, right? So there can be a hypothetical yes. But in most schools, I'd put my faith in a body of 40 or 80 teachers who are all intent on making the right choice.

ARIAS: The honeybee would be wonderful to have, but it is such an anomaly in a district of this size. That honeybee is more often a wasp. But yes, it would be wonderful to have an administrator like that.

 

Do any of you have a sense of the proportion in the district of great principals to terrible ones?

KAPLAN: I'm not sure these honeybee principals you describe are allowed to flourish. They're not being nurtured. That's not what moves you up the ladder in this district. It's a dangerous, dangerous path to be creative. I don't know that many dynamic administrators. Where are they going to come from in a district this dysfunctional?

 

How does this space crunch we've heard so much about affect you?

SHEFFIELD: I'm a middle school science teacher who wants to educate my children in all aspects of science. But I don't even have a room. I have to change rooms every class period. I've taught science in the auditorium, with a cart and all my science equipment that I needed. It's ridiculous. It puts my students in a situation where they have to follow me pushing carts. I'm taking away their instructional time because I have to get books and I have to get supplies, as opposed to being in a classroom set up and ready to do a lab. We have teachers who teach outside because there's no place else to go. I'm at a well-run school, but we're busting out at the seams. We have too many students and not enough room.

ARIAS: I teach special ed, where many of our students receive and need outside services like speech therapy, occupational therapy and adaptive P.E. Those specialty teachers never have a room to be in. Often Psych Services has to conduct sessions in closets -- literally. It's an inhumane situation for the adults and for the children as well. It shows a complete lack of respect in the district for us as professionals.

GLEN-LAMBERT: Another huge problem is playground space. As they put in more and more of these bungalows, it takes away playground space.

 

So in terms of the scope of the problem, you're all in perfect agreement with Romer. But he says that solving it will be hugely expensive and needs to be factored into union negotiations over the size of the raise for teachers.

KAPLAN: The current space crunch grew out of the culture of incompetence and arrogance that has been documented over and over again at the district level. The district should have understood 10 years ago when demographers were telling them what was happening and auditors were saying "Where's all your money?" that they had a serious problem. It shouldn't be solved by taking money from teachers.

SHEFFIELD: Yes, we need classrooms. Yes, we need places to put our students. But the money shouldn't come out of my pocket.

 

Does it feel any different to be working under Romer than it did under previous superintendents, under Cortines or Zacarias or Thompson? Have these sweeping changes that we write about so much been felt at your level -- at ground zero in the classroom?

SHEFFIELD: There have definitely been sweeping changes -- continuous sweeping changes. It's a problem. There's a new superintendent, so we change for that, then we change for something else, and on and on. We're in a state of continuous change. We need to pick something and move with it and stop making all these constant changes.

 

Speaking of new things sweeping across, how about Open Court, the new reading program?

GLEN-LAMBERT: I'll say something positive. I've been using it for three years, so I probably have a different perspective on it because I used it before it was mandated. I think it is great, I really do. It's made a tremendous difference in my classroom, and in the abilities of the children to read.

VALENCIA: I haven't used it, because I teach fifth grade, but most of the teachers at my school are having a lot of trouble with Open Court. I believe that Open Court was designed for students who are already proficient in the English language. Our students are predominantly non-English-speakers. They're having a lot of trouble with Open Court.

GLEN-LAMBERT: Actually, the majority of my school are also second-language readers, and we've had a lot of success with them.

VALENCIA: Open Court is a very rigid program, and some of the teachers at my school are worried because they are falling a little bit behind. They're not where they're supposed to be on the schedule of Open Court, because they have to review with the kids. The program moves too quickly. Of course, this is our first year with Open Court, so it's going to be rough.

 

We asked Roy Romer what he saw as the biggest problems facing the district. Now we'll pose the same question to you all: What's the view from the classroom?

KAPLAN: I'll tell you a big problem. I've seen two sets of expectations in the L.A. Unified School District concerning children, one set for affluent white and Asian kids, and another for poor African-American and Latino kids who've been allowed to do work three or four years below grade level as long as the classroom is a quiet classroom. And we are all culpable.

ARIAS: I would say teacher morale is the biggest problem. Teachers get bashed from all sides. They get it from administrators who are not supportive, and they get it from parents who are not supportive. We took a 10 percent pay cut several years ago. Now the governor has set aside money for us. It's been sent down. But we're not getting it. We see surrounding districts where teachers got their money, so it's discouraging.

 

When Interim Superintendent Cortines and former Chief Administrative Officer Howard Miller came in, we were told that once and for all the problem of books and bathrooms would be solved. Did that happen?

SHEFFIELD: As far as my site is concerned, we have made sure that we have ordered enough books to have at home and at school. We've ordered them. They all haven't come in yet, but we've ordered them, and in certain departments that is happening. Bathrooms, definitely, yes, because there was a time when I didn't want to walk by the kids' bathroom. We have bathroom attendants now.

KAPLAN: We had a book order that didn't go in for some reason, I don't know why. And while I don't spend a lot of time in the kids' bathrooms, I hear that they're still filthy. The plumbing's horrendous, and there isn't toilet paper.

VALENCIA: Toilet paper is still a need in my school.

 

How do you feel about Mayor Richard Riordan's plans to work for the school district?

ARIAS: Extremely insulted. How can he just say, "I want a job with the district," and the district gives him one just like that. I think his plan is extremely subversive.

KAPLAN: Richard Riordan was the first public official to announce in the paper, whatever his political motives were, that the delivery of education by the L.A. Unified School District was certainly immoral and probably illegal. So I don't care if he wants to work on computers in the school district. As far as I'm concerned, he can't botch things up any more than they are.

VALENCIA: I want to know, what are his motivations? There are rumors that he has money to take out [school-board member] Julie Korenstein and put someone else in that position. Basically, it sounds like he wants to run L.A. Unified. I don't think that's a great thing. I don't think that one person should have so much power just because he has all this money.

 

Have we become too focused on test scores?

GLEN-LAMBERT: Assessment is very important. You want to use assessment to guide your instruction. But there can come a point when there's so much assessment that it becomes too much. Superintendent Romer mentioned testing the children every six weeks. This would take away from teaching them. And it can feel punitive to teachers.

ARIAS: I would like L.A. Unified to stand up to the state on the Stanford 9 [the state test that students take each year] and say, "This is not an equitable way of assessing children." It's especially cruel to test children who've recently arrived in this country and don't speak English.

 

Any final thoughts?

KAPLAN: Just this. Our jobs are real hard. We need the district to treat us like professionals. You know what I'd like? Just once I would like a district official or principal to come in my room and say, "What do you need? What can I do for you?" Just once in 20 years.