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How Superintendent David Brewer Ran Aground

After five months of political battles with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his allies in Sacramento, Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent David L. Brewer III needed to find his focus. The retired Navy vice admiral was still a newcomer to the nation’s second-largest public-schools system, and he was utterly inexperienced as a public educator. So, in April 2007, Brewer made a promising and low-key move.

 

 

(Photo by Ted Soqui) (Click to enlarge)

 

Old school: Longtime board member Julie Korenstein was initially thrilled about Brewer. No more. (Photo by Orly Olivier) (Click to enlarge)

Quietly billed as a “superintendents’ weekend retreat,” the L.A. Weekly has learned, an invite from Brewer asked three noted educators to talk shop with him at the West Los Angeles campus of Loyola Marymount University, a short drive from his home in Playa del Rey.

Brewer’s guests were no slouches. Rudy Crew launched a major turnaround in New York City as the public-schools chancellor and later became the superintendent of Miami–Dade County Public Schools, one of five nationwide finalists for the Broad Prize for Urban Education. Among the country’s most prestigious awards, the Broad Prize is given to urban districts whose schools reflect the best overall performance and improvement in student achievement, while reducing stubborn achievement gaps among poor and minority students. It includes a hefty $1 million in college scholarships.

The two other highly regarded educators were Garden Grove Unified School District Superintendent Laura Schwalm, whose much-improved, racially mixed schools won the Broad Prize in 2004, and former San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, an outspoken black reformer who stared down that city’s old guard, earning her district a Broad finalist nod in 2005. Now, Ackerman is Christian A. Johnson Professor of Outstanding Educational Practice at Columbia University and superintendent-in-residence at the Broad Superintendents Academy in L.A.

All in all, Brewer was meeting with some of the best and most experienced minds in the country — no-nonsense reformers with a track record of turning around public schools.

On the first day of the retreat, Brewer met his guests in an empty classroom at 8:30 in the morning. “We wanted to hear out David,” Crew tells the Weekly, “and understand where he was thinking about things.”

According to Crew, Brewer arrived at the meeting “eager to take on the challenge” of improving L.A. Unified and “very interested in the nature of the work.” But Crew also noticed that he was “very much overwhelmed, in some ways, by the things going on around him.”

A newbie coping with the remnants of an unsuccessful mayoral takeover, Brewer was falling behind in important ways: He had failed to fill key positions on his senior management team, and to fully develop a coherent academic vision for a district with 878 schools and 694,288 students. And he was earning nasty headlines over the disastrous new computerized payroll system, Business Tools for Schools, which went sideways as thousands of the district’s 45,473 teachers received inaccurate paychecks — some getting under- or overpaid for months.

As the meeting unfolded, the four educators shared their priorities. For the seasoned turnaround experts, it was all about the students. Crew, who is also black, told Brewer to focus on low-performing schools as soon as he could. “It was true for me in New York and Miami as well,” Crew says of his own experiences.

Ackerman recalls how she stressed raising student achievement, addressing inequities between high- and low-performing students and creating accountability among teachers and bureaucrats.

Yet when it was Brewer’s turn to lay out his priorities, he went off in a completely different direction that left the übersupes uneasy: Working with politicians in Sacramento and Los Angeles, he told them, was his major focus.

“We see it in a different context,” says Ackerman. “The core business is improving achievement for students. Then everything else supports that. Without that clarity, it’s a struggle. But if you put kids at the center of everything, things will always get better.”

On the last day of the retreat, Crew, Schwalm and Ackerman handed Brewer a list of priorities, with heavy emphasis on achievement in the classroom rather than at City Hall. “There’s a tremendous need, certainly in the first year, to create and sustain a vision and to make it tangible,” says Crew, adding that speechmaking needed to be ditched at some point for day-to-day work.

The educators suggested that Brewer quickly hire senior staff, create an overall strategic plan, engage parents, address problems with low-performing schools, and shape a detailed accountability plan for teachers and bureaucrats.

 

“We left him with some pretty good impulses,” Crew says.

Seven months later, Crew and Ackerman, who stay in touch with the superintendent mostly through e-mails, are still waiting.

Says Crew, “He really needs to take this onto himself.” Ackerman is even more blunt: “He can’t afford a second year that’s a repeat of the first year.”

Instead, Brewer’s cheerleading persona, paired with his lack of action, has spawned embittered employees who call him “Admiral” to his face in a nod to tradition, but who say it mockingly behind his back. One-quarter of his four-year contract has vanished with no concrete accomplishments and no apparent strategy for improving student achievement or lackluster teaching. And Brewer and his still-incomplete senior management team play a constant game of catch-up, creating a ripple effect of delayed reform efforts and unfocused ideas.

Instead of switching gears and dedicating more time to the creation of strong math and reading programs for middle and high school students — his core responsibility to stanch the high dropout rate, experts and educators say — Brewer is still preoccupied with politics, recently hiring Democratic consultant Michael Bustamante for $15,000 a month to reverse his spiraling unpopularity.

“With that kind of retainer, he is not editing press releases,” says media-crisis expert Scott Schmidt, pooh-poohing the district spin that Bustamante is just a routine public-relations hire.

Brewer must also contend with teachers who are incensed about their paychecks and angry about middle school and high school literacy programs they say mistakenly try to bolster self-esteem rather than basic learning skills. And the aloof superintendent has let a power vacuum develop that racial and economic factions are seeking to fill. To top it off, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — Brewer’s off-and-on nemesis — has in recent months offered very few concrete plans of his own for improved schools, leaving the superintendent to take political hits that some fear could force his early departure.

Brewer cannot do “what the mayor is doing, and disappear from the press” on the issue of school reform, says former L.A. Unified board member David Tokofsky. “It’s somewhat of a brilliant political move, actually,” he says of Villaraigosa. The struggles of the mayor, whose school takeover failed miserably and whose own competing “Schoolhouse” reform landed with a thud and vanished from the public eye, throw the mistakes made by Brewer into starker relief.

And Brewer seems strangely determined to make things worse for himself. In a move last month that some observers found particularly appalling, district staff spent time, money and effort to compile a spiffy-looking pamphlet that spun his lagging first 12 months as a dubious-sounding “Year of Listening and Learning.” When Brewer finally presented his oft-delayed, all-but-the-kitchen-sink reform-plan outline to the school board on December 4, critics inevitably asked why he spent 2007 listening — not doing.

High school teacher Mike Stryer, who came downtown after his classes to hear Brewer out, grabbed the chance during a public comment period to eyeball his big boss, sitting just a few feet away, dismissing his reform agenda as a “hastily construed smorgasbord of ideas” that is “so vague it confuses goals with tactics.” Brewer stared back, but he had nobody to blame but himself.

 

Road warrior: Teachers’-union boss A.J. Duffy sleeps in a rented Winnebago one night a month outside L.A. Unified HQ, to protest the district's screwy payroll system. (Photo by Ted Soqui)

That’s not at all how analysts,

the media, educators or community leaders thought things would go when the school board, openly exhilarated by their choice, unanimously selected the personable Navy leader on October 12, 2006, to succeed outgoing superintendent Roy Romer. Romer, a former governor of Colorado, had been the first effective superintendent in L.A. in two decades, with a strong record in building new schools and requiring solid instruction.

“Romer always talked about construction and instruction,” says former board president Caprice Young, who hired him. “His main strength was carrying out a vision.”

Unlike Brewer, Romer hired a senior management team in the first month.

An even more dramatic contrast to the camera-loving Brewer was the way Romer declined press interviews for weeks so he could concentrate on the nuts and bolts of his job. The former governor also stood up to the teachers' union, United Teachers Los Angeles, furious over Romer’s order that grade-school teachers spend at least two hours per day on reading instruction — his shock therapy for a district churning out tens of thousands of functionally illiterate children each year. It was a radical move that educators now widely accept.

 

Within a few years, Romer presided over a dramatic increase of student test scores in reading and math, particularly at the elementary level.

“[L.A. Unified’s] worst schools today are better than their average schools in 2000,” says longtime education expert John Mockler, former executive director of the California State Board of Education. “That’s an outstanding change,” marking the first sustained turnaround in nearly a generation in L.A.

Although test scores among middle and high school students rose over that same period, according to Mockler, they have much further to go. Romer’s next plan was to start rehabilitating secondary schools. (Romer declined to discuss his superintendency with the Weekly.)

In 2005, however, Romer faced a vociferous critic in the person of newly elected Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. According to former board member Tokofsky, the mayor “poisoned” the political climate to such a degree that it was nearly impossible to push meaningful reform or seriously address the dropout rate in the middle schools and high schools.

“When you declare all of the schools are failures,” says Tokofsky, “it’s hard to properly motivate people.”

Villaraigosa and his allies seemed not to grasp that test scores in L.A. were doing something they had rarely done — rising. He sought to take over the district with a special state law called AB 1381, which, had it not been tossed out by the courts, would have shifted decision making from the seven-member elected school board to a superintendent overseen by a “council of mayors” — with a lead role for Los Angeles’ mayor. Romer, meanwhile, signaled that he would soon leave after six years on the job. The board wanted not only a strong replacement to carry on Romer’s work, but a leader who could battle the then-popular and charismatic mayor.

During a nationwide search, according to Tokofsky, Maria Ott, the district’s chief academic officer at the time, proved to be a standout candidate who really knew the business of public education. But, Tokofsky says, several board members found her “boring” because good PR was high on their list.

“She was talking folk, when the mayor was rock & roll,” Tokofsky explains. Ott lacked charisma, in other words, and the only candidate who shined in that area was the untried David Brewer.

“[Brewer] was hired because he was nontraditional leadership,” says then board member Mike Lansing, now executive director of Boys & Girls Clubs of the Los Angeles Harbor. Defending the hire, Lansing points to Brewer’s “experience working with a large work force” in several shipboard posts and a two-year stint as vice chief of naval education in Florida.

“He spoke very well for the district, and that was important,” says current board member Julie Korenstein, who also voted to hire him. “We hoped he would learn quickly,” she says wistfully.

On November 13, 2006, Brewer took his first official steps inside district headquarters downtown, at 333 South Beaudry Avenue. With an annual salary of $300,000, the retired admiral was also outfitted with a car, a $45,000 yearly expense account, a $3,000 monthly housing allowance, and a corner office on the 24th floor with majestic views of downtown Los Angeles and the Hollywood sign. According to Tokofsky, the first three months of Brewer’s tenure were the “victory” months. “There was such hope unleashed during that time.”

Brewer certainly hit the pavement, speaking to community groups in the San Fernando Valley and South and East Los Angeles and holding powwows with politicians in L.A. and Sacramento. An admirer of the ancient military-strategy book Art of War by Chinese mercenary Sun Tzu, he was determined to win over Villaraigosa.

“The mayor and I are going to transform this school district,” Brewer said after one meeting with Villaraigosa, having already gushed that the two were “joined at the hip.” The mayor gushed back, calling the retired admiral his “good friend” and giddily explaining that they finish each other’s sentences.

But Brewer’s fascination with the politics enveloping the massive district — its total annual budget is nearly $14 billion — soaked up months of time. Despite having a then-friendly Romer-era school board that would have quickly approved many of his decisions, Brewer failed to hire senior staff to help him in the crucial areas of curriculum and instruction — the real backbone for any turnaround.

“It would have been better to hire [his core staff]” when he had the backing of the board that hired him, says Lansing. “I think [Brewer] would agree with that.”

His dithering, which allowed a new, far less friendly school board to sweep into office before he could assemble his senior management team, was the first of several blunders. In October, when he finally made a big hiring decision nearly a year after taking office — promoting Romer’s successful chief curriculum instructor Ronni Ephraim to deputy superintendent of professional learning, development and leadership — he faced hostile board members and sudden battles driven by insider politics.

 

But vocal Brewer critic A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, was pleased with Brewer’s decision to give Ephraim responsibility over how the district trains its teachers. Ephraim, who is white, had overseen changes in classroom instruction in the grade schools that led to dramatic increases in reading test scores — including big achievement gains at impoverished black and Latino schools that many educators had insisted could not be improved due to poverty.

Yet behind the scenes, Villaraigosa’s board allies somehow believed that longtime educator Ephraim was using the wrong approach to teach English to Spanish-speaking children. Overriding Brewer’s own desire, and caving to pressure from ethnic advocacy groups, school board president Monica Garcia and her colleagues handed Brewer a publicly humiliating decision, giving Ephraim a one-year contract instead of the standard two-year deal. Longtime Villaraigosa friend and school board member Yolie Flores Aguilar voted against even the shortened contract. Ephraim would not comment on her situation.

In October, Brewer also managed to hire a chief financial officer, Megan Reilly, who finally started this month, and chief technology officer Tony Tortorice, neither of them L.A. Unified veterans. Columbia University professor Jeffrey Henig, author of several highly praised books on public education, including The Color of School Reform: Race, Politics and the Challenge of Urban Education, warns that if Brewer's staff don't know where the bodies are buried, they may not be able to “make the bureaucracy work.”

The most disconcerting hire is the one Brewer hasn’t made. The No. 2 job in this district, which educates one out of every 12 children in California, is that of the chief academic officer/deputy superintendent. That person would be Brewer’s right hand. The position, inexplicably, is still vacant.

Yet on December 4, Brewer stunned board members while unveiling the initial outlines of his long-overdue High Priority Schools reform plan, mentioning almost in passing that he was not going to hire anyone for the second-ranking job until June 2008.

“Did you say June?” asked board president Garcia in disbelief.

Brewer replied: “I’m giving myself some time.”

Garcia stared at him, then shot back: “But your schools don’t have that time.”

Her comment, a rare display of open disapproval in decades of superintendent-school-board relations in this city, sent a hush through the crowded auditorium.

Educators who want Brewer to succeed — and there are many — have urged him for months to make this crucial hire. One result of his dawdling is that he still lacks both a clear plan on curriculum and instruction and a broader strategic academic plan. “I can’t even imagine leading a major school system without senior management,” says former San Francisco superintendent Ackerman.

The deputy superintendent is also the liaison between the supe and eight local district superintendents who oversee respective subdistricts carved out of the sprawling LAUSD, which encompasses not just L.A. but 29 other cities and county areas. Without a deputy, according to district insiders, Brewer’s communication with the rest of the district is poor at minimum.

Unless something changes, Brewer and his staff may be heading for a meltdown. “He’s juggling a lot,” says board member Tamar Galatzan. “[Brewer] relies on a small group of people for a lot of work, and those people are going to get burned out.”

Ackerman moved on her strategic plan for San Francisco within six months — and plenty of union leaders and teachers moaned about it. “If you want people to follow,” says Ackerman, who very much wants Brewer to succeed, “you have to be very clear.” But vagueness from Brewer is breeding “unrest.”

In a sit-down interview with the Weekly, the superintendent did not spell out any elements of a strategic plan, instead strongly emphasizing warmed-over slogans such as “high-performance culture” borrowed from author/motivators Stephen Covey and Jim Collins, whose books Brewer reads.

“That is really the goal right now,” the superintendent said of his high-performance-culture message. “And everyone has to figure out where their role is in making that happen.”

When asked who he meant by everyone, he replied in the broadest possible terms, typifying one of his troubles: “Everybody from the principals and directors all the way down to the bus drivers.”

Says noted Harvard University professor Richard Elmore, director of the federally financed Consortium for Policy Research in Education, “If the superintendent doesn’t drive a pretty big stake in the ground, it isn’t going to happen. Teachers don’t know what to do.”

 

Recently, Brewer has suggested that the teacher-payroll fiasco, and the time it consumes, has hampered his efforts. But when asked about Brewer's excuse, Ackerman said unequivocally, “You have to juggle multiple balls.”

 

 No relief: Once again, Brewer, at an L.A. Unified media event, is stuck listening to the opinions of his boss, school board president Monica Garcia. (Photo by Ted Soqui)

Now, a window appears

to be closing, with the school board sounding increasingly unsupportive. “He asked [us] for six months, and it didn’t happen,” board president Garcia says dismissively of his strategic plan, underlining the tensions between Brewer and the board members, several of whom won office after taking millions of dollars in campaign donations from Villaraigosa’s business and labor pals.

This month, Villaraigosa conducted a controversial, money-drenched political campaign — complete with door prizes — to convince parents and teachers to let his office oversee reform at a handful of schools. Embarrassingly for Villaraigosa, just 9.9 percent of mothers and fathers bothered to participate. The small fraction who did vote agreed to let the Mayor’s Office oversee at least five schools.

Brewer, looking paralyzed even in comparison to Villaraigosa and his lackluster showing, is now covering his flank, saying his ideas for fixing 34 of the district’s worst schools will be “applied” to all classrooms. Yet some district insiders wonder if he has it backwards, suggesting he should adopt an all-encompassing plan like those in urban school districts that have shown sustained improvement — not let L. A.'s worst schools drive his agenda.

Brewer left observers scratching their heads on December 4, when he unveiled his long-awaited High Priority Schools plan. He used PowerPoint slides with pronouncements like: “The Strategic Plan is about synergy” and “It’s not a buffet, it’s a 7-course meal.”

Yet he spent less than two minutes going over what is perhaps his greatest challenge: how to improve the way kids are actually taught. (Brewer briefly suggested a more “personal touch” by teachers.) On December 18, after a rushed discussion of that key issue, the board approved his High Priority Schools plan for the 34 worst schools.

In the weeks leading up to his big December presentations, Brewer made two bizarre moves that provide at least some evidence that he may not be able to pull any of this off — prompting onlookers to wonder why he’s paying Democratic PR consultants a small fortune.

On November 6, the superintendent, dressed in his customary dark suit with gold tie, held a 6 a.m. press conference in the nearly empty lobby of LAUSD headquarters. He heralded “big change” and a “major adjustment” for the messed-up payroll system. The near-dawn hour was carefully calculated to get him on the early-morning news shows, and TV and radio stations showed up, dutifully reporting his sound bites.

Yet within hours, the small lobby was teeming with irate teachers eager to tell a different tale — of taking precious class time off work to straighten out what the district hasn’t. Radio stations abruptly dropped Brewer’s “big change” press coverage to run tape of educators vehemently contradicting his claims of a payroll fix — and making him out to be a liar.

Asked about Brewer’s rainbows-and-sunshine press conference, East L.A. teacher Ellen Montiel told the Weekly, “He’s clueless. The people who put this [payroll] program together don’t understand it. How can he ever understand it?”

Not long after that, on September 28, Brewer made a second questionable move, inadvertently revealing just how much of a political animal he is in a stinging “interoffice correspondence” he wrote to LAUSD board members, a copy of which was surreptitiously sent to UTLA four days later. In that memo, Brewer attacks California state Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero — a woman with significant sway over the district’s funding — over her public hearing on the paycheck controversy. Calling the hearing a “scripted affair,” he slams Romero as “neither interested in the facts or what their responses entailed,” and rails, “In cases where it was pointed out that she had her facts wrong, the Senator briskly moved to another topic.”

Then Brewer gets to his real issue: He tells the board that the media paid Romero only “moderate” attention, provides a detailed list of press outlets that did and did not attend, and suggests some media talking points for board members. The talking points are filled with clichés such as: “I’m frustrated too. The transition did not go well and our folks who provided testimony yesterday made no excuses,” And, “Could we have handled it better? Sure. But hindsight is 20-20.”

 

The question of how effectively he spends his time came up yet again in September, when Brewer made two visits to Washington, D.C., testifying before Congress as an “expert” on the federal No Child Left Behind Act — yet saying nothing that had not already been noted ad infinitum by weightier educators. On his second trip to Washington, he and board members Garcia and Aguilar lobbied for changes in federal funding rules — in particular, a controversial bid to bring back “native language” testing, or tests in Spanish, another sign that Brewer is listening to those who oppose the past five years of promoting English, and English tests, for all kids.

Amid all of this political jockeying, his High Priority Schools plan — Brewer’s response to the mayor’s slams over the dropout rate — had finally been scheduled for a widely promoted unveiling at a “committee of the whole” board meeting on November 20. Educators citywide marked their calendars for the big day, as Brewer launched a very visible public-relations junket, appearing on KPCC public radio and granting other interviews.

Things went incredibly sour, however, when, just hours before his big unveiling, district staff sent out an e-mail at 5 p. m. on November 19, canceling the “committee of the whole” meeting and setting off an avalanche of gossip about the Admiral at district headquarters. According to LAUSD spokeswoman Binti Harvey, the reason was simple: Brewer, now on his seventh or eighth rewrite of the plan, wasn’t ready.

Board member Julie Korenstein believes Brewer’s now-pointless publicity tour was an example of his “wasting time.” A frustrated Korenstein, a board member for 20 years who is close to UTLA and represents the Valley, says, “I think he has the wrong advisers.”

Educators in the Valley are so squeamish about Brewer’s thus-far vague ideas that several schools flatly refused to be named in his list of 44 High Priority Schools — a vote of no confidence that eventually slashed the project to 34 schools. That represents only one-tenth of the district’s 300 or so most problematic schools.

Board member Galatzan, whose election to a seat representing the Valley was largely financed by Villaraigosa, says, “In the Valley, there are a lot of parents who feel middle schools and high schools aren’t safe and the education isn’t good.” She spoke to Brewer about it, and he said that while he was concerned with those bigger-picture problems, he was busy with his 34-schools plan. Galatzan says the two agreed to talk later about yet another plan, one more relevant to the Valley.

Unlike Brewer, superintendents Crew and Ackerman moved quickly in Miami and San Francisco to launch visible academic reforms, realizing that if they did not, the loudest voices — not necessarily the right ones — would fill the vacuum with plans of their own. Under Brewer, a power vacuum has plainly developed.

Now, sometimes-strident ethnic and economic lobbies — dominated by Latino and black advocacy groups — are demanding dollars and separate treatment.

The gaping power vacuum was apparent on October 23, when board member Marguerite LaMotte, who is black, pushed for a resolution to address academic and disciplinary problems among African-American students — the kind of separatist, color-based tendency resisted by former superintendents Ruben Zacarias, the first Latino to head the district, and Romer, both of whom saw it as the wrong direction for a district whose children speak more than 90 languages.

After LaMotte spoke, members of the self-described Committee for Educational Justice and Equality for African-American Students took turns dressing down the gathered bureaucrats. Brewer didn’t exactly stand up to them: He promised that things would change. But the crowd wasn’t placated. People sarcastically yelled, “Yeah, right!” One woman called out, with venom, “When are you going to do that? Today? Or tomorrow?”

Owen Knox, a retired LAUSD administrator who leads the justice committee — one of many race- or ethnically-oriented groups — complains, “The superintendent hasn’t put forward any plan for African-American students. I would’ve thought that out of all his plans, one of them would have considered African-American students.”

At a subsequent meeting, the board adopted LaMotte’s resolution, which orders the superintendent to devise yet another plan, and sticks a divisive race issue on Brewer’s desk. Not to be outdone, Latino groups are demanding changes specific to them — and their politicking could be more potent. In Los Angeles, 250,575 Spanish-speaking kids are “English-language learners” who lack basic English skills, which makes LAUSD arguably the largest teacher of English in the nation, if not the world. (By comparison, in New York, the nation’s biggest school district by far, just 95,000 Spanish-speaking children attend school not knowing English.)

 

One special-interest group, Families in Schools, wants changes in the way Latino children are dealt with. Its president, Maria Casillas, led the failed five-year effort known as the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project, in which the cash-rich Annenberg Foundation poured $53 million into Los Angeles–area schools — to zero effect. Casillas, who is close to board members Garcia and Aguilar, says her group is simply seeking a better foundation and earlier support for kids learning English. She says Brewer “didn’t understand this at first, but I don’t fault him.”

In fact, the district has poured enormous sums into “structured” English immersion, English as a Second Language, and other English-learner programs since dumping the pricey, Spanish-heavy “bilingual” programs — and English learning has been climbing ever since, even among poor, illegal-immigrant children. But since July 10, when the board gave Brewer a long list of official deadlines for achieving various reforms, Garcia and Aguilar have been pressing him to make changes in the way the district approaches its English learners’ curriculum, including “culturally responsive pedagogy.”

District insiders who fear being tagged as racists warn that these efforts constitute an ethnically coded push for a separate curriculum for Spanish-speaking students. All of these diverging demands — from safer schools for middle-class students in the Valley to separate educational approaches for lower-income black and Latino children — inevitably start a clash over funding. Columbia University’s Henig says the board’s heavy focus on English learners, driven by Garcia and Aguilar, may foster resentment among blacks and others. “Not only is [English learning] not responsive to the needs of the African-American community,” the professor explains, but “it becomes a battle over priorities.”

Brewer downplays issues of race and class, insisting, despite a clear spike in ethnic lobbying before the board, that, “We’ve stabilized that problem to a large extent.” He believes “promoting common things like music and sports but also language” can help, and touts the recent hiring of four Mandarin Chinese instructors — a tiny blip among 45,000 teachers — calling it “another major accomplishment” of his first year. And, he promises, “This is just the beginning... We’re going to expand Mandarin Chinese to just about every school by 2020.”

The problem lies in what he’s doing about the roughly 10,000 L. A. Unified teenagers expected to fail next year’s California high school exit exam. Even though it is widely accepted that Brewer was somewhat of a racial hire by the previous school board — a charismatic black man who could neutralize his Latino rival Villaraigosa — Henig says that bad news like exit exam failure rates could leave him susceptible to overthrow “because he doesn’t have a local constituency. He’s an outsider.”

With all the troubles Brewer faces, some are wondering who’s advising him. While Brewer himself cites Crew, Ackerman, Chicago superintendent Arne Duncan and San Diego superintendent Carl Cohn — a widely admired black superintendent who improved the deeply troubled Long Beach schools not far from L.A. — he doesn’t seem to be listening to them.

Brewer says two longtime educators in his family — his wife, Richardene “Deanie” Brewer, and sister-in-law, Julie Williams — are his “main confidantes.” He did not cite to the Weekly anyone within the district, despite having several proven senior staff members at his disposal.

Brewer does appear to be listening to political consultants: When he decided to pay $15,000 a month to Michael Bustamante, a longtime Democratic consultant best known as the guy who advised Governor Gray Davis during the disastrous electricity crisis, it was clearly “for strategic purposes,” says Scott Schmidt, president of RSC Partners, a media-crisis communications firm.

An image consultant — which is how political operative Bustamante bills himself — is supposed to create a “narrative” over time, “almost like a political campaign” for Brewer, Schmidt explains. Bustamante’s close ties to Democrats in Sacramento are a prime reason he was hired, Schmidt surmises, noting that, “Nothing is ever a coincidence... The district needs to show to Sacramento and the city of Los Angeles that it has strong leadership.”

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 again

speechmaking 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.

 

“You have to reach the children where they are!”

Brewer stood tall and square-shouldered, wearing his dark power suit with gold tie. He looked to be in total control, and he threw out such snappy-sounding phrases as “college prepared and career ready,” “world-class education,” and “deep change.” Though he insisted he was not a “headlines superintendent,” he was talking that kind of talk. Little he said was new: Students wanted to feel that people “cared” for them, parents wanted their kids to attend college, teachers wanted to improve their skills. It was the kind of rap Brewer had been dishing to audiences for months.

Then, Brewer fielded questions. One person who grabbed the roving microphone was UTLA president A.J. Duffy, whose once-tenuous leadership of the union has been given new life thanks to the district’s payroll screwups and the Brewer power vacuum. (A few weeks later, UTLA would beat the superintendent to the punch by releasing its own “reform plan” for the lowest-performing schools.)

“I’ve been in this district for about 28 years,” Duffy stated to Brewer, “and by my reckoning, I’ve gone through a reform program every third or fourth year. The teachers, parents, administrators and other stakeholders want to know, why should we believe you?”

Brewer smiled, then launched into an answer about “facilitating a structure for deep change.” As the polite political showdown played out, Joey Smith, a black 11th-grader from the gifted magnet program at Crenshaw High School in South L.A., sat with his classmates at a banquet table in back — behind all the civic and business leaders given closer access to the superintendent. Smith had never seen Brewer speak, never read about him, and really knew nothing about the retired vice admiral.

“I was excited to see what he was all about,” recalls Smith, an obvious go-getter who plans to attend an Ivy League college. But the more the superintendent talked, the more turned off the young student got.

“I got frustrated because he seemed to be going around the questions rather than answering them,” Smith says. “I think he has an idea of what he wants to do, but he doesn’t know how to do it. He may be a strong leader figure, but he doesn’t know what to do.”

And that seems to be the crux of Brewer’s growing troubles, understood after an hour’s observation by a perceptive 16-year-old. As 2007 comes to an end, the superintendent is still listening and learning. Or, as a cynic might say, plodding and yearning.

Email Patrick Range McDonalad at pmcdonald@laweekly.com


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