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 thats 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 wont 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. Lets say it together: eagle, she says. Now write eagle. The kids dutifully labor over their es. Its 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 shes 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, hes 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 dont meet the states mandated requirements for the profession, which include a bachelors degree, graduate-level course work in pedagogy, a year of supervised student teaching and the passing of subject-matter exams. (All thats required for an emergency permit is to have a bachelors 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 dont know the clock, they dont know money, they can barely write their names, she explains. Were 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 states 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 Lets give [CTA] what they want in a way they wont want it.
After a brief battle in which lobbyists for CTA and school districts pushed for increased flexibility in the program, class-size reduction was approved by the Legislature. The state would henceforth give schools $650 per student in each class from first to third grade with 20 students or less, plus a $25,000 grant to build new classrooms. (Those figures went up to $800 and $40,000 the following year.) The budget was passed in the summer of 1996, giving districts a mere six weeks to find the extra space and additional teachers. In a reasonable world, asserts Higuchi, you would have made sure there were enough qualified teachers to fill the classes. In this case Wilson just sent in the kids, often into nonexistent classrooms. LAUSD, which already had serious staffing and housing problems, was left scrambling to hire 2,000 new teachers and to find room for the extra classes.
Predictably, not all the freshly hired teachers were fully qualified. Statewide, for grades 1 to 3 the number of uncredentialed teachers jumped by a factor of 12 in just one year. But the crunch was not evenly felt. Because class-size reduction was implemented all over California, it opened up teaching positions everywhere, in affluent suburban districts as well as in the inner city. The result was, as one district official puts it, a raid on L.A.s qualified and credentialed teachers. More desirable districts had their pick of the states best-trained teachers, while larger and poorer districts struggled to find bodies to put in the front of each classroom. The wealthy foothill community of La Cañada now boasts only eight teachers on emergency permits in its entire school district, a small fraction of the number employed at Weemes Elementary alone.
The same dynamic functioned within large districts as well. A map showing the percentage of uncredentialed teachers in Los Angeles schools would work equally well as a map dividing the city by socioeconomic status, or by ethnicity. School Board Area 1, which includes Crenshaw and much of South-Central, contains 25 schools staffed by more than one-third emergency-credentialed teachers; Area 4, on the Westside, contains none.
At the same time, a recent report on the effects of class-size reduction prepared by the conservative think tank RAND and the more centrist American Institutes for Research found that, in low-income and high-minority districts, the extra funds from the state often failed to cover the costs of the shift, which instead were met by taking money from the schools general operating budget. Meanwhile, whiter and wealthier districts were more likely to find that the program left them with a surplus of cash. The surpluses . . . subsidized many of the same things that were being cut in less fortunate districts -- maintenance, libraries, computer labs, early literacy and staff-development programs, the report concluded.
If paring down class size is in principle hard to criticize, its real-world effects are equally hard to measure. The same study found that third-graders test scores have risen slightly since 1996, but cautioned, Yet unknown is whether the positive difference in student achievement will be sustained or will grow and whether it is even the [class-size reduction] program that was a cause of this gain.
Critics of Wilsons implementation of class-size reduction, including Higuchi and some district officials, insist that its effects were easily foreseeable. But foreseen or not, its lasting legacy has been a wide-scale shifting of educational resources, including but not limited to qualified teachers, from the impoverished districts that need them the most, to the white suburban middle and upper classes, who also happen to have been Wilsons natural constituency. Ross concludes: The class-size reduction program, whether by intent or not, has resulted in the proliferation of dysfunctionality in inner-city schools. The state ought to be held liable for whats happening in these schools.
If many are alarmed by this turn of affairs -- a somewhat hysterical report prepared by the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning warns, If we dont [take extraordinary steps], the crisis in Californias schools eventually will claim far more victims than all of the past centurys natural disasters, and school-board member Julie Korenstein frets, It is a major crisis. A teacher who doesnt know how to take roll, much less keep discipline and teach reading, has to have an impact on the kids -- not everyone is convinced that a mass infusion of fresh blood into L.A. schools is necessarily a bad thing. While some principals say they would always hire credentialed teachers if they had the choice, others, like Kessler, consider less quantifiable characteristics, like enthusiasm and flexibility, to be more important. Lloyd Houske, principal of the highly reputed Cahuenga Elementary School in Koreatown, positively gushes over his new, inexperienced teachers. Some of them are wonderful, he says, recalling his delight with an inexperienced kindergarten teacher who taught her class to read, because she didnt know that they werent supposed to.
Interim Superintendent Ramon Cortines has gone on record in support of emergency-credentialed teachers, as has school-board member David Tokofsky. Both began their careers in education on emergency permits. Its a way to get very talented people in the schools, Tokofsky says. You just have to find incentives to keep them teaching, and train them in a way thats not intellectually degrading. There, of course, is the rub. For years, uncredentialed teachers were on their own. LAUSD took what Day Higuchi calls the cannon-fodder approach: Give people a basic literacy test and a box of chalk, and say, Go teach. All that was required of teachers on emergency permits was that they take six semester credits of university course work each year toward their credential. Most did so through the Cal State system, which many complained was overcrowded and bureaucratically complex. District support and guidance was negligible, and the process could drag on almost indefinitely. It took me five years, and I wanted to get a credential, says one seven-year-veteran English teacher at Marshall High School. You hit all these people -- in the district, at school, at Cal State -- who are doing anything but encouraging you to be a teacher.
The district has now taken steps to train and support its new teachers. Before they start teaching, all teachers on emergency permit must now take a 40-hour pre-service class. Since last July, all elementary teachers and secondary English and math teachers have been required to enroll in the districts Pre-Intern Teaching Program, which includes classes one evening a week and the assignment of an experienced mentor teacher to help out at the school site. Teachers stay in the program for a year or two until they can pass their subject-matter exams (the MSAT) and move into an internship program, which in turn usually lasts two years and is administered by either the district or a university.
Most new teachers interviewed for this story were grateful for the preparation they received in the 40-hour class, which for many is the only training they receive before setting foot in a classroom. Others were less enthusiastic and some were highly critical, but very few had many positive things to say about the pre-intern program, which they complained consisted of a lot of busywork, largely oriented toward preparing them for the MSAT and offering very little of what they craved most: practical information they could immediately apply on the job. As one teacher puts it, You want to know how to deal with the kid whos peeing in the classroom.
Teachers complaints about the pre-intern program -- which, in its first year, is very much a work in progress -- generally had their roots in the quality of instruction. The classes are taught by veteran LAUSD teachers, and their usefulness depends largely on the skills of the individual instructor. In this respect, the pre-intern program is caught in the same bind as the rest of the district: There are not enough good experienced teachers to teach L.A.s children, let alone its teachers. Lillian Utsumi, who administers the program for the district, admits that she has had trouble finding qualified instructors, and estimates that she hired about 90 percent of the teachers she interviewed. The same challenges plague the pre-internship programs mentoring component: We have some schools, Utsumi says, where no one is qualified to be a mentor, because no one has the experience.
The district internship program, which accepts new teachers who have already passed the MSAT, has gotten better reviews from teachers, though they too gripe that it is disorganized and the quality of the teaching is haphazard.
As a result, many new teachers say they still get their most valuable support informally from helpful colleagues or administrators, often by running to a neighboring classroom for a quick piece of advice. Exhausted by the effort of trying to meet their students needs while learning the profession, most admit to feeling terribly unprepared. Although new teachers often compare themselves favorably to their more experienced but sometimes more burned-out co-workers, theyre up-front about their own failings. As one first-grade teacher who was assigned to a class made up entirely of English-language learners without having received any training in teaching ESL says, Some days I feel like Im a disservice to my kids. This lack of preparedness worries even someone as open to the potentials of unqualified teachers as Weemes principal Kessler: Each teacher is taking a year of a kids life. Two years of bad teaching and a kid will never recover.
Proposed solutions abound, from Gray Davis home-mortgage incentives for teachers, to UTLAs and the CTAs insistence that teacher salaries get a significant hike, to a district-sponsored program that would begin training interested students to be teachers in high school, to many new teachers desire for far more intensive and structured mentoring. Whatever plans are ultimately adopted, though, will likely have little effect on the real problems behind the teacher-shortage crisis: the glaring social inequities that turned a possibly well-intentioned if politically motivated program -- class-size reduction -- into a vast and cruel experiment conducted on the states neediest children.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.
- Street Artist Highlights Hollywood Racism (PHOTOS)
- Minorities Target Oscars Luncheon for Protest
- Super Bowl Weekend DUI Crackdown Starts Tonight