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The View From District Headquarters

Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

It's been five months since former Colorado governor Roy Romer became superintendent of the troubled L.A. Unified School District, time enough, we figured, for him to have grasped the scope of his task. So we invited him to sit down with a group of Weekly editors and writers to talk about his biggest challenges. We found his answers both thoughtful and provocative. But the conversation caused us to wonder: If this is how things look from district headquarters, how do they look from the classroom? So we brought in a panel of teachers of different grade levels from around the district whom we'd invited to read and respond to a transcript of Romer's remarks. Then, for a final word on the education picture in LAUSD, we turned to Samantha Trumbo Campbell, whose journal of her first year of teaching provides a window into the chaos awaiting inexperienced and untrained teachers -- who are joining the district in unprecedented numbers.

L.A. WEEKLY: You walked into a strange situation. An interim superintendent had already made key decisions, completely restructuring the district, hiring new area superintendents and even mandating a districtwide reading program. Did you come in with your hands tied? Were you asked to reform a district already pledged to someone else's vision?

ROY ROMER: I came in with a great number of decisions made. Symbolically, it was kind of like getting on a tanker after it's left the dock. But I knew that coming in. [Interim Superintendent] Ray Cortines made the restructuring and hiring decisions, although he let me sit in on an interview or two.

 

And has it been restrictive? Or was it nice to have some structure in place, even if you want to modify it one day?

I believe they were wise to try to distribute authority instead of having it all centralized. I would like to have made the hiring decisions, but that just wasn't possible. I'm not criticizing Cortines. He couldn't have done anything but what he did. For me to have come in and made those decisions within the first week would not have been healthy either. I needed to take what his decisions were and move from there. The school board brought Ray in for an interim period of time to accomplish certain things: first, to break the district down into subdistricts, and, second, to initiate a reading program. That was his mandate. Now we have a whole lot more work to do in terms of changing the rest of this system.

 

And what about the system needs changing?

My two most important objectives are to increase the ability of teachers to teach and to increase the ability of principals to manage instruction. In the end, it is instruction, instruction, instruction that will lead to our objective. For 50 or 100 years, educators have added program after program, shifting from the flavor of the day to the flavor of the month. But we've not been really thoughtful about how teachers learn to teach. And we're not thoughtful enough about how good professional development occurs. The old pattern would be to take the teachers out and give them a four-day seminar. Or take them to hear a motivational speaker. There is no real follow-up. And teachers have had the attitude of "What I do in my classroom is my business; the door's closed." We need to get beyond that. I'd like to do something similar to what they do in District 2 in New York. A teacher would get some instruction from outside, but primarily that teacher would learn from association with colleagues within the school. Let's say you have a master teacher of the third grade and you have a beginning teacher. You'd have the beginning teacher observe in the master teacher's class for three weeks. Then the master teacher would go to the beginning teacher's class for one week to observe that. And there would be an ongoing dialogue among all third-grade teachers every week or two. They would share their experience. This is a cultural change; it is a way of opening up the doors of the classroom, making it a community of learners.

And principals?

We judge principals in a variety of ways: how well they handle discipline, how well they handle the community's complaints, how well they manage the budget and the physical plant. Instruction is not central to the job description of principal. It should be. Ideally, a principal is in there managing better instruction. That's the primary reason for the principal to be there. A principal ought to be the principal teacher. I think the principal ought to spend 50 percent of his time in the classroom doing three things. First, recognizing when good instruction occurs. Second, helping teachers acquire the skill of good instruction. And third, doing a proper evaluation of it. Now the problem is, many of them are not skilled in this area. We have a shortage of principals in this country. And you really need to respect that principal who's got 4,000 middle school kids. I tell you, that is a tremendous hero. So what do you do? You've got to get some of the paperwork and stuff off his desk and reassign it or cut it out. You need to give him more time to devote to instruction. And you need to provide him with additional skills. We all have things to learn; not just the students. The teacher does, the principal does, the superintendent does.

 

 

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.

 

If you look at the Inglewood school district, which is always cited as an example of the marvelous success of the Open Court program, there are some questions raised. You do see a real bump in test scores at the elementary level. But the district's high school scores are not so impressive. And the district has a high dropout rate. Some of the high-scoring elementary students leave the district prior to high school, but you have to wonder if maybe the battle isn't won simply because you've successfully taught phonics in elementary school. Another question raised by Open Court is what happens to the kids who master reading early? Are those phonics drills really serving a kid who's ready to read Harry Potter?

I think what the good Open Court teacher does is identify those students and give them extra enrichment and challenge parallel to Open Court. Everybody knows how badly we're doing on reading. We have to do something different. And we have other handicaps: 58 percent of our new teaching hires are uncredentialed, and many of our schools are low-performing. We're gambling that this program, which takes a kind of Marine-drill approach, will work, and that's a fair gamble. The test of whether or not this was a good decision will be whether it works.

 

The district is in the middle of union negotiations with its teachers. What are some of the important issues there from your perspective?

One has to do with my desire to improve instruction. We pay teachers for an eight-hour day, but we have a rule that says teachers only have to be on campus six hours. And I am very firm about trying to get one additional on-site hour a week for professional development, for teachers to have collegial time together. That's a sticking point, that extra hour a week on campus.

 

Another sticky issue is classroom assignment. Currently, teachers have the right to bump other teachers with less seniority in order to get a different grade or on a more desirable track at a year-round school. The teachers won this right during tight times in a year they agreed to take a 10 percent pay cut. They say it protects them from the whims of principals. What is your position?

Let me ask you something. At this newspaper, let's say the editor wants a reporter to do a particular job. And let's say that reporter has been here longer than anybody else and decides that, no, he wants to bump someone else from a different job that the other person is doing extremely well. Let's say he comes in and says, "I don't care what skill I've got; I want to do that, because I'm senior." Could he do that even without having the skills of the person doing the job? Would that be good for the paper? That's the way it is now at schools. At year-round schools, we have three tracks: A, B and C. A is the track most like traditional school, with a long break in the summer. Go look at where the senior teachers are. They get the best track. Look at where all the inexperienced teachers are -- jammed into the undesirable tracks. Now when I came here, I said, that's not just bad management; it's immoral! You have to remember that in this district, a significant percentage of our teachers are uncredentialed, and still on probation because they're in their first two years. I'd like to see a system that honors seniority, but doesn't lump all the inexperienced teachers on a single track.

 

 

What about the point teachers make that some principals aren't competent to make assignments, and do so in a frivolous, even vindictive, way? Aren't you asking them to take a leap of faith that their principals -- who may not have managed well in the past -- are suddenly going to be good managers?

It's not a leap of faith to expect a principal to have the ability to make some judgment. If you have the editor title, you're expected to exercise responsibility as editor, no matter how people feel about your competence as editor. That's structurally what ought to happen in an organization. We don't buy that structure in public schools in this district. I'm willing to allow for a shared decision. Right now, teachers assign themselves.

 

You said something a minute ago that I think gets to the core problem of this district. It's astounding that so many teachers are uncredentialed, with very little experience. How do you begin to address the problems of an educational system where that great a number of people don't really know what they're doing?

First, we can't assume that all those teachers are bad just because they're inexperienced. But we've also got to look culturally. What is it about the culture of the district that has produced the condition we're in? And what do we do to change it? There are other central problems. I don't have the power to assign teachers to particular schools, but let's look at who teaches in which part of town. We have real inequality of who teaches in what portion of this town. Now, how do I get over that? I can't do it by ordering teachers to go somewhere, because they'd leave the district. But I've got to find a way to address the inequity.

 

It seems to me like we're on the verge of coming up with a very good 30-year plan for building schools. But that won't solve the immediate problem of the next five years. So, what's the five-year plan while we're waiting for the 30-year plan to take effect?

In the last 17 years, they built 2,000 seats per year on the average. In the next five or six years, we're going to build 12,000 seats per year. And even with that, we're going to be further behind five years from now than we are now, because having built 65 schools, we're going to have 80,000 new students. So the numbers don't work. Therefore our strategy is, build new, but also rent existing space.

I've been working out a deal with the DWP on the Anthony building. We've bought the building, but we'll lease back two-thirds of it to the company and use the remaining third to create a 1,200-seat academy right across the street from Polytechnic. I'd like to do that at the Port Authority and LAX. We also ought to do it with 10 to 15 private companies. We need to say to them, "We need space for a thousand high school youngsters." We'd get high school space and also develop strong relationships for kids with the world of work. We also need to use charter schools and virtual schools.

 

Now that it takes just 55 percent of the voters to pass school bonds, do you have plans to get some school bonds out there?

I will have plans, but I don't have them now. First we need to produce. We need to prove to this community that we can build these buildings correctly, on time, without environmental hazards.

 

Does Belmont have a role in easing the space crunch?

Within a week of arriving here, I began looking at Belmont. It would provide 4,000, 5,000 seats. And I think it's almost a moral problem not to allow these kids to have space to learn. We've got a real crunch. We've got 65,000 seats being built, but we'll be further behind at the end of that five years' time. It's kind of like, if you're rescuing somebody out of the swimming pool, and you bring them up within two feet of the surface, that feels like progress, because they were on the bottom. You feel good about it, but they're still going to drown.

 

 

So how would you propose going forward with Belmont?

The first week I was here, I made the point that we should at least finish the environmental investigation. We need all the facts in order to make a reasoned decision. Then you can make a disposition of this property, either as a school or something else. I decided not to press the issue until after the election.

 

Did you get an appeal from Governor Gray Davis to keep Belmont out of the news until voters could pass Proposition 39 [which lowers the voter-approval threshold on school bonds from 66 percent to 55 percent]?

I got communication from his office that raising the issue during the elections was not helpful. Now it's after, and I mean to go back and finish my conversation with the board. My approach is, finish the environmental investigation, get the facts on the table, and let the facts drive the solution. We might dispose of the property. We might turn it into a charter school. I know there's a lot of history that preceded me, and I need to be respectful of this board. But I also have an obligation to problem-solve.

 

A minute ago, you mentioned the notion of virtual learning. Can you elaborate?

I'm absolutely convinced there's more learning available through virtual learning, online learning, than we are utilizing, and I think that can be translated into a space alternative, if we're smart enough.

 

Do you mean not bringing kids together in the classroom?

Let me give you a wild one. We now close a high school down at 3 in the afternoon. What if you had another crew of kids out there who had been studying online, in the morning and early afternoon? Then you bring them on campus from 3 to 6 for that social interaction. I'm not proposing that yet, but I think it's worth studying. We're in such shape, we've got to think of every idea; we've got to think outside the box.

 

Can we afford to build the number of schools we need?

That's the huge question: Where do you get the money? When you put kids in a sardine can the way we've been doing in this district, there is an economy of scale. If you put kids into something livable, you've got to pay for it, and it's more than just the cost of the building. This district has been saving money by packing people like sardines. You put another 100 schools out there, you've got another 100 principals to pay, and office staff and janitors. That issue is not on the table clearly enough in the union negotiations. I'm trying to get it there. Can you see the argument? Everything I've ever heard from the union is, "You've got the money; spend it." Nobody has ever calculated what it will cost to provide adequate space for kids. That's not in anybody's budget.

 

And have you calculated the costs?

I have staff working on it now. What I'm trying to tell you is that this issue, in my mind, is the most explosive one in town.

 

Your point is, the cost goes way beyond building. It goes to running the building, to staffing the building.

Absolutely.

 

And has the union had any response to this?

I can't get that issue on the table right now, because I would not have an audience for it. But I have to get it on the table. The union is saying, "Look, you got money from Gray Davis; give it to us, give us a 15 percent increase." I need to try to find a way to put that issue in perspective in this community. I want this community to understand that they have had a cheap ride by putting kids in sardine-can schools. And they have not recognized the cost of operating, let alone building, adequate facilities. If you put 4,000 kids into a middle school on triple tracks, you inevitably are going to save money. But quality goes out the door.

 

Shifting gears a bit: It was recently reported that Richard Riordan is going to become a district official after his stint as mayor is over.

No, no, no. Let me explain the facts about Richard Riordan and the district. He and I had dinner six or seven weeks ago. At the end, he said he'd like to come to work for the district, helping in the area of computers in the classroom. This is a man who knows an awful lot about this area and a man who's given a lot of money to provide computers in the classroom, and he's offering to volunteer his time. Of course I said, "Great. Come on over." This is not to take charge of that section of the district: In fact, I'm going to hire someone to head that division in the next 10 days. But it's an assignment which I think he has some real interest in, and gift for, and I'd like to use his talents. How do we do it? We haven't talked about any details. He's not coming as a paid employee; he's coming as a volunteer, as a kind of patriot.

 

 

But he's also someone who comes in wielding a big stick.

I understand that he has a political life as well. But there will be a firewall between that activity and what he would be helping on with computers. I'm not into getting into that election stuff. I'm a superintendent, I've got to deal with whoever's elected. The question is, do I foreclose his volunteering to help because he's politically active? I don't think I should or will.

 

Will he have staff? Would he have an office?

We haven't talked about it.

 

But you must know, obviously, that Mayor Riordan has announced his intention to unseat two of your sitting board members. What kind of situation does that put you in? They are, after all, your bosses.

It's not an easy situation. It's not easy at all. But look, I'm a very pragmatic man. Richard Riordan comes to me, a man who has given millions to schools, and he says, "I'd like to not just give you money; I'd like to come over and give you my time." What am I going to say to him? No? It would be wrong to do that. If I can't build a wall between that activity and his political activity, then I'll think further.

 

Couldn't you say, "Look, I want to have your help, but you can't be unseating my bosses and helping me on the side at the same time; you put me in an untenable situation."

You know, I might have to face that situation. When he raised this issue, I didn't even think about it. He offered help, and I said come. If it develops to where it is a disruption in the system, I'll have to straighten it out.

 

Let's talk about social promotion. There are two ways of looking at the issue. One is that you have to hold kids to standards, and that the best way to do that is to not let them advance to the next grade unless they've learned what they need to have learned. But on the other hand, if the schools haven't given a kid what it takes every year up until the year of the test, how do you then suddenly say, "Now we're going to hold you responsible for what we never taught you?"

We do need a social-promotion policy. But it's not fair to take eighth grade and second grade and have the guillotine come down, unless you're also fixing the system that produces this failure. I mean, you've got to enforce standards each year, each six weeks of each year. Every damn year you've got to bring them back up to grade level. We also, as a matter of practicality, don't have the space for them in the eighth grade. They'll probably drop out if you force them to stay in middle school. So there's a more creative response that I'm working on. We say to kids, "Okay, you're reading at third-grade level. You can't go up to ninth grade. But we're going to physically move you out of this building called middle school and into either a special school for you to catch up, or into the high school, but without ninth-grade status. You can't have it, you're not there." And then you give them a very concentrated course to bring them along. We have to look below the surface for answers instead of just saying, "Hold them back at second" or "hold them back at eighth."

 

If you had known what you were walking into, would you have come?

Oh, sure. I came here because this is so difficult. I know a lot of governors and ex-governors, and they have a problem. The governor's job is the best job in America, and it's really exhilarating. You've got power to do what you want to do. You get a lot of feedback.

 

We should have spent more time making this case to W.

But in my particular circumstance, I had energy that was not yet used, and I wanted a challenge. I knew what this was before I came. Of course, there are aspects of it I didn't understand before I came.

 

 

Such as?

The politics of the job. I knew it was going to be a very political job. In Colorado, I ran for governor and fought to win, and then I was governor. I could govern. Here, you check your votes every week. It's a different deal. And you can understand where I am on Belmont with my board.

 

And how is your relationship with the board?

I really respect this board, it's a group of good human beings who care about children. They are very intelligent people. Of course we have differing views at times, like with the Belmont thing. But I have great respect for them.

 

How likely do you think it is that we'll have a teachers' strike?

Well, there shouldn't be a strike, because we're able and willing to pay very well. If there is a strike, it will probably be over the issue of accountability.

 

What aspect of accountability?

The issue of year-round tracks and seniority. But I'm hopeful that won't be the case.


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