Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Calling on LAUSD and UTLA to Address Teacher Quality

Communities for Teaching Excellence applauds LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy and UTLA President Warren Fletcher for working collaboratively to design a new agreement that provides schools with increased flexibility outside of the current union contract. This agreement represents an important step forward by providing every school in Los Angeles with the freedom to craft customized plans for hiring, classroom assignments, instruction, and budgeting. It also loosens certain policies - such as the “must-place list,” which forced principals to hire teachers without regard for teacher quality - that have impeded efforts to provide effective teaching for every student, in every classroom, every year in Los Angeles. While clear accountabilities in exchange for these flexibilities are still needed, this moves us in the right direction.

We are deeply disappointed, however, that teacher quality is not comprehensively addressed in this agreement, despite a significant body of research indicating that an effective teacher is the most important in-school factor in raising student achievement. In fact, research shows that access to an effective teacher can literally make or break a student’s chances at success. The critical need to increase students’ access to effective teaching is underscored by LAUSD’s continued low-performance on the Nation’s 2011 Report Card for urban school districts and in the persistent achievement gaps for low-income students, and students of color. We believe the best way to address these achievement gaps and to ensure all students are college and career ready is for the district to fundamentally alter its current approaches to recruiting, supporting, evaluating, and rewarding effective teachers.

We support and commend the district’s pilot program that is working with hundreds of teachers to develop and implement a robust teacher evaluation system. This new system—which relies on multiple measures—is designed to provide a more objective measure of performance, and will ensure more informed decision-making around hiring, placement, and resource allocation. It is only with such a system in place that the district can improve its teacher and leader corps and pursue important reforms in other areas such as tenure and compensation. More importantly, this new system will provide parents information to help guide their decision-making about their child’s education.

We urge Superintendent Deasy and President Fletcher to advance their collaborative efforts and continue working to build a culture of effective teaching. We invite students, parents, teachers and the community to join us in advocating for teaching quality reforms in LAUSD, and to ensure effective teaching for every student, in every classroom, every year.

Monday, August 29, 2011

LAUSD Board Needs to Move Forward, Not Back on Promising Reform

When I was elected to the L.A. Unified School Board in 2007, I promised that I would fight to change a dysfunctional system that served the agendas of the adults at the expense of too-often-forgotten children and families. Change is hard and slow. But I believed change was also possible, even for the LAUSD.

In August of 2009, working with many committed supporters of reform and a chorus of parents demanding change, the LAUSD Board of Education passed the Public School Choice resolution, shaking up the district’s culture of dysfunction, gridlock, and failure.

The resolution allows various education groups, including teachers, community associations, universities, unions, and charters, to submit proposals to run chronically low-performing schools as well as newly built schools. This challenge to the status quo brought hope to thousands of our city’s least powerful and most underserved families, and sent a message that the District would no longer operate these schools in the same old way, with the same tired and tragic results for kids

Unfortunately, school board member Steve Zimmer now wants to eviscerate this powerful reform that has – even in these early stages – shown promising results. Zimmer’s proposal – to be considered on August 30th – would prohibit charter schools from bidding for newly built schools unless it was determined that no other proposals were adequate. This proposal would stack the deck against successful charters and discourage them from competing to turn around not just new schools, but also our most disadvantaged schools.

If Zimmer’s desire is to give internal applicants a greater opportunity to run new schools or improve schools that have been in trouble for decades, then let’s give more weight to internal proposals that include greater support for teachers, are data driven, and embrace educator quality reforms. These might include:

• More effective teacher and principal evaluations that include student achievement data,
• Move tenure for new teachers from two to four years so teachers have more time to develop, and
• Use effectiveness rather than longevity to make employment decisions.

Equally important, LAUSD and United Teachers Los Angeles must be willing to give these internal teams the freedoms they need to be successful, which at present continue to be challenged by both bureaucracies.

Zimmer’s attack on the Public School Choice resolution ignores the positive results that it brought to the District. The data show clearly that the charter applicants that were awarded schools in the first round of Public School Choice helped us bring better schools to children that had been stuck in underperforming schools. Of the four charters that were granted new schools to run, three did significantly better than nearby schools. Synergy Charter Academy in south Los Angeles, for example, had almost 69% of the children proficient in English language arts compared to 29% at nearby Wadsworth Elementary. In math, 90.1% of the children at Synergy were proficient, compared to 46.8% at Wadsworth.

Equally important, these schools are providing models that are pushing adjacent, District-operated schools towards success. Public School Choice not only improved many of the schools that were reorganized under the resolution, but may have improved the entire district, based on the recent across the board growth in test scores throughout the LAUSD.

Zimmer’s resolution is a big slide away from reform and back down a slippery slope to the old, failed way of doing District business. Shall we further limit the choices of minority families that today have the fewest options for a quality education for their children, while affluent families tend to have higher quality schools? Indeed, most black and Latino students have the least access to good schools because they are financially disadvantaged. Their choices are limited to what is in their neighborhood, schools that too often are not offering students a chance at success. Public School Choice pushes on that and offers an opportunity to provide a better-quality neighborhood school – precisely what middle-class and affluent students have.

I believe that this decision is easy; every family should have access to an abundance of good school options, and the Public School Choice Act moves us in this direction. Mr. Zimmer’s resolution takes us backwards, away from our commitment to bring change to the kids we have neglected for way too long.

Fortunately, it is not too late to stop this rollback of reform and to defend the progress we have already made. We can raise our voices and let our Board members hear them. Together, we can make change happen, and keep on putting kids first.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

NCTQ Study Acknowledges Progress, But More Work to Do on Teacher Quality

Today the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) presented to the Los Angeles Board of Education a new study that examines the policies and practices shaping teacher quality in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Combined with the work of the Teacher Effectiveness Taskforce, this report is a powerful roadmap that can change the landscape of teacher quality for students of LAUSD.

The report, developed by NCTQ, the United Way and a coalition of education partners, shines the light on numerous workforce issues and practices that, despite our progress, we’ve failed to address. For example, it is outrageous that we spend 25 percent of our annual teacher payroll to compensate teachers for taking graduate coursework when there is absolutely no evidence that this practice adds to a teacher’s effectiveness. We also have not attended to the best placement of teachers. Rather than placing teachers where their talent is most needed, we instead rely on teacher preference and seniority when deciding classroom assignments. And our seniority system clearly does not benefit children when we do not consider quality over longevity when reductions in force are absolutely necessary.

Our Superintendent, Dr. John Deasy, has firmly committed to transforming LAUSD to be the best in the west and first in the nation. I believe that we won’t be successful in achieving this unless we push ourselves and our partners harder to implement as many of the report recommendations as possible. We must leverage this report to spark the much needed public awareness, engagement and political will to compel LAUSD, its labor partners and our state leaders to do what’s right for kids.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Road Less Traveled: Transforming Education by Investing in Parents & Families

Today the LAUSD Board of Education received an initial set of recommendations from our Parent Engagement Task Force outlining ways the District can transform the culture and practice of parental engagement throughout the District. This work stemmed out of my Parents as Equal Partners in the Education of Their Children resolution, co-sponsored by Board Members Zimmer and Martinez.

The Taskforce recommendations mark a significant step forward in our collective commitment and duty to shift the District’s status quo culture of compliance in the area of parent engagement to one of authentic partnership and respect that acknowledges the central role that parents and families play in their children’s educational success.

The Taskforce – chaired by Antonia Hernandez, President of the California Community Foundation and former President of MALDEF – focused its work on three essential elements of parent engagement, as outlined in our resolution:

• Identifying parent rights and responsibilities in supporting student achievement;
• Building parent capacity as teaching partners, advocates who push for better schools, and decision-makers who choose the best educational options for their children; and
• Addressing barriers to parent and family involvement

Developed by over one hundred stakeholders including parents, school leaders, district staff, educators, nonprofits and university faculty, the Taskforce recommendations emphasize the need to invest in families; the importance of accountability for all stakeholders including parents, teachers, principals and district staff in fostering authentic partnerships; and the need to create systematic communication between parents and schools that is open, equitable and data-based.

Our next step is to receive from our new Superintendent, Dr. John Deasy, a comprehensive Master Plan for Family and Community Engagement that begins to integrate parents and families to the center of all of our reform efforts. This conversation is essential if we are to make good on our promise of educational excellence to our children.

Last week at the United Way Education Summit, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated, “The public school system of Los Angeles is at a crossroads. Community leaders, community groups, unions, parents, educators, and students can continue on the road you have been on. Or you can take the road less traveled, the harder road.”

The Board of Education, with overwhelming parent and community support, made a clear decision to embark upon the road less traveled last December when it passed the Parents As Equal Partners resolution. The passage of the resolution boldly acknowledged that our inability to meaningfully and systematically engage parents posed the greatest threat to the success of our students. It signified that without parent involvement all other educational reform efforts would be fruitless.

With gratitude to Antonia Hernandez, chair of the Taskforce and a long time civil rights leader, and all the members of the Taskforce and sub-committees, we walk firmly and deliberately on the road less traveled. Indeed, today we moved further on that road to honor parents as equal partners in the education of their children.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Decision for Echo Park Kids

This past Tuesday, the LAUSD Board of Education voted on Superintendent Cortines’ Public School Choice 2.0 recommendations. While the Board approved 23 of his 28 recommendations, amendments were offered and subsequently approved by the Board in several instances. This decision-making responsibility (whether to support, not support, or amend) is something I have always taken very seriously as a Board Member.

Throughout my tenure, I have approached each decision the same way – analyzing all available information, asking deeper questions, meeting with appropriate parties for greater understanding, and being guided in my final decision by the interests of children (relative to each individual choice). The thought process behind an amendment I offered on Tuesday for Central Region Elementary School #14 – a new PSC school in the community of Echo Park – highlights the steps I go through when making a decision.

In the case of CRES #14, Mr. Cortines recommended a plan submitted by the Local District 4 and Echo Park Community Partners Design Team. I began by reviewing factors I considered especially important, as well as criteria and guidelines set forth in the PSC process and by the Superintendent himself for recommending a plan, namely: 1) the quality and strength of the plan; 2) the applicant’s track record of success; 3) the likelihood of the plan being fully and successfully implemented; 4) the review panels’ input and recommendations; 5) the Superintendent’s recommendations; and 5) parent input.

In addition, I considered the needs of the students that CRES #14 was built to serve. Specifically, it was built to relieve two overcrowded campuses: Union and Rosemont Elementary schools. The demographics for these schools are roughly 89% Latino students, 6% Filipino, and 1% White, African American, and Asian (each). Almost 60% are English Learners. Further, 91% are low-income and in extreme poverty.

While I was impressed with the collaborative nature of the LD4 and Echo Park Community Partners Plan and their engagement of a number of community members (and the plan indeed had many exciting elements), the plan also fell short in meeting some of the criteria listed above, as was noted by several reviewers on the various review panels. In the end, the LD4 proposal received mixed reviews, with three of six reviewers either not recommending the plan or not giving it a rating at all.

Further, Superintendent Cortines’ recommendation for the LD 4 plan came WITH RESERVATIONS and noted, “the plan lacks depth in many key areas; implementation timelines are vague; and key decisions around curriculum, professional development and assessment are unknown.” His recommendation also states that the LD 4 plan “lacks many important details, especially for English Learner students.” Given the likelihood that the majority of the students served by CRES #14 will be English Learners, this was especially troubling for me.

On the other hand, the Camino Nuevo plan was rated highly and commended by each of Mr. Cortines’ review panels. Indeed, all six reviewers recommended Camino Nuevo for CRES #14, noting the depth of their proposal and excellent results. At the Board meeting, Superintendent Cortines shared that Camino Nuevo is a great partner for the District, as evidenced by the strength of their program and exceptional track record. He lauded their success and effective instruction, and stated that he was “blown away” with what he saw in visiting their classrooms. Elements of the Camino Nuevo plan that were particularly impressive in their depth include the following:

1. The proposal was founded on a strong instructional program that incorporates a proven, research-based bilingual program for core academics, with weekly art, music, dance, drama, and physical education instruction;

2. There was a focus on the “whole child.” What this means is that CN provides case management to ensure families have access to necessary support services. They leverage partnerships to accomplish this. CN serves as a referral hub. They offer wrap around support services to address potential barriers to learning outside the school as well as inside the school. Given these students are predominantly low-income and in extreme poverty, this is essential;

3. There was a strong focus on parent involvement and a “parents as partners” motto that is integral to the school’s culture and practice;

4. The plan incorporates a longer school year (195 instructional days compared to 180 at LAUSD), an extended length school day, and smaller class sizes;

Further, Camino Nuevo’s track record for very similar populations, in the surrounding areas, in similar grades, is outstanding. Consider this:

• 60% of CN students are proficient in English Language Arts and 80% are proficient in math (compared to 42% & 40% in English Language Arts and 52% & 49% in math at Rosemont and Union Elementary Schools, respectively)

• CN is effectively closing the achievement gap between English Learners and fluent English speakers (840 API for ELs in K-8 – compared to 644 at LAUSD, though for K-12 )

• For K-8 schools, CN’s API grew from 651 to 859 in five years (over 200 point increase)

• Their high school API is 788, with a 96% graduation rate; 80% of students are accepted into four-year colleges and universities

My decision also factored in parent input. In this case, there was an outpouring of support from parents for both plans submitted for CRES #14. My staff met with parents supporting the LD4 plan, as well as parents supporting the Camino Nuevo plan. Though each group had a different interest, all were articulate and passionate in what they wanted for their children. I also received hundreds of letters and emails, numerous petitions and postcards, and a few phone messages as well. In reviewing all of this input, there was essentially equal support for each plan.

I also considered the needs of English Learners. For too long, we have struggled to provide a quality education for these students. When we look at third grade reading proficiency rates for all students at LAUSD – approximately 34% – and then further disaggregate for English Learners, only 11% are reading proficiently. This means that almost nine of every ten EL students are reading BELOW grade level. This is not new, but this also does not have to continue.

After analyzing all of this information and input, it became clear that Camino Nuevo’s plan was the stronger of the two. For this reason, I decided to offer an amendment to have Camino Nuevo operate CRES #14, which was subsequently approved. I chose Camino Nuevo because we owe our children better – especially our English Learners. They cannot wait another year for us to figure it out when we have a proven model available to them right now.

Even so, I appreciate wholeheartedly and am inspired by the work of Local District 4 and the local community members who came together to work on a plan for CRES #14. They provided a good plan that can be made even better. I hope they continue to collaborate, and that we find a way to bring their strengthened plan to other neighborhood schools that need help. They are a visionary and committed group, and my hope is that they form an Education Collaborative and further bridge the divide that has existed in the community. This would be powerful!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Yolie Flores: All of LAUSD's students deserve equality of education

L.A. Daily News editorial, January 20, 2011

Low income students and minority students have been waiting 57 years – since Brown vs. Board of Education – for us to get it right and ensure them equality of education. Yet, despite that victory and despite California’s constitution guaranteeing such equality, the struggle continues. Last May, public school students from three LAUSD middle schools, Gompers, Liechty, and Markham, contended that their right to an equal education had been violated when a disproportionate number of their teachers, nearly two-thirds, were laid off in a period of two years due to budget-based reductions-in-force. The Court agreed with the students’ plea and all involved parties – including LAUSD, the ACLU, and the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools – set to the task of developing a settlement proposal that would ensure that the rights of these middle school students were permanently protected.

I am proud to say that the resulting proposal – expanded and strengthened by the Board of Education – not only preserves the rights of students at Gompers, Liechty and Markham, but also expands these rights to more students, setting the stage for us to ensure equality of education for every LAUSD student. This will be achieved by

• Granting LAUSD the authority to provide layoff protections for up to 45 schools that meet agreed upon criteria

• Ensuring that any future layoffs will be applied proportionally throughout the district

• Requiring LAUSD to provide support and resources, including retention incentives to stabilize and improve schools with high teacher turnover rates.

In October, the LAUSD Board of Education voted unanimously to approve a settlement on these terms and move forward in concluding the lawsuit. However, the teacher’s union, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), has since thrown all of its legal might at thwarting the settlement’s final approval.

For UTLA, teacher seniority and the insistence of their members to remain employed based solely on the length of time they have taught, trumps the research that seniority does not guarantee effectiveness. UTLA’s fierce opposition to the settlement makes clear its preference for the status quo in which our most vulnerable students — students of color and students in poverty — annually suffer from destabilized learning environments and disrupted instruction.

The approval of this settlement is a first step in leveling the playing field. While it does not yet protect ALL students, it ensures that schools that are making significant progress with our most vulnerable students are not undermined by repeated layoffs. It ensures that the promise of our newest schools in some of the toughest neighborhoods will be fulfilled. It allows their administrators and teachers the time they need to establish trust with parents and the surrounding community and prevents them from being sabotaged before they can begin to realize their potential as transformative institutions of learning.

Despite UTLA’s intransigence on this essential issue, I remain hopeful for two reasons. First, LAUSD, together with community leaders and advocates, stand firmly behind this historic settlement proposal. This coalition of allies grows larger every day increasing the urgency and momentum for much needed teacher quality reform, both here in Los Angeles and in Sacramento. We will look to these groups and individuals to aid us as we pursue critical state legislation well beyond the scope of this settlement so that all students are afforded the same basic protections.

Second, while UTLA’s leadership stands opposite us in this case, there is a small but significant example of their collaboration with the district that provides a glimmer of hope that we can and must build upon. Last week, UTLA’s governing body approved our School District Improvement Grant (SIG) which provides critically needed resources to allow teachers and administrators to engage in innovative work related to the improvement of teaching, learning, and the evaluation process at nine different LAUSD schools. Actions such as this, coupled with the emergence of NewTLA, a growing movement of reform-minded teachers within UTLA’s leadership, are hopeful signs of a new direction within the union to address the needs of children as well as the interests of their members.

The ACLU lawsuit is the next step in the struggle for equality. It once again sets the stage for all of us – at the local and state level – to re-examine our priorities on behalf of our children. If we truly are committed to an equal education for all children, we must leave behind old and entrenched political agendas and policies and embrace the truths that every child deserves a great teacher and that great teachers must be cultivated, supported, fairly but properly evaluated, and more justly compensated. To get there, we must change the rules that violate the principles of fairness, justice and equality that we strive to instill in our children and that we guaranteed them too many years ago.