Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Is Antonio Villaraigosa An Idiot?

The answer has to be yes. What else would explain the Los Angeles mayor's drive to take over the LA school system?

That district is among the very definitions of dysfunctional. Abysmal graduation rates, leaking money like a sieve--how is that Belmont Learning Center doing, anyway?--spending millions on a math program that was rejected by the state and no progress to show for it, need I go on? OK, I will. Math nazis, making sure teachers don't actually teach math but instead follow the failed program, a bureaucracy that would put some federal agencies to shame (have you ever heard of "regions" and "mini-districts"?), violent schools, low expectations, and the list goes on and on.

I'm curious. What exactly does Villaraigosa think he can do to clean up that mess? Even if he could reform an entrenched bureaucracy, there are still systemic problems that he can't address. Those problems are cultural, and are rooted in a culture of poverty that dooms so many. As mayor Villaraigosa could work on helping to allevieate that problem; he could be a leader by standing up for self-reliance, for morality, for hard work. As a Hispanic he has credibility with a part of the populace that could use a leader they can trust.

Instead, he makes a naked power grab knowing that anything he does would only be window dressing. Los Angeles has plenty of troubles its mayor could work to correct, it doesn't need its mayor trying to collect even more intractable problems.

The outgoing superintendent of the LA Unified District is former Colorado governor (and current a**hole) Roy Romer. Romer, who still insists people address him as "Governor", played martinet and accomplished little in reforming that district. I don't see how the mayor, who has so many other tasks with which to concern himself, would be able to give the job of governing that district the attention it so obviously requires.

Update, 6/22/06 9:59 am: I've got a slight factual correction to what was written above. LA uses state-approved math materials, at least in the lower grades, but all but bans the use of Saxon Math, which is among the best math programs out there (at least to us traditionalists). The district takes these state-approved curricula and supplements them with Math Instruction Guides (MIGs), which tell teachers what to teach, and when. Apparently, they have teachers skipping from place to place in the textbook, rendering the book essentially useless. Math becomes a bunch of discrete, disconnected concepts, instead of an integrated whole; it's not sequential anymore. Apparently, they're trying to use a catch-up program for Algebra I that isn't state-approved, though.

Additionally, I'm told that math training for teachers still includes videos touting fuzzy programs and procedures.

Here's the info I get on the math nazis:

Do they still use spies? Yes, they are called Math Coaches. Math Coaches are there to make sure the pacing plans are followed and that the quarterly assessments (a $5 million yearly contract, I was told) are given. Keep in mind that the quarterly assessments would not be needed if the district used the adopted materials as designed; all materials in California must have diagnostic assessments in order to be adopted. When the district changes the order of the books, all those assessments, as well as all other support materials (cumulative reviews, self-tests, etc.) are rendered useless. The books become nothing but giant problem sets.

So there you have it on just one of their problems. Now here's an update on what Villaraigosa has settled for:

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa reached a compromise Wednesday with lawmakers and teachers unions that would give him some authority over his city's schools without handing him the outright control he had sought.

The deal, which follows two days of negotiations, gives the superintendent of the nation's second-largest school district more power over personnel, business operations, budgeting and other areas...

Under the agreement, Villaraigosa will be allowed to lead a council of mayors from cities within the sprawling Los Angeles Unified School District. The council will have veto power over selecting a new superintendent, and the mayor also will assume a direct role in managing the 36 worst-performing schools.

But the compromise gives the mayor only an advisory role in deciding the district's budget. The school board will retain final spending authority, and therefore ultimate control over its educational priorities.

"This is a great win for the mayor, but it's also a win for the teachers," [Assembly Speaker Fabian] Nunez said. "Most of all, it is a win for the students of L.A. Unified."

Please, Fabian, tell me how this is a win at all for students. Tell me how this window dressing will change anything, starting with--oh, I don't know, how about, uh--graduation rates? exit exam passing rates? school performance improvement as measured by the API? closing the achievement gap?

I wonder how many of LA Unified's students can even spell "power grab".

Update #2, 6.22.06 3:09 pm: EIA (see blogroll at left) has many on-the-money points, but I like these:

The Los Angeles Times editorial page got it exactly right this morning: "Consider a school whose students are failing at math. Who could responsible parents see to address the problem? The teachers picked the curriculum, but they can't be voted out of office. The school didn't decide its budget; the superintendent did that. But both the board and the mayor have a say in it. The board can't hire and fire the superintendent on its own; the mayor can say the board selects the superintendent. And because the board loses power in this deal, it has little interest in seeing it succeed."

The deal does provide one critical element that all parties to the agreement want: ass-covering. When this goes wrong (and believe me, it will), no one can be singled out for blame. So, in the ultimate irony, a plan with the stated purpose of bringing greater accountability to the city's schools achieves the exact opposite.


Eric said...

In a word...yes. As for math, the only way my little ones learned anything of substance was (don't tell anyone) due to my "creative" teaching of the basics. You understand those crazy concepts such as drilling, emphasis on, dare I say it, memorization, and learning how to, say, add or subtract, before I hand you some bizarre word problem to solve.

Along those lines, I know it doesn't follow the Villaraigosa thread, I'd like to know when the district will give a math test that actualy tests math. The assessments we give are more reading tests than math tests (which doesn't bode well for my ESL students). My class scored about 50% proficient on the district math test. After I re-wrote the test into actual algorithm problems 100% of the class scored 90% or better BUT according to the district they aren't proficient in math. I'm all for problem solving but that has to be part of a bigger picture not the whole thing. Ok...enough of that, again, as you stated, Villaraigosa's plan is power plain and simple.

Anonymous said...

Got any more info on the math program fiasco? I googled and what I found was pretty old. Is LAUSD still pushing fuzzy math?

I am running for the legislature on this issue because I found our schools were using Mathland and TERC Investigations..am doing a presentation tonight.

Darren said...

Please see the update to the original post for more details.

Lori Humphreys said...

Hi Darren.

Fellow math teacher here - posted occasionally. I appreciate your blog - I like having my mind opened by others (particularly math teachers). Not that I always understand your rants but I do appreicate them!

Question: why do you like Saxon? What type of math student is best reached by Saxon? Have you taught from it? Success? Failure? Growth by students - where?

I ask because I think we could use it at our school for a particular class type but I could be wrong and I always need insight.


Darren said...

I've not taught with Saxon, but I'm on an emaillist with people who have and they love it. I've also visited their web site and they say all the things that I want to hear.

Organized, sequential curriculum? Check.

Problems start easy and get harder, building student skills? Check.

Rigorous math, not fuzzy? Check.

Approved in California? Check.

I think *anyone* could learn from Saxon, but it's especially good for the lower end kids because of the focus on *math*, not on so-called higher order thinking skills that a student can't have until they've mastered basics anyway. And Saxon is all about mastery of concepts.

Thanks for visiting!