Los Angeles Unveils 8-Yr. Reform Plan To Hike Attainment

By Lynn Olson — April 05, 1989 9 min read

The Los Angeles Board of Education last week approved an ambitious 10-year plan aimed at combatting “widespread low-achievement patterns” in the nation’s second-largest school district, particularly among poor and minority students.

The sweeping set of proposals, which would eventually cost more than $400 million a year, focuses primarily on the elementary grades and incorporates many of the education reforms that have become popular in recent years.

These include the creation of pre-kindergarten programs, smaller classes, more aggressive parental outreach, and a strengthened, language-rich curriculum geared toward the acquisition of higher-order skills.

The plan also calls for shifting more authority for educational spending and instruction down to the school site, through the creation of shared-decisionmaking teams that include parents, teachers, principals, and other staff members.

Superintendent Leonard M. Britton last week called the plan a “major statement” on the part of the school system.

“I think as we do better with our bottom 25th percentile, that’s going to permeate our entire school district with an attitude, a zeal, for wanting to do the right things for all students,” he said.

But while board members gave unanimous approval to the plan’s general tenets and recommendations, some of its specific components--and its high price tag--are are already proving controversial.

“How is it that we’re going to begin a whole new program, when we are today cutting a sizable amount out of our district budget?” asked board member Leticia Quezada. “We ought not to make false promises to children that we may not be able to meet.”

The board is currently debating how to make approximately $80 million in budget cuts that district officials say are needed in order to raise teachers’ salaries as part of stalled contract negotiations.

In addition, a number of the plan’s recommendations--such as the creation of a career ladder for teachers and shared decisionmaking at the school site--would require an unprecedented degree of cooperation between teachers and administrators.

That prospect appears unlikely in the near future, given the increasingly confrontational relationship between the school system and the United Teachers of Los Angeles.

Union members are scheduled to take a strike vote in the middle of this month. They are also circulating a petition asking for Mr. Britton’s ouster, based on what they say is his “union-busting, anti-teacher record.”

Community members generally praised the plan last week as a courageous step forward for the school district. But it drew some fire from members of the minority community, who said it does not go far enough in addressing the particular needs of black and Hispanic youngsters.

Board members have asked Mr. Britton to come back with a more detailed timeline for carrying out the plan--along with cost estimates--sometime in the next four to six weeks.

The ambitious policy agenda is outlined in a 179-page report, “The Children Can No Longer Wait,” that was prepared by an 11-member team of teachers, principals, and administrators appointed by Mr. Britton last fall.

The report for the first time acknowledges “institutional racism” in the district, most of whose students are members of minority groups.

"[P]ractices abound where [minority] students are placed in less rigorous academic programs, are taught below their critical thinking level, and are held to standards and expectations far below their potential,” the report states.

“These instances of institutional racism deny equal access to a balanced and enriched curriculum,4and, as such, undermine the achievement of whole groups.”

According to the report, 56 percent of the district’s elementary-school students scored at or below the 40th percentile on the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills in 1987-88.

Among students at the district’s predominantly black or Hispanic schools, the percentage scoring at or below the 40th percentile on the nationally standardized tests rose to 90 percent.

The Los Angeles school district enrolls approximately 590,000 students. Of those, 59 percent are Hispanic and 16.7 percent are black. White students represent 15.8 percent of the population; Asians, 5.9 percent; Filipinos, 1.9 percent; Pacific Islanders, 0.5 percent; and American Indians and Alaskan Natives, 0.2 percent.

The report includes a total of 38 recommendations.

The most expensive calls for creating a “base program” at every elementary school. This would guarantee such services as an administrative manager to free teachers of clerical duties; one three-hour paraprofessional for every classroom; a nurse one day a week for every 300 students; a library assistant and the creation of a multimedia library; a psychologist one day a week for every 500 students; and one full-time music, art, or physical-education teacher for every 12 classrooms.

The program would be phased in over nine years, beginning this fall. Once in place, it would cost approximately $175 million annually.

The plan also recommends the creation of prekindergarten programs for 4-year-olds and their parents at every elementary school. Such programs now operate in fewer than half of the district’s 413 elementary schools. If phased in over five years, beginning this coming school year, the proposal would cost $88 million a year by 1993-94.

Another proposal would reduce class size to a maximum of 24 students in grades K-2. Many classes now have more than 30 students. Cuts in class size would begin in 1991-92 and would cost approximately $44 million annually when in place.

Proposals to provide after-school enrichment programs for students, and summer school for approximately 300,000 children a year, would also be phased in over a five-year period.

One of the most controversial recommendations in the plan, however, is a zero-cost item designed to create shared-decisionmaking teams at the school site. Eventually, most fiscal and instructional decisions would be made by individual schools, instead of by the central office.

“Decisions that affect achievement must be made at the local school site,” the report argues. “Those persons at the local school site are in the best position to know the child and the learning conditions that influence the child’s achievement.”

Paul M. Possemato, chairman of the study team and associate superintendent for educational planning and research, said the report’s emphasis on school-based management and shared decisionmaking represents a “complete reversal of how the district by and large operates.”

But while union officials, board members, and community representatives last week applauded the idea, they remain sharply divided over how shared decisionmaking would work.

The study team has proposed that each shared-decisionmaking team include a teacher majority. Both the school’s principal and the team’s chairman would have to agree on what issues could come to the table.

Board member Rita D. Walters last week said she objects to having a teacher majority on such teams, because that is “identical” to a union proposal that the school board has rejected in contract negotiations.

Each school should be able to develop its own shared-decisionmaking model, she said, based on a consensus among all of the affected groups.

Ms. Quezada, another board member, said that parents also have become “very adamant about having a significant role” on such teams.

“They want to have an equal footing with whomever else is on that committee,” she said. “In a school district that has such ethnic diversity, the only way that we’re going to address these longstanding issues of low achievement among our children is if parents are part and parcel of the decisionmaking process.”

Meanwhile, the union’s position is that shared-decisionmaking teams must have a teacher majority, and that principals should not have veto power over a team’s decisions. Any shared-decisionmaking proposal in the district must receive approval at the bargaining table.

Superintendent Britton last week predicted that shared decisionmaking will happen in the district, despite the current impasse. “It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when we do this and in what form,” he said. “If it isn’t this year, it will be next year, or the year after ... and it will be done with the union.”

The plan contains a number of other proposals that are already on this year’s bargaining table, or that would need to be approved through contract negotiations.

These include the creation of a career ladder for teachers that eventually would cost some $3.3 million a year, and the provision of time for elementary teachers and principals to plan instruction and pursue their own professional growth.

One proposal would add 30 minutes to the school day four days a week, so that principals and teachers would be free to meet one afternoon a week without cutting into instructional time. Another would extend the school year by five paid days for teachers and principals, to be used for staff development, preparation, and planning.

Unlike high-school teachers in the district, elementary teachers do not have a preparation period, although the teachers’ union is fighting for one in contract negotiations.

Union leaders last week praised the plan overall, saying that it reflects many of their own recommendations. They also reiterated their claims that the district has enough money to fund such proposals, if it would cut back on administrative costs and reassess its priorities.

“I hope [this plan] doesn’t die, because it has a lot of good things in it that teachers have been asking for for years,” said Catherine M. Carey, a spokesman for the union. “But a lot of these things depend on the cooperation between teachers and administrators,” she cautioned, “and in order to have that, we have to have a decent contract.”

“The climate right now is very delicate,” agreed Lydia R. Lopez, past president of the United Neighborhoods Organization, a broad-based community-advocacy group operating in Southeast Los Angeles.

“What happens in the next month is critical,” she added, noting that if teachers decide to strike, it would produce “social chaos” in the community.

Mark Ridley-Thomas, co-chairman of the Black Leadership Coalition on Education, said the report’s emphasis on “generic” improvements in the school system ignores the specific ethnic, cultural, and linguistic needs of black and Hispanic students.

Of the report’s 179 pages, only seven focus on how to make the curriculum more responsive to the individual concerns of various ethnic groups, Mr. Ridley-Thomas said. “Institutional racism happens as much by acts of omission as it does by acts of commission,” he warned. “To the extent that students of color are to a large measure unreferenced in the document, I classify that as an act of omission.”

“I think it’s an important step, but it doesn’t go far enough,” said Ms. Lopez. “A lot of people are missing the boat by focusing too much on principals, too much on teachers, and forgetting the consumers--the parents.”

Although the report calls for the creation of a parent outreach program at each school, as well as a district office to coordinate such efforts, funding for that proposal is minimal, amounting to only $164,000 a year.

A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 1989 edition of Education Week as Los Angeles Unveils 8-Yr. Reform Plan To Hike Attainment