Education Commentary

Rx for a New Superintendent

By Richard Rothstein — July 09, 1997 8 min read

Los Angeles’ new school superintendent, Ruben Zacarias, took over the reins of the nation’s second largest school district on July 1. The Los Angeles school board chose Mr. Zacarias after a nationwide search for a superintendent who could “save a failed system.” As Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan urged, we need someone with courage “to hold people accountable, to fire teachers who fail children.”

On the contrary. While firing people who fail is often a good idea, Ruben Zacarias should now summon the courage to repudiate these terms on which he was chosen. The Los Angeles Unified School District needs a leader to brag about its success and rebuild public confidence--and the self-confidence of teachers, students, and administrators--in its unique mission.

To do so, Mr. Zacarias should explain truths rarely discussed in polite company nowadays: Academic performance of the district’s students will always be and should always be considerably below national averages. One candidate for the superintendency, former banking executive William Siart, announced that his goal was to bring Los Angeles’ test scores up to the national average. This is irresponsible. If taken seriously, it guarantees the system will always be judged a failure. Were the district ever to meet this standard, that would prove American public schools dysfunctional.

Our unreal ways of talking about public schools have origins in a 20-year-old insight. In the 1970s, educators realized that many minority students achieved poorly because teachers expected them to fail, and when teachers didn’t believe in their students, students ceased to believe in themselves. If challenging course material was deemed beyond the capacity of poor children, it was not taught. Children without opportunities to learn then confirmed our expectations by not learning. Children from minority families were routinely warehoused in “tracks” which did not attempt to teach the full curriculum available to middle-class children.

Today, we reject this colonial pedagogy, but with a vengeance, adopting the equally malicious slogan that “all children can learn,” interpreted to mean that all children, regardless of background, have equal capacities to achieve at high levels. If they do not, it must be because teachers and schools have standards which are too low. And so when we find, for example, that Los Angeles 4th graders score, on average, at the 36th percentile in national reading tests, we conclude that schools are failing our children.

The notion that children in the Los Angeles public schools--87 percent minority, 28 percent from homes in poverty, 13 percent who don’t speak English--should, if only schools did their job, achieve at the same level as children from more advantaged communities is a conceit with unfortunate appeal to both liberals and conservatives. Liberals like it because it combats the racist habit of low expectations for minority children, and values each child equally. Conservatives like it because, when actual performance inevitably falls short, the incompetence of public schools and their public employee-teachers is exposed.

But expecting all children to achieve a similar standard flies in the face of everything we know about the process of education. For 30 years, experts have acknowledged that the most important determinants of student achievement are family and community characteristics. Children from literate homes with secure economic environments will always, on average, have better academic outcomes than children without these advantages. Earlier this spring, a White House conference highlighted research showing that the complexity of adult language used in the presence of infants in their first months of life was an important influence on intellectual development. All children can learn, but children of professional and college-educated parents enjoy a more effortless head start.

Can disadvantages of poverty, of less-literate parents, of limited economic opportunity be overcome by dedicated and inspired schools and teachers? Somewhat. Some poor children in good schools will outperform most middle-class children, although most middle-class children will outperform most poor children. Some inner-city schools will have better academic programs, better teachers, higher test scores than typical suburban schools. Can we duplicate this feat in every inner-city school? No, because we are describing relative accomplishments. Unless we stop educating middle-class children, their average achievement will continue to surpass that of disadvantaged students, no matter how good a job our urban schools do.

Almost all data on student achievement is “norm referenced.” In June, Los Angeles students were taking standardized exams. The “norm” (students’ score at the 50th percentile) had been established by administering the tests to a representative national sample of students, then determining the average score for each grade and subject area. We all know what the results will be: A few of the city’s schools and children will have scores above the national average, but most will be below. This does not mean that Los Angeles schools are failing. It could be consistent with success. We don’t know, because in our rush to denounce urban schools for their relative performance, we’ve not bothered to develop absolute standards for what it is reasonable to expect urban children, with their socioeconomic handicaps, to learn. Simply saying they should do as well as average children, however well that may be, evades the challenge.

In the absence of meaningful standards, we’re reduced to cliches and anecdotes. We like to say, for example, that early in this century immigrant children learned English without special programs and used education to assimilate to the middle class--forgetting that this process took three generations and that few immigrant children graduated from grade school 70 years ago, much less high school or college. We pretend that schools could succeed if only they returned to proven methods of the past. Like phonics? We forget that a 1955 national best-selling book was Why Johnny Can’t Read, a demand that schools abandon “modern” reading strategies and “return” to phonics. Most adults who today attack instructional fads fancy that they themselves learned to read with phonics. They did not. “Dick and Jane” was a whole-word system, training children to recognize words by repetition (“run, Dick, run, run, run”), not sounding out.

Because we’ve no good standards by which to judge our schools, a predisposition to see failure filters our anecdotal impressions. We often exchange tales about high school graduates who can’t make change. But when a Hollywood film (“Stand and Deliver”) depicts Los Angeles immigrant children passing Advanced Placement calculus, we assume this was an exception. It’s not. Last year, over 5,000 College Board Advanced Placement tests were given to Latino students in the Los Angeles Unified School District; about half the scores were high enough for college credit.

We’re convinced that the school system’s bureaucratic bungling makes education impossible, but don’t wonder how, in that case, the district sent the El Camino Real High School Academic Decathlon team in May to the national finals. El Camino Real’s students, unlike most of the district’s youngsters, are comfortably middle-class. While we should applaud their accomplishments, we should recognize that teachers in inner-city high schools who guide their students to the 30th percentile on national achievement tests may bring as much “value added” to the educational process as teachers in more comfortable communities where students coast to the 70th percentile. In Garrison Keillor’s mythical Lake Wobegon, “all children are above average.” The town can achieve this only because in some other places children tend to be below average. Nationwide, more poor children will score below the mean than advantaged children. We can improve instruction in Los Angeles schools, but as instruction improves everywhere, we’ll remain below average in academic outcomes.

The Los Angeles public schools’ noble role, like that of many urban school systems, is to give disadvantaged children a hand up the ladder of integration into middle-class America. From 1980 to 1995, Latino enrollment in the University of California increased by 220 percent; African-American enrollment increased by 43 percent, despite a 29 percent drop in the number of African-American adolescents in California’s population. These are not results produced by failing public schools.

So a successful Superintendent Zacarias will have to reject conventional wisdom and promote realistic standards of achievement for the city’s schoolchildren--standards neither so low as not to challenge the best of them, nor so high as to ignore the socioeconomic context of education in our city. Once he’s announced those standards, he should brag about the schools, teachers, and students who exceed them.

And then he should go on to chastise those who are quick to condemn our public schools, but who are silent about addressing the economic environment that dooms so many of Los Angeles’ children to low academic achievement.

Every institution needs reform, and Mr. Zacarias should root out whatever incompetence, corruption, or self-satisfaction he can find. He should preach that schools can always do better. But most importantly, he needs to rebuild the system’s self-confidence. When his term is over, we should have learned not to snicker when L.A. teachers brag: “We work for the most successful institution of assimilation and mobility anywhere in the world. American urban public education.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 09, 1997 edition of Education Week