School & District Management Opinion

The Fight for Reform in L.A. Has Produced No Winners

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — March 02, 2016 3 min read
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This post is prompted by an invitation to visit with students in an education leadership program at California State University, Pomona. They’ve been reading our book, Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education, and their invitation raises the question about whether there is anything still relevant in the book published by Harvard Education Press eight years ago.

You can judge the book’s lasting value, if any, but there is little doubt in my mind that the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest public school system, continues to teach powerful lessons. Remember the preposition in the title: the book is about learning from L.A., not learning about it.

The other element in the title that remains a touchstone for me is the part after the colon. The book is about institutional change: movement from a system invented in 1903 to something new and potentially more powerful. And as the book shows, much of the old institution has been hollowed out, starting 40 years ago.

So, in a very real way, those folks that say that they are reforming LAUSD are engaged in an impossible task. You can’t reform something that is a shell of its former self. Shallow reforms—such as merit pay, diminishing teacher tenure, or bringing in charter schools—are doomed to failure because they make the assumption that the existing system is capable of supporting whatever reform is introduced.

There are lessons in the book, which I won’t repeat here, and three profound lessons I’ve learned after the book’s publication.

LAUSD Will Break Your Heart

The first post-book lesson is that LAUSD will break your heart if you try to reform it. It will rip it out of your chest and stomp on it and take your psyche with it. LAUSD does not want to be reformed; it needs to be transformed into a new institutional form that we only sketch at the end of the book.

Crisis Mongering No Longer Useful

The second post-book lesson is that crisis mongering has long since passed its usefulness as a political weapon to seize control of the district. A declaration of crisis is an important stage in institutional change. It delegitimates the old order and allows new ideas to come to the forefront.

But in the case of LAUSD, the word “crisis” was first interjected into a school board electoral contest in 1999. Declaring yet another crisis won’t help.

The No Winners Problem

Third, it takes institution-level ideas to transform an institution. For the most part, people who think of themselves as “reformers” tackle changes in governance and management, specifically targeting politics and interest groups as causes of educational underperformance. But claiming that one is against politics doesn’t make politics go away. Instead, what has resulted in Los Angeles is a two-decade long trench warfare that has produced no winners.

The “no winners” problem has been my most profound post-book lesson from L.A. How is it, I asked myself, that people who genuinely care about children, learning, and social justice can be so hard on one another without solving the schooling problem?

I’ve concluded that they’re fighting about the wrong thing. Instead of directing political will toward changing school governance, we should direct it toward changing teaching and learning: from “who governs” to “how students learn.” For people who like to fight, there’s still plenty to fight about, but advances in technology and cognitive science have opened up the basic production system of education to redesign in ways that it has never been before.

In a series of articles, a technology policy paper, and ‘On California’ posts, I’ve called the new production system Learning 2.0. What if we could put powerful learning tools directly in the hands of students, who are the real workers in this system? It’s students who have to be motivated to learn, not adults.

What if every student could have a personalized learning plan? What if they could learn at their own pace, get mentoring support from teachers they respect, and take competency exams when they are ready?

What if we could link learning and performance—head and hand—in ways that allow students to accomplish things as they learn?

The answer, of course, is that we can but we don’t. And that’s why L.A. bumps from crisis to crisis, from one non-productive political battle to the next.

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