School & District Management

Power Over Curriculum at Heart of L.A. Deal

By Lesli A. Maxwell — July 25, 2006 4 min read
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In Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s latest vision for overhauling the Los Angeles public schools, teachers would be given an “authentic and central role” in selecting curriculum and instructional materials for the nation’s second-largest district.

Exactly what those four words would mean in practice has become one of the most debated details in the Los Angeles mayor’s bid to assert some control over the 727,000-student school system.

To opponents of Mr. Villaraigosa’s plan—which still must win approval from the California legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger—those words portend abandonment of the districtwide, uniform curricula in core academic subjects that have been central to the district’s improvement efforts. Gains in student achievement that have occurred under the Los Angeles Unified School District’s tightly controlled “managed instruction” system would be jeopardized, they warn.

“The problem is that nobody really knows and nobody is really explaining what it will mean,” said Superintendent Roy Romer, who opposes Mr. Villaraigosa’s bid to gain a governance role. “In a district where the student-mobility rate is 25 percent, we have really benefited from having some common, uniform approaches to instruction.”

‘Equal Say’

To supporters, including the city’s powerful teachers’ union, the words would guarantee that teachers become bigger players in deciding what they teach and how they teach. Without that promise, union leaders would not have agreed to support Mr. Villaraigosa’s plan.

“Right now, teachers are held accountable for the success or failure of students, yet we have no meaningful say over curriculum,” said A.J. Duffy, the president of the 48,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles, which is affiliated with both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. “We want to give teachers an equal say to administrators when it comes to deciding what happens in the classroom, but we are not talking about giving every school the right to have its own curriculum.”

Mayor Villaraigosa, who took office last year and so far has focused his administration on improving the Los Angeles schools, had originally sought sweeping authority over the district, which includes students who live in 26 municipalities outside the city of Los Angeles.

To stave off fierce opposition that was threatening to doom his plan, Mr. Villaraigosa last month struck a deal with UTLA and its parent California Teachers Association to share authority with the elected school board and an appointed superintendent. Part of that deal is the provision that could alter the district’s close management of classroom instruction, which requires teachers to adhere to highly regimented curricula, such as the Open Court Reading program published by the McGraw-Hill Cos. of New York City.

“It makes no sense to follow a script if your students are behind and you need to spend more time helping them review something,” said Thomas A. Saenz, the top lawyer for Mr. Villaraigosa. “This is not about giving the union the power to control curriculum—it’s about putting more discretion in the hands of schools.”

The school board and the superintendent would retain their authority to “make decisions about instruction as a whole,” said Mr. Saenz, “but would have to leave some flexibility for involvement at the school site.”

In particular, teachers want to set the pace for teaching the managed-instruction programs, especially Open Court, which follows a strict schedule and requires student assessments every six weeks, said Mr. Duffy, the UTLA president, whose compromise with the mayor has drawn sharp criticism from many teachers who are angry that union leaders made a deal without consulting UTLA’s representative body.

“We want less testing, and we want teachers to be able to adjust the pacing and slow it down if their students need it,” he said. “A lot of children are being left behind at the district’s insistence that every teacher in every classroom be teaching the same lesson on February 1.”

Marlene Canter, the president of the Los Angeles school board, believes that tampering with the district’s managed-instruction approach would undo the improvements in students’ standardized-test scores for the past six years.

“When you have a district this large and that sees so much student movement within the district, you owe it to students for equity purposes alone to offer the same thing regardless of which school they are in,” she said.

Superintendent Romer, who plans to leave his post in September, said the district gives teachers a meaningful role in choosing curriculum and developing instructional strategies. He cited a recent revamping of mathematics instruction for the 2nd through 5th grades that involved dozens of teachers.

“I have an elementary-math instructional guide in my elbow right now that 70 teachers worked on writing,” he said. “I think that’s an authentic role.”

Mr. Villaraigosa’s plan—which state lawmakers are scheduled to resume debating next month—also calls for creating a “demonstration project” that would give the mayor’s office control over three of the district’s lowest-performing high schools and the elementary and middle schools that feed into them.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 26, 2006 edition of Education Week as Power Over Curriculum at Heart of L.A. Deal

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