School & District Management

Second Thoughts About LEARN Surface in L.A.

By Caroline Hendrie — May 28, 1997 11 min read
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Los Angeles

When teachers at the Capistrano Avenue School were considering last spring whether to sign on with the reform initiative known as LEARN, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of reasons to say no.

Granted, they knew from the hundreds of other schools here that had already joined LEARN that the process meant work, mainly in the form of extra meetings and training sessions.

But the payoffs seemed worth it: a stronger say for teachers, parents, and support staff; the chance to hire their own principal; new ideas for improving instruction; and greater access to grant money.

A year later, second-guessing that decision has become a popular campus pastime.

“This has been a horrendous year,” said Frances R. Weiss-Zamir, the principal of the 478-student elementary school in the western San Fernando Valley. “This staff is exhausted. If they were asked if they were to vote to go LEARN again, they would probably say no.”

The Capistrano Avenue School is not alone in wondering what it has gotten into. Four years after the Los Angeles school board formally embraced LEARN as the district’s road map for reform, second thoughts about the initiative are surfacing across the city.

Observers differ on what the future holds for LEARN, which draws its name from a school reform coalition known as the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now.

But most agree that the closely watched program is entering a new and potentially perilous chapter in its history. How events unfold in the coming months may well determine whether LEARN ends up as just another fizzled urban-reform effort or succeeds in sparking a renaissance in the country’s second-largest school system.

Recruitment Falls Short

When the school board adopted the program in 1993, it declared that all schools would “go LEARN” in five years, a pledge that has become official district policy. At the same time--and at the insistence of the teachers’ union--participation is voluntary and must be approved by three-quarters of a school’s faculty.

To date, about 45 percent of the system’s 540 regular elementary, middle, and high schools have voted to become LEARN schools. If preschool centers, adult schools, and other special programs are included, about 325 schools will be in the LEARN fold by fall.

But with the 1998-99 target just a year away, the pace of new recruits slowed dramatically this spring, plummeting from more than 100 schools in each of the past two years to 28 this time around. The drop-off has forced officials to concede that there is virtually no chance they will meet the 1998-99 target, at least as long as the threshold for participation remains the same.

The situation has reopened the question of how the district will resolve the contradiction that has been inherent in its approach to LEARN from the start.

“You can’t have it both ways,” said Judy Ivie Burton, the assistant superintendent in charge of implementing LEARN. “You can’t be voluntary and mandatory.”

If the program is to maintain its credibility, she said, the board must address that paradox.

“We are at a transitional point, where we have to reconvene and consider what should our next steps be,” Ms. Burton said this month. “What is the plan? The plan isn’t there at this point.”

Outsiders Promote Change

LEARN’s greatest champion is a nonprofit organization of the same name that was set up in 1991 by a coalition of groups and individuals that had been active in efforts to reform the 670,000-student school system.

Spearheaded by lawyer and philanthropist Richard J. Riordan, who has since become mayor, and Helen Bernstein, the former president of United Teachers Los Angeles, who died this spring, the coalition saw its efforts as an alternative to proposals to break up the district or to provide public vouchers for private schools.

Since its inception, LEARN has been run day to day by Mike Roos, a former high-ranking Democratic state assemblyman who has acquired a reputation for keeping LEARN in the limelight and keeping the heat on district bureaucrats.

The 31-member LEARN board is a roster of heavy-hitters: top corporate executives, the head of the local teachers’ union, university administrators, a representative of The Los Angeles Times, and African-American and Hispanic leaders. It also includes the director of the Los Angeles Educational Partnership, a local reform group, as well as the school board president and the superintendent.

Synthesizing the work of committees involving about 600 community members, LEARN produced a reform plan in 1993 focusing on eight areas: student learning and assessment; governance and accountability; professional development; parent involvement; social services; the school-to-work transition; facilities; and finance.

The plan lays out a process more than a specific reform model. Among other steps, it calls for a panel of parents, teachers, and other “stakeholders” at each school to work with the principal to map a plan for boosting student achievement. It also aims to shift power over funding and staffing from the central office to the schools, and provides training and guidance on how to carry out those responsibilities.

New Chief’s View

While critical questions about the program’s direction remain in flux, district officials have started to signal a change of course.

As fate would have it, the steep drop-off in recruits coincided with the board’s choice of district veteran Ruben Zacarias to replace retiring Superintendent Sidney A. Thompson in July. (“Veteran L.A. Educator To Succeed Thompson,” May 14, 1997.)

LEARN did not endear itself to Mr. Zacarias--or his many supporters in Los Angeles’ politically up-and-coming Latino community--by pressing the school board to search for other candidates and to require finalists to take part in public forums.

Despite the resulting hard feelings, Mr. Zacarias professes support for the program. But he also is in no rush to expand it.

“LEARN is at that traditional crossroads that historically all reform movements have to cross,” the 68-year-old administrator said in a recent interview. “Better to stop for a moment, consolidate, and then move on.”

The incoming superintendent also makes clear that he does not see LEARN as the only game in town.

“LEARN should be the mainstay but not to the exclusion of any positive contributions of other reform efforts,” he said.

Consistent with this view, district officials are rethinking who gets access to the training and support that are central to LEARN.

Since creating an in-house LEARN office, the district has assumed most of the program’s costs, including the outside training of principals, teachers, and parents. The district’s LEARN budget is now about $8 million a year.

Plans call for taking some of the money originally earmarked for new participating schools next year and giving more help to schools that have already joined. Some of that money will also be used to train dozens of central-office staff members, a step that LEARN backers say is overdue given the resistance to the program among many administrators.

Perhaps most significantly, the district for the first time is proposing to extend LEARN training next year to many schools that have not mustered the requisite 75 percent support, including those that continue to pursue an earlier district reform model, school-based management.

“We need to be respectful of schools that have engaged in reforms outside of the LEARN program,” said Jeff Horton, the school board’s president. “We need to not let the symbol get in the way of the substance.”

‘Brick Sprayed Gold’?

Detractors, meanwhile, ask whether such substance exists.

“LEARN should be dismantled,” said board member Barbara Boudreaux, a relentless critic of the program. “We’re going into the fifth year and we haven’t seen any marked increase in test scores. I’m not willing to sacrifice children year after year for a program that’s really a brick sprayed gold.”

A dissident group of teachers’ union leaders shares that view. During the past year, the group made the rounds urging teachers to reject LEARN. District officials say these tactics contributed to this year’s drop-off in new schools.

Among the group’s complaints is that LEARN encourages schools to compete for grant money, promotes merit pay, and asks teachers to take on broader decisionmaking duties. Moreover, they say, it leaves unaddressed the real problems of public education in the city: underfunding and overcrowding.

“It’s not reform,” said Joshua Pechthalt, a Manual Arts High School teacher who is a leader in the anti-LEARN faction. “This is an attempt to basically squeeze more work out of teachers.”

Such attitudes tend to be strong in inner-city schools, especially high schools, that serve more disadvantaged students, LEARN supporters say.

“All of those middle-class, ready-to-change schools have taken that step,” said William G. Ouchi, an administrator at the University of California, Los Angeles’ management school who was elected chairman of the LEARN board this spring. “Now we’re dealing with a group of people that have been frustrated throughout their careers and who have learned to become cynical.”

As in other urban school systems, one source of that cynicism is the well-founded sense that reform efforts come and go like designer fashions.

Based in part on that perception, strong opposition to LEARN has come from educators involved in Los Angeles’ other reform programs, especially school-based management. Some observers believe district officials must do a better job of reconciling these efforts if they hope to achieve systemwide progress.

Progress Called Uneven

Another key, LEARN’s supporters say, is to earn a track record of superior performance in the schools.

A study released last June by outside consultants found that the first schools to join LEARN had seen gains in test scores between 1992-93 and 1994-95 that slightly outpaced other schools’. See Education Week, Aug. 7, 1996.)

But the study by the Los Angeles-based Evaluation and Training Institute also cautioned that the jury was out on whether LEARN was producing significant gains in achievement. The district has hired the institute to conduct an ongoing evaluation of LEARN.

A broader study by the institute released in January found uneven progress in areas ranging from governance to parent involvement and said it was too early to judge LEARN’s overall success.

On the whole, though, it concluded that the program was enabling “some schools to develop a collaborative learning environment which, in turn, has positive spillover effects on student achievement.”

Teachers’ Opinions Mixed

In the participating schools, where principals, teachers, and parents have put their own stamp on LEARN, the uneven results are evident.

At the San Miguel Avenue School, a crowded elementary school in the Southgate section of Los Angeles, Principal Evelyn Bostwick credits LEARN with allowing the school to spend $200,000 for an on-campus health clinic and other improvements.

Yet while some teachers say the program has improved morale and classroom conditions at the school, others are skeptical.

“Teachers have a lot of input in the decisionmaking process,” said teacher Sue Treadway. “The negative part is there are a lot of meetings and sometimes it’s difficult to come to consensus.”

Across town at the Capistrano Avenue School, there is similar ambivalence.

“Teachers are saying, ‘I don’t see anything different,’” said Kristine Valentine, the school’s UTLA representative. “For all the hours we put in, nothing seems to come of it.”

Both Ms. Valentine and the school’s principal, Ms. Weiss-Zamir, voiced hope that the skepticism would break down as the fruits of their often acrimonious planning process appeared.

Moreover, no one is blaming all of Capistrano’s problems on LEARN.

Personality conflicts have played a role, as has the sheer magnitude of other changes affecting the school this year--the push to reduce class size, revamped curriculum standards, and new standardized tests.

“My biggest frustration is that if you really want us to be successful with LEARN, how can we do that with all the other things you’re asking us to do too?” said Ms. Weiss-Zamir, who is completing her first year as Capistrano’s principal.

Ms. Burton, the district’s head of LEARN implementation, said such sentiments are common.

“There are a zillion things going on in our district,” she said. “And all of them are being described as the most important thing.”

Keeping Pressure On

Aware of the competing priorities, Mr. Ouchi, the LEARN board chairman, said its leaders will continue pressuring the district to keep the program high on the agenda. Crucial to that effort, he said, will be to push the central office to cede more control over spending to the schools.

“All the sitting around and going to meetings is just that--it’s decoration--unless they have budgetary decentralization,” he said.

Given the high stakes involved, both Mr. Ouchi and Mr. Roos tend to see the controversy besetting their efforts as par for the course.

“If we weren’t surrounded by critics, controversy, and a quiver of charges, we would be making no headway,” said Mr. Roos, LEARN’s president and chief executive officer.

Mr. Roos also believes that district officials would be tempting fate to relegate LEARN to the back burner--however peeved they may be by the group’s stance in the superintendent search or how loath they may be to relinquish central control.

Letting the reform effort fade away, he argues, would only draw support to the movement to break up the system.

“If they say, ‘We’re walking away from LEARN,’ then they are essentially drawing the line and challenging the community to go out and do something much more reckless,” he said. “I would remind Dr. Zacarias ... to remember the saying: If I had killed all my enemies yesterday, I wouldn’t have any friends today.”

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