The fundamental obstacle to meaningful change for the students in the Los Angeles region can best be summed up by a statement we hear all the time from former students: “I am a proud product of LAUSD.”
The system has unfortunately trained its students to see themselves as widgets. So I was encouraged to see the voters in the Los Angeles Unified School district’s second, fourth, and sixth districts earlier this year elect a trio of candidates who are eager to make the school district more human.
In her swearing-in ceremony, Kelly Gonez talked about the students she encountered every day at the elementary and middle schools where she taught. She spoke of “the loads they carry”: the burdens weighing on the shoulders of so many children. Some arrive at school hungry; some didn’t have a place to sleep the night before; others suffer harassment and prejudice. She made them human. She challenged everyone to define each child not as a product of a system but as an individual with distinctive needs and abilities.
Gonez captured the nurturing spirit that drives so many educators to work tirelessly to help their kids shine; if only the bureaucracy had the same goals and motivation.
Nick Melvoin, also a thirty-something former teacher and a newcomer to the board, has long fought to remove the system’s obstacles. He participated in a lawsuit that successfully convinced the district to stop replacing lower-seniority qualified teachers with unqualified staff during budget cuts. After one of his former students swore him in, Melvoin vowed to keep pushing to shift labor agreements and operating policies to be more student centered.
But it won’t be easy.
The industrial mind-set is deeply embedded in the culture of the district’s machinery. Even the most revolutionary board members have not changed that. I see it in students who call themselves a “proud product,” which implies they’ve been shaped by a system that creates “well-rounded” widgets, devoid of individuality. I saw it firsthand when I served on the board from 1999 to 2003, including two years as president.
For example, our board passed a resolution that let schools choose which reading program to use, but the bureaucrats removed that flexibility when they implemented it. Many of them micromanaged each school’s use of the programs, erasing the creativity and wisdom of experienced teachers. That’s the product mentality at work.
The product mentality leads district staff to resist heightened expectations for academic performance because it conflicts with their learned powerlessness in the face of overwhelming social ills. It deters teachers from testing low-income students to find out if they’re gifted and, therefore, eligible for more-innovative educational support. It pushes educators to “teach to the middle” rather than tailor lesson plans to individual students. It makes chronic academic failure or absenteeism the fault of the child. It also creates the phenomenon that I call “malicious compliance,” meaning following the rules in a way that is intended to result in failure. In other words, “We’ll comply, but we’ll do it based on the letter rather than the intention of the policy.”
For example, twelve years ago, the school board passed a bold resolution insisting that every student take the high school courses necessary to qualify for admission to the University of California system. The mandatory fifteen-course sequence became known as “A-G.” Since then, district staffers have complied with the directive: meticulously and maliciously.
As students entered high school, staff did a pretty solid job of making sure they enrolled in A-G courses. But they knew what would happen: about half the kids would fail the A-G courses. That’s exactly what did happen, allowing administrators to throw up their hands and blame the board for passing misguided resolutions, instead of simply letting staff do their jobs.
Meaningful compliance would have looked very different. Actual leaders would have looked at the whole system, beginning in early childhood education and kindergarten, and asked, How can we make sure students are prepared to excel in their A-G courses by the time they reach high school? How can we make sure every graduate is college and career ready? They would have worked to fulfill the spirit, rather than the letter, of the board’s resolution. Instead staffers took the easy way out and said, “I told you so.” Even the best policies cannot produce wise practices in an inhuman system.
Pockets of brilliant innovation exist within LAUSD, thanks to deeply committed professionals struggling up the down escalator. But they often get slammed down like whack-a-mole for exposing the other mediocre pieces of the system.
When you talk to the people who’ve created these bright spots, they shy away. They try to keep their work a secret. Unfortunately, they live in fear that the district might swoop in and “help them to death” or impose some kind of pointless regulation or even force them to stop what they’re doing altogether. Innovators hide or leave; cynical staffers prefer to remain cogs in the machine.
Not surprisingly, the district’s tendency to treat staff as replaceable parts and students as products is precisely what has pushed so many parents to seek out other options, such as charter schools.
At most charters individuality and student empowerment are the goals that underlie academic success. From the charter perspective, making an exception doesn’t mean disrupting a fragile and complex system, it means remaining flexible to address the distinct challenges facing every child and build on their unique strengths. Fair doesn’t mean the same treatment; fair means equitable outcomes.
The members of the new reform majority on the school board share a fundamental support for charters because charters intentionally design student-centered environments. Instead of suffocating charters with burdensome bureaucracy and petty political red tape, I believe this board will lean toward promoting thoughtful collaboration, meaningful accountability, and long-term agreements, so charter leaders can spend more time developing educational programs in which children are treated as individuals, not as assembly-line products.
Beyond being narrowly pro-charter, this board is likely to end the “us versus them” disinction. The new majority is poised to elevate internal excellence, backing more of what works in magnets, pilots, and niche programs in otherwise traditional schools. These internal entrepreneurs need board champions to defend their dreams and expand or multiply successes.
It takes courage to break away from the trudge toward the mediocrity of the product-making machine. I believe this board will do more of what works and less of what doesn’t; in the process, they will put kids first.
THE LOS ANGELES UNITED NATIONS
The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is an educational colossus: 451 elementary schools, 179 middle and senior high schools, 169 charter schools: in all, 1,302 learning facilities. Another way to read the LAUSD: as a Southern California United Nations. Ninety-four languages other than English are spoken at LA Unified Schools. The district has more than 141,000 students who are learning to speak English proficiently. Their primary languages are Spanish (92.5 percent of English learners); Armenian (1.1 percent); Korean (1 percent); Tagalog, Cantonese, Arabic, Vietnamese, and Russian each less than 1 percent. With a total enrollment of nearly 735,000 students (107,000 of those in charter schools), the LAUSD is the equivalent of America’s eighteenth-largest city or the combined populations of Honolulu, Hawaii, and Tampa, Florida.
THE BUDDE SYSTEM
Fast food has Ray Kroc. The charter school movement has the late Ray Budde. In 1974, the former University of Massachusetts at Amherst education professor authored a “Education by Charter,” which called on educrats to “remove power from most central office positions and direct funds directly to schools.”Fast-forward to 1988 and Albert Shanker, at the time the president of the American Federation of Teachers, proposing a new kind of public school–a charter school–enabling teachers to be more innovative in their instruction. Only 5 percent of current US public school enrollment is in charter schools. Geographically, more than half of all charter schools (56.5) are in cities; 37 percent are in the western United States; only 10 percent are in rural areas (compared to 29 percent of public, noncharter schools).