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ACLU Settlement: Helping or Hurting Students of Poverty?

October 31, 2010

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In 2009, my school was decimated by seniority-based layoffs in the Los Angeles Unified School District.  Twenty percent of our staff was fired in a reduction in force, a moment that was tragic for us, when instead we should have been celebrating a success.  L.A. Academy, which had previously lost between 30-40% of teachers annually due to turnover, had reduced this transience to 0%.  But then, the layoffs hit.

My school was one of many in poor, urban areas of Los Angeles that faced such a harsh reality.  Letter writing campaigns, open letters, marches, parent mobilizations, presentations to the school board did nothing to mitigate the eventual fate of our teachers, and the ill-effects their dismissal would have on our schools.  Purportedly, it was for this reason that the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the LAUSD on behalf of the students at three high-poverty schools whose educational careers were severely impacted by this system of layoffs.  When the victory of the lawsuit was recently announced, our staff felt heartened.  No more layoffs at those schools and 45 similar ones, like our school, where the total number of teachers dismissed crept into the upper 30’s.  This should be a time for celebration, a victory for students.

But it is not that simple.

Schools of poverty have high turnover for a reason.  They are typically neglected by districts and society as a whole, either purposefully or through mismanagement.  The practice of sending the newest teachers to the toughest schools is almost a ritual in Los Angeles, in spite of a consent decree that is supposed to prevent this from happening :

In December 1991, the District (LAUSD) entered into the Rodriguez Consent Decree, a court-monitored compliance agreement, which requires the allocation and expenditure of basic norm resources at school sites according to specified equalization guidelines. This Consent Decree will be in effect through the end of the 2005-06 school year. The purpose of the Consent Decree is to assist schools mitigate the impacts of inexperienced teachers, and all Rodriguez fund allocations must be used for only such purposes. (source: LAUSD)

The consent decree expired in in 2006 and the school district argued against a continuation of it stating, “we have outlived it.”  Apparently not.  We have returned to the bad old days when new teachers were frequently left to sink or swim, handed the keys to their classroom, and wished “good luck” from overburdened administrators.

Staffing at schools of poverty does not reflect the best our profession has to offer.  Both administrators and teachers, most notoriously the Teach for America crowd, simply pass through the ‘hood on their way to more prosperous futures in other parts of towns or in other careers altogether.  Their stints at schools like mine look great on their resumes, and few ever fall in love with the profession deeply enough to commit to these schools for a lifetime.

Revolving doors of school personnel result in few, if any, people with institutional knowledge of key policies, class configurations, or safety precautions at a given school.  Worse, for the malevolent employee, this is a great place to hide.  Offenses committed will be lost in the paperwork when the next principal arrives, history of harassment or nepotism will be erased from memory (or from archaic documentation systems,) and even mundane but critical decisions such as why certain textbooks were selected for the students will be subject to change without knowledge of why they were selected in the first place.  There is lots of reinventing the wheel that occurs in schools like these.

At first glance, the ACLU settlement seemed to be a welcome development that would combat these problems.  For teachers at my school, it is like being lifted from Death Row, as we knew for certain that one of us would go in the next round of layoffs.

But what was supposed to be a victory for students has suddenly become appropriated by the “ed-reform” crowd, who has moved swiftly to take the settlement and inject teacher evaluation language into it focusing on value-added measurement, a controversial evaluation technique.

In a September closed-session meeting, (L.A. School) board member Yolie Flores urged her colleagues to reject any settlement that did not take on the wider issue of teacher evaluation. And her push was joined by the mayor’s team as well as newly arriving Deputy Supt. John Deasy, one of the nation’s foremost proponents of efforts to revamp traditional teacher evaluations in his prior job at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (source L.A. Times)

What does this have to do with protecting students of poverty?   We have already seen what VAM does to teachers and students in poverty; see here, and here.

It is telling that helping students of poverty simply because it’s the right thing to do does not seem to be the true goal of anyone making leadership decisions today.   Political posturing, career transitioning and union busting seem to behind the hijacking of this ACLU settlement.

Tying teacher evaluation language to this settlement will not improve the lives of students at Gompers, Markham, or Liechty middle schools, nor will it transform low-performing schools into high-achieving ones.  VAM has not been proven to do this anywhere on a significant scale in the entire country.

What it may result in doing is further weakening teachers unions, perhaps opening their doors to a final collapse.  If this were to happen, it would be highly likely that blogs such as these, which animatedly debate the pros and cons of education reform from the perspective of actual classroom teachers would continue existing.  Breaking the teachers’ union would remove protections from the very people who have worked so closely to improving the lives of our most vulnerable children.

My final thought is a somber one.  In 20 years of working in schools of poverty, I have seen only a rare few schools manage to figure out the causes of teacher turnover and effectively do something about it.  This complex issue hinges on strong, ethical leadership committed to working in these communities for the right reasons.  It requires a vision for change and a willingness to be introspective about why professionals refuse to work in certain schools.  It means perceiving teachers as professionals who have valid insight about what to do to improve their working conditions (such as having access to copiers, a competent office staff, enough supplies for their students.) And nowadays, it requires the additional belief that there is any value whatsoever in keeping a stable work force and experienced, veteran teachers.

Sadly, this settlement will not help with these issues.  The way it stands now, it is just a vehicle to further accelerate the removing of the last and final protectors of public schools:  the unionized teaching force.  No good deed goes unpunished.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. November 1, 2010 7:41 am

    When all of the teacher firings started, we should never have gotten rid of the young and motivated teachers who were probably more open to teaching in high risk schools in the first place. Senority should not determine whether a teacher stays or goes.

    • November 1, 2010 4:13 pm

      It is such a complex issue, and doing what you suggest has been done. It is like David wrote in the “Danger of the Single Story,” new teachers are not always more motivated and willing than other teachers. If anything, they are more vulnerable. 50% of teachers in general quit the profession within the first 5 years of teaching, and this rate is even higher at high-poverty schools.

      Better yet, let’s hold the Bernie Madoffs, the Wall Street hedge-fund managers, and the sub-prime lenders accountable for putting schools in this position in the first place.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Mary Barker permalink
    April 7, 2011 12:28 am

    Hey I really like your post. I’m a USC journalist working on a story about this now and would love to get a comment from you, or take one from your blog if you are interested.


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