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Is the Mayor Listening?

June 12, 2011

Mayor Villaraigosa - Photo: David Starkopf / Office of the Mayor (via Flickr)

[edit – see end of post]

How much rage the whole question of teacher quality and “failing schools” inspires!  Pile on corporate efforts to secure a competent workforce and political issues and you have the current educational climate in Los Angeles, where roughly half of our low-income minority population does not graduate in four years with a diploma.  Add mayoral control, which is getting increasingly bad press, to bring the whole thing to a frothy boil.  For teachers in the Mayor’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools (PLAS) this is a time of extreme change and challenge.  Luckily for us, once in a while, the mayor gives us his ear.

PLAS recently hosted a “listening session” between the mayor and fourteen teachers. The session, planned by teachers with support from PLAS, was intended to align priorities between the mayor and teachers in “his” schools.  Encouragingly, this was the second such session in two months.  Because the teachers expected a meeting with a problem-solving focus, the conversation turned to how the teachers defined good leadership.  This is where the mayor’s mettle will be tested in the year ahead.

On June 7, the Los Angeles Times reported on the Teacher Quality Roadmap, a study released by the National Council on Teacher Quality (“Report says L.A. principals should have more authority in hiring teachers”).  The study was “undertaken on behalf of the 672,000 children who attend school in the Los Angeles Unified School District” and covered teacher assignment, evaluations, tenure, compensation and work schedule, with no surprises.  The L.A. Times reported that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is in favor of the study’s recommendations – presumably they will be piloted in “his” PLAS schools.  If the teachers at the listening session are to be heeded, there is far more to “improving policies and practices in LAUSD” than the report addresses.

While some teachers at Villaraigosa’s listening session related stories of supportive principals who promoted the interests and goals of teacher groups, not all had heartening reports.  Some shared their frustration at being directed in professional development, rather than having topics for teacher learning elicited from classroom and teacher needs.  Some reported that teachers waste valuable time in meaningless activity, without administrative follow-up to professional development and data collection.  Mayor and teachers agreed that without good leadership teachers lack the wherewithal to do a good job.  So while the NCTQ’s Teacher Quality Roadmap (pdf) recommends that principals have the first and last words on hiring teachers, the teachers in the room agreed that a principal needs to be held accountable by the people with whom he or she works.

Comments posted under the L.A. Times article revealed a wealth of vitriol between interested members of the public and teachers.  Several comments pointed out that “teachers always want to blame principals,” and it’s always a matter of passing the buck. The teachers at City Hall would disagree, as would many others.  Holding people accountable is very hard work.  Any person who has tried to get a group together around a goal knows how hard it is, not just to address the learning needs of 30 hormonal adolescents, but to get teachers also to do their homework and bring it to the next meeting, take a critical look at their work using a rubric, and then to decide on and take action towards improving it.  Some teachers are worse than the kids they complain about when it comes to playing on a team, but more are impatient at the incompetence of the captain.  This is why we need strong leadership that supports teachers rather than dictates to them, and is accountable for doing just that.

Of course student achievement will improve when, as the NCTQ report recommends, principals are able to hire the teachers who are “the best fit.”  How can teachers be assured that their principals are the best fit for the goals they have for their students?  Although they do enjoy better access to top management, the Mayor’s PLAS schools currently do not offer any recourse for teachers who really are trying to innovate for better performance.  Teachers in the mayor’s listening session related successes but also stories of how they were let down after weeks and months of planning: one middle school teacher described being part of a group that was ready to implement a discipline policy to control students who are rude, foul-mouthed and recalcitrant and being told by the principal in no uncertain terms NOT to meet.  This same principal denied me access to his campus in order to plan an articulation program between my high school and her middle school; I was forbidden access to my friend’s classroom when all I wanted to do was talk about how we might trade classes for a day (the idea had already been approved by the PLAS CEO).  We met off-site but were unable to implement this idea for improving understanding between middle and high school teachers.

Business leaders are under fire for reaching in and attempting to shape our schools.  On June 8, an article by Christina Samuels appeared in Education Week, describing how John Deasy, LAUSD’s new superintendent, is part of an elite cadre of Broad-trained executives that is increasingly criticized for using negative management tactics that are hostile to teachers (“Critics Target Growing Army of Broad Leaders”).  Unless Mayor Villaraigosa makes good on his promise to “empower teachers” and “add feedback loops for teachers to evaluate principals” he risks being placed in the same category by the very teachers and communities that put their faith in him three years ago.

[Note: This blog post was originally posted as an ACT Guest Blog Post.  Lisa has since become a regular contributor to InterACT, and her old “guest” posts have been modified to reflect her authorship, and have had the original introduction removed.  – David Cohen]

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