The Social Justice Vision at Stephen S. Wise Temple

Our congregation will see Social Justice as a calling that derives from our sense of God and the imperative of Jewish Tradition. The Stephen S. Wise Temple community will use our influence, power and compassion to be a force for positive, meaningful and effective change in the quality of life on behalf of all the citizens of Los Angeles and the world.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Factions in school debate need a time-out

Email Steve Lopez, let's hear the voices of parents speaking out for constructive solutions!  

Factions in school debate need a time-out

Mayor Villaraigosa, L.A. Unified and the teachers union need to start acting like adults when it comes to watching out for students' needs.

Steve Lopez
5:10 PM PST, December 18, 2010

Pardon me, kids, but is it too much to ask that teachers union representatives, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and L.A. Unified School District officials begin acting like adults?

Here we are, nearly certain to see more budget cuts and layoffs at schools in the spring — and possibly for years to come — and I'm not hearing anyone talk seriously about how to proceed with the least amount of damage to the children.

We've got Villaraigosa attacking United Teachers Los Angeles for beating back proposed reforms.

We've got UTLA officials flat-out refusing to give an inch on reforms that are being adopted throughout the country.

And we've got school board members whose only idea of how to deal with the looming crisis is to try to raise a few measly bucks by selling branding rights to corporations. Don't be surprised if your child's graduation ceremony is held in Chevron Auditorium at Halliburton High.

Thanks, but no thanks. Can't we preserve what little innocence is left in our children, rather than remind them we don't value their education enough to support it without corporate marketing campaigns?

If the school board wanted to do something productive about corporate support, it would take the lead in ending the huge property tax advantage that corporations enjoy in California. Commercial property got the same benefits from Proposition 13 as residential property did. But because their land doesn't change hands as often, many big businesses in the state pay property taxes based on a fraction of the true value.

Every time I mention Prop. 13, I get buried under complaints from people claiming they were about to be taxed out of their homes before the tax-cutting proposition was passed in 1978. Yes, tax relief was needed for thousands of Californians. But it didn't need to be as drastic as it was, and corporations shouldn't have gotten the same deal.

With California now ranked 47th in the nation in funding per student, it's time for school boards across the state to tell the incoming governor to push for a "split roll" that would differentiate between homeowners and corporate landowners. Jerry Brown has been warning of fiscal disaster that's worse than he imagined, and he's asking the right questions: What do we value and want to pay for, and how do we intend to pay for it?

Whatever the answers, I'm guessing they won't come soon enough to head off another round of layoffs in L.A. Unified and beyond. And that means that more teachers could be let go regardless of their ability in the classroom, based on nothing but years of service.

Teachers are right: They're made out to be the villains in the current national conversation on public education, when, in fact, parents, students, principals, administrators and money are all part of both the problem and the solution.

Halfway through my daughter's third year in a terrific L.A. Unified public school, I've got a great appreciation of teachers. The range of student abilities and behavior issues in classrooms is staggering, and a tough job is made harder as support services are stripped away one after another.

But just as principals and administrators are not created equal, neither are teachers, as UTLA would have you believe. It seems to me they all would benefit from a system that examines why certain teachers are better at classroom management or teaching fifth-grade math and then rewards them by bumping up their pay, while giving more training to those who need it.

I've heard all the arguments against the value-added system in which teachers are graded on their students' test score improvements, and they have some merit: there are lots of variables in a classroom, test scores don't necessarily measure learning and value-added isn't perfect.

But nobody said it is. LAUSD has proposed that just 30% of a teacher's evaluation be based on test scores.

UTLA's position?

Test scores shouldn't go into evaluations at all.

End of discussion.

Really? Couldn't tests account for a mere 10% to 20% of an evaluation?

No, UTLA Treasurer David Goldberg told me, repeating UTLA President A.J. Duffy's unwavering insistence that there's no evidence test scores are a credible tool.

There's no evidence kids are benefiting from the inability of the grownups to compromise. Ted Mitchell, chair of the state Board of Education, said the two sides ought to be able to find some mutually beneficial common ground. If the UTLA doesn't bend a bit, he said, "it's going to be the laggard" as other districts enjoy the extra freedoms and money tied to reform.

UTLA has to do something other than say "no." It should long ago have come up with a better evaluation system to avoid being force-fed one.

Goldberg said the union has been working on a better system, and he referred me to the union's 10-point policy statement on the subject.

Frankly, I wasn't impressed. The statement is high on general beliefs and short on practical details.

OK, parents, teachers, readers, taxpayers and citizens of the world, I've got a question for you:

Would you support a system in which 20% of a teacher's evaluation is based on test scores, 80% is based on peer review by teachers and administrators, those who score the highest get raises, those who score the lowest get training, principals get evaluated as vigorously and as often as teachers, and layoffs, when necessary, are based on a combination of seniority and performance?

Let me know what you think, and I'll make sure the district and the union hear what you have to say.  --- [EMAIL Steve Lopez, click the link below.  Let him know that you are from Stephen S. Wise or a parent's association at a school or both!]

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Waiting for Superman-- The Movement

Though there is certainly room for debate about the solutions offered by the "Waiting for Superman" documentary (are charter schools the "only" solution, for example?) the issues raised are relevant and worthy of a great deal of attention.  Even more significant, the documentary producers and directors see their film as a conversation starter and another resource for pushing this nation towards meaningful change.   Sign up for their newsletter, follow their blog, be engaged! 
Click here to go to the Waiting for Superman Web Site.  

Monday, December 6, 2010

George Skelton on California Schools

Getting an A in overcoming the odds

California schools are not as good as they should be, but they are significantly better than their reputation.

George Skelton
Capitol Journal
December 6, 2010
From Sacramento

Truth is, California's public schools never were all that great. And today, they're not nearly as crummy as critics claim.

In fact, they're pretty good, especially given all the problems of funding and diversity. They've always been pretty good — not exactly A-1, but not failures either.

With 1,000 districts, 9,900 schools and 6 million students — the largest K-12 system in the country — there is inescapably a scattering of winners and losers.

"We're not where we ought to be," acknowledges veteran education consultant John Mockler, a Capitol legend who wrote the complex school finance law, Proposition 98.

"But the 'California schools suck' industry is just full of it," he adds. "When these guys start talking about how California's schools used to be great and today they're going to hell in a hand basket, they're just wrong. Our students are making incredibly consistent academic progress."

Outgoing state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell says, "Student test scores have been up for eight years in a row. The achievement gap is narrowing. And that's what I'm proudest of."

The "achievement gap" is the difference between the higher test scores of whites and Asians versus the lower results of blacks and Latinos.

Mockler, a compulsive numbers-cruncher, says that the increase in black and Latino students taking algebra in the eighth grade and scoring "proficient" or "advanced" — the highest ratings — "is one of the most dramatic, positive academic changes in the history of education in this state and the nation."

I wince every time I hear some revisionist carry on about how California public schools used to be the envy of the universe and now they're not capable of teaching dogs to bark. I suspect that most of these people —the latest and loudest being Meg Whitman — never attended California schools.

I did, back in the so-called golden era after World War II. And I remember that whenever a new kid arrived from out of state, the newcomer always seemed to be way ahead of us, especially in reading.

My public schooling was in rural Ojai. It was basically cozy and comfortable. Some bright kids were teachers' pets and excelled. Some who needed encouragement and help got neither. Some of us were lucky enough to be inspired by just the right teacher or two.

The schools were good, not great. Can't believe they were the best in America.

Higher ed? That's a different story. Our excellent colleges and universities were proudly affordable and open to anyone with motivation and grades. They were a Californian's birthright. Today, they're shamefully pricey with limited space.

"We have more high school students eligible for college than ever," O'Connell says. "The bad news is we have fewer seats in college."

But this column is about California's improving elementary and high schools.

"Look at the data," Mockler urges.

For starters, one must realize that a fourth of K-12 students are English learners who go home and speak another language. "That makes it more difficult to learn," Mockler says.

Mockler has computed data comparing old test scores with the most recent. For example:

-- Seven years ago, 35% of all California students scored proficient or advanced in reading. This year, 52% did, a gain of 49%. For whites, the number rose from 53% to 69%. For Latinos, the figures doubled from 20% to 40%. For blacks, 22% to 39%.

-- During the same period, the number of math students scoring in the top two ranks rose from 35% to 48%, a 37% improvement. Whites improved from 47% to 59%; Latinos from 23% to 39% (up 70%) and blacks from 19% to 32% (68%).

-- There was a 176% increase in the number of Latinos taking eighth-grade algebra, and the percentage of these students testing in the top two ranks rose from 20 to 37. Among black eighth-graders, there was an 85% increase in algebra students, with the percentage achieving the highest rankings, rocketing from 17 to 41.

-- High school students are taking 60% more college-prep math and science courses than seven years ago, and the number testing proficient or advanced has doubled.

Credit a decade of reforms, mainly started by Govs. Pete Wilson and Gray Davis: class-size reductions, tougher curriculum, higher standards and lots of testing.

Much of that is in jeopardy, however, because of program cutbacks as Sacramento attempts to fill a seemingly bottomless budget hole. Class-size reduction is practically history.

"It pains me to see larger class sizes," O'Connell says, noting that as a legislator he wrote the class-size law and Wilson found the money for it.

"We've seen a major disinvestment in public education the last few years. Schools are operating with $21 billion less than anticipated three years ago."

Here are some other Mockler data:

-- California was spending $825 less per student than the national average two years ago. And it's undoubtedly gotten worse, he says.

-- Forty years ago, California allotted 5.6% of its personal income to K-12 schools. As of 2008, that had fallen to 3.7%.

--The average American school has 34% more teachers, 40% more administrators and 75% more counselors per student than California does.

"If California education was a baseball team, we'd be playing the other states with six players and they'd have nine," Mockler says.

Still, California's public schools have been performing far better than anyone would think from listening to the catcalls of a cranky crowd.