Leaders who don’t protect students from predators violate public trust

As a former counselor in a facility for teenagers who had been physically and sexually abused, I witnessed the indelible impact of this abuse on young men and women. As I read the stories about the sexual abuse scandal at Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles Unified, I remembered these young people and the destruction that twisted adults had wrought on their lives. Then I waited for the calls for reform from those with the power to make changes.

After all, the allegations are monstrous. The possibility that school officials may have known about the sexual abuse and done nothing is appalling. The fact that the Los Angeles Unified had to pay an alleged pedophile $40,000 to leave the school rather than spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to follow teacher dismissal laws is unbelievable. Worst of all is the knowledge that this situation could have been prevented by lawmakers in Sacramento.

Three years ago, the Los Angeles Times documented multiple cases of teachers who had abused students with little or no consequences. The articles revealed how the ten-step, state-mandated dismissal process for certificated staff including teachers (all other employees have the normal legal protections against arbitrary dismissal) protects abusive and incompetent adults from any accountability. Yet, instead of fixing these laws, most of the Sacramento power structure yawned and waited for the outrage to dissipate rather than confront their supporters in the statewide teachers unions. As a result, we have Miramonte.

Defenders of the current system like to argue that Miramonte is an isolated situation. But those who have been in school systems know that this is far from the truth. Recently, I talked with an attorney who had represented districts in dismissal cases. He shared story after story of high-cost cases to remove teachers who had either physically or sexually abused students – including male teachers who had raped impressionable female students and called their actions “relationships.” In these cases, the districts had been willing to spend millions to use the dismissal process with no guarantee of success.

I shared with him a story about a health-class teacher who was physically aggressive and sexually forward toward students. Despite student and parent complaints, nothing happened. The standard advice from our attorneys to school leaders was, “document the incidents and create an improvement plan.” For experienced school administrators who had already tried these steps, this advice was laughable. Finally, I received a report of a new problem. A female student complained that he had taught her class wearing loose shorts and no underwear so that his privates were clearly visible. Based on this complaint, our lawyers agreed to “counsel him out.”

Now, when a system has become so degraded that the threshold for “counseling out” of the profession is not job performance, but the exposure of one’s privates to a classroom of teenagers, there is clearly a need for change. This situation, Miramonte, and the earlier cases documented by the L.A. Times should raise troubling questions for those lawmakers protecting the current system. How many more teachers with similar histories have been “counseled out” and ended up in other schools? How many have had their records expunged and continued to teach? How many have been transferred or made their way to high-need schools in poor and immigrant communities where the parents may be less aware and more trusting?

Similar questions have been raised in other abuse scandals in powerful institutions such as the Catholic Church and Penn State. Like those cases, defenders of the current system talk about the importance of due process and assail anyone recommending reform for “attacking the profession.” In this instance, the accusation will be that critics are “bashing teachers.” In any context, these arguments lack credibility.

Not only is the existing system bad for students and communities, it is fundamentally bad for the teaching profession. First, the millions of dollars spent trying to remove a few bad apples and training administrators on the ten-step dismissal process could and should be spent on instructional improvement. Second, the predictable futility of the ten-step process undermines the credibility of the evaluation system overall. Most importantly, given the likelihood of similar cases coming to light, lawmakers should be making every effort to reform the system to prevent future collateral damage to the profession.

Senate Bill 1530 by Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla would do a great deal to fix this situation by modifying the existing dismissal process for teachers accused of serious misconduct including sex, violence, or drugs. (A broader bill by Republican Sen. Bob Huff that would have encompassed a wider array of misconduct and abuse accusations failed to get out of committee.) SB 1530 has the support of children’s advocates, school districts including LAUSD, and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s office. Predictably, it is opposed by both statewide teachers unions. Sadly, it has the silence of many of their key allies, including our most powerful education leaders: Governor Jerry Brown, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, and Speaker of the Assembly John Perez.

Now that the bill has moved out of the Senate and into the Assembly, its opponents will work hard to defeat it. They will lobby their longtime allies and the chairs of important committees. They will work to derail the bill with the aid of longtime legislative staffers who have always prioritized their friends in the CTA over any other interest. And if all else fails, they will take their case to the governor.

For the average citizen, taxpayer, and voter, it must boggle the mind that Sacramento would even be debating this; that this situation wouldn’t have been fixed years ago; and that our most powerful elected leaders won’t commit to fixing it now. Now many of these same leaders and other legislators will be stumping around the state asking the citizens of California to trust them to spend their money, fix the budget crisis, and solve a host of other problems. Of course, the average citizen might ask in return, If we can’t trust you to protect our children from adults involved in sex, violence, and drugs in our schools, how can we trust you on anything at all?

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust–West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional, and VISTA volunteer in California, New England, and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading http://americansleepandbreathingacademy.com/cost/ specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

Start of something big in LA …

So much for the promised webcast of the United Way’s education summit  Tuesday in Los Angeles featuring U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Never happened. Technical problems. But author, blogger and Claremont Graduate University research professor Charles Taylor Kerchner was this Johnny’s on-the-spot reporter and offers an excellent account of the day.

By Charles Taylor Kerchner

For the first time since the eclipse of  LEARN, the massive school reform program of the 1990s,  Los Angeles has hosted a broad scale education summit designed to bring the city together around support for public education.  “There had been a lot of what I call ‘silo’ conversations.  We needed to make sure the whole community was here,” said Elise Buik, president of United Way of Greater Los Angeles, which organized the program.

Buik’s intent, and that of the United Way board, is to use the half-day event to kick off a longer more substantive discussion of the future of public education.  A parent summit is planned for next month.

Charles Taylor Kerchner
Charles Taylor Kerchner

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan delivered a keynote that reiterated several themes found in his recent speeches.  Tough times may be the “new normal,” Duncan said but, “don’t go into survival mode … Crisis gives us a perfect opportunity, not just a perfect storm.”  Duncan and other speakers zeroed in on a handful of opportunities that Los Angeles might seize.

The first of these is building a new relationship with labor.  The contract between the Los Angeles Unified School District and its teachers is up for renegotiation.  John Deasy, the incoming superintendent, and Julie Washington, the “new sheriff in town” at United Teachers Los Angeles, will negotiate for the first time.  They will sit down in an environment that expects the labor contract to be used as an instrument of reform.  Duncan raised that expectation, saying that Los Angeles needs productive, tough collaboration to solve problems, not just “a kumbaya moment.”  He referenced productive labor contracts in cities such as New Haven, Conn., and the recent labor-management conference that the Department of Education sponsored in Denver.

The second opportunity is to anchor discussions about progress in real data about student achievement.  “It’s time to stop pointing fingers,” said Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a remark that was echoed by others, and talk about which students are learning what.  Connecting student achievement to teacher evaluation — a wildly controversial subject even a year ago — appeared to be a somewhat settled issue.  The question is how, and what data?  Judy Burton, president of the Alliance for College Ready Schools, has been developing a  teacher evaluation system along with other charter management organizations.  Similar efforts are under way within LAUSD and will become one of the items of negotiation with UTLA.  In both cases, the evaluation systems under development are sophisticated and involve multiple measures, not just scores on the state’s annual test.

Once the finger pointing stops, the work of designing teacher evaluation appears difficult but at least discussable.  Washington asked for evaluations differentiated by the stages of a teacher’s career.  “We want beginning teachers to demonstrate competency,” she said, but competency should be followed by mastery and then leadership by the more experienced teachers.

Duncan asked for political help in getting Congress to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that guides the federal government’s largest investment in public education, in part to allow the government to base school ratings on a broader swath of data than it now does.  The current version of the law has few rewards for schools getting better: “The only good thing for a school is not being listed as a failure.”

The third opportunity in the current crisis is to begin to redesign teaching and learning.  “The system’s obsolete,” said retired business executive and former ambassador Frank Baxter, who advocated the blending of live teachers and computer-aided instruction that has become part of some of the Alliance for College Ready Schools campuses.  Both Duncan and Villaraigosa urged rethinking of schooling using neighborhood and community resources.  (For my thoughts on redesigning learning and teaching, see Learning 2.0.)

Incoming superintendent Deasy promised rapid and unrelenting attention to student progress, echoed the theme of  “no excuses,” and issued a call to the interested, “if you want to be in a place where things are happening fast, pack your bags and come to L.A.”

What’s different now?

For someone who has watched and studied efforts at education reform in Los Angeles for more than 20 years, Tuesday’s gathering was both encouraging and sobering.  Others have been on this path before and have come away with sobering realization that “this stuff is a lot harder than I thought it would be.”  Los Angeles Unified has auditioned scores of reforms and has largely been unsuccessful in sustaining them.  So, it’s reasonable to ask: What’s different now?

Compared with 1991, when LEARN — the last great civic-school reform — was brewing, all the parties are much more focused on student achievement.  There are good reasons to criticize test-score accountability.  It has done some bad things, but it has focused the system on outputs rather than making the assumption that changing the powers and responsibilities of adults would automatically produce trickle-down results for students.  Starting with students and working backward to think about how adults need to change creates a stronger beginning place.

As in the current era, LEARN began as Los Angeles Unified entered a fiscal crisis.  But the current one is worse.  It may be that even the business community will come to see that schools in Los Angeles and California have been on a starvation diet, and that finding new sources of operating revenue need to be part of the reform solution.  There is a real and open question of whether the system has the capacity to engage in what school people call “building the airplane as it rolls down the runway,” or whether decades of contraction have so hollowed out LAUSD that it does not have the capacity to change.

LEARN was anchored in the city’s large core businesses, most of which no longer exist.  This time, reform will of necessity need to be more grass roots, more anchored in community based organizations, non-profits, and in smaller businesses.  The open question is whether the scattered business community can coalesce around the necessity of lifting California and Los Angeles from the bottom ranks of virtually every education index, and whether it can become politically possible to blend well-designed reform with well-measured revenue infusions.

L.A. Unified, charters sign compact

Los Angeles Unified and charter schools continue to fight in court over access to district buildings, but on Tuesday, they hit the reset button on other areas of their often contentious relationships.

Los Angeles leaders joined counterparts in eight other cities in signing a compact, brokered by the Gates Foundation, to work together to share best practices and resources. The arrangement will bring immediate benefits to LAUSD’s 182 charter schools. Last week, the school board approved providing access, at no cost to the district, to low-interest loans that charters and districts increasingly are needing, because the state is pushing off school payments for months. Charters will be able to borrow money at 2 to 3 percent through the district’s sources what some had been paying at rates of 18-20 percent in the private market. LAUSD and the charter community also agreed to work together on raising revenue, such as through a parcel tax, and then sharing the money proportionally.

For their part, the charters agreed to openly share admissions and retention information and to admit more special needs students and English learners. Charter school critics have charged that the schools have intentionally discouraged students with disabilities from enrolling. Charters also have agreed to locate in high-needs areas and to partner with the district on recruiting and developing excellent principals and teachers. Both sides agreed to create common measurements of success and to develop a common school report card.

The goal of the agreement is for districts and charters to put animosity aside and begin to find common ground for the benefit of low-income and minority students. Gates is providing $100,000 grants to the partnerships to work out details of the compacts, with the prospect of up to $7 million to some of the cities to fund loans for facilities and innovative instructional practices that districts and charters can share. The other cities that signed the compact are Baltimore, Denver, Hartford, Conn., Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Nashville, New Orleans, New York City, and Rochester, N.Y.

So far, 112 charters in the district have signed the agreement, including the largest charter groups operating in the district: Aspire, ICEF, Kipp, Green Dot, Alliance for Public Ready Public Schools, and Celerity. Only high-achieving charters, as mutually defined by both sides, will be eligible for some resources.

Don Shalvey, the co-founder of Oakland-based Aspire Public Schools and now deputy director of the Gates Foundation, is hoping that other California charters and urban districts – Oakland, San Diego, Fresno, and schools in Santa Clara County – also consider similar agreements. The next round of grants will be next spring.

Other cities signing the compact agreed to work toward a policy of fairly sharing district facilities – a major concession, since finding buildings can be the biggest obstacle to opening charter schools and rent is one of their biggest expenses. However, the California Charter Schools Assn. has sued LAUSD over its failure to provide comparable facilities to charters as required under Proposition 39 and an agreement under a previous lawsuit. Last year, according to Charter Schools Association CEO Jed Wallace, the district failed to make an offer of buildings to 36 of 81 charters that applied.

This week, there was progress in the case. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Terry Green ordered the district to comply with the law and to make preliminary offers for facilities to all charters that apply for facilities by Feb. 1, with final offers by April 1, and indicated that he would monitor the situation. The judge hasn’t decided yet whether to appoint an independent master to ensure compliance.

Sharing district buildings equitably would be likely a key component of an agreement between other California school districts and charters.