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Paul Cummins: Turning Around L.A. Unified

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Posted on Dec 19, 2006

By Paul Cummins

We’re never going to make any progress reforming the nation’s most dysfunctional school systems unless we first address the segregation that partitions our communities.

LOS ANGELES—What would it take?  To truly turn around Los Angeles Unified School District, a school system that is at once the nation’s second-largest and one of its most under-performing—even, as many have argued, the most dysfunctional in the country; what would it take?

Not a quick fix.  Not a silver bullet.  Not simply a new superintendent, not simply a new program—Open Court or LAEP—not simply more systems of accountability to raise test scores a percentage point or two for a few years.  Not Leave No Child Behind, not raising the per-pupil expenditures by a few hundred dollars.

Not that all of the above cannot, will not or do not help.  And not that all the above shouldn’t be supported.  But before we think any given fix will work, we need to define the problems more accurately, more honestly and more profoundly.  You don’t cure an illness by treating only the symptoms.  Test scores are a symptom.  Dropout rates are a symptom.  So, too, are gang domination, early teen pregnancy and childbirth, drugs and eating disorders, and teen suicide.  All are symptoms of a fractured society, and until we fully acknowledge the breadth and depth of these fractures, we will not “fix” any school district.  William Faulkner, in his 1950 Nobel Prize speech, wrote, “... we have sustained our problems of the spirit so long ... by now that we can even bear it.”  But bearing it is not solving it.

The problems of our schools, I believe, are problems of the spirit. Leadership which fails to acknowledge and confront that reality will fail, and we along with it.  Our primary spiritual failure is our disregard for real community.  In Los Angeles, we are a balkanized city.  We have a Koreatown, a Chinatown, a Little Tokyo; we have districts that are predominantly Jewish or Armenian or Vietnamese or Latino and on and on.  But this is not real diversity—it is simply separate groupings that have little to do with each other.  We have schools that are 99 percent Latino, 99 percent African-American or 99 percent Caucasian.

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But beyond and almost superseding this, we have rich and poor.  The neighborhoods and schools that are predominantly rich are also predominantly white, and the predominantly poor in Los Angeles are not white.  This is not a startlingly new observation, but the failure to deal with it and the inequities these societal divisions impose on our children and youths represent a major failure of our country.  Raising test scores a few percentage points may make some people feel good, but it will do little to change the lives of the desperately poor, foster children, gang-controlled youths, incarcerated youths and other youths destined for the ranks of the dropouts, the unemployed, the homeless, the “permanently unemployed,” the victims of crime, drugs, rape, etc.

So, real solutions?  First, acknowledge that we have thousands of throwaway children and youths in our big cities and rural slums.  Two, acknowledge that the Third World is right here in our own country and that day-to-day tragedies occur under our societal radar screens.  Three, make the funding of known solutions and successful nonprofit organizations and public projects our highest priority.  Four, hold a series of public and privately funded national summits to evaluate and make action plans for attacking the problems referred to above.  Nothing short of a national resolve will fix LAUSD and all the LAUSDs across the land.  Our children warrant such an effort.


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By Dr. Common Sense, July 23, 2007 at 1:50 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Dr. Cummins, while certainly good intentioned, makes the unfortunate mistake that so many academics (and other over-educated people who belive too much in theory) make too often:  His solutions are just not related to the practical, real world.  Common sense should tells us that the main reason certain kids excel at school (and in life) is because of who their PARENTS are. This is because of genetics, involvement of the parents in their kids’ lives, and socio-economic status. Sorry, Paul, but until we find a way—if at all—to make every parent a good paret, to redress natural genetic imbalances, we will always have some kids who are smart and some kids who aren’t. And we will always have good schools and bad schools. LAUSD has some VERY FINE schools, by the way, so your balnket indic tment of LAUSD is nonsense.  AT those schools that are good you’ll find good genes in the kids, socio-economic adb=natges, and committed parents.

Sorry, Paul, life never hs been about “equal outcomes for all”—and shouldn’t be.

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By AlbertCamus, December 22, 2006 at 12:09 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I, too, teach in a LAUSD high school. I’ve been a fan of Mr. Cummins for about 10 years. I like what he has to say. With all the problems in our society, no wonder students are coming to class ready to learn. The articles on truthdig, however, remind me of the words of a LAUSD bureaucrat. There is little practical to go with the grand ideas. Perhaps, like the bureaucrats at LAUSD, he doesn’t have the experience of teaching in a major urban school. Mr. Cummins speaks of schools that are 99% one race. That is not as common as you think. LAUSD often mixes students from different areas. With overcrowding at some inner city schools so widespread, they send many kids from those neighborhoods to less crowded schools in the valley. Sometimes, the less crowded, safer schools help the students. Other times, the students travel 2 hours on a bus each day to get the same result they would get at their local school - failure. Its about the motivation of the kid.

My solutions for schools include

1) Vocational options for kids who didn’t want to go to college. LAUSD bases high school on this stupid assumption that everyone will go to college. Some kids, no matter what we do, will not want to go to college after high school. That is okay.  This isn’t the old days where guidance counselors will put all the dark skinned kids into the shop classes. If kids have an immediate/ near future goal they will have more buy in when taking Math, English and History. We are fortunate in America. We have this thing call “the community college system.” If you are working a blue-collar job right out of high school and you don’t like it, you aren’t stuck. I’m not saying its easy, especially if you have kids and debt, but you can work your way to a degree.

2) Small class size: When I worked at one of Mr. Cummin’s private schools the kids weren’t more intelligent. The teachers were not any better. The school just had more resources, and, more importantly, the students got more attention from the teacher. I’d like a cap of 20 student to a class, but I’ll settle for 30 kids.

3) Pay teachers more and make it easier to fire the bad ones. Teachers in more sought after subjects like science and math, should have higher pay. Teachers today are missionaries. They are sacrificing their lives for the kids. That should not have to be. A teacher with 15 years of experience and a fair amount of coursework under his/her belt should be able to make $100,000.

4) Trim the bureaucracy at LAUSD and UTLA. When you have so many out of the classroom people making over $100,000, it adds up. That money should go to the schools directly to lower class size.

5) Connect school to the real world. I like Mr. Cummin’s idea of a large research project on a problem in society. It is a nice ideal but its too large for most students. Instead, teachers and administrators need to show students why this stuff we are teaching them is important. If there is not connection, there will be very little learning.

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By Dr. Knowitall, PhD, PhD, December 21, 2006 at 4:15 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

re: 43095 Nikto  
  The problem is being misdiagnosed.  There is a correlation between learning and poverty.  Where there’s poverty, there is not only great chance for ignorance but there is little reason for self-respect and hope.  This compounds generation to generation.  No one can expect parents without hope and whose dignity has been stripped from them by our government’s failure for decades to address poverty to raise their children to be proud and to hope for their future.  People need help. The help/support has to be ongoing, probably until the cycle is finally broken.  Up to now it has been token, at best.  This country would reap huge rewards for every person it helped to earn self-respect and dignity.  Productivity would increase and crime would decrease.  It would take a lot of people-power and a lot of money, but, in the end, we’d be a far better nation for it.  Public education is the answer, because it is the public’s responsibility to care for its needy.  More attention has to be given the left side of the bell curve, even if it “impedes” the right.  The right doesn’t need help; they’ve got a strong support system and money at home. I do agree, if corporate America needs better workers, then they should pay to train them. Public schools training a workforce or providing star pupils for colleges, as a priority, is not affordable.  The public has enough to do to bring those in poverty and ignorance up to minimum standards.  Until parents are capable of assuming the non-academics in raising their children, I’m afraid public schools will also have to take up that slack.  It’s not good enough to ignore/neglect it.  Above all, this is possible.  It will take vision, money and hard work by an army of smart, caring people, all of which is available in copius quantities in the USA.  I don’t know many congressional republicans or democrats who would be willing to assume the leadership role.  Perhaps corporate America should take a long look at the idea of being a key player.  Their coffers could only benefit from helping those in poverty to become consumers.  And America has made corporations obscenely wealthy.

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By Andy Rogers, December 21, 2006 at 11:12 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The article Mr. Cummins submitted to Truthdig must have been edited. The title has little to do with the text in the body of the piece. He jumps from a quick critique of LA Unified Schools and Los Angeles to a statement about “any school district.” Then, he moves from a description of Los Angeles to a proposal for a utopian national summit to cure the ills of society. It is just not that simple.

True, as Mr. Cummins suggests, an infusion of a few hundred dollars per pupil will do little to help improve education in Los Angeles. How about a thousand dollars per pupil focused on reducing the number of students in Los Angeles’ classrooms? Even that amount of money injected into education from the richest state in the US would leave many states spending more. However, smaller classes in Los Angeles would enable teachers to focus their time and skills much more effectively than is possible today.

In a previous article published in Truthdig, Mr. Cummins asks for teachers to engage “the students … in wild debate and discussion on research and action programs dealing with the critical issues of our times.”  This is a wonderful concept, but difficult to achieve when classrooms are jammed with students.

Mr. Cummings, please use the good offices of your foundation to demand that California spend enough money to reduce the average class size. If LA Unified had the same small number of students per classroom that exists at the elite private school you co-founded, wouldn’t public school teachers be more successful?

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By Dr. knowitall, PhD, PhD, December 20, 2006 at 7:00 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Thank you, Paul.  I think you’re right on target.  My heart breaks for kids in this country who are doomed from the get-go, no fault of their own or of their parents.  In my opinion, America cannot call itself a great nation until it finally addresses the issues of race and poverty.  It became clear to me, shortly after the Iraq invasion, that the terrorist threat was a distraction and that the real threat to America was its failure to address its own social problems of race and poverty.  I get angry at America’s arrogance.  We have no right to be arrogant when so many Americans are “dissed.”  I’ve never felt less proud to be American and, in fact, I feel somewhat ashamed, thanks to our current government.  There is enough brain power and money in America to fix poverty and racism.  They’re both tied up with education.  The four-hundred thousand million dollars “invested” in Iraq up to now—think of it, FOUR-HUNDRED THOUSAND MILLION DOLLARS—could have been allocated here in programs to end racism and poverty.  We need a WAR TAX, a deduction on every American worker’s weekly paycheck stub that shows exactly how much money the gov. is taking away from us to fund this war.  Then, it might hit home.  Then we need resolved, knowledgeable leadership, patriots, people who recognize the real threat from within in America and people who can rally patriotic Americans to work to solve them.  One more thing, it sounds great to say, and believe, that everyone has a chance in this country, but thinking people know that nothing could be further from the truth.  The Katrina thing will haunt me until I die.  There are New Orleans kids who have left their families in distant cities to finish school in N.O.  They’re children whose lives have been shattered, and at the most otherwise vulnerable times in their lives, they’ve left their families to finish school in N.O.  What sense does that make?  The Katrina heartbreak will never end.

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By nikto, December 20, 2006 at 4:14 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I teach in LAUSD, and insanely, public schools have been charged with curing/fixing/solving a myriad of personal/family/community problems which have nothing to do with school, and more importantly, CANNOT BE SOLVED BY THE SCHOOLS.

Why don’t we ask Burger King to solve the world’s food problems—They are in the food biz, after all.
That is the kind of thinking that teachers and students labor under daily—And it is
strangling us.

Education “reform” is totally run by politicians and administrators who hate kids and teachers.
Evrybody else is simply forced to go along like good Germans.

And it is a ridiculous standard of “accountability”
that schools are held to these days.
The real reason for this is ofcourse to discredit Public Education in order to discredit it and pave the way for corporations to grab taxpayers’ money in the name of “saving the schools”.
It is a collossal joke.

Private/voucher/corporate charter schools will be even less successful at solving social/community problems, but the die is cast—It’s really all about privatization.

And America will be the loser.

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