March 1, 2001
One of the most engrossing reality-based television shows is the thrice-weekly KLCS public broadcasting program, "Conversation with Roy Romer." Unlike "Survivor" and "Temptation Island," where contestants wearing cruise and safari garb compete against each other and the weather, "Conversation" features little more than a white-haired man in a black suit talking to off-camera live callers wearing who knows what. Nevertheless, the sharks are out. Romer is superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), and what is at stake on the show is the education of some 700,000 Los Angeles children.
Romer is cool. Monday night, the former governor of Colorado handled questions about completing the mid-city Belmont High School, the newly passed 15 percent pay increase for teachers and where the money will come from, the problems of new teacher accreditation, and whether giving teachers PalmPilots would help automate classroom grading. These, of course, are the high-visibility problems that preoccupy the district, along with an (unmentioned that night) embarrassing accounts payable meltdown, which renders LAUSD unable to buy desks from Office Depot because of unpaid bills. Romer took it all in stride, referring obliquely to the efforts of an unnamed Valley newspaper to exploit LAUSD problems to build a city-secession movement.
Moments before the show ended, however, Romer's passion showed when he spontaneously unfurled what he saw as the top priorities of the district, ones that supersede even the important problems that callers were raising. Incredibly, the top three of four were aimed at improving teaching.
"We need to improve reading and to give teachers skills to teach math," he said. "We need to improve our teachers' professional development." It was a rare reality-based moment in which what happened in the classroom, to children, was made of paramount importance.
As it happened, I'd spent much of the past week considering this very issue, the politics of education and what is happening to our students. My friend Marlene Canter is running for the LAUSD school board in the Westside/Valley district. She's got an uphill battle against incumbent Valerie Fields, who has the support of Jewish machers and the teachers union. Real estate developer Matthew S. Rodman is endorsed by Mayor Richard Riordan (who deserted Fields at the last minute). Rodman's claim to this support is that, presumably, he can help the crowded school district pick new construction sites. New school development was the fourth and last of Roy Romer's agenda items on KLCS.
Nevertheless, Canter, a Jewish community activist (on such boards as the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College) deserves your attention for the same reason that Roy Romer had a fix on mine: she alone in this race is focused on educating children and improving teacher skills. Moreover, she alone is an educator with business skills and a parent, and she is beholden to no one. With eight years as a classroom special-education teacher, she became CEO of an educational training company built with her former husband that specialized in classroom conduct problems (at which she employed her mom and dad). The company was recently sold to Sylvan Learning Systems.
"We've got archaic teacher training," she told me over tuna salad last Thursday. "We're going down the wrong track. Just look at all the students who are now being tested for 'special education,' as if they can't learn. We're creating a stigma that is unnecessary, and we're creating an incentive for schools to create costly new programs that drain the budget.
"The truth is we could teach almost all these students if teachers were taught about students' differing learning styles."
The system does parents and children no favors when it imposes exit testing on students whose education was doomed to begin with. A better option, as Canter said, would be to test for reading and math skills at third grade, the age when they can quickly and easily catch up.
The lunch with Canter was entirely reality based. Her own two children are recent high school graduates, like my daughter, and we know the practical and philosophical limitations of a two-tiered educational system that breaks the heart. We know the pressures on students for prestigious colleges and to go an academic route for lack of respected alternatives, about the biases in our own upward-striving Jewish community toward "gifted" programs because the rest of the system is so inadequate. We talked tachlis, the way parents all over this community are doing.
Canter discussed LAUSD successes, including the charter-school movement. "We're riding on a wave of hope and opportunity," she said. "The problems are fixable. I believe that we should set our sights on proving what excellence can do."
The LAUSD 4th district, in which Canter is running, has 100,000 students. The problems of our educating our children are nothing but real.