Lowdown on Los Angeles

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NCTQ's study looking at teacher quality in the Los Angeles school district garnered a lot of attention this month, by far the most of any of the six districts we've studied. In spite of the fact that we generally hear the same melody of problems from one district to another, the accompanying lyrics are often quite different and that was certainly the case in Los Angeles.

Probably the most jaw-dropping finding is LAUSD's approach to teacher raises. While all American school districts give raises to teachers who head back to graduate school, LA's approach is a new one on us. In LA, there's actually little incentive to earn a honest-to-goodness master's degree, but instead teachers accumulate what are deceptively termed "credits," which teachers earn for visiting the opera or the zoo during their off-hours. No wonder that so many teachers have reached the top of the pay scale in LAUSD--decidedly unlike any other district we've seen.

Accordingly, LA is spending $518 million a year to support this pay structure.

On the bright side, Los Angeles has the good fortune of a new, energetic superintendent at the helm (John Deasy); an ├╝ber-supportive mayor (Victor Villaraigosa) who is a former labor negotiator and is quite happy to make a stink to improve public schools; and many dedicated teachers with a sense of urgency to do the same. There's a huge amount of momentum and talent that make real reform a hopeful prospect.

While it's true that Los Angeles can do a lot improve the policies shaping the teacher workforce, much of the hard work must take place in Sacramento, undoing a number of state laws that tie the district's hands, notably to allow California districts to dismiss a surplussed teacher who is unable to find a new assignment within a year and to require that districts base part of a teacher's evaluation on student achievement—something that even the most determined district superintendent may not be able to do given local union resistance.

We're glad that our LAUSD report has sparked so much debate, and hope that California lawmakers will give it as much consideration as the public has. We know that policy is no panacea for all educational challenges, but we also know, from our own classroom experience as teachers, that better policies can make schools' work easier, and students' prospects better.

Read the report and see some of the coverage here.