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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 11/17/2010

The sad story of an L.A. school labeled 'failing'

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by L. Martha Infante, a National Board Certified Social Studies teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District and veteran of 15 years. It first appeared on the Accomplished California Teachers blog.

By L. Martha Infante
When the public middle school in which I work received news that we had not met our testing target, and in fact had dropped in our scores, we were not surprised. To the educators on campus, this outcome was a logical event based on the turmoil students and teachers had experienced with the laying off of 23 teachers in 2009, and another dozen in 2010. The social fabric of our school had frayed, there were lots of new faces on campus, and the economic lives of our students were not getting better in the midst of this recession.

But being labeled a “failing” school, or “focus school” as is used down here in Los Angeles, was a label many of us were not accustomed to wearing. Our staff is quite accomplished, with several doctors of education, NBC [National Board Certified] teachers, and over two dozen gifted and talented education teachers with master certification in this area.

Our students too, continued to try their hardest, but in today’s world of testing and sanctions, best efforts are irrelevant if scores do not increase at a fast enough rate.

It was precisely for this reason that on November 1, 2010, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District announced the names of schools which were not improving rapidly enough, or “failing,” but now had to also face sanctions for their low performance. Our school, Los Angeles Academy, was on this list.

Being on the list of “failing” schools means we are forced to participate in a process euphemistically called “Public School Choice,” or PSC. In this process, any organized group of individuals or corporations can submit bids to take over failing schools, and if awarded the school, can completely dismantle any prior staff or governance system and replace it with their own. Charter schools are active participants in this process and submit bids for almost all campuses on the “failing schools” list.

The staff on our campus has been devastated by the news. Our job is hard enough with the layoffs we have experienced, the reductions in support staff, and the increased fragility facing our students and their families on a daily basis. Now, additional pressure will be placed to eliminate the trend of downward scores, as if we the teachers, had the magical abilities to erase all that ails our students and the community during these trying times.

Being a teacher at a “failing” school means attending more meetings, implementing more programs, strategies, and techniques in a year where furloughs have already reduced instruction by seven days, and testing by even more.

There are scant planning periods that can actually be used to create better lessons; most are spent feverishly catching up with the latest mandate sent down from the district or making sure that the district curriculum is followed to a T.

Our school has the option to submit a bid of its own, to pitch for retaining management of our own campus. The idea is that the additional pressure of competition will elicit better teaching skills from the folks in the classroom, better governance by administrators. I imagine that idea sounded excellent in some think tank when it was devised, but in practicality, no one feels inspired, motivated, or challenged by being forced to fight for a school that is supposed to belong to the public in the first place.

We are tired, and it is only November.

Leaving our school’s students and families in the lurch during this process, is not a choice. We cannot let our families down. The parents and community know us, trust us, and would prefer us to continue managing the school. This will mean that hundreds, if not thousands of hours lay ahead for the team of teacher leaders who will write a plan for PSC.

The magical summer break to which we look forward for rest and rejuvenation is rapidly fading from reality, to be replaced with more meetings jam-packed with edu-speak, data, graphs, and proposals, and all the while, the root cause of our students’ under-performance continues to go neglected: poverty, crime, violence, and hunger.

I think of the millions of dollars the district is spending on consultants to examine how value-added measurement can be used to evaluate teachers. I think of the amount of money that will be spent to pay for teachers to meet and write plans. I think of all my students’ families who are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, and I wish we could just give them the money.

So how to sum up month three of working at a “failing” school? Distressing.

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By Valerie Strauss  | November 17, 2010; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Teachers  | Tags:  failing schools, la schools, los angeles unified school district, public school choice, schools, teacher assessment, teachers, value-added measurement  
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Comments

This is terrible! Stop just reading the news. Help solving the crimes by studying criminal justice at http://bit.ly/ctecjq

Posted by: stevecenta17 | November 17, 2010 5:25 AM | Report abuse

I propose that you spend the time directly addressing what the community, all the educational research and common sense know to be the main problems – “those root causes,” that you have already accurately named, "poverty, crime, violence, and hunger."

As long as teachers continue pretending that the Emperor is wearing new clothes, nothing will change. It will only get worse. You know that.

This approach will allow you to truly help the students, to protect you own mental health and to live up to your role as real educators – not unwilling puppets in a scheme to destroy public education, while leaving students' real problems unaddressed.

It will take courage too.

Posted by: efavorite | November 17, 2010 8:32 AM | Report abuse

"I think of the millions of dollars the district is spending on consultants to examine how value-added measurement can be used to evaluate teachers. I think of the amount of money that will be spent to pay for teachers to meet and write plans. I think of all my students’ families who are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, and I wish we could just give them the money."

In New York we just "won" the Race to the Top Game Show. Half of the money goes to the State Education Department that they are using to hire 25 more bureaucrats. Of the money that goes to our district, 75% will go to our Intermediate Units to hire teams of three bureaucrats for every 25 schools to oversee implementation. By the time all is said and done, we'll have about $3000 to spread around to educate about 1200 kids in a low income rural school. NCLB and RttT are scams to funnel tax money away from public school classrooms and into the pockets of corporations and bureaucrats. Despicable.

Posted by: buckbuck11 | November 17, 2010 9:11 AM | Report abuse

I think the only way we can stop this trend is to start voting politicians who support these silly practices out of office. We need to start with Obama.

Posted by: jlp19 | November 17, 2010 1:01 PM | Report abuse

Unless our school raises it's scores nearly 20% we'll be next. Can somebody tell me how to do this??? Even just where to start. How about new curricula? check. New principal? check? National Board Certified Teachers? nearing half! Advanced degrees? almost all. Differentiated instruction? where applicable. Professional Learning Communities? yes. Adopting promising practices school wide. yup GLAD. Coaches, fascilitators, technology? check, check, check.

We have plenty of ideas going around. No solutions- only blame.

Spend your money on your teacher evaluation system. Show me the data which tells me the value I add. But before you do come into my room for a week and SEE the value I add & look me in the eye and tell us we are failing. Obama, Duncan, & whoever else you are invited. I'm sick of this.

Posted by: CDuerr | November 17, 2010 1:26 PM | Report abuse

I don't know if L. Martha Infante is reading this, but I have some questions.

First, why were teachers laid off in 2009 and 2010? Just a drop in numbers? Or something else?

Also, although I'm not crazy enough to think bureaucrats will listen to sense, you may want to try a "prayer shot" in lieu of quitting or working yourself to death creating a restructuring plan.

Why not submit a simplified document - including your article above - as well as evidence of your current staff's qualifications and the nature of your school environment and simply ask that unless there is evidence that a charter company (or any one else) can do better (I don't think such evidence exists) the district should shut the hell up and let you teach.

It probably won't work, but it may get enough media attention to help put some pressure on the district.

Posted by: 1teacher1 | November 17, 2010 1:32 PM | Report abuse

Thank you all for your comments, and to Ms. Strauss for sharing this post with WaPo readers. The goal of my blogging for both Accomplished Teachers and my personal blog is to provide a true accounting of how national education policies play out at the ground level, and how the implementation of such policies always has a different iteration in urban schools impacted by poverty and violence.

@1teacher1 our school was affected by such high layoff numbers due to the disproportionate amount of new teachers on staff; LAAMS is a hard to staff school in South Central L.A. We tried everything to prevent the layoffs that we knew would hurt our students, but how do you offset $17 billion in education cuts in California?

@efavorite as teachers, we have addressed the critical issues affecting our community in the role and capacity that is meant to be fulfilled by educators. Social services, health care, law enforcement, government and even philanthropists all have a role they must play in nurturing the success of public schools as well. Parents and students must also participate actively in accomplishing the goal of attaining educational achievement. The teacher cannot, nor should they be expected to bear the sole responsibility of this alone.

Martha Infante aka AvalonSensei
Los Angeles Academy Middle School

Posted by: avalonsensei | November 18, 2010 12:18 AM | Report abuse

Ms. Infante:

You have already taken a brave step by expressing your opinions in a public forum. Journalists are beginning to understand what this "reform" is really all about and are writing articles that support students and teachers.

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/09/why-michelle-rhees-education-brand-failed-in-dc/63014/

http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2010/11/19/teachers-bush-reform-rhee-ed/

Here are my suggestions:

Encourage teachers to submit a plan to turn the school into a charter run by the teachers themselves;

Encourage younger teachers to submit their applications to districts such as Palos Verdes, where all students have high test scores and all teachers are "highly effective;"

Make certain talented students contemplating teaching careers understand the current attack on urban teachers so they too will know to apply to high-scoring districts.

Two can play the test score game.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | November 20, 2010 10:36 PM | Report abuse

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