If It Isn't Broken

Debra J. Saunders

5/6/2001 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders
In Edu-Land, nothing sinks curriculum as quickly as success. Picture an urban elementary school where the students are so poor that all qualify for free lunches and some 82 percent are English learners. The students, sadly, are performing in the bottom third of the nation's students in math. Then, teachers discover a program that boosts students' performance. In two years, nationally normed math test scores rise to the 44th percentile from the 27th percentile for first-graders and to the 30th percentile from the 20th percentile for fourth-graders. Teachers are ecstatic. Kids are smiling, a teacher tells me, when they take the STAR test. Enter educrats set to yank the program. In February, the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District voted to require each of its 11 sub-districts to pick one of two state-approved math series for elementary schools. (The third state-approved series, the one the teachers love, was not allowed.) Woe be to Heliotrope Elementary, where some 59 teachers signed a petition pleading with district pencilheads to allow them to keep the successful Saxon math program. Teacher Patrice Abarca explained that her third-graders now use words like "oblique, horizontal and vertical. That is very matter of fact for them." Her students' average math score last year was at the 67th percentile nationally. Not bad for a school where third-graders averaged at the 20th percentile in 1998. Abarca has nothing against Harcourt, the series L.A. educrats want her to use. It's a "a good program" that adheres to strong state math standards -- and she should know, since she is chairwoman of the state commission that approved both Saxon and Harcourt. She is not endorsing Saxon only, she said. "But when you have the success that we have had, and the fact that the children are learning an academic vocabulary," she added, you want to stick with what works. Cal State Northridge University math professor David Klein believes that Los Angeles subtracted Saxon from the math list because the program is too traditional. Too many math problems, too little multiculturalism. "Saxon is a dirty word for the so-called math specialists at LAUSD," he said. Letitia Shelby, who is piloting Saxon at Oakland's Lakeview School, agreed that Saxon is less multicultural. She complained that the program took up too much teacher time, but applauded its focus on basics. "That's why teachers like it," she said. "That's what children need." L.A. school board member David Tokofsky explained that what he sees as "drill and skill," district administrators would consider "drill and kill." That's why the board voted to allow L.A. schools to seek waivers to keep successful curricula. But Abarca, Klein and Tokofsky say the district is discouraging schools from seeking waivers, so much so that no school has applied. "The word is already trickling out that the nails that stick out will get pounded," Tokofsky said. District spokesperson Cricket Bauer said she didn't know of any waivers and suggested I call the 11 sub-districts. But Dale Vigil, super for Heliotrope's mini-district, said that no waivers have been received because the district is still putting the waiver process "into place." Get your story straight, guys. Heliotrope Principal Ray Fisher told me that he has not been pressured. Instead, he was persuaded by the district's desire to work in a "more collaborative manner" and will not seek a waiver. (Ignoring teachers is "more collaborative?") The anti-Saxon crusade is not limited to Heliotrope. Other L.A. schools face saying goodbye to Saxon. Nearby Inglewood has voted to replace Saxon at Bennett-Kew, a showcase school. "I think it's awful," lamented state school board member Nancy Ichinaga, B-K's former principal. Figure that the reason there isn't a spate of Bay Area horror stories is that Saxon is so un-PC, most trendy districts run from it. (Some Berkeley schools -- all applaud -- provide the exception, as well as schools in Oakland, San Francisco and the South Bay.) It would be easy to understand why L.A. would choose uniformity over teacher preference, if the teachers' pet program didn't work. But why go after success? When a program has helped improve a school where kids were scoring in the bottom third of the nation, so that students are smiling when they take the STAR test, why be so quick to wipe the smile off their faces?