In my previous post, I described what I believe is a tragedy of national proportion as exemplified by practices in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) that demonstrate a wanton disregard for the education of its students. In that post, I introduced you to Leonard Isenberg, a respected public school teacher of 15 years, who filed a formal complaint against the LAUSD in an attempt to unmask the academic fraud of awarding high school diplomas to students who had not met the standards of graduation. Sadly, Mr. Isenberg is being punished for this act of, dare I say, heroism.
Here's where the tragedy continues. Throughout his teaching career, Mr. Isenberg had received outstanding job performance evaluations with not a single negative "stull" (teacher evaluation) in his file. Yet, shortly after filing the complaint, school administrators began to visit his classroom, which resulted in several negative evaluations and suspensions. As the school principal said, according to Mr. Isenberg, "This is war...I like war."
In February of this year, Mr. Isenberg was removed from his classroom. He was initially asked to leave for violating the privacy of an 18-year-old student who had, in fact, given him written permission (his parents did too) to videotape an interview in which the student admitted participating in many of the appalling practices I discussed in my previous post. Mr. Isenberg refused to leave until he had the opportunity to remove his personal files and information from the school computer he was allowed to use for both school and personal use (which was being confiscated as "evidence"). The LAUSD police officer then handcuffed Mr. Isenberg in front of his students and forcibly removed him from class.
For most of 2010, Mr. Isenberg has been on suspension where he is paid his full salary and benefits to do absolutely nothing, a situation made famous by an August, 2009 New Yorker article describing the use of "rubber rooms" in which suspended teachers must sit in empty rooms with nothing to do during school hours (in his defense, Mr. Isenberg devotes this time to documenting and reporting all that is wrong with the LAUSD and public education for the poor). His case will be heard shortly and the decision rendered will determine whether his teaching career continues or ends.
My discussions with Mr. Isenberg and other teachers in the LAUSD (who wished to remain anonymous to protect their teaching careers) led to astonishing revelations about the underbelly of school and district administration politics and functioning. What I learned was that the LAUSD was, as one teacher described it, "like the Soviet Union. You either march in lock step or else." And this reference to Russia was not an isolated comment, but rather invoked by several teachers independently. Remarked a Russian-born teacher, "LAUSD is the closest thing that I have experienced to the bureaucracy of the old Communist Party since leaving Russia. At least under that totalitarian system we got a great education."
The underlying motivation for the use of these tactics seems to be to keep school funding from the state and federal governments flowing and to protect the high-paying jobs that administrators hold regardless of their competence. Here are some of the more flagrant examples of heavy-handed and unjust treatment of teachers and students alike.
The teachers with whom I spoke received little to no support from school administrators for disciplining students, without which the environment necessary for teaching cannot exist, contrary to California state law, school district policy, and the LAUSD/UTLA (United Teachers Los Angeles) collective bargaining agreement. Tardiness, truancy, profanity, violence, talking in class, use of electronic devices, lack of responsiveness to teachers, refusal to do assignments, and disregard for authority are a laundry list of offenses that were common in classrooms and for which teachers could not count on school administrators to take appropriate action. One assistant principal told a teacher, "You have no right to suspend students no matter what they do. The District doesn't like suspensions." Teachers were threatened with disciplinary action even if they called campus security.
Students were routinely admitted to classes without adequate screening (e.g., past violent behavior, gang affiliation) or legal notice as required by law. In one incident, one such student stabbed another student. Mr. Isenberg had numerous fights broke out in his classes and disruptive behavior of defiant students was the rule rather than the exception. Administrators blamed him for the problems and required him to take a "classroom management" course, where the retired teacher who gave the course told Mr. Isenberg that, "The problem with discipline is that the LAUSD doesn't enforce it."
School administrators forced teachers to accept students into higher-level courses, such as algebra, despite the students' complete lack of mastery of basic subject skills, for example, many of Mr. Isenberg's students didn't know their multiplication tables. According to Mr. Isenberg, this practice is LAUSD policy and instituted district wide. Teachers were then told to give the students passing grades or suffer unspecified consequences. This practice served two important purposes for the administration. It gave the appearance of academic progress for students who were going nowhere in school. And it ensured that seats would continue to be filled for funding purposes.
Particularly egregious behavior on the part of administrators could be best described as "administrative terrorism," in which principals and assistant principals conduct reigns of terror on teachers who don't tow the party line. Said one teacher with whom I spoke, "Teachers were terrified of the principal and her staff. They just did what they were told so they could keep their jobs." Certainly, Mr. Isenberg's treatment exemplified this strategy of coercion and control. Frequent classroom evaluations by administrators, bogus and trumped-up charges, parents and students pressured to give incriminating statements against teachers, teachers moved from school to school without notice or rationale, and long delays in due process hearings are just a few of the ways in which school administrators use threats, fear, and intimidation to maintain power and keep teachers in line.
The teachers I spoke with also described what appeared to be widespread fraud. Most evident was the manipulation of Average Daily Attendance (ADA), which is the number of filled seats in a school each day (in contrast to the number of students enrolled at the beginning of the school year). ADA is the basis for school funding from the state; the more seats that are filled, the more funding and the more funding, the safer are administrators' and teachers' jobs who are willing to not rock the boat. Yet, there can be a huge discrepancy between ADA and enrollment, what Mr. Isenberg calls "construction of a paper school." It is common, for example, to have 35 students enrolled in a class, but only 12 actually attend class. I was told there are two often-used strategies to modify the ADA. First, school administration includes students who rarely attend class or show up late and are still counted present for purposes of ADA. And clerical staff are ordered to change the attendance reports submitted by the teachers under pressure from the principal. "Gaming the ADA system is common at my school," said one teacher.
Other forms of fraud were also described by teachers. Administrators purportedly ordered textbooks that were never delivered or used. They created "ghost" classes and assigned teachers who didn't teach them and students who didn't attend them. Courses were taught by teachers who were not credentialed to teach the specific subject, violating state law. And the employee payroll was padded with people who never showed up for work, but who were still paid. Not surprising given that $200 million dollars of LAUSD payroll money were "lost" last year.
Over all, the impression I got was one of administrators running LAUSD schools like totalitarian regimes with the indiscriminant ability to discipline, uproot, or suspend teachers, a wanton disregard for the laws, policies, rules, and regulations -- not to mention civil rights -- that should govern their behavior, and no consequences for breaching their responsibilities.
Teachers, in turn, are little more than indentured servants with little recourse to act against this administrative fascism, despite a union that is supposed to defend them. In fact, the UTLA is, in the words of one teacher, "in the pocket of LAUSD. Their participation in this charade gives the appearance of due process when none exists." It seems like anyone with any power is in cahoots with everyone else. When due process does occur, it is usually months or years delayed, there are conflicts of interest galore, and teachers must find their way through a bureaucratic labyrinth of epic proportion.
I don't know if all this administrative malfeasance is truly rampant throughout the LAUSD system, just among schools that serve disadvantaged students (which is where the teachers to whom I spoke taught), or are simply isolated cases of a few bad apples. Or, more disturbing, whether the LAUSD is indicative of similar school districts around the U.S. But there is enough evidence to suggest that there is a real problem that is begging for attention.
What does this mean for efforts at reforming public education for the poor? Well, it certainly doesn't inspire confidence that the policy directives and billions of dollars committed by the Obama administration have much hope of being used in the best interests of these much-in-need children once they reach the school districts.
As for the formal complaint against graduation fraud, it was dismissed as having "no merit" (without Mr. Isenberg being interviewed o r his evidence reviewed). Nothing surprising there.
For now, I'm just pulling for Leonard Isenberg to win his disciplinary hearing so he can get back to what he loves, which is educate children who need all the help they can get.
If you would like to hear directly from Mr. Isenberg, I encourage you to visit his enlightening and disturbing web site here.