Educating Riordan

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s choice of former Mayor Richard Riordan for state education secretary has education experts worried that despite his reputation as a pro-skills, pro-reform guy, Riordan’s not all he’s cracked up to be. These experts see Riordan as the power broker who spent far more time trying to fix school construction than classroom instruction — the source of California’s long education nightmare. Indeed, among a throng of educators who see California’s new, intensive skills-based instruction producing miracles in grade schools, where achievement is up significantly after a generation of downward spiraling, Riordan might be stunned to hear that he is Worry No. 1.

"Riordan’s scary — we don’t know if he gets it," said math reformer Martha Schwartz, a Los Angeles education consultant. "The most important thing he can do is hold course on things now in place — the standards, the framework, the textbooks, the tests — and listen to Marion Joseph."

California’s reforms — curriculum and textbooks tied to teacher retraining, subject-matter standards and testing — are succeeding only due to heroics by the state Board of Education. Joseph, a Democrat appointed to the board by former Gov. Pete Wilson, has been reform’s greatest champion.

Under Gray Davis and Wilson, the board, using publicized test scores as its cudgel, has painstakingly forced reform onto thousands of failing, often belligerent, grade schools that had chronically followed union demands and political trends in setting goals for children. Middle schools and high schools are next.

The Wilson-Davis reforms emphasize explicit instruction. The reforms end the 25-year dominance of "group projects" (in which lagging children relied on successful ones to do their group’s work), and a "go at your own pace" philosophy that left California children far behind. During those 25 years, teachers who stood in front of class and directly taught skills were treated like poison.

Joseph, no longer on the board but a major force anyway, said, "Without the state requiring these fundamental teaching changes of every district and requiring these standards and timetables, we would see as much illiteracy among children now as we saw five years ago. But achievement among [kindergarten through fourth-graders] is up substantially. It’s not some testing blip."

It’s not clear Riordan is listening. He’s talking about empowering principals, reminding some of a failed plan in Los Angeles. LEARN (Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now) was supposed to boost learning by handing control to teachers, parents and the principal.

It backfired when the teachers’ union outmaneuvered parents at most schools. Bickering, not learning, ensued.

Riordan must show reformers he is with them and convince Schwarzenegger to fill the state board with reform experts.

But does Riordan trust people whose expertise outstrips his own? When Riordan was elected mayor in 1992, it didn’t seem so. He ignored advice to go slow on his idea for privatizing wasteful services, scrappily announcing that trash pickup could be contracted out. This spawned a feud with a powerful union Riordan couldn’t beat, and weakened him in labor dealings.

On the other hand, Riordan cleaned up Mayor Tom Bradley’s crony system, which had loaded City Hall with inept bureaucrats. Despite controversies in the police department, even critics agreed that he left most departments in better shape than they’d been in for years. The Jewish community can play a hand in helping Riordan succeed. Some 60,000 Jewish children attend public schools, while about 9,000 attend Jewish schools. Reformers say parents can ascertain whether their grade school embraces reform by their textbooks. Sacramento’s majority Democrats, who oppose reform because unions oppose reform, still fear angry parents.

Grade schools using so-called Saxon math books, which emphasize classic arithmetic such as memorizing multiplication tables and dividing fractions, are avidly pro-reform. Whether rich or poor, childrens’ scores are skyrocketing. Anti-reform schools cling to Mathland, a book-less "fuzzy" program that peddles easy work. Most schools’ books aren’t as good as Saxon, or as bad as book-free Mathland.

In reading, achievement at grade schools using wildly successful Opencourt is soaring. Schools using less effective Houghton-Mifflin books see more modest gains. But if a school says its program is "balanced," that’s usually anti-reform code meaning they barely cover phonics and use ineffective "whole language."

The community can also register its displeasure with legislators who author bills attacking reform. Each year, Davis angered teachers’ unions by vetoing every crop of Democratic anti-reform bills.

The unions especially want to end crucial second-grade testing. The tests inform principals exactly which teachers are failing to teach reading and arithmetic at this critical age, even as teachers down the hall do just fine. Because of union bargaining victories, parents cannot see these telling classroom results.

Authors or co-authors of bills to roll back reform include L.A.-area legislators such as state Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Los Angeles); and Assemblymembers Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), Marco Firebaugh (D-South Gate), Dario Frommer (D-Glendale), Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood), Herb Wesson (D-Los Angeles) and Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys). Goldberg is the most outspoken, often praising the past 25 years as an era when children went at their own pace and teachers did their own thing.

Here’s hoping Riordan realizes that those 25 years, while not disastrous for survivors who acquired skills, represent chronic failure by adults who sent California children to the absolute bottom of the academic barrel.

Jill Stewart is a syndicated politcal columnist and can
be reached at