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‘I’m very skeptical of online recovery programs’: Q & A with board President Steve Zimmer

Sarah Favot | September 19, 2016

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LA Unified school board President Steve Zimmer recently sat down with LA School Report at his field office tucked away in an east Hollywood strip mall, where there is a unique partnership with the Youth Policy Institute and the school district that hosts after-school programs, adult classes and classes for homeless youth.

During the hour-long interview, Zimmer spoke about his passion to eradicate the school readiness gap (the achievement gap between students of color from disadvantaged backgrounds as they enter the school system compared to their white and wealthier peers), the relationship between the school board and Superintendent Michelle King, who is entering her ninth month as the leader of the nation’s second-largest school district, and his experience working as a counselor at Marshall High School helping students cross the graduation stage.

Here are Zimmer’s comments on the district’s online credit recovery program, administered by companies including Edgenuity, which has been scrutinized for its rigor amid the district’s recent announcement that its graduation has reached a record 75 percent even as the bar has been raised with the requirement that students pass the A through G, the course criteria established by UC faculty. (Lightly edited for clarity and length.)

• Read more on credit recovery: Are the courses ‘very rigorous’?Credit recovery starts early this year, Zimmer expresses frustration over credit recovery, LAUSD summer school had better teaching 

Q: We’d like to talk to you about the district’s online credit recovery program. On Tuesday (Aug. 23), you made it clear that you have concerns about it.

A: It’s a great concern to me.

Q: What are your concerns? What do you want to see done this year? What did you learn from last year? 

A: So, there’s so many places to start on where I’m concerned. But I think the most important place to start about where I’m concerned is I’m simultaneously concerned about the right now and the long view. The long view is not about how many assignments were in Edgenuity. Not that I’m not concerned about that — actually I am.

But I am much more concerned that we believe having an individual education plan for every middle and high school student is a key lever for moving the needle on this, that we have to be looking very, very carefully at career and training pathways and I don’t think we are. And as a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure we’re not.

And so, both in the immediate short-term when you’re looking at academic counseling loads and ratios, the medium-term in terms of if we do try and bring those down, do we actually have the folks who are credentialed and who intentionally want to work with our students in this way and the long-view is we know we’re going to be in a teacher shortage. I know we’re going to be in counselor shortage. What are we doing in terms of our partnerships to build the right kind of pipelines to make sure the right people are in those counseling seats with the right set of  skills, with the right asset-based mindset about our students and the right balance of a caseload where they can actually do this?

Having an individual graduation plan, as important as it might be, needs to be more important than just having a piece of paper. I mean having a piece of paper actually for urban school districts, where the belief system was not what it was in affluent school districts, is a step and an important step. Because having an individualized graduation plan, by definition, means we expect you to graduate and we expect you to graduate fully completing the A through G’s. So this is not triage or salvage work. This is intentional and very purposeful and is of high rigor and high quality all the way through. When you have a plan, there’s an infinitely better chance that the plan will be executed, as opposed to not having any plan.

Q: How concerned were you when you heard UC was looking at this credit recovery program and might reject the courses? (Update: Since this interview, a UC spokeswoman said UC has reviewed the courses and there will be no changes to the admission status of incoming freshmen accepted to UC.) 

A: So short-term obviously, we’re concerned for our students because it’s certainly no fault of theirs. They completed the courses that they were asked to complete to graduate, fulfilling the A through G’s, so I have a short-term concern, of course, for them.

Am I concerned that they’re looking at this? No. I think they should look at it. I’m very skeptical of online recovery programs. I’m very skeptical of online instruction period. I say skeptical in the literal sense. I’m not a Luddite on it. I’m not reactively opposed to it. I think that we in the new terrain that is blended instruction, blended instruction within a year or two is not going to be some kind of branded movement that the Alliance charter schools try and so, therefore, it is wonderful.

Blended instruction is going to be part of instruction. Period. In many ways it already is. Do our teachers have the right training and support to use it the best way possible? I don’t think so. Not yet. And so, yeah, I’m interested and concerned and skeptical all at the same time. It’s not necessarily negative.

Q: Will the school board be taking another look at this?

A: As it related to Edgenuity and all those contracts, the first thing to say is that let’s be clear on what everybody expected and what happened and what the narrative should and shouldn’t be around this.

Access to an A through G college-preparatory curriculum is a foregone conclusion in affluent school districts, whether they be suburban, wherever they are. Nobody asks that question. Nobody says are our students capable of this level of rigor? It’s assumed that they are. And that is, not to give a lecture, but that is just very clear exposition of systemic racism. That’s what it is and it shouldn’t be called anything else.

And so when there’s all these questions about did our students really do this? I think we have to check ourselves. And go back to 10 years ago, 12 years ago when we first passed the A through G and how much of this is going to hurt students.

Go back two years ago to the editorial pages of the LA Times where literally they said we are setting up these students or those students for failure. We still use this language today. Catastrophic failure did not happen. Let’s say it turns out that this “all hands on deck” approach that really probably the true rate was more like 70 percent than 75 percent if you don’t accept these credit recovery courses.

Q: Do you know how many students used online credit recovery courses in order to graduate?

A: No. Today on Aug. 25, I stand by 100 percent what our numbers are, but I also understand that folks are looking at them and they should. But even if the numbers were 70 percent, it’s important to understand that’s not what people thought would happen, that’s not what people thought our kids were capable of, or our teachers were capable of, or our system was capable of.

Now when there was this big panic around when the fall numbers came out and the fall numbers looked very low, that was even somewhat at the district level, both the panic around that and the misunderstanding of that was mostly from folks who had never worked graduation. I worked graduation for 10 years. I was in charge of the kids who were between 20 and 60 credits down when the fall semester started. And that’s what I did and that was a chunk of my job.

Q: What was your role?

A: I was intervention coordinator at Marshall High School. I always had that as a half-time position. I didn’t want to leave the classroom. We also had over 4,300 students. Marshall was a very different school back then. Most students from the Los Feliz, Silver Lake community did not go to Marshall. It was a very different place and so I understand what it’s like to get kids across the stage. And I understand when we were talking about two to four classes away, we were not in a crisis. We had to be very, very intentional about how it was done, but it was only because there was so much attention and scrutiny to it, now I didn’t think that that was a bad thing because that allowed us to move resources to do this “all hands on deck,” but what people don’t understand is at every comprehensive high school every spring, it’s all hands on deck. That’s what you do.

And so what happened was not this kind of miracle on ice or miracle on the graduation stage that people kind of thought. That’s what happens every year at schools because life happens to kids. Even kids that are not so far off the rails.

After spending almost 20 years working almost exclusively with adolescents, that there’s very few things that are absolutely true. But what’s almost absolutely true, if you’re going to be in high school for four years, you’re going to have one really rough semester. It’s this invisible cloud of adolescent angst, or a break-up, or a family situation, or normal stressors, or non-normative stressors, or whatever it is, it hits almost every kid at some point during adolescence.

If you have the system in place, especially family systems in place, especially family systems in place where the adults do not lose their minds when this happens, then it’s a rough time and everything’s OK. What happens in families that are already in crisis is oftentimes the entire system collapses or the perception of the student is that everything is collapsing around them, and so without a comprehensive system of supports at the school site, that’s how we lose kids.

And sure, there are gang issues, there are teen pregnancies, whatever the issues are, those issues become predominant during a time that’s fairly normative in adolescence, and so when you look at it from that view and you look at how few resources our students had and how just there wasn’t the stability that would put the guardrails around that one rough adolescent period, it was not unusual for even a fairly strong student to have failed a couple of classes because life happened and there weren’t those guardrails. So not tremendously shocking for those of us who have done this that our numbers were where they were. Certainly urgent and certainly demanded everyone’s full attention.

Q: But it was not something you hadn’t seen before?

A: Not something I haven’t seen before. Again, there was some of this that was about the increased rigor under the A through G, absolutely.

All I’m saying is is that there were other factors involved, but kind of the baseline factor very few people outside of those of us who had worked this for so long understood. There were many factors, a whole cacophony of things, that made the numbers probably a little bit more severe than they had been previously, but just at a baseline level you know that you start your senior year, you’re going to have to offer some very focused resources and some very focused attention to get kids across that line.

So there was a very public exhibition on a district-wide level of what happens at schools every year and yes, it was punctuated and maybe a little bit more extreme, but not like a new thing.

Now what was new in some ways were these online credit recovery resources. I visited a bunch of classrooms where they were doing it. You don’t learn completely about a program from visiting it for one day or even two days. Was there a teacher in the classroom? Absolutely. Did the teacher seem like they knew what they were doing? Absolutely. Would I have been thankful if these resources were in place when I was trying to get certain kids across the graduation line? Absolutely. Did it seem like it was real and there was rigor to what I was seeing students doing? Yeah. Yes. but do I know for sure? We won’t know for sure until UC takes a look at it, until we continue to take a look at it.

Q: Did online credit recovery work too well because it has taken the luster off the grad rate? Did you expect to break the graduation record?

A: I think the trajectories have been very steady. If we had gone from 64 or even 67 percent to 75. This was a clear trajectory, more resources on hand, not only the online credit recovery. I encourage you to visit what’s called an II (Individualized Instruction) lab at adult schools that’s a more traditional version of credit recovery. We opened II labs through spring break and that was one of the things behind the scenes. Sometimes, and you’ll rarely see this on the dais, but there are some things I will not just take no for an answer. The idea that we have students striving toward graduation and we were going to shut down for a week during spring break, was just, that could not happen.

Q: Does that usually happen?

A: That’s what usually happens. Even if we only served 100 kids that week, there were seven or eight centers open during the spring break and kids came. There were all kinds of things that were happening to give the proper attention to the first time under A through G. To some of the other factors, it was not just credit recovery. It certainly didn’t work too well. What we have to see is what’s the role of this. What’s the right role.

I have a particular view of how data should be used, particularly standardized test data. I’m sometimes characterized as anti-data, but I’m very concerned about the way data is used. I have strong convictions of data as an instrument around calibration and redesign vs. data as a hammer. Data as a hammer is about political agendas, it’s not about getting to better for kids. The same is true about blended learning, online credit recovery. This is part of our toolbox right now, and to toss it out of that tool box when it can really help students would be both counterintuitive and would not be fair, truthfully.

Q: What is the ultimate goal?

A: We need to design instructional programs so that we’re not in the position of doing credit recovery and certainly not credit recovery because the instructional delivery wasn’t adequate or the supports weren’t adequate. There’s going to be a degree of credit recovery that’s going to happen, as I explained before, because from my experience because of adolescence and the things that happen, there’s always going to be some credit recovery that you need to do. But our entire system should be geared towards, if we really believe these kinds of things about RTI (response to intervention), if we really believe in the differentiation of instruction and we are training our teachers and supporting our teachers well about how you do differentiation that would be what our primary focus should be, not on recovery.

Q: What would you like it to look like?

A: What I would like it to look like, again, is better professional development, better supports for teachers on an ongoing basis, I would like it to have an informational dashboard so that we know where there are problems sooner and we can do intervention rather than recovery.

This is hard work. When you’re really talking about changing mindsets when you’re talking about changing hearts and minds both in general, but at school sites. When you’re talking about constant improvement in terms of instructional quality. We have not given a lot of attention to lowering the affective filter (a term used by Stephen Krashen, which refers to negative emotional and motivational factors — like anxiety, self-consciousness— that can interfere with processing information, like learning a second language) to getting to better instructional quality. It’s not about, do you have a skill that you weren’t trained for in your teacher preparation program. That’s a very deficit mindset approach.

The vast majority of teachers want to do right by our kids. Of course, we have teachers who shouldn’t be in front of kids. We made a lot of strides in the last five years, but that’s not the majority of our teachers. The vast majority of teachers are teachers because they want kids to break through and succeed. We need to lower the affective filter among our instructors on getting to better skill sets to meet all of these needs. Differentiation is one of the hardest things, if you talk to teachers, to do. It’s very hard for me as an ESL teacher. We came to differentiation early on because by definition we’re going to get kids at very different levels especially if you’re in a very diverse ESL class, like I did.

What I want us to commit to is very honest and open conversations with our teams on the front line about what they need. Look, we had a very fear-based system under John Deasy. There were reasons why that happened. In the long run, while there were some shifts and some shaking that needed to happen in the system, we injured the profession. We injured people’s confidence, people did not believe that we believed in them and when you don’t think the leadership in the district believes in you, you’ve got a huge problem.

Coming up: More Q & A with Zimmer, as he discusses the board’s relationship with Superintendent Michelle King and his drive to eradicate the school readiness gap.

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