THE BLOG
05/16/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The LA Compact: A Dollop of Hope for Our Schools

Get Los Angeles Unified, the mayor, unions, and universities together to help schools get better? Yeah, we've heard that story before. They've got the attention span of a moth and fly away toward the next political flame.

This time it might be different.

Last month these worthy parties signed something called the LA Compact: A Collaboration to Transform Education in Los Angeles. Shortly thereafter, the school board sent layoff notices to 5,200 teachers, the District got sued, and the feds began to investigate how the schools do or don't teach English language learners. No wonder hardly anyone noticed.

But the LA Compact is worthy of notice and a dollop of hope. Modeled after the Boston Compact, which guided reform there for 20 years, the Los Angeles version tries to create the kind of big issue, unitary politics that gets beyond parochialism and pettiness. It's built around three high sounding goals: Getting all students to graduate from high school, to have access to college and be prepared for it, and to have access and pathways to careers.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is a long way from reaching any of those targets, but the Compact has some interesting characteristics that may allow it to avoid some of the pitfalls of past reforms.

First, there are no unrealistic timelines. Nothing like "first in math and science by 2000," which President Clinton famously declared. Nothing like "everyone proficient by 2014," which is now embedded in the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Instead, the Compact creates benchmarks and annual progress indicators. By this fall, it pledges to have measurements in place, and some of them are spelled out in the agreement itself.

This anchoring in known and actionable goals makes the Compact vastly different than the soaring language of LEARN and LAAMP, the large scale reforms of the 1990s. Unlike these programs, the Compact is designed around the data necessary to hold the signers accountable for results.

Second, responsibility and a division of labor are divided up at the outset of the project. Creating a scope of work at the beginning of the project may avoid some of the intramural fights that plagued the prior reforms.

If it works, the Compact will be more than the sum of its three goals. Compared to other cities that have undertaken substantive education reform, Los Angeles has done a far worse job of developing and coordinating its civic capacity. LA prefers interest group wars. One of the unstated goals of the Compact will be to build what activists call relational trust as a connective tissue to hold school improvement together. It creates a badly needed all-in-this-together brand of politics, that's all too rare but common to most successful school district reforms.

The signers propose some powerful strategies that get to the pressing need to build long term capacity in the school district rather than reach for yet another "silver bullet" program sold by a vendor. Improving teaching and learning, which is the compact's first strategy, involves carefully building the capacity of the system over a number of years.

Along with a fistful of other strategies, the signers, first, takes aim at building the capacity for high quality teaching. By January they pledge to create a set of local measures of high quality teaching, endorsed by teachers and the union. These will become the standards by which teachers are judged. The parties also pledge to develop a workable peer review system for both teachers and administrators by the end of the 2010-2011 school year. Peer review works elsewhere, and it is probably the most powerful mechanism for increasing teaching quality.

While there are scores of checklists, and some well developed standards, the process of examining teaching practice in a large, diverse district filled with English language learners creates an important precedent that LA schools can learn from their own experiences rather than only react to mandates.

Second, the Compact seeks to build the capacity for collaborative leadership, a squishier but important goal in an organization characterized by animosity between teachers and administrators. Importantly, the signatories pledge to raise funds to support leadership development and training. Some of this has already started.

Third, the compact pledges to help decentralize the district with more small schools and a transparent budgeting process. The inability to move financial authority to the schools hobbled earlier reforms.

Fourth, the compact, if successful, will be an important force in linking students and the world of work. The signatories want to create 400 new workforce partnerships by June, linking students and opportunities for jobs, training, and internships. They also want to lay a glove on broadening the skills set assessed under the California standards to include such 21st Century skills as innovation, critical thinking, and financial and economic literacy.

There are a fistful of other strategies in the compact. As a whole they have much in common with the strategic policy levers my co-authors and I suggested in Learning From LA (A summary of these recommendations.)

The compact was signed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, City Council President Eric Garcetti, LAUSD superintendent Ramon Cortines and board president Monica Garcia. Also signing were labor leaders: Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary of the L.A. County Federation of Labor and Judith Perez, president of the AALA, the school administrators union. A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, participated in drafting the compact and sent a letter of support, but did not sign because the union's historically recalcitrant house of representatives balked.

Eleven college and university presidents or chancellors also signed, the first time that such a symbolic connection has been made between the levels of education. In a world where college is required for access to many jobs, civic thinking about education beginning in preschool and ending in graduate school is a must.

In an interesting contrast with the 1990s reforms, where the heads of major corporations were the signing and participating partners in LEARN, the business and civic communities were represented by the LA Area Chamber of Commerce president Gary Toebben and the United Way president Elise Buik. For good reason: many of the businesses whose executives formed the civic elite two decades ago no longer exist. Times-Mirror, Lockheed, ARCO, Bank of America: all gone, sold, or absorbed.

The Chamber of Commerce is at first blush an unlikely organizer. Chambers have a stodgy image, but the LA Chamber got interested in education through its work force development program. David Rattray, now the Chamber's senior vice president for workforce development, served as the diplomat who drew the parties together and who patiently waited until there was a lull in political infighting to announce the new project. In an arena of loud voices, his is distinguished by its soft-spoken determination.