LAUSD drops open court in favor of "California Treasures"

Several years ago, then superintendent Roy Romer mandated that elementary teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District use Open Court?a proven literacy program that he believed would help drive reading achievement in the district.

According to an LA Times article, because the program was both unpopular with teachers and didn't yield the student achievement results district officials had hoped for?there were gains, but they plateaued ?in upper classes? and weren't uniform across district schools?the LAUSD school board voted this week to replace it with another program called ?California Treasures.?

While I don't know much about the new program, I worry that, by simply replacing one program with another, the board hasn't learned two critical lessons.

The first is that, when you mandate a district-wide curriculum in a district the size of LA, school and leaders will inevitably begin to focus their management on compliance rather than student achievement. That is precisely what happened in Los Angeles, according to an article in the Los Angeles Daily Breeze.

[District officials] treated it like the Bible and if you deviated in any way ... you were subjected to an inquisition," said Janet Davis, an LAUSD teacher adviser and former elementary school teacher.

Davis recalled that she was once reprimanded for using the wrong Open Court puppet for a reading lesson.

In education, such compliance-focused management is absurd. It's no wonder that student achievement gains didn't persist over time.

Second, there is no teacher-proof curriculum. Open Court is a strong program?so strong that even in a district the size of LA, there were significant student achievement gains after teachers began implementing it.

But, as I've argued before, while a mediocre curriculum in the hands of an outstanding teacher will yield outstanding results, an outstanding curriculum in the hands of a mediocre teacher will yield mediocre results. So when student achievement lagged under the Open Court regime, I wonder how deeply district officials dove to find out whether student achievement woes were due to specific problems with the curriculum, or whether they stemmed from instructional and teacher quality challenges that will persist regardless of the program shift?

In the end, a curriculum is only as good as the teacher who implements it. Let's hope that district officials realize that and couple this program shift with a shift in management from teacher compliance to teacher quality and student achievement.

--Kathleen Porter-Magee

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