Victim recitation

The education unions are fighting against making those poor little darlings learn the basics

Illustration By B.Z.

God, I love being right. But, having correctly predicted 10 months ago that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Education Secretary Richard Riordan were so green they ran the risk of being badly rolled by California’s sophisticated anti-reformist education unions, I can feel no joy.

California’s students, including 2 million to 4 million disadvantaged children desperate for an education, are under attack by the unions and their mouthpiece, Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg of Los Angeles. The attackers have launched a multiphased, long-term war to implement lower public-school standards in math, science, reading and English—as well as union control over what else our kids learn. And they have duped the snoozing Schwarzenegger already—twice.

The anti-reformers do not see children as small people who badly need solid information from adults. Instead, they see children as victims. Led by Goldberg, the anti-reformers promote their philosophy as fanatically as a religious belief.

Goldberg’s view of students as victims must come from her own unhappy schooling as a child. But now, this former failed high-school teacher and disastrous member of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board is trying to turn the clock back on California’s highly successful classroom reforms. In her world, such things as using memorization to learn the multiplication table are fundamental evils. Basic building blocks of learning are dismissed as “rote” and downright inhumane to the victim students.

When is the governor going to wake up to what is happening?

Goldberg, who wangled herself a position on the powerful state Curriculum Commission, once chaired the Los Angeles Unified School District Board. She left the Los Angeles school district so bereft of academic standards that I christened the district “Los Angeles Mummified”—and the nickname stuck. Under Goldberg, a student could be failing class and still do sports. A kid could fail every test and get a solid C. To be kicked out, a student usually had to draw a gun. Skills like math and phonics were replaced by adult-driven, politicized subjects. Three-quarters of the kids were functionally illiterate.

Education Secretary Dick Riordan knows better than anyone the mentality behind Goldberg and the education unions. Yet, he failed to alert Schwarzenegger in time. Already, the governor has agreed to dumbed-down science books. Most recently, he buckled to the anti-English-immersion crowd, handing it a staggering $30 million to launch another failed “bilingual” program, of the sort resoundingly rejected by California voters.

As mayor of Los Angeles, Riordan took aim at Goldberg’s dumbed-down academics, enraging her by pouring more than $1 million into campaigns to oust her longtime minions from the L.A. Mummified school board.

Riordan won, and an impressive array of pro-reform educators and business people took control of L.A. Mummified. The new board undertook a historic makeover of the sad-sack academic programs, and today, achievement at many of the poorest schools in Los Angeles ranks with that of middle-class suburban schools—a stunning development.

Now that I have given Riordan his due (Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I once worked for Riordan on an aborted plan to launch a newspaper), I must give him a well-deserved public whacking. Riordan let Goldberg slip into the state budget her long-stewing and very bad plan to create the massive $30 million program to divert Latino children out of English immersion.

Shame on Dick and Arnold. Goldberg has a long, detailed list of other assaults she plans against the education-reform movement. Serious educators inside the Schwarzenegger administration are so upset at Schwarzenegger buckling to her that some have resigned. Rae Belisle, the deeply respected executive director of the state Board of Education, is leaving, and so is at least one Riordan staffer.

Yet, the person who should bow out is Goldberg’s enabler in the Schwarzenegger administration, Board of Education member and Schwarzenegger confidante Bonnie Reiss.

In a hurriedly called meeting last week with furious members of the state Board of Education, Schwarzenegger reportedly told educators that he was “slammed”—tricked by Goldberg, who has been cooing into Reiss’ ear, into supplying the $30 million to anti-immersion factions.

But Governor Schwarzenegger, the excuse of being slammed is not good enough. If you don’t get on top of the education wars right now, you are going to wreck everything. We will see more and more incidents in which anti-reform legislators like Goldberg, Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh and Senator Martha Escutia try to sneak through obscure administrative changes, union-controlled “review panels” and special funding aimed at trashing existing reforms.

How was Schwarzenegger blindsided by Goldberg? First of all, Riordan never has been too interested in battles about how and what to teach. Riordan was preoccupied with settling a massive lawsuit against schools for disadvantaged kids, figuring out better financing of disparate school programs, and his plan to give far more power to principals—then firing principals who don’t do the job.

Riordan’s ideas are admittedly intriguing. After all, it’s almost impossible to fire a principal. (In Los Angeles, I wrote about one lemon principal who was infamously allowed to wear a court-ordered ankle monitor to school after recklessly driving into another motorist and killing him. It took years of battle to get rid of her.) But Riordan should have been paying attention and should have kept a lid on Goldberg’s scheme.

Even worse was the behavior by Reiss, who was quickly duped by Goldberg. What else can you expect from a classic Hollywood liberal who is almost bound to buy into the “victim” dogma about children? It’s not Reiss’ fault. How could she know there’s an epic struggle under way between those who want kids to learn real things, like algebra, and those who believe that school is for insulating kids from such unpleasantness?

The research screams out that the reformers are right and the anti-reformers are wrong. Period.

Although Reiss did not return my call, it’s widely known—and was detailed in a terrific piece by Peter Schrag of The Sacramento Bee—that Reiss has become something of a Goldberg protégé.

Now the emboldened Goldberg will seek far more concessions. She already is pressing hard to lower the bar in classroom mathematics, even as mathematics experts widely call for much more rigorous math in California.

Jim Milgram and H.H. Wu, two globally respected Stanford University math professors, were asked by California officials to figure out how California students and teachers could catch up to the highly advanced math that is taught, routinely, by teachers to all children in poor countries such as Poland and Bulgaria.

Milgram and Wu came up with a brilliant plan for California kids, and Goldberg and the unions stopped them cold. After all, it would require that teachers actually be trained in mathematics. How dare they? Goldberg demanded an entire rewrite, and the two math experts bowed out of the silly political mess.

Milgram explained: “The teachers would have to be actually taught mathematics, which they simply are not being taught in their [teacher training] colleges. The education establishment is fully insulated from what mathematics is, how to teach mathematics to others, and how to learn it themselves. We predicted that under the existing reforms, California math scores would rise and then level off. Those reforms were fine, but they went after the low-hanging fruit. Now, the teachers themselves must be educated, or they will continue to hold back the kids in California. We found out that is what is going on: Undereducated teachers hold back the kids. Jackie Goldberg is doing everything she can to stop us. What Jackie is doing is scary. We have to move California forward, but Jackie is very effectively pushing California back.”

It all gets down to protecting the adults. It’s so much easier on the adults in the classroom if you lower the bar and just dumb down the kids. How great for the adults.

As I wrote last year, Davis took an unusually courageous stand on education reform: He built on the Wilson reforms, ignored the unions and gave us tough subject-matter standards linked directly to textbooks and teacher training.

But now, Schwarzenegger must build on the legacy of Wilson and Davis. He must launch phase two, forcing the adults in the classroom to change even more. Now that research shows us that the problem in schools is the adults—not the kids—it’s time the adults grew up. Equally important, Schwarzenegger should never again be stuck reacting after the fact. He also should try to find a way to halt or water down the $30 million for failed “bilingual” education. And he should slap the Republicans back into consciousness: Their mantra of “local control” merely will hand the schools back to the anti-reform unions and let the school districts slide again. Centralized control of the schools, by the state Board of Education, clearly is working.

Finally, Arnold and Dick should tell Reiss to stop enabling the historically and chronically wrong Goldberg. Reiss can learn about the true needs of kids over lunch with California’s most brilliant school-turnaround artist, the famed principal and reformer Nancy Ichinaga of Inglewood.

But that’s assuming Schwarzenegger agrees with the fundamental view of reformers: Kids are not victims. They are pure, untapped potential. What’s lacking is adults who have something to teach.