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Another teacher turned crusader

January 12, 2011

A few months ago, I began corresponding with (now former) Los Angeles teacher, Leonard Isenberg. An experienced and accomplished educator, he was nevertheless pushed out of the profession for reporting and resisting the practice of passing and graduating high school students who didn’t have the skills implied by their diploma. Though LAUSD has joined the many districts across the nation that claim to be increasingly “data-driven,” Leonard was retaliated against for using data to demonstrate that Central High School was handing out diplomas to students who hadn’t earned them. From one of Dr. Jim Taylor’s blog posts about him at Psychology Today:

After a career in the motion-picture and real estate industries, he gave up the income and trappings of success to pursue a career in teaching, first as a university professor and, for the last 15 years, as a teacher in Los Angeles-area high schools that serve disadvantaged children. Sounds like one of those unsung heroes of public education to me.

Here’s where the tragedy begins. In the fall of 2009, Mr. Isenberg filed a formal complaint with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) challenging the validity of high school diplomas that students at the high school at which he taught received the previous June based on his review of students’ Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) reading test scores. The STAR is a state-wide, computer-based assessment given by teachers several times during the school year, the purpose of which is to evaluate students’ initial reading level upon entry into class and their progress through the school year. Mr. Isenberg found that almost 50% of the graduates who had STAR scores on record were reading at an elementary school level, with some as low as 2nd grade proficiency. The response from the high school’s and LAUSD’s administrations was uniform: students just blew off the test because they were already guaranteed their diploma. One LAUSD official formally determined that Mr. Isenberg’s allegations were without merit without ever interviewing him or reviewing the evidence he had collected. By the way, having this particular official, who is just two steps removed from teachers in the same school district food chain, investigate Mr. Isenberg’s allegations is like asking the fox to investigate who stole the hens from the chicken coop.

Though the “blew it off” explanation is, I suppose, possible, it hardly seems probable. If students didn’t take the test seriously, what is the point of giving it at all? As this test is a statewide requirement and is used in evaluating the quality of the schools, wouldn’t this same problem have arisen throughout the state and wouldn’t alarms have gone off if the problem was truly endemic?

(I always find it interesting when the tables turn like this, when the Data that are at all other times so important suddenly become faulty or insignificant when their implications become inconvenient for someone else besides classroom teachers and principals, or threaten powerful people’s interests.)

Leonard now spends his time documenting problems that hamper student achievement in LAUSD and across America on his site, For more on his take on some of these issues, check out his site and the video below.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Olivia C, Washington DC permalink
    January 13, 2011 5:01 pm

    As a teacher who is forced by administration to pass all students I completely agree with Mr. Isenberg’s thoughts on the disadvantages of passing the students to merely save their self esteem from a temporary blow. I think this also becomes a “who cares” attitude among the students, starting as low as 2nd-3rd grade. It doesn’t take much for a child to realize that although he is not working as hard as the top achiever in his/her class, he/she is still passing right alongside his peers. It takes true intrinsic motivation at such a young age to have the desire to learn just for the sake of having knowledge. If we cannot foster that motivation, the child then becomes lost and slides through grade by grade with no consequences and ultimately no genuine academic knowledge.

  2. January 13, 2011 7:37 pm

    Gotta say I pretty much totally disagree with this guy. I differ in my understanding of scaffolding (significantly), and believe social promotion is generally preferable to holding kids back. I have plenty of kids who are probably on a third or fourth-grade reading level, but attempting to engage them with Dick and Jane doesn’t work. They’re socially and emotionally ready for more advanced material even if their reading skills aren’t great at handling the decoding and comprehension. I have scaffolded these students’ needs successfully and I’m confident it can be done in other settings. There’s a lot of research to support this.

    If we’re going to have grades and assign students to them based on their age, then we need to be clear about what knowledge students have and don’t have, and make sure that data is passed on from teacher to teacher. Social promotion will fail if teachers view classes of students as blocks rather than as individual students. We need to stop asking ourselves what will help us teach and instead ask what will help students learn.

    To that end, I think it would be extraordinarily useful to move away from the idea of putting students in grade levels based on their age. I think we should break down the concept of the traditional school as it’s been done. One student might have a strong math skills and low reading skills. So give her targeted literacy instruction in the morning, let her engage with her peers in higher level literacy before lunch, and do rigorous math problems in the afternoon. We can’t keep moving kids in blocks and expecting all students to succeed. But if that’s how we have to do it now, I strongly support social promotion with quality teachers as opposed to holding kids back.

    • January 13, 2011 8:06 pm

      I agree with you on the pedagogy piece– the research supports not retaining kids, and we should be rethinking the batch processing way of moving kids through school. I also happen not to like the test in question.

      But I think there is a far more professional way to handle differences of professional opinion than drumming up phony reasons to fire someone & treating him like a criminal. I also think the response to the data is remarkably hypocritical– either they believe in it or they don’t. What’s that about?

      • January 14, 2011 8:55 pm

        Sure – as soon as you start talking data with any large, dark, and formless department of education, you bound to be wading through absurdities left and right. I think we can take that as a given.

  3. Walter Gonzalez permalink
    March 1, 2011 10:14 pm

    I speak as a parent. I’ve seen my kids do well in Normalized Test such as the SAT-9, NECAP and FCAT. Yet score low on the STAR tests (from RENAISSANCE LEARNING, INC). Although my experience is with tests in elementary and middle school, I’d question the validity of using these tests to determine graduation elegibility.


  1. Social Promotion vs. Retention: What do you think? « Failing Schools

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