Cal State

1999 Conference on Standards-Based K-12 Education

California State University Northridge

Transcript of Diana Dixon-Davis
biography of speaker


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 Go back to transcript of Martha Schwartz

Ms. Jennings: Our next speaker is Diana Dixon-Davis.

Ms. Dixon-Davis: I was surprised when David asked me to speak because I'm just a parent in the trenches, and I'm with all the gurus around me. And I wanted to tell you a little about what happened to me and why I got involved. And also what we parents want. What are our obstacles and some other things that helped us in our activism.

Like I said I have three sons. One is in 8th, and one in 12th grade and the last one graduated and is at Pierce College. I have a degree in demography and epidemiology, though this really didn't play into what was going on. In the spring of 97, all of a sudden -- I sit on school based management at Lawrence Middle School -- we all of a sudden got these requests for large purchases of text books. They were buying all new science books out of the sequence, that is out of the normal adoption sequence, and they needed extra money from our site block grants that had come from the State. I had already read articles in the paper concerning questions about integrated science. When they asked about integrated math I thought "What is this? I'd better find out if it's as bad as integrated science, or at least seems to be." I started calling around and fortunately, I have to recognize Martha Schwartz and David Klein for being willing to talk to a parent who really knew very little about what was going on. They gave me a lot of information and places to go. This is one of the things I wanted to mention is that the importance of having that website, that website
[] is invaluable because I referred other people to it and it gives you a feeling like you're not alone. There are other people out there, there is data and information and comparison. You can understand what's going on in the country and it's absolutely vital to have that website and I'm hoping it will be continued.

The other thing that really helped a lot was the articles in the paper, the editorials and letters to the editors. As people come along and these issues arise, it's important to get this information to the public. It isn't static, and there are always people coming into the system. I think another thing that makes activism possible, ironically, is the UTLA contract for Los Angeles Unified. How many of you are from Los Angeles Unified? OK, I've got a smattering. I'll try to give you a sense of what I call LAUSD 101. It is such a big district people forget. We have 700,000 elementary and 200,000 adult school enrollees. This school size is larger than the total enrollment for 33 other states. We the 16th largest State in the country, just this school district. The budget is larger than 6 larger states with a larger budget. 6 Or 7 billion dollars now. It is huge. This is why things can happen and no one knows about it.

Even the Times does not report what happens in downtown. You find that you have to literally have connections all over the district to find out what's going on. We have so many employees in order to hold a meeting for the employees, you couldn't get them into Dodger Stadium, you would have to hire the Rose Bowl. That many employees. It's almost 100,000 including both part time and full time employees. This is why things are almost impossible to find out sometimes. The school based management required under the UTLA contract has been important, because though Helen Bernstein at the time said over her dead body would the parents be allowed on school-based management, the school board did insist that parents be on the councils. We comprise approximately a quarter of the councils. The State requires that is we be half of the school improvement councils for elementary and a quarter at the middle and secondary level. Also the federal government mandates the parents be on advisement commissions for Title I and enrichment and things like this. Each of those access points they are mandated by law and you can demand to be there.

If parents are vocal and not afraid to say things, you can have influence. I always say I'm not here to be popular, I'm here to represent the parents and their needs on these councils. And that's what you have to do. You have to say I don't care if I say something that will make them all mad at me. I'm going to complain and ask questions. That's how I see my role as an elected "official" on these councils. Even though the elections are are minor and simple, it's crucial and it's an access point for parents.

I think also we have a big help in terms of politicians. They look at the money and say "They are spending billions of dollars. What are we getting for it?" You go to your politicians and ask them what's happening and why. Lastly, ironically, the state-wide testing -- finally we're getting continuous data. Finally you can start looking at things and asking questions. For a while there we had no data, so when integrated math and integrated science came in we had no way of knowing it was bad because we had no test to prove it. Everyone told us it was wonderful and the kids were getting A's. We all know teachers who give A's for no work. They want to keep the principal out of their office asking them "why are you flunking all these kids?" The grade standards are dependent on, are not a good way to measure how kids are doing. You have to look at tests which are normed over the country to compare.

I also wanted to talk a little bit about not only things that make action possible, but also obstacles. Parents run into a lot of obstacles. There is a lot of lip service to supporting parents. However one of the things that happens is you become a bad parent. They like you if you write check and hold parties for the teachers and cut paper dolls and chaperone field trips. But if you start doing real things like asking questions about the curriculum, they say "You don't know anything about this. Who are you? What do you have to say?" It's true that most parents can't really make curriculum, they can't describe how to write standards and things like this, but they do have a gut sense of what they want from their school.

I also wanted to mention that the school improvement and school based management in Los Angeles very rarely look at curriculum. You have to force the issue. By forcing the issue you sometimes get it on the agenda. It's very difficult but it's again a part of the parent activist to say "We need to look at why our kids aren't passing and getting good SAT scores." Even though reform movements are designed to raise scores, what actually happens is that they only look at day to day operations.

The one thing that I just wanted to talk about also is what parents really want. All parents want their kid to succeed and do well in school to go on to a good university or at least have the choice of careers. They are not locked into the paper hat syndrome as we saw yesterday. They also want fairness. They want to have the chance, when they see a set or course of studies, they want to know "what does this mean and what are the text books and what are we studying?" For right now they are calling -- some people are calling it integrated math. They are calling it integrated algebra. Now is it algebra, or is it integrated math or what? The parents want to know what's going on, and they also want to have time to make a decision.

One of the more notorious middle school gave parents 2 days to decide where to place the children in terms of integrated math or algebra. They also want -- not a unilateral adoption of curriculum. This happened - this is why I got involved -- I walked into school in September of '97 and they had done away with all traditional math. It would be strictly integrated math at the middle and high school level. And we said "why?" and again we asked "where is the data and how can you support this?" There was no data and the studies that they did do did not -- they wouldn't release them. And this is another thing -- if you are going to introduce a new program. It should be piloted and studied. The results should say who was studied and how many were studied and what books did they use, etc. We couldn't get that information out of LAUSD.

The last thing, we want portability. Right now we have kids who are being punished in essence, by taking integrated math. Students moving from one middle school to a local high school are being told "you have to take algebra over the summer to get back into a sequence that's proper." This is wrong. We are punishing kids for our decisions. The last thing -- no hidden agendas -- we have LA-SI, the district has decided by themselves to put this program in. There was conflict of interest, some of the coauthors of the textbook were telling the teachers this is the only book you can buy. They paid for part of those books and once you bought it they caught you because you have to buy it for 3 years. Parents are stuck with a 3 year program and they can't move. If they move they lose part of the program. These are some of the issues we dealt with.

I was going to go into all of the things we had to do to ensure student's access to algebra. Basically, I have run out of time, but I want to say that the price of reform is eternal vigilance. You have to keep calling and watching and following them and don't let them get away with anything. Thank you. (Applause)

Go to transcript of Veronica Norris 


Contact the organizers

Postal and telephone information:

1999 Conference on Standards-Based K12 Education

College of Science and Mathematics

California State University Northridge

18111 Nordhoff St.

Northridge CA 91330-8235

Telephone: (Dr. Klein: 818-677-7792)

FAX: 818-677-3634 (Attn: David Klein)