Transforming Teacher Education

UCLA's Center Xsets out to help Los Angeles' struggling schools

By Barbara Miner

Illustrator: Michael Duffy

Los Angeles, Calif.

Illustration: Michael Duffy

On what started as a typical Wednes-day afternoon on April 29, 1992, the faculty of the graduate school of education at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) were meeting in temporary but luxurious facilities in a high-rise office building, waiting for renovations to be completed at their nearby campus offices. The glass-enclosed meeting room provided a breathtaking view of Los Angeles’ sprawling neighborhoods.

During the meeting, a few people noticed occasional billows of smoke in the distance. Before long, the smoke and fires increased, particularly in the city’s infamously poor and oppressed South Central neighborhoods.

What the faculty did not know then — but would soon find out — was that the Rodney King riots had begun: six days of exploding racial anger sparked by an all-white jury’s acquittal of four white police officers who had been videotaped severely beating King, an unarmed African American. Before the rebellion ended, 55 people were killed, more than 2,300 were injured, and more than 1,100 buildings were damaged or destroyed. An estimated 10,000 people were arrested, most of them young African-American and Latino men.

UCLA school of education professor Jeannie Oakes vividly recalls that afternoon when the fires began. “About an hour into our faculty meeting, someone said, ‘Maybe we ought to go home,'” she says. “And we all left the meeting, went down the high rise, got into our cars and drove to our safe, middle-class neighborhoods.”

Oakes, best known for her landmark book Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality, was disturbed by the incongruity of the two events — how poor black and Latino neighborhoods and lives were being destroyed while, once again, whites were able to retreat to their privileged enclaves. The contradiction gnawed away at Oakes.

“I got thinking that it seemed ridiculous to spend all my time in Washington, D.C., New York City, and so forth, working on issues of educational justice and basically doing nothing in Los Angeles,” she continues. “And I wasn’t the only one. Several of us were thinking about the racial and social justice issues in our own backyards, all those places with the fires we saw.”

About the same time, Ted Mitchell, then-dean of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, was reorganizing the school’s involvement in the California Subject Matter projects, which provide resources in content areas such as math, science, reading and literature, writing, and history/geography. He asked Oakes if she would be involved. “I said I would do it if he supported me 100 percent in refocusing efforts on schools that were the least well served,” Oakes remembers. “He said he would.”

Within months, faculty were meeting every Friday to discuss how to move beyond the school’s historical association with innovative yet more suburban and privileged schools and become involved in the poorest and most difficult LA neighborhoods. They didn’t have a formal name for their project and, as a placeholder, called it “Center X.”

The group met for about a year, hammering out a mission statement focusing on social justice and developing a structure for various initiatives for urban school professionals, in particular a new teacher education program. When the year was up the name stuck — the “X” not just a placeholder but a symbol of the intersection of practice and theory.

“It took us a full year of conversations to emerge with our set of principles,” says Oakes, who now heads a spin-off project, The Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access, designed to increase college opportunities for low-income students of color. “The task since then has been to make real those abstract principles, especially under changing circumstances. While the actual practices may have changed, those principles remain as the test, the touchstone.” (See page 18 for a summary of the principles.)

Today, Center X encompasses two main programs: UCLA’s Teacher Education Program and the California Subject Matter projects. Other initiatives include a Ph.D. program in diversity in math education, a principal leadership institute, a program supporting teachers seeking National Board Certification, a parent project, and partnerships with specific LA schools.

California requires a fifth college year to get teaching credentials, and UCLA’s Teacher Education Program has three components: a full-time two-year program combining a master’s degree and credentials; a program beginning at the undergraduate level for those in math, science, or music (areas with acute teacher shortages); and TeachLA. Run in conjunction with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and the teacher union, TeachLA is an evening/weekend program under which elementary and secondary teachers on emergency credentials can earn their certification.

Center X currently has about 410 students, the overwhelming majority in teacher education, and most of those in the graduate program. TeachLA has 87 students. About five years ago, the center doubled the size of its teacher education program, in part to meet demand. Applications currently are up from about 200 a year in the beginning years to about 600 a year for 150 openings. In the last 10 years, some 1,200 teachers have graduated from Center X, with about 700 still in the LA area.

Half the Battle

Getting students to enter teaching is only half the battle, however. Nationally, statistics show that about 50 percent of new teachers leave teaching after five years. A longitudinal study of Center X graduates from 1997 through 2005 found that after five years, about 75 percent of Center X alumnae were still teaching, and another 11 percent were still in education in another capacity, such as in administration. The study began in 2000, conducted by a research group within UCLA.

While Center X students were originally about 50 percent white, that percentage has dropped to about 14 percent and Latino enrollment has climbed dramatically. (Overall, enrollment in the teacher education program in 2004 was 18 percent Asian, 30 percent Chicano/ Latino, 5 percent African American, and 29 percent “other.”)

“When we first started, this program was geared to help white students understand these issues,” notes Eloise Lopez Metcalfe, director of the center’s Teacher Education Program. “Clearly the composition of who we are teaching is changing,” with class and immigrant issues increasingly coming to the fore.

Given both the number of programs and the complexity of teacher preparation — particularly within the context of a nationally renowned research university such as UCLA — it’s hard to get one’s arms around Center X. Over three days of interviews with staff, students, and alumni, several themes emerged. Some are unmistakable, such as a commitment to social justice and urban schools and linking research with practice. Others are subtler, such as openness to collaboration and change and a respect for classroom teachers — the latter influenced by the strong classroom background of many leaders and staff of Center X.

For instance, Jody Priselac, executive director of Center X, was a math teacher for 18 years in the LA schools. Lopez Metcalfe taught in elementary schools for 20 years.

Priselac, asked for her 20-second sound bite summarizing the center, pauses to think. “We are about teaching, we are about learning, but we are really about being in urban schools,” she finally says.

Lopez Metcalfe, whose dedication to urban schools is partly based on her growing up in Watts until age 13, uses different words but has a similar response when asked what binds Center X together. “The overriding principle that everyone agrees to is that there is a commitment to kids who are not well served in LA,” she says. “We may fight on how to get there, but we agree that’s where we want to go.”

Photo: Mark Berndt
Trisha Murai teaches a class at the 96th Street School in Los Angeles.

Fremont High School

Fremont High School in South Central Los Angeles has long been synonymous with all that is dysfunctional about urban high schools. The campus sprawls over an entire city block, protected by an eight-foot steel fence topped with spikes. The 82-year-old main building is showing clear signs of decay; windows are covered with thick screens, graffiti and litter adorn a number of stairwells. Over the years, rats have been a recurring problem. More than half of the rooms for science have no running water or lab facilities. Extension cords routinely run across classrooms because outlets are few.

As the surrounding neighborhood has changed, so have the demographics of Fremont. In the 2003-04 school year, Fremont was 12 percent African American and 87.9 percent Latino. No whites were listed as enrolled, according to LAUSD statistics. Some 71 percent of the students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and only 47.4 percent of its students graduated, compared to a district average of 66.4 percent.

It is not an easy school to teach in, and turnover is a constant problem. Only 72 percent of Fremont’s teachers are fully credentialed, compared to a state average of 93 percent, according to figures from the California Department of Education.

Like many LAUSD high schools, Fremont is chronically overcrowded. A year-round school, its almost 5,000 students are organized into three tracks, two attending school at any one time. Trailers (described as “portable bungalows”) provide about a third of the classroom space.

Center X has sent an increasing number of students to Fremont in recent years. This year, it has 21 students and alumni among Fremont’s approximately 225 teachers, according to Frankie Gelbwachs, a faculty advisor for Center X students who herself was a high school science teacher for 21 years.

One Center X alumnus is Joel Vaca, a 29-year-old math teacher who is in his seventh year at Fremont and who received his credentials through TeachLA. Vaca grew up in the Fremont neighborhood, and his sister is a student at the school. For him, community involvement is more than an abstract slogan.

Energetic and fast-talking, Vaca reels off not only the classes he teaches — algebra 2, trigonometry, math analysis, AP statistics, AP calculus — but the other activities he is involved in, such as helping students organize against military recruitment at the school, or encouraging students to take a stand against injustices in the school and in their community.

Asked for an example, he mentions a student recycling and environmental awareness campaign sparked by a student who some would stereotype as a “non-achiever” of limited ability. What Vaca sees is a student with high empathy and respect for others.

Vaca says the student was cutting class one day after the lunch period and noticed that special education students were picking up the litter and trash students had strewn throughout the school’s courtyard. The student was upset that the special ed students were being used as janitors. (Apparently, the administration viewed the cleanup as part of a “community service” curriculum for the special ed students.)

As part of the Fremont Youth Empowered Through Action (FRE-YEA) group Vaca had formed, students launched an awareness campaign not only around the treatment of the special ed students, but also around the need for students to be more environmentally conscious and clean up after themselves.

Vaca also tries to instill social justice issues into his curriculum. He knows he must prepare students to pass the California state tests, but tries to use real-life examples to teach math concepts. For example, he says, “We looked at raw data on prison populations and the demographics at universities, and from that said, suppose this is a linear model and we went on to analyze the data. We did everything we had to by the state standards, but we went beyond it to say, ‘What does this data actually mean?'”

Before entering Center X, Vaca tried several other certification programs. “Some were ‘Just give us your money and we’ll give you the paper,'” he says. “And at another I felt real distant. The district’s program was a waste, in my opinion. It never addressed any of the real issues within our school.”

Vaca says he appreciates the support Center X has given, from advice on credentials to dealing with an administration that often looked askance at his activism. “If it weren’t for Center X, I probably would have been fired,” Vaca laughs.

Vaca has a decidedly activist and well-articulated notion of social justice. Talking to other Center X students and staff, it is clear there is no one definition of the term. Kim Davis, for instance, a 49-year-old African-American math teacher at Fremont who entered teaching five years ago as a career change and is also part of TeachLA, says, “I wasn’t sure what they meant by social justice at first.”

Davis admits she cannot easily explain the term. But as she talks, highlights of her personal definition emerge: respect for others; challenging language that hurts others and promotes stereotypes; demanding academic rigor and making clear her high expectations for all her students.

She says the Center X program made her more aware and she, in turn, tries to make her students more aware. For example, she took students on a field trip to a college fair so that they could see college as a possibility. And she feels strongly about challenging students on language issues. “When I first got here I had three young black kids going, ‘Yes massa, no massa,'” she recalls. “After class I pulled them aside and asked, ‘Do you know what people had to go through not to have to say that? So please, do not say that in here.'”

Catherine Tran, a 25-year-old graduate of the Center X master’s program who is in her third year teaching science at Fremont, says social justice is one part of common understandings and goals that help UCLA graduates collaborate as they work on both their own classroom practice and schoolwide improvement. “I chose Fremont because I felt there was a strong UCLA presence here,” she says. “And that makes it easier to have an impact.”

“I also felt like I came in here with no surprises,” she adds. “I came in here knowing what to expect with the students. What was most surprising was the bureaucracy and administration.”

Imelda Nava, a field supervisor for Center X students teaching science, says that for her, social justice goes beyond “bettering our urban schools” and being involved in “great teaching.” But she also realizes “that everyone comes with his or her own life experiences and own learned perspective. Some are ready for a more action-oriented approach, others perhaps are getting a firm grasp on the issues within the problems.”

Nava grew up in South East LA and spoke Spanish as her first language. She attended LAUSD schools and many of her childhood friends dropped out of high school. Part of what she likes about Center X, she says, is that “within this spectrum of thoughts, there is tolerance and the knowledge that we all learn from each other.”

Nava and others believe Center X has had a noticeable influence on science at Fremont, especially within the smaller learning communities where its students and alumni are clustered. (Like a number of LA schools, Fremont has been broken into schools within the school.) In one learning community, for instance, about 25 percent of the teachers are from Center X, including all the science teachers.

School reform is complicated and tenuous, and no one is willing to credit — or blame — any one factor for student achievement. But, taking science as an example, it appears that Center X is making a difference. Some refer to the collaboration among science teachers, others to the emphasis on having students not only take AP science classes but also actually pass the AP test.

Annie Maben, a Center X science and literacy teacher consultant who works with Fremont teachers, has gathered data showing that between 2003 and 2005, the number of AP science classes and students at Fremont has tripled. The students taking integrated science freshman year tripled their scores on the state tests. Test scores have also increased in chemistry and physics.

“For me,” Maben says, “the science scores show what it’s meant to have UCLA working at Fremont.”

Photo: Mark Berndt
Trisha Murai (teacher at 96th Street School, Nathaniel Shultice (UCLA Field Supervisor), Nancy Danvivat (student teacher at 96th at time of photo, now teacher at 116th Street Elementary School).

No Accident

It’s no accident that a high number of Center X students and alumni teach at Fremont. One of the program’s requirements “is that you must do your first year of teaching in one of our partnership schools,” explains Lopez Metcalf. The reasons go beyond building a presence in a school, to making it more possible for teachers to get to know the community where they are working.

“I think that if you want to be a good teacher, you need to know the mother on the sidewalk pushing a stroller,” Lopez Metcalf says. “You can’t do that if you are bouncing around from school to school. You can’t know the school, you can’t know the teachers, and you certainly can’t know the community and neighborhoods.”

Over the years, Center X has increasingly limited the number of partnership schools in order to try to develop a critical mass of teachers at certain schools, with the ultimate goal of raising achievement in entire subject areas and, in time, entire schools. The partnership schools are also clustered within specific neighborhoods.

Currently, Center X student teachers go into 24 schools clustered in eight different neighborhoods, or about three schools per neighborhood. Lopez Metcalf says Center X is working to also limit the number of schools for its resident students teaching full time; at this point, about 180 students go to 50 different schools.

A focus on fewer partnership schools also makes for stronger, more long-term connections between Center X and the schools “so we are not seen as this group just coming in from the outside,” notes Priselac, Center X executive director. “It definitely is a challenge. I don’t know if we have it figured out, but we are definitely working on it.”

Center X didn’t always concentrate its efforts on LAUSD schools. Initially, Center X had partnerships with a number of districts which, while at least 50 percent non-white, were nonetheless more affluent and privileged than LAUSD schools. One of the biggest pressures to change came from Center X students.

“We were able to attract some very activist students who were not afraid to speak out and challenge us,” says Metcalfe. “And they said, ‘You guys say you are about social justice but you’re hanging out at the ocean breezes, and your courses are so traditional.’ So we had to do a lot of thinking and rethinking.”

“When the students said we have to get out of the Santa Monica [district], we listened,” she continues. “They said it was mostly white teachers, mostly middle-class students.”

Not all faculty agreed with the changed emphasis, Metcalfe adds. The Center X commitment was not only to diverse schools but to quality teaching, and “some faculty felt that the only way to teach wonderfully and correctly was to be under the guidance of master teachers. And those master teachers tended to be in the more affluent, higher-performing schools.”

The student view won out, however, and Center X has never looked back to question the validity of that change. In many ways it was a defining moment, when the rhetorical commitment to urban education was made real.

Over the years, Center X has also modified its curriculum, again in response to student demands — because of both the growing number of non-white students and the influence of students attracted to the program because of its social justice perspective.

Part of Center X’s future will be determined in part “by what students bring to the program,” Lopez Metcalf notes. “They are obviously attracted to the program for what they perceive as social justice. And the biggest benefit is that we get like-minded people together that share that interest and commitment and passion.”

New Challenges

Along with the never-ending question of how to define social justice is the equally problematic issue of defining success. Is it in the number of graduates still teaching a decade after graduating? A rise in student test scores? Case studies on improved practice? Most difficult, how do you develop a program that not only trains individual teachers but also helps transform entire schools and, if dreams were realities, an entire district? And what do you do about variables beyond your control such as poverty, crime, drugs, and the revolving door of teachers, administrators, and superintendents in urban districts, burned out by trying to do the impossible?

With 10 years of training teachers for low-performing urban schools, Center X is now moving to the next step and grappling with how to use its experience to change the school culture in its partnership schools. Doing so has been easier in elementary schools, Metcalfe believes. “They are nice places, people usually like them,” she notes. “But in high schools, the circumstances are often not good. They are not good for the kids and they are not good for the adults. Some teachers may not feel good about leaving, but sometimes they feel they have to.”

Ultimately, Metcalfe stresses, the focus has to be not just on producing good teachers but on actually improving low-performing urban schools. “How can we make some fundamental changes in the schools?” she asks. “That’s the challenge.”

This challenge also presents itself within a larger political climate of conservative mandates for scripted curricula and more standardized tests, and an attack on the very concept of professional teachers trained in schools of education.

LAUSD, for instance, mandates scripted curricula in low-performing elementary schools, which has caused consternation among schools of education committed to student-centered teaching and the importance of critical thinking and love of learning.

“We have not said — as some progressive teachers have — we won’t go to those schools where they do that scripted curriculum,” says Oakes. “We have tried to figure out how you can have creative and constructive resistance and how can you layer in your knowledge . . . to try to craft something that has integrity and matches what we know about learning.”

How’s it going? “It’s tough,” she admits.

Another challenge, one Oakes says she did not anticipate, “is the national battle over whether teacher ed programs matter at all. When people in the [Bush] administration or the [conservative] Fordham Foundation talk about blowing up schools of education, clearly there’s a real attack on teacher ed preparation.”

In this larger context, whether Center X succeeds matters not just to the students and schools it serves but also to progressive schools of education around the country. “It is incumbent on people like Center X to develop the evidence that good teacher ed preparation matters,” Oakes says, a sense of urgency rising in her voice. “And it matters in very powerful ways beyond test scores but in the lives of the young people in the care of these highly qualified and competent teachers.”

It is, perhaps, a long way from that afternoon when Los Angeles erupted in 1992. But for Oakes and others at Center X, it is merely a continuation.

Barbara Miner (, a Milwaukee-based journalist, is a Rethinking Schools columnist.