While LA schools promise a great future, the recent past raises questions



America is experiencing the usual flurry of school commencement speeches by district superintendents. One of the most thoughtful and moving is that of Alberto M. Carvalho. He is the new head of public schools in Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest district. He won multiple awards in his last job, leading public schools in Miami-Dade County, the nation’s fourth-largest district.

Carvalho’s speech contained some good ideas for the years to come. But he didn’t explain why schools in Los Angeles have done so well over the past two decades, and why it might be difficult for them to keep improving in the future.

I learned about the surprising successes of Los Angeles from 1999 to 2019 thanks to one of the deepest investigations of a large school system I never read. It is “When Schools Work: Pluralist Politics and Institutional Reform in Los Angeles.” The authors are Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and five graduate students – Melissa Ancheta, Malena Arcidiacono, Joonho Lee, Caitlin Kearns and Sarah Manchanda.

They showed how a combination of more spending, better lessons and new types of schools correlated with improved learning for all groups, although differences in mean test scores between ethnicities did not haven’t changed much. Everyone did better but the gaps remained.

Like all speakers in the new school year, Carvalho emphasized the positive in his August 8 Speech. Its strategic plan is based on these five pillars: academic excellence, joy and well-being, commitment and collaboration, operational efficiency and investment in people.

How does his approach compare to what has worked in Los Angeles over the past two decades, as described by Fuller and his team? Their report focused on three groups that have come together to improve schools – community activists, foundations and innovative school principals.

Big City School Districts Can Get Better, But It’s Messy and Messy

In the book, Fuller said, “The giant institution of LA Unified, considered ill-fated and ineffective, sprang to life with a pulse, a beating heart. Reading and math scores for Latino and white students continued to climb (more than one grade level) over the next two decades, as evidenced by a careful federal assessment of learning in Los Angeles, eventually leveling off. in 2019. Other barometers of student progress have increased, student disciplinary incidents have decreased, and graduation rates have steadily increased.

Carvalho’s 2022 to 2026 strategic plan projects that the high school graduation rate will increase to 93%, the percentage of students who feel safe at school will increase to 82%, the percentage of parents who say they feel welcome to attend their school will increase to 94%. and the percentage of new job applicants to the district who are members of “underrepresented groups” reaching at least 50%.

He mentions many programs that he thinks will help make that happen, but that’s the future. Here’s what “When Schools Work” says has made a difference in Los Angeles in the past:

The state has begun ranking schools based on their demonstrated ability to increase test scores. A new Los Angeles superintendent, former Colorado governor Roy Romer, has clarified learning goals, matched textbooks and weekly lesson plans in elementary schools. Attendance at Advanced Placement courses increased after a Los Angeles teacher, Jaime Escalante, became nationally famous for showing how low-income students could do such hard work in previous decades. The number of college prep courses in high schools has increased. Many new loving and pilot schools offering programs in science, business and other subjects have opened with strong parental support.

More money also appeared. A 2000 ballot proposal lowered the plurality needed for local voters to pass tax bonds. More schools have been renovated and built with new bond funds. In 2013, California Governor Jerry Brown shifted nearly $23 billion in annual spending to urban districts, including Los Angeles. Due to a legal settlement by the American Civil Liberties Union, Los Angeles added $151 million to the budgets of 50 schools with the highest numbers of poor or English-learning students.

Will more funds pour in during Carvalho’s years in LA? Fuller told me the numbers look good in the short term. Expenditure per pupil is almost double what it was ten years ago. Much of this gain will persist even when federal pandemic stimulus funds run out. But rising pension costs and steadily declining enrollment brought on by falling birth rates will eventually eat into the funds needed to reinvigorate classrooms.

The Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses are likely to increase as they have strong support in Los Angeles and do not require much more expense. But Carvalho still faces problems with staffing and improving primary and secondary education.

The Way Forward: K-12 Schools with Miami-Dade County Superintendent Alberto Carvalho

A district spokesperson said, “Los Angeles Unified is implementing several new programs, emphasizing what works best for students and building consistency and alignment across the district. We are redoubling our efforts to track the fidelity of implementation across our programs, which is the primary focus of the new Strategic Data and Evaluation Branch, but a point of attention in all divisions. Our systems are configured so that we can monitor and monitor Los Angeles Unified’s performance throughout the implementation to view our performance in real time.

Fuller told me the superintendent’s speech reveals he’s already working “with the colorful quilt of city reform groups, instigating two dozen disparate initiatives, from free bikes for kids to WiFi on school buses.” This can distract from the basic work of improving pedagogy, [and] enriching relationships between children and teachers within schools.

“What our empirical review shows in the book is that a short list of organizational reforms with consistent attention to implementation pays the most dividends,” Fuller said. “It attracts fewer headlines, while producing richer results.” He said giving high school students better access to courses required for state university admission and AP courses happened “because a few key nonprofits kept hammering out the thankless work of implementation”.

Carvalho’s successes in Miami show he knows what works in schools, but will he get enough support? Due to the pandemic’s blows to learning, it’s a bad time for big city schools in general. It’s hard to see how the future will bring such far-sighted changes that have done so much for Los Angeles schools in the recent past.


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