L.A. Unified Bests Reform Groups In Most Cases, Data Show
Struggling schools under district control see test scores
rise more than most operated by the mayor, a charter
organization and others, a Times analysis finds.
By Howard Blume and Sandra Poindexter
Los Angeles Times
August 18, 2011
In a surprising challenge to four school reform efforts
run by outside organizations, the Los Angeles school
district has not only held its own in improving math and
English test scores, but in most cases outpaced the
others, according to a Times analysis of the city's
The district's showing was even more surprising given
that its schools didn't benefit from outside funding and
other extra resources brought in by reform groups for
"The results are eye-opening, that conventional schools
display stronger results," said Bruce Fuller, a UC
Berkeley education professor.
One of the most striking comparisons was with a group of
schools under the control of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio
Villaraigosa. The mayor's schools - elementary, middle
and high schools - all improved less than the district's
by some key measures.
The mayor had repeatedly derided the L.A. Unified School
District as ineffectual when he unsuccessfully tried to
take over the whole system nearly six years ago.
New test scores released Monday showed that the
percentage of students in low-performing district-run
high schools working at a "proficient" level in math
increased 116% since 2008. That compared with a rise of
57% at two high schools under Villaraigosa's purview.
The figures were more nuanced in other categories.
Villaraigosa expressed surprise at the results but also
complimented the district's success. While his schools
"are improving as well, I want them to be improving at a
more accelerated rate," he said. "We're committed to the
He added: "We've decided to go to some of these similar
[district] schools that are outpacing some of our
schools and look at what they're doing."
The Times analysis looked at district schools whose test
scores ranked in the bottom 20% of the state in 2008.
Those schools are, in many ways, the ultimate litmus
test for local school improvement. They enroll
neighborhood students whose families haven't left to
take advantage of a growing number of alternatives,
including independently operated charter schools and the
district's own popular magnet program.
The district scores were then compared with those of
schools that have been part of four highly touted reform
efforts aimed at boosting achievement at the lowest-
All of these groups had the goal of breaking the long-
standing pattern of academic failure by bringing in
outside expertise, new resources and new leadership to
end what critics view as the stultifying grip of
district bureaucrats and entrenched faculties.
Three years later, the scores at many of these schools
remain poor - often extremely so.
Because so many students started out at such a low
level, many schools in the analysis showed large
improvements in proficiency rates, despite overall low
scores, most notably Locke High School. There, the
percentage of students with proficient math scores more
than tripled, even as enrollment grew.
But another illuminating statistic is the change in
percentage points, which more closely reflects how many
more students rated proficient in math and English.
In percentage point gains, the district outpaced all the
outside organizations. Test scores in reading at the
district high schools rose 7.8 points; math scores
climbed 6.3 points.
Among the outside efforts, Crenshaw High School, which
is being overseen by the Los Angeles Urban League, the
Bradley Foundation and USC, fared the worst under the
analysis. Reading scores at Crenshaw were down 2
percentage points over three years, while math scores
nudged upward 0.3 point.
Crenshaw has seen the most grass-roots effort and
enjoyed the most consistent support from the teachers
union. The school's governing board includes teachers
Despite criticism that responsibility for the school is
too diffuse, Urban League President Blair Taylor listed
elements of progress: fewer suspensions, more graduates,
more counseling and safer routes for students walking to
and from school.
"We really want this model to be community-based
engagement," Taylor said. "It's a harder exercise, but I
do believe and hope and feel that, in the long run, it's
more sustainable because it has buy-in."
Watts' Locke High School, run by Green Dot Public
Schools, showed a 5.1 percentage point increase in
English scores, and a 5.7 point increase in math.
Locke is probably the best-funded effort and the only
one run by an independent charter organization, which is
not bound by L.A. Unified's labor agreements. Green Dot
could choose which staff members to keep; it retained
fewer than a third of the teachers.
"The edge that charter schools have is more flexibility
in their hiring of personnel," said Eric Hanushek, a
senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.
Green Dot board Chairman Shane Martin said the goal is
to create a new campus culture, with everyone committed
to the same vision. "It's about limiting the
distractions and focusing on what's truly important,"
said Martin, adding that the Green Dot approach could be
a model for improving the lowest-achieving district
At South L.A.'s Manual Arts High School, which is run by
L.A.'s Promise, a locally based nonprofit, reading
scores rose 4.6 points and math scores 3.4 points.
Promise also points to rising high school exit exam
results and higher college acceptance rates, among other
The approach at Promise and the mayor's schools is
thematically similar: Bombard schools with high-quality
teacher training, support and high expectations, while
hiring strong administrators to pore over achievement
data and insist on results.
From the start, the mayor's organization - Partnership
for L.A. Schools - has been made up of elementary,
middle and high schools, which has enabled it to reach
some struggling students earlier.
The mayor's high schools showed a 5.7 percentage point
increase in English and a 1.5 point increase in math, a
smaller rise than the district's.
The head of the mayor's education team, Marshall Tuck,
said the proficiency gains did not take into account
other evidence of improvement, including the "large
number" of students who made progress but still weren't
proficient. He also said the mayor deserved credit for
initiatives that benefited all district students. Those
included identifying more gifted minority students and
leading a successful bid to prevent disproportionate
layoffs at any school because of budget cuts.
Villaraigosa also quietly endorsed the management shake-
up that brought his top education advisor at the time,
Ramon C. Cortines, to L.A. Unified in April 2008.
Cortines directly supervised the work of improving the
low-achieving schools that remained under district
control, first as deputy superintendent, then as
superintendent. The veteran educator critiqued school-
improvement plans and personally removed some
principals, while authorizing various approaches - some
with broad support, some controversial.
New Supt. John Deasy, who took over in April from
Cortines, said that the district and the reform groups
could learn from each other and that L.A. Unified was
ultimately responsible for students at every school.
"We have lots of room to grow, but the growth over time
is important," he said. "These types of schools have
been the most difficult to improve across the nation..
We're making progress in that area in L.A."
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