Dear Voters of LAUSD Board District 4:
Are you a progressive recently woke to the vital need for accountable leadership in public education? Just someone who likes to be well-informed before casting a vote?
I hear your mailboxes are groaning under the weight of mailers in this school board race. You are on pace to receive more pounds of propaganda by March than the last LAUSD election in 2015. The privately funded charter school advocates are far outspending the public unions — mostly with negative messages targeting the incumbent in this race—LAUSD Board President Steve Zimmer—with the same drumbeat that local news coverage pounds: a narrative of failing schools, of an insolvent district, of division between families and teachers under the banner of school choice.
I’ve been paying attention because the future of my children, their peers, indeed, the future of Los Angeles depends on the welfare of this school district. And I’ve noticed the narratives are false: Under the watch of Board President Zimmer, our schools are improving. District finances are guarded but not broke. The tale of division is deployed to divert blame for malfeasance from people who no longer work for the District (and, in a sense, never really did) and to confuse real challenges with empty promises by the opponents in this race.
What has actually happened since Steve Zimmer took office in 2009: The Great Recession slashed school funding to the bone, the once-favored Superintendent left in disgrace after too many ill-planned tech initiatives that smelled like inside dealing, and the promise of the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) to build support for students of highest need is just now starting to bear fruit. Third terms seem extraordinary. But we are at a critical point where real experience and real accountability—real hope based on hard work rather than fears peddled by critics—are our best chance at keeping this District on the upswing. I hope you’ll bear with me while I outline some facts and figures to shed some light on your choices in this race.
The CAASP test is the new California standardized test aligned to Common Core standards. It is “adaptive” and conducted entirely on-line. Because it is so new, there is no valid historical comparison to prior testing regimes. Nevertheless, early results do not show a failing district. They fall in line with the rest of the state, given expected outcomes when testing a high-needs student population such as LAUSD’s.
Here are the numbers behind the test scores that are critical to contextualize the District’s performance:
- Students living in poverty (Economically Disadvantaged or EDs): 76%
- English Learners (ELs): 25%
- Students with Disabilities (SWDs—receiving special ed. services): 14%
Studies show that standardized testing results are most closely tied to family income and parents’ educational attainment. The district’s scores show the impact of these factors on our student population and the inadequacy of accommodations for ELs and SWDs when taking these new tests:
2016 CAASP Results—Met or Exceeded Standards
California Test-takers vs. LAUSD Test-takers:
- All students ELA: 49% vs. 39%
- All students Math: 37% vs. 28%
California EDs (59% of all test-takers) vs. LAUSD EDs (79% of all test-takers):
- ELA: 35% vs. 33%
- Math: 23% vs. 23%
LAUSD ELLs vs. LAUSD Reclassified Proficient (RFEPs) Test-takers:
- ELA: 3% vs. 43%
- Math: 6% vs. 30%
So, the scores for ED students within LAUSD are essentially the same as their peers’ state-wide. By this measure, LAUSD is not failing. But the test is failing to measure our students’ capacity to learn and our society is failing to address poverty. Scapegoating the District does not do anything to seriously address the high needs of its students.
LAUSD ELLs meet standards at lower rates than statewide averages for ELLs. But remember: by definition, an ELL student is not proficient in the language in which these tests are given. What the media fails to report, however, is that LAUSD is reclassifying ELL students at increasing rates and these now-fluent English speakers actually outperform the district averages!
Statewide test scores for SWDs are low, and the district scores are lower. However, the District has a higher percentage of students with moderate-to-severe disabilities than the rest of the state. Standardized testing—by definition—does not measure the extent to which a student is reaching her individual capacity to learn. It is unfair to label LAUSD as failing when it integrates growing numbers of students with special needs. This denigrates the efforts of the district and the individual students as they work to realize their full potential.
Most parents hate to have their children reduced to a single number. We’ll explore a little later why some education reformers fetishize test scores. Fortunately, there are other, more holistic measures for student performance in the District. By these indicators, the District has shown remarkable progress during Steve Zimmer’s two terms, despite deep funding cuts during the Great Recession:
- Graduation rates are up. From 56% in 2009 to 75% in 2016.
- Enrollment in Advanced Placement class offerings has increased since 2009 and the A-G graduation requirement is in effect. These efforts have resulted in more equitable delivery of college-preparatory classes to students of color and at historically under-served schools within the District.
- More dual-language, magnet and pilot school options have been created, often with plans that are teacher-initiated and which result in greater mission-focus by faculty and administration and deeper evaluations of student learning such as project-based learning and portfolios.
- Suspensions are down. Days of instruction lost to suspensions have dropped from 59,783 in 2009 to 6,574 in 2016. Restorative justice practices are being implemented to develop self-discipline and positive behavior in students while ensuring individual accountability in safer and more caring school environments.
- Attendance is better and fewer students are dropping out (from 24.5% in 2009 to 17%).
- Significant for future growth and better student outcomes, the District has greatly increased Early Childhood Education enrollment and improved indicators of reading ability in early grades.
In fact, most of the ideas the opponents suggest to improve learning conditions are actually in place and starting to work. The district is enacting the LCFF mandate and using the dollars gradually restored since the Great Recession to increase and improve services for students in need (as defined by the LCFF statutes—EDs, ELs, and Foster Youth are the target populations).
The School Equity Index, supported by Zimmer, ranks all district schools based on concentrations of targeted student populations (EDs, ELs, FYs) and directs LCFF dollars to increase:
- Librarians and Aides * Extra teachers for Class-Size Reduction * Restorative Justice Counselors * Social Workers * Health Services * ELL Support, and more.
Zimmer sponsored the Arts Equity Index to survey the schools with highest concentrations of students in need. This has led to:
- Growing arts instruction with teachers who are specialists in the core arts disciplines.
- Ensuring pathways so that students can continue these disciplines in middle and high school.
- An outreach campaign to net new partners and sponsors from within the large arts community in Los Angeles.
- The annual Grand Arts event in Downtown Los Angeles with a day full of student performances and exhibitions on multiple stages and Local District Arts Days.
One of the challengers says the teacher evaluations he received back in 2010 were inadequate and that the District should make teacher evaluations more meaningful. Fortunately, that has already been implemented so now over 20% of teachers receive these new evaluations each year in a cycle of input and guidance. He can read all about it on the District’s “Educator Development and Support” webpage.
Steve Zimmer should be lauded for presiding over improvements in student outcomes during his tenure—while weathering the effects of the Great Recession. No, the exam results are not acceptable. But neither are they unexpected, given the long history of the achievement gap. Any aggregate scores will mask bright spots and ignore individual student growth that is better captured by other measures. Real change is hard. Lasting improvements are incremental and start from strong foundations. Zimmer recognizes this—even agonizes over it in long discourses on the dais at Board meetings. But the media and special interests aligned with most of the education coverage in this town stress test scores to create the narrative of failure. They also have failed to usefully analyze the financial issues facing the District, as discussed in the next section, preferring the sky-is-falling narrative now adopted by his challengers.