Correcting the Miseducation of a Superintendent | A Critique of the Book “Schools that Work” | The Unique Opportunity to Learn From LEARN
Good morning, CharterFolk.
I hope you all had a great Labor Day Weekend.
In a post last Wednesday, I said I would need more time to summon the precision and the thoroughness required to do justice to my next subject – what really happened to improve public education in Los Angeles over the past quarter century and how a recent publication on the subject gets the most important things wrong.
Having gone deeper into the topic over the weekend, I realize that it won’t take me just one post to do it right, but several.
So today I get out to you the first, with the others coming in the days ahead. I hope you can stick with me all the way through.
But before I turn to that, I first have to offer congratulations.
Though it wasn’t a perfect year (the legislature continued to do infuriating fiscal harm to non-classroom based charter schools), charter school advocates had a darn good season overall, killing off everything else bad and securing several important budget wins for charter schools in a very hostile political environment.
This last bill sponsored by Senator Leyva would have required every charter school to participate in and help try to keep afloat a broken pension system that CTA has owned and has driven into the ditch financially, believing in the end they could get the state and everyone else, including charter schools, to bail them out.
As it turns out, Leyva …
… and other charter school adversaries in the legislature …
… will be leaving office at the end of this session, and it looks like most if not all of the most extreme anti-charter voices in the statehouse will be replaced by much less toxic successors, if not outright supporters of charter schools.
So the bill’s sponsors knew that this year was probably their last best chance to pass this bill, meaning that holding them at bay right now was actually incredibly important.
While I wasn’t there, I have heard accounts of the status quo’s growing desperation in recent weeks, with their lobbyists making repeated efforts to jam the bill through, concluding with an all-hands-on-deck, in-person lobbying effort on the Assembly floor during the bill’s final hours.
And through it all, supporters of charter schools held firm.
Just how important this win was from a substance standpoint I’ll return to in an upcoming post.
For now, I just offer my congratulations to CCSA and CSDC and all other CharterFolk who pitched in here.
Let’s get on to the update.
The Miseducation of a Superintendent
We’ve known it was coming, but last week we got it.
Some of the most sobering news to have been seen in public education in generations.
You would think that the only person in the world who didn’t see this coming …
“There is no such thing as learning loss,” she responds when asked how her insistence on keeping L.A.’s schools mostly locked down over the last year and a half may have impacted the city’s 600,000 kindergarten through 12th-grade students. “Our kids didn’t lose anything.”
… might be changing her tune.
Last week, the very same week that the scale of pandemic learning loss was made plain, with many articles quoting public officials calling for additional learning time as one of the primary remedies …
… UTLA followed through …
… on Myart-Cruz’s prior threat …
… and voted to boycott extra learning time in Los Angeles, despite the fact that the additional days are entirely optional …
… with some publications highlighting that the union actually encouraged teachers to use the optional day to rally on contract issues rather than get extra pay to provide students desperately needed additional learning time.
Myart-Cruz made her threat one day after new Los Angeles superintendent Alberto Carvalho made his inaugural state-of-the-district speech calling for “a year of acceleration.”
I guess this is how Carvalho thinks things get done in Los Angeles:
A visionary upbeat superintendent puts together energetic plans to serve the interests of kids and families, and UTLA and other status quo interests declare themselves eager to pitch in.
Carvalho being new to town, it’s possible that he’s just not deep yet on how LA really works.
Or it could be that he has been miseducated.
Perhaps he too, like Jay Matthews …
… has been misguided by a recently published history of education reform in Los Angeles …
… that gets the story mostly wrong.
Caprice in her review of the book …
… said that the author, Berkeley Professor Bruce Fuller, got the story 90% right.
Caprice, as we all know, is incredibly generous. And in this instance that includes being generous with her accounting.
It is true that the book’s overall conclusion – that public education has gotten significantly better in Los Angeles over the last 25 years – is absolutely correct. And I have no quibble with sections of the book that go on at length about the history of Los Angeles and offer various ruminations on the work of luminaries from Jefferson to Cicero to Václav Havel.
Maybe if you add that all up in terms of word count, it gets to 90% of the book.
But, in my view, for the 10% that really matters – how the positive change that happened in Los Angeles really came about – the book gets the story almost entirely wrong.
So wrong that a reader of it, like a new superintendent coming from the other side of the country, could be convinced that the charter school movement played little constructive role in public education improving in Los Angeles over the past quarter century, if not actually worked to make things worse.
So why not make plans for the future that completely and utterly leave charter schools out?
Of course, as CharterFolk know, any plans for future improvement of public education in Los Angeles that exclude charter schools as the primary driver of reform will completely and utterly fail, like all non-charter reform efforts in Los Angeles that have come before have completely and utterly failed.
With hundreds of thousands of students and families being the ones who will suffer most.
So it behooves us to at least make an effort to set the record straight.
It starts with understanding more precisely what the scope of the accomplishment has been in Los Angeles.
Because it’s bigger, significantly bigger, than what Fuller portrays.
One important view, as the book covers, is the district’s rising NAEP scores.
It’s not just that the scores have improved in the past two decades. It it that, relative to other major urban school districts in the country, Los Angeles Unified NAEP scores have improved more rapidly.
But this view leaves out an incredibly important part of the story because it focuses exclusively on the gains that have been made in district schools. It disregards entirely the additional improvements that have been generated by Los Angeles charter schools, which have grown to serve more than 20% of students residing in the district.
And as it turns out, NAEP scores in LA charter schools are stunningly great.
As CCSA has shown, the Los Angeles charter school sector has an overall NAEP performance level comparable to the State of Massachusetts …
… which consistently has the the highest NAEP scores of any state in the nation.
What’s more, LA charter schools have generated these results while serving far higher percentages of low income, Black and Latino students than do Massachusetts schools.
So, no I don’t disagree with Fuller’s overarching conclusion that Los Angeles schools have shown impressive improvement, other than to say that his analysis far understates the achievement because it does not take into account the additional improvement that Los Angeles charter schools have contributed.
Nor would I say that Fuller’s book puts into proper context the scope of the free fall that was happening in California public schools, and Los Angeles schools specifically, in the 90s and early 2000s.
California’s NAEP results relative to other states, as Wested has shown, were completely plummeting …
… with Los Angeles schools being consistently reported …
… to have, along with Washington DC and Atlanta, the absolute lowest levels of performance of any large urban school district in the country.
For several years, the crisis-level performance of LAUSD was being obscured due to California’s decision to sunset its state testing program in 1994.
But then in 1998, the state resumed testing, and in 2000 the state released its first Academic Performance Index results …
… casting new attention on the state’s lowest performing schools …
… with over half of Los Angeles schools being identified to be in the lowest two deciles.
One of those identified schools was the one that I worked at as a teacher for seven years. I remember distinctly going through the scores and seeing that Hooper Avenue was identified to be the second lowest API-ranked school, not in LAUSD, but in all of Los Angeles County. A 322 raw score and 1-1 decile ranking.
It certainly aligned with my assessment of how well our school was performing relative to our potential.
Intuitively, many civic-minded folk in Los Angeles knew that their city’s public schools were in deep trouble. It led to one of the largest philanthropic gifts to have happened in public education.
In Los Angeles, it became known as LEARN, the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, and it become one of the most ambitious efforts to improve Los Angeles schools that had ever been undertaken. And it brought to the table exactly the same “pluralistic” approaches that Fuller describes as working so effectively in the first decades of the 21st century. Large numbers of charitable foundations were involved. Hundreds of community-based non profit organization signed on. Labor partners were engaged. Parents and teachers and administrators from literally hundreds of schools jumped in to the planning process full of energy and optimism.
I was one of those stakeholders, having been chosen to represent Hooper Avenue through the LEARN process.
But sadly, within a couple years, my optimism, like the optimism of thousands of others, utterly evaporated.
Years of UTLA opposing the reforms …
… began paying off. Powerful political allies in the capitol, including legendary Assembly Speaker Willie Brown. threw their weight behind legislation designed to grind things to a halt.
A couple years later, the entire thing imploded.
It was, given the scale of educational crisis happening in Los Angeles at the time, a tragedy.
But for our purposes today, CharterFolk …
… for purposes of attempting to understand what does and does not work related to the fundamental improvement of a terribly underperforming urban school district …
… the tragedy is actually incredibly valuable.
It provides a control group.
How often does a major city try a reform effort in one decade, get nowhere, and then turn around and do essentially the exact same thing the next decade, only adding in charter schools?
It affords us an incredibly unique opportunity to learn.
To learn from LEARN.
What we’re able to see is that, when a city attempts to use pluralistic processes to improve education without having a vibrant charter school sector at the heart of it all …
… you get nothing.
Fortunately for hundreds of thousands of families in Los Angeles in the first years of the 21st century, something new was emerging on the landscape.
Empowered by one of the strongest charter school laws in the nation, the Los Angeles Charter School movement, described by the Los Angeles School Report to be “a novelty” during the LEARN era …
… exploded in impact over the years immediately thereafter …
… driving the most profound improvement of public education in Los Angeles to have been seen in generations.
A time when, yes, as Fuller reports, “schools began to work.”
How that came about, I will continue to reveal in upcoming posts meant to further correct the miseducation of the superintendent and many others that has happened with the publication of this book.
Hope to see you here, CharterFolk.
Good morning, CharterFolk.
I’ve been working on a post early this week on this Jay Matthew’s piece …
… which, I admit, drives me crazy.
It’s an article about this book …
… which, I admit, drives me even more crazy.
The book attempts to tell the story of how public education in Los Angeles improved over the last 25 year without demonstrating a deep understanding of the power dynamics that allowed that improvement to come about …
… all while sharing fundamentally inaccurate and unfair characterizations of charter schools.
But if I’m going to write on this topic with such a contrarian bent …. (even Caprice said the book got it 90% right) … I’m going to need to be thorough and precise, neither of which I have sufficient time for until later in the week.
So I was on the cusp of just resigning myself to only getting one post out this week.
And then I saw this story come out …
… which is prompting me now to spin off something quick.
Readers of CharterFolk may have recognized that I have a bit of a Gorbachev obsession.
I included reference to him in my first post of the year.
It’s like the Soviets in the 1980’s. It would have been nice if the Politburo had just seen that evolving its nation into something more aligned with the interests of its own people was simply the right thing to do. But that’s not what happened. The system broke down because it simply did not have the capacities to sustain itself, and so there was no other choice. Change happened because change had to happen. In the end, a rough beast in the form of Gorbachev appeared slouching toward Moscow uttering noble sounding words like perestroika and glasnost.
Change in public education is going to happen now because it has to happen. The hour has come round at last.
A couple months later I quoted the Oldest Living Bolshevik, a character in “Perestroika,” the second part of Tony Kushner’s masterpiece play Angels in America, when talking about our movement’s need to identify a new theory by which to drive our efforts.
“Theory! How are we to proceed without theory …?
Change. Yes, we must change, only show me the theory, and I will be at the barricades, show me the book of the next Beautiful Theory and I promise you these blind eyes will see again, just to read it, to devour it, that text. Show me the words that will re-order the world, or else keep silent!
If the snake sheds his skin before a new skin is ready, naked he will be in the world, prey to the forces of chaos. Without his skin he will be dismantled, lose coherence and die. Have you, my little serpents, a new skin?”
Ever since I started teaching, I have thought that “perestroika,” is emblematic of what we are trying to do in education reform.
It’s an idea that has resonated across the country for decades …
… the notion that our system of public schooling in the United States is an educational Soviet Union desperately in need of transformation.
It led me to say in the 90s and the early 2000s that what public education needed was Gorbachevs, thousands of Gorbachevs, leaders who recognize that restructuring the system and devolving power back to those who should have it are more important than maintaining one’s own personal position of authority and control.
Very few people restructured a system and devolved power back to others with greater integrity and courage than Mikhail Gorbachev.
But our world is very fortunate that, as it just so happens, the leader who controlled a stockpile of nuclear weapons large enough to have destroyed the entire world many times over also just so happened to be one of the most principled and courageous public figures any of us have seen in our lifetimes.
If he had made his own political survival his top priority, he could have held on for decades.
Instead, he saw that something else was needed. And he brought it about, even if it meant his own political demise.
For those reasons, I consider him one of the great heroes of the 20th century, right up there with Mandela and Gandhi and very few others.
My admiration for him and the applicability of the concept of perestroika to our work in education was such that, one year when I was still at High Tech High, I insisted to Amy that the only thing I wanted for my birthday was a framed picture of Gorbachev.
This was back before you could just order something up on the internet. All I kept hearing was how impossible it was going to be to find.
But sure enough, on my birthday, what did I unwrap?
A framed picture of Mikhail Gorbachev.
I keep it in my office to this very day, on the top shelf of the bookcase right between a thank you note from Fortune School …
… and a picture of Amy herself.
(To this day, when Amy wants to explain to people how positively insufferable her life’s mate can be, she will sometimes say that I’m the kind of person who wants nothing but a framed picture of Mikhail Gorbachev for his birthday.)
Obviously, the way that history has turned out, Gorbachev resonates in different ways.
Who wants to say we desire some perestroika when we know what came next?
But in the aggregate, acknowledging the comparison point’s limitations, I can live with it.
I don’t have any intention of taking Gorbachev off the shelf.
The fact is that, to this very day, we still need thousands upon thousands of Gorbachevs in public education, people who will force the traditional system to do what it must, which is to relinquish control and direct it back to where it rightfully belongs – into the hands of parents and empowered educators.
Leader after leader, many who present themselves to be reformers wanting to devolve power before they assume the superintendency, once they’re in office, want to keep it all, falling back on that age-old view that they’re the special leader who can fix everything if just given sufficient power and control.
There are exceptions.
Joel Klein in New York.
Tom Boasberg in Denver.
Lewis Ferebee in Indianapolis.
They have brought about some of the most important lasting contributions to public education that we have ever seen.
But, sadly, they are the exceptions.
Los Angeles has had some strong superintendents over the years, some who I admire greatly and who showed great courage during their time in office.
But none of them had the basic orientation of a Klein, a Boasberg or a Ferebee, and so, sadly, though much progress has been made in Los Angeles, we could have made so much more.
Now we see a new superintendent come to town …
… whose inaugural “state of the district” speech laying out his plans for the future contained 7,385 words, not one of which was the word “charter.”
CharterFolk, what our country’s kids and families need is greatly more public education, which can only be brought about through a fundamental restructuring of the system.
It is why we need Gorbachevs, thousands of educational Gorbachevs.
Those leaders who help us get where we need to go will deserve our respect and admiration and will rightfully find their portraits on our collective top shelves, right beside keepsakes of the people and places we cherish most.