To Members of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education and Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Austin Beutner,
Our organizations have been supportive of Los Angeles Unified School District’s initiative to create a school performance framework because our members know that access to clear information about the schools in their communities is a matter of equity.
Our intent in this letter is not to advocate for every element of the School Performance Framework, as it was described by the original resolution and designed by the LAUSD working group. Instead, we urge the school board and district leadership to release the measures of student academic growth before the opening of the eChoices window on October 1st, 2019. Our understanding is that this data is available and complete, making its release to educators, families and the general public solely dependent on the decision-making of district leadership.
Why Student Academic Growth Matters
California is one of only two states in the country (the other is Kansas) that does not measure and publicize student growth. The California School Dashboard measures only student academic proficiency. “Change” as measured on the California
Dashboard does not measure the progress that students are making, it only measures the average achievement of one year’s group of students versus the previous year’s students.
This type of measurement is extremely unfair to schools that serve concentrations of high-needs students who enter the school already below standards. As an example, a middle school that enrolls many 6th graders who are far below standards in ELA and that helps its students make dramatic academic gains, so that most of its 8th graders are meeting standards, will not receive any recognition for this work since a new cohort of struggling 6th graders enters the school every year.
A measure of student academic growth tells us something much more important. It tells us the amount of academic progress that students make at each school. In a school system where almost 60% of students are not meeting standards in English Language Arts, nothing is as important as understanding which schools are doing the best job at helping students catch up. In fact, one can see the entire enterprise of LAUSD, a school system that almost exclusively serves students who start out behind their more privileged peers, as the work of helping children catch up and then excel.
The Impact of a Student Growth Measure on Schools
We believe that the release of student growth measurements will have significant benefit for Los Angeles Unified schools by keeping the focus where it should be: on accelerating student learning and closing achievement gaps.
LAUSD has some schools where less than 15% of students enter the school meeting academic standards. Most of these are neighborhood, zoned schools, that are not a part of any of LAUSD’s choice programs. For these schools, proficiency rates do not provide a fair or accurate evaluation of school quality.
Amongst this set of schools, there are schools that are doing an excellent job of helping their students make academic progress. In our current reality these schools are not recognized for the work that they do. With the release of a student growth measure, these schools would be recognized for the progress that their students make.
Parents would choose to send their children to these schools. Far more than the governance structures of magnet or charter schools, families are looking for schools that will help their children make progress from where they currently are to their full potential. With increased enrollment, schools can maintain stable programs and staffing that would allow them to continue and accelerate their success. School stability and success, in turn, makes it easier to retain and to recruit staff, including teachers.
The Utility of a Student Growth Measure for Local Districts, Communities of Schools, School Board and Central District
Los Angeles schools unquestionably operate in a severely resource-constrained capacity, serving students whose needs are not matched by the financial resources that schools have at their disposal. The signers of this letter will continue to support LAUSD in efforts to raise student funding. At the same time, we believe that decisions on how to use resources, both monetary, as well as the knowledge and skills of district employees, are crucial to improving student outcomes.
A student growth measure is not the only place where those tasked with supporting schools should focus their work. However, a student growth measure, as designed for the SPF, would provide an objective starting place to understand all schools. Currently many school level plans, in an attempt to provide more accuracy and depth than SBAC proficiency rates, use measures of student progress that may not be the same as comparable schools.
The Utility of Student Growth Measure For Families, Especially Low-Income Families
Between charter schools and LAUSD choice programs, more than half of the students who attend public schools within the boundaries of LAUSD are enrolled through some type of parental choice. However, there are negative impacts when a high-choice system is married to a low-information environment.
Currently, families are overwhelmingly using SBAC proficiency rates, whether they are looking at Great Schools, the CA Dashboard, or LAUSD’s own school-finder tool. The school with the highest proficiency rate may not be the best school for an individual child, especially if that school involves hours of travel each day. In our work with families, especially those with middle or high school students, we frequently hear that parents want to find the schools that will help their children catch up if they have fallen behind. Without a student growth measure, families have no access to this most important question and cannot make the best choice for their children.
In our current system we also have a pattern where families with the most privilege can successfully navigate the system to secure spots in the “best schools” for their children. If the “best schools” are defined by proficiency rates, which are in turn largely a measure of how prepared each school’s incoming students are, and a proxy for income, then we have a system that perfectly sorts and segregates students. A measure of student academic growth is a powerful way to disrupt this pattern.
We want to be clear that this is not a case for desegregating schools or a case for more choice. Those are separate and important conversations that deserve their own space. We are making a more practical argument, which is that right now, a majority of LA’s families are choosing their children’s schools based on limited information. It does not have to be that way.
A measurement of student growth would also allow families to more effectively partner with their current schools. Parents use lots of information to understand how well a school is educating their child. If parents only see proficiency rates as an indicator of academic quality, they are being given an inaccurate view of their schools. In some cases, families may assume that a high proficiency rate means that all is well. In other cases, they may think a school is not doing well, when student growth would show that the school community is making significant progress.
The Power of Student Growth to Build Public Support for Public Education
The last year has produced contradictory messages on how much the Los Angeles public supports public education, and the limits of that support. While public opinion was supportive of teachers during the UTLA strike, a few months later the public did not vote to fund public schools through the Measure EE parcel tax. If public schools are to fulfill their promise, the broader public needs to act as if public schools and public school students are their responsibility.
We have heard the argument that the SPF, including its student growth measure, are unnecessary because schools have all of the information that they need to make instructional decisions. However, educators are not the only audience for school data. The public at-large is, as well. It is members of the public who vote for school boards, to fund or not fund schools, and evaluate whether or not they will send their children to public schools.
There are many barriers to communicating both the real challenges and the real successes of Los Angeles schools. To galvanize public support, we must make clear the high level of need that LAUSD’s students bring to the classroom and the daunting challenge that LA’s educators face in meeting those needs. However, we should not make the task seem hopeless or impossible. It is not impossible. All over the district, there are amazing educators and extraordinary school communities, who despite significant challenges, are making meaningful gains with their students. Student growth data would allow educational leaders to tell a success story about many of the district’s schools and to establish a compelling vision for what would be possible with more resources to provide more students with these opportunities.
The Case for Releasing Growth Measures Before October 1st, 2019
We are aware that the full SPF, including the measure of academic growth has been completed by CORE and provided to LAUSD. While district staff can see every school’s growth measure, parents cannot. On October 1st, LAUSD’s E-choices portal will open and families all over the district will have a short period of time to make one of the most important decisions of their child’s life: where to send them to school. In this letter we have already laid out the consequences, especially for low-income families, of choosing schools without access to accurate information. Families in Los Angeles have had to do this for years. This can stop now. LAUSD has the information and must release it to families and include it on its school finder tool and the open data portal.
The second reason for releasing the student growth measures now is a matter of trust. Families advocated for the passage of the school performance framework. They attended and participated in the working group, even though the process took a year longer than what was called for in the resolution. They attended meetings with senior district staff to make sure that the process was on track. What does it say to them, when a few weeks from the release of information about their schools, and after having participated with good faith in the process, they will no longer get the information that they sought?
There may be a reasonable debate about the value of overall ratings, but research has clearly demonstrated the value of measuring student growth. Withholding this information further confirms for many families that LAUSD is not a place where they are heard and that, even when they use their time and their voices, they are still at the mercy of forces more powerful than them. This is a terrible and unnecessary message to send. LAUSD should not be taking the extraordinary step of preventing its families from having access to information which almost every other family in America has. We ask you to immediately release the student growth measure and to include it on the LAUSD school finder tool, in the open data portal, and in other avenues of parent engagement.
We look forward to your response,