Doubting the Data
Magnet Schools, No Child Left Behind Transfer, Advanced Studies Schools, Permits With Transportation, Open Enrollment, Affiliated Charters: all of these are programs offered by the LA Unified School District allowing families to select schools outside of their local attendance areas. In a system with a plethora of school choice options, it is clear to those in the school buildings that those who want to flee their local schools already have.
As GATE Coordinator, each year I receive a list of “feeder” students from the neighborhood which are supposed to attend my public middle school. Dozens of them have an asterisk next to their name indicating they will most likely not show up to our school in the fall because they will be making use of the programs mentioned above. They will travel long distances to attend performing arts magnets, schools near the beach, or maybe schools close to where the parent works. While we lament the loss of any student, we support the parents making use of programs available in the District.
L.A. Academy in South Central Los Angeles is actually a school to which families flock. In the last three years we have recruited over 250 gifted and advanced students through the Schools for Advanced Studies program. These students were looking for a school that would meet their academic needs, and we’ve worked hard to make the program relevant and productive for them and for all students. While 30% of our school population (both local and permit students) participates in this program, the other 70% is the local population, and they have chosen not to flee, or are unable to flee our school. These students overwhelmingly score in the bottom rungs of the California Standards Test, by which our school is deemed a “failing,” “struggling,” or “program improvement” school.
As I sort through the data to identify which local students will participate in the Advanced Studies program, I see depressing numbers from the students who will not. The data tell a story about students who have struggled with achievement for a long time. There is no upward trend. There are years of reading difficulties, math challenges, and attendance problems. A noticeable portion of these students require special education services. This year, many of these students have faced homelessness problems in the precarious economic climate.
When the “feeders” (as the local students are called in edu-speak) arrive in our school, we address a whole complex set of issues with these students: poor (if any) study habits, lack of language support at home, difficulty establishing and maintaining parent contact, behavior difficulties, etc. Veteran teachers know how to combat these issues and work in close collaboration with the counseling, discipline and psychological support staff to mitigate the circumstances. The work is hard, never-ending, rewarding.
But according to articles such as the recent one in the New York Times, it is teachers and school systems which are responsible for the poor performance of these very students. An article entitled “The Teachers Union’s Last Stand” compared the performance of two side by side schools, one public, one charter, and stated the following about why the charter school seemed to be performing better:
School reformers would argue that the difference between the two demonstrates what happens when you remove three ingredients from public education — the union, big-system bureaucracy and low expectations for disadvantaged children.
According to this reasoning, all students in schools such as mine should be performing poorly. But they are not. According to the 2008-2009 school report card, 80% of gifted (advanced studies) students scored Proficient and Advanced on the state assessment, compared with about 18% of the local feeder students. How could this be? Did the gifted students have different teachers? No, all students share the same union card-holding, public school teachers working for the bureaucracy that is the LA Unified School District. All students shared the same Dean, Counselor, Assistant Principals, and Principal.
Anyone working in schools—not reading about them, not researching them, not theorizing about them—will tell you that achievement is a team effort, something I alluded to in my NBA analogy. The value of having the hard work of educating children being reinforced by the entire village that it takes to raise and educate a child is immeasurable. While it warms my heart to get that note in my box because Jose’s dad wants to know why his grade has dropped from an A to a B, I also wonder when Luis’ parent or guardian is going to answer my phone calls, return the notes I have sent home, or attend just one parent conference this year. The mandatory tutoring, counseling, detention, and study hall sessions we provide Luis during his hours in school (in addition to the well-planned and well-delivered lessons by teachers) do not seem to be enough to turn around Luis’ performance. Yet we will keep trying.
While it may not be popular to state the following, teachers will point out, as we always have in our noble profession, when the emperor has no clothes. Parent participation matters. Student self-motivation matters. Valuing education matters. When we work together, it is a beautiful symphony that enriches the lives of all in our society. No amount of distractions or red herrings will change the fact that education is everybody’s responsibility, but mostly of parents who are their child’s first and greatest teachers.