Education miracles that aren’t

In seeking reform models, L.A. Unified should be cautious about untested solutions.

February 6, 2013

Beware of education miracles. Too often, there’s less there than meets the eye. Remember the extraordinary gains in test scores and lowered dropout rates in Houston schools more than a decade ago? They became the model for the federal No Child Left Behind Act and catapulted the schools’ superintendent, Rod Paige, to his position as U.S. secretary of Education at the beginning of the George W. Bush administration. Only years later was it discovered that schools were recording students as having “transferred” when they had in fact dropped out, and that students who were expected to do badly on standardized tests were often kept from taking them.

Then there was Atlanta’s schools superintendent, who won a national award for the gains made by her students. That was before investigators determined in 2011 that there had been rampant cheating by teachers and principals throughout the school district.

Another much-touted miracle: charter schools, which were supposed to lead the way to success for all students. Now, however, it seems that they have a decidedly mixed record.

A less-publicized addition to this list was the San Jose school district, widely admired for its high school graduation standard that requires all students to pass the full series of 15 courses, known as the A-G sequence, that qualifies them for admission to California’s four-year public universities. Supporters cited San Jose’s reported success when they persuaded the Los Angeles Unified School District to adopt a similar requirement in 2005, phased in so that this year’s freshmen will be the first who must pass the courses.

As it turns out, according to a report last week in The Times, San Jose fudged its success rates by counting students who had nearly completed the requirements. In addition, many students either passed the courses with a D grade, which is not accepted by the state universities, or took an escape route into the district’s alternative schools, which have lesser requirements. All in all, the proportion of students who qualify for the universities has barely budged over the decade the policy has been in place. The one bit of good news: Dropout rates did not increase, but probably in large part because students didn’t have to meet the true University of California and California State University requirements.

The notion that all Los Angeles high school students, no matter what their life plans, should be required to pass those college-prep courses was always problematic, even before the latest information about San Jose came to light. It was a well-intentioned but hard-and-fast overreaction to a shameful situation. In L.A. Unified, black and Latino students were routinely shuffled into lower-track courses regardless of their academic potential. At many inner-city schools, bright students with bigger ambitions couldn’t take all the necessary A-G courses even if they begged to. Their neighborhood high schools didn’t offer all the classes or, if they did, math and science were frequently taught by underqualified substitute teachers because most of the fully credentialed teachers used their seniority to take openings at middle-class schools.

Something had to be done, but requiring all students to take the full menu of college-prep courses was the wrong solution. Many high school teachers in L.A. Unified already complain that they feel pressured to pass students with Ds that haven’t been earned. Starting next year, freshmen will have to start passing those college-prep courses with Cs to graduate.

L.A. Unified leaders say students will be offered extra support to help them reach the higher standard. But San Jose school officials said the same thing when they adopted their policy. The risk is that even with more help, students will drop out or teachers will feel obligated to give students C grades that they don’t deserve, lest they be unable to graduate. If that happens, students will qualify for admission to universities where they can’t do the required work, at a time when the colleges themselves are under pressure to graduate higher proportions of students.

In 2012, 12% of L.A. Unified’s seniors were unable to pass the high school exit exam, a test of basic 9th- and 10th-grade skills required for a diploma in California. Though the district’s pass rate has been improving for years, this is a dramatically lower bar than the A-G requirement. The district’s students show little sign of being ready for this big new step.

With new information in hand about the real numbers in San Jose, the L.A. Unified school board should reconsider its policy. That doesn’t mean allowing the district’s past to become the future. It could, for example, make college-prep courses the default curriculum for all students but give teenagers and their parents the option of requesting a waiver. It could also adopt the parental “try just one bite” ploy by requiring students to take a year of college-prep classes before being allowed to switch to a more vocationally oriented program.

But the bigger message of the San Jose experience is that a single example of a school reform miracle, whether it’s a new test or a new teacher evaluation system, is not the same as evidence-based, replicated, time-tested educational change. It might offer an intriguing glimpse of future possibilities, but it should not be widely adopted without proof that it is necessary or helpful. This is something for the Obama administration, with its insistence on teacher evaluations that include “value added” scores on standardized tests, to remember. The impatience with the status quo is commendable, but the search for silver bullet solutions is leading schools in some dubious and possibly harmful directions.

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