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Commentary: So Close – Yet So Far

Alexander Russo | December 18, 2012

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All around the nation, school districts are trying innovative things to make schools work better for kids.

LAUSD has some of these elements – charter schools, for example, and federally funded merit pay. There’s no shortage of talented individuals, dedicated educators, and generous benefactors willing to help speed the process of change.

But because of disputes among Board members, stakeholders, and advocates, LAUSD is missing out on several other reforms, failing to win funding, or struggling to implement changes successfully. It’s a tantalizing, excruciatingly frustrating situation.

LAUSD is so close, and yet so far from making dramatic progress towards improving student achievement:

LA has 210 charter schools, representing an enormous amount of choice and energy. But area charters don’t overall outperform their district counterparts as often as in other places like Newark or New Orleans, and the system of oversight is flawed.

LAUSD is part of the charter/district collaborative network that’s being funded by the Gates Foundation.  But the district and its charter counterparts aren’t doing some of the cutting-edge things that New Haven, Chicago, and NYC are doing and so it wasn’t one of the seven districts awarded large grants earlier this month.

LAUSD received a five-year $49.2 million award from the US DOE to develop and implement a performance-based pay system — with union approval — but Board member Vladovic now claims the application created mistrust with the Board that is now requiring pre-approval for all competitive grant applications above $1 million.
The Board signed off on the $40 million application for Race to the Top funding but the union refused, the district declined to revise its application, and the funding went elsewhere.

The parent trigger is available in LAUSD just as every other district in the state (as well as schools in six other states), but it’s only been tried in Compton and in Adelanto rather than in LAUSD proper.

The Public School Choice program began as a groundbreaking way to close or revamp struggling schools and start new ones, but was hobbled last year as part of the horse-trading between the teachers union and the district over its contract.

The tentative deal agreed to by the teachers and the district on the topic of teacher evaluation includes student achievement measures, as required by the Stull Act, but not teachers’ value-added scores and at a level (percentage) that remains undetermined.

Perhaps most tantalizing of all, LAUSD and its charter counterparts haven’t developed the streamlined, unified school choice, application, and matching systems that have been so successful in places like New York City, Denver, and New Orleans.

To be sure, there have been notable successes and crises narrowly averted — and no shortage of well-intended effort.  Each of the items listed above represents progress to some degree.

But the status quo isn’t good enough, more funding won’t be enough to make a real difference, and so the Board, the Superintendent, and the teachers need to make progress and improvement more consistent heading into 2013.

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