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Parent Revolution’s Seth Litt: Much more, much better is possible right now

Seth Litt | February 19, 2018

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On Sunday, Feb. 11, Parent Revolution’s co-founder Shirley Ford passed away. While Los Angeles lost a tireless champion for underserved children, she left behind a living legacy of parent leaders and allies ready to continue her work in this city and across the nation. As we reflect on the qualities needed in LAUSD’s next superintendent, we would be well served to start with a quality that made Ms. Shirley Good Ford an inspiring leader to so many people.

Shirley never wavered from speaking the direct truth about our schools and how well they serve our students, especially students of color and students living in poverty. She spoke this truth no matter how unpopular it might be at the moment and no matter whose feathers got ruffled. The next LAUSD superintendent needs to be a fanatical truth teller, in ways that make us all uncomfortable.

Here are some of the uncomfortable truths:

On California’s new school rating system, the California School Dashboard, schools don’t get a single rating like on the old Academic Performance Index. So bear with a short explainer.

Schools get separate ratings on English Language Arts and math (for schools with grades 3-8) and graduation rate and college-career (for high schools). All schools get ratings on suspension rates and English learner progress. These ratings are given for the whole school and for groups of students, like students with disabilities or African-American students.

There are five rating levels which, going from worst to best are red, orange, yellow, green, and blue. Another way to think about it could be this:

Red=F, orange=D, yellow=C, green=B, and blue=A.

So here they are:

• 52 percent of LAUSD’s schools earned a D or F in English language arts.

• 50 percent earned a D or F in math.

• There are 234 LAUSD schools that earned a D or F in both English and math.

• There are 34 schools that earned an F in both English and math.

Here are a few more facts about LA Unified schools:

• 69 percent of schools rated for African-American students earned a D or F in BOTH English and math.

• 47 percent of schools rated for Latino students earned a D or F in BOTH English and math.

• 53 percent of schools rated for English learners earned a D or F in BOTH English and math.

• 94 percent of schools rated for students with disabilities earned a D or F in BOTH English and math.

And while the district touts its 84 percent graduation rate, college or career readiness data tell a disturbing story:

• 40 percent of all students are graduating college or career ready.

• 39 percent of Latino students are graduating college or career ready.

• 30 percent of African-American students are graduating college or career ready.

• 17 percent of English learners are graduating college or career ready.

• 12 percent of students with disabilities are graduating college or career ready.

You can find more of our data analysis here.

The data back up what many families have been saying for years. But unfortunately, it’s far too common for people with power to dismiss what they hear from families from underserved communities. Families are told that they misunderstand their own experience, or that it’s just them, or that things have already gotten better. Often, families are told that their experience is the fault of an individual bad actor, since it’s much easier to replace a principal than it is to dismantle inequitable systems and reprioritize students in system-wide decision-making.

As a leader, Shirley didn’t just believe in the power of parents. She believed parents.

For the last five years, as California’s Academic Performance Index was suspended and the state endlessly tinkered with its new rating system, parents were left on their own. But now, in the dashboard’s second year, as opaque as the tool is, the facts are there for parents to prove that their experiences are real. They deserve a district leader who will face these hard facts, and face what those facts mean to the hundreds of thousands of students attending schools that fail to educate them. And they deserve someone who will get to it right away.

Parents have been waiting for too long, some for generations. They deserve a plan for LAUSD’s lowest-performing schools. Not a plan that removes a principal or paints a library, but a policy-based plan that addresses systemic inequities, including equitable access to effective, well-trained teachers and funding prioritization to the highest needs and lowest-performing schools and students. Parents want a plan that allows for school site innovation and shared leadership between educators and families. They want that autonomy paired with transparent accountability and oversight for schools, principals, and teachers. Parents want a commitment from LAUSD’s leadership that these schools will not just improve but excel, by date certain, and they want to know what will happen if they don’t. The parent-leaders who spent the last two years advocating for school improvement in California’s ESSA plan and watched the state board of education abdicate almost all responsibility know that now is the time for LAUSD to step up.

If some parts of this require hard decisions, parents expect district leadership to make those decisions. Parents want real decision-making power and would certainly not find many of those “hard” decisions all that difficult to make on behalf their children’s interests.

If parts of the plan to improve LAUSD’s many abysmal schools require a higher level of per-pupil funding, LAUSD’s next leader will find parents ready to fight on their side in Sacramento, as long as that money is attached to a fundamental shift in the way that LAUSD prioritizes its spending. However, parents know that much more, much better is possible right now, even without an overall increase in funding.  They know that while excellent schools are too few, they do exist. They see a great school, with too few seats available, right down the block from a terrible school, and they ask why we allow some kids to get so much and others to get nothing at all.

That’s a tough question to ask and an even tougher question to answer, but LAUSD’s next leader needs to keep asking it loudly and addressing the answers boldly until the question doesn’t need to be asked again.

Losing a truly special leader like Shirley also reminded me of another quality that the district’s next leader will need to bring to bear — love. As Shirley fought cancer, I was amazed to see the community of educators and advocates that rallied to her side to return the love, support, and fierce advocacy that she had given, for years, to children. It reminded me of so many moments in my career as an educator where I’ve seen the people who work in schools, motivated by love, do extraordinary, life-changing things for students. Too often, we lose sight of that. We fall into a false narrative that we must either believe in the potential of our students, parents, and educators or scream from the rooftops in outrage at how far short we are falling of that potential.

Our new superintendent must be able to do both of these things at once. He or she must speak plainly and act with urgency to address the realities and immensity of our failure. But he or she must also be able to harness the incredible potential here, from the dedication of our educators to the fierce energy of the parents who won’t stop demanding better for their children. A leader who can do that may just achieve what this city has never done: provide an excellent public education to all students regardless of race, ethnicity, learning need, or family income.

Seth Litt is executive director of Parent Revolution, an organization that works to support public school families to use their choices and their voices to improve education for their children and children in their communities. 

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