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LA Schools' Big Experiment

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Think of it as a big chem lab experiment. The Los Angeles Unified School District is testing the hypothesis that allowing a bunch of people to compete for running schools will yield better ones. It's a starkly different idea than the traditional civil service model and probably the boldest experiment taking place in public education in America. So, what are the results so far?

Hypothesis 1: In a contest to run public schools, lots of teams will show up. Result: it depends. The public school choice resolution passed by the school board last summer, created two different contests. The first was for the operation of 18 newly constructed schools, built with bonds approved by voters several years ago. One would think that occupying a sparkling new school would be incentive enough to bring forward great numbers of charter school and other potential providers.

There is significant competition, but not as much as one might think. Charter school management companies that did not already operate schools did not jump into the game in large numbers. The only new-to-LA charter provider to submit a proposal was Aspire, which runs schools in Oakland and the San Francisco Bay area. The for-profit providers that operate multiple charters across the country are forbidden by law from applying, and so Los Angeles' education competition has a decidedly home-grown look.

The Sansei Foundation, a non-profit arm of a school consulting firm in Chicago that has ties to Paul Vallas, that city's peripatetic former superintendent who now heads schools in New Orleans, filed an intent-to-participate for all the schools, but was a dropout. The American Charter Schools Foundation that operates charters in Arizona also failed to submit any proposals.

In most new-school competitions, existing charter operators squared off against proposals from teams of administrators and teachers from LAUSD. The Julie Korenstein Elementary school in the San Fernando Valley has five competitors, for example, as does a new elementary school in South LA Four competitors vie to run the new Barack Obama Global Preparation Academy in South LA. There, the Inner City Education Foundation, which operates 10 schools in South Los Angeles, and sees its mission as drastically increasing the number of college graduates from the area, is competing with a District team and two other charters.

KIPP, whose charters have garnered media attention for their success among African-American students, did not submit a proposal. Green Dot, which has been depicted as a tidal wave, submitted only one proposal. It is in competition with the Alliance for College Ready Schools and others for one of the components of the newly constructed Esteban Torres high schools on the Eastside.

A second contest involves plans to run one of the 12 chronically underperforming schools, dubbed Focus Schools by LAUSD. These campuses have failed to meet their federal performance targets for more than three years, have proficiency rates of less than 21 percent in either math or English, and had no growth in state's Academic Performance Index last year. The chosen high schools also had greater than 10 percent dropout rates.

Nothing bright and shiny here: the prospect of running these schools offers only an invitation to run some of the toughest schools in America. As one might expect, there are fewer competitors.

Only the existing schools proposed to run Burbank Middle, Gardena High, Maywood High, and San Pedro High. But some of these proposals were quite innovative and sought to come to grips with the reasons achievement had lagged. The Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, begun by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, was the most vigorous competitor. It submitted proposals for three Focus schools including Jefferson High School on the near Southside. It faces vigorous contest by the existing faculty and staff. See Howard Blume's coverage of the community meetings where proposals were presented.

The most vigorous challenge from an existing charter operator is taking place at Hillcrest Elementary School where the Inner City Education Foundation, is competing with the existing school and another charter, Be the Change in Education Foundation. That proposal, co-sponsored by 100 Black Men of Los Angeles, anticipates separating students by gender, a practice used in the 100 Black Men charter school in New York.

Another potentially interesting contest may develop on the Eastside, where the Montebello Unified School District, which operates the schools just outside of LAUSD, has submitted a proposal to operate Garfield High School.

Hypothesis 2: Competition will yield strong and innovative proposals. Result: a qualified yes.

I was struck by the extent to which existing District administrator and teacher teams created coherent plans that targeted student achievement. Although there are some clunkers, as a group these plans were much stronger than those produced during the school reform era of the 1990s. For a history of this era, see Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Education. Clearly, the participants have learned about targeting student achievement directly rather than assuming that rearranging what adults do would boost student outcomes. One of the legacies of past reform efforts is to give the schools a much higher capacity to focus on student achievement. Both District and charter proposals showed this capacity.

The stronger proposals also had linkages to resources outside the district. Some, like the ICEF middle school proposal, had strong ties to the University of Southern California. Several cited relationships with UCLA and some with CSU system schools and private colleges and universities. Many of the proposals link to community service providers. All reveal a network-of-experts organizational structure that I believe will become the essential structure for public education in the future, the alternative to an old fashioned hierarchy.

Perhaps the most interesting player in all this is United Teachers Los Angeles, which has had a schizophrenic relationship to the whole choice process. Violently opposed to it, UTLA is challenging its legality. At the same time it registered intents to propose in all the new schools. In the end only one teacher team submitted a new school proposal, the South Area Teacher Collaborative that bid for a newly constructed South Los Angeles middle school. Their proposal made a bow toward non-hierarchical management and greater involvement of parents and community in school operations, but it didn't sketch out a school where students would learn in radically different ways or where teachers would have radically different jobs. No updated Summerhill or John Dewey Lab School. No teachers' cooperative.

However, high teacher and union involvement can be seen in several of the proposals, including those at Burbank Middle School, where the existing staff seeks to transform the school into three smaller ones run on the Pilot school model that gives participants some flexibility to change their work rules. In other, proposals, such as the one for San Pedro High School, the union chapter chair emerges as one of the key participants in reorganization.

Yet, in the political bump and rub of proposal adoption, UTLA's raw union muscle has emerged. Boisterous and contentious community meetings have featured rough attempts at intimidation, prompting a blunt letter from Superintendent Ramon Cortines to union president A. J. Duffy.

All the proposals included ways to gather student achievement data from classrooms and make mid-course corrections during the school year and before the high-stakes state tests are given in the spring. All of them included ideas for linking on-going professional development with improving the schools. A close reading of these sections distinguishes the good from not so good proposals. (Full disclosure: I reviewed a handful of proposals for the District.)

All of the proposals recognize that parents, family and community are a student's first educators. And there are some inventive ideas about engaging families and using community resources.

But there was also an almost universal belief in programs rather than people. The proposal template itself, and most all of the proposals I perused placed great reliance on picking a set of proven programs. No one, even among the charter operators, said that their proposal would work because they had the capacity to assemble a better-trained, more dedicated staff than their competitors. Everyone gave a nod to accountability--it was required by the proposal template--but no one stood up and said in effect "if we can't teach these kids we'll step aside."

All these proposals are online. I have skimmed all of them, and read many of them carefully. You can too. It's also an experiment in local democracy, with public hearings, advisory votes, and ultimately a decision by Superintendent Cortines on February 23. The lives of 40,000 students are involved. It's time for your voice to be heard.