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Here's the problem with L.A. Unified's latest pie-in-the-sky ideas — they're likely to fail

Here's the problem with L.A. Unified's latest pie-in-the-sky ideas — they're likely to fail
LAUSD Board President Mónica García, left, listens as New Los Angeles Unified School District leader Austin Beutner makes his first remarks as superintendent at Belmont High School in Los Angeles on May 2. (Los Angeles Times)

The last couple of times the Los Angeles Unified School District has had one of its 100% ideas — that every single student would get an iPad, for instance, or that every high school student would have to take the full suite of college-prep courses and get at least a C in all of them in order to graduate — it failed spectacularly.

The iPad program ran into one completely foreseeable problem after another until it imploded. As for the college-requirements mandate, the school board was forced to lower the requirement from a C grade to a D when it realized that only half of its students were on track to graduate. And even then, the district had to soften its standards and introduce easier online makeup courses to avoid a non-graduation catastrophe.

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Now, a new resolution by school board President Monica Garcia goes back to that troubled kind of thinking by listing a long set of blue-sky goals to be achieved within five years.

Garcia’s resolution, which will be introduced at Tuesday’s board meeting, calls for many 100-percents. Among them are: a commitment that all third-graders will meet the standards on the state’s annual standardized tests; that all eighth-graders will earn at least a C grade in English and math; and that all high school graduates will meet that abandoned requirement of getting a C or better in all the courses required for entry to the University of California and California State University.

Garcia’s desire to set high standards and bring a sense of urgency to L.A. Unified is praiseworthy. And her resolution is an improvement on the old graduation requirement because students won’t be denied diplomas if they to meet it; they will still graduate even if they don’t get a C in every class. Schools won’t be closed or punished if all their third-graders aren’t proficient in reading and math on the state tests.

Adopting goals that are based on fantasy only sets the district and its teachers up for failure.


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Also in the resolution’s favor: It makes a few attempts to address some of the underlying issues that might keep low-performing schools from improving. That includes allowing schools in the bottom quartile to hire the teachers they want instead of whomever is available in the district pool, and providing more support to teachers in those schools.

Still, there’s more wrong with the resolution than right. It is — let’s be honest here — disconnected from reality. Consider that the district had 12 years to bring high-school students to a D in all the college-prep courses and still had to finagle like crazy to avoid disastrously low graduation rates. This resolution similarly threatens to weaken standards even more because middle and high schools will feel pressured to hand out C grades to students who haven’t earned them. It demands too many stellar achievements without enough planning and incremental steps toward getting close.

Then there’s the 100% problem. It’s an extremely rare high school — if one exists — where every student is proficient in third-grade standards and so forth. This is the like the No Child Left Behind Act, which also set unreasonable goals but had a much longer timeline. And even that unrealistic federal law demanded that 95% of students be proficient, not 100%. They came nowhere close.

Having high ambitions is a great idea. But adopting goals that are based on fantasy only sets the district and its teachers up for failure.

Consider this: In 2017, only 37% of the district’s third-graders passed the state’s English test, while 38% weren’t even close to passing.

L.A. Unified should be mindful of the recent scandal in Washington. D.C., where the public schools boasted about high graduation rates and said that 100% of the graduates of one particular school were going to college. The rosy claim shattered under revelations that not only weren’t all those students going to college, but teachers districtwide had been ordered to pass failing students, including some who had missed more than half the school year.

Let’s make goals practical. How much did third-grade scores improve during the district’s best five years? Can the district double or triple that improvement in the next five years? How many students got a C or better in their college-prep courses, without online makeup courses? Can that be doubled?

The board should work with Garcia on revamping her proposal so that it is ambitious but smart — more about the substance of better education and less about shiny-looking numbers that end up meaning too little.

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