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LEARN Reforms Have Had Positive Effect, Study Finds

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

The first extensive analysis of student achievement at schools involved longest in the Los Angeles Unified School District’s LEARN reform program shows that elementary students are performing substantially better than children at other district schools.

The evaluation by an independent research firm used standardized test results to measure the performance of the 34 elementary and junior high schools which began implementing the LEARN reforms three years ago.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Jun. 21, 1996 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 21, 1996 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
LEARN schools--Because of incorrect information provided to The Times, a story Thursday on the evaluation of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s LEARN reform program improperly characterized middle school scores on standardized tests. Students at the two middle schools studied shared in the improvement found at the elementary schools and performed better than their peers at non-LEARN schools.

The researchers found that the portion of elementary-level LEARN students who scored above the nationwide average on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills increased by at least 3 percentage points in language, math and reading from 1993 to 1995. And LEARN students improved at a rate slightly faster than non-LEARN students.

At the middle school level, however, the proportion of students scoring above average declined in all three testing areas. But those results were characterized as statistically insignificant by experts, because so few seventh-graders were part of LEARN’s first phase.

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“It’s great news,” said LEARN’s executive director, Mike Roos. “I frankly had strong reservations about [the district] doing a study now because everyone suggests you ought to wait four or five years before measuring performance gains.”

LEARN, now in 39% of the district’s 858 schools and centers, seeks to decentralize control of campuses by turning over key decisions to a panel of parents, staff and teachers.

The movement--which is slated to include all district schools by 1999--has faced growing criticism for spending more time changing campus governance than changing classroom teaching, and until now, has been able to produce little evidence that it can actually improve academic performance. Roos and others said Wednesday they hope the new report will counter some of those arguments.

Generally, the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills is not considered the best measuring stick for education reforms because it is a traditional, multiple choice-style test that experts say focuses on rote learning instead of critical thinking. However, the demise of the California Learning Assessment System (CLAS) test in 1994 left districts with few other tools as they scrambled to develop their own ways of measuring student achievement.

“It’s very important that they’re finding results like this even on the CTBS because they are, in my opinion, unexpected,” said UCLA professor Eva Baker, the university’s testing expert, who currently serves as dean of its graduate school of education. “It will be interesting to see how LEARN schools do on some of the performance assessments that we are developing for L.A. Unified.”

Strangely, the district-commissioned report, obtained by The Times, is not being touted by school officials, who are reviewing it behind closed doors. Even most of the school board members have not been given the results.

“It’s beyond me to figure out why they wouldn’t be trumpeting it,” said board member David Tokofsky, who has been among those pushing for a detailed evaluation of LEARN’s impact on student achievement. The report, he said, is “in offices all over the city, but the board members don’t have it. That doesn’t make sense.”

Some outsiders speculated that although the school system has embraced LEARN publicly as its main reform program, administrators still fear that any indication that LEARN schools are doing better than other campuses reflects badly on the district.

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Others said there may be some sensitivity to the report’s school-by-school breakdown, which points up unevenness even among LEARN schools.

But many viewed the furtiveness as a simple case of insecurity.

“Maybe that’s another regrettable symptom of a large bureaucracy that has been under siege from so many quarters: They’re afraid of sharing even good news . . . afraid people will find ways to attack it,” said John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League and one of the original members of the group of business, civic and education leaders who developed LEARN.

A group of LEARN’s key advisors, including Mack, was briefed Wednesday on the findings of the study, which was conducted by the Los Angeles-based Evaluation and Training Institute.

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In the analysis, the researchers examined three years of data from standardized tests given in fourth, seventh and ninth grades at the first 34 campuses to join LEARN. The improvements were particularly heartening, said some who have seen the reports, because they reflect only one year of actual implementation. The campuses generally spent the first two years preparing for and planning reforms.

Because LEARN encourages campuses to tailor reforms to meet their individual needs, it was no surprise that the study found great variability among the performance results. For example, Apperson Street Elementary in Sunland showed a decline in student performance, with a drop of 15 percentage points in students who scored in the top quarter nationwide on the language exam. Neighboring Sunland Elementary registered a rise of 17 points in the same category.

LEARN “is not an assembly-line model, where we’re implementing a specific plan in a classroom,” said School Board President Mark Slavkin, who reviewed the study Wednesday. “It is much more a process of assisting schools. Parents are different, teachers are different, students are different, so we would expect the results to be different.”

Some attributed the fact that gains could be seen in such a short time to the sheer enthusiasm among the first wave of LEARN schools.

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“These people felt like they were jumping into a cause, carrying a banner and taking the risks for others,” said Peggy Funkhouser, president of the Los Angeles Educational Partnership, the region’s first school reform organization. “I think these results reflect a spirit, a can-do attitude, people taking responsibility for not doing enough for these kids.”

Among the more intriguing data produced by the researchers is their analysis of minority student performance. In fourth grade--the elementary year considered a critical indicator of later academic success--a greater percentage of black and Asian students moved above the national average in math and language at the LEARN schools studied than at other schools, and their test scores were consistently higher.

Performance of Latino students was virtually stagnant on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills, but on Aprenda--a similar test given in Spanish to students enrolled in bilingual education--moderate gains were demonstrated.

The ethnic breakdown offers the first glimpse into how reforms may be affecting minorities in a district where--as is the case in many other urban school systems--there are far more minorities than white students and their academic performance is chronically low.

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“This refutes claims by some that LEARN is strictly for affluent white students, which has been another one of those myths,” said the Urban League’s Mack. “I hope it will become a stimulus to accelerate involvement in LEARN . . . especially in minority communities that have been holding back for various reasons.”

How the district will use the data as it moves forward with LEARN remains unknown.

An administrative audit of LEARN completed by another outside consultant last year, which criticized administrators for moving too slowly, prompted district officials to renew efforts to extend budgetary autonomy to individual campuses, but also led them to postpone for one year the district’s eventual goal of adding all schools to the LEARN program.


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