School Reform Report Mostly Disappointing
Three years after billionaire Walter H. Annenberg donated $53 million to help reform Los Angeles County schools, program administrators issued an uneven progress report Wednesday and conceded that their impact on student achievement has been disappointing.
“We see some promising things, but they are very few,” Maria Casillas, president of the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project, said. “But we didn’t come into this saying we were going to change the world.”
Nonetheless, LAAMP had expected its grants to lead to substantial improvements. Schools were chosen after a rigorous selection process that focused on their enthusiasm for reform.
Today, however, at many of the 247 schools receiving grants from the five-year Annenberg project, parent involvement and teacher commitment are minimal, the LAAMP report found. Many participating high schools seem to lack interest in the project, and a few schools have yet to incorporate donated computers into their curriculum, the report said.
Most frustrating to LAAMP leaders were the mixed test scores reported by the project’s 135 campuses in the Los Angeles Unified School District: At elementary schools scores were up, but at many high schools they were way down.
LAAMP is the county’s largest privately funded educational reform effort, assisting schools in 15 districts. About 900 teachers, parents and others associated with those schools gathered Wednesday for a daylong symposium at a downtown Los Angeles hotel to discuss their progress.
LAAMP’s primary mission has been to knit schools into “families” consisting of a high school and its feeder middle and elementary schools, to ensure students a smooth trip from kindergarten to high school graduation. LAAMP tries to help campuses work together to track students’ progress, coordinate teacher training, install computer networks and carry out other projects.
The ultimate goal is to deepen the impact of other reform programs underway at any given school and enhance communication at all grade levels.
LAAMP is part of the national Annenberg Challenge, a public-private partnership serving more than 1.3 million students in urban and rural communities in more than 30 states. The Los Angeles effort, started in 1995, touches about 200,000 students and more than 8,700 teachers.
The promising signs cited by Casillas include third-grade literacy scores that slightly exceed those of most non-LAAMP schools, lower dropout rates and more students taking rigorous courses.
But overall, LAAMP schools mirrored trends that are evident in the districts as a whole, such as improved reading in the lower grades. As a result, LAAMP officials said it is difficult to calculate the impact of their efforts, particularly since many of their schools have multiple reform programs operating simultaneously.
Casillas blamed the lackluster results on limited resources in the face of enormous problems and dramatic policy shifts, such as the cutback in bilingual education. LAAMP’s struggle to reform L.A. Unified has been compounded by a lack of cooperation from the Board of Education, she said.
“People have tried harder at the school level than at the governance level to try to know what the hell is going on in education in Los Angeles,” Casillas said. “I wish there had been a closer relationship with the [board] when we started. We’d have accomplished more by now.”
Still, some outside experts credit LAAMP with making structural changes in school organization that have helped focus resources on important goals, such as improvement in literacy and professional development for teachers.
They contend that it is too early to measure academic changes, noting that some schools only began spending LAAMP money this academic year.
Barbara Cervone, national coordinator of the Annenberg Challenge, suggested that hopes may have been raised too high when the project arrived in Los Angeles.
“With all that money came all sorts of unreasonable expectations,” she said. “What the Annenberg Challenge had to offer was, most of all, hope, and an occasion to mobilize communities around concern for public education. But it never really had the financial resources to do the kind of major investments an operation like LAUSD probably needs.”
The Los Angeles district receives about $5 million a year from Annenberg.
Now, LAAMP administrators are trying hard to narrow their focus to emphasize fewer but potentially higher-impact efforts to raise reading scores, train teachers to be more effective and integrate new technology into classrooms.
They also are trying to make sense of their schools’ uneven composite test scores.
“We have 14 school families in LAUSD, and in all cases elementary schools showed progress, middle schools showed mixed growth and high schools moved backwards,” said LAAMP analyst Randy Ross.
“We’re trying to link these puzzling results, and asking ourselves if there is anything about LAAMP that could have caused them, or can fix them,” he said. “Perhaps we’ve placed too much emphasis on elementary schools. One of our challenges is to strengthen the involvement of high schools.”
The news at the high school level was not all bad.
At Palisades High School, Principal Merl Price said LAAMP, along with at least a dozen other ongoing reform programs, was having a positive impact on his 2,500 students. For example, he said about 40% of the school’s Latino and African American students are enrolled in Advanced Placement courses.
All of the schools in the 5,400-student Temple City Unified School District in the San Gabriel Valley are part of LAAMP. With the project’s help, the district broke down student achievement data by ethnicity and discovered that even though students were doing well academically, Latinos were lagging behind.
Now the district is better able to address that issue as it focuses its efforts on improving reading skills in the primary grades.
LAAMP is scheduled to stop pumping funds into local schools June 30, 2000, leaving the job of sustaining its reform strategies to funders, partners, educators, parents and surrounding communities.
LAAMP’s governing board plans to eventually turn itself into an educational watchdog group.
“Our hope is to commission research in key areas such as literacy and governance and issue reports and recommendations,” Casillas said. “We would expect to monitor performance of everyone from reading coaches to boards of education, even unions.”
Read the Times series “California’s Public Schools: A Perilous Slide” on the Web:
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LAAMP’s primary mission is to organize school “families” consisting of a high school and the elementary and middle schools that feed it. Here is a list of families in L.A. Unified, where LAAMP has made its biggest investment.
Other school districts where LAAMP is active:
Baldwin Park Unified
Hacienda-La Puente Unified
Norwalk-La Mirada Unified
Long Beach Unified
Santa Monica-Malibu Unified
South Pasadena Unified
Temple City Unified
Long Beach Unified
Little Lake City School and Whittier Union High School districts
Accelerated School Family, an independent charter school