In a surprising challenge to four school reform efforts run by outside organizations, the Los Angeles school district has not only held its own in improving math and English test scores, but in most cases outpaced the others, according to a Times analysis of the city's lowest-performing schools.
The district's showing was even more surprising given that its schools didn't benefit from outside funding and other extra resources brought in by reform groups for their schools.
"The results are eye-opening, that conventional schools display stronger results," said Bruce Fuller, a UC Berkeley education professor.
One of the most striking comparisons was with a group of schools under the control of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The mayor's schools — elementary, middle and high schools — all improved less than the district's by some key measures.
The mayor had repeatedly derided the L.A. Unified School District as ineffectual when he unsuccessfully tried to take over the whole system nearly six years ago.
New test scores released Monday showed that the percentage of students in low-performing district-run high schools working at a "proficient" level in math increased 116% since 2008. That compared with a rise of 57% at two high schools under Villaraigosa's purview. The figures were more nuanced in other categories.
Villaraigosa expressed surprise at the results but also complimented the district's success. While his schools "are improving as well, I want them to be improving at a more accelerated rate," he said. "We're committed to the long haul."
He added: "We've decided to go to some of these similar [district] schools that are outpacing some of our schools and look at what they're doing."
The Times analysis looked at district schools whose test scores ranked in the bottom 20% of the state in 2008. Those schools are, in many ways, the ultimate litmus test for local school improvement. They enroll neighborhood students whose families haven't left to take advantage of a growing number of alternatives, including independently operated charter schools and the district's own popular magnet program.
The district scores were then compared with those of schools that have been part of four highly touted reform efforts aimed at boosting achievement at the lowest-performing schools.
All of these groups had the goal of breaking the long-standing pattern of academic failure by bringing in outside expertise, new resources and new leadership to end what critics view as the stultifying grip of district bureaucrats and entrenched faculties.
Three years later, the scores at many of these schools remain poor — often extremely so.
Because so many students started out at such a low level, many schools in the analysis showed large improvements in proficiency rates, despite overall low scores, most notably Locke High School. There, the percentage of students with proficient math scores more than tripled, even as enrollment grew.
But another illuminating statistic is the change in percentage points, which more closely reflects how many more students rated proficient in math and English.
In percentage point gains, the district outpaced all the outside organizations. Test scores in reading at the district high schools rose 7.8 points; math scores climbed 6.3 points.
Among the outside efforts, Crenshaw High School, which is being overseen by the Los Angeles Urban League, the Bradley Foundation and USC, fared the worst under the analysis. Reading scores at Crenshaw were down 2 percentage points over three years, while math scores nudged upward 0.3 point.
Crenshaw has seen the most grass-roots effort and enjoyed the most consistent support from the teachers union. The school's governing board includes teachers and parents.
Despite criticism that responsibility for the school is too diffuse, Urban League President Blair Taylor listed elements of progress: fewer suspensions, more graduates, more counseling and safer routes for students walking to and from school.
"We really want this model to be community-based engagement," Taylor said. "It's a harder exercise, but I do believe and hope and feel that, in the long run, it's more sustainable because it has buy-in."
Watts' Locke High School, run by Green Dot Public Schools, showed a 5.1 percentage point increase in English scores, and a 5.7 point increase in math.
Locke is probably the best-funded effort and the only one run by an independent charter organization, which is not bound by L.A. Unified's labor agreements. Green Dot could choose which staff members to keep; it retained fewer than a third of the teachers.
"The edge that charter schools have is more flexibility in their hiring of personnel," said Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.
Green Dot board Chairman Shane Martin said the goal is to create a new campus culture, with everyone committed to the same vision. "It's about limiting the distractions and focusing on what's truly important," said Martin, adding that the Green Dot approach could be a model for improving the lowest-achieving district schools.
At South L.A.'s Manual Arts High School, which is run by L.A.'s Promise, a locally based nonprofit, reading scores rose 4.6 points and math scores 3.4 points.
Promise also points to rising high school exit exam results and higher college acceptance rates, among other milestones.
The approach at Promise and the mayor's schools is thematically similar: Bombard schools with high-quality teacher training, support and high expectations, while hiring strong administrators to pore over achievement data and insist on results.
From the start, the mayor's organization — Partnership for L.A. Schools — has been made up of elementary, middle and high schools, which has enabled it to reach some struggling students earlier.
The mayor's high schools showed a 5.7 percentage point increase in English and a 1.5 point increase in math, a smaller rise than the district's.
The head of the mayor's education team, Marshall Tuck, said the proficiency gains did not take into account other evidence of improvement, including the "large number" of students who made progress but still weren't proficient. He also said the mayor deserved credit for initiatives that benefited all district students. Those included identifying more gifted minority students and leading a successful bid to prevent disproportionate layoffs at any school because of budget cuts.
Villaraigosa also quietly endorsed the management shake-up that brought his top education advisor at the time, Ramon C. Cortines, to L.A. Unified in April 2008. Cortines directly supervised the work of improving the low-achieving schools that remained under district control, first as deputy superintendent, then as superintendent. The veteran educator critiqued school-improvement plans and personally removed some principals, while authorizing various approaches — some with broad support, some controversial.
New Supt. John Deasy, who took over in April from Cortines, said that the district and the reform groups could learn from each other and that L.A. Unified was ultimately responsible for students at every school.
"We have lots of room to grow, but the growth over time is important," he said. "These types of schools have been the most difficult to improve across the nation…. We're making progress in that area in L.A."