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Opinion

Editorial: Is the Los Angeles Unified School District overpromising again?

Michaelle King and Steve Zimmer
LAUSD Superintendent Michelle King, left, and LAUSD Board President Steve Zimmer during a board meeting in Los Angeles on Oct. 18.
(Los Angeles Times)

When John Deasy resigned in 2014 as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the school board charged with replacing him made a conscious decision to throw off his brash, big-vision missionary approach in favor of the incremental-improvement style of current Supt. Michelle King.

But two years later, the group seems unsure whether the small-bore approach is the right one. After King developed a three-year strategic plan of potentially realistic but unexciting goals for the district’s next few years, board President Steve Zimmer complained that it was not ambitious enough.

“I don’t think that we have a mission sense right now, and I think it is our role to create it,” he said. “It has to be big.” 

And what the board settled on certainly fits the bill: a 100% graduation rate.

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L.A. Unified has followed the same pattern too many times. Set a big goal, watch it fail, change the rules, define its way out of the problem.

It felt as though Deasy was still in the building. He had pushed audacious policies, such as providing an iPad for every L.A. Unified student and requiring all students to pass a full series of college-prep courses with at least C grades in order to graduate. Both of those efforts were approved by the school board.

But neither came to pass. The problem was that Deasy invented goals that were unrealistic, setting everyone up for failure, including students. He announced goals without figuring out how they would be carried out in the hard day-to-day instructional world, or how they fit in with teaching and curriculum.

Even the pre-Deasy graduation policy that took effect earlier this year — requiring all students to pass their college-prep courses with a grade of D or better — would have led the district to ruinously low graduation rates if King hadn’t allowed students who were failing to meet that new standard to take online makeup courses. But that was a problematic shortcut. The courses themselves were rigorous enough, but a Times editorial project found that students were permitted to pass at least some of these courses too easily, without reading the material or listening to lectures, if they got a minimally passing grade on a fairly easy pre-test for each unit.

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The board has moved to tighten use of the courses slightly in future years, but the new rules are still inadequate to ensure that students have mastered the material. Even the NCAA requires more from students who plan to be college athletes.

The point is this: We’re all for ambitious goals and bold moves to transform the school district so that it can provide a meaningful, high-quality education to L.A.’s students, many of whom are low-income or English learners. Unquestionably, it will be a happy day when L.A. Unified gets close to a 100% graduation rate, and the board is right to demand a hyper-focus on moving in that direction.

But goals must be specific, well-planned and achievable, or they can end up causing more problems than they solve. In this case, the board’s 100% graduation goal sounds good — who doesn’t want a 100% graduation rate? — but what does it mean, really? Will it be achieved within the three years of the strategic plan? That seems impossible. Will there be an end-date put on it at all? District officials say they’re not sure. The reality is that even in wealthy school districts, the highest-performing schools rarely graduate all their students. How can one of the largest urban school districts in the nation, with its budget woes and a student demographic that faces all kinds of challenges hope to get there in a few years?

More important than setting an ideal like 100% as your “mission” is doing the hard work of figuring out how the district gets there. Raising graduation rates isn’t hard, frankly, if schools are willing to lower their standards, pressure teachers to hand out passing grades and farm out failing students. Instead of taking that approach, the board must nail down the standards needed for a meaningful diploma and then set a specific plan to bring students to that level — a plan that rejects shortcuts and emphasizes better-educated students.

L.A. Unified has followed the same pattern too many times. Set a big goal, watch it fail, change the rules, define its way out of the problem. What student needs is an ambitious goal that gives everyone something to reach for without feeling doomed from the start.

To read the article in Spanish, click here

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