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Reforms Need More Time

November 03, 1987

Los Angeles city schools still fail in the task of providing a solid education for many of their students--especially blacks and Latinos. But University of Chicago researchers drew too broad a picture in a recent report in asserting that California's education reforms have not turned around the problems of the region's students in mastering basic skills. The reforms may be working, as state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig says, and they may not. It is simply too early to tell for sure. Educators would do better to look at where they agree than at where they disagree.

At issue is a report from the Metropolitan Opportunity Project of the University of Chicago. It is looking into equality of education and employment opportunities for young blacks, whites and Latinos over the last decade in five American cities, including Los Angeles. The director of the project, political scientist Gary Orfield, has a long history of studying Los Angeles public schools. He studied the 1978 school desegregation plan under court appointment.

In the current report, Orfield concluded that race and poverty are so tightly linked to school achievement "that no ordinary increment of funds is likely to produce real change." Huge new resources therefore must be spent on upgrading teaching staffs at minority schools, improving their books and other materials, and providing course offerings equal to those in suburban schools. No realist could argue with Orfield's conclusion.

The trouble starts with interpretation of test-score statistics produced by Orfield's associate, Christopher Jaeger. His report says that the individual Los Angeles high school test scores told "a story of failure over the period 1976-1986." Los Angeles city and county schools consistently lagged behind suburban high schools in math, reading and writing in tests administered in 1976, 1980 and 1986; scores generally showed greater decline since 1980 than in the 1976 to 1980 period.

"Nothing in this data suggests that the California reforms enacted to date have turned around the problems of the region's students in mastering basic skills," the report adds. That is simply unfair. Even assuming that school districts acted quickly in paying teachers more and tightening curriculum requirements, schools simply didn't have these reforms in place much before the tests in question were given. Change does take time.

The report suffers from muddy language. It says "high schools declining the most are predominantly from inner city Los Angeles," while listing as those "inner city" schools Hollywood High as well as Birmingham High, Verdugo Hills, Van Nuys, Grant and Cleveland, which are in the San Fernando Valley. These schools hardly fit the traditional inner-city definition.

Complaints aside, it is significant to note that some schools have improved their ranking. In 1976, seven Los Angeles city schools were among the bottom 10 in math scores, including Garfield High. By 1986 Garfield was in the top 10. It can happen. In 1976 only Taft among Los Angeles schools was ranked in the 10 best in reading and writing scores. By 1986, there were two in each category, Franklin and Hamilton high schools.

Bill Honig was concerned last week that the public might think no progress was being made. He released last spring's test scores that showed that junior high schools with heavy minority concentrations generally followed a state pattern of some improvement in essay writing, mathematics, science, reading and social sciences. But white schools continued to test higher. "We are not moving fast enough to close that gap."

Honig is right. So on many counts are the Chicago researchers. It's time to renew the battle against the problem.

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