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L.A.'s School District Doesn't Deserve to be Called a Failure

May 11, 1997|Richard Rothstein | Richard Rothstein is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute

The Los Angeles School Board sought a superintendent who could "save a failed system." But Ruben Zacarias should repudiate such terms as the basis of his appointment. The Los Angeles Unified School District needs a leader who will boast about its successes and try to rebuild public confidence--and the self-confidence of teachers, students and administrators--in its mission.

To do so, Zacarias should explain truths rarely discussed in polite company nowadays: The general academic performance of LAUSD students will always be considerably below national averages. William E.B. Siart, a candidate for the district's top job, said his goal, as superintendent, would be to bring test scores up to the national average. This was irresponsible. If taken seriously, it guarantees the system will always be judged a failure. Were LAUSD ever to meet this standard, it would prove American public schools dysfunctional.

Unreal ways of talking about public schools have origins in a 20-year-old insight. In the 1970s, educators realized that many minority students were poor achievers because teachers expected them to fail, and when teachers didn't believe in their students, students stopped believing in themselves. If challenging course material was considered beyond poor children's abilities, it was not taught. In turn, children without opportunities to learn confirmed everybody's expectations by not learning.

This colonial pedagogy is now discredited, but it has been replaced with an equally malicious idea: All children, regardless of backgrounds, have equal capacities to achieve at high levels. If they don't, it must be because teachers' and schools' standards are too low.

The notion that children in LAUSD--87% minority, 28% from homes in poverty, 13% who don't speak English--should, if only schools did their job, achieve at the same level as children from more advantaged communities is a conceit with unfortunate appeal across the political spectrum. But expecting all children to meet a similar standard defies everything we know about education.

For 30 years, experts have acknowledged that the most important determinants of student achievement are family and community characteristics. Children from literate homes with secure economic environments will always, on average, perform better academically than children without such advantages.

Can disadvantages of poverty, of less literate parents, of limited economic opportunity be overcome by dedicated and inspired schools and teachers? Somewhat. Some poor children enrolled in good schools will outperform most middle-class children, although most middle-class children will outperform most poor children. Some inner-city schools will have better academic programs, better teachers and higher test scores than typical suburban schools. Can this feat be duplicated in every inner-city school? No, because we are describing relative accomplishments. Unless we stop educating middle-class children, their average achievement will continue to surpass that of disadvantaged students, no matter how good a job our urban schools do.

Almost all data on student achievement is "norm referenced." This month, LAUSD students are taking standardized exams. The "norm" (students' score at the 50th percentile) has been established by administering the tests to a representative national sample of students, then determining the average score for each grade and subject area.

We all know what the results will be: A few L.A. schools and children will score above the national average, but most will not. This doesn't mean L.A. schools are failing. Indeed, it could be consistent with success. We don't know, because in the rush to denounce urban schools for their relative nonperformance, we have not bothered to develop absolute standards for what it is reasonable to expect urban children, with their socioeconomic handicaps, to learn.

In the absence of meaningful standards, cliches and anecdotes abound. We like to say, for example, that early in this century, immigrant children learned English without special programs and used education to assimilate to the middle class. What's forgotten is that this achievement took three generations and that few immigrant children graduated from grade school 70 years ago, much less high school or college.

Because there are no good standards by which to judge schools, a predisposition to see failure filters most anecdotal impressions. Tales about high school graduates not being able to make change are plentiful. But when a Hollywood film ("Stand and Deliver") depicts L.A. immigrant children passing advanced-placement calculus, people assume this was an exception. It's not. Last year, more than 5,000 College Board advanced-placement tests were given to Latino students in LAUSD; about half the scores were high enough for college credit.

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