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Not Good Enough

PUBLIC EDUCATION: California's Perilous Slide

10 Schools Were Targeted for Help--They're Better but Goal Is Elusive

May 19, 1998|AMY PYLE and DOUG SMITH | TIMES EDUCATION WRITERS

It's been more than a decade since the Los Angeles Unified School District decided to give special attention to 10 mostly black inner-city elementary schools to show that "all children can achieve their highest potential when the conditions for learning are at an optimum."

Those optimal conditions were going to be created with an extra $1 million a year per campus: a top-notch staff, smaller classes, back-to-basics emphasis on the written and spoken word, even full-time nurses.

It was called the Ten Schools Program. And the measure of success was to be straightforward: bringing average scores on an annual standardized reading, math and language test up to the national median, the 50th percentile.

"The school district is on the line," declared then-administrator Paul Possemato. "Either it can teach poverty children, or it can't."

Now Los Angeles has embarked, with fanfare, on yet another campaign to transform schools at the bottom of the academic heap. This time it's Supt. Ruben Zacarias' "100 schools" project. "I will not make or accept excuses," he says.

But what happened to its predecessor, the Ten Schools Program? Did all that cash buy the promised improvement? And did anyone really monitor how well it worked?

This much is clear: By its own strict goal, the program has failed.

More than 10 years and $100 million later, the schools as a group have not come close to the 50th percentile. Last year, their students scored at the 34th percentile, barely above the district's average of the 33rd percentile.

At the same time, the schools are faring better than when they started, and outpacing neighboring campuses, suggesting that something good has occurred.

As with many touted educational programs, however, there has been little formal analysis to determine whether taxpayers have gotten their money's worth--and what can be learned from the experiment.

So The Times conducted its own review, including having a leading expert analyze a full decade of test scores from the Ten Schools.

What emerged is a textbook lesson in the false promise of exaggerated claims--and the astounding complexity of trying to improve the performance of California's most troubled schools.

* Beyond the rhetoric, the "optimum" conditions proved impossible to reach--particularly the part about hiring experienced teachers. All 450 teaching positions at the schools were thrown open, but initially only 330 people applied, most of whom were already working in the Ten Schools. Today, one in four teachers at those campuses lacks a full credential.

* Though there were substantial gains at most schools, they came after a population shift dramatically altered the experiment. The original idea was to help African American students, so the schools picked were at least 60% black. A decade later, all but one are predominantly Latino. The only school that still has a majority of black students--102nd Street--languishes on Zacarias' list of 100 lowest performers.

* While test scores in the first and second grades have shown the biggest gains, scores slip significantly in the upper grades.

"I can't believe that the district should be persuaded that they have a model," concluded Robert Calfee, associate dean of Stanford University's School of Education, who analyzed the scores.

But the program's top administrator, Assistant Supt. Theodore Alexander, says there has really been only one flaw with Ten Schools: that district higher-ups set such an outlandish goal--the U.S. median.

Alexander asks that the schools be stacked instead against those facing similar challenges. Indeed, scores are far worse at nearby campuses, at the 22nd percentile.

"It's a constant battle, with people saying there's no significant difference," Alexander said. "When I hear that argument, I want to tell people to go to hell."

Academic Strategy Ahead of Its Time

The Ten Schools are places where a first-grader, when asked to make a sentence using the word "which," offers: "Which boy got killed?" Or where a special bell signals a "lock-down" because of violence outside. Or where a principal keeps the business card of a child abuse police detective in the corner of a photo frame.

These are words of Consuela, a fifth-grader at Flournoy Elementary:

I am a strong black child.

I wonder if I'll make it through life.

I hear the sound of gun shots and curse words.

I see homeless family's and drug addicts.

I want a better life.

Consuela was the sort of child for whom Ten Schools was created in the fall of 1987. For by every measure, African American students in Los Angeles--as a group--were failing.

First came the statistics, exposed by a court desegregation lawsuit. Then came a list of demands to the school board by advocates for minorities. Then came the program singling out 10 elementary schools with test scores below the 30th percentile.

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