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Black Schools Hit Hardest by Loss of Teachers

Weakened staffs are the main cause of low test scores.

July 27, 2002|RANDY ROSS | Randy Ross is vice president for research and policy development at the Los Angeles County Alliance for Student Achievement.

I graduated from John C. Fremont High School in 1968, back when graduating was still the norm. The South-Central Los Angeles school's current sicknesses and failures, described in The Times on July 14, made me feel almost hopeless. But the worst failure of the Los Angeles Unified School District is that its broad reforms have not helped African American students. The causes are complicated but fixable.

All L.A. schools enjoyed a hefty infusion of resources during the 1990s, that decade of relative plenty. The costliest reform was smaller classes in kindergarten through third grade in elementary schools statewide. More recent changes include new reading programs and teacher coaches.

The overall performance of Los Angeles students on the state's reading, math and language tests has indeed gone up. Not, however, for African Americans.

Some say it's because the students are poorer, harder to discipline and less motivated and their parents are less supportive. I say hogwash. Studies that follow individual students from year to year show their test scores going down. The same children, with the same parents, should improve, not decline, if the school itself is succeeding.

The district's leaders have tried to turn the focus to the high performance of first-graders--despite the fact that California does not even test first-graders (the results are too unstable even for government work).

So how do we explain this Los Angeles puzzle? A recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California on the effects of the state's class-size reduction program opens a window. One of the seemingly odd findings was that "an analysis of fifth-grade achievement showed that class-size reduction in third grade led to lower achievement in fifth grade for schools with a high percentage of black students."

It appears that class-size reduction in Los Angeles schools led many experienced fourth- and fifth-grade teachers to switch to the smaller primary-grade classes. More important, many teachers in predominantly African American schools left for other schools once the class-size reductions created openings in every elementary school in the state.

The mass exits and internal reshuffling of teachers in inner-city schools overwhelmed the benefits of the new programs.

Indeed, according to the study, math scores in the LAUSD's predominantly African American elementary schools went down by 15% from 1997-98 through 1999-2000, while math scores for similar schools in California's next five largest districts went up by 15%. Add to that the more recent year-to-year data and the continuing trend is clear.

More or different reading and math programs would not help. What these schools need are great teachers. The schools need to offer higher salaries to attract nationally certified teacher coaches and offer an atmosphere in which teachers can work together on a daily basis to improve themselves.

The teachers must possess not only knowledge but fluid understanding of content, be eager to teach African American students, be willing to master strategies for teaching these children and continually evaluate students' needs.

One more initiative for closing the teacher gap is working its way through the district. But judging by the grim past, it is hard to count on the LAUSD.

Members of the California Legislative Black Caucus, whose districts include schools that are falling the furthest backward--such as Fremont, Locke and Jordan high schools and the middle and elementary schools that feed into them--can help by monitoring other proposed state legislation on education. For instance, one current proposal would require every high school student to have access to a college prep curriculum. Schools would scramble for more math and English teachers and they would be siphoned off, again, from African American schools. The fix is to direct the reforms first to the schools with the greatest need.

If African American children in Los Angeles schools don't get better teachers, they will continue to fail. This is a position that the teachers union needs to embrace.

The choice is whether African American students, at Fremont and elsewhere, will have a future.

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