Close The Gap Resolution Sets Ambitious Goals, But Who Will be Held Accountable For Results?

Imagine if every third grader in LAUSD aced the state assessments, and if every high school graduate met the requirements to apply to a California four-year university. Board President Monica Garcia’s new “Close The Gap” resolution aspires to reach these and other lofty goals within just five years.

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The Board is set to vote Tuesday on the resolution from Garcia (BD2) and co-sponsor Richard Vladovic (BD7), which also calls for 100 percent of students identified as English Learners in kindergarten or first grade to be reclassified as Fluent English Proficient by the end of sixth grade and 100 percent of high school students to successfully complete at least one Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or one semester of community college courses before they finish high school.  

The United Way of Greater Los Angeles and Communities for Los Angeles Student Success (CLASS), which operates under the auspices of United Way, championed the Close The Gap resolution. Speak UP is one of over 70 network partners in the CLASS coalition, which represents over 150,000 constituents.

“We think that the Board has done some amazing work in the last few months to really double down on their commitment to equity and to rigorous classes for our kids,” said Sara Mooney, Education Program Officer at United Way of Greater Los Angeles. “The Close the Gap resolution is another opportunity to build on that momentum.”

The resolution is intended to tackle persistent racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps that plague LAUSD and the entire state. While Speak UP supports this resolution as a great first step, we believe the Board also needs to take additional steps to make sure schools and teachers are held accountable for achieving these goals if the resolution is going to work.

The resolution does specify some mechanisms for achieving the goals, such as:

* All schools will engage in a “single plan” for student achievement that uses data to identify the sources of low performance, sets out a plan for continuous improvement and supports the plan with an equity-based allocation of funds.  

* The highest-need schools (about 25 percent of schools) will be exempt from mandatory assignments of “must-place” teachers that no one wants. Further, English Learner Development classes at all schools will not be assigned concurrent short-term substitutes.

* The District will take immediate and ongoing steps to support high-need schools in hiring and retaining highly qualified teachers.

* All Potential Long Term English Learners, Long Term English Learners and at-risk English Learners will receive a personalized plan to ensure that benchmarks are met.

• LAUSD will create English Learner and Reading Specialist micro-credentialing programs that provide bilingual, English Learner and elementary teachers with professional development and incentives to encourage growth.

We applaud these steps. Speak UP believes, in fact, that all schools – not just the lowest performers -- should be exempt from accepting must-place teachers that no one wants. And no student in any class at any school should lose a year of schooling because multiple substitutes are covering for a teacher who has taken an extended leave. If 100 percent of kids are to meet these goals, then changes to union contracts are necessary so 100 percent of students have access to the remedies necessary for success. 

Without that, it’s logical to ask whether goals of 100 percent can realistically be achieved. On the 2017 California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, fewer than 37 percent of third graders in the district met or exceeded standards in English Language Arts/Literacy. Just over 40 percent met or exceeded mathematics standards.

Garcia said the goals can be met, and the resolution calls for families to be presented with a pledge form to sign, saying they believe that all students can achieve college and career readiness. “It is our belief that with the right combination of funding, school, community, and family support, every child can reach the graduation finish line,” Garcia told Speak UP by email. “One hundred percent is realistic for many families, and we believe it should be realistic for every student in every family regardless of zip code, background or starting point in their education career. Our progress so far is in the right direction.”

Even those who embrace the optimism implicit in the resolution, however, wonder: Without any built-in measures of accountability, does it actually have teeth? What happens to a school that doesn’t effect change, or to a third-grade teacher whose students fail to meet standards year after year?

"If they don’t do anything about the teachers union and tenure and the process to get rid of a bad teacher, how are we going to be able to reach these standards and see these things we want to see?” asked Mary Najera, founder of Los Angeles-based Moms in Action. “The system has to start holding these teachers accountable. Right now, nobody can get rid of a teacher [even if] she [stinks]. Or if she’s the most amazing teacher, you can’t even give her more money. You can’t give her a bonus for doing an awesome job. It’s ridiculous. This to me, I don’t understand. Because if I don’t do my job, I’m outta here.”

Furthermore, the district does woefully little self-evaluation. It has no mechanism in place to know which programs are most effective in boosting student achievement and which should be retired or retooled.

“There is a crucial need to invest in studying what is actually working to narrow gaps in student learning across racial and social-class divides,” according to the recently released Fourth Report Card from CLASS and United Way of Greater Los Angeles. “Most $7.2 billion-a-year firms rigorously assess what’s working … But LAUSD spends almost no resources on rigorous evaluation or to nurture its capacity to conduct careful evaluations.”

But Garcia believes her resolution can work. “We want clarity of expectations first, and we believe the resolution provides sufficient opportunity for our superintendent to work with stakeholders in and outside of the district for effective implementation,” she said.

Let’s hope she is right. 

-- Leslee Komaiko