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HARVARD UNIVERSITY

Learning from Los
Angeles
Dramatic Lessons on School Reform from
the Entertainment Capital of America
Jason J. Wong
5/12/2008

Abstract: In this paper I try to introduce, analyze and evaluate the reform efforts
of the Los Angeles Unified School District. I note that the relatively short time
frame since Mayor Villaraigrosa took partial responsibility of the school district
makes it hard to tell whether or not LAUSD urban school reforms are working,
although I also note that district test scores have been stagnant for a while.
Finally, I make the recommendation that LAUSD improve its strategy by focusing
on the three c’s: clarity, comprehensiveness, and cohesion.

Table of Contents
Introduction............................................................................................. ...................3
The Problem................................................................................ ...............................3
Failed Reforms.......................................................................................... ..................4
Governance Structure................................................................................................6
Current Reforms.........................................................................................................7
Lessons from New York City............................................................................. .........10
Other Recommendations..........................................................................................12
Endnotes................................................................................... ...............................15
Jason Wong
Urban Education Policy
Professor Reville
Page 2 of 16

School District Reform Lessons from Los Angeles Unified School

District

Introduction

The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is the second largest

school district in the nation, and serves more than 700,000 students in

almost 1,000 schools. LAUSD is a minority majority school district, with

Latinos comprising the majority of the student population. Approximately

73% of LAUSD’s students are of Hispanic origin, 11.1% of African American

origin, 9% are White, 4% are Asian, while Filipinos,American Indians and

Pacific Islanders comprise of approximately 3% of the student population.

LAUSD runs on a budget of approximately $14 billion dollars1. Like most

urban school districts, LAUSD is plagued by low test scores, proportionally

high minority and impoverished students, a large bureaucratic organization,

and relatively high rates of classrooms taught by non-NCLB compliant

teachers.2 LAUSD is also challenged by nearly annual budget deficits that

are precipitated by state budget cuts, declining student enrollment, and

rising costs of conducting regular business (such as in purchasing

1
This information is derived from the district factsheet, available on:
http://notebook.lausd.net/pls/ptl/docs/PAGE/CA_LAUSD/LAUSDNET/OFFICES/COMMUNICATION
S/COMMUNICATIONS_FACTS/0708ENG_FINGERTIP_FACT_SHEET.PDF
2
The district accountability report card can be found at the following website:
http://search.lausd.k12.ca.us/cgi-bin/fccgi.exe?w3exec=darc3
Jason Wong
Urban Education Policy
Professor Reville
Page 3 of 16
commodities and paying for salary increases for teachers, administrators,

and staff).

The Problem

According to the latest school district accountability report card, on

average three out of every four students fail to meet state proficiency

standards for English-Language Arts, Mathematics, Science, and Social

Science. 3
Given that Mayor Antonio Villaraigrosahad only begun to assume

some accountability over the school system only two years ago, it is too soon

to tell whether or not LAUSD’s current reform strategies are effective.

Current test scores indicate, however, that excluding English-Language Arts

scores most subject proficiency test scores district-wide have remained

stagnant. Even though it is too soon to tell the effectiveness of LAUSD’s

reform efforts, by comparing LAUSD’s approach to school reform with the

New York City Department of Education’s, we can better analyze where

improvements can be made to LAUSD’s approach from the lessons learned

only recently in New York.

Failed Reforms

LAUSD had made prior attempts to address its chronic

underperformance and inefficient bureaucratic organization as recently as

the 1990s. During this time, LAUSD came up with two reform models LEARN

(The Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now) and LAAMP

3
http://search.lausd.k12.ca.us/cgi-bin/fccgi.exe?w3exec=darc3
Jason Wong
Urban Education Policy
Professor Reville
Page 4 of 16
(The Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project) which attempted to give

individual schools more authority over day to day decisions and give

principals even more authority to make changes in classroom curriculum to

benefit students. The theory of action was that increased local control can

help cut down waste and similarly improve student learning outcomes. 4

Although this theory of action makes sense, ultimately these reforms (which

in many ways mirror New York City’s current theory of action of empowering

school5 sites to make decisions that theoretically will best meet student

needs)were unsuccessful. Test scores failed to improve, and the lack of fiscal

resources to continue thesereforms meant that LEARN and LAAMP were

destined to be short-lived.

Common criticisms against these reforms maintained that these reform

efforts were isolated from core district operations6, were not able to

coherently work around rules governing fiscal management as determined

by courts, categorical programs, and district practices to give LEARN and

LAAMP schools unrestricted funds to support new programs, and finally a

major criticism against these reforms included the idea that these reforms
4
One such brief and comprehensive report concerning these reforms can be found written by
Professor Charles T. Kerchner, of the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate
University.
http://www.lacity.org/council/Commission/lausd/presentations/lausdpresentations245031970
_08312005.pdf
5
For this paper, “empowerment” in the context of schools means enabling the principal or a
local school council to make decisions on a school site level concerning budget, curriculum,
and school policy which were previously decided upon by the school district.
6
Core district operations are a reference to district-level resources and actions that support
school sites, such as budget, professional development, curriculum review, assessment
tools, etc.
Jason Wong
Urban Education Policy
Professor Reville
Page 5 of 16
were time consuming and didn’t provide a clear idea of how teaching

practices within the classroom needed to change in order to support

increased school empowerment and improved learning results. 78

Furthermore, increased local control failed to reduce waste. Eleven mini-

districts were created9, which ideally would have meant that administrators

within these mini-districts could respond better to individual school needs.

Rather, these eleven mini-districts merely increased the number of

bureaucratic layers within the school district as a whole, and as we

previously noted, didn’t affect student learning outcomes.10 Later reform

would consolidate these eleven mini-districts and reduce them to eight.11

Governance Structure

Mayor Villaraigrosaoriginally attempted to take over responsibility and

authority over LAUSD similar to how Mayor Bloomberg subsumed control

over New York City’s public school system. Mayor Villaraigrosa attempted to

pass legislation that would remove power from the Board of Education and

7
One such brief and comprehensive report can be found written by Professor Charles T.
Kerchner, of the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University.
http://www.lacity.org/council/Commission/lausd/presentations/lausdpresentations245031970
_08312005.pdf
8
Improved learning results is a term that, for our purposes, can be determined by a rise in
state test scores over a period of time. Other possible measurable indicators are graduation
rates, and high school exit examination passages.
9
http://www.lausd.k12.ca.us/lausd/new/announce/superintendent_search/11districts.html
10
http://www.lacity.org/council/Commission/lausd/presentations/lausdpresentations24503197
0_08312005.pdf
11
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Los_Angeles_Unified_School_District#cite_ref-14
Jason Wong
Urban Education Policy
Professor Reville
Page 6 of 16
give it to the Superintendent. The Superintendent, in turn, would be selected

from a council of mayors from within the cities in LAUSD. This would

effectively give Mayor Villaraigrosacontrol over the school district because

the council of mayors would be weighted by population, but must act by a

90% weighted vote. The city of Los Angeles has 82% of the residents in

LAUSD.12

Unfortunately for Mayor Villaraigrosa, the bill that had passed the

California Legislature and which had been signed into law by Governor Arnold

Schwarzenegger didn’t survive a lawsuit brought on by the Board of

Education and was deemed unconstitutional (according to the California

State Constitution).13 Disappointed in the court, and legal system in general,

Villaraigrosa declared "Let's face the hard truth. The legal system no longer

leads the way." 14
Mayor Villaraigrosa had planned to appeal this ruling, but

ultimately the election of two school board members, which he supported,

gave him the indirect control over the school board from which Mayor

Villaraigrosa thought he could work with.15

12
Full text of the legislation can be viewed here: http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/05-
06/bill/asm/ab_1351-1400/ab_1381_cfa_20060829_231717_asm_floor.html
13
http://www.dailynews.com/ci_4945776
14
http://opinion.latimes.com/opinionla/2007/10/mayor-challenge.html
15
http://www.thefreelibrary.com/JUDGE+SETS+HEARING+ON+LAUSD+CASE+BILL+COULD+
BE+PUT+IN+EFFECT+PENDING...-a0156790084
Jason Wong
Urban Education Policy
Professor Reville
Page 7 of 16
Current Reforms

LAUSD’s current reform model isreflective of a shotgun approach to

fixing deeply entrenched problems. Information culled from the school

district website lists the range of district-wide reforms currently being

pursued by the school district16: clean bathrooms initiative, discipline

foundation policy, mathematics program, periodic assessment program,

dropout prevention and recovery program, closing the achievement gap, and

the integrated student information system (ISIS, which is a system by which

the school district can track and analyze student performance on various

quantitative assessments).

It is interesting to note that these initiatives do not seem to cohere

around a central theory of action or reform strategy. While closing the

achievement gap and cleaning up bathrooms may be laudable goals, there is

a noticeable lack of unity and preference among LAUSD’s top priorities. For

example while one may reasonably assume that closing the achievement

gap takes precedence over cleaning up bathrooms, we cannot sure of how

much of what attention is devoted to where. Furthermore, the lack of unity

among LAUSD’s top priorities make it difficult to determine a central theory

of action by which to evaluate LAUSD’s model, and/or communicate said

theory to the large workforce and community of LAUSD. This latter point is

troubling because a lack of communication from the top-down makes it
16
The “district initiatives” page lists all of these reforms, some of which are vague and
indeterminate.
http://notebook.lausd.net/portal/page?_pageid=33,123281&_dad=ptl&_schema=PTL_EP
Jason Wong
Urban Education Policy
Professor Reville
Page 8 of 16
difficult for top level administrators to ensure that as reforms and ideas

trickle down the LAUSD bureaucratic organization, these ideas and reforms

maintain their coherence and relevance to the larger theory of action that

should be pursued by the district at large.

It is also interesting to note that within each of these core areas

identified by LAUSD, there is little cohesiveness among various aspects of

the district organization to address problematic areas thoroughly and

comprehensively. For example, in describing the district’s goal to reduce the

achievement gap among various ethnic groups, the district’s website reads17:

The mission of the Los Angeles Unified School District's Academic English
Mastery/Closing the Achievement Gap Branch is to assure equity in access
to rigorous standards-based, college preparatory, curricula for all students
in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The work of the Branch is
comprehensive and research-based and is an important component of the
Superintendent's "Theory of Action" intended to eliminate disparities in
educational outcomes for underachieving students. This office- in
partnership with local districts and central office staffs-supports
implementation of the district's Closing the Achievement Gap Initiatives
including The Action Plan for A Culturally Relevant Education That Benefits
African American Students and All Other Students and provides ongoing,
comprehensive professional development and training for administrators,
teachers, coaches, and other support staff relative to meeting the
cultural, linguistic, and academic needs of students and to eliminating
achievement and proficiency gaps.

What’s missing from this description is the idea that school culture and

environment, teaching practices and the instructional core, and assessment

and accountability tools (to name a few examples) can all work together

comprehensively to combat persistent academic performance gaps in

LAUSD. Although the passage states that lowering the achievement gap is a
17
http://notebook.lausd.net/portal/page?_pageid=33,186035&_dad=ptl&_schema=PTL_EP
Jason Wong
Urban Education Policy
Professor Reville
Page 9 of 16
part of a “Theory of Action,” the theory is broadly referenced and does not

provide definitive foundation for how their plan will affect student learning

outcomes. Furthermore, their proposed solutions are mostly vague

generalities, such as when they reference “partnership” (what will these

partnerships look like? What organization(s)/department(s) will oversee

these partnerships and evaluate their effectiveness?), and “professional

development” (what kind of professional development are they calling for?

From whom? Who will design it and evaluate it?). This lack of a clear

cohesive plan to have the entire school district address this major problem

indicates that the academic performance gap is treated as separate from all

of the other priorities of the school district, rather than as a problem that the

entire district should work in tandem to solve. A final criticism of this

passage concerns the question of clarity and communication. If lower level

administrators, teachers, staff, and community members can hardly

translate the district’s nebulous goals and action plans, then how can these

plans be carried to their fullest potential and desired effect?

Professor Reville might describe the idea that blueprints and policy

ideas automatically translate into improved student learning outcomes and

desired effects as a “zone of wishful thinking.” Earlier we noted that the

failure of LEARN and LAAMP stemmed from their lack of coherence, and also

from their relative isolation from other core district operations. This meant

that the LEARN and LAAMP reforms were unsustainable, and ultimately

faded, wasting valuable time and resources. As long as LAUSD’s current
Jason Wong
Urban Education Policy
Professor Reville
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reform efforts similarly seem to lack coherence and are similarly isolated

from other district operations and resources, then these latest series of

reforms too may come and go with few, if any, improved student learning

outcomes to show for these past few years. We noted earlier how although

Mayor Villaraigrosa has only had informal control over the school district for

the past two years, student test scores during his choiceSuperintendent’s

tenure has been relatively stagnant. Furthermore, LAUSD failed to meet

adequate yearly progress for the school year 2007.18

Lessons from New York City

When Mayor Bloomberg took control of New York City public schools,

he teamed up with Chancellor Kline to pursue a comprehensive reform

strategy with two phases called Children First. The first phase involved the

restructuring of the school district in order to stabilize the school district and

lay the foundation for further reform. Once the school district was stabilized,

they planned on rolling out a second phase of their Children First reforms.

Phase two emphasized empowering schools and holding them accountable

for improved student learning outcomes.

LAUSD can learn from NYC to improve its own practices in many ways.

NYC’s reform model is relevant to our study of LAUSD because both districts

are greatly influenced by their mayor, are among the largest school districts

18
http://api.cde.ca.gov/AcntRpt2007/2007aprdstaypoverview.aspx?allcds=1964733
Jason Wong
Urban Education Policy
Professor Reville
Page 11 of 16
in the nation, are very diverse, face similar bureaucratic challenges, and are

both attempting to improve student learning outcomes.

The first idea that LAUSD should try to emulate is to consolidate

authority and attempt to stabilize the school district in order to lay a

foundation for further reform. LAUSD schools are currently in turmoil and are

overcrowded, some schools having had to turn to year-round academic

calendars in order to handle the demand. The district should attempt to

alleviate these overcrowded schools by busing students to under-enrolled

schools. This might not be a politically popular idea, but severely

overcrowded schools’ learning environments may be negatively impacted if

the overcrowding leads to unsafe facilities use (fire hazards, etc.), increased

fights and gang violence, and/or negatively impact the school learning

community by restricting student clubs and organizations’ access to meeting

space, student teacher ratios, etc. In order to maximize the effectiveness of

district-wide reforms, the school district might need to address school

overcrowding in certain areas. Another area of concern for the school district

are the resources currently being wasted on consulting firms. Current

consulting firms that handle important responsibilities of the district cost

approximately two to three times more than their in-house counterparts. An

estimated $100 million dollars is lost in this manner, which instead could be

going to professional development, building costs, and/or giving schools

more resources in which to teach students.
Jason Wong
Urban Education Policy
Professor Reville
Page 12 of 16
Secondly, LAUSD should have a clearer action plan that relates to their

district-wideinitiatives. NYC’s Children First initiative succinctlyrevolves

around increasing student learning outcomes by empowering schools to

make decisions concerning individual student needs. The rest of their reform

methods and plans revolve around supporting this goal. In LAUSD, as

previously noted, there isn’t as clear a coherence. Initiatives range from

anything between cleaning student bathrooms, to lowering the achievement

gap. LAUSD plans of action are also unclear, vague, and as a previously

referenced passage indicated, difficult to comprehend. LAUSD’s current

reforms also don’t clearly emphasize their relationship with improving

student learning outcomes. For example, the school district states that

cleaning up bathrooms is a district priority. They could tie this reform clearly

to improving student outcomes by more broadly stating a goal of promoting

clean academic facilities as a method by which to improve school

environments that can lead to noticeable benefits to student learning

outcomes. Student learning outcomes should be the overriding priority in

LAUSD’s school reform because test scores overall are abysmally low.

Finally, LAUSD should learn from New York City’s use of assessment

and accountability tools. New York City’s use of qualitative (school site visits)

and quantitative (student test scores) assessment tools, and widely available

school report cards have helped New York City schools move more toward a
Jason Wong
Urban Education Policy
Professor Reville
Page 13 of 16
culture of accountability and improvement whereas LAUSD’s test scores for

the past two years are indicative of stagnation. 19

Other Recommendations

On top of these three ideas derived from lessons from New York City’s

approach to urban district reform that can be applied to LAUSD, the school

district should consider drastic methodologies by which to infuse all

underperforming schools with a sense of urgency and prod them toward

change and improvement. Quite obviously, the state of affairs for the vast

majority of Los Angeles public schools should not be allowed to persist. It is

great that Mayor Villaraigrosa is taking on a huge public responsibility by

tying his reputation with that of the performance of his city’s schools. On the

other hand, just utilizing new assessments won’t change the learning culture

at most schools, which are inefficient and problematic because of stagnant

low student achievement. The only targeted strategy that the district is

taking to improve school curriculum for district schools are the secondary

math and literacy programs. Toward improving math, the district strategy

reads that the program’s twin goals are to20:

• To implement a coherent, District-wide content and standards-driven
mathematics plan.
• To provide instructional and professional support to local districts and
school sites, so that ALL students will achieve proficiency in Algebra 1
and more advanced mathematics courses. These goals are supported
strategically through four program components:

19
http://search.lausd.k12.ca.us/cgi-bin/fccgi.exe?w3exec=darc3
20
http://notebook.lausd.net/portal/page?_pageid=33,123281&_dad=ptl&_schema=PTL_EP
Jason Wong
Urban Education Policy
Professor Reville
Page 14 of 16
One major critique that comes to mind right away is that the district only

seems to target high school level math, rather than seek to attempt to find

students who are struggling with math and intervene earlier. A

comprehensive math strategy should aim to increase math scores drastically

across all grade levels, not just in high school. Perhaps a limitation, however,

that would require LAUSD to only focus on a smaller targeted area of its

student population would be limited resources by which to expand their

mathematics action plan. On the other hand, if improving math were a

priority then if this is the case the district should apply for funds, or

rearrange their budget, in order to emphasize this need and not pursue an

incomplete reform strategy that leaves out approximately two thirds of its

students. It is also interesting to note that the first goal recognizes the

district’s need fora coherent action plan with regards to the specific

instruction of math. They should apply this observation, as previously noted,

to other areas of their reform strategy as well.

In sum, LAUSD should evaluate, and change its approach according to

three c’s. The first of which is that the district should work on improving the

clarityof school district goals, initiatives and action plans. This can help the

district better communicate with its lower-level administrators, teachers, and

staff so that reforms aren’t just carried out, to use a Revilleian term, “in a

zone of wishful thinking.” Secondly, the school district should pursue

comprehensive reform that addresses the needs of the entire district

student population, and also utilize reform which don’t seem separate and
Jason Wong
Urban Education Policy
Professor Reville
Page 15 of 16
disparate from other goals of the school district. For example, the district

could improve on clarifying the relationship between clean bathrooms and

improved student learning outcomes. Finally, the district should work on

breaking down bureaucratic barriers in order to increase district office

cohesionwhich can help the district target problematic areas from a wide

variety of available district resources. By utilizing these various strategies,

LAUSD can improve upon its current reforms, and draw upon lessons learned

in New York to make their own efforts more successful. For example, in the

past LAUSD took the approach that by creating separating mini-districts from

each other, waste could be reduced and ideally each of these mini-districts

can best respond to the problems unique to their area. On the other hand,

New York City’s reform model shows that a centralized authority can increase

the responsiveness of all schools in a large area. By separating organizations

from each other, LAUSD would have a harder time cohesively addressing

problems endemic to all district schools. Centralizing district authority can

also help the district better rein in waste, as ultimately many mini-districts

(of which there are now eight) are finding themselves with redundant

positions, and this separation also makes it difficult for the central district

office to rein in wasteful spending on consultants (which has been a nearly

perpetual problem).
Jason Wong
Urban Education Policy
Professor Reville
Page 16 of 16

Endnotes
This information is derived from the district factsheet, available on:
http://notebook.lausd.net/pls/ptl/docs/PAGE/CA_LAUSD/LAUSDNET/OFFICES/COMMUNICATION
S/COMMUNICATIONS_FACTS/0708ENG_FINGERTIP_FACT_SHEET.PDF
2 The district accountability report card can be found at the following website:
http://search.lausd.k12.ca.us/cgi-bin/fccgi.exe?w3exec=darc3
3 http://search.lausd.k12.ca.us/cgi-bin/fccgi.exe?w3exec=darc3
4One such brief and comprehensive report concerning these reforms can be found written
by Professor Charles T. Kerchner, of the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate
University.
http://www.lacity.org/council/Commission/lausd/presentations/lausdpresentations245031970
_08312005.pdf
5 For this paper, “empowerment” in the context of schools means enabling the principal or a
local school council to make decisions on a school site level concerning budget, curriculum,
and school policy which were previously decided upon by the school district.
6 Core district operations are a reference to district-level resources and actions that support
school sites, such as budget, professional development, curriculum review, assessment
tools, etc.
7One such brief and comprehensive report can be found written by Professor Charles T.
Kerchner, of the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University.
http://www.lacity.org/council/Commission/lausd/presentations/lausdpresentations245031970
_08312005.pdf
8Improved learning results is a term that, for our purposes, can be determined by a rise in
state test scores over a period of time. Other possible measurable indicators are graduation
rates, and high school exit examination passages.
9 http://www.lausd.k12.ca.us/lausd/new/announce/superintendent_search/11districts.html
10
http://www.lacity.org/council/Commission/lausd/presentations/lausdpresentations245031970
_08312005.pdf
11 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Los_Angeles_Unified_School_District#cite_ref-14
12 Full text of the legislation can be viewed here: http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/05-
06/bill/asm/ab_1351-1400/ab_1381_cfa_20060829_231717_asm_floor.html
13 http://www.dailynews.com/ci_4945776
14 http://opinion.latimes.com/opinionla/2007/10/mayor-challenge.html
15
http://www.thefreelibrary.com/JUDGE+SETS+HEARING+ON+LAUSD+CASE+BILL+COULD+BE
+PUT+IN+EFFECT+PENDING...-a0156790084
16The “district initiatives” page lists all of these reforms, some of which are vague
and indeterminate.
http://notebook.lausd.net/portal/page?_pageid=33,123281&_dad=ptl&_schema=PT
L_EP
17
http://notebook.lausd.net/portal/page?_pageid=33,186035&_dad=ptl&_schema=PT
L_EP
18 http://api.cde.ca.gov/AcntRpt2007/2007aprdstaypoverview.aspx?allcds=1964733
19 http://search.lausd.k12.ca.us/cgi-bin/fccgi.exe?w3exec=darc3
20
http://notebook.lausd.net/portal/page?_pageid=33,123281&_dad=ptl&_schema=PT
L_EP