The Movement for Expanding Educational Opportunity in Los Angeles: Progress, Lessons Learned and Reflections on the Path Ahead

Teach For America began placing corps members in Los Angeles back in our first year, in 1990. Los Angeles is a vast and diverse and complex school system — our nation’s second largest — with more than 600,000 students, 80% of whom receive free and reduced lunch, 90% of whom are of color (including more than 70% who are Latino), and more than 20% of whom are learning English as a Second Language.

For almost three decades, we’ve been part of a citywide effort to improve outcomes for children in the city’s highest need communities. There’s been so much progress and there are so many lessons learned. There’s also so much more to be done. This past week we convened many who have played leading roles in this journey together with philanthropists and change-makers from other U.S. communities to reflect on the lessons and on how to increase the pace of change. Below I’ll attempt to summarize my own reflections coming out of these two days.

Three Decades of Intense Effort to Improve Outcomes

In our first decade in Los Angeles, we saw a huge civic, political, and philanthropic investment in improving the system from within. With the leadership of Mayor Richard Riordan and of a visionary union leader Helen Bernstein, there was a citywide process engaging hundreds of stakeholders in designing a plan (called LEARN) to improve the quality of schools in Los Angeles. The approach was to push decision-making about budgets, curriculum and personnel down to the school level while establishing new accountability measures, providing teacher professional development, and deepening parent engagement. Schools applied to be part of LEARN and built school-site councils included teachers, union representatives, local business leaders, and district administrators. The Annenberg Foundation invested an unprecedented $53 million in this effort. Unfortunately, the initiative had lackluster results. It suffered from poor implementation. The central district didn’t fully support the initiative because it was the brainchild of the business community and progressive union leadership of which they were suspicious. School level leaders and teachers weren’t developed, and in some cases motivated, to take on true autonomy. And community engagement was deep at the grass-tops level given the initial 600 person coalition of leaders that backed LEARN, but there wasn’t a broad, grassroots effort all across the city’s various communities to develop neighborhood-based backing for the LEARN schools and the new approaches they were trying.

In the wake of LEARN, reform efforts in the next decade (the 2000’s) continued to focus on change from within, but through strengthening governance and leadership in order to increase the system’s capacity for strong implementation. The main strategy for accomplishing this was to recruit proven leaders from outside of education. Mayor Riordan launched an initiative to elect outsiders to the school board, none of whom brought education experience. The new Board slate brought a series of outsiders into the superintendency — including former Colorado Governor Roy Romer and Navy Admiral David Brewer — but these outsiders didn’t always have the deep understanding of the most powerful drivers of educational progress. I still remember a conversation with Superintendent Brewer in his first week, who told me that one of his three priorities was going to be to facilitate field trips for all students given he heard that was the main feature of the highly successful KIPP schools!

The lessons from the LEARN initiative around school autonomy and accountability, together with frustration at the inefficiency of changing the system, gave rise in the early 2000’s to many charter school operators. These included PUC, Green Dot, Camino Nuevo, KIPP, Alliance Charter Schools, and Aspire. In 2000, given the scarcity of real estate in LA, voters passed Proposition 39, requiring the district to give charters facilities that are reasonably equivalent to those provided to students in traditional public schools. In 2007, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who ran on his commitment to improve education and then unsuccessfully sought to get mayoral control of the schools, created the Partnership for LA Schools, a non-profit that takes over the lowest-performing schools and seeks to turn them around, as a way to engage philanthropy and outside actors in improving the schools inside the traditional system.

As the number of charter schools grew, so did pushback against them. The school district began to feel the financial impact and started resisting efforts of parents and charter operators to open more of them. The statewide union, the California Teachers Association, also joined the fight, and they are a force to be reckoned with; the CTA spends $150 million a year in California, which is more than the pharmaceutical, tobacco, and oil lobbyists combined.

As the outside school board officials lost subsequent elections, and the challenges to change efforts such as charters grew, there was increasing recognition that efforts to improve the system would require a robust advocacy infrastructure. The California Charter Schools Association formed in 2003 to advocate for the needs of charter operators, and Parent Revolution formed in 2009 to support parents in advocating for improving their schools, typically through bargaining for in-district changes and sometimes through demanding that failing schools be taken over by outside operators. These efforts saw significant wins. In addition to the strong academic results that charter schools were achieving, CCSA won important battles to achieve equal facilities, and parents gained momentum turning around failing schools, such as the 20th Street Elementary School.

As the first decade of the 2000s came to a close, it was clear that change was most efficient from outside the system, and so reformers focused on growing charter schools and other extrinsic sources of educational reform.

John Deasy, a reform-minded ‘insider’ who brought a dozen years of experience leading school systems, assumed the helm of the school system; he embraced outside change agents and charter schools, worked to strengthen the district’s teacher and principal talent pipelines, and brought a relentless focus on students in poverty.

Meanwhile the landscape became only more contentious as 9 student plaintiffs filed suit claiming that California’s teacher quality criteria, teacher tenure laws, and teacher dismissal rules disproportionately harmed children in poverty because almost no teachers are deemed unqualified, tenure was almost automatic, and it was nearly impossible to dismiss teachers. Superintendent Deasy (and many others) testified on behalf of the plaintiffs. The Vergara suit was victorious in lower court, with the judge saying that many of the situations cited at trial “shock the conscience”. Ultimately the ruling was overturned on appeal brought by the unions, but the suit served to raise awareness of the degree to which parents and students aren’t served by the current system.

While Parent Revolution grew its efforts, Students for Education Reform launched to organize college students in Los Angeles, most of whom themselves experienced educational inequity, to advocate for change. Groups of charter schools also began organizing parents to identify their needs and advocate for solutions in order to deepen community support; for example, Green Dot charter schools work to identify their priorities (ranging from raising the minimum wage to tackling the issue of illegal dumping in their communities) and advocate for them. Educators for Excellence (E4E) launched in 2011to support teachers in raising their voices to advocate for improving public education; E4E teachers now comprise 20% of the union representatives in Los Angeles.

The most recent school board race saw union-backed candidates pitted against ‘reformers’. The advocates for reform were actively involved in a months-long coordinated organizing and storytelling effort to win the majority of the board. The reform-minded candidates, Monica Garcia, Nick Melvoin and Kelly Gonez, all won their races, creating a solid majority in favor of reform.

Over these three decades, Los Angeles has seen the growth of one of the most fully developed education reform ecosystems in the country — with numerous actors working to run high-performing charter schools and turn around district schools, strong talent pipelines such as Teach For America, and a robust advocacy infrastructure for elevating student, parent, and teacher voice.

We’ve Seen Significant Progress

There’s been significant progress — however because of state-level politics there is no longer a uniform way to measure the student results of schools in the state of California. Until 2013, California allowed its schools to be ranked by what was known as the Academic Performance Index. Using that data (the scale went from 200–1000), here’s some evidence that speaks to the progress that’s been made:

1) In Watts, one of the highest poverty parts of the city, the average school had an API of 432 in the year 2000 — half that of schools in Beverly Hills. In 2013, the schools in Watts had HALVED the gap between them and Beverly Hills.

2) In 2000, if you looked at the top 10 highest performing high schools in LAUSD, the average API would have been 702 and only 38% of students in these schools were low-income. In 2013, the average API in the top 10 high schools was nearly 200 points up (884) and 49% of those students are low-income.

3) As of 2014 there were 263 charter schools in the LAUSD footprint, and 30 percent of them performed at the top 10 percent of all schools across California. Over their first seven years, the 18 schools that have been part of the Partnership for L.A. Schools have grown their graduation rates from 36% to 77%.

Between 2005 and 2013, Los Angeles also posted the third-highest gains among the major urban districts on the National Assessment of Educational progress.

And We’ve Learned A Lot

Beyond the progress, we’ve also learned a great deal that will set ourselves up to do better in the future. Today, I don’t think we could appoint a superintendent who believes that implementing city-wide field trips is one of the main planks for progress.

We’ve learned about the role that charter schools and other outside organizations can play in speeding up change. We’ve learned about the importance of creating an infrastructure to advocate as aggressively for children as the teachers’ union advocates for the status quo.

And importantly, we’ve learned how important it is to cultivate educational leadership with a deep commitment to progress and a deep understanding of education. The extraordinary work going on to develop strong schools inside and outside the traditional system, the political efforts and advocacy efforts, the myriad undertakings necessary to ensure that children have the supports they need to excel — all these rely on a growing cadre of local leaders with deep rooting in the local challenges and opportunities and a deep sense of urgency to change things for kids.

As a long side note, I think it’s worth noting that Teach For America’s intentional effort to cultivate these leaders has contributed significantly to the progress cited above. Teach For America alumni have helped fuel the development of high-performing charters. Five alumni serve in executive leadership roles at KIPP, they lead 9 of the 13 KIPP schools, and almost 100 more are KIPP teachers. Alumni also lead 5 of the 8 Camino Nuevo schools, and all 4 of the Ednovate Schools that are some of the highest-performing in the state. Our corps members and alumni represent a significant proportion of the school-based and central office staff at Alliance, Green Dot, PUC, Equitas, and a range of independent charters.

Within LAUSD, alumni serve as the Senior Executive Director of Instruction, head the special education services for the district’s charter operations division, and lead 11 schools as principals. Mikelle Willis serves as COO of The Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, leading turnaround efforts at LAUSD’s most challenging campuses. The two new school board members, Nick Melvoin and Kelly Gonez, are Teach For America alumni.

Moreover, alumni have also played a significant role in fueling the advocacy infrastructure and building political support for reform. Maribel Gonzalez was a student taught by Teach For America corps members who joined Teach For America, went to law school, and is the California Managing Director of Students for Education Reform. Alumni lead the parent organizing work of Parent Revolution and the effort to raise teacher voice through Educators for Excellence. And so many more alumni are seizing entrepreneurial opportunities to better meet the needs of children and families — from working for nutritional access in low income neighborhoods through Sugar Watch, to launching school data transparency platforms like School Data Nerd.

Now the Question Is, How Can We Increase the Pace of Change?

As much progress as is being made, it feels far too incremental to those on the ground who are deeply rooted in the stakes for today’s children. Moreover, the current state of affairs doesn’t seem sustainable; for example, the most recent school board election felt to those involved more like a presidential election than a local school board race.

The community activists we talked with to build our understanding of the history in Los Angeles communicated urgency and expressed disappointment at the pace of change. They shared with us their belief that all the change-makers need to come together and ensure they’re rowing in the same direction rather than only pursuing their individual organizational mandates. So in our time together this past week, we reflected on how we can foster “collective leadership”. We left our deliberations pondering many things, among them:

1) It makes a huge difference when the people most impacted by the inequities (e.g., the parents organized by Parent Revolution and Green Dot, the students who comprise SFER) are at the center of the collective leadership we’re building. We’ve seen through the efforts of Parent Revolution to make the school system responsive to parent demands, and through the instrumental role SFER played in the recent election, that this community leadership brings unflagging persistence and determination, accountability to students and parents, and moral authority. The last three decades in L.A. have shown that we need everyone in this fight, but that it’s crucial that students and families lead the change.

2) It is a powerful thing to create “space” that pulls people up from their individual endeavors, enables relationship-building, and fosters learning and reflection. Our two days together and the preparation for these days helped the stakeholders in Los Angeles recognize the progress that has been made and the lessons that have been learned and to think together about how they can best work together to move forward.

3) There’s a question about how to ensure that what we’re working for reflects both our understanding of the transformative power of education and a recognition of the other issues that can hold children back, from the health and safety issues in communities to the economic opportunity facing parents to the immigration challenges that create fear and break up families. We’ve found that enlisting the full and authentic engagement of parents rests on understanding the full range of their needs and priorities, and yet are conflicted about how to do this without taking our eye off the ball of improving educational outcomes. It’s possible that coming together in communities around the question of what we want for our children could hold part of the answer; I recently shared this idea in this piece. What do we want to be true about our kids by the time they’re 25? It seems that answering this question could be a step towards broadening the coalition for expanding opportunity for children and prioritizing among the efforts to strengthen schools and take on the myriad other challenges facing our families.

I left Los Angeles feeling optimistic that this community can build from an incredible foundation — with its robust educational ecosystem, talent pipeline, and lessons learned — to realize the day when all of Los Angeles’ children can fulfill their potential. Reaching this point will require the stamina to stay in the arena, learn continuously, and evolve our collective approach to be still more effective. Creating the space to deepen relationships across the ecosystem and foster ongoing reflection can play an important role in fueling the road ahead.

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