Driven by mounting urgency to improve struggling schools and widespread dissatisfaction with California’s school evaluation tool, LA Unified board members voted Tuesday to create a school report card that will allow parents to more easily compare schools as well as select which measures by which to evaluate them.
The key difference from the California School Dashboard, the state’s 2-year-old color-coded grid for assessing schools, is that LA schools will be given a single rating. And instead of being evaluated on what level kids are when they enter a school, schools will have the chance to show what they can do to help them progress, said Kelly Gonez, who authored the resolution.
“I haven’t seen this anywhere in the country and I really think LA could lead on this,” Nick Melvoin, board vice president and co-author of the resolution, said before Tuesday’s 6-1 vote. “The tool will be interactive so parents can choose what’s meaningful to them and schools can self-identify their areas of strength.” If a family is looking for a dual immersion program, they would be able to see which ones are succeeding. “In the absence of great information, parents will go elsewhere.”
Allowing parents to customize how they view the report cards “gives us the opportunity to define success for ourselves and as a district to be able to say what matters to us,” Gonez said Wednesday. “Each district has its own measures that are important to them,” such as English learners’ progress in LA Unified.
“This was the first big move of the board in laying down tracks for a different way of approaching education policy,” said Ben Austin, a longtime education advocate who last year founded Kids Coalition. “This was a really good sign that this board is coming together and working together to shift the paradigm to what’s good for kids.” He added, “It’s worth noting that this was not a 4-3 vote,” referring to votes that have broken along lines of school board members who were elected with support from reform groups.
“California parents haven’t been allowed to know if their school is failing or succeeding, and school leaders haven’t been allowed to have what they need to turn them around,” Austin said.
“The school performance framework is a way to have productive conversations about how schools are serving their students,” said Seth Litt, executive director of Parent Revolution, another advocacy organization. “It’s not important that we can rank schools from 1 to 100 or A through F. What’s important is that we can share lots of information and an analysis of what that information means overall.”
Litt noted that more than 50 public school parents sat through Tuesday’s board meeting to support the resolution and hundreds of calls were made to school board offices. “Every single parent that our team talks to wants clear information on how their school is doing.”
Katie Braude, executive director of Speak UP, said in a statement, “We are thrilled to see the board take action to give parents better information about school performance. It’s an important first step toward ensuring that all Los Angeles children receive an excellent education preparing them to succeed in college, career, and life.”
The school performance framework resolution directs the superintendent to bring together by mid-June a working group that will come up with what the report card will look like and what information will be included. By early September, when a new superintendent is expected to be in place, the board will get to give input on a draft, then the superintendent is to present the final version a month later.
The dashboard debate
Gonez said her primary motivation for proposing the school performance framework was to direct help to struggling schools. “We’ve had numerous conversations about low-performing schools, but we haven’t acted as a system yet,” she said. “We needed to do something as a system. But at the same time we were hearing from parents who are not satisfied with the quality of schools but don’t know enough about” how to evaluate them.
“I think there are a lot of issues with the dashboard,” she said. “There is no means for a family or the public to have a sense of what does it mean overall, is a school successful or does it have more work to do.”
Melvoin said during Tuesday’s meeting, “The state dashboard is so complicated, not only for parents for but for policymakers. The dashboard doesn’t put a value on things that are valuable.”
Board member Richard Vladovic said, “I am really concerned about the dashboard at the state. It talks about continuous improvement, but I’ve been at this district 50 years,” and the same schools keep showing up on the list of the bottom 5 percent.
No board member defended the dashboard Tuesday, but Gloria Martinez, a representative of UTLA, the local teachers union, praised it as she lobbied the board to defeat the resolution. “The dashboard is very parent-friendly and community friendly,” she said. “California has all the information on our schools, and it’s very readable and it’s very friendly.”
The “R” word
Six of the seven board members voted to support the new school evaluation framework, but not until after the word “ranking” was struck from the resolution. Gonez readily accepted the change, because “the resolution was never to intended to rank schools. The goal was to create a rating system for schools,” she said Wednesday.
“There is a meaningful distinction between ranking and rating” that is “more than a symbolic difference.” She gave the example of a class of third-graders. “Ranking would be saying a particular student performed fifth out of 30 kids in reading.” Rating would be “saying the student met standards, and he’s in a group of students who also met standards. It’s not a comparison against others but against an objective criterion that defines success.”
She added, “It’s not about an A through F system or is your school the hundredth elementary in terms of quality. It’s really based on what we view as a successful and high-quality school, how are you performing against that standard.”
The word “ranking” did appear in another resolution Tuesday — one unanimously approved by the board. Sponsored by board President Mónica García, the resolution adopts the “Student Equity Need Index 2018” as a primary funding model for the district to ensure dollars meant for the highest-needs students reach them. The biggest impact will come next year and beyond, but immediately $25 million from Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2018-19 budget will now go to the most struggling schools on the index, which will be ranked based on their academic performance and community indicators such as asthma and gun violence.
“The equity index does rank all of our schools, but it also breaks them out into tiers,” as the new school performance framework does, Gonez said. “For that index, it makes sense that it would rank the schools because you need to be able to figure out what dollar amount to give schools based on their needs.”
The word “ranking” is what caused board member George McKenna to pull his support last week. McKenna, who had been a co-sponsor of the resolution, was the only “no” vote Tuesday.
“When you rank them differently, you value you them differently,” McKenna said during a 19-minute speech Tuesday. “We already know what schools are underperforming. They’ve been underperforming longer than you’ve been alive.
“We have great things all over this district,” he said, “so why don’t we fix the schools that are underachieving, but you don’t need to rank them. Just change them, improve them.”
On Wednesday, Gonez challenged the assumption “that we already know which schools are low-performing.”
She supports the ranking of schools in the equity index.
“The equity index is looking at need, not performance,” Gonez said. It “does have some academic measures, but those are focused on where students are at when they get to your schools,” not how the schools are helping students reach higher achievement. The new school performance framework will be “looking at how the school is performing, what are the outcomes at the school level.”