WEDNESDAY, APRIL 6, 2022
Triggered by the claim: What did Professor Fuller say about the Los Angeles schools?
We'd call that an excellent question. Also, there's this:
In his recent column in the Washington Post, what did Jay Mathews say that Professor Fuller has said about those embattled schools?
You're asking excellent questions! As we noted yesterday, the giant Los Angeles school district—the LAUSD—was in a major world of hurt as the current century dawned.
We even presented a raft of test scores to show how bad things seemed to be. Based upon appearances, the Los Angeles schools were doing about as poorly, at that point in time, as any school district a person could name.
Bruce Fuller has now written a book about subsequent events—about events through the year 2019. Fuller is a professor at Berkeley. The name of his book is this:
When Schools Work: Pluralist Politics and Institutional Reform in Los Angeles
Briefly, you'll have to forgive us. We're severely triggered by any form of the familiar, routinely misleading phrase, "Schools That Work."
We're severely triggered by that phrase due to roughly fifty years of journalistic history. Within the journalistic realm, the use of that phrase has routinely misled people about the achievements of public schools which manifestly didn't seem to be working in a desirable way.
In the early 1970s, the Baltimore Sun was attaching that honorific, on an annual basis, to a handful of public schools with amazingly good test scores. Through our friendship with two people who taught at one of those "inner city" schools, we learned about the outright cheating that had produced those amazing test scores.
(For the record, we're speaking here about outright cheating. We aren't talking about "teaching to the test.")
By the early 1980s, we had been told, by the editor-in-chief of a major standardized testing program, about the way some teachers and schools were achieving high test scores the new-fangled way—with teachers or principals replacing wrong answers with right answers after the testing was done and the kids had gone home for the day.
That same person voiced a second complaint. A rival testing company was falsifying its "national norms," he telephonically said. This meant that any school district which adopted the rival company's tests would see its systemwide scores improve.
Voila! Just like that, a lower-scoring urban district could boast about "schools that work!"
(In the years which followed, many urban districts did indeed move from the initial testing program to the rival company's program.)
Decades passed before the mainstream press finally caught up with this astonishing "erasure party" practice, in which teacher and principals took out their erasers and changed wrong answers to right. In the meantime, many such schools had achieved acclaim—had been hailed as "schools that work."
Entire school systems had been so hailed. In Atlanta, an award-winning superintendent who had been tangled up in the practice ended up going to jail.
We know of no reason to think that any misconduct of this type lurks beneath any claims made in Fuller's book. We do think that Professor Fuller is telling a somewhat familiar story—a familiar story in which the glass is loudly praised for being ten percent full.
We're asked to believe that wonderful things have happened in the Los Angeles schools. The data make that claim hard to support, but Fuller blows past those data.
Mathews blows past the data too, and we wish he hadn't. Nothing he says is technically false, but he fails to blow the whistle about this latest, highly familiar version of happy talk.
On the brighter side, you'll never hear another word about Fuller's book ever again. No one actually cares about our nation's urban kids, and that is nowhere more true than within our own self-impressed, vastly performative liberal / progressive tribe.
When it comes to our obvious racial greatness, we pretend a very good game. That said, it's performance all the way down, and it has been for a long time.
Tomorrow, we'll show you how the LAUSD performed on the 2019 Naep—on the very tests Professor Fuller uses in support of his happy talk.
For today, let's get clear on what Fuller has said about the Los Angeles schools. We'll draw on Mathews' recent essay, which provides an accurate account of what the professor has said.
The Los Angeles schools were in a world of hurt as of the turn of the century. What has happened in those schools since then? Headline included, Mathews starts like this:
MATHEWS (3/28/22): Big urban school districts can improve, but it’s complicated and messy
How are the schools doing in your neighborhood? I can show you test averages, but they have been distorted by the pandemic and are mostly a measure of student family background, not school quality. Looking at how scores change over time and watching classes in action helps, but a meaningful account of what’s going on requires many more words than most readers have time for.
Still, it’s worth doing. The best new example is a project that unleashed several scholars on our nation’s second largest city and culminated with this book: “When Schools Work: Pluralist Politics and Institutional Reform in Los Angeles.” The author is Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley...
I was born in the Los Angeles area. I live there now. I have done many stories about schools in that big district, including one so intriguing I decided at age 43 to spend the rest of my life as an education reporter. But I have never seen any book dive as deeply as this one has into how Los Angeles achieved, at least for a while, an elusive goal: significant improvement in student achievement even among disadvantaged children.
We're fans of Mathews, and of his work, at this award-winning site. He's had a long, impressive career as an education writer.
He says he's never seen a book which dives as deeply as this one. He says the book has established this point:
"Los Angeles achieved, at least for a while, an elusive goal: significant improvement in student achievement even among disadvantaged children."
That statement can be defended as technically accurate—but just barely, we'd have to say.
We'd also rate that statement as grossly misleading, even after Mathews adds this:
MATHEWS (continuing directly): Like all such gains, the results in Los Angeles over the last two decades have to be qualified. The book’s most interesting conclusion is that a combination of more spending, better lessons and new kinds of schools correlated with improved learning for all groups, but average test score differences between ethnicities did not change much. Everybody did better but the gaps remained.
According to Mathews (and Fuller), a specific set of reforms "correlated with improved learning for all [demographic] groups." That said, because the kids in all these demographic groups did better, achievement gaps between those groups largely remained the same.
Everything said there is accurate. We'll even note that Mathews said that the specific reforms "correlated with" those improvements in learning. He didn't use the word "caused."
Still and all, the reforms in question did in fact "correlate with improved learning for all groups!" That sounds like extremely good news. Later, Mathews offers more detail:
MATHEWS (continuing directly): “When Schools Work” is not a dry tome. It illumines the lives of several remarkable people who made the changes happen. Fuller and his team divide them into three groups: the new pluralists such as congresswoman and mayoral candidate Karen Bass, the civic challengers such as philanthropist Eli Broad and the loyal insiders such as then school board member Yolie Flores.
Fuller summed it up this way: “The behemoth institution of L.A. Unified, written off as hapless and ineffectual, came alive with a pulse, a beating heart. Reading and math scores for Latino and white students proceeded to climb (more than one grade level) over the subsequent two decades, as gauged by a careful federal assessment of learning in L.A., finally leveling off in 2019. Other barometers of pupil progress climbed as well—enrollment in college-prep courses rose, student discipline incidents fell, and graduation rates steadily increased.”
According to Fuller, the hapless, ineffectual Los Angeles schools "came alive with a pulse, a beating heart." That sounds like very good news.
As he continues, Mathews quotes Fuller as he offers his nugget statistical evidence. Over the course of two decades, average reading and math scores climbed by more than one grade level, though a person is forced to note that gains of that level were only achieved by Latino and white students.
"Remarkable people" made those changes happen, Mathews says. We don't mean to criticize them, but that statement adds to the overall portrait.
For the record, we can't point to a single statement in that passage which is technically false. We will say that the overall picture offered there strikes us as grossly misleading.
We've seen this sort of thing again and again over the past fifty years. Again and again, the public is treated to forms of happy talk concerning "schools that work." This allows our highly performative tribe to resume its vast and deep and unending sleep about the performance of the public schools which Those Children attend.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep. Our highly self-impressed liberal tribe could gain from becoming a bit more clear about who it actually is.
Because no one cares about black kids, you will never see this book, or this topic, explored anywhere else again. It will remain an "L.A. Confidential," concerning a vast array of public schools which allegedly work.
Our view? We think Professor Fuller's book is strikingly incompetent in certain basic ways. On balance, we'd also say that it's quite misleading
We think Mathews should have noted those facts. But so it has always gone.
Tomorrow: Grade 8 math, 2019