L. A. (PUBLIC SCHOOL) CONFIDENTIAL: Are L.A.'s schools really "schools that work?"


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


  1. "You're asking excellent questions!"

    As always, Somerby dislikes accepting responsibility for his opinions, so he puts it off on us. WE didn't ask anything.

  2. "the Los Angeles schools were doing about as poorly, at that point in time, as any school district a person could name."

    For one thing, school districts performing extremely poorly in the State of California are taken over and run by the State itself, as Compton's were, but that did not happen to the LAUSD. That makes Somerby statement denigrating the districts scores in 2003 unlikely to be true even for the State of California, much less the nation.
    Not so much. Somerby presents this assertion without any evidence.

  3. "We're severely triggered by any form of the familiar, routinely misleading phrase, "Schools That Work.""

    This is the essence of Somerby's bias toward schools. I guess his didn't work, so none can work anywhere, under any circumstances.

    1. Never mind that he has not defined what it means for a school to "work."

    2. And the two dumbest comments find each other like a marriage made in hell.

      He doesn't like the phrase, so the impetus is not on him to define what it means for a school to "work." He provides a clear historical context of why the phrase is misleading.

      But don't let that stop the dumbassery or ridiculous projections of spiteful behavior onto Somerby, everyone knows where the spite really lies here.

    3. 1:17: What an author means by schools “working” depends upon how that writer defines the term. It isn’t universally misleading. Because it was misleading presumably in certain circumstances according to Bob Somerby doesn’t mean it is always misleading or that it is misleading in this particular instance.

    4. Somerby does not provide a "clear historical context of why the phrase is misleading", he provides a couple of examples of cheating and a rival company with different "national norms", hardly a case for dismissing the phrase.

      Furthermore, Somerby provides no context for understanding the phrase. It is obscenely reductionist to apply the phrase "schools that work" to just test scores, the article explains this. Schools prepare kids for functioning in our society; undeniably one significant way to measure if schools are working is the health of the local society it serves. Yes, Baltimore is not optimal - high crime, high poverty, but CA, pretty optimal relative to the country, it appears that regardless of test scores the CA schools are working better than most.

      1:37 you claim everyone else is dumb but you do not bother to make coherent or meaningful arguments, which, in the end, does not serve you well.

  4. "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."

    Somerby blows past those data too. He still hasn't presented the current NAEP scores for Los Angeles. He only presented the 2003 scores yesterday and today he tells us to trust him when he says not much has changed. But why doesn't he present those scores and let us decide for ourselves?

    1. NAEP 2019 8th Grade Math (increase over 2003)

      White 292 (+5)
      Black 260 (+8)
      Hispanic 268 (+10)

      White 294 (+14)
      Black 252 (+18)
      Hispanic 262 (+22)

      CA has increased the scores at a better rate than the national averages.

      Somerby does not post the reading scores because the gaps are much smaller.

      Black/White gaps will persist due to systemic and institutional racism that supersede state borders.

      A more significant gap is the national wealth gap where Black people only have 15% of the wealth of White people.

      Widening out, the 60 wealthiest people hold as much wealth as half the population of the entire world, about 4 billion people. Now that's a gap!

  5. What Bob observes about LA schools is true of most issues: Democrats care less about results than about making an effort. Why? I suppose it's because they can celebrate doing something. Also, the particular actions generally benefit some special interest, who will reward the Democrats for helping them.

    E.g., consider the price of gasoline. Biden and other Dems are boasting about tapping the Emergency Oil Reserve -- a step that has NOT reduced the price of a barrel of oil. Tapping the emergency reserve instead of increased drilling is like spending your retirement account instead of getting a job.

    1. Guess what, David, you stupid fuck. The oil extraction industry has not been nationalized in this country yet. President Biden cannot force the oil companies who are taking advantage and raping the country by price gouging to drill more.

    2. Unlike David, I won’t vote for Trump just because he’s a bigot.
      If Trump wants my vote, he’ll give me the right to over rule corporate boardrooms.

    3. Say Mao, the degenerate clown.

    4. I’d like to know what “results” David thinks the Republicans have ever brought about, assuming that they have ever made the effort.

    5. Trump's policies brought about substantially improved economic conditions for blacks and Hispanics. This was caused by eliminating many regulations. That is, less government produced better results.

      Reagan's reforms brought about 20 years of economic expansion. (This was also from the government doing less.)

      Reagan's foreign and military policy brought about the defeat and dissolution of the Soviet Union -- without a ruinous war between the US and USSR.

      Eisenhower's prudent government policies ended the Korean War and brought about 8 years of prosperity.

      Going way back in history, Abraham Lincoln ended slavery.

    6. Republicans have brought about tremendous wealth for the 1%, wealth rarely, if ever, seen before in history. Republicans have brought about tremendous oppression and poverty, unheard of inequalities, they have brought about our polluted and toxic environment, and they shall soon bring about devastation to our planet to the extent that it will be largely uninhabitable by humans.

      Republicans have made the effort, and they have wildly succeeded. Well done, Republicans!

    7. The only reason Trump didn’t tout his policies, and how they improved the lives of blacks and Hispanics, is he felt he needed at least one Republican voter to vote for him in his re-election bid.

    8. Berto,
      Surely, all none of the Republican voters who care about something other than bigotry and white supremacy, would have voted for Trump even if he touted how blacks and hispanics benefited from his policies.

    9. Abraham Lincoln did not pass the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. Congress did that. Lincoln issued a wartime Emancipation Proclamation that declared the slaves belonging to secessionist Southerners, confiscated in the war, to be free. He did this in order to further the Union war effort.

    10. "Trump's policies brought about substantially improved economic conditions for blacks and Hispanics. This was caused by eliminating many regulations. That is, less government produced better results."

      Whatever small impact this may have had was wiped out by Trump's covid polcies which placed Hispanics and blacks at the forefront of vulnerability because they held jobs where they could not work at home, were less likely to have sick pay and thus couldn't stay home from jobs to care for themselves or sick family members, and were more likely to be in factory or service occupations, such as the hard-hit poultry industry and restaurants. Trump did not provide relief for such workers -- Biden did that. Instead, Trump implemented PPP and other policies so incompetently that they resulted in the most expensive grifting and theft of public $ in American history. How did that benefit minorities?

    11. Let's not forget, Trump tried to gaslight a viral pandemic, like it was some common NY Times political reporter, who is paid to be a stenographer for Republicans.

    12. Lincoln eventually opposed slavery, but he still thought that Black people were inferior to Whites. As slavery ended, Lincoln (along with others such as Frederick Douglas) expressed concern about wage slavery, which is what right wingers turned to as a replacement for chattel slavery. Right wing values and policies have been a disaster for society.

      Trump did not have any policy that helped people of color, the circumstances of the slight upward trend in limited economic metrics started years before Trump was president. (Similarly, Trump claimed "Operation Warp Speed" his own, but this came from the FDA and Congress, Trump had nothing to do with it.) Trump did very little other than allow more toxic pollutants in our environment, and caused havoc in the milk and soy industries. Also civilian deaths increased in places like Syria, where Trump let Putin have his way.

      Trumpists make vague claims because their claims are without merit or evidence.

    13. I don't care if Donald J Chickenshit caused it to rain American Eagle gold coins every 2nd Tuesday, it would not be worth allowing that foul corrupt abomination anywhere near political office.

      Go fuck yourself, David.

  6. “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.”

    In other words, LA schools weren’t “working.” Somerby uses the test scores to “show” this, despite hating to talk about schools “working.”

    Perhaps this is a problem with using test scores to characterize schools.

    Emphasizing test scores, to the point where they become existential statistics, has clearly created problematical issues, such as teaching to the test and cheating.

    And I don’t get the sense that any “tribe”, Republican, Democrat, or what have you, are engaged in “unending sleep about the performance of the public schools which Those Children attend.” If anything, the constant focus on test scores (by both “tribes”) and segregation (by liberals, mostly) would seem to indicate the opposite - a dissatisfaction with the state of public schools, reports like Mathews’ notwithstanding.

  7. Long ago and far away Bob probably had something useful to say on these issues. Or, at the very least, he could be taken in good faith. Now it's just more pious ranting, not even only to advance his weird ego, his image of himself as the only person who could possibly care about black kids in he inner city. It's just his bland hatred of liberals taking over, his fantasies about northern condescension coming for mommy and daddy. coming to burn down the plantation.
    I'm sure the black kids he supposedly loves and their families feel well serve by Bob's attempt's to help Republicans get Judge Jackson written off as a pro pedo. He just cares so much.

  8. Tomorrow, I expect that Somerby may trot out the 2019 NAEP scores in order to show that there has been lackluster progress. I do not expect him to remember to tell us that these 2019 scores include testing of students with disabilities and English language learners, for the first time. NAEP provides a way of "estimating" the impact of such students, but I doubt that will do justice to the Los Angeles test scores, given that Los Angeles has more immigrants than any other district in the nation, 35% from Latin America and 18% from China.

    This was not as true in 2003 because immigration has increased since then and is at its peak since the 1850s in those 2019 scores. I expect that Somerby will point out that the gaps have not decreased for Hispanic children, but how can they be expected to with an influx of English language learners to the latest testing cohort? Black students are now 6%, a decrease that has occurred as blacks have moved to suburbs and Hispanic immigrants have moved into South Central Los Angeles, Compton, and other previously black low-income neighborhoods. I wonder if Somerby has any idea how demographic shifts affect NAEP comparisons? Since he rarely mentions them, I doubt they are on his radar.

    Somerby also has not explained why there would be cheating on the NAEP specifically, when it is not used for student or teacher assessment (individual scores are not reported) and not for district funding either. It's "gold standard" status rests on the fact that there is no reason to cheat on it because there is no benefit to doing so. That also weakens the motivation to perform well on it, but that problem stays constant over time. So, Somerby suggestion that administrators may have cheated on NAEP in Los Angeles makes no sense at all.

  9. But here is another problem. In 2010, the LAUSD implemented value-added teacher evaluation. Teacher ratings included a measure of how much their students had improved during the past year. Teachers with high achieving students because highly evaluated teachers, if they switched schools and worked with less high achieving students, they magically became lower-rated themselves. Evaluation scores were published for individual teachers in the L.A. Times. As a result, one award-winning teacher committed suicide when he received low ratings that appeared in print. It took a while to roll that back. Subsequent studies showed that the ratings did not achieve the intended results:


    The ratings did achieve a redistribution of high-rated teachers to the high achieving students and schools. Might it be that the schools increased their NAEP score means by simplying focusing resources on the highest scoring kids? I doubt Somerby will examine that possibility.

    And how exactly does Somerby think that NAEP score improvements can be meaningless, or the result of cheating, when the graduation rates have improved? As mh points out, there are other measures of school success that Somerby never talks about -- perhaps he avoids them because they don't support his picture of doom and gloom but correlate with the NAEP increases, suggesting that kids are in fact doing better?

    And who roots against schools and kids to do better? Somerby appears to and that makes him seem like a super Grinch, education-wise. Why is he practically hoping that nothing will work to help minority kids do better? His tone is a cross between I-told-you-so and those-ratty-black-kids-are-hopeless. He says it is because everyone ignores the black kids, but it hardly seems to be the case in Los Angeles, which is not only a highly diverse city with black people involved at every stage of school administration and reform, but a liberal city that actively cares about civil rights and doing better for black residents. Somerby's pro forma explanation makes no sense for Los Angeles. He is going through the motions when he criticizes Fuller's work and he is clearly not thinking about Los Angeles when he makes these pronouncements about what is wrong there.

  10. It has been pointed out that the black students in Los Angeles have moved to suburbs so that the population of black students is lower now than in 2003. Black students also fled to charter schools. While those schools did not cherry-pick applicants, there was a built-in selection bias because the black students with more savvy, motivated parents who were involved in their kids' education, were more likely to apply to such schools. That left the black kids with less involved and savvy parents in the public schools over time. That seems like a reasonable explanation for the persistence of black/white gaps over time, during a period where charter schools were being actively promoted by the Federal government and conservatives and black activists. I doubt that Somerby will address this either. He has no interest in the explanations for gaps -- only in telling liberals that we don't care about black kids. Even though liberals are the ones actively working to help black kids -- not conservatives, who seem to prefer policies that have a negative impact on minorities over ones that would help them, along with white constituents.

  11. Josh Hawley was forced to accuse Judge Jackson of being pro pedo, based on the dictum that every Right-wing accusation is really a confession.