L. A. (PUBLIC SCHOOL) CONFIDENTIAL: L.A. was in a world of hurt!


Absolutely nobody cares: Long ago and far away, the Los Angeles public schools—the Los Angeles Unified School District—was in a world of hurt.

By "long ago," we specifically mean in the year 2003. Consider the average scores the giant school district—the LAUSD—recorded in Grade 8 math that year.

Below, we show you the average scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The Naep, a 50-year-old federal program, is widely considered to be the gold standard for domestic educational testing. 

Below, you see the average scores recorded by different groups of eighth-graders in the Los Angeles public schools back in 2003. We compare those scores to the average scores recorded nationwide:

Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2003 Naep
LAUSD versus National Public Schools
White students:  277.06 / 286.54 
Black students: 233.99 / 251.75 
Hispanic students: 239.71 / 258.13 
Asian-American students: 274.64 / 289.36

Oof! Through use of a very rough rule of thumb, it's often said that ten points on the Naep scale is equivalent to one academic year. Applying that metric, black and Hispanic eighth graders in Los Angeles were performing almost two years behind their counterparts nationwide. 

(For all Naep data, start here. From that point, you're on your own.)

To the extent that we credit those data, L.A. was thereby in a world of hurt back in 2003. Meanwhile, here's the way the numbers looked if you compared public school kids in Los Angeles to those in New York City:

Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2003 Naep
LAUSD versus New York City Public Schools
White students:  277.06 / 288.82 
Black students: 233.99 / 253.15 
Hispanic students: 239.71 / 259.88 
Asian-American students: 274.64 / 285.65

Again, L.A.'s black and Hispanic kids seemed to be two years behind their peers in New York City. And the gaps don't look a whole lot better if you compare the LAUSD to Chicago or Houston or Boston or other such systems that year. 

The City of Angels was hurting. More generally, here's the way the numbers look if you compare the LAUSD to the scores the Naep reports for the nation's Large City Schools writ large:

Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2003 Naep
LAUSD versus Large City Schools
White students:  277.06 / 285.42
Black students: 233.99 /  247.31
Hispanic students: 239.71 /  255.57
Asian-American students: 274.64 /  281.45

The gaps aren't quite as large in those data, but L.A.'s black and Hispanic eighth-graders were still scoring way behind their counterparts in Large City Schools nationwide. 

And of course, if you want to define a larger point of concern, here's the way those groups of kids in L.A. were scoring compared to the nation's white kids back in 2003:

Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2003 Naep
Black students, LAUSD: 233.99 
Hispanic students, LAUSD: 239.71 
White students, nationwide: 286.54

At this point, you can discard that ten-point rule of thumb. Simply put, there is no statistical way to estimate or define the size of those gaps. We're now looking at two different worlds.

In 2003, the Los Angeles schools were full of good, decent kids. The achievement gaps to which we refer are a referendum on the acquired academic skills of those good, decent kids, but also on their right to basic happiness on a daily basis.

It's no fun being the kid in school who is always "way behind." It's no fun being the kid who can't understand the day's math assignment. It hurts to be the kid, or the kids, who can't expect to comprehend the material in basic reading assignments because the standard textbooks are simply too hard.

It's no fun to be that kid—or to be those kids. It's amazing how many kids are good and decent enough to suffer through such daily miseries year after year—though some kids, inevitably, will lose their way in the process.

The Los Angeles schools were in a world of hurt back in 2003. According to a short but expensive new book, the Los Angeles schools have come a long way since those bad old days—but have they done so really?

As we noted last Wednesday, the new book to which we refer was written by Bruce Fuller, a Berkeley professor. In his book, Fuller describes changes in the Los Angeles schools over the course of two decades, starting around the year 2000.

On Monday, March 28, education reporter Jay Mathews discussed Professor Fuller's book in his weekly education essay in the Washington Post. Because no one actually cares about any of this, you'll see Fuller's book about the L.A. public schools discussed exactly nowhere else.

You will never see anyone else discussing Fuller's book! The multimillionaire TV stars we know and love prefer to discuss The Slap or The Racism of The Others. 

The New York Times discusses low-income kids who might end up getting into Yale—those kids and no one else.

You'll see no one discuss this! This will remain an L.A. confidential, concerning L.A.'s public schools. 

You'll never hear a word about this again! But here's the nugget in what Mathews wrote, hard-copy headline included:

Big urban school districts can improve, but it’s complicated and messy


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.”

The Los Angeles schools "came alive with a pulse, a beating heart." Over the course of two decades, test scores climbed by more than one grade level for white and Hispanic students—though not, it would seem, for black kids in L.A.

For the record, Fuller is referring to test scores from the Naep, some of which we've already posted. In his book, Fuller adopts a slightly different rule of thumb for discussing changes and gaps in such scores. He equates "a ten-to-twelve point difference" on the Naep scale to "about one grade level in learning."

Mathews cited no test scores in his weekly essay. Professor Fuller presents remarkably little statistical information in his actual book.

Tomorrow, we'll offer Mathews' summary of the book in much greater detail. But readers of the Washington Post may well have come away from his essay with the idea that major improvement has occurred in the LAUSD—in the Los Angeles schools.

Incomparably, we decided to take a look at the record. To all you people in Liberal Land who believe that our self-impressed tribe cares deeply about matters of racial justice, we invite you to tag along this week and to digest these points:

No one gives a flying fig about the lives and interests of black kids, least of all our own tribal stars, and we'd have to say there's little sign that anyone ever will.

Tomorrow: Berkeley professor's claims


  1. For a supposedly normal person who understands that 'race' is bullshit, you have a lot of tasteless "white students"/"black students" drivel, dear Bob.

    We find it confusing. Why don't you decide if are for classifying humyn beings by their alleged 'race', dear Bob, or you aren't?

    1. https://dailyhowler.blogspot.com/2013/12/outscoring-finland-disaggregation-hurts.html

    2. There's no reason, in our humble opinion, to bring up 'race' when comparing the US and Finland.

      Because 'race' (again: in our humble opinion) has nothing to with it.

      It's just that Finland, unlike the US, doesn't have a significant underclass sector of the population. Better socioeconomic conditions. That's all.

      ...and the reason Finland doesn't have a significant underclass has nothing to do with any "brutal history" (its history is quite brutal, actually), but rather that (again: in our humble opinion) Finland was one of the 'non-aligned' countries during the Cold War period, adopting the best features from the West and from the Soviet Union. The development sometimes referred to as 'finlandization'.

    3. Finland does have immigration from non-Scandinavian countries that has been increasing and beginning to create some diversity problems. As of 2020, there are 444,031 foreigners residing in Finland, which corresponds to around 8% of the population. Immigrants from specific countries are divided into several ethnic groups. For example, there are both Russians and Chechens from Russia, Turks and Kurds from Turkey, Moroccans and Berbers from Morocco. The Chinese and Uyghurs are from China, while immigrants from Iran are divided into Persians, Azeris, Kurds and Lurs.

      In comparison, 6% of Los Angeles is black but The immigrant share of Los Angeles County's population is near its highest point since 1870; nearly 3.5 million immigrants live here – comprising 35% of the population — the largest number of any region. About 77% of all immigrants have arrived since 1980, with 20% arriving in the last decade. What immigrants came to Los Angeles?

      The vast majority of California's immigrants were born in Latin America (50%) or Asia (39%). California has sizable populations of immigrants from dozens of countries; the leading countries of origin are Mexico (3.9 million), the Philippines (859,000), China (796,000), Vietnam (539,000), and India (513,000).

      The large number of Hispanic immigrants continue to present problems for teachers who have not been trained to help English language learners. This depresses scores for Hispanics on tests like the NAEP. But many Hispanics in LA have been there for generations and are native English speakers. Their scores tend to be combined with those of English learners to dilute the measurement of their progress. This affects all of their school topics, not just reading scores. Somerby never takes this into consideration, but it may well be that the Hispanic students are learning at the same rate as white non-Hispanic students.

      2019 is the first year when students with disabilities and English learners were included in the NAEP 4th & 8th grade reading & math assessments. I wonder if Somerby knows that?

    4. Actually, if Somerby were able somehow to separate the Hispanic English learners from the Hispanic students native to Los Angeles and speaking English for generations, the latter would look more like white non-Hispanic students, whereas the English learners would perhaps resemble the black students coming from families with impaired literacy due to low parental education levels.

      Black parents born in the South and emigrating to Los Angeles would be lucky to have graduated high school and most may have less than an eighth grade education. That's because the schools in the South were substandard right up until the most aggressive integration efforts in the 1970s and after. Such parents would provide a less nurturing home environment in terms of literacy and helping students with classwork, than the white peers who face no such school problems, even in the South. Such literacy problems would be handed from generation to generation. In contrast, immigrants may be quite literate in their native language(s) and only need to acquire English, not bootstrap literacy entirely.

      Somerby's claim that minority student scores are intrasigent is ridiculous. Problems and obstacles that are not addressed remain intransigent. You cannot tell what a child's environment may be like using test scores, even those from the wonderful NAEP. Somerby doesn't seem to be willing to look beyond the numbers.

  2. "No one gives a flying fig about the lives and interests of black kids, least of all our own tribal stars, and we'd have to say there's little sign that anyone ever will."

    And yet here are some people who do seem to care:

    1. Fuller
    2. Matthews
    3. The Washington Post
    4. The teachers, parents, administrators of the LAUSD
    5. NAEP and the US Government which sponsors the testing program via the Department of Education
    6. Residents of Los Angeles who have paid for the improvements to the schools through taxes
    7. Politicians and the mayor of Los Angeles, who voted for those improvements and recruited the new Superintendents of the district over that time period from 2003
    8. Corporate sponsors and donors to support programs, volunteers who have helped improve schooling in the LAUSD over the years
    9. The State of California Department of Education and its Superintendent of Public Instruction during that time period.
    10. Support services in the City of Los Angeles who have helped families struggling with social and financial problems that affect children's success in school.

    It takes a village to improve school performance in a major city like Los Angeles. Clearly many people have cared enough to provide the changes described by Fuller in his book.

    1. Matthews writes:

      "“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."

      "...Here are some elements of this complex story: California focused attention on achievement by ranking each school on ability to raise exam scores beginning in 1999. Former Colorado governor Roy Romer became L.A. school superintendent in 2000 and specified learning aims, matching textbooks and weekly lesson plans in elementary schools. Participation in Advanced Placement classes went up, inspired in part by the 1988 film “Stand and Deliver” about L.A. math teacher Jaime Escalante. Activists persuaded a skeptical school board to increase the number of college-prep courses in high schools. The city had a bumper crop of new magnet and pilot schools with programs in science, business and other areas that appealed to parents and demanded challenging courses.

      Better funding made a difference, too. Led by Romer, the district began a massive program to renovate or construct new schools. Silicon Valley benefactors campaigned successfully for school construction revenue bonds. In 2013 Gov. Jerry Brown moved nearly $23 billion in yearly spending to urban districts like Los Angeles. Financial wizards like Broad persuaded voters to approve a 2000 ballot proposition that lowered the plurality required for local voters to pass revenue bonds. Because of an American Civil Liberties Union legal settlement in 2017, the L.A. school board agreed to another $151 million for 50 schools serving the largest shares of poor students or English learners."

  3. We notice that while Somerby gives the scores for 2003, he does not provide any scores for more recent administration of the test so that we can see what improvement has occurred.

    Why is that?

    "Mathews cited no test scores in his weekly essay. Professor Fuller presents remarkably little statistical information in his actual book."

    Are we supposed to believe that Fuller gives no scores showing the improvements he claims have occurred? I doubt that is true. Why is Somerby hiding information from us and pretending it is Fuller's fault? Is this a fair review of this book?

    Somerby has attacked Fuller before. He seems to dislike the Professor because he describes improvement that Somerby himself doesn't think has occurred. Why is Somerby so invested in proving that black kids' school performance has not improved anywhere, that no one cares about such kids when that is manifestly untrue?

  4. Here is the reason Somerby is attacking Fuller's new book. From the Amazon publisher's description:

    "How did a young generation of activists come together in 1990s Los Angeles to shake up the education system, creating lasting institutional change and lifting children and families across southern California?

    Critics claim that America's public schools remain feckless and hamstrung institutions, unable to improve even when nudged by accountability-minded politicians, market competition, or global pandemic. But if schools are so hopeless, then why did student learning climb in Los Angeles across the initial decades of the twenty-first century?

    In When Schools Work, Bruce Fuller details the rise of civic activists in L.A. as they emerged from the ashes of urban riots and failed efforts to desegregate schools. Based on the author's fifteen years of field work in L.A., the book reveals how this network of Latino and Black leaders, civil rights lawyers, ethnic nonprofits, and pedagogical progressives coalesced in the 1990s, staking out a third political ground and gaining distance from corporate neoliberals and staid labor chiefs. Fuller shows how these young activists—whom he terms "new pluralists"—proceeded to better fund central-city schools, win quality teachers, widen access to college prep courses, decriminalize student discipline, and even create a panoply of new school forms, from magnet schools to dual-language campuses, site-run small high schools, and social-justice focused classrooms.

    Moving beyond perennial hand-wringing over urban schools, this book offers empirical lessons on what reforms worked to lift achievement—and kids—across this vast and racially divided metropolis. More broadly, this study examines why these new pluralists emerged in this kaleidoscopic city and how they went about jolting an institution once given up for dead. Spotlighting the force of ethnic communities and humanist notions of children's growth, Fuller argues that diversifying forms of schooling also created unforeseen ways of stratifying both children and families. When Schools Work will inform the efforts of educators, activists, policy makers, and anyone else working to reshape public schools and achieve equitable results for all children."


    How sour an old asshole must one be to denigrate the efforts of an entire community trying to improve schooling for black, hispanic, white and asian students in the country's most diverse urban center!

  5. I think it is likely that Fuller's book deemphasizes statistics because its topic isn't how bad the kids were doing but what methods reformers used to improve what the schools were doing. Readers of such a book will want to know what happened so that they can incorporate changes into their own efforts. They don't have Somerby's vested interest in showing that black kids cannot learn, or that all reforms are doomed to fail because no one really cares about black kids.

    Someone who truly cares about kids should be very interested in such a book, open to ideas about what works, not trying to knock Fuller and the many people who helped achieve positive change in Los Angeles.

  6. "The multimillionaire TV stars we know and love prefer to discuss The Slap or The Racism of The Others. "

    Note that these changes were not achieved at a specific moment in time but were an ongoing effort over several decades. On which day, then, should Maddow have talked about Los Angeles?

    Does Somerby perhaps think that there was no coverage of Los Angeles School District issues in the greater Los Angeles area during this time period? Why would any national cable news show focus on local issues? Maddow doesn't cover new supermarket openings either, nor summer squash festivals nor high school sports, but all of these are also important to local communities. Are we to assume that no one cares about such things either? I wouldn't but Somerby seems to have an odd way of gauging interest in children's needs. And Somerby has never once mentioned the concerns of parents during covid over distance learning and lost learning during the pandemic. Did he care about black children during that time period? Not judging by what he writes here.

  7. Apparently Somerby is in a world of hurt, borne from jealousy it seems.

    Whether it is in spite of, or because of it's NAEP scores, California is the fifth largest economy in the world, and it's economy continues to trend up, it is by far the most significant and important state in America; however, it also has one of the most expensive and exclusive real estate markets, yet it has the 8th smallest Black homeownership gap in the country, made all the more noteworthy by CA having a relatively small Black population, about 6%.

    Somerby does not care about Black people, he only cares about what he can weaponize to bludgeon his enemies.

  8. "To all you people in Liberal Land who believe that our self-impressed tribe cares deeply about matters of racial justice, we invite you to tag along this week and to digest these points:"

    Where exactly is liberal land? Is Somerby suggesting that Los Angeles is like Berkeley? It isn't. Los Angeles votes blue because it is comprised of working class people, black and hispanic people but also people of many different immigrant backgrounds from Korea to Russia to Bangladesh to Iran. It votes blue because people there see that Democrats are working to increase their prosperity, not because of "wokeness". Yes, the film industry is near Los Angeles, but industry stars live outside the city in places like Malibu (up the coast) and their kids don't go to LA public schools. There are, however, young professionals living in the city, struggling with high rents and traffic.

    When Somerby refers to "our self-impressed tribe," he mistakenly includes himself, when he is clearly not a member of the liberal tribe (ignoring for a minute the designation of "tribes" Somerby has borrowed from conservative political writing). Somerby only writes about education these days to bash anyone suggesting there has been progress, anyone arguing in favor of integration of majority-minority schools, and anyone who thinks black kids should have the same opportunities as Asian and white kids. Somerby himself only uses black kids to forward his own agenda, which is decidedly NOT liberal. During Trump's four years in office, Somerby never wrote an essay about the harm being done by Betsy De Vos. I doubt he ever mentioned her name at all. But he claims that no one else cares about such kids. I see little evidence Somerby cares about them -- after all, he left teaching the minute his standup career took off and he was no longer subject to the Vietnam War draft.

    Even when Somerby wrote about school issues for local newspapers, it was to point out that administrators were cheating on standardized tests in order to obtain increased funding for their districts. He never analyzed the impact of tying school resources to test performance, a primary objective of No Child Left Behind under George Bush. Somerby attacked Michele Rhee, legitimately, but somehow decided that all reforms are empty PR efforts, that no real change is possible, that kids cannot improve without it being a fraud perpetrated by some education activist to promote their own careers. And Somerby never references any of the excellent blogs on education issues, nor does he examine any of the changes to education over the past 20 years to make teaching better align with cognitive studies about how people learn.

    Somerby's focus is relentlessly negative when it comes to progress in education and he does nothing but tear down the work of others still working with kids. This is his latest example -- he has singled Fuller out for negative attention several times before. Apparently, Somerby dislikes professors who are trying to help improve education. And that makes him unlike any liberal I know.

  9. Here is how little CA cares about people of color: the state provides excellent community colleges, which is so cheap it is nearly free, has open enrollment, and is a pipeline to the UC's, which are some of the top universities in the world - go to a CA community college for two years and you are guaranteed admission to a UC.

    This benefits everyone, but due to right wing oppression of people of color, this benefits people of color more. This is the opposite of the policies pushed by Republicans, who make a promise to Whites that while they won't get much compared to the 1%, they will get more than people of color.