L. A. (PUBLIC SCHOOL) CONFIDENTIAL: We checked the district's latest scores!


Are these really "schools that work?" Had you heard about the improvement in the Los Angeles public schools?

If not, you can be forgiven. We don't think we'd heard about it either. Topics like that don't get discussed within our highly Potemkin American pseudo-discourse. 

Within our various failing tribes, we talk about Will Smith and Chris Rock. We don't discuss the millions of good, decent kids who attend the public schools in our biggest cities.

That said, a new book has appeared, written by a Berkeley professor. On March 28, the book was discussed by Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education reporter. 

Mathews discussed the new book. The book's title is this:

When Schools Work: Pluralist Politics and Institutional Reform in Los Angeles

The title has an unmistakably upbeat feel. In the book, Professor Fuller describes changes in the Los Angeles schools—in the LAUSD—over the course of the past two decades. 

When Mathews quoted Professor Fuller, it turned out that Fuller had said this:

 “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.”

At the turn of the century, the Los Angeles public schools had been a genuine mess. Over the course of two decades, it sounded like they'd been transformed into "schools that work."

We decided to check the system's Naep scores. This is the first thing we found:

Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2019 Naep
LAUSD versus National Public Schools
White students:  287.02 / 291.46 
Black students: 248.14 / 259.21
Hispanic students: 255.14 / 267.96 
Asian-American students: 295.37 / 309.09

These are the same test scores on which Fuller depends in his book. To what extent have scores like those emerged from "schools that work?" 

Here's what those data suggest:

Based upon a (very rough) rule of thumb which Fuller endorses in his book, black and Hispanic eighth graders in Los Angeles were performing roughly one year below their counterparts nationwide in this most recent Naep testing.

Offhand, that doesn't seem like enormous success. Then too, we're forced to notice this:

Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2019 Naep
Black students, LAUSD: 248.14
Hispanic students, LAUSD: 255.14 
White students nationwide: 291.46

Applying that Fuller-endorsed rule of thumb, we're looking at an achievement gap in eighth-grade math which computes out to roughly three or four years.

Test scores are always approximations. That said, when we say that scores like those have emerged from "schools that work," are we perhaps delivering a slap in the face to the interests, and to the right to daily happiness, of huge numbers of good decent kids?

We continued to check those most recent Naep data. They're the data from our most reliable testing program, the same data on which Fuller relies. 

We compared Los Angeles to two other big cities. The numbers came up like this:

Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2019 Naep
LAUSD versus Chicago public schools
White students:  287.02 / 303.22 
Black students: 248.14 / 264.24
Hispanic students: 255.14 / 274.61 
Asian-American students: 295.37 / 318.23
Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2019 Naep
LAUSD versus Houston public schools
White students:  287.02 / 315.02 
Black students: 248.14 / 260.97
Hispanic students: 255.14 / 271.34 
Asian-American students: 295.37 / NA

Ow ow ow ow ow ow ow! To the extent that we can credit those data, black and Hispanic kids in L.A. were scoring well more than a year behind their counterparts in those other big urban systems. 

To the extent that we can credit those data, the Los Angeles public schools don't really look all that great! Meanwhile, even in high-flying Chicago, this punishing reality obtains:

Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2019 Naep
Black students, Chicago: 264.24
Hispanic students, Chicago: 274.61 
White students nationwide: 291.46

Those numbers place Chicago's black eighth-graders more than two years behind white kids nationwide. 

Are we picking and choosing the big urban systems we highlight here? Not exactly, no. 

Naep scores from the LAUSD did come closer, in Grade 8 math, to those which emerged from the New York City Public Schools. But the "schools that work" in Los Angeles still trailed Gotham's public schools. And here's the way they compared to the slightly amorphous category the Naep calls Large City Schools:

Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2019 Naep
LAUSD versus Large City Schools
White students:  287.02 / 296.21
Black students: 248.14 / 258.36
Hispanic students: 255.14 / 266.43 
Asian-American students: 295.37 / 307.79

We wouldn't send someone to jail over this. But it's very, very hard to see why Fuller wrote the book he did, or why Mathews discussed the book without noting the apparent oddness of Fuller's weirdly upbeat appraisal.

Let us repeat: These are the very test scores on which Fuller relies. 

He refers to these scores very briefly in his book. But it's this very same 2019 Naep on which his upbeat assessments are based, in a book which bears this title:

When Schools Work

"When schools work!" Here's the basic comparison again, for your renewed perusal:

Average scores, Grade 8 math, 2019 Naep
Black students, LAUSD: 248.14
Hispanic students, LAUSD: 255.14 
White students nationwide: 291.46

Our question: In what sense are we looking at scores which have come from "schools that work?"

We're sure that Fuller, the Berkeley professor, is a good decent person. We know that Mathews is. 

But at times like these, we think of Ben Johnson's electrifying, punishing statement in The Last Picture Show:

I've been puttin' up with this trashy behavior my whole life.

No one cares about black kids. We've said it again and again!

Tomorrow: From 2003 to 2019, the data concerning the gains

Ben Johnson's fuller, more accurate statement: Below, you see the accurate text of Ben Johnson's fuller statement:

You boys can get on out of here. I don't want to have no more to do with you. Scaring a poor, unfortunate creature like Billy just so you could have a few laughs!

I've been around that trashy behavior all my life. I'm getting tired of putting up with it.

It rang a loud bell the first time we saw it. It's right there in The Last Picture Show.


  1. So, according to Somerby, it is incorrect to say that LA schools are working because their test scores are lower than other urban areas.

    It sounds as though Somerby is saying that LA schools don’t work, despite hating to use that term.

  2. The increases in LA matched or exceeded those in other urban areas from 2003-2019. LA started out behind other urban areas in 2003.

    By complaining that LA’s naep scores still don’t equal the average for urban areas, Somerby is engaging in the same statistical hokum that discounts any and all gains in average scores for black kids because the average for black kids is still lower than the average for white kids.

    It has never been clear how you hold white kids’ scores static, or get black kids’ scores to rise faster than white kids so that the scores can equalize. Ditto for one urban area vs another.

    It is also impermissible to make a value judgment based solely on naep scores without taking other factors into account.

    1. "Let us repeat: These are the very test scores on which Fuller relies.

      He refers to these scores very briefly in his book. But it's this very same 2019 Naep on which his upbeat assessments are based"

      Somerby says that Fuller based his book on NAEP scores, implying that they were the only consideration for Fuller. I doubt anyone who studies education considers only the NAEP scores to be important. For a school to work, it needs to do more than score high on standardized tests. Fuller discussed other measures. Somerby ignores them and never considers what is most important to the happiness and success of black and Hispanic kids.

      White supremacists and those who champion meritocracy tend to like standardized tests as their method of evaluating merit. Yet numerous studies have shown that for minority kids, test scores are not the best measure and do not correlate well with grades and performance-based measures of success (portfolios of work, writing samples, grades). Getting lower scores on standardized tests doesn't predict college grades well either -- black kids do much better in college than their scores would predict. Whether this is because of test anxiety (stereotype threat) or because the tests do not measure abilities important in the classroom is unclear, but it is clear that such standardized tests are frequently explicitly and deliberately used as barriers to advancement for black and Hispanic kids.

      Here, Somerby argues with the gatekeepers to consider NAEP the be-all and end-all of school assessment, and the only measure by which the performance of black kids can be evaluated. He never states any conclusion about black kids, except that liberals don't care about them (which is manifestly untrue). But his singling out of black kids as low performers ever few months gives fodder to white supremacists who might like to argue that despite all of this effort, black kids just cannot benefit from efforts to help them. Fuller is not saying that and that is perhaps why Somerby ignores what Fuller is saying and calls his claims inflated.

      What does Somerby think should be done to help black kids do better? He never discusses this at all. Given Somerby's obsession with this subject, I am beginning to think he was let go from his teaching position. He may be vested in proving the failure of measures to help black kids because they didn't involve him. He may have been seen as an underqualified teacher with little ability to relate to his black students, little empathy for them. That would explain his ongoing vendetta against educators who are still working with black kids to help them do better, with solid progress but little impact on white-black gaps. I suspect those white-black gaps depend on factors involving entrenched racism in our society and won't disappear until more equal living conditions emerge for black families, approaching those of the families of white kids in large cities. That has not happened now, with black family incomes at 15% of white incomes. What does 15% mean? Family field trips, books in the home, more time off for parents to spend with kids, educational toys and computer access, food and health spending, and so on. But Somerby prefers to blame those ratty teachers and the community coalitions described by Fuller for the limits on black improvement.

      And this is why Somerby is a bigot.

  3. "Potemkin American pseudo-discourse"

    Is this really the best phrase to be using in the midst of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine? Does Somerby even know who Potemkin was, or whether the accusations about him were historically true or lies told by political enemies?

  4. "Other barometers of pupil progress climbed as well—enrollment in college-prep courses rose, student discipline incidents fell, and graduation rates steadily increased."

    Somerby doesn't acknowledge any of these measures. Arguably, the graduation rate is the most important indicator because it suggests that local businesses will have a qualified labor force.

    As predicted, Somerby doesn't discuss the impact of the English language learners, who are more numerous in LA than any other large city due to the immigration that also rose steadily during the last two decades. These English language learners were included among those tested by NAEP in 2019, for the first time in the test's history. Yes, Sonmerby compares only math scores, but ability to understand what is said in class, and comfort level with test instructions, are both aspects of language that affect performance on a math test. Further, language ability has been shown to be strongly correlated with math ability.


    So, arguably Los Angeles schools have been working with an additional constraint that is less important to other large cities. Despite that, they show strong improvement.

    But why does Somerby dismiss this progress? Does he not want to find what helps improve education? Does he think nothing actually works, so anything claimed to improve scores must be bogus? Or does he not give a rat's ass about those beautiful and deserving immigrant kids in L.A.?

    Somerby never asks what the scores in LA would be like without the immigrant English learners grouped in with the native speakers for this administration of the NAEP. He doesn't care about Hispanic scores except to bash Fuller for claiming there has been progress. And there has.

  5. Yes, LA schools deserve credit for improving, but it's a wild exaggeration to say they "work". More accurately, they improved from "dreadful" to "terrible".

    1. The point here isn't whether LA schools are tops, but have they made progress. Fuller says they have and explains how. The NAEP scores show that progress has resulted from the efforts made since 2003. Somerby wants to denigrate that progress, instead of encouraging LA to go on improving. What is the point of Somerby's negativity? Or yours?

      I would say that the LA schools are working hard to improve. Being average means they are working for the majority of students. Are there still kids who bring down the means? Yes, of course, because LA has problems not found elsewhere, such as huge %s of immigrant, English learners, who cannot make progress in their classes until they become more proficient in English. This impacts their math scores and reading (obviously) but other subjects too. LA used to have bilingual education, but the conservatives did away with that. Given the scores, I would say that LA is definitely working despite large obstacles.

      YOU, David, have no experience with the Los Angeles schools. I grew up in them from K to high school. Then I taught in a local college, with classes full of immigrant children for whom the LA schools did well. There are other kids who didn't get there, and that means there is more work to do, but condemning the LA schools as "terrible" in the face of obvious successes by students of all groups, is just plain wrong. And throwing away an evaluation of how reform measures worked out after several decades because it didn't turn LA's school into top schools, is just plain ridiculous.

      Fuller's book shows that schools need allies. People like you, David, and Somerby are not interested in helping to solve problems. You are not allies to teachers or schools, and that means you are not allies to children either. This is the path that nihilism leads you to -- abandoning those decent, deserving kids to the likes of Somerby.

    2. Somerby drains the adrenochrome of young children which is the only thing keeping him alive and with the energy to bolster all the right wing talking points. It's a fact!

    3. Can you make sense of Somerby's aims in this essay? Go ahead, I dare you to explain.

    4. And here we have David’s ironically apropos contribution to Somerby‘s skewed presentation of this matter.

      Somerby has frequently chastised journalists when they make value judgments about schools based upon static or declining test scores. He accuses them of using that as a way of characterizing schools or teachers or teachers unions as “terrible” or “bad.” And here he is, implicitly doing exactly that.

      And here comes David to do exactly that explicitly. And it is a not far-fetched conclusion for David to make based upon Somerby’s writing.

    5. thanks for your comments @11:54

      @1:07 Somerby's aim is, as usual, to fault the reporting.

    6. @david: then why did you call LA schools terrible? Did you derive that from Somerby’s blog post?

    7. I derived it from the numbers in that post. The schools are getting terrible results.

  6. Schools can "work" or "not work" but either way the result is heavily dependent on the socioeconomic and cultural conditions of the student body.

    Are those students from middle-class families, striving for education? Or, are they from an underclass environment where education has no value whatsoever, perceived as waste of time?

    That is what, by and large, determines the results, not schools "working" or "not working". In our humble opinion.

  7. "But at times like these, we think of Ben Johnson's electrifying, punishing statement in The Last Picture Show:

    I've been puttin' up with this trashy behavior my whole life."

    This is totally ridiculous. That sentence in the film has nothing to do with this situation where a journalist is discussing a book about improving public schools in Los Angeles.

    Does Somerby merely want us to know that he watches obscure films? What is the point of this stupid quote?

    Trashy would never be the right word to describe either Fuller's book or Matthews' article about it, nor the needs of those deserving kids in the Los Angeles public schools.

    Who is Somerby calling trashy? This is so random that it almost appears as if Somerby doesn't care who he insults, in what manner, as long as he fulfills his quota of jabs at liberals each day.

    1. The clip shows an older man berating teens for pulling a prank on a presumably retarded boy. Somerby finds this relevant to the LA NAEP scores and school evaluation by Fuller.

      Here is the ugliest interpretation of Somerby's presentation of this clip. He considers the black kids to be retarded and he considers those who put them into more demanding learning circumstances (offering them Jimmy Sue) to be hurting them by giving them more than they can handle, so they can laugh at their lack of success. But is Fuller laughing? Only Somerby seems to think of black kids this way.

      What other interpretation of that clip could there be? Perhaps Somerby sees himself as the pool hall owner who tries to shame the teens -- it sounds like that because Somerby complains about trashy behavior on the part of education researchers such as Fuller.

      But does this equation of black kids with a retarded white boy really work, or is it a racist and degrading assumption about the abilities of struggling kids? This analogy itself is offensive, in Somerby's sly, deniable manner of offering an ugly trope without ownership of it. Did Somerby consider the low performing black kids in his classrooms to be mentally retarded? Did he think it was cruel to try to teach them?

      How many white people like Somerby carry around associations between chimps and black people in their heads? How many equate low performing black kids in elementary schools with retarded kids? Needless to say, this is racist bullshit.

      Somerby is the trashy one in this situation. He should be ashamed, but he won't be, because he no doubt thinks he is right -- the NAEP scores prove that black children cannot learn, Somerby thinks. So the improvement in Los Angeles scores must be fraud.

      Talk about another big lie!

  8. After printing some naep statistics, Somerby says “ Ow ow ow ow ow ow ow!”

    Does that sound like media criticism? It sounds like he is judging LA’s statistics as being painful.

    1. ow ow ow, even worse, the scores he posts are wrong, here is a comment from yesterday with the actual and correct scores from the NAEP website (also note that LA 8th grade math scores peaked at 260 in the previous round of tests, matching scores in high scoring states like MD and MA):

      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!

    2. To be fair, Somerby is posting LAUSD scores, 2:35 is posting CA scores, but overall their points stand.

  9. I have been reading Somerby for a long time because he does sometimes make valid technical points about education, if not much on other subjects. But I keep waiting for him to say exactly what has to be done to really improve education for non-whites, or even to point to others who might have good ideas. I suspect myself that education of non-whites may not improve until the economic and general social status of their parents is improved - the real correlation of student achievement is with parental status, not what is done in schools. But Somerby consistently opposes reduction of racism - he singles out incidents where he can argue that there is not absolutely iron-clad proof of racism.

    Somerby says "No one cares about black kids" which of course is false. It's not clear that he cares, except as a means of criticizing others who actually do.

  10. "The Last Picture Show" is a great book and movie, and the sequence Bob sites is indeed stirring.
    But it couldn't be a lot further from the subject
    at hand. Larry McMurtry's portrait is of a dirt poor
    white community which, by the new bounty of the
    oil business, is experiencing sudden changes. Old
    friends who grew up together are now torn apart
    and on different sides of the tracks. The young
    people are growning bored and spoiled. Sam the lion's
    speech is a frustrated reaction to said, though
    Sam would probably tell you, that's dumb kids being
    dumb kids.
    All things being universal, Bob still couldn't have
    found a setting that has LESS to do with Los
    Angeles and test scores in high school's of the
    present day.
    But, we can assume, none of this has a lot to do
    with High School test scores in the present day.
    Bob see's himself as Sam the Lion, and the mean kids
    he needs to school are the liberals. Who must be
    owned, I guess.
    A word for the passing of Eric Boehlert, who did
    work that was something like the quality work Bob
    used to do, from an admittedly different perspective.
    He managed to do in with great passion without
    rubbing anyone's face into the dirt, as Bob so
    loves to do.

    1. Thanks for commenting on Eric Boehlert. His analyzes and insights on media will be sorely missed.

  11. Kathryn Joyce at Salon says:

    "“To get universal school choice,” Rufo told listeners, “you need to operate from a premise of universal public school distrust.”

    That admission is remarkably similar to the diagnosis that progressive public education advocates have made. Last month, former Nashville school board member Amy Frogge told Salon that she saw “all the controversy about critical race theory” as a deliberate strategy to alienate communities from their local schools. The education privatization movement, she said, “is a billionaire’s movement,” and the only way it can “gain ground is to create controversy and distrust of the public school system. That’s what all of this is about.”

    Somerby is part of that conservative effort.

    1. Exactly, this is what I have been saying. This is all part of the long term conservative campaign to undermine public education.