Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Punished For Having Too Many Poor Black and Latino Students

A federal civil rights investigation found that LAUSD has been failing to effectively teach its English Language Learners and black students and, as a result, will lose federal funding if it cannot rectify the problem promptly, the Los Angeles Times reported yesterday. The school district agreed to sweeping changes in order to remedy the problem, despite its huge budget shortfall.

As usual, policy makers are conflating the symptom with the cause. There is no question that black and Latino children are doing poorly in LAUSD schools, as they are throughout the country. But there is no logical reason to believe that it is the fault of the district or its teachers or that the district is guilty of institutional racism.

Black and Latino children are the poorest in the country (over 35% of whom are living below the poverty line). Poverty and other “out-of-school” factors have a substantially greater influence on student achievement than curriculum, teacher quality, school structure or any other “in-school” factor (see here, here, here, here and here).

Blaming LAUSD for low achievement by these students is misguided, naïve and completely disregards the facts. By ignoring poverty and societal racism and doing nothing to mitigate them, LAUSD will necessarily see continued low performance for the majority of these children and will still lose the federal funds. This shell game does, however, let policy makers and affluent members of society off the hook.

According to the Times, the Department of Education launched its probe last year, to see if English Language Learners (ELLs), the majority of whom were Latino, were receiving adequate instruction. LAUSD has more ELLs (about 195,000, or 29% of its total enrollment) than any other school district in the United States. As a result of pressure by local activists, the investigation was widened to include African American students, who make up about 10% of the district's enrollment.

In order to satisfy the feds, LAUSD agreed to provide students learning English and black students with more “effective” teachers. However, this is just more of the “blame the teacher” game and a continued denial of the socioeconomic, cultural and political influences on the problem.

LAUSD certainly could hire more experienced veteran teachers who have undergone extensive training in English language development and literacy. They could provide greater professional development opportunities for teachers to gain these skills. They could provide smaller class sizes so that teachers can give more attention to struggling students. They could offer additional language and literacy support classes. There are numerous other reforms they could implement, as well. However, all of these reforms cost money, something the district currently lacks, and they do nothing to address the underlying socioeconomic causes of low student achievement.

Arne Duncan visited Los Angeles and joined L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to praise the district’s cooperation. Both are pleased because it gives them another weapon to attack teachers, while doing nothing substantive or effective to help improve schools or support struggling children.

Not surprisingly, student test scores will be used to measure whether the reforms are working. LAUSD is one of the few major school districts in the nation to implement value-added methods for assessing teachers. With the pressure on L.A. schools and teachers to preserve federal funding by improving test scores for black and Latino students, the district will have greater leverage in using value-added measures to fire teachers, despite the inaccuracy and inconsistency of this form of assessment or the fact that teacher quality is only one tiny factor that influences student performance.

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