SUCCESS OF LEARN PROGRAM STILL HARD TO MEASURE.
Born of frustration over the school district's inability to reform itself, the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now plan was drafted between 1991 and 1993 by a coalition of more than 600 community, education and business leaders.
Its goal is no less than a total makeover of the school system - shifting power from the downtown bureaucracy to local school sites and challenging teachers and staff to work more effectively to improve student performance.
Identifying the problem and the goals were the easy part. Implementating the program and measuring its success have proved a much more complex process.
On the third anniversary of the program's launch, the Daily News last week invited key leaders of the reform movement to participate in a roundtable discussion of both LEARN's progress to date and its direction for the future.
Participants were school Superintendent Sid Thompson; Board of Education vice president Jeff Horton; United Teachers-Los Angeles president Helen Bernstein; LEARN president Mike Roos; LEARN chairman Robert Wycoff; and Virgil Roberts; chairman of the Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project, a non-profit foundation that funds school reform in the city.
From the Daily News, participants were education writer Kimberly Kindy, editorial writer Jeanne Mariani-Belding, assistant city editor Steve Getzug and assistant managing editor Mark Barnhill, who moderated the session.
What resulted was a candid, critical discussion of the LEARN program and several important challenges it faces, including bolstering the academic component of the reforms; figuring out how to document improvements in school programs in general and student performance in particular; and imposing tougher accountability standards on administrators, principals, teachers, school staff, parents and even the students themselves.
Highlights of the 2-1/2-hour session, which was taped for broadcast at an unspecificied date by KLCS-TV (Channel 58), will be published by the Daily News over the next several days.
Today's excerpts, taken from the outset of the discussion, focus on whether and how the success of the LEARN program is being measured.
Barnhill: Can you cite one or two specific examples that show in concrete terms for parents how student performance has been improved by the LEARN program?
Thompson: LEARN is about the process that causes the various constituencies - teachers, administrators, parents, classified staff, support staff, students - to come together about what it is that's going to happen to these young people.
We know that nothing's going to change in terms of their achievment unless those constituencies are holding hands regarding the kids. To show student achievement you first have to get everybody holding hands.
And then you have to say, "What is it we're going to teach and how are we going to do it?" The district has policies about what you're going to teach. But how you go about causing that to happen is what has to be developed in the schools. This is not a quick fix.
Barnhill: So the answer then is "No"? That at this point, three years in, there are no concrete or quantifiable examples of how student performance has improved because we're still in the process of changing the culture?
Thompson: Answer it this way. In any of those areas you will find schools that are moving forward. All of the change within all of those schools, I'm not ready to say has occurred yet.
Barnhill: A lot of parents are asking, "When will I see results? When will I know something is happening?" Do any of the rest of you see anything quantifiable? If not, when can we expect that and what form will it take?
Horton: I don't think we've found yet a clear correlation where all or almost all the LEARN schools are making improvements that nobody else is making. There are indicators district-wide that have been going up - redesignation into English fluency, participation in advanced course work.
You can see improvements in the district. I think it is too soon to tie that specifically to LEARN schools, although certainly many LEARN schools show those same improvements. The variables among the LEARN schools are so great that they're not moving forward in this way as a block. But LEARN has created this atmosphere in the district that everybody is working wants to achieve.
Roos: If you take the 34 (Phase I) LEARN schools and you compare them with the district average, their scores were higher on the CTBS (Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills). Attendance was up. Absenteeism was down. And there is a sense that there is a change, a measurable change in the temperament of how people feel about their school as a workplace for their kids.
The whole question would be simplified if we had a measurement of what we want kids to know, but that is absent in the state, and it's absent in the nation. There's a huge debate around it. You ask the right question. But exceedingly it is a tougher and tougher question as time goes on, because you have some flimsy instruments by which you measure progress.
Bernstein: For the first time the district itself is creating uniform standards in the content area - language arts was just finished, they're working on science and math now. That's a first for this district. The next step is to put them. . .in the classroom (and determine) whether they are translating into higher student achievement.
Kindy: Are you saying that standards have to be developed for each subject area and a test must be developed to measure these new standards before we're going to have any idea how LEARN schools are doing?
Bernstein: No, I'm not saying that. I'm saying there's a wide variety of ways in which you can measure. Mike referred to some. There is no doubt that we can measure parent involvement. There's no doubt you can do a satisfaction survey of all the customers. You can measure attendance scores. You have to take standardized tests as one of the measures, because parents can more easily relate to them.
But you also have to measure whether kids are more engaged in the learning process - whether we are measuring not only what they know, but what they're able to do. There is not a measurement now to be able to figure out what kids are able to do.
We can measure what they know on a standardized test, but not whether they can actually apply that in a meaningful way. The district has made a commitment to develop those measurement tools, and it should be ready within a year.
Horton: The question has to be asked in more detail. If the question is "Are students better able to do long division?" - that's a pretty easy thing to measure. If the question is "Are students better able to solve problems in a creative way given a set of disparate facts?" - that's much harder to measure. I would say the second question is more fundamental. That's a more important thing that they'd be learning, but that's much harder to measure.
Kindy: So when will parents be able to look at their schools and see in a real clear-cut way whether LEARN has made a difference in student achievment?
Bernstein: If it were my child at a LEARN school I would go in September and look at their work, then I would go in in June and look at their work. I can tell you straight out that as a parent you can tell if your child has learned something.
Most of the LEARN schools are emphasizing portfolios and demonstrating that in exactly that way, and you can't quantify that because portfolios are so difficult to do. But any parent who wants to know if this has made a difference needs to go in and see what their child is doing on Day One, then ask for the exact same work the day they exit that school. They will be able to tell.
Roos: In the early years, it's all word of mouth. Just show up and see how hard they're working these kids.
Barnhill: But this is a critical question for parents: Is my child at School A enrolled in an effective program? Is it as good as it could be and does LEARN have an impact on that? How does it compare to other schools?
Bernstein: Part of what LEARN is supposed to do is help educate parents so they ask the right questions. If the parent says, "I don't know what's going on in the school," then they're going to have a hard time.
Horton: Parents have to recognize the complexity of this process, and ask "Is my child going to learn? Are all the tools going to be there at this school? Are the best techniques that are available for teaching going to be known by the teachers? Is there a process for the teachers to have time to investigate the best ways of teaching children with different situations?"
Those questions give you the whole range of things at the school that the parent needs to be tracking on a close basis. There has got to be a little recognition of the complexity of the process here of kids learning.
Roberts: Is the LEARN program making a difference and can you point to improved student performance? I would say yes. That may not be empirically verifiable in a way in which we would like for it to be. But I would say if you went to probably 75 percent of the LEARN campuses, parents who were involved would say their kids have gotten more out of this school since it became a LEARN school.
Researchers will tell you that in order for education to improve for kids, you have to have staff development, you have to have clear standards and goals, and you have to have a link between what teachers have been taught in that staff development, and changes in the curriculum. That's what's happening in LEARN schools.
I'm pretty confident based upon what I've seen that the effort and the time that's been spent in working with staff and with parents in the LEARN schools has paid dividends with the impact on kids and parents of the schools.
I feel pretty good about it. In other words as a business person, I don't think we're wasting resources.
Wycoff: This is an extremely important question. If we can't in the end measure how well the kids are doing, we're not going to be able to convince the public or ourselves that this whole thing is worthwhile.
Up to now we've had anecdotal evidence - attendance at schools, parents being more involved and interested in what goes on in the school - that lead me to believe we're on the right track. But I can't say, I don't think that we have the kind of hard evidence that says that the test scores went up "X" percent as a result of the LEARN program.
Barnhill: Given the exigencies of the breakup movement and a general attitude of dysfunction within the school district, how time critical is it that we achieve and get quantifiable results on the table for parents or anyone else who would say that without them there's no evidence that the school system is going to reform.
Wycoff: It is obviously time critical, because there's always impatience with the schools. There are kids in school right now who are going to be graduating very soon and who won't feel very good about an answer that we won't know anything for years.
On the other hand if you ask LEARN schools if they would go back to doing it the way you did before, the answer would be a resounding no.
Photo (1--color) Sid Thompson (2--color) Jeff Horton (3--color) Helen Bernstein (4--color) Mike Roos (5--color) Robert Wycoff (6--color) Virgil Roberts
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|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||Mar 24, 1996|
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