Perspectives on LAUSD
by John McDonald
UCLA Professor Pedro Noguera is doing a lot of thinking these days about the Los Angeles Unified School District and what can be done to improve learning opportunities for kids. A sociologist, he is interested in big issues outside of schools like immigration and inequality, and how they impact what is happening inside of schools. In this interview he shares his thoughts on LAUSD and the role of the larger community in improving education.
Q: For starters, how do you think LAUSD is doing?
I think there are real pockets of hope here in LA. I see people doing great work with very vulnerable kids—kids that are very poor, kids that have been incarcerated, kids that are homeless. I also see a lot of very good community organizing going on.
And in terms of student achievement, by conventional measures, LAUSD is doing ok. In fact—they are improving. Graduation rates are up, and according to the most recent state achievement scores, the students are making progress—more so than in the past.
But that is not good enough. It’s not, because if you look more closely at things like college readiness—the rates are low, even for kids who complete the A–G requirements. And there is a persistent and troubling achievement gap among Latino and African American students.
That should force us to rethink how we are delivering education to kids.
Q: Why is what happens in LAUSD so important?
Any thinking about schools needs to start from an understanding that they (schools) are the essential part of the social infrastructure. They are the institution parents rely on to get their kids an education and where the future workforce comes from. Schools are vital to the life of any city.
Unfortunately, many cities have really neglected their schools —even as evidence shows that neglect is having real consequences in terms of poverty, unemployment, crime and other issues. We continue to neglect the schools—we blame schools, but we don’t say what we need to do differently to enable our schools to begin to address the social and economic challenges we face.
Los Angeles epitomizes that. With few exceptions, LAUSD serves the poorest kids, the most vulnerable kids. We need to realize that no system can survive if that is the only group it serves. And if this system fails, this city, the whole community is in trouble.
Q: What do you see as the most critical challenges?
At the forefront is the structural financial deficit facing LAUSD related to declining enrollment, rising pension costs and other expenses. The Infrastructure of the district is designed to serve 750,000 students, not the half a million they now have. And they have not figured out how to shrink it, and they have not figured out how to make the system responsive to the needs of the city.
The financial challenges are really a reflection of the larger issues facing the district.
Like many urban systems, LAUSD does not know how to make its schools better. It does not know how to make its schools successful in attracting middle class parents. And if you can’t attract middle class parents, you are not going to be able to address the big challenges facing the system.
Q: What’s behind the decline in enrollment?
As charter schools have sprung up, parents are opting to leave for what they perceive as better options—and in some cases they are better options. But it’s a mistake to just point at charters—the wealthy left public schools a long time ago.
That loss of enrollment is driving financial problems, but also generating political problems. And now we are seeing fights over resources and space—and the board is polarized. It has trouble thinking through the issues. We are at a kind of political impasse—combined with major educational and economic challenges.
We need civic leadership to address these critical needs.
Q: What can civic leaders do?
First, in their desire to see the educational system improve, they can’t just tear it down. Civic leaders need to realize the education system needs to work for everybody, not just for some. You can’t have a public system that only serves the most vulnerable kids—the ones no one else wants to serve—that’s not viable.
We need civic leadership to address these problems in a strategic and systemic way.
For example, LA is gentrifying rapidly because of the cost of housing. That’s an opportunity to create more integrated schools. Who is seizing that opportunity?
The District isn’t—because they don’t know how. No one is really thinking about it. That’s why I say there is a lack of leadership.
Instead, what we are seeing now are increasing inequities— because there is no systemic thinking. It makes no sense. I was just in East LA. There are new charter schools springing up all over. They are in inadequate, inferior facilities, and they are already overcrowded. Meanwhile, you have schools like Roosevelt High School that are under-populated, with large playing fields, classrooms and an auditorium. Why don’t we figure out a way to work together and share those resources for the benefit of the community, rather than create new inferior schools—it’s senseless.
We have a system that does not work on so many levels— it’s costly, and it’s not effective. And I don’t see a larger strategy emerging—one that tells me we are moving in the right direction.
Q: So, what would you say to those civic leaders working to “reform” education in Los Angeles?
I’d say we still need public schools—be careful that your efforts to “reform” the school system don’t destroy it, because if this city loses its public schools, we will be much worse off.
I’m concerned because reform has been rebranded to mean “choice” or “charters.” It does not mean building up the public system—and that is what we need to be focused on.
That does not mean we shouldn’t have options for students and families. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about how we can give schools more autonomy and free them up from bureaucratic regulations. But we need to come back to the question, how do we create good choices in all schools in all neighborhoods?
It can’t just be that only some are served well.
Q: What should LAUSD do?
The whole way we have thought about reform and improvement is deeply flawed, because we focus on gimmicks. But we don’t address the need to build capacity, and that’s what we should be focused on. We need capacity building efforts in schools where we are working very deliberately to provide the resources that match the needs of the kids. And simultaneously to increase the professional capacity of the staff—the teachers, counselors and administrators—so they too have the skills to meet the needs of the kids.
That mismatch between what the kids need and what schools provide is what results in so many kids not being served well.
Michelle King, the new superintendent, needs to surround herself with strong people who can help her to solve problems. She has to lead and she can’t be afraid to make some tough, bold decisions.
LAUSD also needs to draw on the resources of this community for help. They cannot do it without it. The funding is not adequate or efficient—we have under-resourced schools.
But it’s not just about the money. The school district needs to be strategic about making investments that can attract people back to the system and build some confidence in our public schools.
Q: How can UCLA and other universities help?
I think there is great irony in that there are great universities in Los Angeles—UCLA, USC and others—and we need to ask what role are they playing in support of public schools? I would say that historically they have not done enough.
But I sense a willingness now to take that on in a much more serious and robust way than they have in the past. And I think they have a lot they can provide. It goes much beyond teacher education. We need to work with the school system to think about how we can bring services into the schools, because we have lots of kids who are poor. And we need to think about how we can design schools that will attract middle class families back into the public school system.
There are huge challenges that the universities could play a role in—not solving—but in collaborating with teachers, parents, unions and others to help figure this out. I think UCLA and other universities have a responsibility to be involved.
As for me, I am trying to play a role in helping to bridge some of the divisions. I think maybe we can get people to move beyond the more entrenched ideological positions—and maybe to think more pragmatically about how to solve problems. That’s a good sign.