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Why Is It So Hard to Believe Good News About Public Schools?

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In a recent post, I called attention to the charter school wars triggered by the Broad Foundation announcement that it sought to start enough new charters to enroll half the students in Los Angeles.  I predicted that one of the characteristics of the combat would be an intense battle to spin or reinterpret data so that it supported one's biases about district run or charter schools.  Here, Alan Warhaftig asks whether preconception bias makes it impossible for the district's detractors to recognize substantial achievement by students in district-run magnet schools. /ctk

 By Alan Warhaftig

As a high school English teacher, I require students to support their opinions with quality evidence.  That's what I've taught for 25 years, and it's also what the Common Core standards require. 

On September 23, the LAUSD Office of Data and Accountability issued an informative to the Board of Education, accompanied by a spreadsheet with Smarter Balanced Assessment scores and meal program eligibility, the data element that commonly indicates low income students.  The informative showed, very clearly, that LAUSD's magnet schools outperformed both charters and the state, by large margins at every grade level.

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Anticipating objections that gifted and highly gifted magnets might unfairly impact the results, the informative broke the results down so that all magnets, gifted student magnets and other magnets could be compared with charters.  The other magnets (non-gifted) outperformed charters by 49-33 (48.5% higher) in English Language Arts (ELA) and 36-28 (28.6% higher) in math.

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In terms of ethnicity, LAUSD's magnets outperformed charters in 25 of 28 cases on the SBAC ELA and 26 of 28 on the SBAC mathematics.  For all grades, magnets outperformed charters for every ethnic group on both exams: African-Americans (39-28 on ELA and 25-16 on math); Asians (81-77 on ELA and 77-70 on math); Latinos (49-37 on ELA and 36-25 on math); and Whites (72-68 on ELA and 62-55 on math). 

Charters performed better than magnets with English Learners (11-6 on ELA and 10-7 on math), but magnets outperformed charters with Reclassified English Learners (54-45 in ELA and 40-30 in math) and with Students with Disabilities (21-11 on ELA and 17-8 in math).

For the Economically Disadvantaged, charters outperformed magnets with White students (59-58) and tied with Asian students (75-75), but magnets did better with African Americans (35-25) and Latinos (47-36).  With the Non-Economically Disadvantaged, magnets outperformed charters for all ethnicities: African American (47-38); Asian (86-80); Latino (58-49); and White (78-72).

In a September 25 article in the Los Angeles Times, Howard Blume quoted Antonia Hernandez of the California Community Foundation: "The charter schools send out certain data and LAUSD sends out certain data and you can get lost in the data...When the adults stop fighting over data, the issue is where will parents be as far as choice and where will students be as far as getting a good education."

Is Hernandez opposed to examination of actual data, or does she believe that policy should hinge on claims made in press releases?  Is Ms. Hernandez distressed by the complexity of data in general or the prospect that honest examination of SBAC test data might require her to rethink her agenda?  

The Times Editorial Board weighed in on October 2 by characterizing the data controversy as a "playground shouting match" and a "tacky exercise in one-upmanship."  The Times is heavily invested in the narrative of charter schools as education's saviors, but what if the SBAC test data undermines the narrative, which requires that charters outperform non-charter schools on standardized tests? 

As an English teacher, I advise students in this situation to reconsider their conclusion because they don't have evidence to support it, but the Times doesn't roll that way.  The Editorial Board's breezy dismissal of discussion of test data—"Neener-neener"—further diminishes the newspaper's endangered brand. "Seek Truth and Report It" has fewer adherents at Times Mirror Square than one would hope.

The ambition of the Common Core Standards is praiseworthy, and the results of the Smarter Balanced Assessments need to be carefully examined with an open mind.  LAUSD has released data and needs to release more.  The bottom line, though, is that the scores are the scores, and distortions and spin from those who have a horse in the race, including the California Charter Schools Association and the Los Angeles Times editorial page, won't change the reality that LAUSD-run magnet schools are doing really well and may be the best choice for parents.

Alan Warhaftig is an English teacher and magnet coordinator at the Fairfax Visual Arts Magnet.  Last year, 55 of the 59 juniors he taught (93%) met or exceeded the SBAC ELA standard.

Revised: Tables repositioned. 10/15.

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