The conventional wisdom about big public bureaucracies is that nothing changes very much very fast. Bloated bureaucracy, greedy unions, and feuding interest groups assure absolute gridlock or so the stereotype holds. However, reality is a little more complicated, and so is studying efforts to overhaul the nation's second largest school district, Los Angeles Unified.
With the help of two substantial grants from the Annenberg Foundation, my colleagues—both faculty and students—and I are studying efforts to bring fundamental change to L.A.'s public schools. The research projects are different in method and focus, but they are both conceptually rich as well as relevant for practice and policy.
For our "Learning In L.A." project, Pomona College professor David Menefee-Libey and I are studying a quarter-century of reform efforts in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The system didn't change the way the reformers intended, but our early data suggest that public education may have changed in other interesting ways.
The decentralization planned by LEARN (The Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now), for example, did not persist, and conventional wisdom about civic politics would not have predicted the failure. A huge civic coalition, led by such notables as Richard Riordan (before he became mayor) and the late CGU trustee Roy Anderson, held literally hundreds of community meetings and enlisted thousands of supporters. It constructed a plan to change the school district, root and branch.
Robert Wycoff, then the CEO of ARCO, stood before the school board in 1993 saying that “our children and our community can’t wait any longer.” The school board responded with a 7-0 vote to endorse the LEARN program. The train of progress was fully subscribed. The business community, the mayor, the superintendent, the teachers union president, the state schools chief all had reserved tickets. "Who would of thought," an observer of the process would recall, "that all these people would sign up and then not do the reform."
Eight years later LEARN was gone. A second large reform effort—The Los Angeles Annenberg Metropolitan Project (LAAMP) sought to deepen the LEARN project in the city and extend reforms countywide. LEARN, too, was closing its doors, and the school district was becoming more centralized than ever. The superintendency had passed to a non-educator—Roy Romer, the former governor of Colorado—and the grand civic coalition around reform sputtered. One would be tempted to write off the whole effort. Except! The systemic reform efforts provide a simply stunning window to study organizational and political change and through that window one can see the elements of institutional rather than organizational level-change.
Most of the reform activity was local, centered in Los Angeles, and aimed squarely at the school district administration. But public education, we posit, has long ceased to be a local activity. Drawing on a conceptual framework developed by Menefee-Libey, we are investigating the district and its reforms as a federal system: many levels of government each with its own rules and procedures. The ideas that persisted were those that connected several levels.
We are interested not only in whether the schools are good at organizational change, but who sets the norms for change and how are these rules transmitted. Of necessity, we look outside the schools themselves at state and federal governments, accrediting agencies, teacher unions, and opinion leaders that confer or deny legitimacy. Institutions do not freely choose to change their behavior. They are not just constrained in the ways in which people are allowed to change, they are constrained in the way people think about change. As a student of mine once said, “what’s really being restructured here are people’s heads.”
Our 18-month research process involves constructing parallel and intersecting histories of reform initiatives at local, state, and national levels. We are tracking events, turning points, and seeking to understand who influenced whom. Stephanie Clayton, an MA graduate in history, is shaping our disordered files into a data base capable of inquiry and event tracking. We are also re-coding interviews from previous research and conducting new interviews with participants in the reforms. Although the organizational decentralization failed, several other key ideas persisted, and part of our investigation is to understand why they lasted when other things failed.
High standards and organized parents are the core of the second research project, the evaluation of the Boyle Heights Learning Collaborative, which we have been able to follow the project from the outset and provide formative assistance.
Most simply stated, BHLC attempts to combine public school reform, parental engagement and community development into a useful synergy. BHLC started at Breed Street Elementary, which sits in the heart of Boyle Heights, just east of downtown Los Angeles. Soto Street is a block away, the notorious Hollenbeck police station just around the corner, and the Breed Street Shul, site of the city’s first Jewish congregation, is a short walk away. There has been a Breed Street school on the site since 1887, and the school counts industrialists, school superintendents, and civic leaders among its immigrant alumni.
In the census tracts surrounding the school, the median family income is between $20,000 and $30,000 annually. Nearly all families speak Spanish at home, and about 85 percent of first graders come to school not speaking English. Yet, Breed Street Elementary, and several of the surrounding schools have done a remarkable job in increasing student achievement. Breed scored 705—better than many suburban schools—on the state achievement index, and several other schools are not far behind.
Parent participation has blossomed at the school; and as parents learn about the school, they are also learning about political power: how to get it and how to use it. They conduct organized critiques of classrooms and report their findings to the faculty and administration. They have also become more involved in their own children’s education and much better informed about how school operates and how their children can navigate the system.
Bigger and tougher targets lie ahead. High school graduation rates are dismal in Boyle Heights, and they have not improved very much in a quarter century. Secondary schools are badly overcrowded, and too many students reach high school without the expected skills. Far too often, they are placed in a curriculum that would not allow them access to college, even if they persisted in school to graduation. Recent data show that only about 4 percent of 10th graders meet expected standards in math.
Our work in Boyle Heights is a mixture of organizational and political analysis and “speaking truth to power” in advising the operators of the project and the Annenberg Foundation, which has underwritten it. We have been studying the extent to which the schools are becoming organizationally smarter: the extent to which they are embedding analysis of student achievement into the routines of the school and the extent to which its writing-intensive pedagogy is embedded into the life of the school, not isolated as an add-on. We’ve also been attempting to explicate the concept of social capital, both in attempts to illustrate how it has been used and to ask whether the efforts of the Boyle Heights Collaborative have enhanced it.
In the process, we are using many conventional social science techniques—surveys, observation, and interviews—and we are also experimenting with using digital video as a documentary device. Michelle Tellez, a doctoral candidate in education, spent two years tracking events at the school, and we are beginning to analyze these data. Doctoral student Laura Mulfinger, has been gathering data on students and parents and is preparing a narrative history. Other doctoral graduates and students involved in the project include: Weijiang Zhang; Alejandra Favela; Akiko Otsu, Sara Exposito, and June Hilton. Professor David Drew is assisting with the analysis.
There are manifold pleasures in this research. However, the greatest is in interaction with people who are trying to change the circumstances in which they work and learn: people who are realistic enough to know that it is a struggle, but strong enough to not be defeated.