By Sammy Roth, Staff Writer. LA Daily News | http://bit.ly/PETRWF
8/14/2012 12:01:01 AM PDT :: A nearly $20-billion effort to reduce overcrowding in city schools has paid off -- at least for elementary school students, according to a new study.
The Los Angeles Unified School District has built dozens of new schools since 2002, and researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, found that the initiative has sparked huge increases in elementary school students' test scores.
The initiative has been less successful, though, at the high school level, with students' scores increasing little or not at all.
The study was released at midnight Monday as LAUSD students head back to class after summer vacation. Researchers looked at the more than 20,000 students who moved into 73 new facilities built between 2002 and 2008, finding that elementary school students improved their scores as much as they would have if the school year was increased by 25 to 35 days.
"We rarely see such eye-popping benefits from any kind of school reform," said Bruce Fuller, a Berkeley professor of education and public policy who worked on the study.
While research has shown that reducing overcrowding improves achievement, nowhere else has building new facilities boosted test scores so much, Fuller said. He speculated that the huge gains for elementary school students were a result of the fact that LAUSD -- the nation's second-largest school district -- was so overcrowded to begin with.
"It may be that the new-school effect stems from the
fact that we had young kids packed like sardines in the classrooms, and overnight they moved to clean and tidy facilities staffed by younger, better-trained teachers," Fuller said.
But meanwhile, high school students who moved to new schools saw a small average increase in their language arts scores, and a small but statistically insignificant decrease in their math scores. Fuller said that the researchers were unable to explain the disparity between elementary and high school students.
John Rogers, an education professor at UCLA who was not involved with the study, said there were a few possible reasons the initiative has benefited elementary school students more than high schoolers.
One possibility, he said, is that LAUSD's Small Learning Communities program -- an effort to forge intimate educational experiences in large, potentially impersonal high schools -- has already paid off, meaning high school students have less to gain from moving to smaller schools.
But it's also possible, he added, that high schools are so large that it's impossible for them to replicate the kind of community possible at an elementary school.
"One thing we may be seeing is that high schools are already so large that whether you have a 3,000- or 5,000-student high school, you're already at a size that you don't have a sense of intimacy, and a feeling that everybody knows each other," Rogers said.
While the new-schools initiative has reduced the overall size of LAUSD schools, classroom size has stayed roughly the same since it began, according to state data. By the time the new-schools initiative is complete, LAUSD will have built about 130 new facilities over the course of a decade.
The initiative has come with a hefty $19.5-billion price tag, making it the second-largest public works project in U.S. history, after the interstate highway system.
But the simple fact of building a new school might be more important than how much money is spent to build that school, Fuller said. The study noted that students improved their test scores by the same amount regardless of how expensive the new facility they moved to, potentially indicating a way for LAUSD and other school districts to save money as they work to reduce overcrowding.
"This is kind of a bright red flag to the district that as they finish the new schools, and as they move into renovating schools, they need to think much more carefully about cost-effective ways of refurbishing schools and improving the quality of facilities," Fuller said.
LAUSD did not respond to requests for comment on the study.
HOW GOOD NEWS HAPPENED
Themes in the News by UCLA IDEA | Week of Aug. 13-17, 2012 | http://bit.ly/PvOqWz
8-17-2012 :: This week, University of California, Berkeley researchers reported that a $19.5 billion building project in Los Angeles Unified yielded significant academic gains at elementary schools, particularly for students who transferred from severely overcrowded campuses.
New Schools, Overcrowding Relief, and Achievement Gains in Los Angeles - Strong Returns from a $19.5 Billion Investment analyzed the effects of Los Angeles' ambitious building plan—131 new schools—funded by voter-approved local and state bonds. This building program provided new facilities to thousands of students and reduced overcrowding in existing schools. On average, elementary school students who moved to new schools made gains that were equal to up to 35 instructional days. For students who were relieved of extreme overcrowding situations, the gains were 65 days. Students who remained in the previously overcrowded schools also experienced modest gains (Daily News, EdSource Today, Education Week).
"It may be that the new-school effect stems from the fact that we had young kids packed like sardines in the classrooms, and overnight they moved to clean and tidy facilities staffed by younger, better-trained teachers," said Bruce Fuller, one of the authors (Daily News).
Indeed in the 1990s, schools across California, and particularly in Los Angeles, had reached unprecedented levels of overcrowding, often with conditions more often associated with slum housing. More than one-third of California students had class in a portable or trailer. What were once gyms, computer labs and libraries became classrooms. Schools developed multi-track years to accommodate the influx. In Los Angeles, 25,000 students were bused to other schools. Some spent more than two hours commuting (Just Schools).
These were some of the appalling conditions that led to Williams v. California, the path-breaking class-action lawsuit that alleged the state failed to provide millions of California students, primarily low income students and students of color, the bare essentials of an education, including safe and secure facilities. The suit also challenged a version of year-round education (“Concept 6”) that provided less instructional time to many of the same students. State officials initially dismissed these claims as unrelated to school quality. They denied that these conditions affected the ability of students to learn and teachers to teach.
But a broad, statewide coalition of community groups, advocacy groups and civil rights lawyers continued to draw attention to the problems of overcrowded classrooms, substandard facilities, and an unequal instructional time for students in Los Angeles. That effort led to the 2004 Williams settlement, which set aside $800 million for facility repairs (Themes) and a deadline for ending “Concept 6” schedules that could only be met through a massive school construction effort.
Responding to an advocacy campaign supported by many of the same groups and with expert assistance from the Advancement Project, voters in Los Angeles and statewide supported several ballot initiatives to fund new school facilities. The nearly $20 billion Los Angeles effort examined by PACE is the second-largest public works project in the nation.
The UC Berkeley study reports on the impact of new construction on student test scores, but the new school buildings have had a broader effect as well. By creating new and improved conditions for teaching and learning, the new schools promote teacher morale and dramatically decrease teacher turnover. Harder to capture in numbers is the sense of pride students and parents feel in seeing state of the art public institutions in their own communities. These positive civic lessons are a powerful legacy of public investment and the broad-based civic activism that led to it.New Schools, Overcrowding Relief, and Achievement Gains in LAUSD