Wednesday, December 05, 2012


By Kimberly Beltran, SI&A Cabinet Report |

Tuesday, December 04, 2012  ::  An investment over the past decade of nearly $20 billion by Los Angeles Unified School District in new schools and facilities has had a direct result in higher student achievement – especially for those migrating to new elementary campuses, according to a new study.

The findings, contained in a brief published by Policy Analysis for California Education, are based on LAUSD data derived by tracking 20,000 students who moved from overcrowded to new facilities between 2002 and 2008.

PACE researchers from the University of California, Berkeley found “significant achievement gains” among elementary-school pupils who switched from an old facility to a newly constructed facility. On average, the report states, these ‘switching pupils’ outpaced the average LAUSD student by a gain equal to about 35 additional days of instruction each year.

While gains were not as significant for older students who relocated to new schools, there is evidence to suggest that student learning also improved at the overcrowded facilities from which the pupils moved.

“There were a lot of skeptics who were concerned about our use of the taxpayer money on new facilities,” said Eric Bakke, LAUSD facilities representative and legislative analyst. “I think there’s a lot of validation [by this study] of the efforts we’ve made over the last decade in terms of the district being able to provide an environment that allows students to be successful, and I think we’re starting to see some of the results.”

The study comes as LAUSD wraps up a huge facilities construction program – the second largest public works project ever undertaken in the U.S. – bolstered by the passage of five local and state ballot measures that provided more than $19 billion in new revenues.

Having not built a new school since the 1930s, LAUSD has now opened 128 of 132 newly-constructed campuses, Bakke said.

While earlier studies have suggested a correlation between certain features of school design – clean air, good light and a comfortable and safe learning environment – and stronger pupil engagement and achievement, little evidence exists to support the claim that the quality of school facilities directly influences educational outcomes, researchers said.

Examining enrollment and test scores for nearly 20,000 elementary and high school students from 2002-2008, researchers found that new elementary school facilities, after their initial two years, provided an average boost to achievement of about 0.18 of a standard deviation in math and 0.20 standard deviation in language arts for each year that the student was in the new facility. Those figures represent about the equivalent of 35 additional instructional days in math and 45 days in language arts, according to the report.

Students switching to new high school facilities were associated with a “statistically significant average gain” in language arts of about 0.13 standard deviation units. In mathematics, students moving to new high schools performed at lower levels, although the difference was not considered statistically significant by researchers.

However, when controlling for the theory that new schools attract more effective teachers than old schools, researchers concluded that while the gains made by students in the new high schools “can be almost entirely explained by the education and experience levels of their teachers,” “new facilities boosted elementary students’ achievement growth above and beyond what would be predicted by simply attracting more qualified teachers from elsewhere in the district.”

In addition, the data showed that bigger academic gains were made by students who moved from the most overcrowded campuses, and that elementary students who stayed behind in the older, more crowded schools “also enjoyed achievement gains…that were statistically significant in the case of language arts,” the report states.

The scores of high school students who remained in the “sending schools,” however, did not differ from average LAUSD student scores at the secondary level, the data showed.

But, researchers concluded, the fact that the students who moved to new schools saw much greater benefits than the students who stayed behind shows that “the newness of the school also contributed.”

The research found no relationship between the cost of new school construction and achievement gains of students, meaning that just because one new facility cost more to build than another, there was no evidence that students at the more costly school performed better.

PACE researchers also said they could not pinpoint the determining factors that explain the positive effects experienced by students.

“The collateral improvement in teacher qualifications displayed by new schools appears to have played a role, especially in attracting younger teachers with masters-level training,” the researchers wrote. “However, more research is required to understand the ingredients of quality or social relations that mark new or less crowded facilities that in turn pay off in higher achievement.”

Some of the policy implications of the report, according to its authors:

· Higher quality facilities offer neces­sary but insufficient conditions for raising achievement. The fact that construction costs per pupil are unrelated to the magnitude of achievement gains for elementary students suggests that marginal returns to more expensive facilities may be low. Both charter and pilot school leaders are experimenting with lower cost facilities. Studying the discrete achievement patterns associated with such innovative facilities would be informative

· The positive effects for elementary students whose schools experienced relief from overcrowding suggests that taking further steps to reduce enrollment in still densely packed schools could result in additional gains.

· The lack of robust achievement ben­efits for students who moved to a new high school facility is cause for concern. Other student outcomes might be studied, and data should be updated by LAUSD to check for effects as the final third of new facilities have come on line since 2008. Still, something is missing beyond fresh facilities as the district attempts to lift achievement inside high schools.

· As other urban districts attempt to remedy overcrowding or to renovate old facilities, the eventual effects on achievement should be carefully studied and not taken for granted.

· Teacher qual­ity and relief from overcrowding play significant roles in providing conditions for raising achievement, in addition to the role of facilities. The distinct role of facilities in concert with other teacher and instructional resources should be considered, especially when the district consid­ers handing schools off to alterna­tive providers.

Policy Analysis for California Education is an independent, nonpartisan research center based at Stanford University and includes as partners, the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Southern California. The work on the LAUSD facilities study was conducted by Berkeley researchers.

New Schools, Overcrowding Relief, and Achievement Gains in Los Angeles

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