Monday, January 06, 2014


By Charles Taylor Kerchner / Special to EdSource |

Charles Kerchner

January 5th, 2014  ::  Nearly a quarter century ago, two Stanford University professors wrote that market forces could reform public education in ways that government dominated by interest groups, like teachers unions, could not. “Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools” by John Chubb and Terry Moe remains a guiding light for Republicans and a large swath of Democrats seeking to transform schools.
Charles Kerchner>>

Recently, a report on Public School Choice, the program that gave outside operators and inside innovators an opportunity to take over schools in Los Angeles Unified, reminded us of why it’s difficult to mingle markets and politics. Creating an unrestricted market is no more possible in a school district than it is on Wall Street. Politics will always shape education reforms. With politics come unanticipated consequences. No one would have anticipated that some of the warring parties in L.A. would turn from competition to collaboration. But they did.

At the outset, Public School Choice took a page from the market advocates’ playbook and sought to increase and diversify the supply of school operators. Former board member Yolie Flores, who recalled she had watched in horror as some newly constructed sites marched straight from ribbon cutting to being listed as underachieving “program improvement” schools, introduced the school board resolution in 2009 to start the program.

Public School Choice involved 131 schools over four years: roughly equivalent to the entire number of schools in Oakland or San Francisco. It set up a competitive request-for-proposal process similar to those used by businesses or governments that contract for services, starting with some of the dozens of new schools that the district’s $19.5 billion school-building program had brought into being. For the first time in four decades, LAUSD schools were not to be filled to overflowing, and the new buildings created the capacity for diverse providers and for students being able to choose between them. Flores and others expected a supply of eager applicants.

However, Superintendent Ramon Cortines added a second purpose. Scores of LAUSD schools had been labeled as failing. They weren’t necessarily getting worse, but they weren’t getting better fast enough to escape the sanctions of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Throwing a new principal into a failing school wasn’t working, and closing down a school and reopening it, as Cortines did with Fremont High School, met with a firestorm of community opposition. Cortines thought that opening these schools to competition might work.

The initial political alignments were largely predictable. Established interest groups acted, well, like interest groups, vigorously defending their turf. United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) opposed the plan.  Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, the union representing all but top administrators, wasn’t keen on it either. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who had tried unsuccessfully to take over the school district, supported Public School Choice, as did the school board majority he supported. Most charter school operators and community groups tied to the mayor favored the program. The L.A. Unified school board voted for it 6-1. Some of those votes reflected the members’ personal preferences; some were arm-twisted, as in “the-mayor-made-me-do-it.”

I sat in the audience as former school board member and city council member Jackie Goldberg declared, “This is the beginning of the dismembering of L.A. Unified.” But this was not to occur.

In the space of only a few weeks, wondrous things happened. Seventy-nine proposals were written: 41 from charter schools, four from the independent Partnership for Los Angeles Schools that Villaraigosa had founded, and 34 from innovative LAUSD administrators and teachers who had suddenly been given the green light to come forward with fresh ideas. Principals of some of the failing schools gained cooperation from their faculties when it was known an external takeover might be possible.

After the proposals were reviewed, the political crosscurrents began to flow. The district carefully constructed a playing field on which the internal and external proposals could compete. It created criteria, trained reviewers, collected results, and Cortines made recommendations to the school board. The board balked. Some of the members, who had supported the concept of choice, were not so keen on having outside operators take over schools in their communities. By their vote, the board tilted the playing field toward internal applicants.

In addition, the charter operators who were eager to start a new school in a shiny new building, were not lining up to take on chronically underperforming schools. In the first year of PSC, about a quarter of the schools faced no competition. Over the four years, only 18 of the 68 plans for the 40 underperforming “focus” schools came from external applicants. However, charter operators didn’t go away. Their number increased from 155 in 2009 to a roster of 248 today. Parts of LAUSD operate as little “charter districts,” groups of charters that work together. And more than a dozen existing LAUSD schools that went through Public School Choice planning process chose to have the schools they designed become governed as charters.

External competition decreased further in subsequent rounds, and most of the schools on the superintendent’s failing-schools list faced no external competition at all. Over time, a choice program built on the assumption of external competition morphed into one to train its existing teachers and administrators and give them the tools to redesign their schools.

The same teachers and administrators—all loyal union members—who opposed outside entities running their schools were enthusiastic about the opportunity to run district schools with autonomy. They liked the freedom and flexibility that Public School Choice offered. They pressured the district and the unions to create flexibility and the capacity to write and implement high-quality plans. To be successful with these internal entrepreneurs LAUSD had to create internal flexibility that rivaled the freedom offered to charter operators, and it had to create a new set of leaders capable of working outside the traditional hierarchy.

UTLA, Associated Administrators of Los Angeles and at least part of the business community coalesced to create the Los Angeles School Design Institute under the auspices of the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce. The institute demanded cooperation as a condition of participation. “If they’re not even willing to sit in a room, we don’t go out,” one of the Institute leaders said.

The nature of parent participation changed also. In the initial rounds of PSC, parents voted for the plan they liked. But fewer than 17 percent of them participated, and those were often mobilized by either the teachers union or a contending charter school operator. Meetings during the design process often turned rancorous. Later, as things evolved, parents joined school planning teams and became forceful advocates to bring new programs to schools.

Generally, the plans they produced were good. A research team from the University of Southern California headed by Julie Marsh and Katharine Strunk independently critiqued the plans and declared them of high quality. In my reading of the plans, I was struck with how much more concrete and focused on student achievement they were than those produced during the huge school reform effort of the 1990s.

It is too early to know for sure whether the program is producing markedly better schools, but the initial examination of student test scores from the first cohort of schools shows student gains in the second year after attending a Public School Choice school. The downward trajectory was turned around for the students whose formerly failing schools went through the school planning and selection process. But the trend continued down for a comparison group of students from “near failing” schools.

Both UTLA and the school district learned to tolerate, if not love, flexibility. A fistful of governance and management systems emerged outside the traditional LAUSD hierarchy and standard teacher labor contract. Some 23 sites became Pilot Schools, essentially in-district charters modeled after similar schools in Boston. These schools operate under a “thin” labor contract  and have autonomy over budget, curriculum, governance and staffing. They are largely self-governing with flexibility to modify the labor contract and district policy. Nineteen decided to be a School Based Management organization, using an expanded version of shared decision-making and collaboration negotiated two decades ago. Fourteen become charter schools, and six created hybrid relationships with external partners.

After four years, the politics of creating capacity and collaboration proved stronger than the politics of creating and sustaining external competition. Partly, this occurred because teacher and administrator unions organized against external providers and muscled school board members. Partly, it occurred because the competition process wasn’t working to transform existing failing schools. But mostly it occurred because a political coalition formed around creating internal flexibility.

One can ask about how much of the internal unfreezing took place because of the external threat. At a rollout of the research, Matt Hill, chief strategy officer for LAUSD, responded, saying, “I disagree that competition is the driving factor. I think that reintroducing it back into the process would be a mistake. I think you get more results fostering collaboration.”

Charles Taylor Kerchner is a professor at the Claremont Graduate University. His writing on education policy and reform is supported by a grant from the Stuart Foundation. However, the opinions expressed and topics covered are at his sole discretion

2cents smf:  I \’m normally a fan of Dr. Kirchner. Not on this one.

Maybe both Dr. K and I are too close to this to be impartial observers. The report he quotes in the second paragraph?  His Huff Post review of the report of the of the PSC process (follows)  calls the PSC process “possibly reckless” – and the preliminary findings (also follows)  indicates that the process has largely gone away.

Rather than reckless, the short history of PSC in LAUSD is strewn with wreckage.

Chubb and Moe’s “Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools” on unleashing market forces in public education is a guiding light for education like a highway flare is a guiding light: Stay clear, wreck ahead.

I am all for entrepreneurial thinking – but for every Yvonne Chan turning around Vaughn in Pacoima there are a dozen Crescendos, California Charter Academies and EASCs. Ivy Academia Charter School ‘s founders went to jail and Green Dot had to force out Steve Barr for budgetary excess as did ICEF and founder Mike Piscal.  (Google “Charter school founders go to jail” and you get 1,200,00 hits!) Entrepreneurism insists that you keep failing until you succeed. Good advice …but not really a good business model when the gambling chips are the lives and futures of children.

Look at all those successes from Big City Mayors who read the book, took the Gates money and took over their cities’ schools. New York under Bloomberg? Washington DC under Fenty and Michelle Rhee? Chicago under Dailey (and Arne Duncan) and now Emanuel? Philly? Detroit? Boston? Closer to home: Mayor Tony’s Partnership Schools? It’s a track strewn with wreckage.

I too was in the room when Jackie Goldberg warned “This is the beginning of the dismembering of L.A. Unified.”  And while that didn’t occur the dismemberment is still an attempt in progress.

The truth is that the District leadership is not supporting the outside-the-box/inside engineered pilot schools – neither with the autonomy promised nor the funding needed. And the collaboration that Dr. Kirshner wants to see isn’t/wasn’t really there beyond the photo-ops and chin music.

Public School Choice – where the public never had a role in the choosing (and when they tried the District cancelled the elections) – is as dead as Marley’s doornail, LEARN, Clear Expectations, Small Learning Communities, Partnership Schools and every other of the this-week’s-flavor-of-®eform that the district has embraced and then cast away when the magic bullet misfired an/or missed the mark.

I’m sorry – but it’s too late to declare victory, sing Kumbaya,  and declare Public School Choice a success.

L.A. 'Public School Choice' Program Swaps Competition for Collaboration

Charles Kerchner


By Charles Kerchner in The Huffington Post |

19/2013 4:15 pm   ::  Four years ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District embarked on a bold, perhaps reckless, program called Public School Choice to allow charter school operators and other community groups to compete for running many of its schools. Thursday, a team of researchers from the University of Southern California, revealed what many had already known: the "choice" aspect of the program had largely gone away.

Instead, LAUSD has focused energy around a collaborative effort to improve student achievement, which went up, and school quality. Participants in the process questioned the value of competition as a driver of school reform.

The research report provided the first in-depth look at the four-year reform project involving 131 schools. USC Professors Julie Marsh and Katharine Strunk headed the research team. They reported at an event held at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in central L.A., schools built on the site of the old Ambassador Hotel where Kennedy was assassinated.

Public School Choice was born in 2009 over what school board member Yolie Flores called, "frustration at the slow place of progress and the lack of urgency." She told the audience, "In our brand new schools where we had invested millions with impressive technology we were not doing anything new inside." The school board, she said, had watched in horror as some of the new schools marched straight from ribbon cutting to dangerously low student achievement.

Flores proposed a radical idea as described in the research report: Instead of opening a new school by shuffling existing employees and assigning an administrator schooled in the district's tradition, create a request-for-proposal project. Allow charter school operators, community organizations, and groups of teachers and administrators from within the district to write competitive plans for running the schools. Create an independent panel of judges to evaluate the plans and submit recommendations to the superintendent and the school board.

LAUSD was already becoming "a system of schools" rather than a massive hierarchy designed in the early 20th century. Of the district's 885 schools, some 155 were charter schools. In addition, 172 magnet schools are freed from some District regulation. Two prototype charter districts are under operation. The mayor's partnership operates 11 schools. Locke High School is operated by a charter management organization. The public school choice resolution raised the prospect of a rapid acceleration of this approach.

At the time, United Teachers Los Angeles and many traditionally left-leaning advocates opposed the plan. The school board passed the motion 6-1. "This is the beginning of the dismembering of L.A. Unified," former school board member Jackie Goldberg said. But that is not what happened.

Instead, the researchers found that competition to start new schools had all but disappeared, partly because the school board restricted who could apply and partly because there was never a large supply of external operators willing to take over troubled inner-city schools.

In the first year 42 schools went through the process: 28 newly constructed ones, and 14 underperforming schools, called "focus" schools by LAUSD. Ten of these schools were awarded to outside operators, and 32 to insiders. Nine of those schools faced no competition.

By the fourth year, 20 underperforming schools were placed in the program. There were only 21 proposals, meaning that the schools would largely continue to be operated by the same people who had run them before. The number of proposals per school site declined from 2.4 to 1.1 and the number of schools where there was only one proposal jumped.
Discussion group participants in Thursday's research rollout did not mourn the loss of competition, although more than one speaker suggested that the presence of external competitors may have nudged UTLA toward more flexibility in school governance models. It increased its sponsorship of semi-autonomous schools, essentially in-district charters, called Pilot schools.

Instead, they spoke about the value of cooperation and team building in creating high quality school plans and implementing them rather than fostering competition between groups of teachers and administrators at the school. "Our plan worked because we got everyone on board," said Orlando Johnson, vice principal at Dorsey High School.

At the outset, it was thought that the presence of an external competitor would spur teachers and administrators to work harder to change their schools. But participants in Thursday's event said many of them were more paralyzed by fear than creatively energized.

Matt Hill, chief strategy officer for LAUSD, said, in response to a question, "I disagree that competition is the driving factor. I think that reintroducing it back into the process would be a mistake. I think you get more results fostering collaboration."

In his remarks, Superintendent John Deasy was even gracious toward UTLA, which two weeks ago had tried to drive him from office with a negative evaluation. "UTLA was at the heart of taking a look at offering autonomy, with amazing leadership," he said, adding with a smile: "The relationship is not perfect."

"We found a whole new level of leaders," he said. "That would not have happened in the regular process. Teacher leadership came to the fore."

Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce vice president David Rattray also played the collaboration theme. As the reform started in 2009, he persuaded the school district to work with the teachers union (UTLA) and Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, which have been highly distrustful of one another historically.

The result was the Los Angeles School Design Institute, where experienced administrators like Cathy Kibala could guide school design teams through creating a successful plan. "Schools are still competing, but competing with themselves, their own history," she said. LASDI is a relatively low cost program that participants said was having leverage. In the research report, participants ranked the program highly.

The competition to collaboration theme also played out with parents. In the initial rounds of Public School Choice, parents voted for the plan they liked. But fewer than 17 percent of them did, and those were often mobilized by either the teacher union or a contending charter school operator. Meetings during the design process turned rancorous.

Later, the vote was eliminated, and parents were asked to join the design process itself. Relatively few did, but those who participated got deeply involved. Andrea Canty, from the Public School Choice office in the district, talked of taking parents of low performing schools to other campuses, allowing them to experience the programs and resources that should be available for their own children. "They came back as forceful advocates," she said.

It is too early to know for sure whether the Public School Choice initiative is producing markedly better schools, but the initial examination of student test scores from the first cohort of schools was encouraging.

Because new schools were being created and old ones were being reconstituted, the USC researchers had to be clever in creating a valid comparison group. In order to compare the learning trajectories of students attending the newly opened schools, they compared their achievement trends with those of students whose attendance areas were similar. For the low performing "focus" schools, the researchers used student results from schools that were just slightly higher performing.

In both the new schools and the low performing ones, student achievement dipped in the first year of the new program, a typical pattern, that researchers call the "implementation dip" that is attributed to getting used to new ways of working. But in the second year, scores went up in English and Math in both sets of schools. Significantly, the scores of the comparison groups continued their downward trend.

Will these trends continue? As assistant principal Johnson noted, there are "a lot of good plans on paper, but what about reality? We won't know that at least for another couple years."

Charles Taylor Kerchner is a research professor at Claremont Graduate University. More on this topic can be found at

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USC Rossier Researchers Present Findings from LAUSD’s Public School Choice Initiative

December 4, 2013

By Andrea Bennett / Rossier School of Education | USC |

LAUSD logoUSC Rossier Professors Julie Marsh and Katharine Strunk presented preliminary findings from their study of Los Angeles Unified School District’s Public School Choice Initiative (PSCI) at a convening at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Los Angeles on November 14.

John Deasy, LAUSD superintendent, delivered opening remarks at the convening, which was co-hosted by the district, USC Rossier School of Education, United Way and UNITE LA. He spoke about the importance of the bold initiative, which was adopted in 2009 with the long-term goal of creating “diverse options for high quality educational environments, with excellent teaching and learning, for students’ academic success,” according to the PSCI resolution. Yolie Flores, former LAUSD school board member, also addressed the audience.

 Julie Marsh and Katharine Strunk

Drs. Julie Marsh and Katharine Strunk

Marsh and Strunk presented key findings from the first three years of their research on PSCI, which allowed  teams of internal and external stakeholders, such as local educators, community members and organizations, charter school operators, nonprofit organizations, and labor partners, to compete to manage a designated “focus” or “relief” school.

Focus schools were in the bottom one percent of low-performing LAUSD public schools, and relief schools were new schools established to ease overcrowding in year-round schools. The initiative also aimed to give families and communities within LAUSD new opportunities to play an active role in improving their local public schools.

The USC researchers are conducting a four-year study of the initiative’s implementation and outcomes with support from a highly competitive $6-million federal Investing In Innovation (i3) grant. Their presentations at the research convening highlighted the early impacts of the reform on student achievement and suspension rates, the challenges and successes in early implementation, the changes in the quantity and quality of parent engagement over time, and the way in which politics shaped and was shaped by the policy over time.

Preliminary analyses suggest that PSCI schools from the first cohort of the reform show an initial dip in student achievement in the first year of operation and increases in student achievement in the second year of operation.

In terms of early implementation, Rossier researchers reported mixed levels of understanding and support from stakeholders, and a lack of understanding among many teams of the autonomies afforded by governance models selected. Marsh and Strunk also found the district attracted diverse actors to participate in teams but faced challenges attracting applicant teams, particularly in the later years.

Marsh and Strunk also found that higher quality school plans were generally selected in the first three years of PSCI. Their research also found that in all three years the number of parents providing input into plan selection was quite low and that the nature of parent meetings shifted over time. For example, appeals to parents shifted from emotional to reason-based and conversations become more reciprocal over time.

Their research also indicates that, although designed to improve accountability and learning for low-performing schools and students, PSCI’s enactment at times became a broader referendum on school governance and reform in general, including inspiring the formation of a new coalition of community organizations that could continue to shape policy in LAUSD in coming years.

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