A School Performance Framework Could Be Huge for Los Angeles. Why Is the District Backtracking?

This week, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) could miss a big opportunity for students, families, and district leaders.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states must create a report card for every single one of their schools. Unfortunately, California’s approach to reporting school data under ESSA is both overly complex and lacking in key information. That’s why the LAUSD board took the first steps last year to create its own school performance framework (SPF), which could provide families, educators, and taxpayers more and better information about how well schools are serving students. Unfortunately the board now appears to be backtracking on that commitment.

An SPF is an action-oriented tool that gathers multiple metrics related to school quality and can be used by system leaders, principals, and/or parents to inform important decisions like how to intervene in a low-performing school, where to invest in improvements, and which school to choose for a child.

As my colleagues wrote in their 2017 review of ESSA plans, California’s complicated system relies on “a color-coded, 25-square performance grid for each indicator” and “lacks a method of measuring individual student growth over time.” In 2018, LAUSD board members tried to improve upon the state’s approach by passing a resolution to create their own SPF. In a statement from the board at that time, members intended that LAUSD’s SPF would serve as “an internal tool to help ensure all schools are continuously improving,” and “share key information with families as to how their schools are performing.”

A local SPF could provide a common framework for district leaders and families to understand performance trends across the district’s 1,100 plus schools in a rigorous, holistic way. Without usable information on school quality, families are left to make sense of complex state websites, third party school ratings, and word of mouth. And unlike the state’s current report card, a local report card could include student growth data, one of the most powerful ways to understand a school’s impact on its students. Student-level growth data tells us how individual students are progressing over time, and can control for demographic changes or differences among students.

Sadly, opportunities to create a strong SPF and share better data on student growth have both been caught up in a politicized debate that obscures the promise of both ideas. A resolution poised to advance to a full board vote this week would ban a single rating for schools, and appears to be the source of delays in the release of growth metrics. The resolution, put forward in October by board member Jackie Goldberg and advanced through a board sub-committee, claims that “school ratings penalize schools that serve socio-economically disadvantaged populations” and “promote unhealthy competition between schools.”

But this is not true. A well-designed SPF could prioritize equitable design without punitive measures to schools, and instead define clear supports and interventions if there are performance problems.

The power to make an SPF that prioritizes growth and controls for demographic differences is entirely in the district’s hands. LAUSD could design a system like New York City’s, which includes an academic rating alongside six other sub-ratings on different facets of school quality, such as “Trust” and “School-Community Ties.” They could make a system like Chicago’s, which doesn’t use state test scores at all in most grades, opting instead for growth-driven measures of student learning across grade levels, and which includes results of student and teacher surveys on engagement and school culture. My colleagues and I profile these two districts, as well as three others, in a new website showing how SPFs can support a variety of purposes for families, principals, and system leaders.

If districts take the time to understand these possibilities, and make strong design decisions, they can use an SPF to improve student outcomes. Instead, at their upcoming meeting this week, the LAUSD board might defer to the state dashboard, squandering the opportunity for the district to define school quality locally in a meaningful, positive way. The LAUSD board should release available growth data as soon as possible, and recommit to a productive SPF-creation process.