Los Angeles Unified elementary students from overcrowded schools earned higher test scores after moving to newly built schools, but students in new high schools experienced no similar bump in scores, according to a policy brief released today.
“The biggest gain was for those students who came from the most severely overcrowded elementary schools,” said Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley.
The study by UC Berkeley researchers from Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), an independent research center, looked at test scores from 2002 through 2008 for nearly 20,000 students attending 44 new elementary and high schools and the students who remained at the original schools. No middle schools were included in the report, New Schools, Overcrowding Relief and Achievement Gains in Los Angeles – Strong Returns from a $19.5 Billion Investment. William Welsh, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology, is the lead author.
Los Angeles schools faced serious overcrowding issues in the 1990s. In another report by Fuller, he noted that, for example, South Gate Middle School, built for 800 students, housed more than 4,200 in the late 1990s. Many of the elementary schools had three shifts of students sharing the same school – with one shift not using the school at any moment in time, Fuller said. One elementary school had about 3,200 students, he said, the largest in the nation. The school year in these multi-track schools was about 14 days shorter than the typical 180-day year, and teachers had to carry their supplies in rolling carts as they moved out of their room to accommodate a teacher from another shift.
To relieve the overcrowding, the district typically built as many as three new schools close to the original school, Fuller said. The new schools had more windows, higher ceilings, wider halls, and served from 400 to 600 students.
“They tried to open up the space – make it more light, airy, and comfortable and get rid of that penitentiary feel,” he said. Some schools had alcoves between classrooms that provided private office space for teachers, creating a more professional environment, he added.
The original high schools were similar to the old elementary schools, crowding in as many as 5,000 students. The new high schools, with updated labs and technology, house about 2,000 students. Class sizes in both elementary and high schools remain about the same, however.
The new schools also reduced the need for busing students to other schools that were less crowded. At one point in the 1990s, about 25,000 students were being bused every day, according to the report.
Mammoth public works project
The report’s release coincides with the opening in LAUSD of 20 more new schools in addition to the 130 built during the past decade through the sale of $19.5 billion in local and state bond funds. “With the exception of the federal interstate highway system, this is the largest public works project ever undertaken in the United States,” the researchers said.
The high price tag has raised concerns about misuse of funds, particularly when the district spent $578 million on one K–12 complex, Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, which opened in 2011. It was the third in a series of costly schools that included the $377 million Edward R. Roybal Learning Center built in 2008 and the $232 million Visual and Performing Arts High School in 2009.
Despite the positive findings for elementary school students, this report is unlikely to quell that controversy because there appeared to be no correlation between test score gains and building expense. Students attending cheaper new elementary schools had similar increases in their English and math California Standards Tests scores as those attending higher-priced K–5 schools.
Enigma in high schools
In addition, the test scores of students attending new high schools actually dropped in math, though Fuller said the differences in the data among high schools were so great – including two high schools that did show gains – that it made it difficult to draw any conclusions.
Fuller called the poor showing by high school students “a little mysterious.”
However, he noted, “the history of school reform is that whenever you intervene with younger kids, you have a bigger impact. Younger kids are more elastic and able to boost those growth curves.” In addition, these new high schools had to create small learning communities within the high school, a new initiative supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. When such substantial reforms are initiated, Fuller speculated, they can “create complexities and challenges that might not pay off” in increased test scores initially.
The payoff for elementary school students who moved from overcrowded conditions was significant. “On average, these ‘switching pupils’ outpaced the average LAUSD student by a gain equal to about 35 additional days of instruction a year,” the report states. The gain was even greater – 65 additional instructional days – for students who came from severely overcrowded schools. Students who remained at their old, no-longer-crowded school also improved, though not as substantially.
Part of the “new school effect” could be that new facilities attract younger and better-educated teachers, Fuller said. However, in elementary schools “an additional statistically significant effect of new facilities remains even when teacher quality controls are included.”
Fuller said that he has talked to principals who said the new facility attracted teachers.
A chance to recreate a school culture
But Gretchen Young, a principal at one of the elementary schools in South Gate that boasted the highest jump in test scores, said that wasn’t her experience – at least not at first.
The Madison Elementary School building itself did not attract the teachers, who were forced to come to the new school when they preferred to stay at their old school where they had comfortable relationships with their peers, students, and community.
At the first meeting when asked for volunteers to teach at the new facility, not a hand went up, Young said. In the end, those teachers with the least seniority, including some with as many as 10 years, transferred to the new school.
“When the teachers arrived, we created our own culture, mission, values,” Young said. “We created the environment that we wanted for our school.” The school emphasizes community involvement and focuses resources on students who are behind. The new culture is what is responsible for the boost in test scores, she believes.
Her opinion is mirrored by others who were interviewed by a UC Berkeley research team. In a separate report by PACE and the Center for Cities & Schools released in 2009, Constructing Schools, Building Community Engagement, one teacher told the researchers that if teachers feel part of opening a new school, they tend to “do a better job than when [they] come in and the school’s already set the culture.”
Thanks for reading.
Can you help sustain our reporting?
Our team of journalists, editors, and fact-checkers do an estimated 440 hours of research every week to bring you the news on California education. That's a lot of work.