Alberto Carvalho, the new Los Angeles schools chief, will soon announce bold reforms to lift children and families. Hopes run high as schools return to a taste of pre-pandemic normalcy after two years of shuttered classrooms and distant students.
We applaud Carvalho’s announced focus on advancing teachers’ capacity to respect and engage all students, rather than being distracted by dusty old debates. We believe he must broaden his agenda to include strategies for retrieving middle-class families back to Los Angeles Unified, expanding pre-K options and magnet programs, while lifting the stalled learning curves of children in schools that have struggled for many years.
Carvalho — once an immigrant laboring to master English, homeless at times — rose to head the Miami schools for 14 years. Under his leadership, fourth graders now read two grade-levels above their equally diverse peers attending LAUSD schools. Parents and civic activists in Los Angeles hope that he will replicate this remarkable success.
Progressives nationwide are desperate for a reform model that rekindles support for public schools, as radical conservatives gain political advantage by banning school books that teach our racial history and harass educators who value diversity and students who consider differing sexual identities.
Carvalho pledges to focus on improving results for kids. But he faces daunting headwinds in Los Angeles: declining enrollment as fertility rates fall (ironically stemming from rising educational attainment, particularly among Latinas), and a fiscal cliff where teacher pensions and health care will soon swallow one-third of the district’s budget, unless Carvalho finds a creative a fix.
None of these challenges will be resolved easily, but he will make progress if he can build on existing strengths. Los Angeles Unified showed steady improvement over the past generation, as suspension rates declined, graduation rates increased and test scores inched upward in reading and math for nearly 20 years (flat-lining as the pandemic arrived). To catalyze future gains, Carvalho’s anticipated plan should build from what’s worked in recent years:
Welcome all parents by widening preschool and after-school options. LAUSD built more than a dozen early learning centers under former chief Roy Romer, sparking initial gains in children’s reading skills. This positions the district to now extend pre-K options to all 4-year-olds, as Gov. Gavin Newsom increases funding statewide for young children.
But many pre-K’s in Los Angeles Unified schools run only half-days or dismiss kids mid-afternoon. This schedule doesn’t work for most parents. Carvalho must partner with neighborhood nonprofits to provide full-day and summer care to accelerate learning for kids who have missed out during the pandemic.
Better engage diverse students. Carvalho’s success in Miami rested on ratcheting-up teacher expectations for student performance, then inviting parents to hold schools accountable for quality and rigor. Pupil enrollments in the district’s college-prep classes have climbed dramatically, increasing the number of Black and Latino students who benefit. However, the number of graduates who are able to gain admission to the Cal State and UC system has failed to budge.
Advance high-quality teachers. Student motivation depends on teachers who respect and challenge them, along with pedagogical innovations that speak to youths’ everyday contexts. Today’s teachers require greater agility in connecting with kids, support in responding to their social and emotional challenges and know-how in making rigorous courses engaging so that they pay off in better college preparation for high school graduates. Enriching these teacher qualities could entice middle-class parents back to the district.
Spawn diverse schools, while avoiding segregation. Well-designed magnet and pilot schools, like King-Drew, Girls Academic Leadership Academy, and the impressively diverse and successful Hamilton High School, have proven attractive to families of diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Tens of thousands of parents remain on waiting lists for integrated magnet programs. Meeting their expectations with high quality programs will be key to reducing the decline in enrollment.
It is equally important for Carvalho to ensure that diverse forms of schooling not exacerbate social-class segregation. Our research shows that many L.A. charter schools yield distinct learning gains and strong college-going by graduates. But higher achieving children tend to enroll in charters in the first place. Overall, Carvalho’s drive for improvement must remedy earlier reforms that exacerbate inequality, tracking which children benefit from charter schools and ensuring that magnet schools advance integration.
Renovate aging facilities. Even as Carvalho faces the reality of closing under-enrolled schools, he must revitalize aging facilities. One of the largest jumps in achievement occurred when the district opened new campuses in past years, signaling to kids and families that the system cares about them. The state’s growing investment in community schools — hosting health clinics and family services on campuses — can deepen Carvalho’s investment in neighborhoods.
In Miami, Carvalho proved himself a charismatic nerd, grasping the power of fine-grain data to pinpoint which schools required extra help or staffing changes. After analyzing kids’ learning curves skill by skill, he applied pressure on uninspired principals while granting greater autonomy to those who demonstrated progress.
Of course, Carvalho’s success in L.A. will depend on more than numbers. He must acquire political ballast to nudge entrenched interests — whether moving dollars from pensions to classrooms, or nudging-out pallid teachers. Civic allies like the Community Coalition, Inner City Struggle and Advocates for Children can lend a hand. In the past, these organizations moved Los Angeles Unified officials to widen access to college-prep courses and progressively distribute new school funding.
“I am not aware of any… institution that has transitioned from good to great without some degree of tension,” Carvalho wrote in understated fashion. Now tossed into the roiling cauldron of L.A. politics, Carvalho will need ample community support to succeed.
Pedro Noguera, a sociologist, is dean of USC’s Rossier School of Education. Bruce Fuller, a UC Berkeley professor, is author of When Schools Work: Pluralist Politics and Institutional Reform in Los Angeles.
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