Last year in East LA, Jose Pedraza was struggling mightily in his classes and drifting listlessly through his days. It was worrying enough to his teachers at Oscar De La Hoya Animo Charter School, where he was then a junior, that the principal called his mother Pascuala Jaramillo and asked for an urgent meeting.
Jaramillo, a seasoned education activist who had organized other parents and made it a point to get to know her kids' teachers, grabbed what she calls her "bible" and ran straight to the school. It's actually not a holy book, but rather a binder of her kids' education documents and information about her own parental rights--"everything I need to defend myself," she explains. Her years of organizing other parents taught her that teachers and administrators are often too burdened by their work to be effective advocates for their students. She went ready to fight, if she had to.
"When I got to the school, I got notes telling me that my son wasn't really working," Jaramillo says. "The principal said, 'His body is here, but his brain is not in the room.' "
Jaramillo immediately understood what was going on. She told the principal what their family had been dealing with at home. Her husband, Guadalupe Pedraza, had been abruptly laid off from his maintenance job recently. After 12 years working there, he was told on a Wednesday that his last day would be that Friday.
Jose took it hard. He had always been a quiet kid, but he started pulling away from his parents even more. "He wouldn't want to eat, he wouldn't want to talk with us, he was very depressed," Jaramillo says.
Jose is a gangly teen with a frizzy cloud of dusty brown hair. His soft voice slows as he describes what those initial months of financial crisis were like for him.
"At first I guess it was shocking," he explains. "But then at school it was always in my head, that got in the way of me doing my work." All he could think about was what his dad's unemployment would mean for the family. His parents had lived in California for nearly 20 years after immigrating from Mexico. "Like, oh, are we going to have to move back to Mexico? Or what's going to happen?"
It wasn't just the family's finances bothering Jose, though. Something deeper weighed on him, too. "I'd never seen him look so defeated and not wanting to do anything anymore," Jose says of his dad, "like wanting to give up. That changed me a lot."
Soon his grades were slipping. He'd struggled in his classes since ninth grade, but "the red flag for us was the D's and the F's," says Sandra Ochoa, Pedraza's AP Spanish language teacher, who gathered with all six of Jose's teachers to discuss his sudden academic decline. None of them really knew why until the parent-teacher conference with his mother.
"In general, we're not privy to that information," says Ochoa, who has since forged strong relationships with the family. "We're trying to get the content to the kids."
That basic imperative--just get the content to the kids--has emerged as the dominant rallying cry for education reform today. For decades, at least since Brown vs. Board of Education, advocates inside and outside of government have fiercely debated ways to get everyone a fair shot at learning. They've fought over integration, busing, funding, parental choices in schools and, of course, teachers' unions. Meanwhile, inequities have persisted. Almost 40 percent of black and Latino students don't graduate high school on time, according to White House figures, compared to a quarter of students overall. According to the latest numbers from the National Assessment for Educational Purposes, only 12 percent of black eighth graders are proficient in reading, where 44 percent of white males are considered proficient.
So now a new perspective has risen above the din, pushed by the Obama administration and heavily influenced by celebrity do-gooders, often from the private sector. In a word, it is simplicity. The existing school systems are rotten from decades of political and bureaucratic warring, these reformers assert, and the solutions are clear. We needn't concern ourselves with overwhelming, unwieldy discussions about race and poverty. Only one thing need matter: Results. And to get them, we need to hold someone accountable: Educators.
Many teachers like Ochoa are in fact more than ready to take up the charge. But as Jose's story shows, caring, dedicated educators are just not enough on their own. It turns out that there are enormous structural factors at work in kids' lives that supercede teacher accountability. Whether it's protracted parental unemployment, sudden homelessness or expensive family illness, many students are facing daunting barriers to learning that the current education debate has ignored, and that the heroics of even city's best teachers cannot overcome.
Learning to Get By
Across the country, families that were just holding on before the recession are struggling in brand new ways today. The number of those who are out of work or underemployed refuses to budge, and that has in turn created a separate set of housing woes. As much as parents try to shield their children from these stresses, they show up in the classroom, say educators and economists.
In 2009 economists at the University of California, Davis, found that a parent's unplanned unemployment increased the likelihood that their child would have to repeat a grade by 17 percent. And long before that, a 1998 study published by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that just one unplanned move for students between the eighth and twelfth grades can cause so much upheaval that it increases the likelihood they'll drop out of high school by 50 percent.
In 2011, those are troubling findings for neighborhoods like Jose's. While the national unemployment rate has edged down to 8 percent, 11.3 percent of Latinos and 15.5 percent of African-Americans report that they're out of work and still looking. In 2009, more than a quarter of Latino and black families lived in poverty. If economic pain radiates into educational challenges, then inequities may be worsening by the day.
Those inequities will become increasingly consequential for the entire country, because students of color are also the future of schools. In 1980, white students were 74 percent of the nation's schoolkids. Twenty years later they made up just 56 percent. Today, black and Latino students alone comprise 35 percent of the nation's students.
Meanwhile, school reform has hit primetime in America. Last September, the film* "Waiting for Superman" helped usher the movement into American living rooms, cementing the celebrity status of crusading reformers like former Washington, D.C., schools chief Michelle Rhee. In September 2010, during a two-day education-themed extravaganza, Oprah Winfrey introduced Rhee and the film to America by posing a grave question to her audience: "So who's most at fault for failing schools and for failing our children?" After a heavy pause, Winfrey explained, "Michelle Rhee says that she knows, and she has taken a very controversial stand."
Namely, fire the teachers. As Rhee has repeated often, if we could fire the "bottom five to ten percent" of the nation's educators, inequities would disappear and achievement would soar.
Rhee's not alone in promoting that idea, and Jose's hometown has become a hot spot for the battles that have ensued. In April, the Los Angeles Unified School District stepped into the fray by adopting a measurement called Academic Growth Over Time, or "value added" scoring, that links teachers' job security with their students' test scores. The move was spurred in part by the Los Angeles Times, which shocked the education world last year when it published a list of 6,000 third, fourth and fifth grade teachers' names alongside the paper's own calculations of their individual value-added scores. Since then other cities, and newspapers, have attempted to do similar things.
The Obama administration has both embraced and fueled these trends. Education Secretary Arne Duncan endorsed the Los Angeles Times' decision to publicize teachers' scores, saying, "What's there to hide?"
In 2009, President Obama created Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion competitive state grants program that doles out money to states that adopt the president's reform agenda. Under the program, struggling schools that do not post adequate progress face one of four overhaul options. In one of the most drastic, a school's entire staff must be fired and asked to reapply. No more than half may be rehired. Thirty-nine states have responded to Race to the Top by overhauling their education laws. Eleven of them adopted laws that will make standardized test scores part of teacher evaluations.
President Obama called this all part of his plan for "winning the future" in his State of the Union address. He called on parents to do their part at home and for a greater focus on teacher performance, because "after parents, the biggest impact on a child's success comes from the man or woman at the front of the classroom."
Jose's parents certainly agree that they carry the first responsibility for his future. "Rich people get inheritance," says Guadalupe Pedraza, "but in our case we want the inheritance we leave our son to be his education, because he'll never be able to spend it."
It's a moving sentiment. But Jose's parents are no more rich in time than they are money. The past year has been demanding. Jaramillo picks up cleaning and cooking jobs when she can, and sells homemade jewelry at flea markets alongside her husband, who sells homemade carvings and paints to deal with his own depression. Jaramillo says she's not sure how much longer they'll be able to hold out this way, but she and her husband consider their kids' education their top priority.
Every morning they split up: he's in charge of rounding up enough money to pay the family's $700 monthly rent, and she must find enough food for the family to eat by the time dinner rolls around. Jaramillo hasn't given up her parent organizing either. She still goes to district meetings and workshops for her son's financial aid application. It's at these sorts of forums that they've come to realize they're not alone.
"I think a lot of students are leaving school because of the economy," Pedraza says. "There are a lot of desperate parents, and kids leaving school to work, or just dropping out."
"What makes me very sad," he adds, "and a lot of people feel this way, is our American dream became an American nightmare."
The Power of Parents
As Obama's reform initiatives sweep through the country, they move alongside an aggressive public relations campaign to, among other things, increase parental involvement in education. "It's family that first instills the love of learning in a child," Obama said in his State of the Union. "Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done."
He's repeated a version of the same message throughout his presidency--personal responsibility for parents in keeping kids focused on school, no excuses.
"There's no doubt that Michelle and I have more resources and privileges compared with a lot of parents," Obama told Essence magazine last year. "We understand that, but I don't care how poor you are--you can turn off the television set during the week."
For some parents, that's unhelpful advice.
Not long after this school year began, Treese (a pseudonym) stopped moving long enough to scan the living room of her home in Los Angeles' Mid-City. She was holding a bag of clothes in one hand and tapping her chin with the other, while she tried to remember where she'd packed away a DVD of her kids' drill team competitions. "You cannot be raising children and be a wimp," Treese said, weaving her way around the boxes on the floor of her house. She was trying to explain what it was like to have to tell her son and daughter that they had to leave the home they'd lived in for 16 years.
Treese, who had worked for years as a cafeteria aid in Los Angeles public schools, lost her full-time job four years ago, around the same time that they had to get on Section 8. Since then, she has made ends meet on short, scattered contracts with the district. She said her landlord stopped by her house in September and showed her a letter from the Housing Authority stating that his Section 8 contract was being revoked. She had 30 days to get out of the house, or else she would be responsible for the entirety of the next month's rent.
Treese's son Michael (also a pseudonym) had just started the 11th grade at Dorsey High School, after transferring. So her priority was to find housing in the neighborhood so that Micheal could stay at Dorsey, where her daughter had graduated and which felt like home to her kids.
"I may be moving, but I am not moving my son out of his school," she insisted.
Back when Treese had more steadywork, she would volunteer at Dorsey in the day and help out during football games in the evening--where she also collected bottles and cans to scrape together some extra cash. Her last bundle of recyclables got her $27.15; she wanted it to go to Michael's sports fees, but the money disappeared quickly.
"They just know that this is a temporary situation and we're going to get through this," she told me in the fall.
When I reconnected with Treese this winter, the problems that she'd hoped would be temporary seemed both more permanent and more dire. At the beginning of the year they were finally kicked out of their house. By February, they still hadn't found a fixed place to stay.
And yet, she was still determined to give her kids every educational opportunity. She still asked her kids about their homework and got to know their teachers. She still spent her afternoons and weekends shuttling her kids to sports and drill team practice. If they watched a lot of TV, they did it on empty tanks.
All of Treese's work has kept Michael in school, physically at least. When I spoke with him, he admitted school was not the center of his life. He wants to play football at University of Southern California one day, and that ambition is what Treese has used to motivate him to study. She is understandably protective of her son and Dorsey's reputation, so it was difficult to find out how he was doing in school. Still, it was plain that as dedicated as Treese is to Michael's education, the everyday fight to keep her family afloat dominated their lives.
"It's kinda good," Michael said about his family's impending move. "We've been struggling in this house so long," he said, pointing out mold in the carpets and cracks in the walls next to his bedroom window, where rain would seep in at night. Perhaps he just wanted to put a positive spin on the trajectory so many families have faced in recent years: the precipitous fall from bad to worse.
"Every day I am out there figuring out where we are going to stay at night," Treese said the last time we talked. She hated most being a burden on others. "We're with friends. But we never stay anywhere long enough so people notice."
She still would not budge from her goal. "There's no way he's leaving Dorsey," Treese insisted repeatedly. "He likes it here and everyone knows me. I do not want to move him around and do that to him now. He does not need more change right now."
Treese's apprehension is well-founded.
"When parents are losing their rent and having to move apartments two, three times, and two or three jobs are lost, it's symptomatic of a more chronic instability," says Russ Rumberger, an education professor at University of California, Santa Barbara, who authored the 1998 study on student mobility driving up the likelihood of dropping out. Rumberger adds that when students are forced to move around it also impacts the rest of the school, and even other students. He is certain that with the recession, more schools are experiencing destabilizing student turnover.
Indeed, student homelessness in Los Angeles is on the rise, according to Melissa Schoonmaker, the Homeless Education Unit coordinator for LAUSD. In the 2008-2009 academic year the district had 12,489 students who lacked a fixed home address. In the 2009-2010 school year, LAUSD's homeless student population increased to 13,445.
The recession has meant many kids are showing up to school hungry, too. In 2010, more than half--55.9 percent--of California public school students qualified for free or reduced lunch, according to kidsdata.org, a project of the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health. In Los Angeles County, more than 65.5 percent of students qualified last year, up from just under 60 percent in 2008.
"Student mobility historically hasn't been viewed as an educational concern because educators would say, 'It has nothing to do with us,' " Rumberger explains. "'They're unstable, they lose their jobs. We don't have much to contribute to it.' "
A Formula for Success
If the organizing idea of today's most celebrated reformers is, as the president articulated, that aside from parents, teachers are the most crucial linchpin in the academic life of students like Michael and Jose Pedraza, it follows that they are the most at fault for those students' failures. The solution, then, becomes simple: just eliminate the worst teachers. It's a straightforward labor problem. The only question is how to identify the bad apples.
For answers, many districts have given themselves over to the seductive appeal of a numbers-based evaluation system that rests on standardized testing. The everyday heroics, the disasters averted, the relationships forged over time are all rendered invisible. It's only the test scores that matter.
Adopting these sorts of numbers-based teacher evaluation schemes was one criteria the Obama administration set for winning Race to the Top money. Some states are already implementing their laws. In Colorado, the first state to implement its new teacher evaluation laws, 51 percent of yearly evaluations must come from students' test score gains by 2013.
The corporate-style cleanups extend to schools themselves, too. The Obama administration has called on states to increase competition by lifting caps on the number of charter schools and forcing struggling schools to submit to hostile takeovers by outside entities, including charters. If public schools once functioned as the heart of their communities, serving as a place for not just education but civic engagement and community development, they're increasingly more like competitive school-markets, which must post satisfactory test scores or be acquired by someone who can.
And amidst it all, Los Angeles is taking bold steps to be at the cutting edge. In April, Los Angeles Unified announced its tentative scheme to adopt "value-added" teacher evaluation measures, against vocal opposition from the district's teachers union. The idea is that value-added is a reliable measurement of teacher effectiveness because it compares students against their own achievement from year to year. The system can therefore theoretically isolate a teacher's impact on student achievement by controlling for factors like poverty and race that often skew test scores when teachers are compared across a school district. Just add math and the messy business of racial inequity goes away.
Of course, the simple-sounding idea masks a complex, dangerously fallible formula. Value-added uses an intricate algorithm with dozens of variables to predict test score gains a student should post based on that student's past performance. The difference between the projected gains and their actual gains becomes the teacher's score. A teacher's score is comprised of her collective "value-added" marks over time.
The metrics have a certain allure to them. Numbers are clean. Numbers are supposed to be objective. Also, after decades of standardized testing, school districts have amassed a great deal of data that politicians are eager to force some meaning out of. Proponents acknowledge value-added scoring is an imperfect system that should never become the entire basis for evaluating teachers. Many critics argue, however, that that's exactly what's happening.
This past weekend the Los Angeles Times released value-added scores for 11,500 third through eighth grade teachers. It's the second phase of a public shaming project the paper has taken on using their own value-added model to rate the district's teachers. Along the way, the newspaper has published the stories of popular and well-respected teachers who actually turn out to be ineffective, by its measurements. Meanwhile, some teachers have complained that under value-added, their scores varied wildly from year to year.
Some critics also charge that test scores can improve even when actual learning stays flat. They have pointed out that states' individual testing gains often are not matched by similar growth in the well-respected National Assessment of Educational Progress test, which is given to a sample of American students and often called "the nation's report card."
Others have more a fundamental disagreement: that there is no mathematical model that can truly capture the nuances of classroom dynamics or account for the challenges that students face in their lives or tabulate the myriad intangible things that make good teachers have impact.
One of those intangible factors is continuity, and the community it facilitates--the sort of thing that made Treese so insistent that Michael remain at Dorsey.
LAUSD is entering the third phase of an initiative called Public School Choice, in which struggling schools in the district are put on the auction block. Outside organizations are invited to submit overhaul plans, along with the struggling school itself. The organization with the winning plan takes control of the school. The idea is attractive--the problems in the education system seem so entrenched, why not wipe the slate clean?
The LAUSD teachers I spoke to approached PSC with skepticism.
"If it's new teachers, with new staff, with new students, you have to build a core, you have to build roots, that public schools already have," said German Gurrola, a teacher at West Adams High School, which is itself a new partnership between LAUSD and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's education reform non-profit. "It's like trying to do a reset button. ... But we're not VCRs. Communities don't just reset. You're destroying something."
And the recession has taken its own toll on school communities in Los Angeles. In February, the district approved 5,000 layoff notices, including notices for more than 4,000 teachers. Kirti Baranwal, who teaches at Gompers Middle School in Compton, says that in the previous academic year, half of her school's teachers were pink-slipped. At the immigrant-serving John Liechty Middle School, 72 percent of teachers were issued layoff notices. "I think it's devastating for kids and for instruction," Baranwal says.
"I feel like kids come back after summer and they ask, 'Oh, is so and so here?' And it's a weird lack of continuity, where you're always getting to know new teachers as opposed to teachers having a reputation and ties to a community and relationships with their students and families. Those are the things that make schools strong."
For all of the debate over charter schools and test scores and teacher evaluations, if you spend enough time talking to educators and students in struggling districts, it all starts to feel beside the point. There are in fact plenty of stories of students succeeding despite the upheavals of recession and reform in the Los Angeles school system. They often involve moments when teachers and families have made it their business not to ignore the broad structural factors that can derail an education. Jose Pedraza's story is one of them, sort of.
Sandra Ochoa, the Spanish AP teacher who took a close interest in Jose, explains that the main priority of her school, which is part of the Green Dot charter school network, is to get kids to college. Jose's academic decline meant that, without some kind of intervention, he was not prepared for that. But after they found out the root of his troubles, the school signed him up for weekly counseling and his teachers started checking in on him more frequently. The extra attention caught him off guard, but helped bring him back from the brink. By getting to know Jose's family and making herself available to her students--Ochoa and Jose bonded over a mutual love of Iron Maiden--she did much more than just teach college-level Spanish.
Jaramillo credits Ochoa with helping refocus her son on his academics. Still, the story is difficult for her to retell. Jaramillo, who speaks with pride about her activism and her family, can't stop her voice from shaking when she tries to explain how her husband's unemployment has impacted her kids' education.
"I want him to go to university. I want him to get his dreams," Jaramillo says. "My biggest dream is to see him graduate from college."
But for all that she and her son's school have put into making that dream come true, it's not at all clear any of them would be considered a success by the standards of today's loudest voices on education reform. Jose barely recovered by the end of the year. Though he did pass his AP exam with a five, the highest score possible, he's just getting by as his senior year comes to a close. This spring, he was passing his classes, but not acing any of them.
"Every day is difficult," Jaramillo says of her struggles to motivate Jose and keep her family afloat at the same time. She hopes that his academic low point is behind him, but realizes, "We are still struggling with him."
*A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that "Waiting for Superman" was nominated for an Oscar.