Good things, they say, come in small packages.
So it is perhaps fitting that it is Los Angeles first-graders who are providing some of the best news the Los Angeles Unified School District has received in some time.
The district reported Tuesday that its first-graders are for the first time performing above average in reading and spelling, scoring in the 56th percentile nationally. That figure represents an improvement of 21 percentile points from two years earlier in reading and 18 points in spelling. Supt. Roy Romer and his aides are confident those gains prove that the district’s year-old Open Court reading program, with its structured lessons bolstered by teacher training, is paying off.
“The proof is in the pudding and this is the first taste of the pudding,” said an ecstatic Romer. “To pull this district above the national average in that short of time is remarkable.”
The good news could not have come at a better time. Ten of the district’s schools are being investigated by state teams for their failure to make academic gains. And the district is stepping up its oversight of 14 other schools that the state has warned may be investigated next year.
Most of those schools are high schools or middle schools, which Romer and several aides said are more difficult to reform than elementary campuses. Only one in five of the district’s ninth-graders passed the first round of the state’s high school exit exam–demonstrating the district’s failings over the last decade.
But Romer said the new scores indicate the district is turning a corner. He pointed out that all ethnic groups helped fuel the first-grade gains.
More than 60% of the district’s first-graders are still learning to speak English, but even their rank in reading rose from the 33rd percentile nationally to the 48th percentile in one year.
Those students have been taught mostly in English because of Proposition 227, the 1998 measure that ended bilingual education. Romer declined to speculate on the impact of that change on students’ scores.
The reading scores for African American students also rose sharply, from the 45th percentile to the 55th percentile. Scores for white and Asian students rose significantly as well, by 9 and 8 points respectively.
Most of the district’s elementary schools adopted the Open Court reading program for kindergarten and grades 1 and 2 a year ago. The district invested in an intensive teacher-training program and also hired 300 coaches to help teachers monitor their lessons and their students’ progress.
This year the district intensified its reading improvement effort by extending Open Court through fifth grade, adding an additional 275 coaches and installing the computer-based Waterford reading program to provide students with individualized phonics lessons.
Not all teachers like the Open Court system, which they say is too prescriptive and limiting. But Romer said the new results show the approach works.
“We can now go to everyone in the elementary grades and say ‘We can do this all across the board.’ “