College & Workforce Readiness

Los Angeles Schools Struggle With Curriculum Overhaul

By Lesli A. Maxwell — June 12, 2012 6 min read
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Seven years after leaders in the Los Angeles school system approved a sweeping overhaul of the high school curriculum that promised to produce more college-ready graduates, the vast majority of city students are falling short of completing the rigorous series of courses just as it is about to become a requirement for earning a diploma.

Last year, only 15 percent of graduating seniors who entered a Los Angeles high school four years earlier completed the 15 college-preparatory courses with a passing grade of C or better. Successful completion of those classes—a series of core academic courses and electives commonly called the “A-G sequence”—is required by the University of California and California State University systems to be eligible for admission.

That disappointing track record—and the looming deadline to fully implement the more demanding graduation requirements—has prompted leaders in the nation’s second-largest school district to partly scale back the plan that was adopted in 2005.

The original policy was enacted after a hard-fought campaign mounted by community organizations and youth advocates who argued that, for decades, Latino, black, and poor students did not have the same access to college-preparatory courses as their white, Asian, and more-affluent peers. The original goal was to ensure that all high schools would make the more rigorous courses widely available and that more students would complete the sequence, and, in turn, bolster their shot at getting into college. That goal, said Superintendent John Deasy, has not changed.

‘Deep Misfortune’

But last month, the school board agreed to reduce the overall number of credits necessary to graduate high school from 230 to 210 and will, initially, allow a D to be considered a passing grade in the more rigorous college-preparatory courses. Those changes to the original policy adopted seven years ago have sparked widespread concern that they will have far-reaching, negative consequences, such as eliminating elective courses. The latest tweaks—along with the requirement that all students must complete the 15 A-G courses as a condition for graduation—take effect with the class of freshmen that enters high school in the fall.

'A-G' Curriculum

The Los Angeles school system adopted a policy in 2005 that says all graduating students must complete the minimum coursework necessary to be eligible for admission to the University of California and California State University systems. The series of classes, known as the “A-G” requirements, calls for students to complete:

(A) HISTORY/SOCIAL SCIENCE. Two years, including one year of world history, cultures, and historical geography plus one year of U.S. history or one-half year of U.S. history and one-half year of civics or American Government.

(B) ENGLISH. Four years of college-preparatory study that includes frequent and regular writing, as well as reading of classic and modern literature.

(C) MATHEMATICS. Three years of college-preparatory study that includes the topics covered in elementary and advanced algebra and two- and three-dimensional geometry.

(D) LABORATORY SCIENCE. Two years of laboratory science providing fundamental knowledge in at least two of three disciplines: biology, chemistry, and physics.

(E) LANGUAGE OTHER THAN ENGLISH. Two years of such study.

(F) VISUAL AND PERFORMING ARTS. One year, including dance, drama/theater, music, or visual art.

(G) COLLEGE-PREPARATORY ELECTIVE. One year (two semesters), chosen from additional “A-F” courses beyond those used to satisfy the requirements above, or courses that have been approved solely for use as “G” electives.

SOURCE: University of California

Some critics also say the changes won’t make up for years of inaction by the 670,000-student district to adequately prepare teachers and to provide the support that many students will need to succeed in the more rigorous courses.

“The deep misfortune is that six years ago, plans weren’t put into place to increase the capacity of the system to implement this successfully and now [the district] is faced with these awful choices,” said John Rogers, the director of the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access at the University of California, Los Angeles, which has closely tracked the A-G policy.

Cuts and Turnover

To get most students in Los Angeles to successfully finish four years of English/language arts, three years of mathematics (including Algebra 2), and the rest of the college-preparatory courses required by the university systems would have been daunting no matter what.

Thirty percent of the district’s students are still learning English. Nearly 80 percent qualify for the federal free- or reduced-price meal program, a widely used measure of poverty.

But in the years since the district’s board of education adopted the more rigorous high school curriculum, the district underwent three leadership changes at the top. During that same period, California’s economy collapsed. School systems around the state have had to carve tens of billions of dollars from their annual budgets. The Los Angeles school system has had to adjust to more than $2 billion in budget cuts over the last three years through layoffs, furlough days for employees, class-size increases, and the reduction or elimination of programs.

“When you have tons of leadership turnover and huge, deeply painful spending cuts, it’s not a recipe for capacity building,” Mr. Rogers said.

Mr. Deasy, the current superintendent, said one of his top priorities when he took over the leadership reins in April 2011 was to move ahead with implementing the A-G graduation requirement for all students.

“We can’t wait anymore because our kids can’t wait,” Mr. Deasy said. “It’s time to stop talking about providing college and career-ready courses for all of our kids and execute on it. It’s absolutely a civil rights issue.”

But Mr. Deasy said that without adjusting the number of overall credits that students would have to earn in order to graduate, too many would fall short, especially when the requirement to pass the college-preparatory courses with a grade of C or better kicks in for the class of students who are currently in 7th grade.

District leaders worried that an already-anemic graduation rate—56 percent of students who were freshmen in 2007-08 graduated four years later—would get even worse.

“We needed to find a way to give students a chance to succeed in these courses,” he said.

By reducing the number of credits needed to graduate, students would have more time to retake the college-preparatory courses that they failed or to receive tutoring or other support services during the regular school day to improve their chances of success, he said. Because budget cuts have severely scaled back after-school programs and summer school—when students would traditionally receive additional academic support services—the district must find the time for such help during the regular school day, he said.

Initially, Mr. Deasy proposed dropping the credit requirement from 230 to 180—for five fewer classes overall. But strong pushback from school board members resulted in a compromise proposal that set the new credit requirement at 210.

Concern Over Electives

Other large school systems around California that have also adopted the A-G course sequence—San Jose Unified and San Francisco Unified are among them—have not reduced the overall number of credits required for graduation, according to the University of California’s IDEA.

The renewed focus on the credit requirement is a huge concern, because it’s likely to lead to a dwindling menu of elective courses, said Judith Perez, the president of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, the union that represents principals, assistant principals, and other mid-level managers in the school system.

“This will most likely lead to cutting back on opportunities for students to participate in a variety of classes,” Ms. Perez said. “We’re talking about the kind of elective courses, like orchestra or band, that help keep all kinds of kids engaged in school. Eliminating more of those types of classes to make time for A-G could end up increasing the dropout rate.”

While Ms. Perez acknowledged that budget cuts, and not the A-G policy, are driving much of the reduction in elective courses, she also worries that the district’s making the college-preparatory curriculum a requirement for all students overlooks the needs of thousands of students “in the middle” whose options for electives outside of the A-G sequence could end up shrinking.

Mr. Rogers, of the IDEA, said the district still has a long way to go to even offer a robust selection of classes that meet the university systems’ criteria of being A-G at all its high schools. Having those courses available to all students at every high school was the foundation of the original plan, he said.

“Even since the policy was adopted, there have been broad patterns of disparity in the proportion of classes that are offered at any given school,” said Mr. Rogers. “In some schools, more than 70 percent of the classes meet A-G criteria, while in others, it’s closer to 60 or 65 percent.”

Mr. Deasy, the superintendent, said the high schools do have the classes available.

“But we have to get to work on making sure that the kids get into them,” he said. “We have to put a stop to kids taking courses that don’t actually count.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 13, 2012 edition of Education Week as Los Angeles Schools Struggle With Curriculum Overhaul

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