Panel Paper: The Los Angeles Unified School District Public School Choice Initiative: Early Impacts On Student Achievement

Thursday, November 8, 2012 : 11:15 AM
Carroll (Sheraton Baltimore City Center Hotel)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Susan Bush, Tracey Weinstein, Ayesha Hashim, Katharine O. Strunk and Julie A. Marsh, University of Southern California

As increasing numbers of schools and districts fail to meet performance standards set by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), federal, state and district governmental institutions are searching for reforms that can assist districts and schools to reach achievement goals. One policy solution that is growing in popularity is the institution of “turnaround” reforms in the lowest performing schools. Another approach that is becoming more widely used is the "portfolio management model." Although these strategies are much-discussed in national media and policy debates, research on the implementation and effects of both turnaround and portfolio districts remains limited. This paper explores the strategic case of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD)’s Public School Choice Initiative (PSCI), which combines both of these popular reforms. Implemented for the first time in August 2009, PSCI allowed teams of internal and external stakeholders to compete to turn around the district's lowest performing schools and operate new schools built to relieve overcrowding. At its inception, PSCI intended to turn around approximately 200 of the district's low-performing “focus” schools and open 50 newly constructed “relief” school sites. The district's theory of change behind PSCI merged the portfolio and turnaround concepts, holding that, with intensive supports and appropriate autonomies, a range of school providers would be able to turn around low-performing schools and increase student achievement. The ultimate goal of this district reform was to build a diverse portfolio of schools tailored to and supported by the local community that would foster improved student performance.

This paper examines the effectiveness of the PSCI reform in improving student achievement in the first year of its implementation. Using LAUSD's administrative student-level dataset that follows 343,325 students across multiple school years before and after the implementation of the reform for the first cohort of affected schools, we employ a difference-in-difference estimation approach to isolate the impact of PSCI on student achievement outcomes. We find that students in PSCI focus (turnaround) schools perform significantly worse than their peers in several comparison sets of schools on math, ELA and Science achievement tests. However, students in newly opened PSCI relief schools perform significantly better than students in other low-performing LAUSD schools and than students in the feeder schools from which students transferred. We then draw on qualitative data from interviews with district and partner organization leaders and observations of PSCI 1.0 support meetings and school accountability reviews to exposit possible rationales for our results.

Although early achievement effects are difficult to attain in any reform, the school turnaround model assumes nearly immediate improvements in student achievement, making a study of early intervention effects particularly relevant. In addition, considering the high level of scrutiny being applied to the LAUSD experiment by district stakeholders, parents, the media, and the federal government, the answer to this question will not only shape future iterations of the reform, but also directly impact policy discussions about the efficacy and wisdom of portfolio and turnaround reforms.