As the second-largest public school district in the country, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has one of the worst reputations around in nearly every respect. There’s the dismal graduation rate (around 56%), poor academic performance, way-too-easy teacher tenure (most other school districts in California have a more comprehensive evaluation process) and an insane $19 billion construction bond program. That $19 billion (spread across several bond measures) has created some impressive architecture (like the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools that cost $578 million and looks like it belongs on the Las Vegas Strip or the Visual and Performing Arts School at a comparatively cheap $228 million) but little in the way of academics.
In fact, I’ve never seen a school district care so little about academics as LAUSD. They proved it again this week with their announcement that the Board will seek to lower graduation requirements in the number of credits required (from 230 to 170 units) and eliminate requirements to take elective courses. Some of the news was misreported, as their Facebook page points out. The current passing grade for college-prep courses at LAUSD is a ‘D’ and the proposal would raise the passing grade to a ‘C’ in 2017, which is well overdue as I seriously doubt the value of being a high school “graduate” with a GPA between 1.0 and 1.9. But under the new proposal, students could theoretically be done with all of their graduation requirements sometime around junior year. Unless we’re questioning the entire system and shortening high school by a year (which I have nothing against), this new proposal will solve little: it makes an already easy curriculum easier for the above average students, and it coddles the below average students who would benefit from better instruction and a focus on developing critical skills, like reading comprehension, critical thinking and maybe even some basic personal finance skills. As a product of a California public school myself, I can tell you one thing: it’s already way too easy. I graduated among the top 50 in my 900-student senior class, and I’m not that smart. To quote Joe Rogan, “I know I’m stupid, but yet I’m smarter than almost everybody I meet.”
California public schools mean well, they really do, but dumbing it down and lowering requirements will just send graduates into the real world or college completely unprepared for the normal rigor and pace of things. Take the CAHSEE (California’s high school exit exam) for example. It was implemented the year after I graduated so I never had to take it, but the thing is frighteningly simple. Parents have described it as being at the 6th-7th grade level. Let’s look at its description straight from the California Department of Education website:
Students first take this test in grade ten. If they do not pass the test in grade ten, they have more chances to take the test. In grade eleven, they can take the test two times. In grade twelve, they have up to five times to take the test.
Yes, you read that right. You can take the “exit exam” beginning your sophomore year and you can take it EIGHT TIMES to get a passing grade. Come on! It’s just another requirement that was implemented by the state that meant well but ended up becoming more bureaucratic nonsense. Hey everybody, here’s a high school exit exam that is neither timed to be an exit nor much of an exam because you can retake the same damn test seven more times to pass it. This goes to the heart of my love-hate relationship with California. California wants so desperately to give everyone an equal chance and I admire that because I want that too, but it doesn’t happen like this. You either give the test or you don’t. You either have graduation requirements or you don’t. Don’t water it down.
LAUSD is claiming the new classes will be more rigorous, but only time will tell. The district is a behemoth that serves 900,000 students, has 80,000 employees and more than 1,000 schools. It’s just too big and unwieldy to manage effectively. The Board is a huge power play and its members are career politicians. I want the best opportunities for these students and not just improved statistics. Smaller districts with more focused priorities would make a greater difference for the students. $19 billion is an awful lot to spend on a school district with a less than 60% graduation rate and plans to set the bar even lower for its students.