Policymakers, unlike scientists, don't have the luxury of conducting controlled experiments to test competing solutions to social problems. But when it comes to reforming failing public schools, something close to that is occurring in two California school districts: Oakland and Compton.
The districts, comparable in many respects, are opting for completely different approaches to fixing their schools. And so far, Oakland's policy of giving parents more choice is showing far more success than Compton's strategy of micromanaging classrooms.
Oakland and Compton are not identical, of course. Compton, located in the outskirts of Los Angeles, does not have the gorgeous San Francisco Bay scenery of Oakland. It has a quarter of Oakland's population and no wealthy neighbors. But they are both high-crime inner cities. Both have a large Hispanic and black population, and a small Asian and white population. Average family incomes are comparable—about $40,000 for Oakland and $33,000 for Compton.
They both became targets of a state takeover and a large financial bailout in the last decade. And the federal No Child Left Behind Act for two years in a row has ranked them both among California's 162 districts "in need of improvement."
In short, the two districts have similar student bodies, similar challenges, and—until now—a similar history of failure. But Oakland is beginning to break away from this history, and the reason is the weighted-student-formula program it embraced some years ago and fully implemented last year.
Under this program, kids are not required to attend their neighborhood school, especially if it is failing. Rather, they can pick any regular public or charter school in their district and take their education dollars with them; more students therefore means more revenues for schools. Furthermore, as the name suggests, the revenues are "weighted" based on the difficulty of educating each student, with low-income and special-needs kids commanding more money than smart, well-to-do ones. Schools have to compete for funding, but the upside is that they have total control over it.
Compton has stuck to a completely different approach that does not involve empowering parents—or decentralizing control to schools. Instead, it has tried to fix its failing schools by mandating "classroom inputs." To this end, all Compton schools over the last few years have been ordered to reduce class size by 12 percent, improve teachers' credentials, adopt a tougher curriculum, and even clean up bathrooms.
What are the results so far? Oakland schools have shown a remarkable flexibility in responding to student needs, while Compton has stagnated. In 2003-04, for instance, Oakland's high schools offered 17 Advanced Placement classes. Last year, they increased this total to 91, or about one AP class for every 143 students. By contrast, Compton's AP offerings went up by two that year, to one class for every 218 students. Oakland students also are taking high-level math and science courses more frequently. About 800 high school students studied first-year physics last year—nearly triple the number taking the course in the 2004 school year.
More to the point, of course, are student-performance measures. Oakland kids have shown major improvement on the California High School Exit Examination, which all students must pass in English and math before graduating from high school. Sixty-two percent of high school students passed the English-language-arts portion, compared with 57 percent in 2005—a 5-point gain—and 60 percent passed math, a 6-point jump from the year before. By contrast, Compton showed no gains in English—staying stuck at 58 percent—and posted a 2-percentage-point drop in math, from 50 percent to 48 percent.
Similarly, Oakland's score on the state's Academic Performance Index—a numeric grade that California assigns to its schools based on the performance of their students on standardized tests—went up by 19 points. Compton, in contrast, gained only 13 points. Yet even this overstates Compton's performance, because almost all of its gains came at the elementary level, where students are not so intractable. Compton's middle schools lost an average of 6 points, while Oakland's gained an average of 16 points. Meanwhile, half of Compton's high schools lost points on the API score—including Compton High, where now fewer than 6 percent of males are proficient in reading, and fewer than 1 percent in algebra. Conversely, Oakland high schools gained, on average, 30 points. Even Oakland's economically disadvantaged and limited-English students have shown major improvements. In 2006, its economically disadvantaged students gained 60 percent more on the performance index than Compton's, and its English-language learners gained 120 percent more.
Nor is Oakland's progress in any way anomalous. Oakland borrowed the weighted-student program from San Francisco, where the approach has already had six years of success. San Francisco kids in every grade level in every subject have consistently performed above the state average. Since 2001, its low-income students have posted gains of 83 points, 16 percent more than Los Angeles' and 25 percent more than Compton's. Last year alone, San Francisco students overall earned the highest API test scores of any urban district—97 points higher than Los Angeles and 150 points higher than Compton. Even San Francisco's minority, poor, and special education students have shown major improvements. English-language learners, a challenging group, gained 12 points in 2006, compared with zero points for Los Angeles'. Similarly, San Francisco's special education students gained 19 points that year, whereas Los Angeles' gained only 1 point.
What's more, a wide array of schools have cropped up in the city, catering to practically every student need and interest by offering dual-language programs, college-preparatory classes, performing-arts electives, and advanced math and science courses. In fact, every public school in San Francisco is fast developing its own unique blend of size, pedagogic style, and course offerings.
Meanwhile, Oakland hosted a daylong fair last month at which the district's 120-plus schools could vie with each other to entice parents, handing out information about course offerings, highlighting accomplishments, and answering questions. In short, schools are being forced to sell themselves to each and every parent. Compton and the majority of low-performing schools nationwide that can count on a captive audience have no such plans.
What's more remarkable is that Oakland's turnaround happened at a time when the state had initiated a hostile school takeover, triggering protests from the community and the school board. The state-appointed administrator for the Oakland schools was forced to hire a bodyguard because of threats to his life at community meetings. But because the weighted-student formula decentralized control to individual schools and effectively put parents in charge of enforcing accountability, principals were insulated from this ugly infighting, allowing them to focus on what matters: students. In essence, this mechanism proved stronger than district politics.
The success of the weighted-student-formula program has not gone unnoticed. The Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation last year touted the approach as an important tool for school reform. Former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige has praised it in The New York Times. Although most teachers' unions resist handing control of school funds to principals, out of fear that this might dilute their ability to enforce such union work rules as seniority-based promotions, some unions have given cautious approval to the concept.
Nationwide, close to 10,000 schools are considered to be failing under the No Child Left Behind Act, hundreds for more than five years. Yet less than 1 percent of students in these schools manage to transfer to a higher-performing school, even though they have that right under the federal law. Political leaders can change this by building on Oakland and San Francisco's modest experiment in school choice. No student deserves anything less.
Lisa Snell is the director of education policy at the Reason Foundation, a Los Angeles-based nonpartisan think tank. Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at the foundation. Reason's education research and commentary is here. This article first appeared in Education Week.