Based simply on how it miseducates Black and Latino children, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest school district in America, is even more racist in its outcomes than the larger and notoriously racist New York City public schools. Dropout Nation readers, who have read numerous pieces here about the district, have long ago known this. But the crisis bears repeating over and over again.
As mathematics is increasingly important for employment and participation in society, we can take the extent to which L.A. Unified is successful—or not—teaching mathematics as a meaningful indicator of its success as an educational institution. We can look at whether it is successful in educating all the children in its care.
First, some context. Los Angeles, the city, has roughly the same number of residents reporting themselves to the Census as “White alone” as “Hispanic” at two million each, nearly half a million reporting as “Asian,” and not quite 400,000 reporting as “Black or African American.” [The surrounding communities also served by L.A. Unified differ little demographically from L.A. itself.] These proportions are quite different from those of the nation, with 236 million “White alone,” 41.4 million “Black or African American,” 58.8 million “Hispanic,” and 18 million “Asian alone.”
Los Angeles is less White, more Hispanic, less Black and more Asian that the United States in general. However, as with the rest of the nation, White, non-Hispanic, and Asian residents of the city have higher incomes and higher levels of educational attainment—factors increasingly tightly linked—than its Hispanic and Black residents. It is not too much to say that it is because the city’s White, non-Hispanic, and Asian residents have higher levels of educational attainment that they have higher incomes.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress measures Mathematics, Reading and other subjects at grades 4, 8, and 12. The assessments at grade 8 are useful as indicators of the quality of education provided by districts and states as by then students have been in school for most of their lives and there is little change in achievement levels afterwards. People who were strong in mathematics in middle school are likely to be strong in math in later grades; people who did not do well with math in middle school are unlikely to become mathematically literate in later life.
NAEP allows analysis for racial/ethnic groups and eligibility for free or reduced-price meals—a measure of income—among other factors. In 2017, nationally, a quarter of White, non-Hispanic, students in grade 8, qualifying for free or reduced price meals (that is, relatively poor) scored at or above Proficient on the Mathematics assessment, while more than half of White, non-Hispanic students, who were from families with incomes too high to qualify, scored at the Proficient or Above levels. Just over a third of the poorer White, non-Hispanic, students and 14 percent of the more prosperous White, non-Hispanic, students were reported as scoring “Below Basic,” that is, they could not do middle school mathematics. In other words, most White, non-Hispanic, students, and the great majority of those from middle class families, could do some middle school mathematics.
The latter higher income group of students, as you would expect, often can count on help from other sources: parents, tutors, private after-school classes and all around better resourced schools. These family resources may be taken as totaling an amount equal to at least an additional one-third to one-half of the public investment for each child, while the public resources—the greater funding of suburban schools—in many places double the investment in the education of less privileged children.
On the other hand, NAEP finds that nearly 60 percent of Black and 48 percent of Hispanic students whose families have incomes low enough to qualify for the National School Lunch Program in eighth grade score at the Below basic level on the Mathematics assessment. Most poor Asian and White students learn at least some middle school mathematics; half of Hispanic and most Black students do not.
That is the national picture.
This racial gap is much worse in Los Angeles with its extreme income inequalities. A demographic map of Los Angeles would hardly show more strictly defined concentrations of racial and ethnic groups if segregation were legally enforced. The center of the urban area is nearly exclusively Black. The arc of the area, from Pasadena to Malibu, White, non-Hispanic, and the remainder Hispanic apart from two or three Asian areas.
This sociopolitical segregation is also economic segregation. For example, Watts, the classic Black neighborhood of the city, has a median household income of $25,000 per year. Average household incomes in the predominately White, non-Hispanic, areas to the north and west begin at $60,000 and rise rapidly through the $100,000s.
The Opportunity Atlas of Raj Chetty’s group at Harvard shows that a Black child born into what passes for a middle income family in the South Figueroa area can look forward to living as an adult in a household with an income of $20,000 a year. A White child in, say, the not particularly wealthy Baldwin Hills area, $65,000.
In general, White, non-Hispanic, and Asian households in Los Angeles have above average incomes, Black and Hispanic households have below average incomes. Consequently, there are not enough White, non-Hispanic, and Asian middle school students eligible for the National Lunch Program in LAUSD for NAEP to legally count. And there are not enough Black middle school students who are not eligible for the National Lunch Program for NAEP to count. Only Hispanic students are represented on both sides of the income divide.
These racial, ethnic and economic divisions in the city are reflected in educational outcomes. More than half—55 percent—of poor Hispanic students in Los Angeles have not learned mathematics at grade level by middle school. Catastrophically, nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of the district’s Black students have not learned mathematics at grade level by middle school and just six percent score at or above NAEP’s “Proficient” level. On the other hand, over half of White, non-Hispanic, and Asian LAUSD middle school students learn mathematics at or above grade level and only 13 percent do not.
Per pupil public expenditure in L.A. Unified is approximately $12,000. If we take the middle-class family-funded educational “supplement” of after-school, weekend and summer classes and other educational activities as a minimum of one-third of that, we arrive at a $16,000 public/private investment in middle class students. At 50 percent it is $18,000, an enough explanation for the racial gap in middle school mathematics achievement in the district.
Closing that gap within the district itself would require, minimally, the allocation of public funds on the same scale to schools serving impoverished Los Angeles students. Those would go to supporting enhanced early childhood education, after-school, weekend and summer classes, more teachers and teacher training, more support personnel, smaller class sizes. These measures are substantially the unprecedented (and more-laudable) demands made by United Teachers of Los Angeles, the American Federation of Teachers local, in its strike last year.
It is remarkable that the management of the district opposed those proposals, and pitiful that victory resulted in such grudging, minimal, changes.