A recently released study finds that a $20 billion investment in capital improvements by the Los Angeles Unified School district has paid off in improved academic outcomes for elementary school students. The district spent the money putting up dozens of new buildings since 2002 in an effort to reduce chronic overcrowding in the city's schools. Although student achievement at elementary school levels rose as a result, the outcomes weren't as cheery at the high school and middle-school level where results either went up very little or not at all.
The study was released to coincide with the first day of class for LAUSD students. Researchers tracked the results of nearly 20,000 district students who moved into the 73 new buildings put up in the last ten years. Their findings showed improvements in the results of elementary school students that were equal to what could be expected had the school year been lengthened by 25 to 30 days.
"We rarely see such eye-popping benefits from any kind of school reform," said Bruce Fuller, a Berkeley professor of education and public policy who worked on the study.
Still, Fuller attributes the improvement less to the effects of new construction than to the fact that the LAUSD had the worst overcrowding of almost any school district in the country.
"It may be that the new-school effect stems from the fact that we had young kids packed like sardines in the classrooms, and overnight they moved to clean and tidy facilities staffed by younger, better-trained teachers," Fuller said.
But meanwhile, high school students who moved to new schools saw a small average increase in their language arts scores, and a small but statistically insignificant decrease in their math scores. Fuller said that the researchers were unable to explain the disparity between elementary and high school students.
John Rogers, an education professor at UCLA, offers several reasons why the reduction in overcrowding provided greater benefits to elementary school students than high-schoolers. One is the recent LAUSD initiative called the Small Learning Communities program which seeks to foster a small-school environment in larger high schools. It is possible that the success of the program made it less important for high-schoolers to move to smaller schools. On the other hand, since high schools tend to be larger than elementary schools it could be that replicating the personal environment of an elementary school isn't possible — even in a small building.
"One thing we may be seeing is that high schools are already so large that whether you have a 3,000- or 5,000-student high school, you're already at a size that you don't have a sense of intimacy, and a feeling that everybody knows each other," Rogers said.