The Unavoidable Tradeoffs of School Reform

The Unavoidable Tradeoffs of School Reform

School reform is a very complex affair. For proof, look no further than Manual Arts High School in LA.

Manual Arts is about to undergo a major overhaul, reports Sandy Banks at The LA Times. More than half the teachers will be replaced, the school will go from a year-round to a traditional calendar, and the school’s nine “small learning communities” will collapse into three academies with special career themes. Why? Only about half of its students graduate, and fewer than half test at the “basic” level in math and reading.

School reform veterans may see some irony in all this. Year-round school calendars and small learning communities were themselves among the big reform ideas of the past decade. Manual Arts High has, presumably, been through upheaval before.

Still, something clearly has to be done, given how many students are falling through the cracks. It won’t do to shy away from future reforms because past reforms failed to deliver.

But the piece by Banks reminds us that any reform entails risks and tradeoffs. She points to a program at Manual Arts that belies the image of a failing school. Students at the school’s Imaging, Science & Technology Academy (ISTA) are “a source of campus pride,” she writes, “turning the inner-city school from a laughingstock to the one to beat at statewide engineering exams and robotics competitions.”

 Those who take part in the program raise their GPAs and do much better in college says the program’s founder. Yet the high school’s overhaul will replace many ISTA teachers and absorb the program into the School of Medical Sciences, Arts and Technology.

Mike McGaillard, who heads the non-profit organization that runs Manual Arts High School defends the decision. “We’re committed to seeing [ISTA] be successful,” he told Banks. “I just want it to be part of a school that’s successful. I don’t want it to be the exception.”

No one ever said this stuff was easy.

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