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Carvalho is expected to defend dismantling of Primary Promise

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The controversial reshaping of a lauded academic program for young students will be front and center at Tuesday’s meeting of the Los Angeles Board of Education.

The program, called Primary Promise, was achieving extraordinary results in the estimation of district officials who presented a public progress report about 14 months ago. Since then — with the arrival of Supt. Alberto Carvalho — the official district position that has emerged is that Primary Promise was less effective than advertised, not especially groundbreaking and too expensive to sustain.

People on both sides of the debate have lined up for a public showdown.

Primary Promise relied on specially trained teachers and teacher aides to provide daily ultra-small-group instruction to students in kindergarten through third grade who were behind in reading or math or both. Their progress was monitored every two to three weeks with the instruction adjusted accordingly.

Such efforts — in L.A. Unified and elsewhere — fall under the general heading of “intervention services.” One element that made L.A. Unified’s program rare was its large scale — a direct response to pandemic academic setbacks. Learning had been especially hampered when campuses in L.A. Unified and elsewhere were closed for more than a year, with teachers working remotely with students via computer.

More than 1,700 have signed a petition in support of Primary Promise.

“The LAUSD has plenty of programs that don’t work, so we, a coalition of parents, teachers, staff and community members, are asking the board to stop Supt. Carvalho from unilaterally dismantling this program that does in fact work, in order to enact a lesser version,” the petition says.

Primary Promise had expanded since the fall of 2020 to reach about two-thirds of the district’s 488 elementary schools, with plans established to reach the remaining campuses — at an estimated annual cost of $192 million.

A year after the glowing progress report, officials quietly began dismantling Primary Promise — reducing by about half the number of schools served with centrally funded intervention and requiring all participating teachers to reapply for remaining positions. The district also has created new coaching positions that will focus mostly on improving the skills of regular classroom teachers, while extending the reach of direct intervention to higher grades.

Deputy Supt. of Instruction Karla Estrada said in an interview Monday that the redesign is more equitable and will contribute more to higher achievement.

The new approach comes at the direction of Carvalho, who took charge in mid-February 2022 — about one month prior to the previous glowing report on Primary Promise.

Carvalho received a non-public briefing about four months later that also highlighted the success of intervention efforts, with additional data. This later data, from July 2022, has led to more contention.

Primary Promise supporters describe these charts as suppressed evidence — from well into Carvalho’s term — that document gains achieved by students enrolled in Primary Promise compared with similar students who were not. This evidence, they said, adds weight to the March 2022 data and also to data the district provided separately to former Supt. Austin Beutner — before Carvalho’s arrival — for a national conference in the fall of 2021.

District officials on Monday challenged the interpretation of the data from July. They characterized the data as a “business pitch” from a firm that has provided services at various schools — some with Primary Promise and some without it. The data, they said, were intended to show the success of that firm’s efforts, but there was not a one-to-one correspondence between schools where that firm worked and schools where Primary Promise was in place.

Neither camp had backup documentation at hand to support its interpretation.

Carvalho ordered the major revamping without a public announcement or discussion — upsetting supporters of Primary Promise, including parents, teachers and some administrators.

The district has provided limited information — and no achievement data related to Primary Promise — in response to public and media queries. That could change at Tuesday’s meeting, when Carvalho is expected to defend his decision. However, an official outside evaluation, paid for by the district, is not expected before the end of July.

“The reality is that we can’t wait,” said district Chief Strategy Officer Veronica Arreguin. “We can’t wait for any type of results right now. We need to be able to be ever changing and supportive, as to best practices that we know exist, not only in L.A. Unified but across the nation that actually have instructional impacts. And we’ve seen that through research” elsewhere.

Without naming Primary Promise, Carvalho weighed in briefly during a speech Friday to an unrelated gathering of after-school program providers.

“I can assign any one of you four kids — even if you have no formal training in [teaching] reading — and if you spend 40 minutes with four kids — with no training in [teaching] reading — at the end of three months, those kids will read better,” Carvalho said.

Education research has documented that “anything you do with kids will provide some degree of improvement,” he added. “The question is: How many do you want to help? Over what period of time? And can you afford to do it?

“I was not brought here to protect the status quo,” Carvalho said. “I was brought here to elevate kids.”

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