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Killing the zombie lie

Robert Niles
Published: April 12, 2012 at 10:10 AM (MST)
Some lies are like zombies - not matter what you try to do to kill them, they just keep coming back, feeding on people's brains.

Consider what Ron Kaye wrote in the LA Times' Pasadena Sun this week, in reference to the Pasadena police killing an unarmed black teenager.

"For so long, Pasadena, like much of America, has been a tale of two cities — one white, one black, and now, with a third of the population Latino, a tale of three cities," Kaye wrote.

Okay, no problem there. Fellow PUSD parent Peter Dreier has written eloquently about this issue before. But let's take a look at Kaye's next paragraph:

"Pasadena, for all its affluence and hipness, the beauty of its neighborhoods, the resurrection of Old Pasadena, the high quality of life enjoyed by so many, has never fully faced the ugly truth about how nearly a fifth of its population lives in poverty, how an astonishing third of the school-age children are in private schools because of the failure of its public schools, how the disparity in wealth and circumstance is like a cancer eating away at the life of the city."

Ugh. Not the zombie lie again: the claim - presented without any evidence to support it - that Pasadena's public schools are a "failure."

First, I would love for someone to find the recent data that documents that one third of Pasadena's children are enrolled in private schools. I've not been able to find it, yet I keep hearing people repeat it as fact. Second, as I have documented before, Pasadena's public schools are not failing.

Let's start by considering the children from that "third" from which Kaye, Dreier and I write, that of white Pasadenans who are fortunate enough not to live in poverty. Despite what the zombie lie might lead you to believe, some kids from that population do attend Pasadena's public schools, including my children. And they thrive, as least as far as can be measured by state testing data.

I looked at California STAR test scores for the most recent academic year (2010-11). I looked at district-wide scores on the English Language Arts STAR test for students in fifth, eighth and 11th grades to get a quick overview of district performance. (Those are the top grade levels that take STAR tests for elementary, middle and high schools, respectively, so I thought looking at those grade levels would provide the best quick indicator of school performance. Also, I looked at the English test because that's the one subject test that's given in all grade levels.)

Pasadena Unified's white, "nondisadvantaged" (meaning wealthy enough not to be on the free or reduced-price school lunch program) students scored above the state average for white, nondisadvantaged students at each of those three grade levels. Taking a look at nearby school districts, PUSD's white, nondisadvantaged students scored above the white, nondisadvantaged students from the Glendale, Burbank, Arcadia, Monrovia, and Temple City school districts in two or all three of those grades levels, as well.

That's hardly the track record of a failing school district. In fact, for white, nondisadvantaged students, PUSD is an above-average school district - among the best in the San Gabriel Valley.

But what about those other Pasadenans? PUSD's "disadvantantged" students (those on the free or reduced price school lunch program, whether they be white, black, Latino, or of other ethnicity) scored around the state average for disadvantaged students. In last year's STAR tests, the 11th graders beat the state average by more than four points. The eighth and fifth graders just missed the state average, scoring one point below it in each grade level (PUSD's disadvantaged fifth graders scored 343.1 to the state average's 344.1, and PUSD's eighth graders scored 340.8 to the state average of 341.8 for disadvantaged eighth graders.)

What's interesting about this data is that the average STAR test scores for disadvantaged students appears to be strongly correlated to the percentage of students in the district who are disadvantaged - the higher a percentage of disadvantaged students a district has, the lower those disadvantaged students' average scores. According to the STAR test data, about 64 percent of PUSD's students fall under the income standard for being disadvantaged, more than 10 percentage points above the state average in California. That means Pasadena's public schools must serve a substantially larger proportion of poor students that the typical school district in the state does. Yet our students in this category are scoring close to the state average. That should be encouraging, and not seen as a sign of "failure."

Disadvantaged students traditionally score much lower on standardized tests than students from families with higher incomes. That's because their parents are less likely to be college educated, or even to have a high school diploma, meaning those students are less likely to have help at home with homework and studying. Their parents are often unable to pay for tutoring, summer camps and after-school activities that children from more affluent families enjoy. These students are less likely to have books in their home, or a bedroom of their own, or even a bedroom they don't have to share with adults. They're less likely to have a balanced diet or restful sleep at night, factors that affect school performance. Their parents are less likely to have the time, of the knowledge of the system, to keep on top of their children's performance, and to advocate on their behalf.

And the extra "Title I" money that school districts get to help disadvantaged students doesn't come close to replacing all the benefits of that individual, parental support. The more poor students a district must serve, the thinner those Title I funds are spread.

Ironically, Kaye is advocating in his piece for a greater understanding of the "other" Pasadenas by the affluent whites who most often run its institutions of political and social power. But he undercuts his point by repeating the uninformed zombie lie about the public schools.

Of course, Kaye's track record as editor of the Los Angeles Daily News was as an anti-government, libertarian ideologue, so perhaps he couldn't resist the chance to take a shot at another area of government - public education - while he was taking his shot at the police. But if he'd taken a close look at the data about PUSD's test performance he would have found some powerful support for his larger point.

I hate to see middle-class Pasadena parents to struggle pay for private education simply because the zombie lie kept them from even considering their public schools. How many potential community volunteers and contributors shy away from helping the public schools because the zombie lie leads them to believe that their contributions will be wasted?

Even worse, how easy does the zombie lie make it for Pasadenans to believe that the challenges faced in our local schools are simply the result of the failure of local teachers and school administrators, instead of forcing Pasadenans to confront the crushing child poverty problem in our community?

Pasadenans need to know what's really happening in our public schools, and the community. They deserve an accurate picture of their public education system, not more zombie lies. That's why I'm part of the Go Public Project, which this spring will film a documentary depicting a day in the life of the Pasadena Unified School District. Fifty documentary film crews will be in our schools that day, telling the stories of the students, teachers, administrators and support team within it. My sixth-grade son will be one of 10 student directors working on the project, and I'm serving on its advisory board. I hope that you'll connect with Go Public, by following it on Facebook, on Twitter, or by making a contribution to help fund the non-profit project.

"Will Pasadena find a way to turn the corner, purge the ghosts of the past and bridge the gulf of race and class?," Kaye asks.

"Whatever the rights or wrong, these things don't just happen. They have been happening a long time and it's time to ask how much longer."

Yes, yes, it is. An in doing that, let's also get an accurate view of public education in our community. Let's kill the zombie lie.

Robert Niles also can be found at

© Robert Niles. Read more in the column archive.