Photo by Sam Hodgson
School board president John Lee Evans announces Cindy Marten as the board's pick to helm San Diego Unified.
It’s very rare that all five San Diego Unified school board members agree on something.
But in February, the board made a decision that was both unanimous and unorthodox when it named an elementary school principal, Cindy Marten, as the next superintendent of California’s second-largest school district.
In their announcement, the board members heaped praise on Marten’s leadership of Central Elementary school in the heart of City Heights, where she served as principal from 2008 until last month. Marten has “turned around an underperforming school,” said Trustee Kevin Beiser. Board President John Lee Evans said she was “the epitome of exactly what we want to be doing across the district.”
So, what exactly has Marten accomplished at Central Elementary that so impressed all five trustees?
We wanted to study these academic accomplishments, and see how Central stacked up against a few other local schools with similar challenges. We found something surprising: Central’s numbers aren’t all that.
The school’s Academic Performance Index scores are far less impressive than other district schools with similar student demographics and socio-economic challenges. Similar schools improved more than twice as much as Central since Marten took over there as principal. And there’s little evidence in the data to show that Marten’s leadership turned around a failing school.
But for those who have tracked Marten’s progress, including the board members, the numbers tell just a fraction of the story. The district’s new superintendent has spent the last few years dazzling the board, other principals and parents not with statistics but on a host of fronts that aren’t so easily measured.
“That’s the question: How do you measure that silent curriculum?” Marten said. “How do you measure love, hope, passion, respect, resilience, tolerance, confidence?”
Two of the school board members who have spent considerable time at Marten’s school say they’ve been impressed by the confidence of her students, the involvement of parents and the ethos of neighborhood investment in a community asset. These X-factors can’t be plugged into spreadsheets, the trustees say, but they’re exactly what the district needs.
What the Numbers Show
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Judging purely by the academic performance index, or API, the central metric the state of California uses to track schools’ performance, Central Elementary is behind a few other similar schools in the district.
Established in 1999, the API is an amalgam of each school’s scores on statewide tests. Each year, every public school in the state is given an API score of between 200 and 1,000 points. That score is compared with the previous year’s tally to establish a school’s “API growth points” for the year.
For each school, the state compiles an annual list of similar schools around California. The similar schools list considers a number of factors, from student demographics to the number of teachers at the school who hold emergency credentials.
Using the state data, we compiled a database comparing Central Elementary’s API scores to 10 other similar schools within the district, going back to the 2005-2006 school year.
Here’s what that data showed:
• Some similar schools within San Diego Unified far outperformed Central Elementary since Marten became principal: Central was ranked fifth out of the 11 schools in overall performance since the 2008-09 school year. While Central improved by a total of 84 API points in that time period, Cesar Chavez Elementary in Southcrest improved by 185 points. Garfield Elementary in North Park improved by 155 points.
• There has been no significant turnaround in test scores at Central since Marten took over: In the 2006-2007 school year, two years before Marten took over, Central gained 20 API points, making it the best-performing school in the sample list that year. The school hasn’t outperformed other similar schools so convincingly since then.
• Central’s test scores dipped for a couple of years when Marten first took over. Then they jumped in 2009-10 before settling into modest annual increases.
The numbers alone paint a picture of a school that’s distinctly average among similar schools.
While all the attention has been focused on Central, schools like Garfield and Cesar Chavez have been largely ignored by the broader public, despite their jaw-dropping test score increases.
Even in the year Central performed best, 2009-10, both Garfield and Cesar Chavez outshined the City Heights school’s API score. Central’s 52-point gain that year was touted in a media release passed out at the announcement of Marten’s appointment. Garfield improved by 58 points the same year; Cesar Chavez’s scores jumped 64 points.
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So, where’s the fanfare for these other, seemingly better performing schools?
It turns out there are a number reasons why API isn’t taken all that seriously.
What the Numbers Mean
Marten calls her API scores a byproduct of what she has accomplished at Central.
She said she has focused on getting Central away from a rollercoaster ride in test scores, where the school would see massive gains one year followed by a disappointing dip the next. The slow and steady API increases the school has seen since she took over indicate that she has steadily improved the quality of education there, she said.
“Is it useful? Yes. I’ve always held myself accountable, and test scores can help to do that,” Marten said. “But they are really just a symptom, like taking your temperature or your blood pressure at the doctor’s office.”
That sentiment was echoed by other principals, district officials and school board members.
And even advocates for the use of data in assessing schools have problems with using API as a yardstick. Tyler Cramer, a local attorney who has pushed for years for greater teacher and principal accountability via test scores, says the API measures are largely unhelpful.
Because the API measures how each grade has improved from one year to the next, it’s really measuring one group of students to another completely different group, Cramer said. In schools like Central (where Cramer’s daughter happens to teach) where there is a high annual turnover in students because of a transient population, the measure is even less meaningful, he said.
“It’s a waste of time,” Cramer said. “It really doesn’t tell you anything.”
But Juan Romo, president of the union that represents principals, said there have been some mutterings within the principal community about how much attention Central’s performance has been getting.
“I have heard comments from other principals who said, ‘Hey, my school did better than hers!’” Romo said.
But four principal contacted for this story all spoke highly of Marten. They acknowledged that a lot has seemingly been made of Central’s performance, but said Marten deserves all the credit she is getting.
For their part, the school board members told Voice of San Diego they barely took test scores into account when selecting Marten to be superintendent.
They said they relied more on esoteric measures — Central Elementary’s X-factors, which aren’t so simple to quantify.
Bottom line: The school board members don’t really have any hard, quantifiable data to back up their choice of Marten to lead the district.
They say they don’t need it.
Trustee Richard Barrera said he and his colleagues didn’t go looking for the best-performing principal in the district. Rather, he said, their decision was based on Marten’s extraordinary collection of talents.
Marten’s ability to organize and rally advocates around a cause and to seek out resources for her school, combined with her dedication and passion for educating children made her an obvious choice, Barrera said.
Barrera the time he spent observing Marten and the classrooms at her school — as well as hearing testimonials from teachers parents and students — contributed enormously in choosing Marten.
“What’s very clear when you go to Central is that you have an almost universal sense of people feeling that they’re part of a community where kids are learning, where exciting things are happening and where people are feeling supported,” Barrera said. “In those aspects, Central is certainly a model of what’s possible in a high-poverty neighborhood school.”
Trustee Scott Barnett, whose philosophy often clashes with Barrera’s, agreed.
He said in several visits to the school over the last few years, he’s come to see it as a prime example of what can be achieved against the odds.
“Have there been other school that have had better growth? I’m sure there have,” Barnett said. “But, to me, Central is the whole package.”
Measuring the ‘Silent Curriculum’
Marten said she welcomes the public desire for tangible yardsticks by which school performance can be measured.
Taxpayers are investors in public education, and as such they should be able to check in on how their neighborhood school, or their children’s school, is performing compared with other parts of the city, state and country, she said.
Marten said that when she takes office later this year she intends to push an effort already under way at San Diego Unified to create a new tool for measuring school performance.
That effort, which focuses on 12 key indicators of quality schools, has been on the table for years, Marten said, but the district hasn’t yet really gotten serious about applying it.
That will change when she takes the reins, Marten said.
“I’ve got no problem at all with using a measure, but we’ve recently lost the dialogue about how to create and measure a quality school and we have to resuscitate that dialogue,” she said. “You have a right to know as a taxpayer how our schools are doing, and I’d better give you a good way to measure that.”
Will Carless is an investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego currently focused on local education. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.550.5670.
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