If San Diego Schools Are the Best in the U.S., the U.S. Is Screwed

If San Diego Schools Are the Best in the U.S., the U.S. Is Screwed

File photo by Sam Hodgson

Lincoln High School

The education historian, who has emerged as the top thorn in the side of education reformers across the country, Diane Ravitch, has proclaimed that San Diego Unified School District is the “best urban district in the nation.”

“I say this not based on test scores but on the climate for teaching and learning that I have observed in San Diego,” she wrote.

Scott Lewis on Politics LogoShe then cites a bunch of test scores to prove her point.

Never mind those, though, here’s the real reason she’s so long on San Diego, she says:

San Diego now has the political climate that every district should have: a wise and experienced educator as leader; a collaborative relationship among administrators, teachers, the union, and the school board; a sense of vision about improving the education of every child and a determination to provide a good public school in every neighborhood.

Having a determination to put a good school in every neighborhood is an implicit admission that we do not have that right now.

If San Diego is the best school district in the country – and the district itself admits there isn’t a great school in every neighborhood – then this is a very sad honor.

Not only do we not have a great school in every neighborhood, parents are grabbing their kids and fleeing from the neighborhood schools to which they’re first directed.

Lincoln High School, where I spent many months helping the journalism department, has lost 40 percent of its students. Lincoln is an amazing $129 million campus, with all the facilities one could imagine. And yet it’s going through a profound emergency.

Parents are avoiding it. They’re voting with their feet, taking students to nearby charter schools and even farther. The image of the school has reached a new low.

Only 16 percent of students tested as proficient in math at Lincoln. And this is, actually, a significant improvement.

Lincoln isn’t the only place failing to win over its neighborhood parents.

This year, 44.5 percent of San Diego students are not going to the school closest to them. They’re desperately trying to find the best school they can commute to. As our contributor Christie Ritter found, that statistic is up 11 percentage points from eight years ago.

Ostensibly, if the school district were able to put a quality school district in every neighborhood, it could reverse this trend. But the trend is the trend. There’s no indication it’s changing right now.

This is a scary sign. At what point will a majority lose confidence in their neighborhood schools and what will the other neighborhoods and charter schools do to handle the demand?

It’s against this backdrop that we see a rather unprecedented amount of pride coming out of the district.

“The National Assessment of Educational Progress reading and math tests administered in 2013 reports that San Diego Unified ranks among the highest performing cities in the nation in fourth- and eighth grade reading and math,” the district touted last month.

It went on, with Marten’s comments:

“Our culture of innovation, excellence, and creativity has allowed teachers to concentrate on student achievement, giving San Diego Unified a consistent spot near the top,” said Marten. “As we transition to the new Common Core State Standards, our focus is on increasing rigor, pacing, and engagement as we challenge ourselves to come up with new ways to address the persistent achievement gap and achievement in grade 8 math.”

But a deeper look at these numbers isn’t so rosy.

We may rank “among the highest performing cities in the nation” but the tests scores are about proficiency. In other words, they demonstrate whether students are proficient or not in either math or literacy. When they say San Diego is among the best, it means we have more students proficient than other comparable districts.

Again, this is profoundly sad. Only 42 percent of fourth graders in San Diego are proficient or better in math. The majority is not proficient.

Only 29 percent of eighth graders are proficient or better in reading. Reading. This is basic literacy.

If this is the best school district in the country, we’re a very sad country.

Lots of folks hate standardized testing — for good reason. We should not educate students just to take tests. Parents and teachers hate them. Many of the district’s leaders, like Marten, have spent a lot of time talking about how good test scores should not be the goal. They are guides, at best.

Marten and others always point out how testing is broken. How it shouldn’t have major consequences.

But when test scores go up, they love them.

I agree, test scores are not the way to judge a district or a school. It should be an index of parent and teacher evaluations, graduation rates and eventual college admissions along with, yes, test scores. Evaluating a school should require many ingredients.

But right now, all we have is test scores. We don’t collect meaningful data from parents and students.

I understand the desire to be optimistic, to rally and inspire the district’s thousands of employees with positive feedback. But these are statements not just to employees, they are aimed at the public and at the media – and at parents.

The last thing we need right now is back-patting puffery about how great San Diego is doing.

A greater show of optimism would be to recognize that the community is strong enough to face the facts – as bleak as they are – and deal with them.

A first step in a truly optimistic strategy would be to establish a way to determine what a quality school in every neighborhood actually is. If it’s not with test scores, we need a way to signal it’s been achieved.

Then, each time a school reaches that milestone, we can have a community party. Marches, ceremonies, speeches and singing.

But the fact that adults in the district are getting along and that the district is struggling less than other struggling places doesn’t mean anything to worried parents.

We have to give them something to watch, root for and celebrate.

If we’re not willing to worry about what’s wrong, we’re denying ourselves the chance to celebrate when it goes right.

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Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis
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39 comments
VeronicaCorningstone
VeronicaCorningstone subscriber

We need to establish a way to determine what a quality school is? I just got back from my elementary school's "Family Friday," where the prinicpal handed out SDUSD's 12 Indicators of a Quality School. Some of these are quantifiable: access to a broad and challenging curriculum, high enrollment of neighborhood students, community engagement around student achievement, and well-maintained facilities, to name a few examples. I don't think anyone would argue that we have met all of these goals, but they do provide some concrete things to work towards.

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

The schools are a disaster, but we all know that California isn't going to upset the teachers union apple cart, no matter how many dumbed down kids are the result.

We'll just allow more H1B's to fill the technical jobs and increase handouts to the adults that got a failed education, until we reach third world status.

Don't worry about it. Your kids won't be educated enough to care.

DDunn
DDunn

The narrative, verbiage, rhetoric – (and the twerk) ….Oh, my!

With apologies to the San Diego Union and other news outlets, but VOSD does allow easier accessible public comment. “Were this LaJolla/Scripps Ranch, things would change quickly”.

However it’s Lincoln. Oh my, of course Lincoln.
And who gets the story photo – Of course Lincoln.

So the top end decision makers have gone - Re-quote from VOSD “Brain Drain” article:
"Rhinerson had only worked at city schools for five years, but he had made his mark, revamping the district’s web presence and carefully controlling its public image during his tenure. Rhinerson, a long-time public relations professional, was the go-to guy for journalists covering the district, primarily because he wanted to keep a “tight rein” on the information being shared with the public."

NOTE: "tight rein" - In a nutshell, call it what you will, the woes of San Diego Unified are historically embedded in (and with) administrative appointments/assignments, management practices, and board policies – more as a self-supportive entity with very little real change. These issues and articles have been shuffled around the VOSD writers for months with no real district response, action, nor change.

Now along with Rhinerson went a slew of other departures and/or reassignments and, generally speaking, departing doesn’t indicate retirement. Getting out while the getting is good is possible and top end reassignments are nothing new for SDUSD.

Again, VOSD, you're not alone - most of San Diego media does very little or cannot do follow up investigation on the problems and inequity of San Diego schools and rarely is there any follow up on the articles by any of San Diego’s news outlets. Generally a toss out story, well intended (often lame) or uninformed comments, and again with no media research nor follow up.

Now, on to Lincoln High – the magnificent and newest of the district and the proverbial “kick the can down the road” – been going on for decades. How or why would there be a loss of teachers? Why would one need to doubt that the dozen or so teachers exiting or transferring were the problem? Why is enrollment declining? Is Lincoln being set up for something different? Possibly…? Sounds like a management problem, maybe? What exactly is the newly formed “Secondary School Redesign”? So many things to ponder – but our local news prefers to cite articles, trends, and the general Ed-speak – much easier and not very investigative.

The Lincoln community has fought for years to not only regain respectability, but to at least get a fair shake. And please do not blame the students or parent nor the teachers, as there is plenty of talent and commitment there. But again, it’s Lincoln – Oh! Lincoln! There’s no need to “fix” Lincoln, try fixing management policy, practice, and work on stability.

Take a real and serious look at the educational, financial, and statistical data number shuffling going on district wide. Um, shuffling – just a general and needed resume skill for the modern day administrator.

Finally – the Twerk. Yes, as in Twerking – widely noted as one of the most read and commented stories of 2013. Oh, my…!

DDunn

Bill Bradshaw
Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

I think your basic point, that San Diego may be better than other districts but it’s still not good enough, is unassailable. Government schools have dumbed down the average student, compared to the rest of the developed world, and we are starting to pay the price as other countries compete more effectively. Our open society and tradition of entrepreneurship have saved us so far, but many of the better jobs are, of necessity, now taken by better-educated foreigners and our persistently high unemployment rate may be a symptom of troubles to come.

Today’s UT lead story about the Federal Government providing guidelines to correct disparate discipline based on higher percentages of minority kids getting in trouble is symptomatic of one very large problem: Local schools suffer from too much federal and state “guidance”.

I read the Ravich and Casserly articles, and the Free Press commentary. Ravich’s tome is garbage, a joke. E.g., she extols the “...close cooperation between the board and teacher’s union.” Of course there is; the majority on the board owe their jobs to the union and they aren’t going to buck their agenda.

The Free Press, to no one’s surprise, spends it’s time knocking the Koch Brothers and U.T. and adds little to the discussion.

The Casserly article is much stronger in casting the current situation in a positive and hopeful light, not as a done deal. I hope Marten can pull it off. She has the advantage of being local and knowing where the strengths and weaknesses of the district lie, and strong support from the board, the principals and apparently the union as well (at least at this point). She deserves a long, careful look before we start throwing stones.

Catherine Hockmuth
Catherine Hockmuth subscriber

It's relevant to note that with NAEP, "proficient" is not a low bar at all. http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/about/nathowreport.aspNAEP - How Results Are Reportedhttp://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/about/nathowreport.aspHow Results Are Reported Subject area results in main NAEP are reported in two ways- scale scores and achievement levels-so that student performance can be more easily understood. Note that the NAEP long-term trend assessment computes different scale...

VeronicaCorningstone
VeronicaCorningstone subscriber

Is it that hard to understand that a school district that has a collaborative relationship between its entities might be able to get ish done? I strongly disagree that families choicing out of schools indicates a failure. Very few of the families I know who have choiced out of their neighborhood schools have done so because the school was failing. Most have been because the grass is always greener, and there might be something a little bit better. That is why I have no problem with the district's boosterism. That is a big part of what will get families to enroll in SDUSD. It doesn't mean Ms. Marten will rest on her laurels, but I think part of what San Diego schools need to do is PR to compete with the PR coming from charter and private schools.
And it's nice to be able to tell family that wants us to move to Poway that the San Diego High IB program ranked on the US News & World report!

Stuart Morse
Stuart Morse subscriber

Scott, I am curious to know why the title of your article neglects to mention the
"urban" part about school districts. It seems somewhat disingenuous for the title of the article not to match with the content.
That aside, if SDUSD is doing better than other districts with the same / similar demographics, isn't that a good sign? I am not saying it is a sign that education in SDUSD has achieved the highest possible level, but I am saying that it makes sense to compare things that are similar in nature. Being better than every other similar district is significantly better than the alternatives.
You also mention that we have no data involving parental involvement. I would suggest that, as a news organization, this would be an excellent project for VOSD to undertake.
Finally, Scott, why do you think the students in Scripps Ranch and La Jolla perform better? You really aren't sure it has anything to do with parental involvement and parental expectations?

bigdprender
bigdprender subscriber

Clearly the hacks from the Broad Foundation and Diane Ravitch have no authority saying the district is moving in the right direction compared to other urbans. If not them, then who?

I choiced my student to a different school...but not for the reasons you claim. Am I the only one?

Maybe VOSD should conduct a poll about reasons for choicing students to other schools and charters. Make sure to reach beyond the armchair blowhards who can only spew Superman quotes.

Dennis James
Dennis James subscriber

Great article. All around the country there are countless "news" articles about schools making progress, how they rank, blah, blah blah. That useless cheer leading just hides the dismal absolute failures. 29 percent of eighth graders are proficient or better in reading! And the money that we continue to throw at this broken system! Thank you for a clearer look.

Fred Williams
Fred Williams subscriber

There's a simple, cost-effective way to dramatically improve education in San Diego.

End the football program.

There's no justification for spending millions every year supporting a non-academic activity that is proven to cause permanent brain damage for many students. In addition, the pep-rallys and other time wasters take away from academic time for the students.

With this simple reform the schools will free up scarce money for EDUCATION instead of providing a public subsidy to professional football teams by training their future players. It would also re-direct youthful energies into fields where they have a much higher likelihood of a bright future.

High school football is child abuse. Let's stop it.

(links for more details and supporting evidence)

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/larry-strauss/high-school-football-concussions_b_4190736.html
http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2013-11-20/news/bs-ed-youth-football-20131120_1_school-football-concussions-pop-warner-football
http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Healthday/story?id=4507846
http://abcnews.go.com/US/death-teen-football-player-highlights-dangers/story?id=19995271Is Football Just Too Dangerous?http://www.huffingtonpost.com/larry-strauss/high-school-football-concussions_b_4190736.htmlI put the pads on when I was 9 years old and would have played football in high school if I'd been eligible. I appreciate the game. The excitement of it. The intensity of the battles. The drama of a tight 4th quarter.

David Meyer
David Meyer

Nice, realistic article. I'd like to see "the climate for teaching and learning" in the SDUSD include a focus on getting more students to "advanced" rather than being satisfied with having more "proficient" students than similar districts---as you point out, a low bar.

hillaryt
hillaryt

Well hallelujah! The Voice of SD has finally got a point of view on SDUSD, that is based on reality and not the fluffy rhetoric we've been hearing from you for the last 6 months.

John H Borja
John H Borja subscriber

All this is pandering to the helicopter parents that flee with the first sign their child is not on the "winning" team. Guess what? The winning team is at home, not the school. The school has the facilities, but the home has the push. The family uses the facility to launch. That's it. The school cannot solve socio-economic or philosophical issues. The school is simply the launching pad. The child achieves it is simply a function of what is expected in the home. The teacher can bla, bla, bla. The Principal can bla, bla, bla. And the nurse can bla, bla, bla. But mommy? But Daddy? But Uncle? But Aunt? But Grandpa/ma? ....now we're talkin'. Family makes the difference. It is the family that must be supported.
And when that happens, great things happens whether in "Penasquitos or Bernardo".

Erik Bruvold
Erik Bruvold subscribermember

One thing that I wish I had time to do (and the data required) is to disaggregate San Diego Unified's test data. For a whole set of political and historical quirks, SDUSD is different than many other large urban districts. In many of these cities, suburban white flight during the 1960s and 1970s essentially hollowed out many of the formerly affluent neighborhoods and those suburanites migrated to separate school districts. In San Diego, quirks of history left suburban enclaves like Scripps Ranch, La Jolla, Point Loma and Tieransanta still within SDUSD's boundaries. And thus, unlike a school district like Oakland Unified - which does not "benefit" from the inclusion of any test scores from Piedmont or Alameda or LA Unified - which does not see students from Beverley Hills, Palos Verdes or Santa Monica or Chicago - which does not include Evanston or the Western burbs. One wonders if you seperated out the above mentioned four communities how SDUSD would actually compare.

Lou Dodge
Lou Dodge subscriber

Good one Scott! I'm not sure weather to laugh or cry over this article but in either case, I agree with what you are saying. It's tiring to to hear all the propaganda and the glossing over of problems when everybody knows it's not all real. You mention the need for other indicators for a quality school in every neighborhood. Cindy Marten speaks of the indicator of neighborhood kids going to their own school and you certainly address it here. Perhaps that should be a milestone we look towards to celebrate. And more quality, experienced leadership at every school would help.

Catherine Hockmuth
Catherine Hockmuth subscriber

Oh, just noticed that it's 42% of fourth graders who are proficient in math. What's the percentage for 8th grade?

Scott Lewis
Scott Lewis administrator

I'm glad you brought it up. It'd be interesting to give professional adults the test. Here's the definition of a proficient eighth grader in math (an area in which the district is aware we're struggling):

Eighth-graders performing at the Proficient level should be able to conjecture, defend their ideas, and give supporting examples. They should understand the connections between fractions, percents, decimals, and other mathematical topics such as algebra and functions. Students at this level are expected to have a thorough understanding of Basic level arithmetic operations—an understanding sufficient for problem solving in practical situations.

Scott Lewis
Scott Lewis administrator

I'm glad you brought this up. It's worthy of discussion. Our struggles with eighth-grade math are often discussed in San Diego. Here's that definition:

Eighth-graders performing at the Proficient level should be able to conjecture, defend their ideas, and give supporting examples. They should understand the connections between fractions, percents, decimals, and other mathematical topics such as algebra and functions. Students at this level are expected to have a thorough understanding of Basic level arithmetic operations—an understanding sufficient for problem solving in practical situations.

Randy Dotinga
Randy Dotinga memberauthor

Back in my day, we went to neighborhood schools because there weren't magnets or specialized schools (high tech, etc) except continuation schools. There was no reason to go anywhere else.

Now, it seems like schools are becoming more like restaurants. Yes, there are restaurants I can walk to, and I'm sure they're fine, but I tend to drive a few miles for the ones that really meet my needs. Isn't that the way schools should be going instead of this focus on having the nearest campus meet all a kid's needs and wants?

Randy Dotinga
Randy Dotinga memberauthor

Sometimes we grade students on a curve (compared to other similar kids) and sometimes on arbitrary standards about what they shoud know. Seems fair to treat districts the same way.

It DOES matter how they do compared to similar districts. Those numbers are a sign of what's possible: If District A can do it, why can't we? What are they doing right that we aren't?

bigdprender
bigdprender subscriber

By that measure, San Diego Unified would have spent considerable time leading other urban districts. What is more important than simply raising test scores is how the district has been most recently praised for its efforts in reducing achievement gaps among poor and minority students.

Erik Bruvold
Erik Bruvold subscribermember

Of COURSE it is parental involvement and expectations (along with a host of socio-economic factors). Those that understand just a smiddgen of statistics and who want to have an honest discussion about education have long acknowledged that socio-economic class matters a great deal.

What "Urban" refers to, however, in education speak is nothing More (or less) than BIG and including at least one central business district. So districts like LAUSD, SFUSD, Oakland Unified and San Diego Unified are all "urban" along with NYC schools, Chicago City Schools, Houston Unified, etc.

But as my post below suggests, comparing test scores across this universe of districts in the case of San Diego is a bit (a lot?) misleading. Lets take just the case of Oakland/Peidmont. For those that don't know, Peidmont is a community in the Oakland hills completely surrounded by the city from the City of Oakland and has its own separate School district. Peidmont is vastly different - much more affluent, less diverse, with much higher test scores. The analogy would be (and here is where we get back to the subject) is if La Jolla High School and its feeders were separate from SDUSD.

The best comparison as to which district is doing more to raise test scores would be to disaggregate La Jolla (and probably Scripps, Southern Point Loma, and possibly Tierrasanta) from SDUSD's scores and then compare that new number to Oakland's. That would give one a better measure of how the two districts were doing in meeting the needs of students from more challenged socio-economic neighborhoods and whether all the happy talk by D. Ravitch and the board is a function of their leadership and SDUSD policies or whether it is simply a result of the quirk in history that left SDUSD being one of the few large "urban" districts left in the country with large surburban upper/upper middle class enclaves still left within its boundaries.

bigdprender
bigdprender subscriber

Haha! Just like a truck that runs out of gas...it must be broken...don't throw money at that problem, just buy a new one!

David Crossley
David Crossley subscriber

Fred--I would bet that SDUSD spends many more millions maintaining the 2nd largest transit fleet in the county than they do on high school football. Fix the neighborhood schools and have the kids go to school in their own neighborhoods.

bigdprender
bigdprender subscriber

It's probably traumatic for any adult dealing with old football injuries or parents seeing their students get hurt in sports. But what's getting drowned out are the numerous benefits in the form of physical fitness, competition, school spirit, pride, hard work, determination, balance, etc.

Stuart Morse
Stuart Morse subscriber

John, your point seems so obvious and so on point it amazes me that others gloss over this fact as if it has little or no relevance.

Randy Dotinga
Randy Dotinga memberauthor

On the other hand, isn't there value in standing up for what you believe, not taking the easier way out and being dedicated to the kids who need help the most?

Also, I don't know that teachers face the targeting/blame you mention on the job. I think they get attacked from online commenters and the like, but are parents critical of them directly? Probably not. I'll bet it's like Congress: People hate Congress, but they often really like their own congressperson.

Erik Bruvold
Erik Bruvold subscribermember

Scott - agreed. Parents voting with their feet is a pretty clear signal that "Houston (pun) we have a problem". I just keep coming back to the research Scott Grimes did for Dialogue and the articles Emily did for you - Post and Bid and the way it leads experienced teachers to migrate to more affluent schools in the district is just a really rotten policy. I am not for magic bullets but it seems leaders TRULY committed to helping the students who have the least chips on their side of the poker table would go after that provision in the contract like a laser beam and that advocates for reform would point to it.

David Meyer
David Meyer

I've been wondering if the "quality school in every neighborhood" goal in SDUSD's Vision 2020, and the associated deprecation of the School Choice Program is actually a subtle plan to "protect" the schools in these wealthy areas---La Jolla, etc.---from the rest of the District, by encouraging students/parents in less wealthy areas to stick with their local schools. The schools in La Jolla are already treated differently: compare the class sizes this year at Torrey Pines Elementary with class sizes elsewhere (the specific case I know about is kindergarten where TP has classes of about 22, while Curie has classes of 28).

Sydney Allen
Sydney Allen subscriber

I'm wondering what percentage of parents choice out of their neighborhood schools because of low standardized test scores. The website GreatSchools.com is a perfect example of schools being ranked mainly by test scores. "Rank", along with certain school demographics, are very important factors (and a source of "worry") for many parents when selecting schools.

Scott Lewis
Scott Lewis administrator

Great point. There's a similar reply to Ravitch's blog post about Houston's demographics in comparison. I don't even want to get into it. Who cares how we rank? We have actual neighborhood schools that parents are worried about. We need to address them and obsess about them.

Catherine Hockmuth
Catherine Hockmuth subscriber

That's what I mean. When you read the definition of proficient, 42 percent of all 8th graders achieving at this level doesn't sound too bad to me.

Scott Lewis
Scott Lewis administrator

For one thing, it's easier for a community to form around a neighborhood school and it's easier for parents to be involved.

Catherine Hockmuth
Catherine Hockmuth subscriber

Not sure if you were replying to my post or bigpprender, but, I'll answer. Sure, there is value in being dedicated to the neediest students, but I can't blame a teacher for deciding, at a particular point in their own life, that they can't do it anymore either because they are tired and burned out or because they have kids of their own who want and need their evening/weekend attention.

Catherine Hockmuth
Catherine Hockmuth subscriber

Post and bid is a tool teachers use to get a job in a more stable environment. I've known plenty of teachers who used the process to get out of a difficult school. But the problem isn't post and bid or the lack of sufficient numbers of hero teachers willing work 15 hours a day to fill all the holes in a child's life. The problem is that there are so many students who need so much intervention, and I don't just refer to their academic achievement gap. After a while, it just becomes a younger person's game.

bigdprender
bigdprender subscriber

I have to ask...if a teacher is serious about the profession, how long can they be expected to fight the good fight in those challenging environments where less teaching and more counseling is required, where they are easily a target and blamed for problems beyond their control? If any professional, for that matter, is presented with opportunities to improve their craft, to achieve realistic goals set out for them and their clients (students), should they not seize it? Wouldn't such opportunities be a realistic path for most professions? To be able to focus on what you were trained to do?

VeronicaCorningstone
VeronicaCorningstone subscriber

Ooh, ooh, I know the answer to this one! At Torrey Pines Elementary the school or the PTA sent out a direct appeal to parents for cash to save teaching positions. The parents there were in a position to pony up, and the small class size was motivation to do so.

Erik Bruvold
Erik Bruvold subscribermember

Not sure I agree with the rational for that but David brings up a REALLY important point - why would a school in the district have lower class sizes? I can't IMAGINE that isn't covered in the collective bargaining agreement (is in at least three other districts I know of and their unions are no where NEAR as powerful as SDEA). Worth investigative follow up to determine if uniform at the site and explore reasons why. 25 vs. 27/28 can be a function of strange things with site size and enrollment fluctuations. 22. vs. 28 is a BIG difference and goes to something deeper.

Stuart Morse
Stuart Morse subscriber

Torrey and Curie are in different districts....surprisingly, the district with vastly more wealth has lower class sizes...imagine that.