Next year, San Diego voters will be asked to consider an initiative to dramatically overhaul the governance structure of the San Diego Unified School District. The proposal would change the way school board members are elected and create four new appointed seats on the school board.
The initiative is being pushed by a group of philanthropists, in particular Irwin Jacobs, and the local business community united under the banner of San Diegans 4 Great Schools. Although the group’s motivation is pretty transparent — it is clearly disturbed by the recent success of school board candidates endorsed by the teachers’ union — the effort has been sold to the public as a way to fix a “failing” school district.
San Diegans 4 Great Schools refers to research from its education policy guru Scott Himelstein to help make its case. One report concludes that San Diego Unified is “a failing system” while the second claims that poor management of the district “is a core reason for the lack of [academic] advancement.”
Those who follow debates about education policy should immediately be skeptical of these arguments. As any respectable education researcher will tell you, the primary determinants of student academic performance — socioeconomic status, English proficiency and parental involvement — are fixed long before students ever set a foot in the classroom. Local education policy choices can make a difference, but only on the margin.
Although the facts and figures documented in the publicized reports may be disturbing, they can’t tell us whether San Diego Unified is to blame. After all, like other urban school districts, San Diego Unified serves a diverse, and in many ways disadvantaged, population. Moreover, our proximity to the border and local economic development policies that promote and subsidize the creation of low-wage tourism and service industries make the district’s job only harder.
Put another way, to make its case, San Diegans 4 Great School must go beyond simply documenting low levels of achievement in San Diego. The reformers must provide evidence that this failure is due to district policies, not to the underlying demographics of the students and parents in its district, and they must show that the proposed reforms would actually produce significantly higher academic performance. So far, San Diegans 4 Great Schools has done neither.
It is helpful to step back and reassess the group’s central claim that San Diego Unified has failed. To do so, we need a comparative benchmark.
Fortunately, such analysis is possible with the help of data available on from the California Department of Education. Specifically, I examined 2010 standardized test scores for schools in the 10 largest California school districts. After excluding charter schools, which operate largely independently of the school districts, and alternative education programs, I was left with approximately 1,300 schools.
For each school, I estimated a statistical model that predicted its academic performance as a function of the diversity of its student body, the number of students receiving free lunches, the number of English learners, parental educational achievement, and a variety of other variables. Crucially, these variables included the school district in which each school was located.
Of the ten school districts, two — Elk Grove Unified and Fresno Unified — performed significantly worse than San Diego Unified after controlling for student demographics. Only one, Santa Ana Unified, performed significantly better. The rest were statistically indistinguishable.
Overall, student and parent demographics explained the majority of the variance in school performance. The district effects — capturing policy differences and other district-level factors — contributed very little additional explanatory power.
Lest reformers dismiss my analysis by saying that it shows only that every large school district is a failing one, I reran the statistical model on all of California’s school districts, including small ones. The resulting analysis included approximately 8,000 schools at 950 school districts.
Of these, more than 700 school districts were statistically indistinguishable from San Diego Unified. Among the districts that were significantly different, nearly two-thirds performed worse than us. Again, the explanatory power of demographics overshadowed the district effects.
These results can be interpreted in two ways.
First, one can conclude that neither San Diego Unified nor its leaders deserve the blame for the low levels of academic achievement in the district.
Second, one can conclude that almost every public school district in California has failed as much as San Diego Unified. However, if you accept the second interpretation, you should certainly be skeptical that simply changing how school board members are elected will allow San Diego Unified to succeed where everyone else has failed.
Correction: The original version of this commentary claimed that San Diegans for Great Schools commissioned several reports from Scott Himelstein. It did not commission reports and the text has been changed to reflect that. This is an independent opinion piece submitted by the author but VOSD maintains a corrections policy for its People’s Post contributions.
Vladimir Kogan is a doctoral student at UCSD’s Department of Political Science and a former voiceofsandiego.org reporter. He is a co-author of a forthcoming book about San Diego politics and its pension crisis. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He lives in University City.