Incoming San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten believes taxpayers have the right to know how their schools are doing.

She thinks everyone should have access to fair and wide-ranging assessments of local schools, so the public can know that their money is being well-spent, and so parents can make well-informed decisions about where to educate their kids.

When she takes the reins at the district on July 1, Marten will inherit a three-year effort to figure out how to best define a successful school known as the “12 Indicators of Quality Schools.” But Marten will be largely on her own to create a system for measuring which schools are actually faring well, and which are struggling.

Marten’s arrival at the district promises to jump-start the next phase of the 12 quality indicators effort. In an interview two weeks ago, Marten chided the district for dragging its feet in implementing the program, and said she plans to get started right away.

Her task won’t be simple.

Marten and her staff face three big hurdles to implementing any meaningful metrics that would let parents and other interested parties see how well their local school is faring.

Here’s a look at each.

Starting from Scratch

The district’s has so far produced a draft document that lists 12 lofty goals and goes into some detail about what each one means and why it’s important.

But the document stops there. So far, there are no plans to create metrics that might inform the district, or the public, how close each school is to attaining each goal. It’s a bit like a teacher demanding good grades from students, but without identifying how students should earn them or what the grades are.

District Chief of Staff Bernie Rhinerson said that’s by design. The district didn’t want to rush into creating a measurement system that would immediately start to brand schools as successful or unsuccessful. The school board wanted to take its time and get it right, he said.

“We’re driving a car and we haven’t arrived at the destination yet,” Rhinerson said.

Marten, who will soon take the wheel on that effort, is hard to pin down on what exactly she intends to accomplish with the 12 indicators.

She says the effort is all about a community dialogue to establish the ideal characteristics of a great school. Pressed, she acknowledged that there’s not much point in doing that if the district doesn’t also come up with quantifiable metrics by which it can figure out how close or far each school is from those ideals.

Building such a system from scratch could prove extremely complicated.

It has taken the district three years to figure out what it wants; figuring out how to get what it wants could take a lot longer.

Essentially, the district has done the easy bit. It’s fairly simple to sit down and pontificate about what sort of schools you want and what characteristics make great schools. But now the district has to move on to the tricky stuff: how to make it happen.

The Union

Some of the 12 indicators are cut and dry. For example, whether the school has a “high enrollment of neighborhood students” is a fairly simple, uncontroversial metric.

But several of the indicators are more troublesome. The first two in particular, Quality Teaching and Quality Leadership, are rife with contention.

School districts, academics and philanthropic foundations around the country are currently trying to figure out how to assess teacher and principal quality in schools. We’ve written extensively about efforts elsewhere to measure teachers using complex data analysis and how San Diego Unified has largely missed the teacher evaluation revolution.

Efforts elsewhere in the country have involved districts either taking on powerful labor unions or working with them to create assessment systems.

Bill Freeman, president of the San Diego Education Association, said he knows very little about the 12 indicators plan, and said the SDEA hasn’t been involved in the process.

Freeman said he’s not against the concept of evaluating teachers, and said it is possible to build a system that fairly assesses whether a teacher is struggling or soaring in a classroom. And he said that the SDEA isn’t afraid of using data and student test scores as one measure of a teacher’s success.

“We’re for multiple measures and test scores is just one part of that,” Freeman said. “It’s not the defining factor.”

Freeman said he wants the SDEA to be very involved in creating any new system to measure schools, and Marten said she wants to engage the union with her efforts.

Her challenge will be to work with the SDEA to come up with a measurement system that is meaningful and fair to teachers.

The difficulty with doing so is that any quantifiable system of evaluation has to have winners and losers.

Winners and Losers

If the ultimate goal of the 12 Indicators program is to eventually give each school a comprehensive scorecard, somebody is inevitably going to end up at the bottom of the pile.

Juan Romo, president of the union that represents local principals, finds that troublesome.

It’s one thing to say that once a troubled school is identified, the district can flood it with resources to push performance up, Romo said, but parents aren’t going to sit around and wait for that to happen.

“If a school gets a ‘D’ rating, what are we going to do before parents send their kids to another school?” Romo said. “How quickly can we rally round that school to bring it up to an ‘A’ rating?”

Romo favors using the 12 indicators to create an internal system of measurement that the district can use to identify and help troubled schools, but he doesn’t think the system should name and shame schools.

That seems unlikely. Marten wants increased transparency from her schools and Rhinerson said the district isn’t just going to create something without putting it into practice so that parents and others can use it to find out how well their school is doing.

Apart from exoduses from failing schools, the district also has to figure out how to keep morale up in schools it labels as struggling, and how it will stop good teachers from transferring out of those schools in search of a place of work with an “A” grade.

Rhinerson said parents already pull their children out of schools that perform poorly in the state’s Academic Performance Index.

But as we examined recently, the API system is deeply flawed as a measure of evaluation. Principals, teachers and school district officials always have the excuse that an API score is based on test scores and is therefore just one, imperfect measure of a school’s performance.

Once — or if — the 12 Indicators system is fully implemented, that excuse will disappear. The district will have built, from the ground up, a way to really measure how schools are doing, and Marten and her colleagues will have to work out how to deal with the repercussions of the system they’ve created.

Will Carless is an investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego currently focused on local education. You can reach him at or 619.550.5670.

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Will Carless

Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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