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Cindy Marten left her ruby slippers at home Monday night.
Last year’s State of the District address was gauzy and idealistic, complete with on-screen rainbows, colorful balloons and copious references to “The Wizard of Oz.” But after spending a year in the trenches, she came with a speech that was far more stripped down and unplugged.
Last year around this time, Marten was brand new to the superintendent role. She was still visiting schools, looking for pockets of success that could be replicated district-wide.
In the months that followed, the honeymoon ended. Marten felt her first stings from teachers and parents: those angry that principals were replaced, teachers were swapped and positions were cut. Now, she’s got about six months of ongoing negotiations with the teachers union under her belt.
Marten’s hung in there. Her priorities and those of school board members still seem well-aligned, which is no easy feat in an urban school district. Much of that is a credit to Marten. The school board trusts her, and she’s able to bring together a wide range of divergent voices.
Marten has never said she was a hero superintendent, swooping in to save kids within a year. In fact, when I asked her last year how long it would take to revamp the district, she told me flatly: “Eight years. Our success is not going to happen overnight.”
If we’re going by that timeline, Marten might actually be ahead of schedule.
Sure, the district was still guilty of a little spin Monday night. Take, for example, school board president Kevin Beiser, who also addressed the audience. He said that students next year will graduate under more rigorous standards than ever. That may be true, but it overlooks the fact that 41 percent of high school juniors are falling short of the classes they’ll need to graduate in 2016.
Beiser mentioned that the district has reduced class sizes, but left out the fact that class sizes have been reduced from last year, when they were at their highest – so high, in fact, they violated the district’s contract with the teachers union. Class sizes this year are still higher than they were in 2012.
Marten was more cautious. She described the balance the district tries to strike between feeling good about the work that’s been done and the sense of urgency that’s still needed.
Now, let’s dig into Marten’s speech and how it compares with what she said last year.
What Was Similar
Still No Test Scores
Last year, school districts in California had a kind of snow-year, a break from standardized testing while they prepared for the Smarter Balanced Assessment, the new standardized tests.
Districts took a kind of pilot test for that new assessment last year, but those scores won’t be released publically. This spring will be the district’s first time taking the test, but we probably won’t see the results until next year. Even then, they’ll be more of a benchmark than a measure of progress.
For better or worse, we won’t be able to compare students’ standardized test scores under Marten’s leadership the same way we did in the past.
Marten pointed out Monday night that suspension rates have improved in recent years, but didn’t hide the fact that black, Latino students and those with special needs are still disproportionately disciplined compared with their peers.
A quick reminder: San Diego Unified has struggled with this – and tried to address it – for decades.
The district is trying out its new approach to school discipline, moving from a punishment-based paradigm to one that stresses pro-social skills and conflict resolution.
English Learners’ Struggles
In last year’s speech, Marten acknowledged that English learners are falling short, but it became painfully clear over the past year just how much work needed to done to bring these students up to speed.
English learners already have the highest dropout rate out of any student group in the district. And a report published in October showed that a mere 9 percent of 11th grade English learners are on track to graduate.
Marten urged the audience Monday night to consider test scores of English learners who’ve been reclassified, or have made enough progress to be considered fluent. Fifty-seven percent of reclassified English learners passed a series of college prep courses they’ll need to graduate in 2016. Clearly, Marten said, something is working for those students. Now the district needs to figure out how to get more students reclassified.
A word of caution, though. Because reclassification is based in large part on academic progress, it’s not really a surprise that those students are doing well. In short, we can’t just lower the bar on reclassification standards. Higher reclassification rates don’t mean a lot until the same students are also doing well in other measures.
The specific plan for moving English learners forward remains the foggiest part of Marten’s plans on the teaching and learning side of the house. We know that teachers will receive more training to be able to reach English learners in their classrooms, and part of the Central Office will play a bigger role in assisting schools. Beyond that, it’s wait and see.
What Was Different
It’s tough to say exactly where this one fits – as something that was delivered or something that was punted.
Last year, Marten said it’s not appropriate to reduce students or schools to a single test score. Success is more holistic more than that and should be measured as such.
To that end, the district developed 12 indicators of a quality school. These measures include things like having access to a broad and challenging curriculum, parent engagement and quality teaching.
So we now have that rubric. The problem is that we still don’t see how schools stack up on those measures. It’s like having a really expensive scale in your bathroom that measures body fat, oxygen levels, and weight – more holistic measures of health. But if the scale still doesn’t give you a number or some way to gauge progress, it doesn’t do much good.
A-G courses, a series of college prep courses students need to enter UC and CSU schools, were front and center on the list of Marten’s priorities Monday night. We didn’t hear much about this last year, and perhaps should have.
A few years ago the school board voted to raise the bar on students – making A-G courses a graduation requirement for 2016. But about a year and a half before the deadline, the district found that 41 percent of its junior class wasn’t prepared to meet the demands. Some of that was due to middle and high schools not being aligned in the classes they offer, and the district is now sprinting to fix the gaps.
Marten said the A-G requirements highlight which students are succeeding – predominantly white students and those attending schools that have always done well – and students who demand a sense of urgency.
Calling on the State for More Money
Both Beiser and Marten focused on what they said was inadequate state funds, highlighting the fact that California ranks at the bottom of the list when it comes to per-pupil spending.
Marten didn’t just pine for more money. She said the district plans on appealing to the state for more funding, and that she wants San Diego Unified to lead the conversation – bringing in more districts and stakeholders who could appeal to legislators.
It’s an ambitious goal. But Marten saved this point until late in her speech, when her points should have been coming together and peaking. In that context, it sounded a bit flat and little like, well, an excuse.
Early Warning System
The district’s new Early Warning System – and a pilot going on at three schools in City Heights – is the epitome of multiple stakeholders coming together to create social change, Marten said.
The Early Warning System, which will soon be rolled out to all district schools, monitors student data on an ongoing basis.
If students fall behind academically, miss school at least twice a month, or are suspended, the system triggers notifications that are then sent to schools. The hope is that each school will assemble a team – much in the same way the three City Heights schools are doing – that can intervene and help struggling students.
Indeed, there are some cool things happening at the schools where this system is already in place. Moving forward, the district wants to expand this approach to other schools.
The early warning system is one place the district isn’t just talking; they’re doing something.