The Learning Curve is a weekly, jargon-free column that answers questions about education. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at


In education, there are few issues that people universally agree are problematic. In San Diego Unified, the early school year teacher shuffle is one of them.

For the first weeks of the school year, students settle into the schools where they’ll remain. The district doesn’t take a final enrollment tally until the third Friday of the year. After this, it shuffles teachers to match demand and conform to the teacher-to-student ratios it set with the educators’ union.

Learning Curve-01

The process goes largely by seniority – if a school has to lose teachers to another school, it’s those with the least experience who have to move.

It’s very disruptive. When a teacher leaves, a school needs to shuffle other classes to absorb the kids who are now without teachers. Often, larger “combo” classes are created where students in different grades share the same teachers.

Kids need to readjust to a new educator. Teachers need to establish a new set of classroom norms. It can take the district until the end of October to move all teachers into place. In those cases, the first two months of the school year are a wash.

Every year this happens, and every year parents complain. Just this week, parents from Ocean Beach Elementary fired off emails to school board members, Superintendent Cindy Marten and members of her cabinet, pleading with them not to reassign two kindergarten teachers. (Full disclosure: Our very own Scott Lewis has a kid at OB Elementary.)

One parent wrote an email to the district that reads:

“In the event that you would not listen to our arguments and still chose to excess 2 teachers at OBE we want to remind you that all classes from K through 3 will be reorganized and combo levels will be created.

The best interest of the OBE students is to have their school year disrupted to the very minimum. By choosing to keep one of our excessed teachers you will truly work in the best interest of our children.”

The flipside to that same problem is that elsewhere, kids in overcrowded classes wait for new teachers to shuffle in. That’s where Luciana Case is coming from.

Question:“Why does it take so long to assign a teacher to a new school when the move has already been decided? Obviously, the teacher who is moving has a class right now that will also need to be reorganized, so why don’t do it quickly and avoid as much disruption to the children as possible?” – Luciana Case, San Diego Unified parent

School board trustee John Lee Evans heard from so many parents last year that he asked district staff members to explain how the teacher shuffle works. I’ll boil that down, but here’s a link to the presentation district staff gave.

In the spring, the district projects enrollment for each school. It does so using something called a “cohort progression method” in which it takes a four-year look at how many students moved from one grade to the next and comes up with an average, which applies to the following year.

The district tries to anticipate student movement based on things like charter school openings or new residential developments.

Roy MacPhail, the district’s demographics guru, says the numbers his office projects are usually pretty accurate, but they aren’t perfect. (In an email that went out to parents at Ocean Beach Elementary, the principal said this year’s numbers were off by 61). Those projections go to schools, which then get an idea of how many teachers they’ll have the following year.

On we go to the start of the school year, where everything gets messy. Some kids are MIA, or choose to go elsewhere, and kids from other schools can move into those spots.

Because there’s so much movement, schools don’t take a final enrollment tally until the third Friday of the school year. The district then sends word to schools on whether they’ll lose or receive teachers (that’s around the time we start hearing parent complaints).

The district plays matchmaker, taking the least senior teachers from schools that have a better student-teacher ratios and moving them to schools in need. Teachers slated to move get several days to pack up and head to their new jobs. That’s why parents might know their kids are about to lose teachers – or get new ones – but things stand still for a while.

At this point you might be thinking: OK. Great. Now I know how the process works. But I still don’t like it. Can’t we just hold on to our teachers and hire new ones to teach at the schools that need them?

Well, we can, said Marten. But that will cost us – $36 million to be precise. If the district kept staff in place starting on the first Friday (instead of the third), it would cost $8 million. If we wanted to do without larger, combo classes, it would be an extra $28 million.

The latter claim is sort of distracting; some schools still have combo classes even with the current system. (Combos are larger classes, but can have multiple teachers so the class sizes don’t technically rise above the class-size caps outlined by the contract with the teachers union).

Some parents at Ocean Beach Elementary aren’t just upset about losing a few teachers – they suspect the district has been playing games or made a big mistake. Based on enrollment, schools are able to open up a certain number of spots for kids who want to “choice” in.

But OB parent Marianne Reiner has letters the district sent parents. There weren’t any choice openings, better luck next year, the letters said. That’s an odd claim, considering the school was under its enrollment projections.

But that, I suppose, is a story for a different day.

Ed Reads of the Week

• Why You Shouldn’t Be Surprised Prisoners Crushed Harvard’s Debate Team (Washington Post)

It’s bound to be made into a movie: A group of inmates at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility beat a group of smaht kids on Harvard’s debate team. The contest actually happened weeks ago, but is now getting hot on the news cycle.

These weren’t just regular inmates. They didn’t fill their days pumping iron and slapping down cards. These guys took part in a highly selective program, a prison initiative from Bard College, which pipes professors into prison to reach men looking for a college education. They study for the debate the old-fashioned way. Just books. No interweb or Googles.

But this piece from the Washington Post argues we shouldn’t be so surprised by the outcome: People commit crimes, but we shouldn’t assume they’re not intelligent.

This doesn’t make the win any less remarkable, though. While there may not be a discernable link between intelligence and crime, there is strong link between lack of education and crime. We know high-school dropouts are statistically more likely to end up behind bars, for example.

So, WaPo, here’s my take: Let the inmate debate team hang their hats on an underdog victory. They’ve earned it the hard way.

• Test Scores Under Common Core Show That ‘Proficient’ Varies by State (New York Times)

It wasn’t supposed to work like this. One of the major selling points of Common Core, when it was first pitched, is that would provide a way to measure student progress across states. Under the measures of success, California parents could see how their kids stack up against students in Massachusetts.

Then it all got messy. Here’s Motoko Rich:

“Before the Common Core, each state set its own standards and devised its own tests. Some states made the standardized tests so easy or set passing scores so low that virtually all students were rated proficient even as they scored much lower on federal exams and showed up for college requiring remedial help. Here in Columbus, the school district is still recovering from a scandal in which many principals removed low-performing students from enrollment records in order to improve school ratings.

But as the results from the first Common Core tests have rolled out, education officials again seem to be subtly broadening definitions of success.”

• When Neighborhoods Gentrify, Why Aren’t Their Public Schools Improving? (The Atlantic)

This story is notable more for the provocative questions it poses than for what it actually delivers on. Still, it’s worth considering the long-term benefits of improving schools by moving whiter, affluent families into a neighborhood. Over time, academics might improve. But what happens to the schools those children attend once their families are displaced by rising rent prices?

The story draws from the stronger reporting of Nikole Hannah-Jones, an investigative reporter with the New York Times Magazine whose work we heard in an outstanding two-part series of “This American Life.”

Jones’ argument throughout that story was that we often hear promises from schools and districts that they’ll try some novel approach to revitalizing schools, but they never seriously consider the one effort that’s been shown to work: racial integration.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.