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Cindy Marten
San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

In 2009, San Diego Unified school board trustee John Lee Evans unveiled a manifesto that would guide the work of he and his colleagues for years to come. He called it Vision 2020, and the essential promise was this: By the year 2020, San Diego Unified School District would have “quality schools in every neighborhood.”

The plan explicitly stated that students were not merely test scores. The quality of schools would be judged by wider and more complex metrics than a single number. Did all students have access to a broad and challenging curriculum? Were teachers trained well? Were school environments kind and loving places?

These are not easy qualities to measure. And the district acknowledged as much. “The Board of Education is interested in a quality school in every neighborhood,” said Superintendent Cindy Marten during her first year in office in 2013. “So defining ‘What do we mean by quality?’ At this point, we don’t have a shared definition.”

District officials never did release a set of clear and understandable metrics for the community to judge the quality of each school. But all agreed that academic success would be at the heart of it.

“I’ll say the test score is a byproduct [of a good school]” said Marten, during the same interview in 2013.

Evans agreed: “Nothing is going to stop us from moving forward on academic achievement,” he said of Vision 2020 in 2013. “We have students in schools that are seriously under-performing and this is an urgent matter to address.”

Those seriously under-performing schools were more often than not located in low-income neighborhoods and attended by children of color. The test scores at these schools were far below those in richer and whiter parts of the city. The commitment to quality schools in every neighborhood promised to narrow this gap.

And yet, the achievement gap remains stubbornly unmoved by several key indicators. Many underserved student groups are still under-performing — across a wider range of more complex metrics. Some of those students are packed into schools that have been under-performing for many years.

Despite this persistent achievement gap, there have been triumphs. High school graduates are required to take more rigorous courses, and the percentage of black and Latino students who graduate with a higher GPA has gone up substantially.

I asked Evans and Richard Barrera, the only currently serving board members to have helped usher in Vision 2020, whether they felt the mission was accomplished. Evans, who is retiring this year, essentially answered yes. Barrera also pointed to many victories, but acknowledged that several clusters of schools have not come nearly as far as he had hoped.

I also asked Alberto Ochoa, a retired San Diego State University education professor who has been involved with local schools since the 1980s.

“My political response would be, I applaud the policy that has been initiated and put in place,” said Ochoa. “And I see that some progress has been made.”

But is there a quality school in every neighborhood? “No, of course not.”

Good, Not Good

Let’s start with the good, the data that backs up Evans’ case for Vision 2020 as a success.

As part of Vision 2020, San Diego Unified instituted more rigorous requirements for high school graduation in 2016. Students have to take courses that are part of the A-G requirements, as they are known, in order to graduate. The A-G requirements are a set of classes students must take in order to be eligible to attend California’s public universities.

These courses are more difficult than the state’s minimum requirements for graduation. But San Diego Unified, in its effort to push a broader and more challenging curriculum, made the A-G classes an across-the-board requirement. If students don’t take the A-G course load, they don’t graduate.

Even more success followed. GPAs went way up, especially for students from historically under-served groups. The percentage of students graduating with a C or better in each of the A-G courses went up 24 percent since 2015, as Evans noted in a recent op-ed. It was a substantial increase, but historically under-served groups did even better.

The percentage of black students graduating with a C or better went up by 59 percent. For Latinos, the rate went up by 48 percent.

In terms of classroom grades, that put a big dent in the achievement gap districtwide.

But here’s the catch: Grades are somewhat subjective. Each teacher tallies them differently.

By another, more objective, measure of mastery, student learning hasn’t increased at all. Each year, 11th graders take statewide tests in language arts and math.

In 2015 – the first year of California’s new and improved standardized test – 59 percent of 11th graders scored high enough to be considered proficient in reading and writing. Just 37 percent were proficient in math. (Students who score proficient are considered to be ready for college classes.) Last year in 2019, the scores were almost exactly the same.

Throughout Vision 2020, the scores have remained relatively unchanged and the achievement gap un-narrowed.

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Some schools’ pass rates are far below the district average. At San Diego Science and Technology (one of the small schools within San Diego High), only 12 percent of students were ready for math at the college level, according to the test results. Crawford, Hoover and Lincoln high schools had similar results in math.

Those “four schools are still way behind where they need to be. That’s something where I hoped we’d be further along,” said Barrera, who was elected to the school board in 2008 and represents an area that includes Hoover and San Diego high schools.

Barrera told me he wants to create a school system that can truly be “the great equalizer” in its ability to give children such a high-quality education that it can help lift them out of poverty and into college and the middle class. But the system was never designed to have that kind of capacity, which requires greater resources in high-poverty schools, he said.

Creating Vision 2020 helped build that capacity in a big way, he said, but it has not gone as far as he would have liked toward solving the historical achievement gaps between rich and poor students.

Can Third Graders Read?

The importance of learning to read well by third grade has become common wisdom. Kids who can’t read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school, according to one study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

As national test data and a recent study showed, San Diego Unified performs better than many other urban school districts on tests. And yet nearly half of third graders did not score high enough to be considered proficient in reading, last year. The district only performed moderately better than the statewide average.

In San Diego Unified, 56 percent of third graders were proficient in reading last year. That is up 8 points since 2015, when new state tests went into effect.

[infogram id=”5049ac84-0931-4b9c-9d8d-13e5b2a81bde” prefix=”bfU” format=”interactive” title=”Vision 2020 Data”]

Black, Latino and low-income students – all groups that have had historically less access to high-quality resources – improved their performance at about the same rate as all other student groups. In other words, the achievement gap in third grade reading has remained largely unmoved.

And again, some district schools are well below average. Perkins K-8 and Audubon K-8, as well as Rodriguez, Porter and Johnson elementary schools are just a few, all clustered in the southern part of the city.

“When only 50 percent are proficient, don’t talk to me about being the best urban district in the country,” said Ochoa, the retired education professor.

The More Nuanced Measures

Pick a different data point and you can tell a different story.

The percentage of black and Latino students taking Advanced Placement courses has gone up substantially. (AP courses can count for college credit, if students take and pass an associated exam.) That points toward a broader and more challenging curriculum for all students.

Meanwhile, the percentage of students taking the AP exam each year has gone down substantially. So has the percentage of students who actually pass the exam.

More English-learners (students whose first language isn’t English) are being reclassified as English proficient quicker. But state officials also blasted the district last year for not providing minimum basic services to some of its English-learners.

Black students are suspended almost four times as often as white students. The disparity is slightly greater than it was when Marten started running the district in 2013.

The district has a higher rate of chronic absenteeism – which measures the number of students absent more than 10 percent of the school year – than the state or county.

Districtwide, 12 traditional district schools will be added to the state’s list of worst-performing schools this year. That means they are not just performing poorly in test scores. They are performing among the lowest in the state across a wide range of metrics, including absenteeism and suspension rates. (This does not include the many schools with middling results.)

Seven of those 12 schools are located in just one of San Diego Unified’s five sub-districts. It is District E, which encompasses the southeastern corner of the city.

At her 2018 State of the District address, Marten also affirmed her belief in education as the great equalizer. “Education is the engine that drives social mobility in our country,” she said. “We tell our students their ZIP code is not their destiny.”

The reason Marten and San Diego Unified’s board members wanted to gauge success through more than test scores is this: Test scores correlate highly with a school’s poverty level. Schools with higher levels of poverty tend to have much lower test scores.

But some schools within the district defy those odds. Kearny High and Edison and Garfield elementary schools all perform well academically, despite relatively high levels of poverty. But for every positive outlier, there are several more schools where students aren’t receiving the tools they need to overcome poverty.

Vision 2020, for everything it has done, has not scaled out the kind of solutions that solve the achievement gap.

Evans – Vision 2020’s primary architect – told me he’s “pleasantly surprised” by everything that’s been accomplished under the plan. He believes that the biggest challenge now is for San Diego Unified is to find a way to increase funding for schools.

“I would say we’ve made major progress on the goals of Vision 2020,” he said. “I think with the proper funding we could set a goal for Vision 2030 of really closing the achievement gap.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified one of the San Diego Unified schools that performs well despite relatively high poverty. It is Garfield Elementary.

Will Huntsberry

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego.

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