A preschool graduation ceremony at Father Joe's Villages / Photo by Megan Wood

I have some news. But first, let me tell you a story. 

When Cindy Marten became superintendent of San Diego Unified schools in 2013 she had a new gospel. She was sharing it all over town. 

“I think 20 years from now we might look back on this past decade and wonder what happened – wonder how … we became mesmerized by a single score as the one and only measure of a quality public education,” she said. 

Marten was right to question test scores as the only measure of quality – at a time when few were so bold. Research shows standardized tests do a better job measuring a child’s socioeconomic status than how good of a teacher they had. 

Using a test score alone to judge a school was unethical, Marten argued. But, she said, citizens should have a way to judge school quality. 

“I’ve got no problem at all with using a measure, but we’ve recently lost the dialogue about how to create and measure a quality school,” she said. “You have a right to know as a taxpayer how our schools are doing, and I’d better give you a good way to measure that.” 

Marten spent nearly eight years as San Diego Unified’s superintendent, before heading to Washington to serve as deputy secretary for the Department of Education. During that time, she never fulfilled her promise to provide a way to measure schools. 

The No Child Left Behind era of schools, which started in the early 2000s, fixated on test scores. Martin, in 2013, was part of a gathering wave that washed away that emphasis. 

The problem is that she hasn’t replaced it with anything. We’re not any closer to having “a good way to measure” quality schools. Instead of carving out a more responsible way to measure quality, Marten began pretending all the schools were already great. 

At her 2018 State of the District speech, Marten made grand statements about how, for San Diego Unified students, their ZIP code is not their destiny. 

A school district where ZIP code is not destiny would be a school district where every school is a high-quality school – where students who come from poverty get the opportunity and skills to rise out of it. 

During my time writing this newsletter, I’ve documented multiple ways San Diego Unified isn’t living up to that standard. 

Each year, the state creates a list of worst-performing schools, based on multiple metrics, not just test scores. Out of 12 San Diego Unified schools that made the most recent list, seven are located in the same district in southeastern San Diego. At one of those schools, Porter Elementary, we’ve documented serious safety and special education concerns. 

We’ve shown that poorer schools tend to have less experienced teachers. And we’ve shown that at many elementary schools around San Diego students don’t feel safe. 

Talking about the work we’ve done, kind of, leads me to my news. This, by my count, is my 78th Learning Curve in the last three years and it will also be my last. I will continue investigating San Diego schools’ ability to make good on their promise to educate the public, while covering other topics as I have for the last year. But this newsletter is going on hiatus. 

The lens through which I’ve always viewed public schools (and make no mistake, great reporting always has a moral framework) is that they have a role to play in solving inequality – and we should hold them accountable for living up to that role. 

Cindy Marten and the whole progressive education movement still haven’t come up with the terms on which they want us to judge their success. When I asked her, for instance, whether one of the criteria might be student safety, she essentially blew me off. 

Empty rhetoric over a period of years – like saying a child’s ZIP code in San Diego doesn’t matter – creates a vacuum. And eventually something of substance must be sucked into that space. 

One day someone might stumble across this statistic, for instance, and take it the wrong way: just 56 percent of San Diego Unified third graders are proficient in reading. 

That number comes from 2019 standardized test results. And from everything we know about standardized tests, just looking at that number alone really isn’t a good way to judge school quality. (As Marten herself has said, good test scores, it might be more realistic to say, are a “byproduct” of good schools.) 

If progressives like Marten don’t come up with their own methods for judging quality, someone else is going to do it for them. And it seems more than a little bit likely that whoever that is will bring us right back to the beginning of the circle by choosing test scores. 

At Voice of San Diego, we’ve come up with our own ways. Last year, for instance, we created a metric that looks at a school’s test scores while controlling for poverty. (Studies have shown that roughly 60 percent of a child’s test score can be accounted for by socioeconomic factors. Just 20 percent is accounted for by school quality.) 

Schools in the United States are not the great equalizer they’ve been promoted as. In their current state, they can’t solve poverty by themselves. The question progressives like Marten should ask themselves – while they still control the education agenda – is this: How do we hold schools responsible for helping solve inequality, while not expecting them to carry the whole load? 

If they don’t, they won’t like the answer.  

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at will@vosd.org or 619-693-6249.

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