If San Diego Schools Are the Best in the U.S., the U.S. Is Screwed - Voice of San Diego

Achievement Gap UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

If San Diego Schools Are the Best in the U.S., the U.S. Is Screwed

The last thing we need right now is back-patting puffery about how great San Diego is doing.

The education historian, who has emerged as the top thorn in the side of education reformers across the country, Diane Ravitch, has proclaimed that San Diego Unified School District is the “best urban district in the nation.”

“I say this not based on test scores but on the climate for teaching and learning that I have observed in San Diego,” she wrote.

Scott Lewis on Politics LogoShe then cites a bunch of test scores to prove her point.

Never mind those, though, here’s the real reason she’s so long on San Diego, she says:

San Diego now has the political climate that every district should have: a wise and experienced educator as leader; a collaborative relationship among administrators, teachers, the union, and the school board; a sense of vision about improving the education of every child and a determination to provide a good public school in every neighborhood.

Having a determination to put a good school in every neighborhood is an implicit admission that we do not have that right now.

If San Diego is the best school district in the country – and the district itself admits there isn’t a great school in every neighborhood – then this is a very sad honor.

Not only do we not have a great school in every neighborhood, parents are grabbing their kids and fleeing from the neighborhood schools to which they’re first directed.

Lincoln High School, where I spent many months helping the journalism department, has lost 40 percent of its students. Lincoln is an amazing $129 million campus, with all the facilities one could imagine. And yet it’s going through a profound emergency.

Parents are avoiding it. They’re voting with their feet, taking students to nearby charter schools and even farther. The image of the school has reached a new low.

Only 16 percent of students tested as proficient in math at Lincoln. And this is, actually, a significant improvement.

Lincoln isn’t the only place failing to win over its neighborhood parents.

This year, 44.5 percent of San Diego students are not going to the school closest to them. They’re desperately trying to find the best school they can commute to. As our contributor Christie Ritter found, that statistic is up 11 percentage points from eight years ago.

Ostensibly, if the school district were able to put a quality school district in every neighborhood, it could reverse this trend. But the trend is the trend. There’s no indication it’s changing right now.

This is a scary sign. At what point will a majority lose confidence in their neighborhood schools and what will the other neighborhoods and charter schools do to handle the demand?

It’s against this backdrop that we see a rather unprecedented amount of pride coming out of the district.

“The National Assessment of Educational Progress reading and math tests administered in 2013 reports that San Diego Unified ranks among the highest performing cities in the nation in fourth- and eighth grade reading and math,” the district touted last month.

It went on, with Marten’s comments:

“Our culture of innovation, excellence, and creativity has allowed teachers to concentrate on student achievement, giving San Diego Unified a consistent spot near the top,” said Marten. “As we transition to the new Common Core State Standards, our focus is on increasing rigor, pacing, and engagement as we challenge ourselves to come up with new ways to address the persistent achievement gap and achievement in grade 8 math.”

But a deeper look at these numbers isn’t so rosy.

We may rank “among the highest performing cities in the nation” but the tests scores are about proficiency. In other words, they demonstrate whether students are proficient or not in either math or literacy. When they say San Diego is among the best, it means we have more students proficient than other comparable districts.

Again, this is profoundly sad. Only 42 percent of fourth graders in San Diego are proficient or better in math. The majority is not proficient.

Only 29 percent of eighth graders are proficient or better in reading. Reading. This is basic literacy.

If this is the best school district in the country, we’re a very sad country.

Lots of folks hate standardized testing — for good reason. We should not educate students just to take tests. Parents and teachers hate them. Many of the district’s leaders, like Marten, have spent a lot of time talking about how good test scores should not be the goal. They are guides, at best.

Marten and others always point out how testing is broken. How it shouldn’t have major consequences.

But when test scores go up, they love them.

I agree, test scores are not the way to judge a district or a school. It should be an index of parent and teacher evaluations, graduation rates and eventual college admissions along with, yes, test scores. Evaluating a school should require many ingredients.

But right now, all we have is test scores. We don’t collect meaningful data from parents and students.

I understand the desire to be optimistic, to rally and inspire the district’s thousands of employees with positive feedback. But these are statements not just to employees, they are aimed at the public and at the media – and at parents.

The last thing we need right now is back-patting puffery about how great San Diego is doing.

A greater show of optimism would be to recognize that the community is strong enough to face the facts – as bleak as they are – and deal with them.

A first step in a truly optimistic strategy would be to establish a way to determine what a quality school in every neighborhood actually is. If it’s not with test scores, we need a way to signal it’s been achieved.

Then, each time a school reaches that milestone, we can have a community party. Marches, ceremonies, speeches and singing.

But the fact that adults in the district are getting along and that the district is struggling less than other struggling places doesn’t mean anything to worried parents.

We have to give them something to watch, root for and celebrate.

If we’re not willing to worry about what’s wrong, we’re denying ourselves the chance to celebrate when it goes right.

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