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Yes, SD Unified Really Is the Best Urban School District

It’s too bad there are commentators in San Diego who disparage public education. It is a cornerstone of our democracy. We must make it better and stronger in every community.

A few weeks ago, I said that San Diego is the best urban district in the nation.

Letters logoI didn’t say it was the very best district in the entire nation — I don’t claim to know what is happening in all 15,000 or so school districts. But I have visited every one of the big urban districts. San Diego is the best.

I didn’t base that conclusion on test scores, as I know there are a few urban districts that have higher test scores. I based that conclusion on the spirit of collaboration and teamwork that now characterizes the district’s staff and leadership. Teamwork and collaboration are the ingredients that make a school system a good place to teach and a good place to learn.

I wrote this column because I noticed that the U-T had published an editorial pining for Terry Grier, who now heads the Houston Independent School District after a brief stint as superintendent in San Diego. The editorial was based on the assumption that San Diego would have higher test scores if Grier had not left.

So, on my blog, I compared the schools of Houston (where I grew up and graduated from public school) to the schools of San Diego, and found that on the one measure where they are compared — the federal tests — San Diego consistently outperforms Houston.

But I do not see test scores as the highest possible measure of success. Districts can get higher test scores by investing heavily in test prep, by coaching kids to pass the tests, by cheating, by narrowing the curriculum and dropping the arts. They can get them by threatening to fire teachers if scores don’t go up.

These kinds of activities might raise test scores, but they don’t improve education. They corrupt it.

These kinds of activities were also encouraged by both President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind and President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top, but you won’t find any such measures in our nation’s best private schools, which are free of this mindless test-score mania. Schools that want to offer a good education focus on the curriculum and the wellbeing of children, not just test scores. They respect teachers, and they value their experience.

Scott Lewis strongly disagreed with me. He cited schools in San Diego that were failing, schools that were losing enrollment and a host of other problems.

Do San Diego schools have problems? Of course they do. Is there an urban district that doesn’t? No.

Does San Diego have a leadership team determined to address the problems Lewis raised? Yes, it does.

The new superintendent, Cindy Marten, is a breath of fresh air, compared with the leaders of most other urban districts. She is a professional educator. She was chosen from the ranks. She has a can-do spirit. She respects teachers and encourages them to meet higher goals. She is passionate about education and about children.

To Marten’s credit, she does not regurgitate the failed strategies of the so-called “reformers” who are now in charge of the U.S. Department of Education. She does not believe that teachers will work harder if they are threatened or urged to compete with one another for a bonus. She believes in teamwork and mutual respect.

But Marten is not the only factor that impresses me about San Diego. I am also impressed by the cooperative spirit that characterizes the relationship among the school board, the administration and the teachers’ union. San Diego is trying to forge a new paradigm for school reform, which the leaders call “community-based.” That means reform relies on collaboration at every school among parents, students and staff. Is it hard to do? Yes. Is it better than whips and threats? Yes.

For a chapter in my book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” I met with San Diego teachers and administrators who were deeply demoralized by the reforms of the late 1990s. That era of reform in San Diego pre-saged the disastrous No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, both of which count on sanctions and incentives and a climate of fear to produce higher test scores.

San Diego is different. Marten and the teachers and administrators of San Diego Unified are trying to create a culture for schooling that most people want for their children. They aren’t there yet, but they have the right vision.

I am sorry that there are commentators in San Diego who disparage public education. It is a cornerstone of our democracy. We must make it better and stronger in every community. We must help our schools become places that enable the talents and creativity of every child to flourish. That’s what Marten is trying to do. I say she is on the right track.

Diane Ravitch is a historian of education who has been writing about schools for 40 years. Ravitch’s commentary has been lightly edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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