Monday, July 8, 2013


There's a  line in Monsters University by the character Abigail Hardscrabble (voice of Helen Mirren), Dean of the Scarer School, which goes, "my job is to make great students greater, not making mediocre students less mediocre".  Putting the faulty parallels aside, it's too bad for the fans that Disney/Pixar didn't apply the same guiding principle to the first hour and fifteen minutes of this lackluster sequel, a pretty decent ending withstanding.  Talking with my eleven year old son after the show, that line came back to me and later I  realized why: it summed up how I feel about SFUSD's education policies.  Monsters  U.  may not be the success of Inc. , but, as disasters go, a disappointing movie pales in comparison to the educational damage inflicted on students when SFUSD focuses its energies on mediocrity, failing  to understand the societal imperative of nurturing great students from among the ranks.  Such is the state of modern public education in San Francisco. I don't think it is exaggeration to say  the day  our colleges and universities reflect only the mediocrity of public education is the day that education and innovation in America dies.


To measure our progress much is made of the all-important Academic Performance Index or API. Reaching the hallowed 800 mark will get the leaders of SFUSD the attentions of the Secretary of Education and  congratulatory media coverage, but 800 API level students are middling students who barely reached proficiency and are likely to have a tough time getting admitted to decent colleges and universities. We've all heard that schools of  higher education are working overtime to remediate students who can't read or write at freshman level.  SFUSD may throw  a party downtown and continue to claim incorrectly that it is the highest performing district (see previous post), but its modest increase in lower level achievement comes at the expense of  higher performing schools outside the Superintendent  Zones where program cuts and increased class sizes are the result of rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul funding decisions. 
No Child Left Behind, currently referred to as the former ESEA,  is a policy designed around high stakes testing and meeting the magical and arbitrary 800 API mark.  It is a policy of little qualitative analysis  and one that is supposed to be achieved by next year under threat of school closure.  It has school districts spinning numbers. For example, SFUSD had a district-wide API  growth of 11 points from 2011 to 2012, going from failure below 800 to success above 800, making the district mark as far as ESEA goes, though little had actually changed.  On closer inspection, the growth of the outsized Asian population was only 4 points during this same  period and focused on the lower achievers within that group, while white growth was effectively flat. These numbers considerably dragged down the district average. From an achievement gap/NCLB perspective, this numerical improvement, (greater improvement at the lower end than the upper end), helps to ameliorate the gap, statistically. The problem is that these numbers reflect precious little if any improvement at the upper end of the achievement range. This is consistent with the idea that NCLB/ESEA is about reducing failure, not about promoting excellence.


In itself, it is a positive development to see academic growth in student populations that have a long record of low achievement.   But should the increase in lower end performance at a few schools come at the expense of educational services for everyone else? Is it OK to overcrowd classes across most of the schools so the district can  concentrate resources at a few?

As  former Superintendent  Garcia said at a Board meeting on reform efforts in the Superintendent Zones, "we don't do large scale (district-wide) reform well ".  Hence  we have the smaller, but more cash-rich Superintendent Zones at the expense of the rest of the district, literally. Beside the fact that Superintendents are  charged with overseeing the ENTIRE district, not just  certain schools, this small scale reform begs the question: is it ethical to defund to one student and give that money to another? We expect to spend more on lower achieving students and we should. But SFUSD's funding scheme allows for significantly greater than the standard compensatory funding generally applied to remediation.  Most people outside CTIP1 are in favor of extra funding for CTIP1 students, that is, until they find out the negative consequences for their own children. SFUSD is understandably coy about how they provide these extra services.

This lop-sided funding policy has benefits for some students, for sure. And District leaders look good to the NCLB number watchers  because the achievement gap can shrink as the top contracts and the bottom expands.  While we have redundant services  in SZ schools, tutors of every kind, teachers whose only job is to oversee other teachers and free laptops for parents, elsewhere  in SFUSD   basic services like reasonable class sizes are hard to find. 

Don't get me wrong. Improvement among lower performers is a worthy intention and policy goal. But  you know the  old saying - the road to hell is paved with good intentions. While SFUSD focuses on a few schools, not only are the higher performing schools overlooked, but thousands of underperforming students, (the supposed target students in the District strategic plan), at these schools are overlooked as well.  "Access and equity for all" is a nice axiom for the district's PR machine, but SFUSD's funding policies are far from the goal of access and equity for all. The District's so-called laser-like focus on underachievement is all about 14 schools, not 104.


We need an equitable district policy that meets the  needs of every student whether they are high, middle and  low  achieving. What is needed is a per pupil minimum funding guarantee to ensure  that school district leaders cannot shortchange some students in order to fulfill their own policy agendas. Helping underperformers to up their game is a necessary and laudable educational goal. To do so at the expense of the educational goals of others is a travesty. In the Monsters Inc. movies scaring children generates  scream power - the louder the scream the more the power. In SFUSD, we are scaring away parents and they are not screaming loud enough.



Anonymous said...

What does SFUSD have to do with Monster's University, Don?

I agree NCLB sucks, but you have it all wrong. It was put there to help underperforming schools. So why criticize it for doing what's intended?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Don. NCLB is a good law, and RTTP is an improvement, but we have to really follow it. It's been ten years and the unions are slowing it down. Enough, let's get on board. We should be helping our worst students be better, but we should also be helping our best be better or we'll lose them. We should be proud to have a better public high school than any suburb despite decades of white flight and private flight, but we aren't, we're almost quietly ashamed of Lowell instead of boasting about it. We should be helping gifted children be CEOs instead of CTOs, if we can, just like we should be helping the future homeless/criminals be low wage workers, if that is the top of their ability. I think some future criminals could be 100k engineers or better, but we're not inspiring them, but we also are neglecting our gifted children. Every child deserves attention. At Presidio, counsellors spend way more energy on the worst performers than the best. At Lowell, counsellors should be building relationships with top Universities, compiling stats, representing Lowell, explaining how harsh the grading is to help more get into top Universities, etc. They aren't, they're barely treading water. We should put more money and effort into helping each child, at the SZ schools and also at the top schools. Every child deserves our attention. This was a great creative analogy. We should not settle for mediocrity. We should fight to give a top student who stays here a more wealthy and successful future than a top student in a rich suburb, in order to keep such people loyal and in our City. We should also help eliminate poverty and help our poorest students at least get a decent job, stay married, have kids in a nuclear family to avoid poverty, avoid drugs and crime, and learn basic skills. We can do both. We are doing neither. Our richest kids get treated like priveleged kids who don't deserve extra help and our AA and L kids are doing worse than those in LA County and SD county, and every other big City in CA according to Don's post. The only reason we have the highest test scores is we have the highest Asian percentage, if you look at it group by group, we aren't helping our kids. This City is too unfocused on test scores and beholden to the Union to really improve our test scores for all, and we're neglecting our top performers to boot. SFUSD isn't a jobs program, it's a service to children. Bad teachers get defended by the union and good ones get nothing. It's a joke.

Don Krause said...

It is not true that I'm a fan of NCLB. And Race to the Top is a grant program that has little to do with NCLB.

It is easy to say we should do more for everyone and who could disagree? But budgets don't allow that and we have to consider how to spend funding fairly. Just because one school is above 800 and another is below, that's hardly a good reason to treat students at those schools differently. There are plenty of under 800 kids in over 800 schools. So even the concept of using schools rather than students for identification purposes makes no sense if the purpose is, as they like to say at SFUSD, "access and equity for all".

Anonymous said...

If anything goes on your blog you won't mind if I call you a jerk.

Don Krause said...

I said that the rules are toleration and civility. Do you consider that comment civil? By all means refute what I say, make a case against it, show us how wrong I am. I welcome your comments. I am for open discussion. But please, try to make some sort of case for yourself so this is not just a online schoolyard of name-callers.

Anonymous said...

Personally I feel namecalling is silly. Debate the merits.

Anonymous said...

Students near the bottom have more room for larger percentile growth compared with students near the top. If you have an F there's more opportunity to improve. It's expected to have more growth. Doesn't this kind of blow your theory?

Anonymous said...

So we make a Safeway Cashier a slightly smarter Safeway Cashier? One Bill Gates and we'd have a billion a year more in tax receipts and our worst neighborhoods would become good neighborhoods. We have kids at Lowell capable of becoming the next Bill Gates. Hunter's Point will become as rich as Marin if we get one, we could fill it with 100k plus engineers. Think of the tax revenue.

Don Krause said...

My post wasn't expounding a theory of some sort or another. I was remarking on the fact that SFUSD has seen bottom end growth without much in the way of middle or top growth. From that point of fact I elaborated on the funding policies, the causative factor in this API change, which are heavily skewed towards raising lower level achievement, but only at certain schools and even to the exclusion of underperforming students at 800+ schools. That's not supposition. It is a point of fact, which led to the main purpose of my post which was to ask whether it is fair take away from some children to give to others.

Not to overstate my point, I do acknowledge that not all funding for Superintendent Zones comes off the backs of others. But there's quite a bit that does when you take a close look at the school budgets. Categorical program funds, SIG included, cannot account for all the money made available in the Zones.

It is true that students on the lower end of the curve might have greater percentage gains from a statistical perspective - sort of Law of Diminshing Returns, if you will. If your getting an F you've got room to grow. But what about all the B students? Should we be satisfied with their performance? Are they? Why shouldn't we work just as hard to make C or B students A students as we do to make F students D or C students? Being at 800 API is nothing to get excited about. There are no incentives to grow the upper end.

I always laugh when I hear parents talk about how unfair it is that some schools get more donated dollars than others. These amounts pale in comparison to what's made available through local, state and federal sources for Program Improvement schools and the SZ school in particular. I've looked at the budgets of those schools and the SIG schools, especially. I was disgusted to see how they wasted millions on bureaucracy, absurd staffing repetition, equipment giveaways and more while students on the west side of town have 40 kids in some classes. My older son had two classes like this.

There's no sense of balance to how we fund schools. The district is only focused on a handful of schools. They are expropriating the education of others to do it.