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.
THE PERILS OF PROGRESS
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.
PROGRESS AT THE EXPENSE OF OTHERS
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.
ALL KIDS HAVE NEEDS
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.