Wednesday, March 12, 2014


Despite media-driven public outrage over inequality in student achievement, the term "the achievement gap" is nothing more than a modern day repackaging of an age-old, universal component of social stratification - educational inequality. This is not to say that lowering the achievement gap is not a worthwhile cause. After all, that is largely the point of public education.  Raising the prospects of students who might otherwise become a burden to themselves, their families and society for generations to come is a large part of what schooling is all about, the inherent joy of learning notwithstanding. But when taken too far, advocating to close the achievement gap is no different than advocating to end class structure - a utopian goal of socialism. The "closing the achievement gap" mantra has become a  tool of civil rights provocateurs to advance the interests of their political agenda and, in the process, those of the unions and bureaucracies they control.


In this milieu rages the national education debate between, on the one hand,  education bureaucracies in concert with  teachers unions, both of which collectively advocate the status quo through traditional funding and no clear reforms, and, on the other,  the somewhat disparate reformists who support alternative models to traditional public school such as charters and vouchers.  The whipping up of public discontent over the achievement gap  benefits both sides, though each is working to a different end and each has a different agenda for the future of public education. By highlighting failure the establishment wants to promulgate the simplistic notion that lack of progress is due to lack of funding and  the reformists want to convert public discontent to increase interest in the alternatives they have offered. Both stand to benefit by underscoring the problem implicit in an achievement gap, even if that gap is nothing new or different.
At stake is how and where tens of billions of education dollars should flow each year here in California and, to a larger extent, across the country. Under Governor Brown the education establishment  has rallied support for the new finance mechanism, the Local Control Funding Formula, for 8 years of increased education spending  and particularly among the lowest performing student groups, thereby successfully perpetuating its own hegemony as a fundamentally and perennially unchanged public institution for the foreseeable future, though decision-making has moved considerably away from Sacramento towards the LEAs.


Social justice advocates, by portraying the achievement gap as a civil rights issue, have diverted blame for underperformance away from the public education establishment, of which they comprise a large part,  and the individual, whom  they ignore - to place it at the foot of society. We are told that underperformance and poverty are one and the same and that the cause  of educational inequality is racism and greed. Because status quo forces of the teacher's unions and the ed bureaucracies have no clear vision for the future of remediation other than to continue to throw more money at the problem, a hollow agenda the public sees through, they play the race/minority card instead, the old ploy of extremists. They characterize unequal student achievement as a singularly society-induced failing  but fail to mention that it's an individual failing as well because personal effort relates to the core of learning -  attitude and responsibility.  Why reflect on individual responsibility when one can point the finger of blame on racism and find encouragement in  doing so?

The social justice advocates have statistically tethered academic underperformance and its corollary, poverty, for modern era, data-driven consumption and  conveniently repackaged the relationship as the product of manifest greed and racism - turning education into a socially-induced illness to be remedied through delivery of a social service rather than an personal opportunity to be gained through individual effort. 

Contrary to the claims of social justice, correlation is not causation and poverty and low achievement are not joined at the hip as some poorer, primarily Asian cultures demonstrate by overcoming  "poverty-induced low achievement". The statistical inference nevertheless has given the self-described social justice advocates an "in" to promote equal educational outcome as the new civil rights cause célèbre, ignoring the significant role that the culture, the community, the family and the individual, in particular, play in the education of itself. That and the fact that massive past spending has failed miserably to combat low performance doesn't stop big business government forces from advocating for an unfettered monetary fix. In the process that fix has conveniently buttressed the position of those establishment forces despite widespread dissatisfaction over low achievement in public education . Under those circumstances LCFF is quite a coup for the status quo,  particularly as it seems to be hailed far and wide as a great reform to public education. We shall see.


Education experts roundly claim that low-performing students cost more to educate, but decades of experience at remediation equates only with more cost not more educational benefit. The channeling of ever-greater resources for low-performing students has resulted in incremental achievement gains at best and taken a toll on the rest. Over the years billions of dollars have gone into remediation efforts and costlier smaller class sizes, but there's been little to no payback in the form of educational progress to show for it - California has continued to slide. In an era when Serrano's constitutional imperative of equal educational funding is cast aside, how long can the collateral damage of large class sizes and reduced services for everyone else be contained? Will the achievement gap be resolved top-down rather than bottom-up? Will middle class flight and attrition lower the bar? There are already signs of this happening.


SFUSD and the Federal government  plowed windfall amounts of money into what's called the "Superintendent Zones" and, meanwhile, the high performing schools have been stripped to the bone during the Great Recession. After several years of a funding strategy during which time some students received double to triple the funding compared to other students, many of whom were and continue to be underperforming as well, the net result of this policy is a nominal average increase in low end achievement, [some schools actually did worse despite millions invested - see SIG post], accompanied by an overall decrease in the district-wide API achievement data for 2013.  Expensive efforts at remediation of non-Asian minorities here and statewide have come up empty year after year. Stymied by lack of innovation and beholden to staid union rules that impede any innovation, the education policy experts have not enunciated  a way forward to close the widely publicized achievement gap here in San Francisco and around the state.

Instead the Local Control Funding Formula was conceived to punt the football to the districts and give  them free reign to redistribute greater funding towards remediation, upping the ante on failed state categorical policies and programs. That is to say, the State has no idea what to do about education except to put the responsibility for achievement on the districts, a sign of capitulation, and to give them more money tied to some  vague and meaningless standards with no state oversight .  No entity willingly cedes power unless it has thrown in the towel.  It is ironic that this return to local control is happening at the same time and in conjunction with a nationalization of the curriculum and standards.

What we have now are California's school districts emboldened over the self-control afforded by the LCFF's base, supplemental and concentration grants  and no one is  talking about real reform - increased school hours, a longer school year, better teaching quality and commensurate pay raises to attract the best and brightest. We should be talking about how to drive up student interest in seizing the constitutionally afforded opportunity of public education - not perpetuating the fabrication that educational outcome or equal student achievement is a right regardless of effort. What social justice advocates choose to overlook is effort because that doesn't comport with more money for schools.

Both the constitutional mandate of public education and common sense tell us that equal opportunity is not equal to equal outcome, but this reality does not dissuade politically-motivated opportunists from crying foul when that equal opportunity does not equate to equal outcome. On the other side,  reformers  want to highlight failure in traditional public schools as a means to generate interest in the alternatives - charter schools and, to a lesser extent, vouchers, regardless as to whether these reforms yield better results. These same forces are also behind the high stakes testing regimen and the nationalization of curricula and standards known as Common Core.


That the achievement gap is and will always be doesn't mean we shouldn't try to close it. Reducing educational stratification should be a priority and therefore money should be spent were it is shown to have proven benefits.  But closing the gap isn't the only priority or necessarily even the highest and at present there is no cost/benefit system in place for the billions we spend. High school proficiency is an essential  stepping stone even if in itself it does not promise more than poor to mediocre job prospects in the age ever-expanding and specialized college-based  requirements. Without it a whole social class of students  is relegated to a life of despair and poverty if they are unprepared for higher education. At the same time, without more funding to promote excellence many proficient students will fail to achieve more than mediocrity. Only those who can fully utilize educational opportunities are going to reap the benefits of them and that, just like remediation, costs money.  That's why we need to show proven results for the money we spend to remediate, much of which is wasted, and practice an allocation scheme that nurtures the best from students of all stations.


Refocusing education funding to dramatically overweight remediation at the expense of excellence speak volumes about our current educational system. The extreme weighting that is LCFF is a threat to educational excellence and the majority of dedicated students who have much to lose under this new educational funding scheme. It's ironic that the constitutional requirement of equal educational opportunity is getting short shrift from social justice advocates who decades ago wholeheartedly supported the fiscal equalization that was Serrano , but who today advocate for the opposite - unequal fiscal policy. There's no question that compensatory education is expensive and necessary given the costs of remediation but the question is how much and for what benefit? We cannot keep throwing money at a problem simply because it is deemed the right thing to do with or without results. There's nothing right about spending precious resources and getting a poor outcome from the targeted students for whom the money was intended.

Under the guise of a modern civil rights quest we are fomenting a state of educational mediocrity in which we may be less so much unequal, but equally so much less. Excellence may be the price we pay for keeping our moribund education establishment intact,  unreformed, and growing ever larger. 

Monday, March 3, 2014


No.  It's been playing a numbers game to distract the public from the true and less than stellar achievement results. For years SFUSD has advertised itself as the "highest performing urban school district in California" until last year when San Diego overtook us as its API climbed while ours dropped to 806.  Instead of the highest,  now SFUSD slyly advertises itself as "one of the highest". But it's all a PR façade to hide the real-world academic underperformance of its students. If this is a test, SFUSD is a cheater. The high API is less high than it is  highly misleading.  Published and promoted each year to much undeserved self-acclaim,  the seemingly positive result is more a function of San Francisco's uniquely Asian demographic than any student achievement resulting from education policy, that is, unless you're talking about bad policy. How else can we explain why every major demographic significantly underperforms in SFUSD with the exception of whites?

Little more than a brief review of subgroup achievement statistics reveals a district that is anything but exemplary  - a district that is in large part significantly behind California as a whole - a state that has drawn national attention for its poor achievement results. This district is far from first or even second place when you delve into the true numbers.  SFUSD's African American, Latino and even Asian populations do significantly worse than their respective  statewide counterparts, but SFUSD manages to maintain an aggregate API edge which is the sole product of its uniquely large and relatively higher performing Asian population.  This large Asian population in SFUSD, 41% district versus 9% statewide, a difference of 32%,  outperforms relative to most other ethnic groups and thus the two factors of quantity and quality of Asian students drives up the overall performance numbers. But even here Asians do significantly worse than their counterparts statewide, scoring an 874 versus 906 in California as a whole. What does this say about SFUSD's policies? And how has this school district managed to hype itself all these years without any pushback?

Ironically, district leaders have cautioned parents for years not to misuse the Academic Performance Index as an evaluation tool, yet this is exactly what these same leaders do, in lockstep with the media, when they package the district's overall API results for public consumption, skipping the breakdown whenever possible. And SFUSD gets away with this misleading oversimplification because of a lack of any real journalism in the City by the Bay.  

You don't have to dig deep to see through this charade.  Just look a little below the surface of the aggregate API to see what's really happening. It doesn't take a statistician or even a high school graduate. Any casual observer can figure out this scam. The breakdown by ethnic groups on the CDE's API website reveals the exact nature of the demographic advantage afforded SFUSD by it large Asian  population - a  regional anomaly that has allowed this district to commend itself as a statewide winner while never addressing the real reason for the higher API. The poor showing by subgroups begs the question: Why is every minority underperforming in San Francisco? 

To illustrate how the statistical demographic advantage plays out, consider this: among the four major ethnic groups,  African Americans, Hispanics and Asians underperformed the same statewide ethnic groups by -78, -48 and -32 points, respectively. Only whites outperformed other whites statewide and by a considerable  42 point margin.  SFUSD's white population versus the State is smaller by more than half, 12% versus 26%, yet this school district managed to post a second place API due  to a demographic quadruple it size compared to the state.  Though the smaller white population also is a key factor in overall performance, the sheer size in conjunction with the excellence that Asian culture demands of itself are the two factors most responsible for our high API.  And  this is true despite the considerably weaker performance by Asian students  in SFUSD compared to the Asians statewide - a fact that gives even greater significance to the population advantage posited here. In fact, SFUSD likely would underperform the State if its white students did not outperform, a point which paints an even grimmer picture of SFUSD's educational program delivery.

Why San Franciscans are able to be fed lies from this district has to do with a lack of debate and a political homogeneity in a city controlled by extremists in government, in the media and in the unions - a triumvirate of establishment forces that encourage the imaginary success of the status quo in SFUSD through the trumpeting of false progress. Until we  vote out  the commissioners on the Board of Education and replace the administration with one  predicated on real academic achievement, we cannot expect more from our school district and its union cronies. Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.