A mini FAQ, and a book review

Lots of email after last Tuesday’s Board meeting, and comments too. I got one comment I decided not to post because I thought it was too likely to be misconstrued. Still, I engaged in a great exchange with the author–a parent of a young child new to SFUSD–and based on that exchange I think it’s helpful for me to rephrase his comment as a series of questions and answers. After that, some thoughts on the book Mission High by Kristina Rizga. But first, the FAQ:

  • Has GATE been eliminated? GATE is not being eliminated, though new GATE identifications have been suspended for a time due to the lack of standardized testing data. Read my post on this topic, which goes into much greater detail.
  • Are all honors and AP courses being eliminated?  First, let’s be very clear up front that Honors courses are not the same thing as AP. Honors at the middle school level has been eliminated. Some high school honors courses for 9th and 10th graders will be eliminated. No AP courses are being eliminated that I know of. AP courses are overseen by the College Board, with a recommended curriculum and a test at the end. Honors courses do not have a standard curriculum from school to school, and prior to 11th grade a student receives no consideration from UC for taking most Honors courses. My opinion:  I am much more comfortable with the idea of expanding AP than I am with Honors, which seems to me to be somewhat arbitrary. I do, however, acknowledge that with the elimination of Honors in middle school, we need to be sure that teachers have the resources and the foundation they need to adequately differentiate curriculum for students at every point in the spectrum of learning. I also think we should begin to look beyond AP as a stand-in for rigor, and deepen our partnership with City College to expand dual enrollment in SFUSD and the College. Students who have real college courses, and credits, on their transcripts will be incredibly attractive to colleges.
  • Will the district turn Lowell and SOTA into ordinary lottery schools?  No.  It’s possible–for example, in response to my resolution last year that called, among other things, for examining the audition process at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts–the district may from time to time tweak admissions processes at these schools. My opinion: I do not expect, nor am I advocating for, any major changes in the competitive-entry admissions at either of these sites.
  • Is there a desire to remove any workaround (summer school, doubling up, validation exams) for students who wish to advance more quickly in math before 11th grade?  District policy does allow students to double up on courses and students who have either passed online courses or the validation exam have already been allowed to advance prior to the “decision point” that is envisioned as coming at the end of 10th grade looking forward to 11th grade. Those options aren’t necessarily recommended, but they are available. My opinion (not necessarily district policy): I see some equity issues, particularly with the online course that some students have taken, since it costs a considerable sum of money. However, I do not think that if an online course is accredited, and accepted by the UC regents as a CCSS Algebra course, that we should refuse to offer credit for it, and I also acknowledge that allowing students who can pay for such a course to move ahead doesn’t feel quite right if there are other students who want to take such a course but can’t pay.  (My children would rather poke their eyes out with hot pokers than take a summer math course online, but maybe that’s just my kids.)  I am discussing this issue internally and asking for some ideas and solutions to that problem.
  • Will students be forced to take non-math-based physics in 9th grade? No. The Board just heard a presentation on the implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards in the Curriculum Committee and was told that schools will either choose Biology or Conceptual Physics for 9th grade OR every school will offer both Biology and Conceptual Physics as options. The final decision is still yet to be made–the Curriculum Committee strongly came down on the side of students having options at every school–but requiring every student to take Conceptual Physics in 9th grade is absolutely off the table.
  • How do the new the CCSS  Math for 8th grade and CCSS Algebra I course in 9th grade compare to the previous Algebra I taught in 8th grade?  Well, I’m glad you asked. Here’s a handy graphic that shows the overlap between the old/new courses:

Screen Shot 2015-11-20 at 12.34.03 AM

And now a book review:

I’m really excited to recommend the book Mission High to anyone who cares about the future of public education, and in particular about the future of public education in San Francisco. Kristina Rizga, a writer for Mother Jones, spent several years “embedded” at the school, building strong relationships with students and teachers so she could tell their stories. Even before I read the book I was recommending Mission to people because of what I know about the teaching and leadership at the school. And the book just underscores my positive impression, giving a deeper and more detailed view of classrooms where teachers are working every day to encourage students to do more, learn more, and think harder. The book makes it so clear that much standardized testing only captures a fraction of what students know and can do (I knew that already but she makes a great case). I love social studies teacher Robert Roth’s focus on writing — “analyze, don’t summarize” he is quoted as saying over and over again to his students — because as a writer I know how much harder it is to write a good argument, citing evidence,  than it is to answer a true or false or multiple choice question.

I love the way the students at Mission High grow in confidence and ability and become powerful advocates for themselves and their school. I love the way they reject the label of “failing student” or “failing school” even though the school’s test scores aren’t stellar. The students, through the course of the book,  become writers and advocates and scholars. They go to college. They achieve. They lead.

Reading about the teachers and students profiled in “Mission High” makes you believe in the power of teaching to transform any life — not just the lives of those who have experienced incredible adversity–but also the life of any young person who has great potential and needs encouragement and instruction to reach it. I believe this kind of teaching is present in every school in SFUSD. Perhaps not in every classroom, perhaps not every day of every year– yet the ability and the potential is there. “Mission High” challenges me as a Board member to create those conditions where great teaching can flourish, for every student, in every school, every day. Have you read the book? Tell me in the comments what you think.

Recap: Board Meeting Nov 10 2015

A large crowd for public comment tonight, mostly to advocate against the District’s Common Core math sequence, now in its second year of implementation. Jill Tucker from the Chronicle did a good job summarizing the comments, so I’ll just link to her article, which quotes me, parents and the Superintendent.

Last spring, when families began to advocate against the math sequence, I hosted a meeting of concerned parents with Jim Ryan, our STEM expert, and Lizzy Hull Barnes, our math curriculum expert. The input we heard at that meeting, and in subsequent public comment at the Board, as well as conversations with outside experts, led me to propose additional investments in coaching for middle school math teachers and decreasing class size in 8th grade Common Core math to 22-24 students. That’s what has been implemented this year, and I’m watching the results. The Superintendent has also set benchmarks he’s willing to be judged against as we complete implementation of the Common Core, and he’s announced those benchmarks publicly (see this update from the San Francisco Parent PAC for more information).

A community member recently forwarded me this interview with Donna Ford, PhD, a professor at Vanderbilt University, conducted by one of our parents who is critical of the district’s math sequence and heterogeneous class groupings. I actually think the professor is quite insightful on these issues and I encourage you to listen to her comments — the interview is about an hour long.

We also heard an update on our Lau Plan implementation to serve English Learners. (Here’s the background on Lau v. Nichols, the landmark court case that led to SFUSD’s being under court supervision to provide appropriate supports to English Learners). There was a lot of data presented — the biggest takeaway for the Board is that being more aggressive to reclassify English Learners has had a positive effect on achievement. The plight of LTELs (Long Term English Learners) who languish for years without achieving fluency is appalling and unacceptable. So seeing that many of the students who we managed to reclassify are now achieving at the same rate (or higher) as their English-fluent peers is a good thing. Of course we still see a significant gap between the achievement of Spanish-speakers and Cantonese/Mandarin/Korean speakers so that is still a major issue.

There were also some parents present to protest the district’s support for SB 277, which was signed into law months ago. They are requesting transcripts from one of our committee meetings, so as a public service here is how you can get recordings of our meetings, as well as other information:

Regular board meetings are streamed on sfgovtv.org and broadcast on KALW FM 91.7. You can stream or download video or audio of all of our regular meetings by visiting this link.

Committee meetings are recorded and I’m told this year the recordings are now digital, though it doesn’t appear they are posted for easy download. I’ll try to work on that. In the meantime, you may request a recording of any public committee hearing of the Board of Education by contacting the office of Equity Assurance at 415-355-7334. You can also always make a public records act request of the school district by filling out this form and faxing it or mailing it to the school district (the fax number and address is on the form). There may be a nominal fee for recordings or document reproduction.

So let’s talk about GATE . . .

GATE is the acronym that stands for Gifted and Talented Education. It’s established by the state of California, which has posted what looks to be a pretty comprehensive history of educational programs and requirements for students who are academically gifted.  I’m not going to go into all that, and instead mostly confine this discussion to San Francisco Unified and where we find ourselves today.

Here is what the research, as I understand it, says: fewer than five percent (most say two to three percent) of the population is truly gifted–meaning they are Einsteins or Mozarts or similarly brilliant artists, thinkers or theorists. That two to five percent absolutely need differentiated instruction and academic supports tailored to their needs, just as the 10 percent of students identified as having a disability absolutely need differentiated instruction and academic supports tailored to their needs to derive a benefit from their education. For the academically gifted, those supports could include: individualized learning plans, more challenging material, a faster pace, and less structure.

Now let’s talk about San Francisco Unified, and many other districts that, like us, relied on test scores and academic performance to identify gifted students. In SFUSD, 32 percent of students are currently GATE-identified. One of my favorite segments from Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion show on NPR  is News from Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” Sorry. Though I think highly of our SF students, including my GATE-identified daughter, there’s no way that 32 percent are Mozart- or Einstein-level gifted. We aren’t Lake Wobegon. So how did we get here?

Prior to 2014-15, the California Standards Test (CST) served as the primary identification mechanism for GATE students. This led to the state of affairs we have in SFUSD, as in other districts, where we tend to lump high-achieving students together with those who are truly gifted and talented. But using the CST favored students who are good test takers and those who know English well, creating a selection bias. The CST was suspended two years ago to align new assessments to the Common Core.

In the two years since the CST was suspended, the district’s Office of Equity and Access suspended new GATE identifications and has been reconsidering how students should be identified as gifted  in SFUSD. Current research, as summarized for the Board by district curriculum experts, suggests that we should be wary of several issues in GATE identification: that the use of traditional academic tests will place undue value on test-taking skills; that no single measure should be the sole bar for identifying giftedness; and that giftedness exists in equal proportion across language, racial and class groupings.

But identification is only part of the issue. The much more important part, of course, is curriculum. To provide an experience that is meaningful for gifted and talented youth, it’s important that the district respond to and meet their individual differences and tailor learning to their needs. It’s important that gifted and talented students be afforded opportunities to work with other GATE students in addition to their non-GATE identified peers. We also need to be mindful of the needs of high-achieving students who aren’t necessarily GATE, but still need challenging classes to realize their academic potential.

The Curriculum & Instruction Department is working to craft all of the above into a future proposal for the Board. The important thing for parents to understand is that GATE is not going away, but it is likely to change to provide a richer experience to a smaller, more rigorously identified group of students.

WordPress, which hosts my blog, allows you to add a poll to your posts. I’m experimenting with it — curious to know what you think and if this is a helpful feature for blog readers to share their views (I do moderate comments, so sometimes it takes a while for me to post comments).

Recap for Oct 27 2015 — Focus on African American students

Short meeting tonight with two major items on the agenda – a report from our African American Parent Advisory Council (AAPAC) and then an update on our African American Achievement and Leadership Initiative (AAALI).

  • AAPAC was established in 2013 as part of a district-led process to interrupt inequitable outcomes for African American students in SFUSD. This group of parents and community members has been meeting regularly since then, working together with district staff to organize itself into an effective advisory body that listens to and reflects the concerns of African American students in San Francisco Unified, educates families on district initiatives  and resources, and advocates on behalf of African American students and families. Tonight, the group reported on its accomplishments so far this year (including adoption of and distribution of a letter supporting the district’s math sequence) and made a few recommendations, including expanding its opportunity to speak to the Board on a regular basis, encouraging more site-level AAPACs, and extending the focus of the AAALI initiatives (below) beyond high schools). The committee meets monthly (next meeting is November 19). More information here.
  • AAALI is headed by Landon Dickey, a Special Assistant to the Superintendent who joined the district last year. While Landon is responsible for coordinating the many strands of work around the district to improve academic outcomes for African American students in SFUSD, the Superintendent took pains tonight to emphasize that every educator in the district owns this work — not just Landon. The AAALI was established last spring through a resolution authored by Commissioners Haney, Murase and Walton, and is supported by a partnership with the San Francisco Foundation and the City of San Francisco.  There are a number of academic initiatives in place for 2015-16 — too many for a complete list but notably some programs to support African American students in applying to, enrolling in and persisting in college.  Of 253 African American students in the class of 2015, only 113 actually sent a transcript to a 2- or 4-year university. So we have our work cut out for us.

In other news, you might have read that the Obama Administration has reversed itself, somewhat, on testing. The President and his Secretary of Education now say they don’t think students should spend so much time taking tests.  The reason for the change of heart? Perhaps a new report, kind of jaw-dropping, from the Council of the Great City Schools, showing that the average American student will take 112 mandatory standardized tests between Pre-K and high school graduation, consuming 20 to 25 hours of class time per school year. (The press release summarizing the study is here).

San Francisco students do take standardized tests that are required under state and Federal law, and they also take some district-sponsored assessments that are designed to inform instruction and help teachers see where students need more or less support. To learn more about testing in San Francisco schools, you can read the Superintendent’s column about the study from today’s Examiner newspaper.

Quick recap: assignment projections, SBAC results at Board meeting

Last night’s Board meeting didn’t end until almost midnight, and I have to get to my day job soon, so very little time for a recap today. There were a few items I wanted to quickly highlight, however.

The first is a high-level preview of the work the staff has been doing to refine our enrollment projections over the next 15-20 years. The City is growing, and the current housing affordability crisis has pushed a huge increase in building permits for housing at all price points. Those new units will come on line gradually over the next decade, but the impact on potential school enrollments will be huge. These numbers show we need to urgently begin the work of  planning new schools — not only in Mission Bay, which some of us have been saying for a while, but in Hunter’s Point and also Treasure Island. Parkmerced and the Financial District will also see big increases. These are all places where we don’t have schools or where existing schools are at capacity! I’ll have a lot more to say about this later.

The other presentation was an in-depth look at our SBAC results. There is a lot of very interesting information there, even if you already absorbed the headlines from the release last week. While we have some good news, there are also clear challenges in the data when you look at our subgroups. It will be interesting to hear how some of the other CORE districts were able to move their subgroups  (CORE is the consortium that received a waiver from No Child Left Behind requirements).

Thank you to the Community Advisory Committee for Special Education, which gave a measured report of successes and challenges for students in district special education programs. I am so grateful to these volunteers for the work they do on behalf of our students with disabilities.

Congratulations to Commissioner Walton, whose resolution (co-sponsored by Comissioners Haney and Wynns ) on cultivating SFUSD graduates for future employment opportunities in the district passed unanimously.

Finally, we had a lot of wrenching public comment from families and community members about Willie Brown MS. Opening a new school is challenging, but families are rightly upset about the way the first six weeks of school have played out. I believe the problems are fixable, and we are getting daily updates of things the district is doing to address all of the issues from behavior support for a few disruptive students to facilities glitches to staffing needs. Still, it’s important to acknowledge that the families are right — they had a right to expect the first six weeks of school to proceed much more smoothly than they have. Last week we announced that Bill Kappenhagen, the well-loved and effective principal of Burton HS, will take over the helm of the school later this month. The problems at Willie Brown are not about one person, but I do think that having this strong and experienced leader in place will help.

The problem we all live with

I finally listened to Part II of This American Life’s two-part series on desegregation in America, and I highly recommend taking some time to listen to the series if you care about school assignment policy and diverse schools.  Part I is about the benefits of integrated schools, and has some truly awful-to-hear excerpts from public comment at a Missouri school board meeting after a white-majority district learns that students from a black-majority school in a neighboring district will be coming to their community.

Part II is fascinating. It’s about Hartford, Connecticut, a majority high-poverty black/latino district, and how after a long court case, the district is trying a voluntary desegregation program. There are several important ways that the Hartford situation differs from San Francisco, and some important parallels.

In many ways we are already trying a voluntary desegregation program  here in San Francisco and failing badly. Maybe the attractions of the new Willie Brown MS will help us turn that corner — building a program that clearly will attract white and asian families. Maybe. But if these programs make one thing clear, it’s that desegregation policy is not easy.

Listen to the programs (free if you stream them from the web site) and let me know what you think.

Recap: August 25, 2015

A relatively light agenda with just one major item — a status report on the Safe and Supportive Schools implementation, now in its second year.  The policy seeks to end disciplinary practices that disproportionately affect the education of students of color, and instead offer training and support to school staff to help de-escalate conflicts and minimize disruptive and negative behavior.

We’ve definitely made progress — suspensions have decreased dramatically from 1921 in the 2012-13 school year to 1269 in 2013-14. Out-of-class referrals have increased as well. Students report that school climate is improved, and this summer alone, almost 1,400 school site staff received training in various aspects of the policy (Restorative Practices, Response to Intervention, Positive Behavior Intervention and Support, etc.). Our educator union, United Educators of San Francisco, partnered with us and secured a grant from the national American Federation of Teachers to train teachers in promoting pro-social behaviors.

In other news, Governor Brown will sign a bill hastily passed by the Legislature to fix the CAHSEE mess that left almost 150 students in San Francisco (and countless others up and down the state) in limbo, unable to graduate from high school and unable to take the test because it will no longer be offered by the state. Friday, August 14 was a day I won’t soon forget — we cut the ribbon on the gleaming new Willie Brown MS in the morning and in the late afternoon broke state law to stand up for students, issuing them diplomas in an impromptu ceremony (Commissioner Haney played “Pomp and Circumstance” through his computer speakers) to get them out of limbo. Glad to see the state backed us up and we are no longer a rogue district.


Here’s a slideshow of shots from the new Willie Brown Middle School:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.