Author Archives: rpnorton

May 26 Board recap (a week late)

I’ll be honest. I have been putting off writing this recap, because the last week has been difficult and I would rather not re-inflame controversy unnecessarily. If you are a reader of the SF Chronicle, or you watch ABC-7 news, you know what I’m talking about: the resolution Matt Haney and I sponsored: In Support of Access, Equity and Diversity in the Arts at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts and Throughout SFUSD has generated a lot of heat.

Things the resolution does not do: If you have not read the resolution, stop right now. Download it and read it. It does not end auditions at the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts. It does not “kick out” any student currently attending the school. It does not institute racial quotas, and it will not (despite the histrionics at the Board meeting and on my Facebook page) “destroy the school.”  I did not write the resolution for personal reasons or out of emotion. If you think you know something about my family — check yourself. You don’t.

The resolution does two things: the most immediate impact is that it ends out of district enrollment for students entering the school in 2016-17 and beyond. A Board policy dating to 2001 limits out of district enrollment to 10 percent, but as far as I know the school has never complied with that limit. In 2014-15, almost 14 percent of the school’s enrollment–84 students–came from out of district. 26 of those students call the Jefferson Union High School District home — the rest come from Oakland USD, San Mateo Union HSD, Redwood City, South San Francisco, Marin, Berkeley, San Jose and other places in the Bay Area. (According to district records there is indeed one student from North Humboldt HSD, as ABC-7 News reported, but I think there must be more to that story, since that would be an awfully long commute.)

Why does the school admit out of district students? The school was originally conceived as a “regional” arts school, which, according to our resident historian Commissioner Jill Wynns (the longest serving BOE member ever) meant that the district hoped neighboring counties would help support the school’s operations. Though students enrolling from other school districts do bring ADA (average daily attendance) funds with them, those funds only cover a portion of the operational expenses of running RA SOTA.

Because the financial rationale never really materialized, the ongoing rationale for out of district enrollment became more about “breadth and depth” of the arts programs — the idea was that casting a broader net for applicants would make it more likely that hard-to-find talents like bassoon players or harpists or male dancers would apply and broaden the program.

In practice, however, out of district enrollments can edge out SF students, especially in departments where filling out an ensemble is less relevant (creative writing, theater tech, visual arts are examples). In addition, “casting a broader net” can cause applicants to be filtered to a more narrow ideal that may or may not disadvantage those with less traditional arts training.

The school’s web site says students “who have the focus, vision, and ability to work hard to achieve their artistic goals and who are interested in an alternative and highly creative high school experience are encouraged to apply.” Digging deeper though, it’s obvious that applicants who can read music or have other specific training are going to do better in the audition process. That’s a concern if out of district students with private training are going to be admitted over SF students — those whom the school Board is entrusted by the voters and the City charter to serve.

The main concern in favor of keeping the practice seems to be: if we confine enrollment to SF students only (as we do at Lowell HS, our other competitive entry HS) then we will have a smaller pool of prepared students to choose from.  That’s where the second action in the resolution comes in. It calls for two additional steps: a summer arts program for middle schoolers aimed at helping them prepare for the rigorous audition process at RA SOTA, and a task force — made up of stakeholders including students, parents and staff from RA SOTA — to look at the existing pipelines for students and making sure we receive more applicants from across the City (right now 90% of the RA SOTA applicants come from five middle schools — Presidio, Giannini, Aptos, Hoover and Lick).

My personal opinion is that we need to define and standardize some best practices around auditions and admissions at RA SOTA. Equity, diversity and excellence are not mutually exclusive but it takes self-reflection and vigilance to make sure all three ideals are realized.

Anyway, the resolution is as much about acknowledging the district’s responsibility for offering robust and comprehensive arts education to prepare students for RA SOTA and building the pipeline of qualified applicants as it is about making sure this amazing resource is preserved for San Franciscans. Watch the Board’s discussion and the unanimous 7-0 vote in favor for more insights — the hearing starts at 2:30 and runs for about 90 minutes, including public comment. If you care about this issue, I encourage you to watch the whole thing and listen carefully to get a fuller understanding of the issue. I also ripped an audio-only version of the RA SOTA portion of the meeting:

Or download audio as an mp3

Other actions by the Board:

  • Arabic/Vietnamese Language Pathways: the Board voted unanimously to initiate the program placement process to determine the viability of opening Arabic and Vietnamese language pathways in SFUSD — read the resolution; read the district news release.
  • African American Achievement: the Board voted unanimously to expand services to African-American students and commit to raising the achievement of these students. Read the resolution; read the district’s news release.
  • CPR Training: Students will now receive training in CPR thanks to a resoluion authored by Commissioner Fewer and our amazing student delegates, Gavin Chan and Hanan Sinada. The 26th was their final meeting, as both graduated from SFUSD last week and are moving on to bright futures. I have enjoyed serving with them both and wish them all success in college and beyond! We will welcome new student delegates in August.

Coming up: I’ll write more about this in a few days but Commissioner Fewer and I have requested that our CTIP resolution “On Equity in Student Assignment” return to the Board for a final vote on June 9. Stay tuned.

Also – the district budget. We got a preliminary presentation at this evening’s Committee of the Whole and it is good. This is the first of the seven budgets I’ve been asked to consider as a BOE member that actually has meaningful new investments and money. More to come on that.

Fair warning: I am not approving comments that accuse me of doing things I did not do. (See above.) I’m also not that fond of nastiness, vitriol, name-calling, SHOUTING and other bad behavior.

Recap: April 28 – TFA, TFA, TFA

Packed agenda but most of the airtime in tonight’s meeting was consumed by additional discussion and a vote on the district’s proposed contract with Teach for America. (Jill Tucker from the SF Chronicle wrote about the controversy this morning, and posted a followup story on tonight’s vote).

There is a national teacher shortage because there aren’t as many people going into teaching (which is hard work, and not paid as well as it should be) as there are teachers reaching the end of their careers and retiring. The district is projecting 300-500 openings next year, and my first priority is making sure that every classroom is covered with a permanent teacher on the first day of school. As I wrote someone earlier today in an email:

In SF TFA is not our only or even our biggest strategy for filling teaching jobs. Would I rather have every one of the 400 teacher openings we expect for next year filled with teachers with more than a few months experience, who expect to stay in the profession long term? Yes. That isn’t going to happen, and we need to have permanent teachers in every classroom starting on the first day of school in August. Teachers will not magically appear from elsewhere if we cancel the TFA contract. We’re talking about 24 teachers that are guaranteed — given that we have to screen four resumes for every teacher we hire, that’s 96 resumes we don’t have to evaluate and interviews we don’t have to conduct because TFA guarantees us those hires.

Many of our TFA teachers are wonderful teachers, and some are not. Many of our teachers from traditional credentialing programs are wonderful, and some are not.

My expectation for the Superintendent is that he opens school for the year with fully-staffed classrooms, and I will hold him accountable for that. I will not tell him how to do his job nor will I limit the tools he thinks he needs to meet that goal.

The Superintendent did reach a compromise to ensure the contract would be renewed. He decreased the number of teachers we’ll hire from TFA next year to 15 — the same number we’ve hired each of the past three or four years — down from the 24 teachers he originally requested. In the end, four Commissioners voted to approve the contract with three voting no.

It was a very negative debate, and felt very personal and unfair on all sides. I think the Board and staff will bear some bruises on this one for a while. From the outside, it’s one of those crazy debates we engage in from time to time — hours and hours of air time spent on what ended up to be a $37,000 contract to hire 15 teachers (3 to 4 percent of what we’ll need come August). But the real issue–one that the Board is united on–is that we need to improve our support for beginning teachers because so many of them leave the profession after a few years; we also need to build stronger pipelines and partnerships so that we have a reliable supply of new teachers to fill openings left by retirements. I think to move forward, we need to focus on these two areas where we all agree we need to pay attention and put resources. So in the end maybe some real, long-term good will come out of all this negativity and discord.

We also renewed Gateway Middle School’s charter by a vote of 6-1, and unanimously adopted an ambitious rewrite of the Wellness Policy. We had another lengthy discussion, late, after most spectators had left, about a proposed agreement with The New Teacher Project to recruit and support administrators. Things got a little hot between the Superintendent and Commissioner Wynns when she accused him of acquiescing to the anti-democratic privatization agenda she believes The New Teacher Project represents. In the end, the proposal passed 6-1.

* * *

In other news, our 2014 cohort graduation rate has been released by the state and there is both good news and really bad news. The good news is that SFUSD is graduating more kids ready for UC/CSU than ever before, and the rate is higher than the state’s as a whole — 56.9 percent of students in SFUSD’s class of 2014 completed the A-G course sequence with a C or better in every class, compared to just 41.9 percent for the state as a whole.

The bad news is that our overall graduation rate fell slightly behind the state’s — 79.9 % of the Class of 2014 graduated in four years from SFUSD, compared to 80.8% for the state as a whole.

And the really bad news continues to be the performance of some of our subgroups (Class of 2014 four year graduation rates — SFUSD/State):

  • English Learners – 66%/65.3%
  • Latino/Hispanic – 61.2%/76.4%
  • African American – 57.3%/68.1%
  • Special Education – 55.7 %/62.2%
  • White – 84.0%/87.4%
  • Asian 89.4 %/92.3%

The dropout rate also went up — from 11.3 percent last year to 11.9 percent this year. The state’s dropout rate for the Class of 2014 is 11.6%.

While I think it’s fair to own these numbers and admit that we need to do a lot better, I also think one explanation behind the slight dip we see this year is that the Class of 2014 was the first class who had to satisfy the much more rigorous A-G requirements — requirements that were instituted when the members of this class were in the 7th grade.

Pause for amendments

Well, there will be no Equity in Student Assignment vote tomorrow. At the Student Assignment Committee on April 13, Commissioners asked for amendments that would underscore our commitment to improving conditions in schools that have concentrations of underserved students and are located in CTIP census tracts.

We circulated a draft amendment but it needs more work. Commissioner Walton in particular is watching this keenly and I welcome the opportunity to work with him on wording an amendment that gets this support across.

(Thanks to Parents for Public Schools-San Francisco‘s Miranda Martin for the Board Watch notes linked above).

4th annual student assignment report is out!

The 4th annual report on student assignment outcomes is out and the “Equity in Student Assignment” resolution I authored with  Commissioner Fewer is a major focus of the analysis. Our resolution will also be the main topic of Monday evening’s meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Student Assignment, 6 pm on 4/13 in the Board Room at 555 Franklin St.

I’m looking forward to a great discussion. In the meantime, you’ll find me poring over the many pages of data in the latest report.

Student assignment highlights, 2015-16 first round

The letters went in the mail Friday afternoon, and the results of the first part of the 2015-16 assignment process are out.

If your child wasn’t a younger sibling and wanted one seat at Clarendon, you had to compete with 96 others for that one seat — there were only 16 seats open to non-siblings this year. You had to compete with 64 other people for each of the 16 non-sibling seats open at Peabody. And you had to compete with 48 others to snag each of those 26 non-sibling seats at West Portal.

To paraphrase the Hunger Games, if you weren’t a younger sibling at any of these schools, the odds were not in your favor. I got a text from a friend tonight, someone who watches the assignment system closely but has never participated in it. “Change this assignment process,” he wrote. “It’s so non-transparent. People choose schools having no clue what their chances were.”

Looking at the Kindergarten data, if a child isn’t a younger sibling and didn’t have attendance area or CTIP preference, it’s hard to see a reasonable chance at any of the 15 schools listed below:

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 7.04.28 PM Predictability is important to folks (though based on years of watching this process I would say it’s less important than feeling you have access to a school you want), but predictability cuts both ways. It’s actually quite predictable that most children whose parents want them to go to Clarendon or Peabody will not actually get in. My advice, year in year out? If your tolerance for uncertainty is low, then work to figure out how your attendance area school can work for your child.  If it actually can’t work for you, then realize that the competition for any of the 20 schools that received the most requests the year before is probably going to be brutal — as in double digit requests for every non-sibling seat.

Common Core math: guest post from a parent

UPDATE March 8: I’m turning off comments on this post. Thanks for everyone who has responded thoughtfully thus far, but there are some assertions being made that I believe are  wrong — for example, that achievement data taken from two years before Common Core implementation somehow sheds light on the quality of instruction at Mission HS today — that I can’t address without taking time I don’t have to research the question. So apologies, but I’m not going to post assertions I think are wrong without being able to properly answer them.

I’m grateful to Matt Brauer, a parent of two girls who attend SFUSD schools — one in elementary and one in middle school. Matt and I have been corresponding for almost a year about the district’s new Common Core math sequence, and I am very appreciative of the spirit with which he’s approached the change: cautiously, with an open mind and yet with some clear misgivings. I asked him to write a guest post about his “take” on the math changes and he obliged:

Some time ago I wrote a letter to Board of Education member Rachel Norton. I was concerned that my daughters were expressing boredom with math, and worrying that the in-class experiences they were having would diminish their joy of learning the subject. I was especially annoyed at some of the district rhetoric about differentiated instruction and an end to tracking. Also, I told her that while I’m a fan of what the CCSS is trying to accomplish, it was not clear to me that the curriculum necessitated heterogeneous classrooms, and that I felt like the district was using the curriculum change as an excuse to pursue other agendas. Finally, I wrote that the district has been notorious for talking a good game but not following through with the resources needed to implement the plan. (Differentiation is hard, and it’s not clear how much buy-in there is from the teachers, or if they have the training and prep time to do it well.)

It was kind of late at night and I may have sounded a bit cranky. Still, Rachel forwarded my concerns to the SFUSD math department, and as a result two members of the math department–the math administrator and the STEM executive director–contacted me to see if I would talk with them. We met for about an hour at a cafe near my daughters’ school. They listened while I laid out my concerns, and I listened while they told me about their goals and those of the Common Core State Standards.

I was already a big fan of the Common Core, but Lizzy Barnes and Jim Ryan convinced me even more of its value. Primary and secondary math instruction in this country has been caught in an historical eddy, and the consequences have been obvious to anyone who reads about student achievement across cultures. The problem has not been helped by merely jumping up the intensity of the curriculum: as Jim pointed out, the number of AP Calculus exams taken has been increasing every year, but the number of students entering STEM programs at the college level has been flat (and it’s even worse at the graduate level). Clearly, adding more challenging material is not sufficient to induce a love for the material.

The Common Core takes a pragmatic and empirical approach to find out what works to get students excited about math. A product of 15 years or more of research, the curriculum has learned from other country’s successes, as well as from innovative research in this country. On a personal level, as someone who applies my graduate statistics education on a daily basis, I’ve been impressed with at least the occasional extra-credit material my daughter has been bringing home. The material may seem confusing or rudimentary at times (the first unit in Math 8 is “Counting”) but there are deep concepts being taught, towards the development of strong mathematical intuition. The curriculum focuses on the creative, and less on calculation. As Jo Boaler—one of the strongest academic proponents of the Common Core—related in a recent talk, math consists of at least four parts: 1. asking the right question; 2. modeling the question mathematically; 3. doing the computation; 4. relating the answer to the original problem. Historically, it’s mainly been just one step—calculation—that’s been taught, while the other three steps represent the creative process that comprises most of mathematical insight.

These other steps can be highly social, and indeed, there is also a strong social component in how the Common Core is being implemented. Students do less of the endless timed worksheets and instead collaborate to address complex problems. In the process, it is hoped, students of all abilities and backgrounds begin to develop mathematical creativity. This heterogeneity in the classroom is supposed to allow students to dive as deeply as they are inclined and able.

But how critical a feature is heterogeneous instruction to the Common Core? There is an astounding level of variation among middle school students in interest, attentiveness, ability, even age. (For example, there is a nearly two year age range in my daughter’s math class). Even given the best curriculum in the world, why would we expect that a range of complex math concepts could be taught equally to all within a grade level? In another anecdote, Jim Ryan told me how in Singapore dividing-by-fractions is taught in fifth grade, rather than in fourth as in the US. “Why was this?” US educators wanted to know. It was because, according to empirical data, it “worked better” to teach the concept at a later time. The fact that this concept can be better taught by delaying it a year implies that there are developmentally appropriate times to teach various math concepts. I hope that no teacher would argue that all students in a grade are at the same developmental stage. So why would we treat them as if they are?

The district and many academic researchers assert that in teaching all students to a higher level, all students will benefit. The paper cited most often to support this is Burris et al.’s 2006 study, which does indeed show modest gains for all students taught in a heterogeneous classroom. But a couple of things have always bothered me about the use of this study. First, although the study neglected to report class sizes, it made clear that all students were given access to intensive algebra workshops every other day, in groups of four students. (Note that there is no comparable investment by the SFUSD.) Second, the study’s school was offering eighth graders a course equivalent to Algebra 1. SFUSD’s implementation of the Common Core appears to defer algebra to ninth grade. So in what sense exactly is this supposed to represent an “accelerating” of math achievement? It looks like the eighth grade algebra class is being moved to ninth grade, and all students are being placed in a heterogeneous “Math 8” course. Also, it’s troubling that this one paper is given so much weight to carry. In statistics-heavy fields like medical genetics or neuropsychology, the findings of a study are not worth committing to until they’ve been replicated—in another population, by other researchers with other agendas. Has nothing been done in this field since Burris’ 2006 publication? Have there been other papers that have not had quite as strong results? Has Burris given us the last word on heterogeneous classrooms and the achievement gap? Is this paper to provide the primary blueprint for instruction at all levels of achievement?

And this is the crux of my concern. SFUSD has had a laser-like like focus on reducing the achievement gap and, conversely, a very mediocre commitment to engaging with students who need extra challenges. My interactions with the district’s GATE coordinator have been particularly distressing: at one point she clearly stated that GATE-identified children are part of the cause of the achievement gap. This attitude is reflected in the resources allocated to the GATE program: beyond those needed to identify kids as GATE, there are NO resources allocated. (And GATE identification simply for the sake of labeling and lacking any meaningful follow-up, is about as toxic of a situation as could be imagined.) It appears that, for the sake of addressing the achievement gap, the district has abandoned a real sense of responsibility to make sure that “joyful learners” in math stay that way. As the father of daughters, as one who knows that girls face ever increasing social challenges to their innate interest in math and science, the implications of this policy break my heart. (Furthermore, for these kids math has become a challenge-free subject. The unrealistic sense of accomplishment that they have from effortlessly getting an ‘A’ every semester will not survive its first contact with a college-level course.)

The ideas behind Common Core are sound. And I do believe that–given good teachers–the curriculum has the potential to be transformative. The Math Department of SFUSD is in the hands of some very dedicated and skilled educators who also clearly love the subject, and it’s encouraging that they are very interested in engaging with parents. (I haven’t always found that to be the case with other parts of the district.) But I question the district’s ability to carry off such a profound change as this. Teachers have in some cases been given no more than three hours of professional development for implementing the Common Core: it’s hard to see how students can leapfrog over moribund attitudes towards math when their teachers have not been given the tools to do so themselves.

The district’s implementation of the Common Core is part of a gigantic experiment. It may be a worthy one, but it’s one in which we and our children are the research subjects. As parents we need to account for the possibility that the findings of Burris and others cannot be replicated, and that our hopes for the success of the program are in vain. We need to prepare our children by providing extra-curricular enrichment opportunities where the district is not willing to. We need to monitor the progress of the curriculum’s deployment, and hold the district accountable for claims stated and promises made. And we need to continue to engage with the educational visionaries driving the process, to make sure that they know, every step of the way, how the experiment is progressing.

Recap: Board meeting Feb 10 2015

Here are the key issues discussed at this week’s Board meeting:

Memorandum of Understanding with SFPD: In January of 2014, the District entered into a landmark agreement with the SF Police Department (SFPD) that clarified the rights and responsibilities of students and families in situations where police are called to schools. At tonight’s meeting the Board received an update on the progress of the MOU and the ongoing relationship with the SFPD. The report was quite positive, and Lt. Colleen Fatooh (the supervisor for officers assigned to SFPD schools) was on hand to answer questions and engage with the Board. It’s not required for our district (or any district) to have such an MOU in place with the local police department, but in our case it has greatly helped the relationship between our two institutions and served our students and families better.

KALW Annual Report: Many people don’t know that the school district owns the license for KALW (FM 91.7), the public radio station that airs our meetings twice a month and offers lots of other great programming. KALW is a wonderful community resource, and it’s unusual for a school district to have such an asset — radio licenses aren’t exactly a dime a dozen. As the license holder, we operate no editorial control over the stations and are not involved in programming decisions – so long as the station complies with FCC regulations and finds an audience, it can broadcast what it wants. Financially, it’s almost completely independent of the district, mostly supported by individual donations and institutional grants (though it does occupy district-owned space at Burton HS). A few years ago, during the Great Recession, we extended a line of credit to help the station maintain cash flow, but they have paid it back in full and are in better shape now. There are plans to re-launch a companion philanthropic “Friends of KALW” organization and interest in programming continues to be strong (Note to self: check out the popular home-grown “99% Invisible” design podcast, available on  iTunes).

Superintendent and Board agree on three-year contract: Board members were all smiles and full of compliments in the run-up to voting on a new three-year contract for our rock star Superintendent, beginning July 1 of this year. Richard will receive $310,000 in annual salary, up from the $282,500 he is currently receiving.  The Board and Superintendent have a great relationship — we trust him and we (based on everyone’s comments at the Board meeting, I think it’s safe to use a “we” rather than an “I”) think he’s doing a great job. Is everything perfect?  No –not even Richard would say that. But the important things are: Richard shares the Board’s values and works with us constructively and collaboratively, the district is running smoothly and moving in the right direction, and he’s a great public face for us.  We’re lucky to have him and other districts know it — he was courted extensively over the past year by major urban districts all over the country.

(For a flashback of the day we voted on Richard’s first Superintendent contract, read this post — it tells you a lot more about the man who is leading the work).  In addition, the Board approved agreements with five more labor unions, including United Administrators of San Francisco. Negotiation season is drawing to a close, which is good news for everybody.

We heard almost two hours of public comment, on two main topics:

Ida B. Wells/John O’Connell HS co-location:  Ida B. Wells is one of the district’s continuation high schools, for students who are behind on credits or otherwise at risk of not graduating. The school’s longtime home, on Hayes Street across from Alamo Square, is undergoing construction so the community was co-located with John O’Connell High School for a year starting last month. The adjustment, let’s just say, hasn’t been smooth. Though both high schools have generally been peaceful places, there have been some safety issues now that the communities are occupying the same space and parents and teachers are alarmed. They came to talk to the Board about the issues and plead for more support (some John O’Connell parents argued strongly for Ida B. Wells to be relocated elsewhere, but that’s not really an option).

Finally, a number of teachers and students from Lowell came to discuss the new Common Core Math Sequence and its effect on Lowell students (more about the math sequence in this post and on the district’s excellent math curriculum site, sfusdmath.org).  The issue, as I understand it, is that incoming 9th graders from SFUSD schools will not have taken Algebra I under the new course sequence. However, students coming from private schools may have taken Algebra 1 in 8th grade, raising the question of whether the new course sequence will create a community of private school “haves” who are eligible earlier for advanced math courses, and public school “have-nots” who will not have the opportunity to take an advanced math course until a “compressed” Algebra 2/Precalculus course in 11th grade.  (Why Lowell in particular? The contention is that Lowell HS receives a high percentage of students who attended private schools K-8 and I’m willing to stipulate that is probably true, though I’ve asked for the data to see if other high schools should be concerned about this issue as well).  Lowell teachers testified that the compressed course will not work because it will not give students enough time with Precalculus concepts to prepare them for Calculus in 12th grade. Other math teachers from other high schools testified in favor of the current course sequence. I just have to be honest and say I don’t know who is right — it feels a bit like he says/she says at the moment. I’ve talked to the Superintendent and our math content specialists at length about this topic and they are convincing on the idea that the new course sequence/Common Core offers a stronger foundation that will serve students better in the long run (and it’s true that we weren’t exactly hitting it out of the park on math instruction prior to implementing the Common Core standards). At the same time, no one wants to disadvantage our students coming from public schools who have the aptitude to handle advanced mathematics early.   I’m told there are productive discussions going on about the idea of giving everyone a math placement test on entering the 9th grade, whether or not they took Algebra in 8th (Oakland USD does this).  Stay tuned.