Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

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.

Recap: A big crowd for Ethnic Studies

We had a large and upbeat crowd of students, teachers and other supporters of the proposal to expand the Ethnic Studies course pilot (currently at five high schools) to all 19 SFUSD high schools starting in August 2015. Students were articulate and passionate in their support of the program, telling us it was revelatory to learn about the history of groups that are sometimes left out of mainstream social studies or history textbooks. “Asian-American history is like a page and a half in some textbooks,” said one senior. “My history is so much more than a page and a half!” Student after student told us how much they love the course — and preliminary academic outcomes presented by Deputy Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero seem to bear out that 9th grade students who are members of at-risk groups and who enroll in Ethnic Studies do better in their other academic courses and have fewer unexcused absences. I was impressed by the passion and the engagement from students, and I do believe we have to think more broadly about whose history, and which history, we teach. I also read this essay recently, by a progressive education blogger I respect, and found it compelling. An excerpt:

Ethnic Studies is a path to self-understanding for students otherwise denied the histories of those who speak and look like them, but it’s also how all people can empathize across lines of race, culture, religion, ethnicity, and language and feel in our bones the deep commonalities of shared hopes, struggles, and dreams of our individual lives. Yes, empathy can be taught. Anti-racism can be learned and racism and bigotry unlearned. But first we have to set aside blinkered monocultural lenses.

It was also moving to hear the Superintendent describe his experiences as a young social studies teacher in Tucson, seeking to give his Chicano (Mexican American) students a deeper understanding of their own history and culture. “What if we taught people their own history?” he asked the Board and the public in his remarks just before the Board’s unanimous vote. Ethnic Studies will be expanded to every high school starting in 2015-16 after the Board’s vote, and this spring the Curriculum department will work to flesh out the existing curriculum and align it with the Common Core. New teachers will need to be hired and given professional development to effectively teach the course. There’s a lot of work to be done but I think this is a positive step for our district.  Here’s a panoramic picture of tonight’s crowd (thanks to Mark Murphy):    10476337_10152469609891776_7245363341865845698_o

And . . . The Board wished departing Commissioner Kim-Shree Maufas well — tonight was her last regular Board meeting. Commissioner Maufas did not run for re-election in this last cycle. Commissioner-elect Shammann Walton will be sworn in with returning Commissioners Mendoza-McDonnell and Murase at a celebration on January 6. We also approved the 2015-16 instructional calendar  and the annual report auditing the developer fees we collect to mitigate the financial impact of real estate development on the district. Finally: Stay tuned . . . I do intend to blog the meeting of the Student Assignment committee on Monday, but that will have to wait for a moment when I have more time.

Fascinating CTIP data

District staff recently shared some data analysis the Board had requested regarding the currently-on-hold CTIP proposal, and it is fascinating. Specifically, how many K families  request their attendance area (AA) school as their first choice, and receive that school? If the CTIP preference were placed below the AA preference in the assignment system, how many more AA residents would be assigned to their AA schools if they list those schools first?

For the 2013-14 school year assignment process, there were nine schools for which AA residents requested K seats as a first choice, and did not receive those schools. (Note that this analysis reflects requests for General Education pathways only; it does not reflect requests for citywide schools and programs since the attendance area preference does not apply to citywide seats):

Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 10.18.21 PMFrom the above table, you can see that at a few of  these nine schools, changing the order of preferences could have a profound effect. At others, not so much. And at the vast majority of elementary schools, AA residents who wish to attend their local school have a 100 percent chance of being assigned to that school if they list it first — regardless of whether the CTIP preference is weaker or stronger.

From where I’m standing, I think this data strongly supports my assertion that our suggestion to change the order of assignment preferences will only give families who live in attendance areas for very small schools (Peabody, New Traditions), or highly-requested schools with a relatively small number of GE seats (Alvarado, Clarendon), or highly requested schools generally (Grattan, Miraloma, Argonne, Sherman) a little more certainty.* It should not affect anyone else, and it might increase diversity in schools that are located in CTIP areas — the Bayview, the Mission and the Western Addition.  What do you think?

The full table with data for all elementary schools is here.

Video

Occupy Kindergarten

Kindergarten has changed in the last 30 years, not kindergarteners. Thought-provoking TEDx talk from a California Kindergarten teacher. Hat tip to Miss Susie, the Kindergarten teacher I wish I’d had, who teaches lucky children at Yick Wo Elementary.

School funding and fundraising: your opportunity to weigh in!

Later this morning (Friday, February 14, 2014) I will be a guest on the Forum show on KQED radio (88.5 FM in the Bay Area). Do you have thoughts on school funding and fundraising? This is your chance to call in. The topic of the program is a recent series of articles by the SF Public Press on disparities in PTA fundraising in SFUSD. The series is extensive and worth reading, but the gist is that the paper’s analysis found that a handful of SFUSD schools more than made up for budget cuts through parent fundraising during the budget crisis over the past few years.

I don’t dispute that finding, generally, though I do have some issues with the analysis (it’s not clear, for example, whether the reporting took centrally-funded services like special education teachers and aides, social workers and nurses into account). I think the article is an important opportunity to look, in general, at education funding in California and to have a discussion about what educational elements are essential for every child in our community?

On February 14, 2014, you will be able to call in to the Forum program at 1.415.553.2227 or 1.866.SF.FORUM (1.866.733.6786) or email forum@kqed.org to have your thoughts registered in the discussion. You can listen live at 88.5 FM or at this link. After the program has aired, you will be able to listen to archived audio.