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,  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: Student Assignment Committee, Feb. 5

Another good discussion in the Student Assignment committee tonight. We continue to analyze data around the “Supporting Equity in Student Assignment” resolution proposed by Commissioner Fewer and I last summer; we are also more broadly talking about ongoing re-segregation in San Francisco public schools (recently analyzed in a terrific package in SF Public Press), the continuing mismatch between population and choice requests in the Bayview, and specific access issues at Clarendon — it’s an outlier but one that is a very real problem for residents of that attendance area.

Before I recap some of the specific topics/ideas discussed, I want to be very clear that the only proposal on the table is the narrow “CTIP Flip” proposal from Commissioner Fewer and I. The Board will likely vote on this proposal in late May or early June, but in response to concerns from the public that we were rushing the proposal through last summer, I agreed to fully dissect the proposal in committee over this school year. So that’s what we are doing. In the bullet points below I will recap a number of additional ideas and thoughts Board members threw out tonight for the staff to consider and analyze, but I want to be very clear that any of these ideas found to have merit will receive extensive public vetting and analysis before coming to a vote. They’re ideas, that’s all – not fully-baked policy proposals.


Responding to questions and requests from the Committee’s December meeting, staff brought back a bit more analysis to explain why Clarendon is so impacted and to gauge the Board’s interest in exploring particular solutions. There are essentially three issues that are conspiring together to create a “perfect storm” for residents of the Clarendon attendance area.

First, in 2013-14 there were 120 children who resided in the Clarendon attendance area eligible to apply for Kindergarten. A large number of those children applied for other schools — maybe because they had older siblings at those schools, or wanted language programs or had some other reason for not applying to their attendance area school. But of the 34 attendance area residents requesting Clarendon as their first choice for K, only six were offered a seat in Round I; this low “acceptance” rate is due to Clarendon’s popularity across the City and a high number of younger siblings claiming the majority of K seats each year.

The next problem is that the closest schools to the Clarendon attendance area are Rooftop and Alice Fong Yu. Both of those schools are highly requested, citywide K-8 schools, making them low probability choices for Clarendon residents looking for an alternative close to home.

Finally, Clarendon has a total of 88 Kindergarten seats, but 44 of those seats are citywide, because they are earmarked for the Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program (JBBP). This means only 44 K seats are available for the attendance area tiebreaker.

So: solutions. We threw around a few ideas tonight (stress: ideas. Re-read the paragraph above “Clarendon” before hyperventilating). We could shrink Clarendon’s attendance area (remembering that changing one attendance area creates a ripple effect through all the contiguous attendance areas, and all the attendance areas contiguous to those attendance areas, and so on ).  We could move the JBBP to some other site, thereby opening up 44 additional general ed seats at Clarendon. We could also make Clarendon a citywide school and redistribute its attendance area among the contiguous attendance ares. Not much interest in any of those ideas except the possibility of moving JBBP, though that idea would need much more analysis.

Should all K-8s be citywide?

Thinking more broadly, we actually have a large number of citywide seats for elementary school — 59 percent of sears are attendance area, and 41 percent are citywide. Is that too many? What if we made the non-language pathway K-8s attendance area schools? We asked the staff to analyze that question. Originally, (and I actually think it was my suggestion), we thought K-8s were such popular options that it made sense for any K-8 seat to be a citywide seat, whether or not it was a language pathway seat. But at that time, we were receiving a lot of flak for the middle school feeder plan (definitely the most controversial part of the assignment system changes in 2010). No one thought the feeders would take hold as strongly as they have, and so the “virtual K-8” idea is much more of a reality than it appeared to be five years ago when we were constructing the current assignment policy. The committee agreed it is worth taking a look at what would happen, both to attendance areas (again, remember the ripple effect described above when you change ANY attendance area) and to overall predictability if we made non-language pathway K-8 seats attendance area seats instead of citywide seats.


In looking at the data on current choice patterns, not to mention the analysis in recent Chronicle and Public Press articles, it’s clear that the CTIP preference isn’t diversifying schools in any comprehensive way, and might be allowing families who are eligible for the CTIP preference to self-segregate. From Commissioner Wynns’ perspective, the preference represents a promise to assist low-income students of color in accessing higher-performing schools where they will add diversity. She asked Commissioner Fewer and I tonight why we don’t agree. Commissioner Fewer answered by reiterating her belief that choice — the ability to research and evaluate schools and to take time off work and secure childcare to be able to visit schools — is inherently inequitable, favoring families who can do those things. I added that it seems more and more clear that by prioritizing parent choices, our system is creating schools of last resort, and we know that children suffer in these schools. I am willing to retain some layer of parent choice in our system, and even add some priority for disadvantaged families, but I think we should encourage families to attend their local schools unless there is a compelling reason not to. We need families with resources and choices who live in the Bayview, for example, to stay in the Bayview and help us balance the schools there.

Commissioner Walton, a resident of the Bayview, was at the meeting tonight. In a conversation after the meeting, he asked me what this resolution would do to attract families who are currently choosing schools outside of the Bayview. What I admitted to him, and he agreed, is that this resolution simply clears the ground — it makes it a little less attractive to leave neighborhoods with low performing schools (and stress little. It’s a very modest tweak).  What’s still needed is for us to plant some seeds. I believe our work with Willie Brown MS will show the neighborhood that with will and commitment, we can build a great school out of the ashes of a failing one. Still, we need to find the right formula for George Washington Carver, for Bret Harte and for Malcolm X to attract those families with choices.

Next meeting

The next meeting of the Student Assignment committee will be in April, where we are planning a panel discussion with desegregation experts and the Board. Stay tuned for more details.

Elementary school assignment predictability: analysis in SF Chron

Jill Tucker of the Chronicle has analyzed more of the data on elementary school choices and outcomes and it’s very interesting. She finds that:

Many parents see San Francisco’s annual school assignment process as an unpredictable and agonizing crap shoot. But which school they get — or don’t — is a lot more predictable than parents think.

As I posted late last month, there are only nine elementary schools where attendance area residents aren’t assured of admission if they list the school first on their list. And then there’s Clarendon: Of the 1,505 non attendance area residents who listed the school first, only three got in. And how many of the 1,337 families outside the attendance area who listed the school somewhere other than first choice got in? 0. My advice: Clarendon is a great school but if you don’t live in the attendance area and don’t have any tiebreakers? Don’t bother.

Anyway: applicants for Round 1 are due TODAY. Get those applications in! I was at the district HQ yesterday and things were moving very smoothly, with extra staff on hand to guide parents through. Instead of standing in line, you get a number and can sit in the Board room to wait your turn.