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Diane Ravitch Gives A Shout-Out to San Diego Unified

November 3, 2011

In this piece in the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet Blog, Diane Ravitch sites San Diego Unified as a district that is doing things right.  She isn’t talking about money, she mentions the fact that SDUSD has taken a huge hit to the normal funding that they receive from the State of CA, and how that has affected its bottom line.

The article is posted below and I will intersperse comments in between the paragraphs.  Full disclosure: I worked for SDUSD for 4 years before moving districts this year, I have many good friends within SDUSD who are dedicated to teaching all students in sometimes very difficult environments.  So, it is nice to see this mention from Diane.

As I travel the country, I am frequently asked to identify an urban district where public education is working. My first impulse is to say that public schools everywhere have been hemmed in and harmed by the mandates of No Child Left Behind; one has to look far and wide for an urban district that has managed to sustain a vision of good education, untainted by the federal law’s pressure to produce higher test scores every year.

But then I remember San Diego. When I first visited there in early 2007, I found a district recovering from a contentious era of top-down reform that started in 1998, when the business community won control of the school board. For nearly seven years, from 1998 to 2005, the school board was bitterly divided, the district leadership was at war with the teachers’ union, and the fate of the district hinged on the school board election every two years. I devoted a chapter to that era in my recent book [ The Death and Life of the Great American School System ], because many other districts experienced similar upheavals.

2007 was the year I was hired by San Diego Unified.  I was placed in Southeast San Diego at a middle school with many difficult students.  I made good friends while teaching at this school and still have a drink with them at periodic “happy hours.”  Our school was kind of a pilot school for “inclusion” in special education, and I feel that I was lucky to have learned there.  I feel that learning how to handle myself with the student population that existed at this school was an invaluable experience that has prepared me for any classroom community of learners that I might face.

It was a different story when I returned to San Diego in 2010.

The leadership of the district— both the school board and the superintendent — was working harmoniously with the teachers’ union. All had coalesced around an approach they called “community-based school reform,” where the central themes were collaboration and mutual respect. Instead of behaving as adversaries, the leaders, teachers, and parents joined to decide what should happen to improve education in every community.

Adhering to this model, the district leadership refused to apply for Race to the Top funding. It rejected the U.S. Department of Education’s demands for competition and accountability, preferring to implement its own community-based, collaborative vision of school reform.

I remember reading that we had opted out of the Race to the Top funding because of the strings that Arne Duncan attached to the money and thinking: “Wow, that took guts to do.”  I still feel that way.

The district is now led by a dynamic school board chairman, Richard Barrera, and a low-key superintendent, Bill Kowba. Barrera has a background as a community organizer in the labor movement, andKowba is a retired rear admiral with 30 years in the Navy and administrative experience in the San Diego public schools. Together, they are passionate and effective advocates for the San Diego public schools.

The San Diego plan is working, as judged by the only metrics that matter these days: test scores and graduation rates. Superintendent Kowba recently reported the following:

“The 2011 CST [California Standards Test] scores represent a solid accomplishment for our principals, teachers, support staff, parents, and most importantly our students. These results show that San Diego Unified is the highest-achieving urban district among California’s large urban districts in English Language Arts. Since 2007, student CST achievement levels have increased by more than 20 percent in English, Math and Social Studies and have more than doubled in Science.”

In addition, the graduation rate for the district is 74.9 percent, second among urban districts in the state only to San Francisco and impressive compared with urban districts across the nation.

This is good news, and I wasn’t aware of it.  It is good to hear that all of the hard work that teachers are doing is paying off for our students.

Sadly, all of this steady progress is grinding to a halt because of California’s budget crisis. The state legislature has slashed $15 billion in funding from California’s public schools in the past four years. San Diego alone has lost $450 million since 2007-2008 and has had to lay off teachers and other staff, increase class size, and eliminate programs for children. San Diego may be forced to declare bankruptcy, along with many other districts. Critics carp that the school leaders are unwilling to make cuts to balance the budget, but there comes a time when there is not enough money to provide a sound, basic education. School leaders are now asked to cut bone, not fat.

This is really true.  SDUSD is in dire financial straits, I hope they find an answer, or the State of CA comes through with funding.

Please watch Richard Barrera here where he explains that the legislature is sacrificing the education of California’s children while refusing to impose taxes on the booming oil industry or the alcohol industry. Barrera points out that Congress bailed out the banks because they were “too big to fail.” He says that it is time to save public education, because it is “too important to fail.”

So here is a large urban district that has excellent leadership, dedicated teachers, and a vision that works for its children. Yet the district may soon be in bankruptcy due to the negligence and indifference of the state legislature.

Exactly!  What is wrong with this picture?  Where are the priorities in this country?  When it comes to dropping bombs and fighting wars, no expense is spared, but when it comes to educating students (many in urban areas) drastic cuts are expected to be made.  This is a very short-sited approach that will have consequences in the decades ahead.

We often hear from the “reform movement” about why we must prepare for the future, prepare for globalization, prepare to compete, etc., yet I hear nothing from reformers about the fiscal crisis that is devastating our public schools. Why the silence?

I will answer, “Why the silence?”  The answer is simple: The Reformers WANT public schools to fail so that more money can be funneled to their friends in corporate education.

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