No Excuses Accepted

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Amid the sea of failure that engulfs public education in urban areas throughout the country, the San Francisco Unified School District stands apart. It may be the only large, inner-city district in the country that has seen test scores, graduation rates, and a host of other achievement indicators rise consistently over the past five years.

Here is just a sample of some of the district's recent accomplishments: For the first time ever, reading and math scores have surpassed the national average (50th percentile) in 1997; the high school graduation rate among seniors has increased to 90 percent (up from 82 percent in 1990), while the dropout rate for students in grades 8-12 has fallen from 18.3 percent in 1990 to 9.4 percent in 1996; the number of students performing in the top quartile on standardized tests has increased, while the number of students in the bottom quartile has declined significantly. (In 1992, 34 percent of students performed in the bottom quartile for reading, while in 1996 this figure was 27 percent. In math, 31 percent performed in the bottom quartile in 1992, while in 1996, 26 percent scored in that quartile.)

What is perhaps most important about the changes that have occurred during this five-year period is that they have been accompanied by policy changes aimed at elevating academic standards for all students. At all city high schools, graduation requirements have been increased so that all students are required to take more math, science, and history than is mandated by the state. The number of units needed for graduation also has been increased from 220 in 1987 to 240 this year. More students than ever before are taking the SAT and applying to college, and the number of graduating seniors eligible for admission to the University of California has increased by 95 percent.

While the progress in student achievement in San Francisco may not seem significant when compared with private and suburban public schools, these results stand out in dramatic contrast to the dismal performance of most urban districts. In Seattle and Washington, former U.S. Army generals have been hired as superintendents to bring strong leadership to floundering city school systems, yet student performance remains largely unchanged. In Chicago, the schools have been decentralized and in Baltimore and New Haven, Conn., forms of privatization have been tried, yet none of these steps has produced a significant change in past patterns. Even when states have taken the dramatic step of placing a wayward district under trusteeship, as has occurred in Cleveland, Compton, Calif., and several other cities throughout the country, little change has occurred.

San Francisco's results stand out in dramatic contrast to the dismal performance of most urban districts.

In this era of reform and innovation during which more money from public and private sources is being spent on technology, "school restructuring," and various new educational approaches than ever before, performance of poor students in the inner city is largely unchanged. At urban schools, dropout rates remain high (generally over 25 percent), test scores are still low, and containing violence has replaced improving achievement as the top educational priority. In most places, these patterns are so persistent and enduring that they reinforce the notion that certain children, particularly those who are black, brown, and poor, simply cannot learn and achieve at the same level or pace of other children. In San Francisco, this notion has not only been rejected through lofty rhetoric and platitudes, but through district policy and action.

What is the secret to educational success in San Francisco? Money is always a factor, and San Francisco has more of it than most urban districts in California, though substantially less than many of the big-city districts on the East Coast. With support from local corporations, a highly profitable revenue stream from leased property owned by the district, and a $60 million bond initiative recently approved by the voters, the district hasn't been mired in the kind of nasty infighting that typically accompanies austerity and budget cutting. The availability of funds has prevented significant labor conflicts and made it possible for the district to open new schools in poor areas and provide additional resources to low performing schools.

But money is only a small part of the answer. Even more important than money is the climate of shared accountability that has been promoted by district Superintendent Waldemar Rojas. With laser-like attentiveness, he has focused resources on strategies for improving student achievement, placing special emphasis on the needs of the poorest and least prepared students. Students from the poorest parts of the city--Hunters Point, the Mission District, and Western Addition--now attend two of the city's newer and more highly regarded high schools.

Since his appointment in 1992, the superintendent has ruffled more than a few feathers in his campaign to raise standards and improve student achievement. Under his leadership, shared accountability has literally included everyone: classroom teachers as well as district-level administrators, students as well as parents.

But holding people accountable for their part in the educational process hasn't been easy. As might be expected, opposition to some of the district's changes has emerged from a variety of sources. Primary among these has been the San Francisco Federation of Teachers, which has taken a strong stand against the use of "reconstitution" as a strategy for reforming low-performing schools. Under this approach, all personnel at the failing school, from the principal to the custodians, are reassigned to another school within the district, while a committee consisting of parents and district officials is charged with hiring new teachers and site leadership.

Whether or not reconstitution has actually worked to improve school performance continues to be a hotly debated issue in San Francisco, and evaluations of the four schools that have been reconstituted have not yet been completed. The district recently cut a deal with the union to lessen some of the more objectionable aspects of the strategy (for example, wholesale dismissal of teachers), and it seems as though labor relations in the district may become more amicable in the coming year.

Opposition has also come from some of the parents of children who have traditionally been very successful academically. Fearing that the commitment to improving the performance of the neediest children will come at the expense of serving their children's needs, some of these parents have mounted concerted opposition to the superintendent's policies. This has occasionally been manifested as a racial issue, particularly at the prestigious Lowell High School, where some Asian-American parents have opposed admissions policies aimed at maintaining an ethnically diverse student body, since this invariably means that fewer of their children gain access to the school. Attempts at compromise have been ventured, but this issue and others like it continue to generate considerable controversy.

We should ask ourselves why similar results have not been achieved elsewhere, particularly in urban districts with more resources.

Still, the focus on accountability at all levels and improving student achievement remains. Unlike so many urban districts, excuses for failure, even those that have considerable validity, are not acceptable. Poverty, transience in residence, language and cultural differences, all of which affect large numbers of students in the district, are not regarded as valid excuses for academic failure. Even standardized tests, which many schools have rejected as indicators of performance due to cultural and linguistic bias, are embraced as benchmarks of change and progress.

In many of the most important respects, the San Francisco public schools are making real progress. These improvements are rooted in local initiative and leadership and are not the byproduct of state or federal reform policies. What they show is that tangible results in what matters most--student achievement--can be realized when commitment, leadership, and resources are present and applied in a coordinated manner. More important, the relative success of San Francisco forces us to ask ourselves why similar results have not been achieved elsewhere, particularly in districts with more resources. It should also prompt us to demand much more than we now receive from public education.

Vol. 17, Issue 10, Pages 36, 38

Published in Print: November 5, 1997, as No Excuses Accepted
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