This letter came from an anonymous source in San Francisco whom I know to be trustworthy. Why the anonymity? The usual reason: fear of being fired for blowing the whistle. It raises the question of why some people teach under difficult circumstances when they could hang up a shingle with a snappy name and get funded for big ideas that have never been tried.
Tom Vander Ark’s Ed Week column ran a guest commentary by Sandy Speicher, an executive of the San Francisco design firm IDEO, which appears to lay the groundwork for IDEO to become involved in education “reform” projects.
The column touts an IDEO project in San Francisco brainstorming the use of “design thinking” to improve the “school food experience” in San Francisco public schools, and strongly implies that IDEO’s ideas have been implemented. That’s false; none of the ideas has been implemented in any SFUSD school. This is an important point for observers to be aware of if IDEO continues to hype the project, given the fact that Speicher’s column made it appear that IDEO’s ideas had been implemented and had an impact.
IDEO’s work on the “design phase” of this project was funded by the Sara and Evan Williams Foundation; Evan Williams is a founder of Twitter. The foundation “has committed to providing ongoing support as the school district begins to bring these design ideas to life,” according to IDEO (though in reality, it remains to be seen if the school district will ever be able to use any of the ideas at all).
Here are some points about the IDEO school food proposals in San Francisco schools.
The project deliberately focuses on improving the “experience” but not the actual food.
Again, none of the recommendations — not one — has been implemented in any San Francisco school at any time. The Speicher commentary implies that they have, but that’s inaccurate.
None of the recommendations has even been tested in a real-life San Francisco school setting. Some have been tested on a very small scale, but not in a real-life setting. There was one test in a school cafeteria during the summer with student volunteers who were compensated for their time, not actual populations of students during the school day. There was ample time — no lunchtime rush — and there were plenty of adults, far more than are present in an operating cafeteria during a real school day. And there was no attention paid to the ironclad National School Lunch Program regulations for school meals.
The project actually makes a recommendation that’s likely to lower the quality of the food: increasing the use of government commodity products, which are widely criticized for their inferior quality.
The project’s recommendations for middle and high schools would result in eliminating the use of items from Revolution Foods, a vendor whose products have improved the quality of SFUSD school meals.
The recommendations were made largely without awareness or consideration of the National School Lunch Program regulations for school meals, meaning some or many would be impossible to implement.
The recommendation that has won most acclaim (communal meals at small tables with an adult at each) would require vastly more adults than currently staff SFUSD cafeterias — either depending heavily on volunteers or at greatly increased staffing cost.
The amount that the Williams Foundation has provided is not publicly known. Estimates are that $1 million has been paid to IDEO and $400,000 to SFUSD.
Despite the issues detailed above, SFUSD officials and school board members have given high praise to the IDEO project. Observers speculate that that’s in the hope of securing more funding from the Williams Foundation for school food programs.
For more background, here’s a San Francisco Chronicle feature written by an IDEO insider on the project:
Here’s a critique by San Francisco parent volunteer Dana Woldow, an expert and frequent commentator on school food issues: