Something magical is happening in San Diego. It is a good school district. Teachers and administrators and the school board are working towards common goals.
San Diego, in my view, is the best urban district in the nation.
I say this not based on test scores but on the climate for teaching and learning that I have observed in San Diego.
It’s not the weather, which of course is usually magnificent. Los Angeles too has great weather but it is constantly embroiled in turmoil, with teachers against administrators, the school board divided, and political tensions underlying every decision and policy.
San Diego went through its time of troubles in the late 1990s and early 2000s (I wrote about it in my next to last book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, in which I devoted a chapter to the upheaval in San Diego, where corporate-style, top-down reform was birthed).
But in recent years, San Diego has elected a school board that works harmoniously with the teachers and their union. Until recently, it had a superintendent, Bill Kowba (a retired Navy admiral) who understood the value of teamwork. And with the leadership of an activist board, a new spirit of community-based reform began to take hold.
Scores went up on almost everything that was tested, but that was not what mattered most to the new (and true) reformers in San Diego. The rising test scores were the result of the new spirit of community-building that included parents, students, teachers, administrators, and the local community.
San Diego, of course, rejected Race to the Top funding. It didn’t want to make test scores more consequential than they already were.
When Superintendent Kowba retired, the San Diego school board met and immediately announced their choice of a new superintendent, without conducting a national search. The board asked Cindy Marten, one of the district’s best elementary school principals, to assume the superintendency. She was stunned, and she chastised them for not casting a wider net. But she took the job.
Cindy is a leader. She knows how to inspire and lead. She respects the work of principals and teachers, and they respect her. She also knows the importance of parent and community engagement.
Her motto, which is a playful twist on the KIPP motto is: “Work Hard. Be Kind. Dream Big! No Excuses.”
No matter how sunny the skies for the schools, no matter how harmonious the educators, parents, and children, the business community is grumpy. It can’t get over the fact that San Diego doesn’t have a brash, disruptive superintendent who wants to test the kids until they cry “uncle,” demean the teachers, and hold everyone’s feet to the fire. It can’t accept that there is any other way to lead the schools. And it can’t give up on its favorite meme that the schools are “failing” even though they are not.
These views were expressed full force recently when the San Diego Union Tribune, a deeply conservative newspaper, penned an editorial longing for the good old days when Terry Grier was superintendent. The UT can’t believe that San Diego let him go, let him move to Houston, where he is following the corporate reform script, handing out bonuses, firing teachers, using test scores as a club to beat up teachers. Talk about being a skunk at the garden party! The UT published an editorial lamenting “what might have been” if only Grier had stayed around in San Diego to do what he is doing now in Houston.
There was pushback. One board member wrote a letter to the editor pointing out that the dropout rate in Houston was nearly double the dropout rate in San Diego and commending Cindy Marten for avoiding the polarizing tactics associated with certain other unnamed superintendents.
But whoa! There are also some basic facts that the Union Tribune should have noticed. On the 2013 NAEP, San Diego’s public schools outperform those of Houston in math and reading, in grades 4 and 8. San Diego is in the top tier of urban districts; Houston is not. San Diego’s scores on the NAEP have steadily improved over the past decade. The proportion of students who score “below basic” has dropped significantly, and the proportion who score at or above proficient has increased significantly over the past decade. Why does the UT envy a lower-performing district and dismiss the solid, steady, persistent gains of its own district?
Michael Casserly, the fair-minded and careful leader of the Council of Great City Schools wrote an article for the newspaper applauding the success of San Diego and the leadership of Cindy Marten, but the Union Tribute failed to publish it.
Doug Porter of the San Diego Free Press wrote up the imbroglio and called out the UT for its humbug and hypocrisy. He aptly called his article “Facts Don’t Matter in Newspaper’s Quest to Demonize Public Education in San Diego.”
Talk about your cheap shots. It was bad enough when the UT-San Diego editorial board whipped up an attack on our city’s schools laden with misstatements, factual errors and a personal attack on Superintendent Cindy Marten. But when a nationally recognized education leader stepped forward to correct the record on her behalf, his response was deemed unworthy for publication.
It’ all very Orwellian; reality isn’t simply what Papa Doug Manchester tries to tell us it is. When his minions refuse to acknowledge something, the idea is for you to believe that it never happened.
One of the longest running narratives with our Daily Newspaper has been their dislike for the Board of Trustees at San Diego Unified. The paper’s ‘reform’ agenda for public education mirrors the libertarian/conservative wet dream of privatized charter schools, a change that means monetizing learning for corporate interests and creating a two-tiered system favoring the wealthier (and white) classes.
The reality that voters have elected and re-elected progressives to a school board that refuses to demonize teachers and puts the classroom first just is too much for them to handle. So this hatchet job is consistent with their refusal to acknowledge that SD Unified is making steady, determined progress (and is, in fact, a national leader among urban school districts).
Porter includes the full text of Mike Casserley’s supportive article about the steady progress of the San Diego public schools. This is my favorite line from his letter chastising the San Diego UT:
“So, pining for a previous superintendent is not only an affront to Ms. Marten but is akin to daydreaming about a former lover on your honeymoon.”
Porter makes only one mistake. He suggests that the school district engaged in “puffery” when it talked about its steady improvement on NAEP. I disagree. San Diego has made steady progress. On most NAEP measures, it outperforms other large city districts. This is a record to be proud of, not puffery.
San Diego now has the political climate that every district should have: a wise and experienced educator as leader; a collaborative relationship among administrators, teachers, the union, and the school board; a sense of vision about improving the education of every child and a determination to provide a good public school in every neighborhood. This is a vision far, far from the reformy effort to close down public schools and replace them with a free market. Unlike Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston, and most other urban districts, San Diego has the right vision, the right climate, and the right leadership. There is a unity of purpose focused on children that is impressive.
And that is why San Diego at this moment in time is the best urban district in the nation.