The other shoe drops on S.F. kids

March 19, 2010

The federal government's idea of school reform will only make matters worse for San Francisco's children and teachers, explains David Russitano.

AFTER THE announcement several weeks ago that San Francisco would have to cut more than 20 percent--$113 million--from its school budget for the next two years, it looked like the situation couldn't get any worse.

But on March 8, the other shoe dropped. As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, 12 schools in the city are now considered among the 188 "lowest-achieving" schools in the state.

The federal government requires this title for schools in the bottom 5 percent of test scores in California. And in order to be eligible for federal education money under the Obama administration's Race to the Top program, California has to make these schools adopt one of four draconian school "reforms" programs.

If they go along with one of the programs, the schools become eligible for up to $2 million per school. In addition, according to the Chronicle, "California law requires that, at some point, each school on Monday's list will have to pick a plan, with or without the extra money."

Unfortunately, none of the so-called reforms are good. They range from turning the school into a charter school, to firing the principal and giving a new one dictatorial powers. But one of the most devastating options put forward isn't a reform at all: closing the school and sending students to a school that did better on tests.

A 3rd grade classroom in the Bay Area
A 3rd grade classroom in the Bay Area

All of these prescriptions are being delivered in the spring, weeks before parents from around the school district begin to decide where to send their children next year. A Chronicle article putting schools' names on a list, calling them "failures" and suggesting that they will be closed or reconstituted next year isn't "journalism." It's a hit piece.

AFTER EVERYONE at the school where I teach, Paul Revere, received the news that we were on the list, you could hear any little bit of hope left in the building getting sucked out. It was as if Barack Obama and Arne Duncan had come and kicked us all collectively in the stomach.

At first, I was shocked, and now I'm just angry at an educational system that runs parents, teachers and students through the gauntlet and then brands them as failures. Apparently, it matters little that test scores don't reflect all a school is or is becoming. We have creativity, culture and passions that go beyond anything that ever could be measured on a test.

The Chronicle article made no mention that the vision for my school has changed over the last few years. It's in transition to becoming a Spanish-language immersion school that can serve families from pre-K to eighth grade. However, our students still have to take the test in English, despite most classes being taught in Spanish.

Further still, the idea that these reforms are new and can actually change anything for the better is a manufactured image. San Francisco has already gone through the experiment of reconstitution with the Dream Schools that gutted teachers at sites considered low performing five years ago.

In some cases, those schools have closed down, and in others, while they have made progress, their scores are now just recovering to the level that they were before they became Dream Schools. Now they're on the list of "persistently low-achieving" despite already having gone through a reform process.

We should start calling this what it is--fake school reform that's actually an attack on public education. The problem is that these "reforms" don't address the real problem of why schools fail. You won't find a magic bullet to make schools successful. The government has the money to spend but won't unless schools agree to its neoliberal agenda. That's called a threat, not a reform.

Even worse is the completely racist nature of this 188-school list and the so-called reforms. All of the San Francisco schools on the list can be found clustered in two areas--the predominantly Black Bayview neighborhood and the largely Latino Mission District.

While African Americans make up 12 percent of the school district and Latinos make up 23 percent, together, they make 80 percent of the students who will be affected by these measures.

Do people in these communities want their schools closed? Do they want them reconstituted and their staffs fired wholesale? Do they want charter schools, when only 13 percent perform better than public school and 47 percent do worse? Charters have historically been reluctant to serve students who use English as their second language. Will a charter work in the Mission District?

The people who drafted this list don't know because they didn't ask. No one who worked on this list visited any of these communities to talk with the parents. No one went to a single one of the schools to talk with students about what was working and what wasn't. Making decisions that affect communities of color without consulting them and without even considering their existence defines institutionalized racism.

The level playing field that high-stakes testing assumes doesn't exist in our society. Today's school are about as segregated as they were before Brown v. Board of Education. The unemployment rate for African Americans in the U.S. is about double the rate for white Americans. Young African American men face the highest unemployment of all, reaching 52 percent in some cities.

We know that separate is never equal and that access to jobs, health care, housing and resources isn't equal for people of color. As long as the so-called reformers make the assumption that there's an equal playing field, we will continue to have racist results in our educational system.

To overcome this gap, we need money, resources and help--not high-stakes testing with punitive action. A movement that can challenge these measures is being built. The massive outpouring of support and solidarity that occurred on the March 4 Day of Action is the start of a fight to fully fund public education.

When students and teachers come together to fight for reforms, we can win. We need solidarity, not the divide-and-conquer tactics of a list of 188 schools that tries to pit parents against teachers and schools against communities.

It's the students and communities that these schools serve that will make change, and they deserve respect and support, not standardized tests, privatization of education or school closures. The teachers who work at these schools deserve the same respect, not threats of mass firings and the cutting off of funding.

We need fully funded education, not continue institutionalized racism masquerading as reform.

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