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Fixing San Francisco High Schools.

Are we asking the right questions?

•••••••••• January 12, 2023 ••••••••••

What are the most critical issues facing San Francisco high schools?  An important question, don’t you think?  If I were going to appoint a task force to look at ways to improve high schools, that question would be at the top of my list.

San Francisco does, in fact, have a high school task force. I am concerned, however, that its focus will veer towards a future vision of the perfect portfolio of high school options and miss the crisis right in front of our eyes.

Understanding the Problem

There’s an old saying. “If you don’t understand the problem, you’ll misunderstand the solution. Better yet, to quote an educator: “A problem well defined is a problem half solved.” John Dewey.

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The problem in San Francisco is the huge number of students who enter high school not proficient in English and math. The 2021-22 statewide assessments show almost 45 percent of SFUSD 8th graders are not proficient in English. More than half of the students are not proficient in math.”

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The problem in San Francisco is the huge number of students who enter high school not proficient in English and math. The 2021-22 statewide assessments show almost 45 percent of SFUSD 8th graders are not proficient in English. More than half of the students are not proficient in math.

This is a long-standing problem that has been made worse by the pandemic.

It’s easy to sigh and point to the elementary schools and middle schools as the culprits. But that’s not solving today's high school crisis. Those 8th graders are this year’s high school freshmen.

What policies, practices, and programs in high school must change now to support these students?

Challenges high schools face

High schools, as presently configured, are not prepared to meet this challenge. Extensive changes are needed.

  • High school teachers are not normally trained to teach basic literacy. How can high schools increase capacity to teach students with elementary reading skills?
  • Diverse literacy and math needs make classroom instruction much more difficult. How should classes be configured to support teachers and students? Will acceleration in middle school help solve this dilemma?
  • Normal bell schedules shorten learning time. How can schools create more time in the school day and the school year? Should low performing students attend high school in the summer?
  • Students need motivation to break the cycle of chronic absences. Should the arts be a required course for all 9th graders to promote greater engagement? Should the new state arts funding be used at high schools for this?
  • Teachers can’t ignore the needs of high performing students. Schools still need to provide high level options to meet the needs of all students.

SFUSD’s challenges are revealed in the data below. Too many students lack academic proficiency. Too many have high chronic absences. San Francisco graduates many students who fall far short of proficiency.

High School Admission Policies

While high school admission policies are a political flashpoint and the task force has been asked to make recommendations, we must be clear:

Admission policies have nothing to do with this crisis. Changing them is not a solution. In fact, it is a serious distraction. Remember: “If you don’t understand the problem, you’ll misunderstand the solution.

Look at the Data

The data below connects low proficiency and high absence rates. In the charts below, 8th graders who score “exceeds proficiency” and “meets proficiency” on state measures are considered ‘ready’ for high school. The pattern is clear.

Many subgroups of students are not close to meeting proficiency rates in 8th grade. Those same students are still far behind in 11th grade. 

 

Graduation rates show a dramatic disconnect. Graduation rates far exceed proficiency rates.

Yes, lots of students graduate who are not close to meeting basic proficiency rates.

chart

Source: Data Quest  Four year adjusted cohort graduation rates

*  All grades’ data. Not enough students in 8th grade.
**2021-22 preliminary data  
Source: Ed Data  http://www.ed-data.org/district/San-Francisco/San-Francisco-Unified

Carol Kocivar is a children’s advocate and lives in the Westside. Feedback: kocivar@westsideobserver.com

January 12, 2023


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