San Diego and San Jose rated reform-resistantSurvey measures entrepreneurial values
San Diego and San Jose are unrivaled as hubs of innovation in high tech, green tech and biotech. But in terms of fostering a climate for education innovation, San Jose is no Silicon Valley, and San Diego is in the Rust Belt with Detroit and Gary, Indiana.
At least that’s view of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which ranked those two metropolises near the bottom of 26 major cities in the study “America’s Best (and Worst) Cities for School Reform: Attracting Entrepreneurs and Change Agents,” which was released today.
Los Angeles didn’t fare much better, ranking 18th, but San Francisco, San Jose’s neighbor, grabbed the #10 rank on the strength of its talent pool of social entrepreneurs and non-profit sector.
Fordham is unabashedly pro-charter and pro-choice, and its metrics reflect its view that outside forces — groups like Teach for America, New Leaders for New Schools, reform-oriented foundations and activist mayors – are needed to bust through the status quo to create the climate for energetic and strong-willed superintendents to thrive.
So it’s no surprise that post-Katrina New Orleans, with a flood of charters and philanthropies supporting Supt. Paul Vallas, ranked No. 1; Washington, D.C., where Supt. Michelle Rhee has fired low-performing teachers and forced through a performance-based pay system, ranked No. 2; and New York, where Chancellor Joel Klein, with support of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has attracted outside talent and money.
It’s also no surprise that urban districts with powerful teachers unions fared lower on the Fordham scale than weaker or more collaborative unions.
Co-author Rick Hess, director of policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, examined a half-dozen areas that he and Fordham considered essential to creating a reform-oriented “ecosystem”:
- Access to human talent;
- Access to ample public and private funding;
- Support or charter schools;
- Quality controls, including strong use of data systems and willingness to close bad charter schools;
- Openness to nontraditional providers;
- Constructive involvement at the mayoral and municipal level: support of mayors like Michael Bloomberg, Adrian Fenty in Washington and, to an extent, Antonio Villaraigosa in Los Angeles.
But Fordham also issues “one fat caveat”: Some of the data it collected was “fragile;” it relied on national surveys, such as studies of charter school climate, impressions of national groups working in urban areas, and interviews of “on-the-ground insiders.” In some cases, the surveys and information were incomplete – as was the case with San Jose. Four of the 30 cities surveys (largest 25 plus five more with a reputation for innovation) had no rankings because of insufficient info.
That said, here’s a summary of the rationales behind the Fordham rankings of the four cities in California. In an interview, Hess acknowledged that California’s budget crisis, with its low per pupil spending, its dysfunctional statewide data base and its rigid laws on teacher tenure and standard collective bargaining agreements, dampened the ability to effect local change. But there were clear distinctions among the four.
If any California city deserved its poor ranking, it’s San Diego, where San Diego Unified, the state’s second largest district, has gone through a series of superintendents since Alan Bersin was forced out five years ago. The last, Terry Grier left for Houston, to his great relief, after running into resistance when trying to implement a value-added method for evaluating teachers and principles (also the current source of tension in Los Angeles). The teachers union, which exerts a heavy influence on the school board, has been hostile to change. The district steered clear of participating in Race to the Top. As in the other three California districts, “A highly restrictive collective bargaining agreement protects the jobs of ineffective veteran teachers at the expense of fresh talent.” With such rancor on the board, the mayor’s office and business community has largely steered clear of involvement, according to Fordham.
I’m not being a homer when I say that San Jose got somewhat of a bad rap. San Jose Unified, the focus of the study as the largest district in the city, is a traditional, largely unimaginative district of 30,00. With one exception, it’s been anti-charter, though the Santa Clara County Office of Education has compensated for this by approving most charters in the county on appeal. But San Jose Unified was dinged for the wrong reasons. Because San Jose has 19 school districts, large philanthropies like Gates and Broad have dismissed San Jose as too fractured to warrant investment, and San Jose’s mayors have tread lightly as well rather than become entangled in 19 kingdoms.
But San Jose Unified does deserve credit, too, as the first district in California to adopt A-G requirements for admission to a four-year university as its default curriculum, and its data system is effective. It’s also poured substantial resources into its low-income schools and used a low-key partnership with Partners for School Innovation with good results. The teachers union is more collaborative than most, though the contract remains an impediment to drawing effective teachers to low-performing schools. Fordham is right overall: The spirit of the Valley has not permeated the district.
It’s hard for reformers to make a visible dent in the nation’s second largest school district. But not for want of trying, at least lately. The report gives short shrift to Supt. Ramon Cortines’ Public School Choice program, now in its second round, which opens new and low-performing schools to charters and outside operators, as well as teams of reform teachers.
And Villaraigosa, though rebuffed in his attempt to take control of district schools, still operates 10 of them, and is pressuring Cortines to make the school choice program more accountable. Los Angeles is the largest authorizer of charters in the state; they comprise 9 percent of the districts students.
But the leadership of Untied Teachers Los Angeles has been poison to change, and LAUSD’s structural inertia and “bureaucratic tendencies” can wear out the most indefatigable leaders. It’s like swimming through Jello.
San Francisco has the lowest per-pupil expenditures, adjusted for local cost of living, of any of the urban districts in the study. Were it not for the money shortage, a culture in San Francisco Unified “aloof to smart problem-solvers,” an ambivalent mayor and a still powerful teachers union averse to charter schools, alternative certification and pay for performance, city might rank higher.
The report praised the district’s selective approach in approving charter schools and its efforts to make the low-performing charters better. What the city does have is a lot of “the young and talented.” The charter group KIPP is based there, and Teach for America has its regional center in the city. Among organizations and philanthropies based there: Irvine, Stuart and Koret foundation and the Full Circle Fund.
The report concluded: “Though the district lacks a sense of urgency towards reform—and the funds to adequately support reform—entrepreneurs venturing to San Francisco will find external supports and lots of talent.”