Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Were teachers and principals given enough credit?

I received a thoughtful letter from a SFUSD parent. I asked him if I could run the letter on the SF K Files because I think he brings up some interesting issues about the recent San Francisco magazine article on public schools and I think his thoughts will spark some discussions.

Hi Kate,

I think your blog has helped, enlighten and informed many parents. I would have liked to read someone else's trials and tribulations when my daughter was entering kindergarten. Your top schools list is heavily weighted towards schools that have a lot of parental support or are under a special program due to their previous poor scores. I feel you have over looked many other schools.

I give you one prime example in Ulloa elementary. Ulloa is very close to Sunset elementary. Both schools draw from the sunset area.

Ulloa earned an 10-10 API score! Over the last 6 years Ulloa has steadily raised it's scores to the level of consistently reaching the upper 800's even over 900.

This was done through hard work by the teachers and support staff. The PTA has always been actively involved with helping the school. But, not focused on trying to make money for the school. Because of this, it is the staff that deserves the credit for turning around the school. As it should be. When reading your article it seems to imply that the parents are responsible for theses schools turn around and not the teachers.

What makes Ulloa such a great school? Well if you had done better research, you would have the facts.

If any parent wants to see a great elementary school doing the best they can with so little, then visit Ulloa.




  1. I think most people assume that the staff and principal and teachers are doing the best they can and should be (since they are paid).

    We focus on parental involvement because that is, well, in a way, its all volunteer effort.

    What perhaps often gets overlooked by society in general is the extra time and effort that so many staff and teachers principals put in above and beyond. Most parents I think recognize these efforts and give thanks accordingly, and maybe even volunteer precisely because they see how overwhelmed the school staff/teachers etc are.

  2. I think this is an interesting point. But I read the SF magazine article a little differently. I saw it as something that was trying to connect with parents who are looking for schools for their kids in the city. A story about all the good things teachers are doing would be great and I wish teachers got more coverage in the media--but I think that's a different story and might not connect with these frenzied parents quite as much. Also, the magazine definitely is going for a specific demographic--that's just what it is. It's a demographic that has in many ways abandoned our public schools and that's a shame. Since the passing of Prop 13, we need all the help and support we can get and if we can bring more middle class families into these schools and they're willing to offer up donations of money and time, we need to greet them with open arms. We ALL need to be in this together. And I think it's the Miraloma principal who said that a good public school needs three things: strong principal, teachers, and parents. It's really great if you can have all three. The PTA doesn't necessarily have to be solely focused on raising money. There are lots of other ways to help. But no doubt a PTA that raises money can help--this will be especially important when we're hit with budget cuts. That PTA money will no longer go to fund art programs--rather it will help pay for the basics.

  3. I agree with one of the comments in the original post -- this blog and PPS needs to be careful about the extent to which it builds up specific so-called up-and-coming schools. My kids go to a up-and-coming school that, like Ulloa, has been ignored by this blog. And just like the contrast between Ulloa (ignored) and Sunset Elementary (trumpeted a lot), we've found that prospective parents are lured to those schools that are trumpeted on this blog at the expense of equally good schools like my kids that are not. The result is really not good, and not what I know Kate intends.

  4. And yet you still don't tell us what your school is? I agree that the blog seems to focus on some schools more than others and in particular there is not much discussion of say Richmond district schools, so speak up for your school.

  5. Elizabeth (who has yet to write a review!)January 8, 2009 at 1:20 PM

    Yes, it's a three-way collaboration that makes schools work - parents, teachers, and principals. And, I have to say that I am uncomfortable with the list that was in the SF mag article. The schools we toured were not listed therein, but there were so many astounding things about each of them. For example, the principal at Francis Scott Key lives across the street from the school. He teaches an after-school class. He's out in the schoolyard during recess and all of the kids expect him to play with them. He has really put so much into a completely under the radar school. That said, it is a relatively modest school; the PTA raises approximately $24k. Yet there's new-ish playground equipment and a great spirit pervading throughout. I'm sure the fact that it is way west is a dealbreaker for a lot of people.

    A principal at another under the radar school that we toured said that they don't raise much through the PTA either (I believe the figure is $30k or 35k), but there is so much parent dedication and invovlement that it helps make up for some of the lack of funds. The teachers I met were wonderful, and you can tell that the kids love them, at all grade levels. This school is also not on the SF Magazine list.

    Point being, there are many fantastic schools out there beyond whatever's hyped up. I turned in my daughter's application form today and feel pretty good that we'll get a school that we'll love because it was hard to narrow the choices to seven.

  6. Elizabeth (who has yet to write a review!)January 8, 2009 at 1:22 PM

    I neglected to mention that Robert Louis Stevenson is the second school I mention in my original post.

  7. True, only 57 people listed Ulloa as their first choice, for regular ed, 25 for Chinese-bilingual. Probably really easy to get in.
    I guess some people do not want to send their kids to schools that have a population that is 64% Chinese, like Ulloa and Stevenson.

  8. Looking at the posts above, it seems to me that Kate and this blog should be working at getting "visits" posted on here of a lot of other schools like the schools mentioned above. I'm sure others here would want to add ones too. I think it is time we expand the range of information offered to parents more.

  9. I agree with 11:28 - SF Magazine definitely targets a specific demographic or wanna be demographic. That said, even that demographic is not a homogeneous group and schools have to work for our many different families. I've used this blog to help sort out my thoughts about schools and the lottery/request process. Have I been influenced by what others put out here? Yes. In the end my list is not filled with the most hyped or popular or "up and coming" schools. I'm put off by a hyperactive, super fundraising PTA. Maybe in time we can get to a point where we look past our particular child and our school and see the district overall and begin to contribute to some of the schools that have fewer $$ and fewer active parents.

  10. Perhaps PPS could get parent ambassadors from each school to write something about their schools and the comments from others, including reviews, could go under each school's heading? Sort of like great schools, but with the ability to have a discussion about the schools, and have questions answered.

  11. This poster highlights one thing I agree with. It's dogma at PPS and among many schools and parents that "parent involvement" is essential for a successful school. It can certainly help a lot, but there can be wonderful schools that aren't that dependent on parents. I can think of many examples now, but it was the rule back when I went to school. Also, there are many negatives associated with high parent involvement schools, such as helicopter parents, corruption (choice of teacher and other perks going to kids of certain involved parents), pressure on parents and teachers, and overly dependent kids. Fortunately, by 4th grade or so, most of the kids really don't want their parents around.
    Maybe many parents on this blog just want to be involved, and that's fine. But personally I don't think it's what I would look for in a good school.

  12. I don't think it's fair for people to complain about the K Files not covering specific schools. Kate has again and again invited people to volunteer for guest blogs. She asked so many times for parents to write up reviews. And I have found that any time I send her an email and ask her to post something, she does it. Instead of complaining, do something. I'm sure she'd post a write-up of your school. The schools that got lots of coverage on this site did quite a bit to recruit Kate. At Flynn, they were constantly posting to invite her to visit our school. They used this site as a way to promote themselves. If you want to get your name out, then start posting in the comments. Kate doesn't really sayu much in her posts anymore. From what I have observed, the content seems to be completely driven by the visitors. She's done touring schools.

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. Out of curiosity, what were the schools listed in SF Magazine? I have been too lazy to go get it.

  15. are you too lazy to click on the link

  16. Re schools listed in SF Mag article, 2nd comment here:

  17. Damn technology:

    (schools listed with SF Mag article)

  18. Ulloa is not very diverse:

    African American: 2%
    Asian: 71.29%
    White 8.98%
    Latino: 5%

    Plus, the SARC lists 43% as English learners!

    Are all SF schools like this?

  19. Lorraine here (formerly of PPS):
    I agree that there were many schools that are excellent, and ones that PPS has actively promoted over the past several years (like FS Key, RL Stevenson and Ulloa) that were left out of the SF Mag list (sadly). The writer generated the list and those consulted via fact check but we didn't generate a list. We did give them examples of great things happening (or got them in contact with active PPS Parent Ambassadors that had been working with us on enrollment events.

    While no list or summary will ever do justice to our schools, I agree with some of the statements here that this article was trying to let a certain subgroup of parents in SF - many of whom in past years wouldn't consider public schools - know that there has been some exciting changes afoot and to go out and take a look for your self.

    Regarding the comment on parent involvement dogma of PPS and others: It isn't an opinion but a fact that parental involvement in schools and in a child's education boost academic performance. There is tons out there, but one might start with this Harvard link:

    A final fact: Research shows that the biggest factor that a school district has control over to achieve academic results is a quality teacher.

    However, the biggest overall factor is parents (socioeconomic, education, involvement, etc.)

    That's why the teacher focus (discussed elsewhere in SFKFiles) isn't teacher bashing - it's addressing best practices based on research.

    And schools and districts that find ways to engage parents - ALL parents - in schools as partners in their children's education - get better results.

    Finally, the list struck me very differently. When I was applying for kindergarten with our son (now in 6th grade) we only considered 3 of the listed 27 schools. We got 'stuck' with Miraloma, and, well, that changed everything (and my career, for one.)

    Today, I wouldn't hesitate to send my child to any of those listed - and I'd definitely add FS Key, RL Stevenson and Ulloa to that list!

  20. Focusing on quality teachers isn't inherently teacher-bashing -- of course quality teachers make a huge difference. But it is twisted into teacher-bashing in so many cases -- it's all teachers' fault if children who face overwhelming obstacles in life don't become high-achieving joyful learners. Michelle Rhee's strategy in D.C. schools is currently the highest-profile example.

  21. I agree Michelle Rhee's strategy seems extreme and wouldn't be the way I would do it - that's why I like Arne Duncan for Obama's pick for Secty or Ed. He strikes a balance between two extreme's in the education reform arena (although, I think that the press made it look like Linda Darling-Hammond was on one 'side' and Joel Klein on the 'other' - when both are not extremists and have experience creating serious reform.)

    But just as in any organization, you can safely figure that AT LEAST 10% aren't top performers and either need help or counseling out. Teachers are no exception.

    That said, I feel that at one of my kids schools, we have over 90% I'd rate excellent (and the teachers say so about each other, too). But at my other child's middle school, even the teachers tell me that they think they have a sizable minority that need help or to change professions (most suggest the latter.)

    I've found most teachers, when in a safe environment, have pretty clear vision and will be honest about who among their peers is solid and who is not. From a parent perspective, I usually agree.

    But again, it is proven (see the SF Ed Fund research) that quality teaching is the biggest factor a school district has control over to affect academic outcomes. Teachers need support, guidance, to be treated with respect (oh, and $$$!) but just like principals, and central office staff, also need to be held accountable.

    I'm not advocating anything extreme - but it isn't teacher bashing to state all this.

  22. The other issue about those who DO twist this point into teacher-bashing (I don't mean Lorraine) is that it all becomes part of a general contempt for teachers that helps fuel the widespread public/media contempt for public education.

    (Private school teachers seem to be exempted from this public contempt -- though it's ironic, because one outspokenly anti-public-education right-winger I know clearly is battling demons from his military-school education -- which was private, obviously.)

    Then the widespread contempt for public education helps lead to its underfunding, which helps lead to inadequate pay for teachers, which makes it harder to get good teachers. So it's a delicate situation, which is why talk of how it's all about the teachers makes me wary.

  23. Caroline, I do take your point, and actually my personal experience is that my kids' teachers have ranged from good to stellar; no bad apples, though I know they are out there. I actually tear up thinking of the work and dedication and love that these hard-working teachers have invested in my children and their classmates, and all for not-so-great pay either.

    Seems like there is a growing constellation of forces that wants to push for reforms across the ideological divide--that is, reforms that *include* the teachers' unions at the table and refrain from teacher-bashing per se. It seems obvious, but reforms of teacher "tenure" and the institution of certain quality requirements, master teaching education, and so forth would be a lot more palatable if our teachers were paid as professionals and not as if they are nuns supported by the church or moms supported by their husbands--glorified community volunteers, you know? It's not only pay, it's also dignity.

    Look how the UESF agreed to the reforms in Prop A, in return for important pay increases.

    Hoping for some progress in this administration. That and federal support for education (stimulus package AND investment in our future!).

  24. To Jan 8, 09, 7:29 pm,

    I, unlike you, apparently, do not spend countless hours on this blog. I have not read each and every single post, nor do I intend to. I did not realize that the list had been previously posted.

    Thank you, Caroline, for posting the link... which I was not too lazy to click on.

  25. Parent involvement of the middle class variety usually results in increases in the number of middle class families enrolling.

    It doesn't change the quality of the teaching or the administration.

  26. true.
    And actually it doesn't matter whether the parents are middle class, rich, poor etc.. seems the common denominator for increasing the quality level of school is that there is a culture that values education.

    Just so happens, most middle class, educated parents value education, expect their children to do well, expect their children to go to school and learn and expect their children to respect the teachers and staff. On the flip side, these same people have an eye for incompetence and will push the teacher/administration to do better.

    Now of course, rich folks have an advantage if the school sucks or kids not doing well... they can just throw money at hiring tutors etc.

    Poor folks -- they can value education just as much as middle class and have same expectations etc.

    So you are right, being middle class is not necessarily the driving factor.

  27. "Well if you had done better research, you would have the facts."

    Jeez. How smug. Kate isn't required to make sure all schools get reviewed, nor has she ever claimed to be "researching" any school for anybody but herself.

  28. And Kate also didn't ask to be featured in some magazine.

    Interestingly, I bet most of the parents who live in that area probably like having the school so under the radar! I'd personally be p**** if I have a 2 year old and 3 years from now the school is wildly popular because some blogger featured it and parents from all over the city clamor to get in!

    Perverse in a way, but when you have a gem school within walking distance to your home, you want to keep it that way.

  29. This is Meredith - I wrote a few of the school tours that Kate posted. I toured others that she did not post because she had already covered them. I may have one more tour to write up (for my own notes) of Starr King, and if Kate wishes she can add this to the list.

    When I started this process a sage friend whose younger child attends pre-school with my daughter recommended that we circle our home and other points of interest (work, pre-school/school of other children) and then make our initial list of schools based on the logistics. For me (I live in Sunset) there were many good choices that didn't take me too far off that path.

    I have heard great things about Ulloa and RL Stevensen both of which I did not tour, frankly because the logistics just seemed impossible. Neither is an early start school and the idea of driving further from my office before heading downtown was just more than I could add to an already hectic schedule. I'm barely at my desk the requisite 8 hours a day as it is.

    I think immersion schools and those with a truly alternative program may be a different story and anyone willing to make that a priority will follow it anywhere in the city. Hence Starr King, the only school out of my beaten path, because Mandarin is my family heritage and it's intriguing as a language choice.

    Otherwise, to me, where a school is located matters, not the demographics.

    Also, in making our final list, I would say that the thing that made the biggest difference in our final list was the principal. Those we loved put those schools at the top of the list. Great schools with weak principals ended up lower. I know some folks have cautioned this strategy because principals can come and go, but it definitely impacted the final impression of the schools I toured.

    Thanks, again, Kate, for creating this community - warts and all.