Dec. 31 2003 12:00 AM

PULLING THE ACCOUNTABILITY PLUGAfter mixed reviews, school district jettisons Blueprint e


    In 2000, the San Diego Unified School District contracted with the American Institutes for Research (AIR), to do a three-year study of the district's Blueprint for Student Success. After two evaluations of the ambitious education-reform program-neither of them glowing-on July 22 the district's Board of Education voted to cut the AIR contract short. The vote was split down the usual line: the "pro-Blueprint" majority of Ron Ottinger, Ed Lopez and Katherine Nakamura opted to ax the AIR contract. Perennial Blueprint skeptics Fran Zimmerman and John de Beck thought AIR was, so far, doing a fine job. The research nonprofit was to submit its final report in March 2004.

    Perhaps the three board members felt they had heard enough from AIR. AIR's team of researchers, on the other hand, felt their analysis had barely scratched the Blueprint's surface. But in tough budget times-each 100-something-page report cost $300,000-something's gotta go.

    While the report notes gains in literacy skills among elementary students and English learners, it also found that only one-third of elementary schools and less than one-tenth of middle and high schools were making full use of Blueprint curriculum. Of the 2,440 teachers surveyed, only 51 percent even bothered to respond, making a comprehensive study difficult. Non-cooperation to that extent is a shame, but it's also a form of protest-the report shows that of the teachers who did manage to complete the survey, an overwhelming number said they are neither respected nor supported by the school district.

    An ostensible thumbs-down by the people who're supposed to be steering the ship (to expand the sailing metaphor, we'll call district leadership the map makers) renders the extraordinarily costly reform program-well over $300 million so far-practically useless.

    Standardized test scores this year, however, nudged up after remaining relatively stagnant last year. Two weeks ago, Superintendent Alan Bersin softened a difficult budget discussion (the district is $90 million or so short of necessary funds for the coming year; in 2003 it managed to wriggle out of a $147 million deficit) with what was essentially a state-of-the-district address.

    This year, Bersin noted, racial and socioeconomic subgroups met performance expectations set by the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act, which says students at failing schools are free to transfer to a school of their choice-public, private or charter-with districts footing the bill for transportation. To many, NCLB is more of a threat than a reform, prompting fear that there'll be a mass exodus from public and inner-city schools. Test scores show that, barring a miracle, many of those schools are years away from seeing an academically proficient student body. A sad reality indeed.

    Based on AIR's findings, it's impossible to pin down whether sparse yet effective Blueprint implementation should be credited for test-score gains or whether teachers instinctively doing what they think is best for students is the reason for the district's decent showing on the last round of standardized tests. The back patting, however, should be kept to a minimum because performance in the district's high schools remains pathetic-a fact that's getting short shrift while the district boasts the younger lot's improvement.

    Here's a sad picture: As of spring of 2003, only one third of the district's ninth, 10th and 11th graders scored "proficient" or better in English. Only 6 percent of 11th graders are proficient in algebra-a course necessary to get into college. Well over a third of that same grade level failed basic math. Other subjects-history, sciences-didn't see stellar results either. When it comes to the education of the district's 35,000 high school students, something ain't right.

    AIR concluded this year's report looking forward to future collaboration, unaware that they'd shortly be given the boot: "School reform in San Diego is at a crossroads and its leaders will want ongoing information to assess whether or how well the Blueprint is meeting its objectives and to make well-grounded decisions about its future. We believe this report can contribute to these efforts."

    At the July 22 meeting where AIR's contract was terminated, three of the board members tossed around the idea of having future Blueprint evaluations conducted in-house.

    See it for yourself. AIR's July 2003 report is at www.air.org/publications/publications-set.htm. You can find links to 2003 test scores at star.cde.ca.gov/star2003.

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