first published in San Francisco Frontlines, October 2005

george washington

A detail of a sculpture by Sargent Johnson at George Washington H.S., San Francisco


by Matt Gonzalez

A FEW DAYS BEFORE HER September 6, 2005 public announcement that she intended to leave the school district, San Francisco Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman released state testing data suggesting San Francisco schools had made great strides in bridging the achievement gap under her leadership. The School District’s $210,000-per-year press office and Ackerman’s allies wasted no time embarking on a public campaign to spin her accomplishments, and portray her opponents as dilettantes who sought to promote their political interests at the expense of students’. It was the vindication Ackerman had been waiting for.

But most observers of this ongoing battle, failed to catch a story that was published with less fanfare. It repudiated the state figures Ackerman was basing her success on. Yet, curiously, the story didn’t mention Ackerman.  Why not?

On August 16, 2005, the San Francisco Chronicle first reported that state figures showed that “more public school students scored at grade level or above this year in English and math than at any time in the five-year history of the comprehensive California Standards Test.”   The story went on to announce that San Francisco students had performed above the state average, with noticeable increases from their 2001 performance.  Out of a possible 100%, 45% of students reportedly scored at grade level or above in English, and 46% in math.  Though a majority of students continued to fail to meet basic proficiency levels, the reports emphasized improvement. The Chronicle’s story also highlighted Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s “joy” as she announced how well San Francisco schools were doing.

Just 8 days later, however, in another San Franciso Chronicle story by Cicero Estrella, the newspaper admitted the original success reports had been misleading. Researchers at UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access, had reexamined the test data released and found “the state inflated the number of students who have passed proficiency tests in math and English.”  According to the lead UCLA researcher, adjunct education professor John Rogers, it became apparent that the state had not factored in “thousands of students who dropped out of school after first taking the tests in their sophomore year and those students who didn’t take the test for whatever reason last spring.”

Additionally, the state’s numbers related to the high school exit examination were deemed to be at least 10% inflated. Specifically, the report gave figures concerning the first group of high school seniors required to pass the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE) in order to receive a diploma. Students must receive at a minimum a 60% correct score in English and 44% in math in order to graduate.  Reanalyzing the data, taking into account the 40,000 “left out” students, drops the state-wide high school success rate on the CAHSEE from 88% to 80% in math and 81% in English. That means 20% of students will not graduate because they can’t meet basic levels of competency in the area of English and math.

Moreover, researchers noted the number of failing students could actually be higher since students must pass both exams to be deemed fit to graduate.

Incredulously, missing from this August 24th San Francisco Chronicle story was any mention of Superintendent Ackerman and her claim of having turned San Francisco schools around in her 5 year tenure.

Essentially, Ackerman was trying to take credit for a turnaround in student performance, but the data used was reminiscent of Enron’s creative accounting practices.  It turned out that the state of California, in an effort to show improvement in test scores, was simply eliminating the most difficult students from the equation. No wonder scores appeared to be improving.

In addition to learning the state numbers are flawed, data from the federal No Child Left Behind program show that San Francisco is one of four Bay Area districts that failed to meet its federal targets. Criticized widely for its unfunded mandate, the No Child Left Behind program nevertheless offers another method for ascertaining how students are performing under Ackerman. In fact, contrary to what Ackerman had previously claimed, African American and Latino students did not perform sufficiently well on their English tests according to the data collected. (see the State Department of Education’s site:

These findings are corroborated by the Federal District Court’s Consent Decree Monitor Stuart Biegel’s annual report.  The yearly reports are prepared pursuant to Federal Judge Alsup’s request to document progress, if any, within the school district as a result of lawsuits brought by the NAACP and other plaintiffs concerning desegregation issues. The Biegel report discusses many unresolved issues including the persisting achievement gap between African-American and Latino students and their Asian and Caucasian counterparts. Biegel also observed low achievement at certain chronically low performing schools.

What the report indicates is that, contrary to the wishes of her allies at the San Francisco Chronicle, no credible claim can be made that Superintendent Ackerman has improved performance at San Francisco schools.

Specifically, the Monitor’s report found that “segregation by program and classroom is widespread and pervasive in SFUSD” and concluded that these persistent problems contribute to low achievement in the SFUSD. Furthermore, Biegel found “the situation to be particularly egregious…especially for African American students.”

It summarizes: “Our past reports have documented three broad categories of within-school segregation: (1) the separation out of certain groups of English Learners (at certain schools, for basically the entire school day and the child’s entire elementary, middle school, and/or high school career), too often also leading to the separation out of other students, most typically African Americans, at many elementary schools; (2) the grouping of students in the higher grades on the basis of perceived ability, often resulting in a disproportionate number of African American and Latino students being placed in the ‘lower’ level classrooms; and (3) the disproportionate placement of students of color into separate special education classes (also known as ‘special day classes’).”

At one of the most desirable high schools in the district, Washington High, the Monitor found 42% of all the African American students were placed in special education.  This was surprising given “Washington continues to receive a very large amount of Consent Decree money, and it reportedly uses these funds to support these very advanced placement classes that contain such low enrollment numbers for students of color.”  As a result, Biegel noted only “13% of Washington’s African American students graduated UC/CSU eligible in June 2004.”

Ackerman recently announced she was “compelled” to leave the district and activate her platinum parachute, requiring the district pay her $375,000 in severance, even though she elected to quit her job.  Many have questioned why a lame-duck School Board agreed to this special severance package given the District’s financial problems.  Interestingly, this year alone, Ackerman has missed 7 of 15 School Board meeting (including two meetings the full Board met as a committee of the whole).

It appears Ackerman is not even doing her job, much less setting an example for students in the district who are notoriously prone to truancy.  A June 2003 Civil Grand Jury report condemned the district for not doing enough about students skipping school. Their own Superintendent, who is the official secretary of School Board business, apparently is not prone to attend either.

Perhaps if Ackerman had spent more time attending to the district’s deep educational paucity and racial inequities and less time touting her own unsubstantiated achievements, San Francisco’s youth would fare better – both on standardized tests and in their future scholastic and professional endeavors.

One comment

  1. Peter T. Weaver

    As a public school teacher of 35 years in SF, I can assure you that Ackerman was “attending to the district’s deep educational paucity and racial inequities.” I thought Ackerman performed fairly well in what is a very, very difficult job. I wish the Board or Ed and others had supported Ackerman while she was here. She had to spend a lot of time fighting off attacks like this one from people who, I believe, didn’t understand the complexities of running the SFUSD. I got the impression they resented her for being an outsider. That weird severance package deal was set up to encourage the Board members who were attacking her to lay off so she could get her job done. A lot of wonderful things were and are happening in SF public schools, but they go unreported. Want to see something great? Check out the “Spamalot” production at the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: