V. Ongoing Challenges
Despite significant progress for SDUSD in recent years, some obstacles beyond financial stability remain that will impact the ability of the district to fulfill its mission of meaningful learning and graduation for all students. Those obstacles are explained further below with examples from interviewees in the areas of changing mindsets, school site implementation and redefining mastery. District leadership is aware of these challenges and proactively pursuing solutions from the central office and at the school site level.
A. Changing Mindsets
The urgency for changing adult mindsets is a theme that was repeated frequently in interviews with central office leadership, local area superintendents, principals, teachers and students. The bias of some educators continues to have a negative impact on student learning at many schools (Peterson et al., 2016). SDUSD is grappling with how to help educators recognize when low expectations for students are present and how to address those perceptions about students in a productive way. A paradigm shift is needed from a teaching-centered process (i.e., what students learn, how they learn and how it is measured) to what Reynolds (2005)calls a learning-centered process that focuses on the individual learner and their learning process. Area Superintendent Sofia Freire knows how low expectations for youth can stifle learning for all students, especially English Language Learners and special education students.
A major barrier has been adult beliefs about what is possible for each student—specifically whether or not they are capable of a meaningful graduation. Many of the systems we have had to unravel have been the result of adults sorting students into paths based on beliefs about what these students can and cannot do. Most of the students affected by this are our English Learners and special education students. The most astonishing thing has been that the greatest gatekeepers in terms of belief have been our secondary counselors.
An unanticipated challenge to school-level detracking and improving college readiness has been pushback from parents questioning whether their children can handle more demanding coursework. As one principal shared, it reminded her of the profound ways youth are affected by expectations both inside and outside the classroom environment. Parents and families can reinforce misplaced low expectations or question the capabilities of students, often based on their own experiences in school settings. In fact, low expectations can span across generations, something SDUSD has encountered. Families’ fear of not having the right tools to adequately support the success of their children may be the underlying issue, not low family expectations. This may necessitate a more systematic approach to establishing greater trust between schools and families. The need is greatest for school sites where existing ties between caretakers and school leadership are not as strong. For example, individual school leaders may have shown an extraordinary ability to work closely with families, but , those leadership skills aren’t consistent across the district. More deliberate training and capacity building will be needed to address some of the concerns surrounding parents trying to navigate a challenging and appropriate course load.
B. School Site Implementation
Marshall Middle School Principal Michelle Irwin explained earlier in the case study the inherent challenges in moving from a tracking, proficiency, and factory school model to a detracking, student mastery system. SDUSD has over 200 educational sites like Marshall Middle School. That means that each school site in the district is undergoing its own type of transformation. There’s no way the district can be intimately involved in each school’s reform process, regardless of the new structures the central office has put in place. Each school site has a great deal of autonomy that must be matched with strong leadership to support rigorous and college ready course offerings.
Each of the district’s 16 comprehensive high schools and seven alternative sites still face an uphill battle to implement the district’s ambitious detracking mission. That’s because high schools mirror the old learning structures that have historically sorted, but not educated students well. In addition to dealing with outdated organizational structures, local school-site leadership teams often have to juggle competing priorities that can make it difficult to focus on what matters most in schools (i.e., teaching and learning).
These competing priorities can include data reporting for the districts, state and federal government; budget decisions; personnel issues; or unexpected matters with students or parents. One administrator shared their struggle to stay focused. The district will have to continue to reconsider which tasks are essential and which are less critical to meet the district’s goals.
Whether it’s teacher contracts, whether it’s fear of talking to our supervisor, not having that network of support, of having so much thrown at our plate, that gets in the way of executing and implementing all the ideal states.
C. Redefining Mastery for SDUSD
SDUSD’s focus on mastery also requires stronger classroom connections with students in order to appropriately gauge whether students are understanding content, whether they can apply new content, or whether they are merely being complacent based on course requirements and expectations. Some of this is already happening in many SDUSD sites where Career Pathways and Courses representing 15 industry sectors are receiving priority. In these settings, students are asked to apply academic and workplace skills and knowledge in an integrated fashion for careers including engineering,design, and education, child development and family services. In those courses, progress towards mastery is not just a hypothetical situation. Students can determine on their own whether they feel prepared to apply new knowledge in a workplace setting.
A student mastery learning vision for SDUSD will likely take many years before it becomes replicated across all 200 school sites and impacts the 100,000-plus students the district serves. However, the right conditions are in place to help SDUSD equip students with the right training to apply what they know in real-life settings, not just to recall classroom content. Grading practices present a unique opportunity to test out new thinking around student mastery. Marshall Principal Michelle Irwin shares how she is working with her team to look beyond compliance grading practices.
At Marshall, we really started changing compliance grading into grading for mastery. That has shifted a lot of mindsets. It has also upset parents from the students who have had great roots of “My child’s always been successful in Mathematics and English and so forth; what are you talking about, they’re not doing well?” Sometimes that’s because either parents are doing the work when homework is given and then they come to school with this beautiful piece of homework and they automatically get that 10 points or whatever. Then the student who doesn’t have the support at home comes to school and they get the zero and then that’s how it starts separating. Our teachers give homework and so forth, but it’s always optional.
Grading practices can also help uncover teacher bias and low expectations for low-income students of color. These forms of systemic racism can often represent a significant barrier to student mastery of content (Landsman, 2004). Rob Meza-Ehlert, Vice Principal at the School of Digital Media and Design at Kearny High School understands the complexities of grading for all educators and a certain social pressure that exists among teachers to pass kids, even if they are doing them a disservice. As he puts it, it gives kids a false sense of ability, not only because they’ve passed a class but, more importantly, they are ill-equipped to take the next step in their educational trajectory.
I think there are a lot of teachers in the district that think equity means going easy on kids, and I actually think that’s one of the worst things in terms of systemic racism. It’s passing kids who shouldn’t have passed, and that comes from my own experience as a young teacher at Lincoln.
I passed kids who couldn’t write a paragraph, because I felt so much social pressure from teachers. “They’re a senior; they’ve passed all our classes. I mean, look at how tough their life is. The fact that they made it to school today, it’s a miracle. D–.
I felt horrible doing that, because I knew I was sending that kid with a diploma into a situation where they didn’t have skills that matched the piece of paper. So I’m pretty passionate that if we’re going to say you passed with a C, you better have skills that are equivalent to that.
Because otherwise we’re just setting you up for a false sense of ability.
A mastery-based education model also requires deep professional expertise from teachers and, consequently, strong technical knowledge from the district. In the case of career pathways programs (a staple for the district), industry must be willing to roll up its sleeves to support district capacity building efforts. Few districts have been able to move to such a model, especially districts the size of San Diego. This doesn’t mean that SDUSD shouldn’t continue to push towards a competency model that better reflects the complex and dynamic world students will inherit. However, this underscores just how bold an agenda the district is undertaking to make mastery a goal for students of all learning levels.