This week’s education column was written by Chris Stampolis, a West Valley-Mission Community College trustee. — Editor
Thank you to Joseph DiSalvo for inviting me to author this week’s column. I appreciate the opportunity to share some thoughts about public education in Santa Clara County.
Next Tuesday, Jan. 31, is the deadline to apply to be hired as Santa Clara County Superintendent of Schools. This new leader must have courage to identify and publicize real solutions to our county’s ethnic and socioeconomic gaps in math and English student proficiency and to support those solutions with verifiable data.
Last week’s SJ2020 Algebra awards revealed that many staff members at the county office are concerned more with agency politics than with diligence and student achievement. The bureaucracy was the big winner when retiring Superintendent Dr. Charles Weis wrote, “No algebraic equations or even complicated process was used to identify the recognized schools.”
Even after county staff learned of significant miscalculations, leaders of several low-performing middle schools were rewarded with certificates, applause and photos with Dr. Weis and San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed. These schools now have their self-submitted best practices publicized on the county website as equal with actual achievers, regardless of statistical Latino student achievement. This silliness should stop. The community should not spend public money to emulate low proficiency.
So why does the Santa Clara County Office of Education (SCCOE) now encourage the study of four middle schools that have less than 15 percent of 8th grade Algebra proficiency for Latino students?
When reviewing student success, one can analyze the performance of all 8th grade students or just those who are enrolled in Algebra 1. Notes from the SJ2020 steering committee meeting of Sept. 15, 2011, show the decided metric was to be completion of Algebra 1 by the end of 8th grade. However, when running the numbers, staff neglected to include the 60 percent of local Latino 8th graders enrolled in General Math, a level below Algebra 1. At several awardee schools, even lower percentages of Latino students are enrolled in Algebra 1 and test results for those in General Math are poor.
Staff instead reviewed a subset of data and announced awards without discussing the issue with the elected Board of Education. Then, after realizing they goofed, staff members not only refused to correct the error but also sent out multiple media releases seeking publicity. Top performing schools should be commended for best practices, such as extended class time and Saturday sessions. But the county website now treats all these schools equally—regardless of competency.
The response from Superintendent Weis? “These scores do not reflect the total population of students in 8th grade and may well be a restricted and selective sample,” he said.
In 2011, 47.8 percent of Santa Clara County’s public school 8th graders demonstrated Algebra 1 proficiency, but with wide ethnic gaps:
20.4% of Latino students; 23.6% of African-American students; 55.6% of “white” students; 78.0% of Asian-heritage students (including just shy of 90% Algebra 1 proficiency among Chinese-heritage students).
When one uses overall numbers— as should have been done to start— the awarded middle schools show a startling range of Latino student proficiency for Algebra 1 in the 8th grade. Several other schools would have been included in top rankings, such as Rolling Hills, Renaissance, James Fisher and ACE Charter. Cheer some below, but not all:
KIPP Heartwood: 86.9%
River Glen: 56.0%
Luther Burbank: 35.1%
South Valley: 35.0%
Quimby Oak: 15.3%
The first priority to build community trust must be that public school administrators honestly and transparently share data about student proficiency. More so, when someone makes a calculation error, don’t sweep it under a flurry of media releases and knowingly deceptive happy talk.
To close the achievement gap, first we must close the trust gap. The community should expect county superintendent applicants to discuss this kerfuffle honestly with the hiring board over the coming weeks.
Chris Stampolis, parent of two elementary age sons, serves as an elected member of the West Valley-Mission Community College District Board of Trustees and as a California representative on the Democratic National Committee.