Lessons from San Francisco

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San Francisco’s school district blazed a trail in 1984 when it transferred staff from four failing schools. Fifteen years and 17 reconstituted schools later, San Francisco has learned a few hard lessons. Reconstitution, they say, is no magic bullet. Process counts. Results take time. As part of a court-ordered desegregation plan, San Francisco had to reconstitute four schools and open two more in a minority, low-income corner of the city.

To prepare for this, a district team spent six months planning curriculum and school organization. A district administrator scoured the city for talented, veteran teachers to fill soon-to-be-vacant positions.

“It wasn’t like the schools opened the next year and were perfect, or that they’re perfect now,” says teacher union president Kent Mitchell. “But the concentration of energy and effort and intelligence did bring about some measurable improvement.”

Student achievement at those six schools outdis-tanced that at other schools that received extra funding but no new faculty. The court deemed reconstitution a success and in 1993 ordered a second round.

To avoid disrupting schools mid-year, the district decided it wouldn’t select schools for reconstitution until June. But that left them with less time to plan. Many new hires were rookies, as veteran teachers already had lined up jobs.

“For at least half of the 10 schools reconstituted since 1993, we have an incredibly inexperienced staff thrown together with an inexperienced principal, and they’re expected to turn the school around with very little support,” says Mitchell.

Now, as in Chicago, the schools superintendent has put reconstitution on hold and negotiated some less drastic interventions with the teachers union.

The report on whether reconstitution since 1993 has raised student achievement is not yet public. Gary Orfield, a Harvard University professor appointed by the court to oversee the desegregation plan, cautions that it may be too early to judge some schools. Even those reconstituted in 1984 didn’t show a clear pattern of gains for four years.

Reconstitution isn’t about clearing out bad teachers, he explains, it’s about creating a new school culture with a common vision and a plan for tackling the problems that “burnt out or overwhelmed” the last group. “Not just the faculty, but the community has to go through a very tough change,” Orfield notes. “All the relationships have to be rebuilt.”

“Any fundamental reform like this is likely to be disruptive in the short run,” he says. “You have to see it as a long-term process.”