School board looks dumber, acts smarter

Debra J. Saunders

10/30/2000 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders
The San Francisco Board of Education voted this week to withdraw tough graduation requirements adopted in 1997 -- the class of 2000 was to have been the first class to graduate under these standards. No doubt, many readers learned about the vote and assumed the board was walking the well-worn path of dumbing down. Not this time, gentle reader. To the contrary, the board finally did something smart, honest and positive for students. Praise be to new Superintendent Arlene Ackerman for instigating this needed vote. Harken back to 1997 to the days when Bill Rojas was superintendent. The worst of Rojas' many bad practices was to promote so-called reforms that seemed rigorous and academic, but weren't. The gullible board gushed over his every scam, and so board members went for his wave-a-magic-wand approach to school reform. The plan was to raise San Francisco high school graduation requirements to match admission standards for the University of California. The board decreed that graduates would need three years of college-prep math instead of two years of math, three years of science instead of two, and three years of foreign language instead of one. The board was not deterred by the sad result that students would be less able to take beloved elective courses, even though such courses often are an academic lifeline for some students. The episode would be high comedy if it didn't cause so much real pain. A district can't require all high school graduates to meet criteria for a college system that admits the top 12.5 percent of graduates. "If the school board had listened to the teachers to begin with, they wouldn't be in this big mess right now," science teacher Jonathan Frank observed this week. In 1997, Frank and other Lincoln High School teachers signed a petition that warned the board that the new policy would lead to pressure for teachers to dumb down the required classes and grade inflation as teachers might be tempted to pass students who handed in F work. Let me add: "I told you so." This column warned against the phony Rojas reform in 1997, too, but board members pooh-poohed our warnings, so enamored were they of their high-mindedness. Or as Frank put it, "It allowed him to dump everything on teachers. If only teachers would have high expectations, then we wouldn't have this problem." In fact, district solons were so taken with the appeal of their higher expectations, they didn't even bother to lay the groundwork -- sufficient courses and tutoring -- to support their program. As one senior told the board, "In my sophomore year, they didn't give me any science at all." "We didn't provide the sources," board member Jill Wynns admitted. Oops. The board forgot. Look at the result. Because some schools didn't have enough required courses, many students took night courses. Other students took courses for which their earlier years of schooling had not prepared them. If the board didn't rescind this cruel policy, 1,120 students who met the old requirements -- you know, the ones for high school graduation, not college admission -- would not have graduated. Where teachers resisted the temptation to inflate grades, that was hardly pleasant either. "The flunk rate is going up tremendously," said Frank. "I really feel sorry for the kids. I have really nice kids this year. It's not their fault." Right, it's the fault of a school board that cared more about looking good than paving the careful way for student success. Students paid for the board's folly with their time, their anguish, with hours spent in classes they didn't understand, with the loss of classes that could have taught them something, and for some, with a taste of undeserved failure.