After my first 100 days as superintendent in the Sacramento City Unified School District, I remember thinking that if we were going to change a culture of “good is good enough” to one of “greatness” – which all children deserve – we would have to fundamentally do things differently as a district and community.
What if we did something radical and based every decision on what was best for children? What would change if our mantra was “Putting Children First”? What if more than just a catchy phrase, these words were used to deliberately and intentionally guide our actions? Would those of us in positions to make change have the commitment, competence, courage and compassion to actually put children first? And would this action survive changes in leadership?
You can imagine my shock and sadness at hearing the news of the district’s decision to abandon its hard-earned waiver from the failed and punitive No Child Left Behind law. Equally distressing is the lack of discourse over what our children will lose, and the lack of outrage, empathy and courage from those in a community whose sole focus should be on protecting and advocating for the best interests of children. By giving up the No Child Left Behind waiver, here is what the children of Sacramento will lose:
• Sacramento City Unified will lose flexibility over the use of $4 million to support our most disadvantaged students.
Roughly $4 million is wasted each year on ineffective supplemental education service providers – tutors approved by the state – who are not accountable to the district and over which Sacramento City Unified has no direct supervision. With the waiver, district schools and teachers could have used these dollars much more effectively to expand engaging after-school programs and offer summer experiences filled with civic and community engagement such as Summer of Service, and more.
Without the waiver Sacramento City Unified no longer has the flexibility to give these students what they need and deserve – and families should be outraged.
• Sacramento City Unified will lose the ability to remove the label of “failure” that No Child Left Behind attached to three-quarters of Sacramento schools.
NCLB labeled these schools failures because they did not reach every annual goal that the law set. But NCLB is a misguided and ineffective federal policy that labels students, schools and teachers based on unachievable and unrealistic goals. It doesn’t take into account children’s academic growth or other pertinent measures that demonstrate how greatly Sacramento City Unified schools have improved.
Without the waiver, the dark cloud of “failure” will once again cloak Sacramento schools.
• Sacramento City Unified will lose the ability to evaluate its schools using meaningful measures of success.
With the waiver, the district was part of the only accountability model in the country to use multiple measures to assess student success. This model asserts that a school’s performance should be judged on how well it is preparing children for college, career and life, something that the single measure of a test score can never do. This approach assesses critical factors such as school culture, climate and social and emotional learning. We began moving from “No Child” to the “Whole Child” by focusing on closing the achievement gap for disadvantaged students.
Without the waiver, this progress is lost, and test scores are the sole criterion by which Sacramento City Unified schools will be judged.
• Sacramento City Unified will lose its partnership with other large, urban school districts throughout California.
With the waiver, Sacramento City Unified was part of a network of districts with similar demographics and challenges. These districts shared ideas and best practices, learning from each other’s successes and failures. Sacramento’s Men’s Leadership Academy and the Sacramento Pathways to Success are a direct result of this cross-district learning.
Without the waiver, Sacramento will be excluded from the rich conversation among these districts and risk reinventing the wheel, when solutions already exist.
• Sacramento City Unified will lose the less tangible but equally valuable resource of being viewed as a district on the move, a thought leader in public education and an innovator in the region, state and nation.
With innovation and risk-taking come resources from business and philanthropy, because they want to support the future of public education – not the status quo. With innovation and risk-taking comes investment from businesses that choose to locate in Sacramento because of the reputation of its schools. Our schools should be seen as a vital asset to the community, not a deficit to be overcome.
Without the waiver, Sacramento will once again be seen as a place where caution replaces boldness and the status quo replaces innovation.
All this makes the district’s decision so heartbreaking. After all the collective progress on behalf of children, for adults to so quickly change course should not be overlooked or forgotten. “Putting Children First,” though just words, inspire thoughts that become actions, which should be Sacramento’s destiny.
Jonathan Raymond was superintendent of Sacramento City Unified schools from August 2009 to December 2013.