Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Sacramento’s teachers have won this battle

You might have missed it, but there was a sea change within the Sacramento City Unified School District last week.

Some call it a complete surrender by the district to the unrelenting tactics of the local teachers union. When district policy is announced at the teachers union hall, as it was last week, that point is hard to argue.

Time will tell whether the union won a single battle or a broader war over district control, but we know this: Efforts to link teacher performance to student test scores in Sacramento city schools have been abandoned for the near term.

One of President Barack Obama’s key goals for improving accountability and classroom performance simply was not happening within Sacramento city schools, which have emerged as a home base for teacher union power. Last year, the district joined with seven others in California in a consortium that pledged to find ways to improve education in failing schools – and, as part of that, to tie teacher evaluations to test scores. In exchange, the U.S. Department of Education granted the consortium the nation’s first district-level waivers from the punishing mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Officials with the Sacramento City Teachers Association say they opposed the consortium agreement because they were left out of the conversation on teacher accountability – but the truth is they didn’t want to have the conversation at all. They simply refused to engage in discussion on a range of issues central to moving the district forward until the accountability piece – “the antichrist,” as the current interim superintendent called it – was dropped from consideration.

Sara Noguchi, the interim superintendent, did just that on Wednesday – at SCTA headquarters. A photo of the event on the website of EdSource Today shows SCTA President Nikki Milevsky looking commanding while Patrick Kennedy, the school board president now running for county supervisor, stands awkwardly to one side with his hands in his pockets.

It stands to reason: Because of its waiver this school year, Sacramento City Unified gained autonomy in spending about $4 million in federal dollars to aid low-income students. Appeasing the union likely means losing control of the $4 million.

It also means Sacramento schools once again will be held to task by the standards of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind law. Under the law’s provisions, all but a handful of the district’s schools have been deemed failures for falling short of ever-rising math and English standards many call unrealistic.

But the union hated the idea of test scores factoring into teacher evaluations even more than it hated the law – and got its way. To some, last week’s announcement spoke volumes about the balance of power in the district.

“They own you and everybody knows they own you,” said Jonathan Raymond, the former Sac City superintendent who resigned last year after exhausting years of tussling with the union. “The only thing that bullies respect is when you stand up to them.”

It was Raymond who beat the union in court, allowing the district to sidestep teacher seniority rules at low-income campuses as a means of making sure nothing got in the way of putting strong teachers in struggling schools.

It was Raymond who embraced closing the achievement gap and who made real progress on several fronts in his four years at the helm. School suspensions dropped across the board. The dropout rate fell from 23.2 percent in 2010 to 11.5 percent in 2012. The Latino dropout rate fell from 27.8 percent to 13.9 percent. And for African Americans, from 37.1 percent to 15.5 percent.

It was Raymond who pushed for the consortium and the waiver from No Child Left Behind. The catch was committing to incorporating standardized test scores into teacher evaluations, a goal of progressive school reformers that has been embraced by the Obama administration.

Roughly three months after Raymond packed up and moved his family back to Boston, Noguchi said hard realities forced her to change the course set by her mentor and former champion. The waiver agreement, she said, became the “antichrist.”

“We were in complete paralysis,” she said. “The teachers were so angry and upset about the waiver, in order to move this huge ball, I had to decide how I could get them back to where we could have collaborative conversations.”

Noguchi said she would explore ways for the district to retain control of the $4 million in federal money for low-income schools that, without the waiver, will be channeled to third-party tutoring services that have proved controversial. It’s not clear she will be successful.

“But is that worth not getting any movement on anything?” she said. “It was a tough decision, but our local context wasn’t allowing us to do anything.”

Noguchi is upfront in admitting that her concession does not guarantee the union’s cooperation on a variety of critical issues still facing the district. Milevsky said last week that teachers are ready to work “with the district to implement the Common Core State Standards to ensure the rigorous learning expectations at all grade levels are met.”

Noguchi said she made her concession to open that door of communication. She hasn’t spoken to Raymond about the decision.

“That has kept me up at night for a month,” she said. “I feel bad that I didn’t continue Jonathan’s vision, but do we take the hit of being paralyzed for another year?”

The district is in the midst of a national search for a permanent superintendent. Noguchi said she will decide in the next week whether to apply.

“If done right, you can build relationships and make (Sac City) the flagship of the region,” she said. “People are looking at this as who won or who lost, but I don’t care about that. Let’s get this done so we can get to work. It’s not us and them.”

Is this a rallying cry or famous last words? We’ll find out very soon.

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