Test scores show that smaller numbers of students are reading and doing math at grade level.
Teachers extend their weekends by taking Mondays and Fridays off, replaced by substitutes who don’t know their students or the curriculum.
Reading a popular book about dinosaurs, a surefire way to engage students and enhance literacy, is verboten because it’s not in the curriculum.
School Board meetings sometimes look more like a three-ring circus instead of a place where adults focus on how best to close the learning gaps created by the pandemic and to raise students’ academic performance overall.
Welcome to Fresno Unified School District.
WATCH: Fresno Unified’s Academic Struggle
Why should you care how the district is run? Because the city’s prosperity, now and in decades to come, depends on how prepared Fresno Unified students are for college or the workforce.
At the recent grand opening of the new career tech education building at Fresno High School, Mayor Jerry Dyer said potential employers eying Fresno ask about the city’s workforce and not about potential financial incentives.
“The truth is, the success of our city is largely dependent upon our educational institutions,” Dyer said.
Pandemic’s Impact on Learning
While Fresno Unified — the city’s largest school district and the state’s third-largest — gets more money to educate each of its 72,000 students than other districts, the district’s test scores typically are in the bottom half or lower, and recent testing shows that only small percentages of students are at or above grade level.
In fact, the district’s own internal measurement, the iReady assessment, shows clear signs of students losing ground during the pandemic.
During the fall 2019 testing, 18.9% of the district’s students were at or above grade level in reading and 12.1% were at or above grade level in math. But in fall 2021 testing, the percentage of students at or above grade level in reading dropped slightly, to 16.6%, while math proficiency fell into the single digits — 8.4%.
District officials say that before the pandemic, Fresno Unified was making strides toward more students meeting and exceeding standards in literacy and math and was improving faster than the state average.
But the challenges of educating children during a pandemic have raised concerns over whether the district can regain its momentum — even as it figures out how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in new government funding intended to help students close their learning gaps.
Board President Says District Must Be Nimble, Smart
Despite the district’s longstanding inability to get more students college or career-ready, improving academic achievement is not the No. 1 topic at most School Board meetings. Instead, trustees bicker while debating whether a new school campus should be named for local philanthropists or an Armenian, or whether to change school names and mascots. One meeting this year had to be shut down when Trustee Terry Slatic refused to halt a self-described filibuster.
In addition, many classrooms are staffed by substitute teachers who don’t know their students and aren’t familiar with lesson plans. A recent phenomenon: Increasing numbers of teachers taking time off on Fridays and Mondays, thus creating longer weekends for themselves.
This inattention to student achievement raises an important question: Does the district have a big enough shovel to dig itself out of a deep hole even while the pandemic creates barriers to learning?
Yes, says Board President Valerie Davis, the district’s longest-serving trustee who has represented the Sunnyside High area for nearly 20 years.
But, she cautioned, “We have to be intentional. We have to be strong. We have to be nimble enough to switch, to change whatever methods we’re doing, and we have to be smart. We have to figure that out.
“I’m concerned. I mean, it’s a big hit. It’s a big unplug, and we didn’t know what we didn’t know. We still don’t know. But we’re going to do everything we can every day, as long as we can, for as hard as I can. I want 100%. If it takes me another 20 years, I want 100%.”
But the district needs to regain its momentum sooner than that, says Mike Betts, president of the Fresno Business Council, because “Fresno Unified is critical to the future growth of our region.”
Daily Attendance Funding
Even before the state and federal governments started handing out extra cash to help schools instruct students during the pandemic, Fresno Unified was getting more money per-student than the state average — and more than $2,000 per-student than neighboring school districts that also teach students from Fresno neighborhoods.
In California, a complicated funding formula determines how much money comes to school districts and includes extra money to boost education resources for students who are low-income, speak English as a second language, are foster youth, or are homeless. The state then doles out the money based on average daily attendance, or ADA. The extra money is intended as an equity measure for disadvantaged youth, but the district doesn’t collect a dime for the days when students are absent.
In the 2014-15 school year Fresno Unified’s per-student ADA was $10,033, compared to the state average of $9,794. By the 2019-20 school year — the most recent year for which the state has reported ADA numbers — Fresno Unified’s ADA was $14,099, while the state average was $13,268.66.
Meanwhile, one-time federal and state pandemic funding coming to the district totals more than $684 million, the district reports.
Students Not at Grade Level
But all that extra money in the past has not translated to superior student academic achievement. On a variety of measures, Fresno Unified lags well behind state and national averages for meeting standards in reading and math.
Davis notes that many Fresno Unified students “do come to school with a lot of deficits,” which can include housing and food insecurity, family trauma, and other issues that make it hard for students and their families to focus on learning or to make it a priority.
Even though the district gets extra funding, Fresno Unified can’t use it indiscriminately — state and federal rules, as well as local labor contract agreements, determine how the money can be spent, she said.
Improving student academic performance has been a long and arduous process, but it was happening before the pandemic, and can again, Davis said.
“I think our focus has been progress. What is our growth? Where were we last year? And how will we get there? And what are the things we need to do to turn that? What (is) the intentional focus that we need to have and where exactly is it? Is it math? Is it reading? …
“We have to analyze data and we have to find out where we’re going, how we’re going to get there. We have to make a plan and, you know, tweak it. Or scrap it. Whatever it takes to propel our kids to grow more, to get to that median point.”
District Superintendent Bob Nelson told GV Wire that he is tired of hearing critics claim that Fresno Unified’s academic performance is equal to or just slightly better than Detroit’s.
Fresno and Detroit are among a couple of dozen big cities across the nation that are compared through the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, which focuses on fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading assessments every other year.
The assessments in 2015, 2017, and 2019 reported that the district’s fourth-graders improved their average scores in both reading and math over the four-year span. But the average scores of eighth-graders remained the same or declined over the same period.
In the 2019 assessment for fourth-grade math, Fresno Unified scored better than Detroit, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Cleveland, and tied with Los Angeles. Fresno ranked at number 21 on list that included 26 other large urban school districts. In the eighth-grade math assessment in 2019, Fresno ranked 24th, ahead of Detroit, Milwaukee, and Cleveland.
Is it fair to compare Fresno Unified against other urban areas or the state average? Davis, the board president, sidestepped the question and talked about the importance of teaching things like resilience and the need for community service, things that won’t show up on a test but that are important for students to learn.
Nelson agrees with those who say standardized testing should not be the only measure of evaluating student success. But the district does need to be able to evaluate student performance through some means, he said.
“Far be it from me to like extoll the virtues of a single standardized test,” he said. “But in the absence of that, all we have is iReady (the district’s diagnostic assessment) and grades, right?”
Gains the First Three Years Under Nelson
During the first three of his five years as superintendent, Nelson said, Fresno Unified standardized test scores on the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium were making gains 2.5 to three times better than the state average. SBAC is a consortium of standardized testing of students in grades three through eight and grade 11.
In the 2015-16 SBAC assessment, 31% of Fresno Unified students met or exceeded standards in literacy and 22% in math, compared to the state average of 49% in reading and 37% in math.
By the 2018-19 assessment, Fresno Unified was closing the gap, with 38.3% meeting or exceeding standards in reading and 29.9% in math, compared to the state average for reading and math of 51.1% and 29.9%.
But COVID-19 put a halt on standardized testing, and as a result, the SBAC and NAEP assessment results are more than two years old now.
However, Nelson says he’s concerned that the progress Fresno Unified was showing in recent years could be short-circuited by the pandemic, the challenges of virtual instruction, and how students and teachers are reconnecting in classrooms, even as the coronavirus continues across the community and nation.
But he’s determined to see the district regain its momentum.
“I mean, for us, that’s the No. 1 thing. How do you get back to the trajectory that you were on, which was the right trajectory before the world changed as we know it? And we don’t really know what normal is going to look like in the next iteration of normalcy, like what constitutes normal now? So how do you get back to where you were?”
How Best to Evaluate Student Progress
Teachers don’t believe standardized testing should be the primary measure of student academic performance, but it’s become the metric used to compare the district to the rest of California and the nation, said Manuel Bonilla, president of the Fresno Teachers Association.
Multiple-choice tests aren’t the real world, however, he said.
“If we were being honest about trying to revamp this system in a way that is meaningful, in a way that is truly in line with the way students learn, we would develop assessments that measure the type of learning that we know is taking place, not just a multiple-choice question, because anybody in life, you don’t just walk down the street and there’s a multiple-choice question.”
But teachers seem to take a back seat when it comes to designing the district’s education systems, which seems to lean too heavily on initiatives that come and go every few years, Bonilla said. Too little autonomy and too much top-down management not only impinges on teachers’ ability to practice their craft, but also weighs down their morale, he said.
Teachers want to have a hand in redesigning education, but that means asking different questions, Bonilla said. Literacy is “a passion project for us,” he said, yet some teachers feel they don’t have the freedom to sit down with their students and read a book. Maybe that book is about dinosaurs, or a topic that really interests students in the class. But if it’s not in the curriculum, it’s a no-go, he said.
“And so instead of asking the question of how do we get our kids to read on grade level at grade three, which the answers to that are going to be very narrow, and oftentimes the status quo. Why are we not asking the question of how do we develop a love and support a love for reading. Because that’s going to give us more broader responses.
“But let’s do that in a way that educators are in the room. Parents are in the room. Let’s ask, what is it that our community wants, and then trust the professionals to go out and make that happen.”
Early Childhood Education a Key
Nelson said he’s also concerned about high absence rates for kindergartners and first-graders this year. The youngest students struggled the most with virtual instruction while schools were closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and many parents opted to skip kindergarten for their kids rather than watch them struggle with lessons on tablets or laptops.
Before the pandemic the district had identified early childhood education as one of the areas with the greatest impact on preparing students to be successful academically. So no attendance last year and spotty attendance this year does not bode well and means the district will need to work even harder on making sure they are reading and doing math at grade level, he said.
Likewise, the district has faced staffing challenges this fall, with more teachers taking time off — especially on Mondays and Fridays — than in prior years, forcing the district to scramble for substitutes. Student learning is impacted when their regular classroom teacher is absent and a sub has to step in, Nelson said.
Bonilla said the district ignored the efforts by the Fresno Teachers Association earlier this year to address some of the issues that were impacting teachers’ efforts to deliver quality education. Teachers, already weary after the last school year when they had to juggle virtual and hybrid classes, are struggling even more this year, he said.
For example, many teachers are spending their own money on PPE supplies as students have returned to classrooms. Bonilla says while the district has an ordering procedure, there’s been a lack of consistency among schools in the purchasing and distribution of those resources. That has led teachers to simply buy their own PPE to avoid the “hassle” of the district’s system, he said.
“It is disheartening for a lot of educators because they feel like their opinion, their professionalism has been disregarded in this process, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to get out of,” Bonilla said.
Ready to Graduate?
Results of the iReady assessments show that some students never catch up to performing at grade level. Some juniors and seniors tested at the kindergarten and first-grade levels, raising the question about whether Fresno Unified is engaging in social promotion, where students move on to the next grade level at the end of the school year even if their grades show they have struggled to stay even with their peers.
The district denies that it follows such a practice.
“There is no social promotion in Fresno Unified,” said spokesperson Nikki Henry. “School sites have at-risk conferences along with student study teams and academic plans for students who are failing. In these actions, students could be retained (held back a grade) if all parties (teacher, parent, and administration) find that retention is the best solution for the student. Each year we have students that are retained from Kindergarten on up,” Henry said.
Still, Davis acknowledges hearing stories about graduates who can’t read and write well enough to keep their entry-level jobs. But she notes that in her 20 years on the board, the district’s graduation rate has risen substantially to 85%.
However, that graduation rate increase coincided with the decision to eliminate California’s high school exit exam that students had to pass before they could receive their diploma, a test that stymied many students even though they had multiple opportunities to pass it.
Moving forward, Nelson and Davis said the School Board needs to focus more on students’ academic achievement and less on issues that consumed a lot of time and attention over the past two years, such as masking, vaccine mandates, renaming schools, or changing school mascots.
“There’s a litany of different things that have taken their place at the forefront and put this conversation about academic success on the back burner. And that’s what has to change,” Nelson said.
What will it take to turn the district around?
“We have to make sure that we keep the main thing, the main thing,” Nelson said. “We need to be talking regularly and ongoing about the academic success of kids, and that needs to be on the forefront of everybody’s mind and in everybody’s mouth every day, all the time.”
And to those who say Fresno Unified is a failing district, deputy superintendent Misty Her says nonsense. Yes, students face many challenges and there is much room for improvement to make sure all students graduate high school with the academic foundation they’ll need for a career or college, she acknowledges.
District Leader Points to Personal Experience
But Her, a Fresno Unified graduate who is the highest-ranking Hmong-American K-12 educator in the nation, said her life story is proof that the district isn’t failing, and in fact has prepared her and many other people to run the district today.
But she agrees that there continues to be room for improvement and points to steps officials are taking to focus on what’s key: How students are doing academically and whether they are attending school regularly. The district has been preparing quarterly reports on assessment tests and attendance for the board and executive cabinet to review and discuss, and will be adding staffing and family engagement to those reports, Her said.
Ultimately, she said, “when we talk about academics, it is every student. Our schools and our supervisors, they work with our leaders to do a lot of goal-setting around ‘OK, what are you doing as a school, and then how does that play out into what every individual grade level or content area is doing?’ And then what every individual teacher is doing down to, ‘how am I going to meet the needs of my 20 or 30 kids in my classroom. My kids that are doing well, how do I accelerate? And then my kids that are not doing well, how do I remediate and give them the appropriate scaffolds so that then I can quickly get them back on grade level?’ ”