City school board President Shirley Weber was angry as she pressed her point last week about holding teachers responsible, by threatening punishment through transfer or loss of position, if their students fail to graduate or do well.
"There are two different districts here," the San Diego State University professor of Africana Studies said, noting that, of the almost 200 students who had been called before trustees earlier in the day to receive academic awards, only one was black and one was Latino. The rest were Asian or white.
"Yet when we have our athletic (awards), we'll see tremendous numbers of Latinos and African-Americans. . . . That is the reality of San Diego city schools."
For Weber, and for many Latino and black community activists, the dismal figures regarding academic success for their children argue for making teachers and principals more accountable.
They want the central school district office to spell out precise goals for how schools should go about better educating black and Latino students, and to make it clear that there will be consequences if they do not succeed.
But their idea of motivating district improvements through fear runs counter to restructuring plans by Supt. Tom Payzant that give staffs at individual schools more autonomy over budget and curriculum in deciding how best to go about improving instruction.
"It comes down to your view of what motivates people--fear, or persuasion and support," Payzant said, while conceding that schools must do better with Latino and black children.
The issue is complicated further by disagreement over how far schools can realistically go in boosting minority achievement without additional money--or with even less, especially when trustees just completed axing $37 million from the budget because of state government money woes.
Weber represents the view of many outside the district who fervently believe that teachers can do better with what they now have, in terms of salary and supplies, by changing negative attitudes toward blacks and Latinos and holding those children to higher standards.
Most teachers just as fervently disagree, saying they do their best given poor parent involvement, crowded classrooms and lack of trust from principals and top administrators. Backed strongly by trustee and retired teacher John De Beck, they resist placing the onus for society's ills totally on schools.
Although the truth probably lies somewhere in between, the lack of consensus has led both sides to question the impact of key policies that community activists have put before the board for approval in the past two weeks.
Those policies talk about holding schools more accountable for the success of their students and for giving students who already are doing poorly in school or are in danger of dropping out methods of instruction different from those the students have done poorly with.
But trustees have learned that it's one thing to talk of having all students achieve and to work better with at-risk students, and another to put those beliefs into everyday practice. The frustration is mirrored in educational debates nationwide over whether public schools can improve voluntarily or need the specter of choice--where private schools can compete with them for students using public funds--to force change.
"We've got these policies but no teeth," Weber complained, noting the lack of specificity over time-lines and details for rewarding schools that do well or punishing those that do not.
"They don't resolve much, they're very vague, that's why they're so easy to pass," Trustee Sue Braun said of the policies. Without teachers trusting that the school board really believes they can do a better job without a lot of coercion, there will not be much change, she said.
"That's why I don't get excited over all of this. . . . At this point, we're just saying, 'Hey, guys, try a little harder, this is just another goal.' "
Even those educators in the forefront of trying to improve academic achievement who take risks under restructuring express ambivalence over which side has the moral high ground.
Principal Adel Nadeau has shepherded a host of changes at Linda Vista Elementary School during the past three years, to give teachers more control over classroom teaching but also to take responsibility for teaching that doesn't result in student progress.
"I don't believe money alone is the real answer," Nadeau said. "Rather, (improvements) are the result of teachers feeling ownership in the school, believing in themselves and in rearranging resources" so that the available money is spent where teachers believe it will do the most good.
For example, Linda Vista now sends people out to visit parents on a regular basis--without there being a crisis or problem with their particular children--to talk about things such as the school reading programs and the library, or to encourage attendance at parent workshops.