Why Are San Francisco Public Schools So Bad?

Why Are San Francisco Public Schools So Bad?

As a father to a three-year-old and a 6-month-old in San Francisco, I've got to eventually make a decision on whether to send my son and/or daughter to public elementary school or a private elementary school.

The cost is basically $0 for public school + any donation you can afford versus $25,000 – $35,000 for private K-8. Once 8th grade is done, the cost can increase to $50,000 for some high schools in the city.

This cost differential puts a tremendous burden on me and many other families in San Francisco. To pay property tax on expensive real estate and also have to pay for private school tuition ensures that many families stay working for longer than they'd like.

As someone who went to public high school and public university (The College of William & Mary), I'm pro public school. However, San Francisco also has a lottery system where even property tax paying homeowners aren't guaranteed their top choice or their neighborhood public school. This system is born out of the desire of the government to socially engineer the classroom. It's been a big failure.

Let's explore why San Francisco public schools are considered bad from the perspective of a SF public school and private school teacher.

Why San Francisco Public Schools Are So Bad

To understand why SF public schools are so bad, let's first look at who goes to public schools.

Almost half of public school students come from middle class families, by definition, families with an annual household income of average $80,000 – $150,000 per year in the city (SF Mayor: Middle Class Means Earning $80,000 to $150,000.)

Meanwhile, the overall average starting salary for Class of 2013 new college graduates currently stands at $45,327 (Salary Survey: Average Starting Salary for Class of 2013 Grads Increases 2.4 Percent)

So it is safe to predict that when the recent college grads reach their mid career, they are most likely making $60k-70k per year, and with both working parents, that will be a solid middle class family.

According to statistics, we could believe that half of the SFUSD (SF Unified School District) students come from good household where both parents are most likely college educated, and understand the importance of education. I have worked with many wonderful middle class families.

They are generally well-educated, super supportive for classroom discipline, and also financially stable to support additional learning needs (ok I am not talking about giving each kid an iPad, but they buy markers, pencils, paper, tri-fold boards – any class supplies I possibly need at any moment). They are the angels to schools and also strong supporters for public school system.

This should be the group that make public schools a wonderful place to be at, however, we cannot forgot there is another 50% here in SFUSD – kids from the working class and poverty class family.

As a teacher, I spent A LOT of instructional time everyday dealing with misbehaving kids. It does not take more than one kid per class to destroy a good class period for learning, and when I get two or more, well, I can already see the frustration on other students' faces even before they get here.

Though I hate to say it out aloud, the “trouble kids” in each class are almost entirely from working class families as well as families that struggle on the poverty line.

In SFUSD, 61% of students receive free or reduced lunch(Our District in a Snapshot). That pretty much tells the story. I teach at a Title I (high poverty) school, so I have students who are constantly hungry, do not even have parents at home, have no backpack or any school supplies, homeless, or even worse – victim of multiple child abuse cases.

They come to school with such a huge anxiety issue because of the family they are from, and the easiest way for them to deal with those issues is to act out during class. Most of students coming from those background already have chronicle mental issues that have been documented for years throughout their time in SFUSD, however, there is really not much the school or the teacher can do to help them with our current system.

Many of my friends were shocked by the recent news on over 2,000 homeless students in SF public schools (Thousands of SF public-school students are homeless), and I know it by seeing many of them everyday on campus getting in trouble for being angry, aggressive or depressed. And of course, constantly disrupt the class, so the teacher cannot teach, and as a result, other students could not learn.

I know what I said above make me sound like a terrible teacher who complain about my job everyday because of the low-income family. The truth is, I love my job, and I enjoy teaching, but I know how much time I spent on those particular group of “misbehaving kids” and how little I can do to change them.

Meanwhile, I truly feel terrible for my well-behaved, eager-to-learn students because I can not provide them the positive learning environment they deserve.

I know in my heart that they could have a so much better education experience if they are not in this school. They will get a lot more opportunities to learn interesting things and do amazing projects that challenge them to a higher level. And I know exactly where they should be at.

So here comes the harsh truth – before I committed to public education, I worked at one of the best private schools in the Bay Area, or probably in the entire country. My 8th graders founded companies that run online business with Bitcoin, built GoKart with solar powered engine, directed documentary about SF Giants, and published photography work that won national awards.

It is amazing to read the list of achievement they made, and you can probably guess how many Teslas there are in the after school pick-up line. You can probably also guess how shocked I was on my second week teaching in my current school, and found out half of my kids did not know who Columbus was.

I have heard comments on how we should raise the bar for teacher education and therefore we have better teachers for public schools. I have also seen many exceptional teachers in public schools that work so hard to make sure their students who come from disadvantaged background receive the same education experience as private school kids.

Private school teachers also work hard and are wonderful educators, but let's be honest – when ALL of your kids come to school with an iPad or Macbook and already know which Ivy League schools they will apply to in a few years, there is no equal comparison here.

For a public school teacher, it take SO MUCH effort to just go through the day and if no one got punched or hurt in your class, that's success.

When I was at private schools, I did so much more with my students – projects, field trips, seminar, open sessions, creative units, etc., and teaching was fun, for nearly 99% of the time (of course there were times when I was just completed exhausted from a 3-day camping trip).

I did not realize this back then, but now think back – free of classroom management issues was such a beautiful thing, and really made me commit to teaching as a life long career.

Now, I spend about 1/3 class time teaching new material, 1/3 supervising them do work(so they are held accountable for graded work and also are kept busy), and 1/3 keeping the class under control and random kids off the table. Ok, that's exaggerating, but that is actually how I feel like for EVERY SINGLE DAY.

Not sure how long I can keep doing this, but as far as I know, half of the new teachers quit within five years (Up To 50 Percent Of Teachers Quit Within Five Years, Says Report ), and now I can see why.

You can't expect someone who is paid with the lowest salary possible for a Master Degree to not only play the teacher's role, but also stand as the parent, the social worker, the police officer(sometimes, yes), and can still do all the hi-tech creative fun things a teacher is expected to do in nowadays progressive classrooms, as SFUSD like to call themselves. 

I can go on and on about the difference between private schools and public schools, but to direct the answer back to the original question: there is a reason for SF public schools' bad reputation.

It is the combination of class difference, teacher preparation (I did not even touch on that, but yes, disqualified teachers are also problems), school system malfunction, bureaucracy, teacher turnover rate (SFUSD had 62 open positions that still need to be filled the week before the first day of school this year), etc. But this issue is beyond you and me.

Of course if your kid can make it to Lowell, it's another story. But no matter what, he/she might still become the victim of social issues just in the daily school setting. I know teachers who teach at Lowell also have their own concerns with the nearly majority-Asian demography. Meanwhile, private schools are not doing a very good job preparing kids to understand the society's issue, and I do think it can become a problem.

From my personal experience and thinking from a parent's perspective, if you are financially capable, send your kid to private school, so he/she can enjoy his/her time at school free from classroom disruption, bullies, tired and grumpy teachers (think about what those behavior issues can do to a teacher who has taught for 20 years). Most importantly, he/she can actually enjoy learning at school.

Final Thoughts About SF Public Schools

I'm currently a private high school tennis coach at one of the best private high schools in the city. The tuition is $48,000 a year and most of the parents are very wealthy.

Most of my kids were good. But there was always at least one out of 12 that didn't listen or caused trouble. This one student would always disrupt practice, be obnoxious, and make coaching less enjoyable than it should have been. I can't imagine if I had to deal with more than one of these trouble makers every day in every class.

I believe one of the biggest differences between public school and private school is PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT.

Private school students usually grew up with either a stay at home parent and/or a nanny. Public school students usually have two working parents who have less time to take care of their children. You can see tremendous differences in parental involvement between the two schools.

Since public schools have to admit everyone, many parents treat school like day care. Not my problem. Whereas with private schools, given the cost of tuition, parents are much more involved in the school's day-to-day activity. They've got skin in the game.

If your after-tax income is more than three times the total private school tuition, I say it's worth sending your kids to private school. A good education is the best investment and the best gift you can give your children.

That said, make sure you don't have to pay full tuition if the school goes 100% online due to a lockdown. You should get full school for full tuition.

Related posts on schools:

The Case Against Meritocracy: Lowell High School Admissions

Is Private Grade School K-8 Worth It?

Navigating The Preschool Admissions Process

Are You Willing To Endure Going To Public School For $1,000,000?

Forfeit The Enrollment Deposit For A Better School?

How To Get Into A Great Preschool\]

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