State of Our Cities: Mastering Math Can Help San Diego Become the Finest City

Learn more about Ruben Navarrette.
Ruben Navarrette
Fellow, Education Reform
George W. Bush Institute

New "State of Our Cities" tool shows how students in San Diego are performing -- and where challenges lie ahead.

San Diego likes to think of itself as “America’s Finest City.” In fact, that phrase is in the brochure. Whether the nation’s eighth-largest city is pitching convention business, or trying to lure companies to re-locate their operations to the West Coast, a major selling point in luring people is something over which city officials have no control: great weather. 

And yet, ironically, one of the things that keeps San Diego from being as fine as it could be — in addition to the high cost of living — is the lagging quality of the city’s public schools in the key area of math. The new State of Our Cities report shows that San Diego is excelling in areas like participation in and completion of Advanced Placement courses, finishing in the top 20 among the 114 cities measured in the report. But you would think math is the one subject this city would dominate.

San Diego is, after all, a military town where thousands of personnel are trained or stationed, and where many of them decide to work or retire. And when you’re trained in the military, math and science are often major parts of the curriculum. So, we can assume, a large part of our population has a high literacy in math. 

This city of 1.4 million people is also home to Qualcomm Inc., a multinational semiconductor and telecommunications equipment company that pulls down annual revenue of more than $25 billion designing and marketing wireless telecommunications products and services. The company — which derives most of its revenue from making computer chips and licensing patents — has 224 locations around the world. But it has more than 31,000 employees headquartered at its home base in San Diego.  And they are not the only company in town looking for and depending on math-literate employees.

The demand is clearly there for a workforce made up of people who can tell a coefficient from a cosine, and a dividend from a denominator. It’s up to San Diego’s local colleges and universities — which draw heavily from the city’s high schools — to provide the supply.

So how are San Diego’s public schools doing when it comes to teaching math in America’s Finest City? 

Not as well as you would hope. The indicators in the report tell a tale of middling performance by students. 

For instance, take a look at the percentage of students in the San Diego Unified School District who successfully completed an algebra course in 7th or 8th grade — which usually acts as an important indicator of later achievement in high school. We see that the completion rate for Hispanic students, who account for 47 percent of the student body, lags far behind the completion rate for Asians and whites.

Only 53 percent of Hispanic students complete algebra in middle school, compared to 73 percent of Asians and 77 percent of whites. True, the performance of San Diego’s Hispanic middle school students outperformed their peers in many other cities. That is good news, but given that Hispanics account for nearly half of the student body in the San Diego Unified School District, there is cause for alarm. That’s not hyperbole. That’s math.  

Local school officials may miss the disparity because they are not looking at the full picture, like only prioritizing how many students are pushed through the system.

When we turn to high school graduation rates, we see that San Diego schools graduated 90 percent of students in 2013, compared to 88 percent in Phoenix and 78 percent in San Antonio.

That too is a good figure, but the more important question is whether those graduating students are being given the tools to succeed once they go onto college and into the workforce. It’s one thing to graduate – and it’s another to have the skills to complete some kind of post-secondary education and get a good-paying job. Or have the training to be able to keep moving ahead through likely several careers.

That’s why the data about algebra is so important. Students who don’t master the thinking skills middle school algebra requires are likely to end up needing remedial classwork once they leave high school.

On top of all that, as The New York Times recently reported, San Diego appears to have an additional worry. Not only is it not producing enough young people to go into the tech field, it’s bleeding out many of those who are already in that field. That’s right. There’s a brain drain of the most brainy.

The article noted that many of those students currently majoring in computer science at local schools like the University of California, San Diego would like to stay in the area after graduation. But, it pointed out, the reality is that many of these students will eventually relocate to San Francisco or Silicon Valley, where tech jobs are more abundant and there seems to be a more-welcoming vibe for people in that industry. 

Which makes it all the more critical that those who run the public schools in San Diego, working in tandem with Mayor Kevin Faulconer and other city officials, continue to ramp up the number of high school graduates who have strong math skills. Producing enough supply to meet the demand will always be an issue, especially if there is a hole in the pipeline. 

This should be a wakeup call for America’s Finest City. The current weather may be pleasant, and achievement patterns are running in the right direction in some areas, but  — in the all-important tech field — the long-term forecast calls for dark skies ahead.