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San Francisco math lesson: What did it cost for 13 officials to spend 2 weeks in Japan?

A stylized graphic with a plane, red bridge, pagoda, and currency symbols against a splattered backdrop.
Illustration by Jesse Rogala/The Standard

Math has long been a distasteful four-letter word when discussing the state of the city’s public schools. 

With this in mind, the San Francisco Unified School District decided late last year to send a group of administrators and city officials on a two-week trip to Japan to learn about specialized teaching methods in—you guessed it—math. Specifically, district administrators were keen to learn more about Project IMPULS, a different method of teaching that has shown promise in boosting test scores.

Two supervisors, Myrna Melgar and Hillary Ronen, were invited to join 10 school officials for part of the trip, as they both supported a 2022 bond measure to increase city funding to the district by tens of millions every year. 

The cost to the city for the trip initially appeared to be minimal. Melgar paid for her own flight while Ronen and a staffer had the city’s Department of Children, Youth and Their Families pick up the $2,558 cost of two round-trip flights.

But new records obtained from the school district—nearly three months after The Standard originally requested them—reveal that those initial estimates were fuzzy math. The total bill for the 13-person junket ballooned to more than $71,000.

A group of San Francisco officials pose for a photo during a trip to Japan.
A photo from San Francisco Supervisor Myrna Melgar’s Facebook page shows San Francisco Unified School District administrators and city officials posing for a group portrait while on a trip to Japan in November 2023.

The two-week trip in early November seems to have been hustled together in less than two months, based on flight purchase dates. An itinerary shows that in between lesson plans, there were buffet meals at resorts and a trip to Lake Kawaguchiko to see the famous view of Mount Fuji. The trip also included a weekend for officials to explore.

Expense reports show some school administrators used personal credit cards to rack up air miles for as much as $1,500 in travel-related charges that would later be reimbursed. One district administrator, Miguel De Loza, a supervisor for elementary multilingual programs, appears to have booked a return flight a full week after the program, parlaying the work trip into a vacation.

Autumn Looijen, who along with her partner, Siva Raj, helped fuel the 2022 school board recall, couldn’t help but laugh when hearing the numbers on how much the trip cost.

“If the district was going to spend $71,000 investing in a program that it was serious about implementing in the school district,” Looijen said, “I would hope that everyone who was on that trip would be directly involved in the decision of whether to adopt that curriculum.”

One might hope.

Thomas McDougal, executive director of Lesson Study Alliance, the nonprofit organization that charged $4,000 a pop in “tuition” for the trip, told The Standard that he understands the concerns taxpayers might have, especially when some people on the trip have no role in teaching math.

“Part of the rationale for this is it’s a very different approach to teacher development,” McDougal said. “It’s important for people at the sort of ‘top of the food chain’ to know what it is.”

A classroom with Japanese students at desks, some with laptops, facing teachers near blackboards covered in writing.
A photo from San Francisco Supervisor Myrna Melgar’s Facebook page shows a sixth-grade math class at Funatsu Elementary School in Japan in November 2023.

However, the cost of the trip wasn’t exactly billed to the school district, which is facing a projected $420 million budget deficit over the next three years. Instead, it was reimbursed or funded by grants from the city, which is in even worse fiscal shape—with an $800 million shortfall projected over the next two years.

“Are there not cheaper ways to get to know the program?” Raj asked. “Do you actually have to travel to Japan to learn about it? Can they not get on Zoom?”

Matt Alexander, vice president of the city’s Board of Education, defended the trip in a statement despite this being “a time of tight budgets.”

“The Japanese approach to elementary mathematics, which the country implemented over the past four decades, has resulted in some of the highest math achievement in the world,” said Alexander, who, notably, paid for his own flight.

Maria Su, the executive director of the city’s Department of Children, Youth and Their Families, said her agency gives the school district $4 million as part of the Whole School Math Lesson Pilot, which funded the trip.

“We totally understand that part of changing school culture is for the adults to be trained to support students in a different way,” Su said, noting that the pilot program at John Muir Elementary School led to dramatic improvements in math and literacy scores. 

A Japanese school teacher writes on a blackboard that features drawings of ice cream.
A photo from San Francisco Supervisor Myrna Melgar’s Facebook page shows a teacher writing math questions on a chalkboard in a sixth-grade math class at Funatsu Elementary School in Japan in November 2023.

The same “problem-solving” program is now being taught in San Francisco’s Flynn, Sanchez and Malcolm X elementary schools. If these schools show major gains in math, that’s something to be celebrated. But whether it warrants an entire delegation taking an 11-hour trans-Pacific flight is still a question being asked.

Rank-and-file educators might also balk at the price tag. Looijen said she has a teacher friend in the city who broke down sobbing after repeatedly being denied tutoring help for a second-grade student who couldn’t read. 

“When you have stuff like that going on in the school district,” Looijen said, “I think it’s normal for people to look at a $71,000 trip to Japan and say, ‘Couldn't we have helped that kid instead?’”