Re-imagining Reform in OUSD

by 

Jonathan Hasak

Socratic Challenge Winning Essay

Walking up the stairs to school, I notice two dirty-white trucks parked across the street.  My gut tells me something went wrong.  An entire summer to renovate half of an elementary school and they still didn’t finish.

Snaking through a maze of ladders under wires and fluorescent lamps exposed from the ceiling, I approach my principal who guarantees they’ll be done before students arrive.  And to her credit, they will.  There will even be a tray of donuts thanking them when they pull down their last ladder and finally leave that first day as families walk around them towards classrooms that haven’t had time to be set up.

Staring incredulously at cardboard boxes stacked like towers, students enter their rooms to the sight of empty corkboards.  The clocks on the walls tell different times.  Confused teachers poke their heads into the hall where classes lining up for recess are stalled because paint on the stairs has yet to dry.

Welcome to the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) where nothing gets done the easy way.

Oakland needs a new education paradigm.  Having witnessed how public education affects the region’s high level of unemployment and the shortage of people with critical job skills, civic leaders, community stakeholders, politicians, educators, and parents need to transform how they support Oakland students and teachers.  This shift will require a departure of reliance on accountability – where teachers, unions, poverty, or someone or thing is always to blame – to one of a shared responsibility to educate all.

To start, the district must purge itself from focusing solely on basic reading and math skills and consigning more advanced skills to second-rate priorities.  The consequences of accountability provisions in the No Child Left Behind Act have unfortunately created an environment where OUSD schools are not incentivized to collaborate as school leaders must use limited resources and energy to ensure their school makes adequate yearly progress (AYP).  At the fear of being put under program evaluation, or worse, stuck in maintaining the status quo, OUSD schools have become insular and skeptical of collaborative initiatives.

I began working in Oakland in 2010 as a special-education teacher at the K-5 Sankofa, serving a largely African American student body from the surrounding neighborhoods.  Despite being located five minutes from a Blue Ribbon school that was outperforming Sankofa in academic achievement, both schools operated in isolation.  In fact, not once in my three years at Sankofa was there any attempt from either school to actually collaborate: no sharing of resources, no mentoring, no teacher visits.    

When I started at Sankofa, 40% of students were proficient in English Language Arts (ELA). As the Coordinator of Intervention during my second year, I identified a need to initiate structural changes due to ineffective and inefficient reading coordination between teachers and tutors.  I also aimed to shift behaviors through strengthening teacher infrastructure based on collaboration and responsibility.  By introducing a successful intervention process that differentiated instruction and support for students at varying levels of reading proficiency, I sought to ingrain a system based on shared investment into the fabric of our school culture.

With better coordination, the 2011-2012 state tests revealed our school made the greatest gain in ELA in OUSD; proficient and advanced students increased by 12.2% while the number of far below basic students fell by 9.3%.  Yet nobody in the district seemed interested in scaling successful programs like ours to other struggling schools.  Perhaps because like most urban school districts, OUSD was heavily focused on eliminating its debt and tending to the many problems emerging on the ground.  After the state legislature passed a $100 million emergency loan in 2003, the district was put under state control and only regained receivership in 2009.  In addition to its high level of teacher attrition, its Superintendent, Tony Smith, abruptly announced his resignation during the 2012-2013 school year, leaving the district to hire Gary Yee as its acting Superintendent.

Narrowing the gap between espoused theories and enacted practices is a prerequisite in shifting to a culture of responsibility.  A more responsible OUSD would develop its communities’ social capital through transparency of its expectations and empower families by providing them human and capital resources to help instill a sense of collective responsibility in their neighborhoods.  Evaluations of principals, teachers, and district personnel would now include metrics for collaboration such as sharing best practices and resources across schools and classrooms.  Rather than rewarding schools that meet AYP benchmarks, Yee’s successor should incentivize shared OUSD accountability by awarding regions that make the most progress in mastering Common Core state standards over three-year periods to allow time for cultural and instructional changes to be reflected on exams.

Given some of the harsh realities of OUSD – nearly 40% of its senior class did not graduate in 2011-2012, its average beginning teacher salary of $39,456 is one of the lowest in Alameda County, and more than 16,000 students have left the district since 2000 – transformative change also requires innovative thinking.  With nearly 70% of its student body represented by African American and Latino students, the district must recalibrate its strategies to better serve its students and families of color.

Having worked to push low-performing students towards grade-level mastery for three years, I noticed state standards were not sufficiently aligned with the critical skills necessary for Sankofa’s students to participate in today’s labor market.  Furthermore, I was skeptical that OUSD was in a position to set its 46,298 students up for success.  Embracing cross-sector collaboration that connects Oakland employers to the potentials of its K-12 student workforce would offer an opportunity for students to link their schooling experience to career opportunities.  Last summer, California budged $250 million in state dollars for a Pathways Trust Fund to invest in career pathways, develop strong regional collaboratives, integrate academic and career curriculum, and provide clear pathways into postsecondary education aligned with regional economic priorities.  Cross-sector collaboration can, therefore, provide guidance of what skills are needed in today’s economy so that schools can begin incorporating skills with real currency in their instruction.

While much of California’s education reform movement has traditionally sought to influence inputs in existing schools and districts, too often these resources have proved ineffective.  The result is that reform-minded policy makers can seem overzealous in throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks.  The examples of small school initiatives that began in Oakland in 2000, backed by a $9.5 million grant form the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the community schools initiative ushered in by Superintendent Smith have not led to significant gains in academic achievement.  Aligning regional interest of reducing the nearly 8% Oakland unemployment rate, which does not account for those who have become discouraged and left the labor market entirely, with education reform that prepares students for success after graduation can achieve a more durable impact on Oakland’s economy.

The district can accomplish this by beginning to link student progress and achievement to work preparedness need of Oakland’s business community.  In 2012, the state Legislature directed the State Board of Education to add measures of college and career readiness to the state’s school accountability system, which currently includes only standardized test scores.  OUSD should go a step further and begin releasing report cards, where embedded under the same district standard would be academic progress of students and progress in skill areas relevant to workforce competency.  As soon as Oakland schools and businesses can track the same data, they can begin prioritizing those academic and job skill gaps that need to be filled.

With different visions and priorities pulling stakeholders in many directions, OUSD would also benefit from better alignment of its instructional core (i.e. the interaction of teaching and learning that takes place between teachers, students, and content).  Shifting strategies will require Yee to immediately engage with the OUSD school board so that a strategic planning process involving all respective school site leadership members and community partners can be ready for the new Superintendent to implement.  Reframing the district’s mission of “Community Schools, Thriving Students” would be a priority during this process.  The new Superintendent would use current designated task forces, such as its Strategic Plan Implementation teams, to begin aligning the conceptual skills necessary for mastering Common Core state standards and rewrite the district’s strategic plan to reflect critical thinking skills.  Replacing the community school strategic plan with a new mission around teaching students problem-solving skills would be far from simply a semantic change.  Instead, it would provide better cohesion for district, school, and classrooms of the skills students need for success in college, career, and citizenship.

Once the district has rewritten its strategic plan, the new Superintendent cannot just entrust authority of monitoring its progress to his cabinet but must also begin building capacity of horizontal leadership within school sites.  District professional development days should be used to build teacher capacity by making expectations clear to all OUSD personnel so that leadership committees at schools can confidently operate towards shared goals.  During these trainings, teachers on special assignment, skills specialists, and school site leadership teams would collaborate and learn new norms and roles required to emphasize more metacognitive skills.  Additional professional development sessions at school sites would focus on developing support systems for helping teachers incorporate these skills in classrooms.

Replacing the factory-line mentality of teaching with a new theory of change focused on student progress, entitled “Building a Better Tomorrow,” would clearly communicate to all stakeholders that once students acquire critical thinking skills, they will be able to fully contribute in Oakland’s economy.  Indeed, this theory of change could serve as a compass for students in becoming more productive citizens in their communities.  Once Yee’s successor approves this theory of change, it must be used to evaluate all resources and tasks at a district, regional, and school level.  The Superintendent’s cabinet would then be assigned to report on each school region’s progress of alignment during weekly meetings.

One of the tradeoffs the new Superintendent will encounter in changing OUSD is witnessing slower growth in the first few years as teachers, students, families, and employers adjust.  With the urgency to fix schools, patience is often considered a political luxury.  But it is precisely patience that will allow the district a higher rate of return as it builds a sturdier infrastructure that can withstand future external changes, like transitions of Superintendents.  Through patience and monitoring of its mission, OUSD would become more thoughtful and entrepreneurial with its policies.  Perhaps this process would even lead to innovations in the way the district supports its struggling students.

For example, in the 2011-2012 school year, OUSD was accused of over-diagnosing African American male students into special education.  Rather than continuing to wait for students to fail before considering special education services, OUSD could start piloting preventative programs that would allow students to be promoted by completing units that correspond to grade-level content.  The goal of this would be to reduce grade-level retentions and special education referrals by allowing struggling students time to retake specific units they missed or failed.  Piloting programs like these and evaluating their value at improving student achievement would provide evidence to the district for how to best support its most marginalized students.

Certainly, people could be uncomfortable with redefining OUSD, especially veteran teachers who have ossified their beliefs to the status quo.  The district should promote listening tours with the teachers’ union, invite input from its leadership team, and employ grassroots tactics such as community organizing to convince all educators to embrace these adaptive changes.  To compete in new environments, OUSD has to reshape a culture of responsibility, engage in cross-sector collaboration, and align district strategies with an emphasis on critical thinking skills.  Implementing these changes will require dedicated leadership and a commitment to bottom-up systemic reform.  But by strengthening the district’s infrastructure on collaboration and responsibility that is not reliant on an individual or Superintendent to maintain, it would soon become ingrained into the fabric of a new district culture.  Over time, OUSD could become a truly transformative school district – one that is more thoughtful in preparing its students for the challenges of today’s economy and more empathetic in how it educates them.

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