Oakland Schools Have Contract, But No Time to Relax

Hallelujah. The Oakland Unified School District and local teachers union have agreed on a new contract, averting a disastrous strike. This is big. But as big as it is, Oakland still has a ton of work to do in delivering quality education equitably.

Overall, the contract is a good deal for Oakland’s teachers and kids. Salary increases will make Oakland more regionally competitive, student-teacher ratios for special education received some attention and the ridiculously high counseling ratio of 700-1 is slightly less ridiculous at 600-1.

Also, future teacher raises will be tied to state funding increases, maintaining solvency in the inevitable economic downturns. School sites received additional flexibility on staffing and innovation, allowing the schools themselves to have a greater role in site-based hiring.

This is all good news. And while Oakland is poised for progress, with a strong and visionary superintendent, solid school board leadership, relative alignment on priorities, an invested community and diverse and supportive partners, we can’t call it a day.

Oakland still has some of the worst outcomes and largest achievement gaps for low income and students of color.

According to EdTrust West, in 2013, Oakland was dead last, 149th of 149 districts in performance of students of color, and 147th of 149 in performance of low-income students, exhibiting some of the largest achievement gaps statewide.

Now that we have averted one crisis, we need to focus on the real tragedy in Oakland: Underserved students are being left behind. But how do we push real change to help these students?

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Here are some places to start:

1. Innovate to meet the needs of students. Educational practices have hardly evolved over the past 100 years, and our existing system simply isn’t meeting the needs of 21st century kids.

Let’s take a serious look at redesigning some of these stale educational norms such as summer vacations absent of schooling, the 50-minute period and grouping students just by age.

2. Grow and replicate our successes in a strategic and sustainable way: We do have great schools and programs here in Oakland. Let’s deliberately develop our teachers so we can replicate some of these proven tactics and programs to serve more kids.

3. A multiyear sustained focus on our most challenged schools — the communities at Fremont, Castlemont and McClymonds, likely have whiplash from all the turnarounds, they face big challenges requiring even bigger solutions.

They need multiyear, well-resourced plans and in some cases, external partners, like Big Picture Learning, that can support improvement.

4. An improved, equitable enrollment system that promotes equitable school choice. School enrollment in Oakland is fragmented and relatively difficult to navigate, forcing parents to dig through a variety of data sources and websites and ultimately, tilting the playing field in favor of those with more resources, culturally, linguistically, time or otherwise. We need to work to help match our most challenged students with the best school options.

Oakland has great potential. Thankfully, we seem to be averting one crisis by getting a contract done, although we need to now come together creatively to address the overarching crisis — our failure by and large — to provide poor and minority students the education they deserve.