The NY Times Graph of Race and Achievement Makes my Head Hurt

200 million tests aren’t wrong.  And its making my head hurt.

The NY times released an amazing set of interactive graphs this week showing correlations between NAEP tests—the so called nation’s scorecard—and family income and race.  The results are incredibly discouraging, and really the more you look at it the more your head will hurt.

I am stage 1 migraine as I look at the income correlations, there are a few outliers, but basically everywhere, income determines or is very highly correlated with achievement, and poor kids are significantly behind.   There definitely are districts that outperform the averages, and we need to dig deeper here.  I know from experience that some schools break this pattern and certainly individual students beat these odds.  But there is a depressing persistence found in the report the Times article was based on.

Basically, that sloped dotted line shows how closely related advantage and achievement are, and the closer those dots (representing districts) track the line, the stronger the relationship—and you can see the relationship is very strong.

Head is starting to pound as I click through the next graph that covers race (Hispanic, Black and White).  The achievement rates of each group are tied together in a tripod showing achievement of students of each race in any given district, but White students are always at the summit and Black and Hispanic ones make up the feet.  There are hundreds of districts.  I can’t find a single district where Black or Hispanic students outperform Whites, not even one where it’s close.  Each one you click.

Los Angeles- Whites, plus 1 grade above, Hispanics, minus 1.7, Blacks, minus 2.

Syracuse- Whites, minus 1.6, Hispanics, minus 3.1, Blacks, minus 2.8.

San Francisco- Whites, plus 1.3, Hispanics, minus 2.0, Blacks, minus 2.5.

New York City- Whites, plus 1.3. Hispanics and Blacks minus 1 respectively

Couldn’t find Oakland, but every one you go through looks like that, there is not a single district I found where it is even close, not even close.  There are no real outliers I found for racial achievement gaps.

Each one you click, one more confirmation, whether Blacks or Hispanics are further behind alternates, but never the leader.   Even when incomes between the races are the same, or Whites earn less, their achievement is still higher.

I guess this should not surprise me, I am a Black man, I work in schools, I went to school, I saw the subtle and not subtle belief gaps in the system and the way a seeming neutral curriculum actually alienates people of color, and I see the vast disparities that exist between districts and even within them, and the historical legacies that disadvantage some and privilege others.

But it still bothers me, that there was not one outlier, not one district where achievement was even close.  Maybe that says more about me, and that despite all the evidence around me to the contrary that I think a counter example must exist, that some locality should have broken the chains of racism and affirmatively addressed its legacy, but no.

I usually try to end on some profundity or humor, but right now my head just hurts.

2 Easy Fixes for Oakland Unified

Sometimes, working with districts the simple things seem hard.  Common sense isn’t as common as it should be, and low hanging fruit falls from the tree and rots on the ground.  Oakland Unified has shone a light on its current status with the Strategic Regional Analysis, but it’s really up to us to push for more strategic action, and move beyond the paralysis of regional analysis.

Charters were envisioned as the research and development arm of the school system, when they started, and OUSD should look at its charter successes as well as OUSD small schools successes as it starts to implement broader school quality improvements.  One data nugget, 73% of charter-run schools in Oakland are k-8 or 6-12, while only 9% of district-run schools are.  And this simple structural change matters.

Two simple lessons emerge when you look at Oakland data and research;(1) traditional, segmented, education of students in distinct elementary, middle and high schools is bad for kids,  correspondingly, OUSD should have more TK-8s, 6-12s or Tk-12s.  And (2), given the demand for programs, the District should embark on a more deliberate replication and grade expansion strategy.

Fewer Transitions is Better For Students

You can see the research expanding grades in an earlier blog on this issue here, which almost universally shows, that as students move between distinct schools, they tend to suffer academically, socially, and in general wellness.

One literature review summarized this point saying,

 “every transitions from one narrowly configured school to another seems to disrupt the social structure in which learning takes place, lowering participation and achievement for many students, predictably this damage will be most sever in the cases of students from impoverished backgrounds. “

So why don’t we have more district-run tk-8 or 6-12 or even tk-12 programs—particularly for students who suffer from insecurity?  Having the same school and same environment is an almost unmitigated positive.

Growing High Quality Programs Should be a Priority

As someone who works in school development, improvement, and turnaround, I can attest that replications/expansions are easier.  They are certainly not easy, as each school is its own peculiar nightmare, but they are easier.  You have a model to build from, you may share and train staff to share best practices, and it also opens pathways to leadership for people at the mother school.

And when you look at top scoring schools in Oakland there are several repeat players from replications.   There are several schools from Amethod, several schools from AIMS, and while not replications, many of the highest performing Fruitvale schools are from Education for Change (full disclosure I am a trustee).  For these charter school management organizations, when something is working, they double down and do more of it.  Not so much for the District.

How does this make sense?

I actually don’t think there are any real replications in OUSD, the closest being LIFE Academy which had a high school and expanded to a middle.  But that’s it.

And look at the logic here—you have a school MetWest, that gets 4 to 5 applications for every open spot, turns away 120 students per year who make it their first choice,  and is bursting at the seams. 2.5 miles away you have McClymonds which is at 34% of capacity, so it is 2/3rds empty, with relatively few families making it their first choice.



# 1st Choice On-time Applications  



% Demand

Oakland Technical High School 1139 468 243.4%
Skyline High School 288 468 61.5%
Oakland High School 180 399 45.1%
Met West High School 159 34 467.6%




# 1st Choice On-time Applications  



% Demand

McClymonds High School 27 80 33.8%
Fremont High School 64 199 32.2%
Castlemont High School 72 156 46.2%

It makes no sense to me that we are turning kids away from one program and struggling to attract them to another, and these two building are relatively physically close.   That doesn’t mean some MetWest takeover of Mac, but it could mean a MetWest West situated in a wing of Mac.  That makes Mac more sustainable, will bring in more resources, and given the chronic challenges at Mac, it would serve as a relief valve and another option for families.  Or what if a strong middle school program replicated as a feeder at Mac, creating a 6-12 or 5-12?

Moving From Analysis to Action

I applaud the District for peeling back the data and presenting the Strategic Regional Analysis, alongside its fact piece on charter-run and district-run public schools in Oakland.

But as the urban poet Oshe Jackson once quipped, “I can give it to ya but what ya gon do with it.”

For far too many Oakland families, the schools they get are not good enough.  I hope that Oakland can make common sense more common, and take some easy steps to make schools better for students and families.  This is all very hard work, and we can’t afford to pass low hanging fruit, while families hunger for better options.

What Black and Brown Parents Want, What they Get, and Why Charters

Our parents almost universally want more challenging schools, at the same time they rightly believe that education is unequal according to a recent study.  I say, rightly, because there is compelling evidence of a broad and wide belief gap about the capacity of kids of color, and in reality, our kids often do get the short end of the stick.

Remember the settlement over “fake classes” last year in Oakland,

The suit cited cases in which youths had been assigned to “sham” courses that had them perform tasks in the school office or pick up trash.

Schools cited in the lawsuit had students retake courses they had already passed or sent them home early because there was no room in classes, attorneys said. Some schools employed rotating substitute teachers rather than fill full-time vacancies, the suit said…

“Their futures were treated as less worthy than their counterparts in more affluent communities,” said Mark Rosenbaum, director of Public Counsel. “Imagine as a parent if you asked your child what did you do in school today and you were told, ‘Well, I took out the school trash and cleaned erasers,’ day after day, week after week.”

One plaintiff, Erik Flood, said he spent a lot of time not learning during his four years at Fremont High in Oakland. He was assigned to three service classes at one point, filing paperwork in the school office or doing nothing, while taking credit-recovery classes online after school.

And this has a huge cost.  If the student doesn’t graduate there is an immense cost in lost productivity to them and society, and even if they do graduate and go to college they need to take (and pay for) remedial classes.  So they could take those classes, pay for them, receive no real college credit and leave school with debt.  In fact this happens all the time, and the overall costs of these remedial courses have been estimated at 1.5 billion with a “b” dollars.

This cost is not evenly distributed at all—believe me that kids in Piedmont would never have a class that consisted of picking up trash.  These practices took place at Castlemont and Fremont.  And while it is egregious to have students perform busywork, the effects are no less when a student has a class with permanent substitutes (as described at last week’s board meeting).

This is the way that “the system” works.  Regardless of the good nature of the person on top, there are old patterns that reinforce privileges and inequality.  Oakland is getting better, but its high quality schools are the most income segregated in the country-don’t believe me—here’s the report.

Look through it- there are no districts where things are fair.  This is not “districts” per se—its society, but if you are a kid picking up trash instead of taking chemistry- it’s the District or the school doing that to you.

I have a series of longer stories of frustration in working with districts, even smart well meaning people tend to be chewn up, and things that should happen don’t, especially for underserved families.

Charter Options 

That’s why many Black and Brown families choose charters. That’s why I did.  The existing system is rigged, and I question whether we will ever dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.  Despite all the challenges, strange alliances and bedfellows, we know the system.  And while charters are not perfect and often very imperfect, many of us hope that charter autonomy will give local communities the power to really control their schools and design them for their children.

This promise is a work in progress, and so far largely unfulfilled.  But for myself, given the choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, I know what the devil has in store for me, while if I can swim strongly enough, maybe I have a chance in the water.

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Moving Beyond Rumor to Honest Debates in Oakland

I was worried when I heard that Oakland Unified was potentially firing 17 principals.  While I think Oakland is moving in the right direction, I really had to question the District’s leadership in this case.

Further, this seemed to confirm the worst fears of OUSD’s critics, showing the District’s tone deafness, while reinforcing charter conspiracy theories, which saw deliberate sabotage of district-run schools as a way to clear the way for charters.

Thing is–it wasn’t true.  The article was wrong.  But as they say, a lie travels a thousand miles before the truth gets out of bed.

So the truth had a cup of coffee, and Superintendent Wilson responded to say that only 5 principals were given notice. Further, the notice didn’t mean they would be removed. The prior administration had sent 20 such letters, with no similar accompanying hype.

We Need Better Data and More Critical Reporting

Too much of Oakland’s debate is shaped by anecdote and rumor.  Some of what you hear is just patently untrue, some half-truth, some you don’t know, and some representative of real problems.  How much of each, nobody really knows.

We need to invest in better data to structure decision-making (ahem, philanthrocapitalists).  While I can critique aspects of the new Board study sessions of particular topics, where they present research and data, as well as break the audience into smaller study groups—I think those are a step forward.

But we need a leap.  Most of the data we need is or could be public data, we just need to invest in its collection and analysis.  Great examples exist.

The NYC Independent budget office, looks broader than education, but does quality studies of things like comparing funding of district-run and charter-run schools, or the rates of service of different types of special education students and their attrition for charter-run and district-run schools.

In New Orleans, Tulane, has the Education Research Alliance, that focusses on analyzing the effects of reforms on the school system.

Here we largely have a bunch of shills (myself included) that dominate the discourse.

Big Questions Need Better Answers

These questions matter—do charter schools tend to have better test scores because the selectively recruit, or because students learn more?

Do our most challenged students get their fair share of resources, how should we reallocate resources if not?

Since we know that low income students in Oakland are the most segregated in the country clustered in low-performing schools, how can enrollment changes lead to more equity?

How do students and families react to mainstreaming of special education students?

I am not saying we need to wait for these answers before we make change.  Things are bad enough, at least for subgroups in Oakland that we can’t wait.

When we start the debate with different “facts” it is even harder to agree.  And in an already contentious and passionate environment where resources are scarce and needs are high, the last thing we need is more heat, in Oakland.

So let’s invest in shedding more light, getting better debates, and working towards answers rooted in the results that our reforms have on kids and families who need them most.  It’s time for the shills to take a back seat and the facts and families to start to drive the bus.

Truth from the Mouth of Babes- A Student Director Drops the Mic in Oakland

Oakland has some great plans.  At the Board meeting we heard about the Quality School Development Process, and directors queried staff on the ins and outs, very academic.  But there was one question from student director Ramirez, that quieted the room and is still awaiting an answer.

Who is going to teach?

You see, the student actually attends a school that is an early iteration of the school improvement process, Fremont.  She described a situation where “permanent substitutes” staff classes all year and students don’t even get a real grade, they get a “Pass” potentially.

Her voice shaking a little, she described the “high quality teacher” language that was bolded in the policy, and the dissonance between what is happening at our sites.  And the lack of transparency that sites experienced.

Ending with a simple statement that brought the loudest applause of the night, “what are we going to do?”

I appreciate the District’s work to try to improve our most challenged schools as well as supporting the portfolio of schools in continuous improvement.  But if paper and policies were going to fix Oakland’s problems they would have done been fixed.

We need the people, and without that, reforms will continue to shine on paper but fall flat to the students who were supposed to be served.

These are big issues that need big bold answers—like looking at housing, new structures of schools—as individual school attrition rates vary widely in Oakland–and rethinking compensation, especially for hard to staff schools or subjects, to name a few.

And let’s continue to privilege the voices of our students and families in school improvement. I am continually impressed by our student directors, and the insights they bring to the debate.

I, like student director Ramirez, am still waiting for a good answer on how we are going to staff these reforms with the educators that our students deserve.  This is the central question underlying Oakland’s continuing progress.  I hope we, as a community, follow this young lady, and keep asking the toughest questions.

And I hope even more that through honest dialogue we find answers.