How Is OUSD Doing Compared to 11,000 Other Districts in 3 Graphs?

The typical student in Oakland Unified is further behind in 8th grade than they were in 3rd grade that’s according to the latest research from Stanford, covered in a recent NY Times article. You heard that right, the typical student in OUSD progresses 4.3 years academically in the 5 years between 3rd and 8th grade, so while they are roughly a year behind in 3rd grade, they are roughly 2 years behind in 8th grade.

The encouraging thing about the data is that there is such wide variation, even within California. Some districts make more than 5 years growth, others less. So some things are working in some places and some things are not working in others.

Despite the dismal outcomes, there is hope. In Fremont, students gained 5.6 years over the 5 year span, and in Chicago it was 6 years.  So poverty is not destiny, but zip codes matter, and so do the decisions of districts.

Let’s look at the study, from the Times

The data, based on some 300 million elementary-school test scores across more than 11,000 school districts, tweaks conventional wisdom in many ways. Some urban and Southern districts are doing better than data typically suggests. Some wealthy ones don’t look that effective. Many poor school systems do.

This picture, and Chicago’s place in it, defy how we typically think about wealth and education in America. It’s true that children in prosperous districts tend to test well, while children in poorer districts on average score lower. But in this analysis, which measures how scores grow as student cohorts move through school, the Stanford researcher Sean Reardon argues that it’s possible to separate some of the advantages of socioeconomics from what’s actually happening in schools.

How is Oakland Doing?

The researchers graphed 11,000 districts based on test score growth and wealth, to give a fairer picture of the district effects.  Here is Oakland Unified in 3rd grade

And Oakland Unified in 8th grade

And the comparison of growth


Click around some and look other districts, while Oakland Unified produced 4.3 years of growth in 5 years, West Contra Costa was at 4.6 years, Fresno and Long Beach were at 4.7 years.

And yes this is based on test scores which is an imperfect measure, but try telling that to mom who is seeing her child’s literacy skills decrease (as measured by test scores) compared to peers in nearby districts.

What is lost in the budget crisis?

The school board meetings are rightly spending significant time on the budget.  But I am hearing a hardly a peep about how our students are doing, what we are doing to accelerate learning, or develop our programs that are showing real progress.

Our students and families can’t have their academic careers put in a back seat, as the district is consumed with its own messes.  We have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, which means both addressing our fiscal crisis and our academic crisis, solving either one without the other is a hollow victory.



Here’s the Test for Charter Schools Under DeVos and Trump

As school choice advocate Betsy Devos assumes the role of secretary of education, charter school camps have formed for and against her. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools supported her, while the coalition of independent charter schools in New York City (representing over 100 schools) opposed her. And in California, while school leaders have almost universally opposed her, the state’s charter school association is sending somewhat mixed messages.

This should not be a surprise. As I’ve said before, there is no unified charter movement. There are simply many different actors who see charter schools and the autonomy they promise as a means to an end. In the big charter tent you have liberals, conservatives, and everything in between. But as I will argue, the sector still has some interests, and this nomination offers immense risk and potential opportunity.

Support for Choice in the Community

Any credible poll will show that Black, Brown, and low income families support charter schools. Many communities of color also have long histories of alternative and private schooling in the face of segregated, subpar or no public options. And a likely increase in support for charter schools and school choice from the federal government through Betsy DeVos might help free underserved communities from sometimes weak neighborhood options.

Charter schools can be our FUBU schools (FUBU stands for “For Us, By Us”—a hip hop brand from the 90s), empowering communities to control local schools and deliver high quality, culturally responsive programs to our children. It’s not that simple, and it is incredibly hard work, but many of us have been frustrated by the lack of responsiveness of the traditional public schools and wanted to do something different. Given the devil and the deep blue sea—we jumped.

Choosers and Losers

School choice is not a panacea. Choice by itself doesn’t necessarily improve quality or equity and may make things worse. There are choosers and “losers”—those who don’t choose. And the schools themselves may also start to pick and choose students, sometimes taking the “easy” ones and passing the more challenging kids on.

The federal government has a crucial role in setting some basic ground rules for equity and enforcing them. And because I don’t think we can trust local jurisdictions, those rules need to bend toward justice. Things like charter school admissions, charter authorizer behavior, as well as rules of the game in serving students with special needs or treating “minorities” with equal concern and respect. All of this can be influenced by federal spending and rulemaking.

And the secretary of education needs to be the secretary of all schools, given the reality that 47 of the roughly 55 million students in the U.S. go to traditional public schools, with 3 million in charters and over 5 million in private schools. Nothing D.C. does will change those ratios significantly. So the focus needs to be on that largest sector, and remembering the intent that charters would act as laboratories to feed practices into the traditional schools.

Evaluating the Secretary’s Reign-Quality, Equity, and Transparency

If, under this new administration, those of us who support charter schools sell our principles or forget who our master is, that stain will outlast any education secretary.

A rush to create more schools for more schools’ sake is an unwise one. Charters promise a set of academic and non-academic outcomes, and accountability is essential. Just opening the floodgates to more schools will likely reduce quality. And it won’t help families. (That seems to be the Detroit story, from my admittedly limited knowledge.)

Equity has to be at the forefront of accountability, for the sector to be credible and ethical. Charter schools have had some historical challenges in serving all students. This is a critique that hits some times and misses at others, but is equally applicable to the traditional public zoned schools or gifted-and-talented programs and specialized high schools. Authorizers and the public need to look hard at who is being served and who isn’t and why, with consequences for offenders.

Charter schools are public schools and need to be transparent with the public’s money and authority. I get that not all charters act like public schools, but they are and they should. And to build and maintain public confidence, we need to be transparent, and allow for public analysis.

The Charter School Final Exam

A school cannot serve two masters, to butcher a phrase. In this new administration, the charter sector faces new challenges and opportunities. But the real question that each school must answer is, “who is our master?”

In a time when many Black and Brown children and families are anxious, and immigration raids at schools are a real possibility, many schools and districts nationwide are declaring themselves “sanctuaries” that will defy the feds and won’t cooperate with ICE.

If that master comes calling, will the charters pick up the phone, or barricade the doors?

Charter schools were here before DeVos and will be here after her. The communities that charters draw their lifeblood from are here even longer, and communities have long memories. Charters sometimes are accused of not being of the community. If they want to assure their roots in the community, they need to pass this final test, and answer resolutely as to who their master is, lest short term gain turn to long term ruin.

This piece is adapted from one that ran in the Amsterdam News as Betsy DeVos’ Charter School Test on February 9, 2017.

The Upcoming Pain from the Common Core, and Why it’s Worth it

2802054386_6453237d2e_m kinder kids “I feel like a failure”, one of our top teachers muttered with downcast eyes.  They had just gotten a glimpse of the data trickling out from the latest tests in California, the first that reflected the new, more rigorous, Common Core curriculum standards.  This from a teacher who is on top of their game, has high expectations, is 110% committed, and historically has shown very strong outcomes for students.  Now those proficiency numbers are being cut in half.

As the scores are released in the next few weeks statewide, we can expect to hear a chorus of similar sentiments, further emphasized by the collective groans from families, who will learn, that their previously proficient student, is no longer so.  It’s also likely that disadvantaged students will fall  the furthest, if results in other states are predictive. This is ultimately bitter medicine, whose administration and sourness falls mainly on the teachers and students.  And we need to work to get beyond the pain of this moment to realize the gains that the new curriculum promises.

These new standards are another ball game, with an emphasis on critical thinking and deeper understanding rather than rote memory and superficial test taking skills.  And the transitions will be painful, teachers who have had their practice narrowed by No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and more scripted curricula, are being asked to do a 180, to differentiate lessons for all students, and to teach to a much deeper and more complex set of standards, which ultimately rests on students being literate and developing critical thinking skills.  We have moved from tee ball to the majors in the space of a year.

So given the discouraging effects on teachers, students, families, and the likely disproportionate impact on disadvantaged students, why would I support the Common Core?  Because what we have done for the last decade in NCLB has been a lie and a fraud.  States had to promise to reach 100% student proficiency by 2014 to get federal funding, so did they? A) raise the bar and support for high quality teaching, B)increase funding and support in research based ways, C)lower standards D) teach to the tests.

C and D are largely the correct answers.  And this lie is not without a cost, roughly 68% of students entering CSU need remedial courses, despite doing everything the State required, they are not academically ready for college.  They pay for these classes, but don’t get credit, and disadvantaged students are more likely to need remedial classes.  So we have been lying to students and families for a while now, and the jig is up.  Our long developing tab is being called for collection, and those holding the bag; current students, families, and educators will bear the cost unless we take some of that burden.

So what can we do?  First, reframe the debate, where teachers and students are not “failures”, and we must develop accurate mechanisms to measure progress, taking account of where students are starting.  We had a middle school student, who was new to the US, had intermittently attended school in their home country and did not recognize words like “and” and “the” on sight.  This student, realistically, will take some time to reach proficiency in even the best of circumstances, and they nor their teacher is a “failure.”

Second, schools need more supports, and learning needs to extend beyond the traditional school day and school year.  A place like Oakland is its own museum, laboratory, and canvass.  There are literally hundreds of opportunities for students to be engaged in informal learning year round, from Lake Merritt, to the shoreline, the parks in the Hills, not to mention the diverse array of businesses and non- profits.  There are tens of thousands of residents who are dedicated to making Oakland better and have some time they could regularly give to schools and students.  We need to find ways to identify our vast human and social capital and to align it and mobilize it for students.

In the end, teachers and students are not “failures.”  We are for setting them up, and we have to do better to create the conditions for success, rather than trying to blame and shame those left holding the bag.

Understanding the “Pain” Behind the “Gain” in the Common Core

13936959441_7baeaed7c4_m common coreAs a supporter of the intent behind the Common Core standards, teaching and testing for deeper meanings, and more complex understanding, it has been painful to watch its implementation.  In New York, a rushed implementation without sufficient resources led to confused teachers and families, plummeting test scores, and a real and substantial backlash.  And as California’s first test scores are released, I think the other shoe will drop, alongside the proficiency rates of students, schools, and districts.  If we hope to avoid the unproductive rancor found elsewhere, advocates need to do a better job of explaining what the Common Core is, and why it is important enough to justify the growing pains that come with it.

Too often, reforms are really done to stakeholders rather than with them.  And without buy in, painful prolonged reform processes, like the move to higher academic standards, will be whittled away at, evaded, watered down, and in some cases repealed.

We have seen a growing opt-out movement in New York, where roughly 20% of families withdraw their children from testing.  And, according to Education First, last year, the first year of implementation for most states, saw two states repeal the common core, three require a review, and another 21 survived legislative repeal efforts. Whether this is just a set of early stumbles or the start of a tumble down the stairs depends on how advocates engage and convince those who will feel its effects most directly: families and educators.


A couple of recent blogs have highlighted these issues. In TNTP’s, “What Do Parents Think About the Common Core,”  a group of involved parents who also worked at Aspire Eres Charter School described their experiences and understandings of the shift to the Common Core standards and its implications. Like most parents, they are feeling the effects through increasingly complex class and homework, and a sense that expectations have been raised.  And, when asked to explain what the Common Core really is, or the rationale behind it—they struggled.  These particular parents raised language as a potential barrier, but I think these issues cross race, language, and class lines.  I bet 95% of all parents—who don’t work in curriculum or instruction—could not really answer this question either.  That’s a problem.

Another broader article, “The Ultimate Demise of the Common Core—Part II: The Parents,” describes the antipathy that parents have shown here.  In both, there is bad news for Common Core supporters and real storm clouds ahead unless we get our act together.

Coming from New York, where we implemented Common Core a year earlier and really screwed it up, I can smell the storm in the air.  In New York the standards were dropped on students and teachers too quickly; the tests were high stakes in year one, and they were much more difficult than the previous state tests.  There were not good curricular resources for teachers that were proven, and everyone felt frustration, with proficiency rates plummeting, students that were “advanced” now testing as “below proficient,” and lower achieving students sitting stupefied by the complexity of the questions and often the answer choices.  This was a whole new ballgame, and nobody really had shown us the rules or given us the training to be successful.

POTENTIAL GAINS5074150006_264620dcfb_m student testing

The move toward Common Core is the right direction in my opinion. And New York’s results, while sobering, at least are more honest, giving families a true report on their students’ academic progress and whether they are on track to be college and career ready.

Over the last decade, if not longer, I have seen teaching narrow to very narrow tests, and schools dumbing down and teaching students (particularly disadvantaged students) in an anti-intellectual way.  I remember doing school visits where they were doing test prep (which happened more and more over the years in general) and math problems were on the board in each room, and they were decoding the questions, teaching students key words (if you see “less” cross it out and put a minus symbol). There was not a push to think through what was really being asked or to analyze the problem.  This old way of teaching to a very narrow test, was stultifying to students, depressing for teachers, and ultimately did not prepare students for the challenges they would face in career, higher education, or their own intellectual development.

The Common Core is bitter medicine.  Especially at first, it is difficult to choke down, and it may lead to more initial discomfort for the sake of long-term gain.  But without a strong rationale, discomfort is usually fought and avoided.  As a kid, I would get ear infections; they would pound incessantly. The solution then was horrible tasting purple oral penicillin. And all I knew about it was it tasted bad.  So my solution: if nobody was looking, I would just pour the little cup out behind the couch.  Eventually someone moved the couch, and there was a large purple Rorschach stain…and I probably had more and more painful infections that I should have.

We need to authentically engage and support staff and families in the dialogue on Common Core implementation.  There is some pain to come, and unless people understand the gains, I fear that they will resist or toss the medicine.