What to look for in 2016 from OUSD

Last week we recapped OUSD’s 2015, reviewing the Good the Bad and the Ugly, this week we look forward to the year that could be, and what success could look like.  So in no particular order are our priorities for 2016.

  1. Fix/improve special education services
  2. Simplify enrollment for families and facilitate matching
  3. Stabilize high needs staffing areas
  4. Transform successfully one of the highest need schools
  5. Structurally work toward equity
  6. Elevate the debate

Special Education in OUSD is a one way ticket to nowhere– According to the District’s scorecard 9.6% of SpEd students passed the A-G requirements and roughly 5% met or exceeded standards on State tests.  While there has been significant rancor around “mainstreaming” some students with disabilities, that seems mostly smoke and little fire.  The balance of the literature favors thoughtful mainstreaming, and the CA commission on special education specifically called for “a unified education system in which all children, including students with disabilities, are considered general education students first and foremost.”  We need to train and prepare teachers for this, and stop using special education as a segregated holding cell, for (mostly Black and Brown) students facing challenges.

The current enrollment process sucks-73% of families want a unified enrollment system, most don’t care if the school their child attends is a charter of district school—they want a good school, where they are treated fairly.  And as we have detailed before, the current system—which assigns schools based on neighborhood—is inherently inequitable and cements the patterns of residential segregation into school segregation.  The numbers here are startling (found in the “Measuring Up” report)– 62% of White students in Oakland and 57% of non-low income students were enrolled in a top scoring school in reading, however only 10% of low income students, 13% of Black students, and 7% of Hispanic students were enrolled in those schools

Conversely, low income and racial and ethnic minorities are far more likely to be clustered in the lowest performing schools—and Oakland was dead last when it came to ghettoization by income, with low income students being 18 times more likely to be in the lowest scoring schools in reading.

These stats are the result of current policies—which need to change.  And we need to better match families with schools and services, which should be part of the enrollment process.  We need filters for school choices that provide program information for parents (arts, tech focus etc.) and the specific supports that different schools may have (the range of special education, or bilingual services).  All parents need to be empowered to be active choosers of programs that fit, rather than just the well-resourced ones.

Human capital is key to any reforms- Board reports have shown chronic shortages in special education and bilingual staff.  And let’s get real, Oakland will continue to attract English Language Learners (who are roughly 30% of the District now) and have higher needs special education students.  So we need to get creative on how we attract, train, and keep top educators in these areas.  The new contract is a start, as is discussion of subsidized housing, but we need to keep at it to provide high quality stable staff to our most underserved students.

We need a proof point on school reform- School turnarounds nationally have garnered much attention in recent years, mostly for producing precious few result for the costs, this seems to hold true in Oakland, particularly with the comprehensive high schools.  If turnaround is the strategy, we need evidence that it works in the way we are doing it in Oakland.  For many who have watched these cycles of reform, it seems that they are just that—cycles—that often leave us in roughly the same place we started, with fewer resources, and more discouraged stakeholders, with a lot of talk, paper, and bills from consultants, but no better schools for underserved students.

Structural approaches to addressing inequality– We did not become one of the most unequal cities by some accident on fate.  Public policies, discrimination and racism brought us here, and we won’t dismantle these structures without facing them for what they are.  So kudos to OUSD for its office on African American Male Achievement and its increasing efforts to understand and meet subgroup needs.  This starts with data, which we are increasingly seeing in the OUSD scorecard and that of individual schools.  The next step is concerted action and outcome based goals.

Too much talk that ain’t saying nothin’ needs to end- School Board meetings, and much of the public debate is garbage.  Note to the BAMN caucus-calling the Superintendent a “Tom” or chanting and shutting down the meetings is stupid and counterproductive.  On a different note, I continually hear these arguments, where the perfect is juxtaposed as an argument against improvement.

And while I agree with the aspirations, they don’t move us forward now.  For example, folks will argue against open enrollment, charter schools or new/transformed schools more generally, by saying the district needs to put a quality school in every neighborhood.

Yes they do, but they haven’t been able to yet, through multiple administrations and boards, the same neighborhoods are still largely underserved, and parents can’t wait for some hypothetical school to grow, as their child ages and falls further behind.  We need a solution focused debate that looks at short term prospects for students and families as well as the longer term growth of the system.

Oakland has always been a tale of at least two cities.  We need to confront the historical legacies that brought us here, and the privileges that are a remnant of those conditions.  Hopefully 2016 will be a year of focus and clarity that bridges the inequality gap and starts us working together on a common future.


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