Rethinking the Superintendent to Reflect Reality in Oakland

The visionary superintendent. Riding in on a white horse. Or better yet, a homegrown hero—politically connected but without enemy. With the vision and prowess to slay Oakland’s education problems and deliver both equity and results.

Look, this wistful existence of the perfect leader for our district is more than just a unicorn. It’s a harmful myth. A myth that may disserve us and have us looking for the wrong person with the wrong qualities—missing the leaders we need.

Superintendents for Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), local or not, have a long historical record of churning. Take a look the numbers from an analysis by Ed78:

Average tenure of Oakland Superintendents (not including Interims) over the past 20 years is 2.4 years—almost exactly how long Wilson stayed! If we look farther back to the past 50 years, the average is a little higher at 3.4 years. The longest service in the past 20 years? Anthony (Tony) Smith at 4 years.

There are a range of reasons they leave, but consistently short tenures. Until someone shows me how the conditions have changed and that we could expect a 10-year supe or even a 6-year supe, I think it’s less important that we have a visionary planning for big changes, and harboring even bigger aspirations.

What we really need is a great manager. Someone who can collaborate with the range of players, and make some reasoned and well-informed hard decisions. Someone who can identify, develop and retain quality staff, and prioritize investments. Someone to just stick to one consistent plan. Our district workplan, while always evolving, should outlast any superintendent or educational fad.

Don’t Fix What Ain’t Broke

Maybe I’m also guilty of being a little optimistic. But many of the basics of OUSD’s plan are working, or are at least moving in the right direction and just need better implementation.

There are real successes in our services to English-language learners, and also the growth of new bilingual pathways. Same with the restorative justice work and differentiation of programs to support specific students like the African American Male Achievement Initiative. And we are seeing real results in increasing graduation rates for some groups and decreasing suspensions overall—though we still have a long way to go.

I have also been impressed by the increasing personalization of learning at OUSD sites like Roosevelt and Metwest and the overall, if uneven, progress with career pathways at the high schools. These investments in making learning more relevant for students will pay off, if allowed to grow with some stability.

Stay the Course

So we don’t need to shake things up. We need to keep looking at transparent data, with the Strategic Regional Analysis and School Performance Frameworks being a start, and design ways to make things fairer, with more equal access to opportunities. And let’s face it, we need more high-performing schools—especially in the Flatlands—since nobody should be happy with where our overall student achievement is.

We don’t need a bunch of new plans, or a new team with a bold vision of transformation. That is not how things work in big districts, especially broke ones. But we do need a leader. There are hard choices to be made, with current deficits and larger looming ones in the future. And some real structural problems with an unbalanced budget, declining enrollment, many more school sites than similarly sized districts, teacher shortages, and a huge loan from the state that predates most children in the schools. I could probably list 10 more strategic challenges, but that’s a good shortlist.

We will have winners and losers here, priorities will need to be ranked, and investments made, while still maintaining the confidence of the community, who can vote with their feet in many cases. It will be a long and difficult slog that will outlast any man or woman.

So we don’t need a hero. We need a leader who can manage. And while not as pretty as a unicorn, they might actually get us somewhere.

What do you think?

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