Oakland Tech Distance Learning Model of minimesters fails to meet academic expectations

A guest post from parent Sam Tsitrin, identifying some issues with distance learning at Tech and looking for answers

I am a parent of a 9th grade student at Oakland Tech High School which, according to some metrics at least, is Oakland’s best performing public high school. Based on my former experience as a credentialed science and math teacher and administrator, as well as a parent of a teenager, I don’t believe the current ‘minimester’ learning model works well enough to provide the education that hundreds of OUSD students desperately need.

Students need consistent exposure to core courses in order to scaffold learning.  The current minimester system has an almost 3 month break during the school year, when students will not get Math, Science, History or Foreign language.  As a parent, my voice is vital, but I have not been able to get any satisfying answers, and parents were not involved in negotiating this “solution.”  We should be.

With the passing of SB280, instructional minutes for High School have been reduced to 240 from 360. SB280 also implores distance learning to consist of “content aligned to grade level standards that is provided at a level of quality and intellectual challenge substantially equivalent to in-person instruction”. Both OUSD and OEA have agreed in the summer to attempt to provide 240 instructional minutes of distance learning through a ‘minimester’ schedule for middle and high schools. 

What does this minimester schedule look like in practice? Well, for my student in Q1 it consisted of 4 subjects: Math, History, Foreign Language, Science. My student would spend about 60 minutes on two subjects at a time in synchronous class and then have asynchronous assignments for the other two classes in the afternoon. The quality of asynchronous assignments was rather low, with homework taking sometimes just 5 minutes to complete, much less than 90-120 minutes that he would need to spend to fulfill the 240 minutes requirement. I supplemented as much as I could and held my tongue. 

However, soon I realized that in Q2 he would only have 3 subjects: Art, PE and English and the other 4 core subjects would not be offered at all. This means an almost 3 month break from Math, Science, History and Foreign Language! In my experience, this long break and lack of rigor in instruction fails to meet “a level of quality and intellectual challenge substantially equivalent to in-person instruction” as stated in SB280.

Currently on Mondays and Thursdays he is supposedly fulfilling the 240 minutes a day requirement by 60 minutes of synchronous PE , 30 minutes of Advisory, 60 more minutes of “Tutorial” which is a forced babysitting hour that has dubious purpose and the asynchronous afternoon assignments in Art such as drawing lines of different shape etc. And this is supposed to pass for adequate secondary college prep education? 

Let me be clear. I know this is not a normal year and everyone is under a lot of stress and scrambling to make this system work in distance learning. I am also not asking to reopen schools, as I believe that is not going to be on the table for Spring 2021. I am also not asking the parties to consider a 7 period zoom day, that is not a viable option. I am asking OUSD and OEA to reconsider the disastrous minimester approach to high school education and modify the program. 

Other public schools in the Bay Area have come up with better models to serve their students. Why can’t Oakland? For example, Berkeley High is also on a minimester approach, sort of. Their minimesters switch every 4 weeks instead of every Quarter so there are fewer content gaps. More importantly they provide double the number of synchronous minutes that OUSD does, and still the students only have 3 zoom periods per day. Castro Valley is another example. There, all the 7 periods are offered each week on a rotating schedule of 45 minute synchronous classes with 3 or 4 each day except wednesday. No content breaks, and no zoom overload either. I am sure there are plenty of other examples of districts doing all they can to make sure their students don’t completely waste their time in high school during this treacherous pandemic time. 

I have spoken to principals, directors, board members and the superintendent about this issue, but am still unclear about what impact parents can have on the upcoming negotiations between OUSD and OEA. The only publicly accountable and elected  legal body, the Board, is going to be in a lame duck session and therefore not active in this discussion. OUSD directors I have spoken with, are sympathetic, but at the same time have indicated that this issue is not at the forefront of their negotiations with OEA. I have no idea how to contact OEA and let my voice be heard since they have no reason to consider parents in their decisions. My last hope is that if more parents speak up about this issue the negotiating teams would consider making changes to save the high school program. It is not too late to make changes to the Spring 2021 model, otherwise this year of high school education would have been entirely wasted and who will suffer the consequences most? Our students.

Sam Tsitrin is an engineer and a musician, living in Oakland and raising three school-age children.In his previous career Sam was a teacher and high school site director in Oakland.

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