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The Top 10 Biggest Changes in Oakland public education in the last decade

Our Voice      January, 2020     

I’ve been working with Oakland public schools for 20 years – long enough to watch several classes of children start kindergarten and then too few go on to college; long enough to see what it takes to improve a struggling system; and long enough to recognize that our history must inform our path forward. After reading other Top 10 retrospective lists over the last couple of months, I thought it would be interesting to reflect on the last decade in Oakland public education (in roughly chronological order):

1. Return to “Local Control”: In 2009-2010 OUSD’s elected board regained local control after seven years of state administration brought on by severe fiscal mismanagement. The problem was so bad that the state government issued the largest school district bailout in state history ($100M). With the return of local control, the OUSD Board hired Tony Smith, a local long-time educator with strong community ties to lead the district. He then left after a few years in the face of strident push back as he sought to make hard decisions to secure fiscal solvency of the district. Ten years later, we’ve managed to keep local control, but the specter of state takeover still looms over the district. We still have a state trustee with stay and desist powers, the Alameda County Office of Education is the primary agent of oversight, and district leaders are again trying to figure out how to keep OUSD out of bankruptcy.

2. Rise of Restorative Justice and the Office of Equity. In response to disparities in data around discipline showing African American students getting suspended at ten times the rate of white students, OUSD sought a new approach to student discipline dating back to the mid 2000s. This culminated in the early 2010s with research-backed results, shifts in the state accountability system to include suspension rates as a measure of school quality, and support from the U.S. Department of Education (Thank you, President Obama). OUSD saw a 48% decrease in suspensions between the 2011-12 and 2017-18 school years. Additional data showed the need for a targeted approach to support for African American students, birthing the African American Male Achievement initiative in 2010, which evolved by the end of the decade into an office of equity with support for Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander, African American female, and LGBTQ students. All of these initiatives have since faced budget cuts, with Restorative Justice as a department within OUSD barely surviving the last round. With more cuts on the horizon, integrating the approach into individual school site daily practice will be critical to its widespread continuation.

3. Common Core State Standards are standard now. In August 2010, California State Board of Education adopted the Common Core State Standards for math and English language arts, raising the bar for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. In the subsequent 10 years, schools have, to varying degrees, tried to figure out what how to help students reach this new level of academic rigor as manifested in the new state-required test by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). Mostly, they have been unsuccessful, in part because curriculum publishers hadn’t actually changed anything in their materials and because many teachers were never trained to make the shifts. Now, there are some really good CCSS-aligned curricula available (including some open-source ones, so limited funds is no excuse) and more high quality professional development offerings. Most Oakland schools have yet to adjust to the new standards, but some are making progress.

4. More money for schools. Thanks to California’s new school funding approach, the Local Control Funding Formula signed into law in 2013, the state now spends much more per student than in the lean years of the Great Recession. California policymakers even created a formula that sends more funds to schools and districts serving more high-need students. This has meant state revenues for OUSD increased by over 30% for serving the same number of students. Unfortunately, some of those gains have been offset by higher expenses, especially in pension costs and special education services. And despite the increase, California remains at the bottom among states in per pupil funding – 41st in the nation to be exact. Locally, Oakland voters generously approved OUSD’s Measure N Linked Learning initiative in November of 2014. Measure N gave more high school students access to career-relevant courses, connected local businesses with schools, and ultimately contributed to an increase in graduation rates. (Note: this initiative will need to be renewed after it expires in 10 years, i.e. by November 2024.) It passed in large part because many diverse groups came together to support more funding for all public schools, district and charter. Let’s do it again in 2020.

5. Easier enrollment: For most of the 20th century, parents were just assigned a school in their neighborhood. No choice: “you get what you get and don’t be upset” (apparently also a common saying among preschool teachers at snack time). At the beginning of the 21st century, in 2004, OUSD adopted an open enrollment policy, giving families a chance to apply to a school outside their neighborhood. Charter schools also had an open enrollment process and lottery, so by the beginning of the 2010s, it was really confusing for public school families. Every charter had its own application and timeline, and the district had a separate options process with its own forms and its own timeline. Oakland Enrolls (OE), a common charter school enrollment platform, launched in 2015. In the subsequent years, OE and OUSD coordinated a bit – and now, families can go to one website to look at their options, apply online to all district and almost all charter public schools, with the same deadlines and just two nearly identical applications. (Public Service Announcement: Enrollment is already happening for the 2020-2021 school year! If your child is entering kindergarten, 6th grade, or 9th grade, go to the Oakland School Finder and apply by February 7!)

6. A new accountability system. Along with the new standards and state tests came a new accountability system which finally launched in 2017. For most of the last decade, the state didn’t provide anything, having abandoned the old Academic Performance Index with its 3-digit number, Similar Schools ranking, and easy-to-understand 1-10 statewide ranking. The new system – much to the delight of people who realize that school quality is more than just one year of test scores (i.e. almost everyone) – considers year-to-year change in addition to absolute performance, uses multiple measures including indicators of school climate, and highlights subgroup outcomes. Because the California School Dashboard includes all these other factors, it’s not very user-friendly and certainly is quite a bit more complicated than GreatSchools 1-10 rankings, Yelp’s 5-star system, and the number of thumbs up on the page. It’s also still unclear what the state intends to do for students in schools that are rated “red” (i.e. the lowest category) on many measures for multiple years … or conversely, how to encourage schools that are all “blue” (i.e. the highest rating) for multiple years to serve more students and/or share what they have learned. Sadly, too many Oakland students are in schools whose Dashboards have a lot of red.

7. Tectonic demographic shifts. The 2020 census has just started but we already know what it will say: the demographics of Oakland’s population is very different today compared to a decade ago. Fewer African American families: down from 31% in 2010 to 23% in 2019. A plurality of Latinx students: from 38% of students to almost half of Oakland public school students today – although this category masks incredible diversity, including 4th generation Californians as well as newcomers from Central America who speak indigenous languages and are unaccompanied minors who have lived through trauma. Housing costs that have spiraled out of control in Oakland and across the Bay Area have displaced families who have lived here for generations and disrupted communities. Teachers and other school staff are priced out of the market. Some families have become homeless, and many others live with a constant sense of insecurity. All this created new challenges for our educators seeking to serve all students well.

8. Labor on the upswing. The Oakland Education Association’s 7-day teacher strike in February 2019 was a good reminder that Oakland is a union town (in case anyone thought that unions were going to ebb as a result of the Supreme Court’s 2018 Janus v ACFSME decision banning mandatory dues for non-union members). On the heels of a 6-day strike by United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) and part of a wave of strikes nationally (with more workers on strike in 2018 and 2019 than any years since the 1980s), the OEA strike reasserted the union’s power in policy and politics. Several charter schools are now unionized, and the California Teachers Association spent more on lobbying and advocacy than any other group in Sacramento in 2019.

9. Changes and challenges for charter schools. In October 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill amending California’s charter law for the first time in 25 years, the culmination of years of lobbying, some high profile failures, and shifts in public opinion. The revised law will make it harder for new charters to get approved or expand and may result in more closures. For the almost 30% of Oakland public school families who have chosen a charter school for their children and are happy with their choice, the new law is scary. For the thousands of families on charter school waitlists hoping to get in next year, this is deeply disappointing. For anti-charter activists, this doesn’t go far enough. For the families, teachers and community leaders who just want more good schools in our city, regardless of label, we’ll just need to wait and see.

10. The end of Small Schools: In the aughts, Oakland was known for its “Small Autonomous School Movement” which subdivided large campuses into multiple smaller schools, in the hopes of creating more intimate and nurturing learning environments. Some of these are now high-performing, sought-after schools. Others were less successful, and as families chose other options, some schools became unintentionally even smaller, to the point of financial unsustainability (not to mention unsustainability for the remaining skeleton crew burning the midnight oil to handle all those extra duties). At the end of the decade, OUSD decided to consolidate some small schools, much to the distress of communities struggling with constant instability. OUSD’s decision to expand some higher performing, high-demand schools at the same time has not stemmed the tide of criticism, and yet more changes are likely afoot – and necessary – as we start this next decade.

All in all, a tumultuous decade for Oakland public schools. But plenty stayed the same too – and I’ll explore that in my next post. Stay tuned!

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