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Why he quit OUSD, after 17 years

By Katy Murphy
Wednesday, July 30th, 2008 at 6:30 am in resignations, special education, teachers.

Jim Farwell, a school psychologist, wrote this essay about his decision to leave the Oakland school district.

In the 17 years that I served as a school psychologist in Oakland’s special education program, I’ve encountered a number of disturbing themes.

I will never forget a staff meeting in which it was announced that children in the middle and high schools who are mandated to receive speech and language services would no longer receive services through the school district. Instead, the parents, many of whom were living under the poverty level, would be given a list of local agencies. The parents would have to pay the $100 fee per visit up front and would be reimbursed at a later time.

How can many parents afford to pay $100 to $200 a week for their child to receive speech and language services?

Then there is the way that Oakland mistreats its teachers. New staff is hired fresh out of college. They are given a six-week “orientation” the summer before the school year begins. These sincere, motivated young people are then placed in special education classes as teachers. They know nothing about class room management, curriculum, teaching strategies or testing procedures. They are not provided with the ongoing “coaching” that is mandated. They are not given materials. At the middle school level these newbies are expected to teach five periods per day with just one period for preparation, testing, report writing, meetings and consulting with staff and parents. Such an approach promotes the “use ‘em, abuse ‘em and lose ‘em” phenomenon that presently exists in Oakland. We cannot keep staff. Is it any wonder?

I’ll end with a final example of the administration’s priorities: In one severely handicapped class, a student had a condition that demanded she have her own aide. The administration instructed the teacher to not say anything to the parents about the need for such support because it would cost the district too much money. This placed the teacher in an ethical bind. To not provide for an individual aide would potentially place the child in harm’s way. If he did what he felt was in the child’s best interest, he would be reprimanded and written up. So he resigned, after just one year.

I have decided that I, too, can no longer support a district that doesn’t focus on the best interest of children. That is why I have tendered my letter of resignation.

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  • Nextset

    Since the District cannot print money, it is not unexpected that OUSD would cut services, triage demands for service, and in general just stop paying for things.

    Welcome to the real world. Money does not grow on trees, unless you are the feds in which case money grows on printing presses and computers.

    The fact that someone can benefit from taking money from an organization doesn’t mean that they can expect to be given the funds. The equasion has to balance. No money equals no services, and that’s a fact of life. As to why there is no money, well, look at OUSD low productivity and exessive management. It’s no different that any other factory economics problem. Except this is a failure factory. Efficiency isn’t their thing.

    I follow the complaint about use ‘em and lose ‘em with the teachers, though. If you cannot run your business with a staff being treated in a reasonable manner you show that you don’t expect to be around for long (as in management surfing various districts on the way to the fat pay and retirement).

    I also agree that people should quit working for organizations they can’t feel reasonably good about. Move on, there is a better job situation elsewhere.

    It was probably a mistake to have stayed 17 years. Psychologists are badly needed elsewhere – state prisons, state hospitals, parole outpatient clinics, court evaluation panels and other such places to name just a few. County Mental Health facilities and VA facilities are in great need. There is a lot of good work that is done by Psychologists – but they have to be in an environment that is functional.

  • Sue

    I completely understand the frustration that led to Mr. Farwell’s resigning. I’ve seen it so many times before. That final example brought back memories of some of the experiences we’ve had trying to get our older son necessary and appropriate services. Teachers and staff who weren’t allowed to tell parents things we needed to know to advocate successfully for our child.

    More than once, DH and I have told other parents what we had to learn the hard way – reading the CA Education Code for ourselves, and even harder, understanding what the legal-eze meant for our kid(s).

    And we have been lucky, because we had more than one staff person over the years tell us, “Now, you never heard this from me, but…”

    Of course, we did our research and went straight to the next IEP meeting with the information, and when asked where we learned that, we’d vaguely answer, “Oh, I was talking with a group of parents, and I don’t remember who said that. But I checked it on the state law web-site and here’s the section of the education code.”

    We’ll always be grateful to the people who risked their jobs to help our son – also to a teacher who asked us to talk to the family of another of her students who wasn’t diagnosed, but should have been – and we always keep those off-the-record conversations from becoming known to district management.

    But it would be so much better for OUSD students if teachers and staff could talk freely to parents. It shouldn’t be necessary to build a parent-teacher relationship of trust for most of a school year, before the teacher can feel their job won’t be jeopardized by saying to a family, “Hey, your kid really needs [this], and here’s how to get it for him.” The student (and sometimes the whole class, and the teacher) could start benefiting in September or October instead of waiting until April or May.

  • Sue

    “The fact that someone can benefit from taking money from an organization doesn’t mean that they can expect to be given the funds. The equasion has to balance. No money equals no services, and that’s a fact of life.”

    The fact is that IDEA requires the district to inform parents, and to provide “necessary and appropriate services”. The law makes no exceptions for finacial/cost reasons. When the district fails to inform, and when it fails to provide services, the district is in violation of federal law.

    If the family finds out, and if they bring a lawsuit, the district loses. Then the district still has to provide the services, maybe adding out-of-district remedial services to compensate for the previous lack, and they have to pay for the lawyers and the court costs, and possibly punative damages to the family, too.

    When the district plays this game (and they do!) they’re counting on families not knowing their rights, and on getting away with law-breaking. It hurts the students, but eventually some family catches on, and then it hurts the district’s budget more than providing the services in the first place.

    It’s a stupid, short-sighted policy. It may save some Spec. Ed. costs now, but it will end up costing more later.

  • John

    PARENTS! IF AT ALL POSSIBLE GET YOUR CHILD OUT OF THE OAKLAND UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT. ANYWHERE BUT OAKLAND!

    I could add a lot of my own horror stories to those contained in the letter of the resigned resigning psychologist, but enough already! GET OUT OF OAKLAND!

    For those on the economic edge San Leandro doesn’t have rent control but they do have better schools. As a special education teacher I followed up on several parents I sent that way. It’s an upgrade, to be sure.

  • Nextset

    Sue, I sympathize with your points but “no money” trumps federal unfunded mandates. A federal entitlement doesn’t mean OUSD can pull the money out of their rear ends. As far as lawsuits, sue away, OUSD can bankrupt whenever they need to, just like Vallejo.

    Having said that, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Families with special needs kids should push and complain all they can because that’s what it takes to get services. But at some point the well runs dry and you have to move on and try another well.

    There is every reason to be concerned that we (USA) are heading into an economic collapse equal to or greater than the great depression. Getting help for special needs kids will be one of the first things to go out the window if the coming months (yes, months) unravel as some observers who are tracking economic indicators are correct. These problems are not Dr. Farwell’s fault and they are possibly not OUSD’s fault. I would argue that Vallejo – it’s people and politicians aren’t at “fault” either. Stuff has happened and is happening. All we can do is try to take care of what and who we can. Triage, people…

    Good luck to Dr Farwell in his career – there is great work available in the Bay Area (and CA) for him to do.

  • jim2812

    Both Jim Farwell’s previous letter to the editor of the Tribune, and this most recent posting, has provided an opportunity to open up a discussion of specific policies of the OUSD special education department.

    All of Mr. Farwell’s points need discussion and appropriate change in how the OUSD special education department is managed. My main concern is that the needs of special education students are taking a back seat to the District’s need to cut costs in special education.

    Was not the former head of OUSD special education given a huge pay increase to bring her cost cutting Oakland experience to Washington D.C.?

    I was not a fan of such a priority in Oakland and certainly was not pleased to see the priority of cost cutting rewarded with a higher paying job in Washington D.C.–another city with taxation without representation.

    Mr. Farwell makes the case that OUSD special education policies favor cost controls over ethics and everything else.

    What is also unacceptable is that the current administration supports suppression of discussion of its policies. A special education teacher testified at a recent school board meeting that she and another special education teacher had petitioned the current head of special education to meet with them and discuss their concerns but at the time of her testimony their request for a meeting had been stonewalled.

    It is time for a discussion of special education issues and a time for holding management accountable for its policies that Mr. Farwell identifies, whether management wants that discussion, or not.

    Jim Mordecai

  • Sue

    Nextset, I know you’re a lawyer. But you can trust me on this one. When the district tries to play the no-money card, all the Spec. Ed. law experts recommend this response: “I understand what this service will cost the district, and I’m confident that you will find a way to pay for it.”

    Works like a charm. Every time.

  • Caroline

    Wouldn’t it be nice if the wonderfully generous billionaires who are making Oakland their little playground for experimenting with their education reform hobby would provide some funds to provide needed services for disabled students?

  • Nextset

    Sue, I don’t disagree with you – the OUSD management can play shell games with the money for a long time. My point was more abstract – money is finite and OUSD can’t be all things to all people. The economic shakeout we are about to experience will produce many new experiences for households, businesses and municipalities. There will not be enough money to meet basic expenses. You will likely soon see people having to make decisions more traumatic than discontinuing Cable TV.

    The schools cannot spend massive amounts of money on a single child or a class of children to the point of shutting down academic programs for the entire district.

    On the other hand maybe they will be forced to try innovations that will get you more teaching bang for less buck. Software, for example.

    Brave New World.

    Caroline: As far as the Gates and their Education foundation – you’d think a smart man like him would have figured this out by now. If he would just do for primary and secondary education what IBM did for the banking and airline industries in the mid 20th century the productivity savings would free up more funds to work with the dull students. Our banking industry for example handles far more accounts and transactions now than in 1950 with far fewer workers – productivity increases – thanks to IBM’s development of MICR encoding and accounting and statement systems that moved banking from hand kept ledgers to printed account statements. Airline reservation systems accomplished similar productivity gains that contributed to the middle class being better able to afford to travel.

    There’s been no such productivity jumps in our typical primary and secondary public schools. Gates’ could produce and roll out a software package to fully automate enrollment, attendance, lessons, test administration, grading, transcript keeping, family communication and state reporting software that could become a national standard and improve productivity in public education. No sign of that yet. The schools could really use it.

  • Cranky researcher

    There are numerous efforts to use computer technology to streamline enrollment and test administration and other data needs and OUSD has done some of that. I don’t see that it has resulted in any cost savings, however, and the percentage of administrative costs in OUSD is higher than the state average. It is also difficult to translate that into classroom improvements when teachers are highly strained as the psychologist depicted.

    There have also been numerous efforts to teach students with computers and nothing has yet demonstrated that a human teacher is optional. Education is not susceptible to same efficiencies of scale as accounting because human children aren’t numbers. Maybe when video game technology creates better virtual worlds… a la the cyberpunk novel Diamond Age. We can afford good education, it is an investment that more than pays for itself in productivity. But more money isn’t the answer, research also shows that. It’s all about attitude and knowledge. See also book titled Predictably Irrational, chapter on market vs social exchange – behavioral economics research suggests that more pay will not increase teacher effectiveness, but more social returns might.

  • Sue

    Oh, please, not Microsoft products!

    Sorry, I work in the industry, and if we want the schools to have systems and applications that actually *work* off the shelf, we shouldn’t waste our limited education dollars to M$. Maybe after they get to the 5.x or 6.x release when 80-90% of the bugs have been fixed.

    Now, Adobe makes good products that actually work reliably. If we wanted to use their products in education, I could support that decision.

    Hey, there’s the answer – get the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to pay Adobe to develop what our school systems need. And for educational software for the kids to do computer-based learning, Humongous Entertainment would be my first choice.

  • Nextset

    Cranky: I don’t think we can replace human teacher, only supplement them. To some extent we can make secondary education more self service also. There just needs to be more movement in this industry (Education is an industry) towards more productivity.

    Sue: You’re absolutely right that the Gates Foundation can just as easily foot the bill to have the software developed outside of Microsoft. I sure don’t endorse them as the soloution to all software needs. Quicken is better than Microsoft Money.

  • Cranky Teacher

    While Oakland has a reputation as being a lousy district, although not as lousy as San Francisco, it should be noted that the problems Mr. Farwell cites are endemic in public education in all but the wealthiest districts. Don’t kid yourself that these are just Oakland problems.

    – Teacher turnover and new teachers lacking adequete preparation, mentoring and support.

    – Overworked teachers given too much time with students, too many students and increasingly onerous paperwork, professional development and parent outreach mandates.

    – A built-in conflict between what it takes to teach students with special needs and the scarcity of a resource-starved system which must serve anybody who asks.

    I salute Mr. Farwell for serving for 17 years. I myself can’t imagine putting in more than ten into a system as stressful as this one.

  • Jose, Former Student

    You guys are the adults,

    I have herd that OUSD gets over 400 hundred million dollars a year to serve about 37,000 students.

    Ms. Murphy, do you or anyone else know the correct numbers? With this information, we will have a better picture of what is goin on in the district.

  • Katy Murphy

    Jose: You’re right, the budget is over $400 million, although it’s about 9 percent smaller than it was last year b/c of budget cuts and declining enrollment. I posted a copy of the budget presentation on an earlier post, if you want more detail.

    http://www.ibabuzz.com/education/2008/06/23/your-school-board-this-week-school-enrollment-changes-and-next-years-budget/

  • Jose, Former Student

    Ms. Murphy,

    Thank you for the information. I am only 18 and most of you seem to be adults. If we were consertive and said OUSD has only 400 million dollors for 37,000 students, that would come to over $10,800 per student.

    Why do you guys think more money is the answer to our education problems? My mom was not able to get an education growing up in Mexico. She came to the United States and worked as a maid to support us.

    My mom taught all of us that you “can not” spend above your income. What is the problem with the people who run the schools?

    Why should we give them more money and they can’t manage what they have now to run the schools?

  • John

    Jose for Superintendent!

  • Jim Farwell

    I am appreciative of all of your responses to my posting. We can talk about the state of education from many different angles. Jose’s point is really an honest response to the district’s need to be financially responsible. Jim’s point about the district needing to address management issues whether it is comfortable for them to do so or not is, for me, equally true.

    The notion that there are other districts who are not meeting their children’s needs is equally true. Oakland is not the only district who comes up short.

    My frustation is that what is mandated in a child’s IEP is a legally binding contract that the district must carry out. Oakland’s announcement that parents are to pay out of their pockets for something that has been written into the IEP is illegal.

    Every bit as much of an issue is that if the child has been determined to need a particular service, and the district does not provide that service, the child’s needs are not being met. If we are not meeting the needs of our children we are not doing our job.

    There are no excuses. Instead of the district stonewalling matters, there needs to be an open forum between the Board of Education, the special education administration, the parents of children in special education and teaching staff. My feeling is that the special education administration has, typically not been the most astute at problem solving. Such a forum might lead to a set of proposals, through developing consensus, that would be an improvement over the top down administrative style that is presently in place. No one person is so all knowing that they are above dialoging with staff or those who are invested in the special education program. The bottom line is that we are about meeting the needs of our students. The special education department doesn’t seem to know how to do that. A public forum on this whole subject seems like the next logical step in fixing something that is truly broken.

    Jim Farwell

  • calvin criddle

    You have contributed a great deal to the OUSD and i hate to see you go under these conditions. Good luck!!!!!

  • Jim Farwell

    Dear Calvin Criddle:

    Thank you for your taking the time to care and for your kind words. The years that I was privileged to work with you at Frick were special. Be well!!