A long view of public education in Oakland

Steven Weinberg retired in June after a long career in Oakland’s public middle schools. His wife, Georganne Ferrier, also retired from OUSD; she taught English at Oakland High. (True story: They met in 1967, on their first day of student-teaching at McClymonds). Weinberg will share his insights with us, from time to time, as a guest blogger. -Katy

When someone retires after 40 years of teaching, it is only fair to expect that he be able to offer some insight into the changes that have taken place over that period of time. There seems to be a general feeling that things are getting worse in American schools, but when I look back at the really dramatic changes in the past 40 years, all of them have been positive:

When I began teaching in 1969, there were students in my regular eighth grade English classes who could literally (or illiterately) not read 10 words. These were students who entered school before President Johnson’s War on Poverty had set up the Head Start Preschool program and Title One funding for schools in low income areas. Although we still have many students who read far below grade level, the complete non-reader has disappeared from regular classes at the schools where I have worked.

In my early years of teaching, I would have to send students on a daily basis to the nurse’s office to have essence of cloves put on their gums to give them relief from untreated dental problems. Between the fluoridation of water and the Medi-Cal dental program, these problems no longer interfere with students’ abilities to learn.

In the late 60s and early 70s, our school had to call ambulances regularly (certainly several times a month) to take students to the hospital for drug overdoses. This was the golden age of recreational pills, and our students were incredibly careless about what they swallowed. Within a few years, students became more careful, and while drug usage is still a major problem in society, overdoses at school rarely occur.

Speaking of drugs, when I started teaching you could not enter a junior high restroom (or a faculty workroom) without being engulfed in a cloud of smoke. It seemed like half the students were carrying and smoking cigarettes. Health education and higher tobacco taxes have successfully reduced this lethal habit. Today it is very rare to see a middle school student smoking.

When I began teaching, women and non-white administrators were a rarity. The highest levels of administration were closed to them. Obviously, that has changed. I remember early in my career being told by teachers, who otherwise were very liberal, that we could not expect much academically from Hispanic girls, because all they cared about was getting married and starting a family. Now I am very gratified to look at the honor roll of my school and see these young ladies heavily represented.

Of course, we still have many problems to overcome as educators and as a society, but reflecting back on the progress we have made helps us avoid the feeling of helplessness that can sometimes undercut our energy to press forward.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Nextset

    It’s very useful to hear about improvements in the quality of OUSD student life from one decade to the next from someone who was there. I hope there are more posts made about this subject.

    I have heard that there was a time when students who turned up pregnant were summarily expelled/transferred to schools/programs for wayward girls. That sounds like a good thing to me. In your experience did this happen? In your opinion is the discipline (ie disposition of insubordinate students) less now than in, say, 1965?

    What happened to the hot cimmamon rolls?

  • http://perimeterprimate.blogspot.com Sharon

    Thank you, Katy, for contacting Steve and allowing him this opportunity to share his knowledge with the general public. We will all be learning a great deal from his posts.

    The brilliant education researcher, Richard Rothstein, wrote a book called “The Way We Were: The Myths and Realities of America’s Student Achievement” (1998). Chapter by chapter he reviews the historical trends of test scores and social promotion, as well as the education of minority students and English learners. This is an academic work, with multiple citations. As the book’s foreword states, “He presents important evidence that the nation’s public schools are performing as well as or better than ever (and even that most parents are happy with their children’s schools), yet the public debate about education is largely framed in terms of failure and decline.”

    Rothstein does not believe that schools should not try to do better, or can’t. He suggests that any organization should be working to constantly improve itself, and that most actually do. The truth is that most businesses, schools, and individuals are constantly striving to be better, and that, in reality, great strides have been made in public education over the past several decades. A number of people have been trying to get the word out that there is no true “crisis,” despite the propaganda Pied Pipers that constantly tell us so, something that’s been going on since Sputnick. David Berliner and Bruce Biddle discuss who is driving this phenomenon in “The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, And The Attack On America’s Public Schools” (1996). Kathy Emery and Susan Ohanian also discuss it in “Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools” (2004).

    It’s high time that the public catches on about the neo-liberal attack on public education. FYI, neo-liberalism has absolutely nothing to do with social liberalism, of the stereotypically-Berkeley type. Instead, it is an economic theory about promoting unrestrained capitalism which originated with Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics. Its main points are:
    1. THE RULE OF THE MARKET. This is where reducing wages by de-unionizing workers and eliminating workers’ rights comes in.
    2. CUTTING PUBLIC EXPENDITURE FOR SOCIAL SERVICES like education and health care.
    4. PRIVATIZATION. Sell state-owned enterprises, goods and services to private investors. This includes banks, key industries, railroads, toll highways, electricity, schools, hospitals and even fresh water
    5. ELIMINATING THE CONCEPT OF “THE PUBLIC GOOD” or “COMMUNITY” and replacing it with “individual responsibility.” (In today’s education terms, known as “choice.”)

    Once these things are accomplished, the corporatists are home free. You’ll notice how familiar these concepts sound if you’ve read any pro/anti charter school debate. Did you know that some people actually call themselves “education entrepreneurs” these days?

    The strategy for implementing these principals most effectively goes like this. First, a “crisis” stage should be set, and the previous system should be wiped out as rapidly as possible (or cleanly obtained during a real crisis, as in the case of New Orleans public school system after Katrina). To make this happen most effectively, they look for/or create a “politics free-zone” (code phrase for no participation from the masses). OUSD experienced some of this, especially under Randy Ward, the first of the three Eli Broad-trained State Administrators, who immediately closed many pre-existing district schools and opened up more charters, despite the fact that the district’s total enrollment was declining. Read the 2007 Center for Education Reform report (a neo-liberal, education reform think tank), “National Model or Temporary Opportunity?” and you’ll recognize all these themes as expressed from the neo-liberal point of view.

    Sorry for the long post, but these things need to be said. Welcome to the Education Report, Steve.

  • Nextset

    The Neo Liberal thing looks great to me.

  • Lara

    As a former colleague and mentee of Georganne, I’m delighted to see Steven writing for this blog. I’ve learned a great deal from both of these amazing educators, and look forward to reading Steven’s future posts.

  • Jessica Stewart

    Steven – this was great! Keep it coming.

  • Steven Weinberg

    Thank you Nextset, Sharon, Lara, and Jessica for your kind words, and Sharon for the summaries of two excellent books.
    Nextset, you are correct that students who became pregnant used to be forced to attend special programs, but I am not sure of the details or when the transfers became optional. Perhaps another reader has more information.
    You also asked about discipline. That is a complex subject, and I might devote an entire entry to it, but in general I would say that things have not changed much for either better or worse. The problems I see today pretty much match those that I saw in 1967.
    I too remember the hot cinnamon rolls, which I used to enjoy with a cup of hot chocolate during my conference period. The cafeteria workers at the schools prepared the food on site, and many of them were excellent cooks who enjoyed creating very tasty meals for the staff. Unfortunately I gained 15 pounds each school year, which I had to work hard to lose every summer. When the weight stopped coming off, I started bringing my own lunches to work. At first most of the changes to school food (such as the shift from cooking at schools to cooking centrally) were driven by the need to save money, but recently concern about nutrition has played a more important role.

  • Nextset

    As an adult there is no way I could handle the cinnamon rolls today. I believe the comment about the weight gain. As a teen those rolls had me coming to school early knowing that they were just out of the oven.

    This morning I saw this article which also can explain the difference between then and now in OUSD and CA schools.


    The trends discussed delineates why there is little hope for CA public schools, or the quality of life in this state.

  • Steven Weinberg

    Nextset, your link claims that all the problems of California can be traced to non-white immigration. 75 years ago there were many who made identical agruments, substituting Dust Bowl refugees for immigrants. They were not correct, and I do not believe the vdare authors are correct either.

  • Nextset

    Steven W: Hang on to your belief, but watch what is happening to your paychecks. Los Angeles Unified is a perfect example of what is happening to the state and what will happen to the Bay Area as the influx moves North.

    And the Dust Bowl refugees were English speaking. They were Americans. They worked all their lives. The invasion is not about any of that. For some reason the elites in Washington have decided to fire the American people nad replace them with a people more to their liking. I for one think the reasons for doing so are nefarious. And I am quite familiar with the damage done in the streets by this invasion, the dead bodies from the Mexican Gangs and Drug Cartels as well as the public health implications. You don’t see this and great for you, for the time being.

    I have a few friends left who remain in Los Angeles. I was there Tuesday. The conditions of life there are deteriorating steadily especially for blacks. After 50 years at the same residence one elderly black friend is going to relocate to Denver of all places (following all of the adult children who fled LA previously.)

    Most of my contemporaries are thinking of retiring outside of CA.

    You cannot invite in the entire third world and have a viable state – or nation. You will lose your schools, your hospitals, social services, your security, most of what made this state great. OUSD is no different that LAUSD in the end. It just takes a few years for the blight to move up I-5.

  • Gordon Danning

    Nextet: You wil be happy to know that, on several occasions last school year, the Oakland High cafeteria served hot cinnamon rolls for breakfast.

  • http://ahaafoundation.org Katherine Bolman,PhD

    This is a wonderful short course in history. Delightful. Does Steve’s school have a history of art class?
    I think we all need to think about putting great courses on line in a single place. There are great teachers who could, with the help of web designers began to put courses not lesson plans online for teachers everywhere as well as free to students of all ages. Teachers have had to recreate courses over and over again.

    Any ideas out there?

    I am working a course in art history which can be found at ahaafoundation.org

    Would love to hear thoughts.
    Dr. Katherine Bolman

  • Steven Weinberg

    I don’t think art history is offered in middle school in many places. I took it in high school and so did my sons.

  • Caroline

    Hi Steven — could I re-post your commentary on my examiner.com blog, with full credit and all that? Thanks!


  • Steven Weinberg

    Yes, Caroline, and thank you for the link to your blog.

  • Caroline

    Thanks, Steven!

  • Vivian Boyd

    Art History is offered as an AP course in several high schools in the Mt. Diablo Unified School District, but not at the middle school level. They are lucky to still have hands-on art courses. The issue of on-line courses is a difficult subject to tackle. The logic if it seems so simple, but actually making it happen in a sustained manner is a nightmare without someone monitoring the courses.

  • ProStudent

    Great post Mr. Weinberg. Helps give perspective to all of those today who say “students today . . . [insert negative descriptor]” and “it’s not like the olden days when . . . [insert positive descriptor]”. It just is what it is and we still keep teaching them however they come to us.