School reform deja vu

Today, when the state education department released its lists of “persistently lowest-performing schools,” I zeroed in on the five it identified from Oakland. They’re all middle schools: Alliance Academy, Elmhurst Community Prep, Explore Middle School, ROOTS International and United for Success Academy.

Alliance Academy and Elmhurst Community Prep both made the state list

My first thought was that most of those schools are less than four years old; how could they be persistently anything? (I did just turn a year older last month; maybe time is just advancing more quickly as I age.)

Explore Middle School was the oldest one on the list. It opened in 2004 and is already slated for closure by OUSD because of its low test scores and dwindling enrollment. That leaves four other middle schools, all of which I believe have opened since 2006.

Every last one of those middle schools is the product of a bold education reform measure. Each one was reorganized or built from scratch, with new teachers and a new principal. In most cases, teachers had to reapply for their jobs.

Those are the kinds of measures the federal government is proposing this time around for its Title I School Improvement Grants.

One might argue that the five Oakland middle schools are making improvements and don’t belong on the lowest-performing list at all — as the district is saying for some of them, especially Elmhurst Community Prep (which I highlighted last year as a Small School on the Rise). But even if you believe these schools are all huge failures, why would you think a similar approach would work better now?

What’s your alternative?

Last question: Do you think Oakland Unified should apply for these Title I School Improvement Grants, which would require the schools to make changes by this fall? Schools are supposed to make these interventions eventually, regardless of whether districts apply for the funds, but state and federal law doesn’t give a deadline or specify how such a requirement would be enforced.

Katy Murphy

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

  • http://perimeterprimate.blogspot.com/ Sharon Higgins

    The current mode of ed reform is nothing more than some variation of three-card Monte, “thunk” up by people outside the education and teaching worlds, who think they knew it all. But, it’s quickly becoming apparent that the game is mostly a bunch of misdirected and contrived nonsense. Just check out what “accountability” has led to in Houston (http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/hotstories/6898994.html). A couple of weeks ago there was a similar scandal in Atlanta. We’re now just beginning to get a peek at all the NCLB-induced fraud.

    Bill Gates, Mr. (about-urban-public-schools) completely-naïve, funded the small schools that have sprouted up in cities over the past decade. He chose to fund them because, since he retired from Microsoft, he has embarked on an eternal search for those silver bullets that will eradicate the sad plights of the masses.

    After a handful of years, it became apparent to Gates that his small schools idea wasn’t working as well as he wanted it to, so he discontinued that great venture. He has now now turned his interest, and is funneling his millions, into trying to figure out how to make all the poorly paid, stressed-out, disrespected urban public school teachers into (what Gates imagines) perfect beings. That is why, if you keep abreast with these issues on the national level, the topic of teacher effectiveness is so much in the news and in ed policy talk these days (to wit last Sunday’s NYT magazine cover story).

    Say, where is that magic silver bullet anyway?

    Oddly, Gates and his other billionaire friends poured a ton of money into the charter movement at the exact same time Gates was feeding money to the small schools movement. But the charter schools could grow stronger because they were nourished with more money along with the enrollment of the more-motivated families in the neighborhoods. The lesser sibling was not permitted to solely enroll a selected set of families, so it grew weaker. The mixed message Gates sent has now contributed to the small schools death knell.

    At this point, education policy is in the hands, and at the whim, of Master Lord Gates who has a direct line to Obama and Arne Duncan.

    It would behoove all to read the Billionaire Boys’ Club chapter in Diane Ravitch’s new, highly acclaimed bestseller, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.”

  • Pepe

    Katy, Can you explain better than the cde.ca.gov website how these schools are identified? I expected to see some OUSD high schools on the list…It seems to be based partly on tier placement, but even that explanation is in a foreign language.

  • Steven Weinberg

    Katy, your thoughts were exactly the same as mine when I saw the list. Your posting hit the nail on the head.
    One thing I have noticed is that all of these five schools had drops in API last year. Some of the drops were extremely small, 3 points for example. Many schools with lower scores than Alliance or Elmhurst Community Prep avoided the list, I guess by having an uptick in scores last year. There are a few schools that seemed to have dodged the bullet for other reasons, however. Some charters would have made the list, except they are exempt from these sanctions.
    Test scores, even in schools that are improving, do not go up every single year. Basing decisions on one year’s testing is short-sighted, but the entire process of thinking the key to improvement is testing, humiliating, and disrupting is worse than short-sighted. I second Sharon’s suggestion that people read “The Death and Life of the Great American School System.” Diane Ravitch was a supporter of NCLB, but based on years of observation of the system at work she is now a leading critic.

  • Steven Weinberg

    Katy, in answer to your question about what should be done: give the schools in question more money without disrupting them. All the middle schools that received QEIA funding ($900 per student per year) showed significant improvements last year. Lower class sizes work.

  • Nextset

    I read these stories and notice the cover of Newsweek (“We must fire bad teachers.”) with a growing sense of dread.

    Nowhere in evidence is the thought that bad students are responsible for their own bad scores – which fits the time period we live in I suppose. Personal responsibility is an old school concept.

    Of course there are teachers who cannot impose discipline or inspire students to look up a word in a dictionary – or check something in Wikipedia either. I don’t believe that is what is happening here (although public school teachers are, I suspect, not allowed to impose discipline).

    What we are doing will make sure that no one who might become a teacher will want a career anywhere near large groups of black kids. Career suicide. You will note that we hear nothing from Piedmont, Belmont and the other “monts”. They don’t have these problems. They are never going to have these problems as long as they don’t “integrate” with cognitively impaired kids. And that’s real easy to fix. All they need is to maintain the Ghetto Repellants (Classical Music or performance rules, whatever it takes).

    What we are doing is wrong. We engender bad performance by not penalizing it, then punish those who work with the endangered population. No one with any sense will work under these terms. Does anyone think AIM type Charters can replace the failing schools? I wish they would. The non-performing students would be run out though. Some of them might respond to the discipline and improve. Actually I think many would and we should try this.

    But in the meantime we are going to have Chaos. The complaining about bad teachers is not combined with the slightest support for ending the party atmosphere the kids are in. Nothing will change – the students will not perform to their ability – until we flunk and expell non-performers until they are sent down to containment schools pending starting their careers as day laborers (which should begin by 10th grade, they don’t need 11 & 12 if they are to be laborers).

    When it’s sink or swim time people take lessons fast.

  • Side Convo

    Again, this is off-topic but pressing on my mind: I’ve been talking with other newer teachers, and we just don’t get why our union is so adamantly opposed to charter schools. Can charter teachers join the OEA? What’s the deal?

  • Pepe

    Steven, I can’t find any language about improved or dropped API scores determining eligibility for this list. From the CDE, it appears that it is just the bottom 5%. No other test score criteria is listed. It seems completely arbitrary and invalid based on the schools that made the list. Can anyone explain how exactly these schools were singled out?

    It does appear these schools will be eligible for more money, but they will be forced to choose some drastic changes that don’t appear to actually address the problems at these schools.

  • Cranky Teacher

    Side Convo, my understanding is…

    Charter schools get public, district money yet don’t have to honor union contracts and do not have to serve any child — i.e., special ed, behavioral problems, English-learners, etc.

    The district has a sole, clumsy means of controlling these public/private hybrids: Yanking the charter.

    Now, you may think this taxpayer-funded smorgasbord of charter schools may turn out to lead to better education. Fine. But can’t you see why the union would be threatened by a system which siphons money away from the union “shop” to charters, many of which are run by private corporations?

    Ask any of the hundreds of teachers who have fled the Aspire chain of charters how they feel now about having a union contract to protect them from insane expectations around hours and workload.

    Note that in LA, a charter school union has sprung up:


  • Katy Murphy

    Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond, Pepe. Here’s a quick explanation of the state’s methodology — which, I agree, is not written in plain English.

    First, it’s important to note that state ONLY looked at schools with enough poor students to qualify for Title I funding. (Sort of like NCLB).

    Then, the state divided that group in two: schools that actually get Title I funding from their districts and those that don’t. It selected the bottom 5 percent of EACH of those pools for the list. Hence, the Tier I and Tier II.

    How did the state determine the bottom 5 percent?

    First, it sorted the schools by their proficiency rates on math and English tests, looking at their averages over the last three years. Then, it added up how many API points each school had gained during the last five years of testing. If that total was 50 points or higher, the school was taken off the list.

    The state also added to the list any high school that has reported a graduation rate of below 60 percent for the last four years in a row.

    Does that help?

  • Side Convo

    Thanks, Cranky. I guess I’m really just confused about _why_ charters aren’t required to have union employees like the other public schools. Who thought up that rule?

  • TheTruthHurts

    Nextset, I would argue that it is not either the teachers or the students, but it’s both and . . .

    I read the Newsweek article and you’re right, it only briefly mentions how difficult some of these jobs can be. It does mention that students and parents are blamed for poor performance. I can’t imagine working in schools with the lack of discipline I knew growing up. I’m a “spare the rod . . . ” child, so this “time out” stuff is foreign to me. The trauma that many students go through outside of school is also definitely significant.

    That said, I know schools and teachers that are performing under these conditions. I also know those that are failing miserably. The ones who are succeeding have connected with the kids, gotten some level of parent/guardian/sibling involvement and most know their subject matter pretty well. Above all though, they have a sense of professionalism about their role in society and their importance to their students.

    We have to face the TRUTH. Areas are impoverished for a reason. Working there is likely difficult in ways Piedmont will never be. However, if that reality is met head on, students can and do achieve. I read success stories from Oakland Unified every year to prove it.

    I understand why folks would give up on Oakland, I just won’t be one of them.

  • Nextset

    I have seen claims that the children have things harder now than in generations past. I don’t believe it. My conversations with elderly people and older people a long time ago tell me that conditions for the lower class and the lower middle class were no less difficult during the Korean War, WWII, and the depression eras. Certainly the ability to read and learn was not as easy prior to broadband internet access. And then we can ask the immigrants – including the famous ones such as Joyce Kennard – what it was like grow up/read by candlelight and all the fun times with the boats sinking and walking across borders in the night.

    I do admit the teen gangbanging activity and the flying lead represent a challenge. But we have always had no good parents who will not move their families to a safer environment.

    I believe a lot of the problems we have now with educational scores is the lazy self-centered “students” who are not being corrected at school. Schools used to be quite good at correcting students. Somebody turned that off. To reform education we need to turn it back on and turn it up.

  • Cranky Teacher


    Depends on who you ask. The positive spin is that to achieve the gains charters promise (but as of yet have not delivered as a whole, according to the biggest comparison studies), the schools need to be in much greater control over who works there.

    The darker assessment is that for the real behind-the-scenes political and corporate advocates, charters are really just vouchers in disguise — and a way to funnel public funds to private corporations, while weakening labor unions in the process.

    Here’s an interesting and balanced assessment of charters from a charter supporter upon reviewing the results in his state:
    “Charter schools offer increased flexibility to parents and administrators, but at a cost of reduced job security to school personnel. The evidence to date shows that the higher turnover of staff undermines school performance more than it enhances it, and that the problems of urban education are far too great for enhanced managerial authority to solve in the absence of far greater resources of staff, technology, and state of the art buildings.”

    — State Rep. Mark B. Cohen of Philadelphia

  • Cranky Teacher

    “I have seen claims that the children have things harder now than in generations past. I don’t believe it.” — Nextset

    Economic conditions are clearly better, but what about the emotional one? More kids live in single- or no-parent households, or are in foster care, than ever before. Doesn’t that make life a little more challenging?

  • TheTruthHurts

    Side Convo,
    Unions can organize charter school teachers any time they want to. There’s nothing stopping them, but the teachers themselves. These folks go to work for charters and they know there’s no contract. Sounds like freedom of choice to me. I have a friend in LA who says their charters are unionized though.

    There are other blog posts here explaining why people are against charters. Some make some sense. What they don’t explain is how I tell a parent they can’t go to a high performing school across the street because we want to maintain a poor-performing monopoly. Most parents won’t sacrifice their children that way.

  • http://perimeterprimate.blogspot.com/ Sharon Higgins

    Katy: Are these school closures connected at all to State Senator Gloria Romero’s Senate Bill 742?

    If so, it gives us an idea of what she’ll be after if she gets elected as our State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

  • Nextset

    Cranky: Yes things are different. Not only are female headed households a ghetto norm – and they were not in 1960 – now the female has a job and she didn’t in 1960. Absentee Father and absent and distracted Mother also. That is different.

    I don’t think “different” is “hard”. We know that bastard children in single mother households result in higher numbers of disordered kids/adults. We have a lot more disordered people from these bad homes. Their kids in turn are more prone to mental disorders (lifelong unemployment, homelessness, interpersonal conflict and behavior problems such as drug/alcohol dependence, psychopathy and sex disorders).

    So you are right in the most important way. The (lower class?) products of these homes you see in the schools are now screwed up in a way not seen in WWII, the depression or any other time.

    I just don’t see that they are in pain. Many of them party all the time. My objection here is to the characterization that the non-performing students are suffering. It’s the teachers & staff and other students who do much suffering. I believe the main problem is the attitude of the non-performing students not their lack of oxygen or food.

    I think the schools need to cut through the party atmosphere and establish requirements for admission and retention in academic programs and kick out the bad students (no matter what their excuses are). When this is done people will choose which “school” they want to go to and self select into vocational/academic tracks that will become more manageable and productive for all with the partying down to reasonable levels. Just like in the UK which is multicultural also.

    You cannot run a school district when the kids show up whenever they fell like it or are able to, perform when they feel up to it or are physically able to, and then blame the teaching staff because Johnny or Otis can’t read. Much of our problems would reduce if the schools sorted the students like the UK does and like we used to and ran each school to cater to the needs and ability of it’s self-sorted students.

  • Katy Murphy

    I’m not sure if it’s connected to that specific bill — it might be — but Romero certainly backed legislation to identify low-achieving schools and make California eligible/more competitive for federal grants, including this one.

  • http://perimeterprimate.blogspot.com/ CarolineSF

    I asked a school board member why our district’s (San Francisco’s) persistently lowest-performing (and consistently dropping) high school isn’t on the list. She explained that there have to be a minimum number of test scores, so schools below a certain size are exempt.
    That’s why many more charter schools aren’t on the list, no matter how low they go — because they tend to be small.