Schools, the government and appearances

I’ve thought about the relationship between school reform and public perception since 2008, when I watched Gov. Schwarzenegger push — and the California Board of Education approve — a middle school Algebra I requirement (which was halted in court, months later), over the protests of the state superintendent of schools.

The same questions came to mind last week, as I reported on the Obama/Duncan administration’s prescriptions for the country’s lowest-performing schools — remedies that lack research to show that they actually work, according to researchers quoted in Education Week.

Bruce FullerIs the government more concerned about public perception than anything else? Is it trying to look like it’s doing something to improve public schools, whether or not the desired outcomes follow? If so, is this an old phenomenon?

Bruce Fuller, an education and public policy professor at UC Berkeley, is studying some related questions, though he frames them in a more sophisticated way and grounds them in more than just a hunch. His theory is that the American public (since the 1980s) has been so cynical about `big government,’ and so unwilling to pay new taxes, that the government “flailing” around, trying to look “efficacious” with fewer and fewer resources.

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Feds cut violence prevention funds for schools

Violence prevention. Tribune file photo by Alison Yin

The federal government has pumped $3 billion into grants for schools with really low test scores. At the same time, it plans to eliminate a major source of violence prevention funding — money that, if used effectively, helps schools in the most violent of neighborhoods (often, the same schools with the lowest test scores) provide a safe environment for kids to learn.

Here’s the notice, provided to me by the Oakland school district:


The No Child Left Behind Act, Title IV, Part A of 2001, has provided entitlement funding to California public schools for the implementation of activities under the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Program (SDFSC). Under the federal budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year, funding for this program has been eliminated effective June 30, 2010.

California’s legislature, too, has shifted money once earmarked for violence prevention into a general-purpose pot — which financially stressed districts are now free to use for other expenses.

These shifts could have a very real effect on Oakland’s schoolkids (and the people around them). The school district’s violence prevention unit — which is largely funded by the city’s violence prevention funds under Measure Y — faces possible extinction, and programs such as Second Step, middle school conflict resolution and bully prevention stand to lose most (or all) of their funding, at least at the central administration level.

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Oakland’s MLK Oratorical Fest: an old contest with a new challenge

Some writers can stand on stage, all alone and before rows and rows of people, and recite original poetry. Others prefer to keep a lower profile.

Sophia Denison-JohnstonAt this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Oratorical Fest, a new competition gave stage-shy students a chance to shine. About 50 students in Oakland’s public and private middle schools entered an essay contest. They submitted short persuasive pieces on people, living or dead, who have benefitted humanity.

I was one of the judges for the final competition, and I’ve posted links to their essays so you can read them too. (Note: We determined the winners before learning the writers’ names or where they went to school.)

The first-place winner was Sophia Denison-Johnston (right), an eighth-grader at the private Redwood Day School. She wrote a piece titled “Martin Delaney – AIDS Activist and Lifesaver.”

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Scores of Oakland teachers receive pink slips

pink slip

The Oakland school district administration has sent preliminary layoff notices to up to 60 58 of its 2,300 teachers and counselors in addition to including five part-time counselors, nine adult education teachers and 44 teachers who apparently have not received a mandated state certification to teach English learners, Troy Christmas, the director of labor relations just told me.

Note: These are tenured employees, and the layoff notices are not final. They mean that the teachers might not be employed by OUSD in the fall.

(This number has changed throughout the day; it was exceedingly difficult to pin down, for some reason. My apologies.)

This is the first time since I’ve covered Oakland schools that the district has sent out these “Reduction in Force” slips, a sign of just how tough the going is. OUSD plans to cut $85 million from its total budget (and $37 million from its general purpose fund) next year.

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The schools that didn’t make the list

This week, people in districts throughout California were left wondering why some schools escaped the state’s “persistently lowest-achieving” list, while others — some of them, with higher scores and greater gains — were deemed failing.

It all boils down to size. If a school reported fewer than 100 test scores in any of the last three years, it was taken off the list, regardless of its scores. I’m not sure why, though it would seem the state wants to target larger, more traditional schools rather than alternative schools, which tend to be smaller (and, often, to have lower test scores).

Without this small-school rule, Oakland would have more schools on the list, according to another long list of low-performing schools Continue Reading


Cox Academy charter: denied

Tonight, the Oakland school board voted 5-2 to deny the renewal of Cox Academy — an elementary school in East Oakland that underwent a controversial charter conversion in 2005 during the Randy Ward era — despite its 78-point jump on the 1,000-point Academic Performance Index last year and a room full of parents who spoke in its support.

Typically, charters are renewed for five years. But the district’s charter schools office director, David Montes de Oca, recommended the board grant just a two-year, conditional extension. He said the school was making progress and that he had confidence in its new leader and its teaching staff. Still, he said, he had numerous concerns, including the school’s history of “opaque” management and the fact that its African-American students’ test scores have lagged, falling short of federal test score goals.

“The school is largely an underdeveloped program,” Montes de Oca said. “I remain uneasy.”

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Released: National teaching content standards

You may have heard about a movement to create more uniformity in what public school kids in the United States are taught — and on what they are tested. A common criticism of No Child Left Behind is that the content and the difficulty of standardized tests vary greatly from state to state.

map by Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at flickr.com/creativecommonsSo far, I believe, all states but Texas and Alaska are on board with what’s known as Common Core State Standards. Steven Weinberg wrote about the issue earlier this year, saying too few teachers were involved in the drafting process.

Today, a draft of its common K-12 standards was released. I wouldn’t recommend it for your next book club, but maybe teachers will be able to glean more from the document than I could. You may submit your comments to the curriculum-powers-that-be until Friday, April 2.

I hope you submit your comments here as well. Do you think common standards would be good for kids? For the country?


Oakland teacher strike is postponed

Cancel that babysitter! Oakland schools won’t shut down on March 24, as planned. The one-day teacher strike has been reset to Thursday, April 22.

Why the change? The Oakland teachers union president, Betty Olson-Jones, has announced that the fact-finding recommendations aren’t likely to be completed before the end of March or beginning of April. The union can’t legally strike until that report is out, and spring break is the week of April 4.

“Because this situation remains fluid — i.e. we are not strike legal until the fact-finding report is released, we urge you to keep checking the OEA website for the most up-to-date information,” she wrote in an e-mail to her members.


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.)

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McClymonds to lose a principal

Yetunde Reeves, left, during a 2007 peace walk. Tribune file photo

When the two small high schools on the McClymonds campus in West Oakland merge into one slightly bigger school this fall, a new leader will be in charge.

Yetunde Reeves, the principal of EXCEL High School since it opened in 2005 — and a teacher at Mack before that — has announced she has taken another job, at East Palo Alto Academy High, a charter school run by the Stanford Schools Corporation.

I wonder how many of her young teachers will follow her out the door. Here’s her letter:
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