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Oakland and the status quo option

Protest at the Elmhurst Community Prep/Alliance campus on March 24

It’s not on the school reform menu, but the Oakland school district might order it anyway: the status quo.  

This is a new development in OUSD, a shift in thinking that followed a conference call with state education officials late last week, said Oakland school district’s spokesman, Troy Flint. 

Oakland school administrators had assumed the district would be eventually required to make one of four drastic interventions at schools on the state’s “persistently lowest-achieving” list,  including closure, charter school conversion or the replacement of the school principal or staff. That, despite the fact that all of the Oakland schools on the list are new, products of similar reforms. At a town hall meeting on March 24, Superintendent Tony Smith called the process “unfair” and “unacceptable” — and then suggested that there was no good way around it.

That changed, Flint said, when the state department of education official in charge of the grant program confirmed that ”there’s no mechanism for enforcement.” In other words, if schools don’t apply for the federal School Improvement Grant money — the carrot — there is no stick.

Flint said this information has opened the door for an alternative improvement plan, such as directing school staff to continue and/or refocus their efforts without starting over again from scratch. “That definitely changed the perspective of the people at the central office,” he said.

This is why more people should read newspapers! Two weeks before the conference call in question, my colleague Theresa Harrington wrote a story in which state education officials acknowledged they had no plans to punish schools that didn’t follow one of the four federally prescribed reforms.

The governor and other state officials have insisted schools that made the list because of poor performance on standardized tests are “required” to implement one of the models beginning next school year “to dramatically improve student achievement.”

But the requirements have no teeth, state education officials concede. The federal School Improvement Grant program — under which the identified schools can apply for grant money to fix their problems — is voluntary, and state laws requiring the changes do not specify a deadline, said Hilary McLean, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. This means schools could blow off the legislation indefinitely and keep doing what they want, as long as they don’t mind giving up $50,000 to $2 million a year in funding.

“At this point in time,” McLean said, “there is not an enforcement mechanism other than public opinion.”

Then, I referenced this point again in my story about Smith’s town hall. Oh well, I guess they need to hear this sort of thing straight from the source.

In the meantime, parents and staff at Alliance Academy, Elmhurst Community Prep, ROOTS International and United for Success Academy are charged with choosing what they believe to be the best option for their respective schools by April 14. (A fifth school, Explore, was slated for closure before the state list came out.) Smith makes a recommendation to the board for each one. The board makes a final decision in early June.

For those of you who have been involved in the process, which way are the schools leaning? Which schools should go for the fifth option?

Katy Murphy

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

  • Steven Weinberg

    I think some of the schools should take the “status quo” option, but they should not call it that. The District should apply for funds under the Turnaround Model, which is described on the state web site as:”Turnaround model, which would include, among other actions, replacing the principal and at least 50 percent of the school’s staff, adopting a new governance structure, and implementing a new or revised instructional program.”
    The District should argue that the schools involved are in the midst of their turnaround efforts, as they all went through the described process a few years ago, and thus deserve funding without removing the new principals or teachers. The District should also continue to press for grant funding to follow the students when Explore is closed. The idea that closing a school solves the problems of the students who went there is ridulous. These students deserve extra funding as much as students whose school is renamed and restaffed.
    The District should call on political leaders to support this position, and insist that the state also support it, since the state was running the district when all these schools were started. Superintendent Smith should ask the unions involved to support this funding request also, which they should be willing to do, since it protects their members far more than any other option, and because it would benefit the students more than another round of disruption.
    Oakland has already gone too far down the road of closing and restarting schools and setting up charters under the state administration and Broad-trained leaders. Smith should give the Feds a choice: either support the changes we have already made with increased funding and use Oakland a positive example of the improvement these changes can make, or face strong opposition to your policies from a district that has had considerable experience with them.
    I think the health-care debate showed that those who took a strong position that they were willing to work with the administration, but only if their needs were met, did well in the end. Secretary of Education Duncan’s strong-armed tactics are beginning to arouse some significant opposition, and he might be willing to make a reasonable accomodation with Oakland Unified to gain an ally instead of another enemy.

  • Nextset

    Please explain these comments about “extra funding”.

    If a group of students could not learn to read, write and do math, why should anyone give them extra money to try again? Is it true that these students failed with the same instructions and same teacher pool that other students succeed with – even within OUSD?

    And people think the answer to this set of facts is to spend more money on them?

    What is spending more money on students who do not make normal progress in learning to read, write and count expected to accomplish exactly? Better scores? Why would that be exactly?

    I must be reading all this wrong.

    Suppose OUSD were to state (to the Feds & the State) that these students failed – because they are failures! Better luck with the next batch – and everybody back to work.

  • aly

    i think one of the greatest benefits of increased funding, nextset, is class-size reduction. more money equals more teachers and it is proven that smaller classes improve student achievement. it can also provide for intervention classes or skill boosting curriculum for students who are unusually far behind. finally, it could be applied to overtime for professional development where teachers are taught how to plan cohesive, spiraling lessons and units that maximize student achievement instead of being expected to figure out how to do these things on their own/for free. unfortunately many teacher preparation programs emphasize theory versus practice and many young teachers, who tend to fill the struggling schools, are not well prepared to meet the needs of “failing” students.

    although i tend to find your comments a bit extreme, i can’t believe you are content to just label students failures and move on to the next “batch.” schools have tremendous variation within large districts and to assume students failed with the same resources and quality of teachers that students who succeeded had is a mistake indeed.

    steve- your proposition is interesting. are there loopholes or room in the turnaround agreements that would allow your solution to be pursued? i’ve always struggled with the “50% of staff has to go” concept, anyway, and i think that schools who are already making steps towards institutional change deserve a chance at turnaround money without having to meet all of the extreme, and not really proven, requirements.

  • Steven Weinberg

    I’m suggesting that we create our own loophole. It should be easy to document that there has been more than a 50% change in the teaching staffs at each of these schools since they reopened as small schools and present the gains that have been made since then.
    It seems to me that both Obama’s plans and the state implementation of those plans are works in progress with changes being made every day, so we should try to shift the policy toward something more constructive that will work for us.

  • Gordon Danning

    I don’t know about the schools at issue, but if the federal gov’t is going to demand accountability for the use of its dollars, then it should do a better job than it has in the past: at Oakland High, the reforms that we implemented last year were exceptionally minimal, yet they were deemed to have satisfied the demands of NCLB. The reform bar was set way too low in the past, in my opinion.

  • Nextset

    Aly: When it comes to managing a budget and large numbers of people – yes, we do have to move on to the next batch.

    It is wrong to wreck the education budget by spending too much on remedial measures for failed students. At a certain point if the student cannot or will not perform the thing to do is transition them quickly into menial labor, not to spend 4 or 5 times the money on them as for a normal/average student so they can continue to fail or reach nominal results. Obamacare will result in the same equasion.

    Childhood ends at a certain point. Death comes sooner or later. You can delay both at a price and that price is paid by the budget for all. You cannot print money forever.

    Worse, I see the pursuit of failing students who clearly do not want to be pursued – stalking if you will, the primary purpose of all this is to enrich certain people at the expense of others. The students in question would be better off transitioning to other pursuits – and to other campuses where their non-learning antics will not impel others to fail with them.

  • CarolineSF

    Isn’t the lead of this story the fact that Oakland has ALREADY long been the playground for the billionaires dabbling in education reform as their latest pastime? If Oakland needs reform now, isn’t the big story the fact that their “it’s a miracle!” whims and fads aren’t working?

    Steven puts it in mild terms: “Oakland has already gone too far down the road of closing and restarting schools and setting up charters under the state administration and Broad-trained leaders.” It seems to me that outrage is called for, along with a harsh media spotlight.