Oakland teacher convention ends on a high note

A standing ovation at the Oakland Teacher Convention

Day 2 of the Oakland teacher convention ended with anger and frustration. Today ended with standing ovations.

“What a turn,” said Mercedes Ugarte, a fourth-year teacher at Melrose Leadership Academy. “It’s turned into something that’s teacher-owned. We’ve never had this space before to share these things out.”

A last-minute change to the program, made in response to the sharp criticism, was well received. This morning, the 200 delegates divided into six groups. Each one papered the walls of their rooms with lists of what was working and not working in their classrooms, in their schools and in the district, and recommendations for resolving them. They came up with their top priorities and shared them with everyone, including Superintendent Tony Smith, at the end of the day.

Some of the recommendations: teacher-led professional development and time to observe other teachers and share what’s working with others, equitable disciplinary systems, leadership opportunities, more flexible curriculum, evaluations for all (including principals), more even distribution of new/veteran teachers, keeping all of the existing, pink-slipped teachers, a core ethnic studies curriculum, accountability for principals, maintaining family literacy and other adult education programs, and removing actual teacher salaries from school budgets.

Dionne Embry gives a presentation at the end of the convention.The presentations were dynamic, passionate and, at times, very funny.

“This is the first time I’ve felt this spirit here in OUSD, and I want everyone to know about it, ” said Dionne Embry, a teacher at Rudsdale Continuation High School.

“Today was what we expected yesterday to be,” said Courtney Couvreur, a teacher at Oakland International High School.

Ash Solar, a district staffer who facilitates the Effective Teaching Task Force, told the group that he woke up this morning with butterflies in his stomach. After stumbling out of bed, he said, he walked past the framed wedding vows he and his wife had written. One seemed particularly poignant, given Friday’s low point: “When times get hard for me, I will turn toward you and not away.”

“That’s what happened today,” Solar said. “We had a little bit of a tough time yesterday, and every single person in this room made the choice to turn toward each other.”

Task force members say they expect more participation from the momentum started at the convention. Deputy Superintendent Maria Santos promised to “immediately” begin to turn around professional development so that it’s led by teachers and to start building teacher leadership teams. Smith said he was “totally committed to doing ethnic studies here and making it part of the core.” He said the district’s budgeting system has to change (though he didn’t say how), and promised to rescind as many layoff notices as possible, as soon as possible. Dozens of teachers who participated in the convention received pink slips, and some wore signs that said so.

The group started a Facebook page, called OUSD Teacher Convention Task Force.

Look for a story on the convention in Monday’s paper.

Katy Murphy

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

  • Troy Christmas

    Wow! I just got home from the event. Thank God for do-overs.

    Thank you to all the teachers who brought their commitment, passion and intellect today (and every day). This was long overdue.

    Thank you for giving this process a chance.

    Now to the doing, the follow-up and the follow-through . . .

  • Renee Manrique

    I am so proud to be an Oakland teacher today.

    Wonderful things happened throughout the convention, but I want everyone in Oakland to know about the great collaboration and discussion that happened in the gold room today. I have a deep appreciation and respect for what teachers brought to our group and for their willingness to work together and share. I’m typing up the notes now. Some of the ideas included improving training for special education, encouraging collaboration, sharing ideas between sites, allowing for more teacher voice in professional development, making a commitment to improving achievement for our African American male students and so much more! This is what real education reform looks like.

    Troy’s right. Now it’s time to get to work.

  • Patricia Jensen

    What a wonderful opportunity this was for us to share, reflect and problem-solve together. Thanks to all who planned and participated in the convention! Our district is lucky to have so many committed teachers who energetically advocate for their students and who are willing to take the next steps in the work ahead.

  • http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/living-in-dialogue/ Anthony Cody

    I felt very proud to be among colleagues yesterday. I have been working in Oakland Unified for the past 24 years, and have seen many efforts at systemic reform come and go. Every previous effort has started with the assumption that since our test scores were not what they should be, we have big deficiencies in our teachers. So we have brought in outside consultants or reform projects, who tried to get us to “raise expectations,” or align our lessons to grade level standards. Never before have we turned to the teachers and given them a true voice, recognizing that we do not need saviors, we need to recognize and elevate the excellence within our own schools.

    That does not mean everything is wonderful. It means we seek out schools and teachers that are doing excellent work and create ways to share this. We look to our homegrown experts, who have learned how to inspire our youth, and ask them to share. We recognize the huge gaps — the ongoing crisis among our youth, especially African American males, and realize that when we address the needs of the neediest, we will address the needs of all.

    I joined the task force last October when it began. What happened yesterday was no accident. It was a conscious choice by the teachers there to engage, and realize that this was the opportunity we have sought for decades. It was a choice by our leaders, Betty Olsen-Jones, Ash Solar, Maria Santos and Tony Smith, to release the reins and allow the teachers to take them over, understanding that while this means giving up some control, it allows a tremendous energy to start moving, the creative force of those 200 teachers, and the 2200 they represent.

    There is a lot more to do, but we have a new day in Oakland schools.

  • Mary Hill

    I agree with all of the above! The convention was an amazing experience displaying the talent, the dedication, and the resilience of Oakland teachers. It also clearly indicated the need for supports and conditions to change in order to promote effective teaching district-wide, and that there are examples within our own district that can be used as models for change. I am thankful for the push-back that occurred on Friday, and I hope it has helped teachers claim the voice they deserve to have in district decisions. I appreciate all who participated and I hope many continue to assist in carrying the recommendations forward to a reality. I will underscore Renee’s comment because it is such an important point–this is what real education reform looks like!

  • Jim Mordecai

    To put in context the positives coming out of the convention as reported is the bleak outlook of a future with continuing cuts.

    I fear the Governor’s forthcoming state proposition is a solution that will increase unfairness of taxation of the middle class and continue cuts that poke holes in the safety for the poor and unemployed workers while reducing jobs and increasing unemployment.

    And, I see as the only viable solution to end these draconian cuts is to lobby labor leaders to put on the ballot a labor drafted proposition that is a progressive tax package that closes the state’s deficit.

    I fear that the Democrat Party does not have capacity to put a progress tax package on the ballot and must be bypassed by labor or the poor and middle class will continue to pay for our three wars and economic crisis.

    Jim Mordecai

  • Jennifer Brouhard

    I felt extremely proud to be among talented, outspoken, amazing Oakland teachers. Teachers spoke eloquently about the conditions that both stifled and promoted effective teaching and spoke forcefully about the changes that needed to happen to make effective teaching an everyday reality in our classrooms. I know that many people may still be cynical about this but I truly believe Tony Smith and Maria Santos listened and will act on our recommendations.

    As to Jim Mordecai’s comments, Tony Smith spoke clearly about the need to fight for educational funding and that it is criminal that California will now fund the fewest dollars per student of any state. I think this is the time to put cynicism aside, and to fight to get the tax extension on the ballot as well as demand more federal funding and changes in tax laws.

    The context of this convention is that teachers are a vocal force in educational reform.

  • Tammie Reeves Adams

    I agree with all of the comments that have been said thus far! As a task force member, I have to admit that Friday afternoon I was very sad and unclear how Saturday would proceed. However, I truly have to commend (as Anthony said),Maria, Ash, Betty and Tony for trusting the teachers as professionals to know what they want, what they need and giving them the opportunity and space to voice their opinions and truly make the convention their own. Saturday morning, I woke up very anxious, but once we developed a plan for the day, I felt the excitement begin to build. As I was handing out the “new agendas”, every teacher that took one from me said, “A new agenda, oh wow. I guess they really listened to us”. I know that it will take some time, but I felt the foundation for a trusting relationship between the district and teachers begin to form!!!! Now, Tony Smith – DON’T MESS IT UP!!!

  • Kareem Weaver

    Glad to hear the ETTF is headed in a positive direction that could lead to better outcomes for kids. Fears to the wind, we have to move forward together – for student’s sake. I look forward to hearing from our delegates today during the staff meeting.

    Like Mary, I appreciate the efforts of those involved. Stay strong.

    Now, back to work…

  • Jenna Huppler

    The teacher conference did end on a high note BUT let’s not assume that any change will come of this. Many times Oakland Unified has started out on the right path only to throw it all away and start over. Oakland needs to prove to teachers, parents and students that they are committed to change. I will have more faith when I see real steps to institute the changes that schools so desperately need. Schools require RESOURCES, not people telling them how wonderful things could be if they had them. We can not do it all ourselves and the district has to start acknowledging that. Mismanagement of funds and an overall disrespectful attitude towards teachers by this school district is rampant and will take months, if not years to change.

  • Concerned parent

    Were principals at the meeting? I do not see anything about them or their union’s participation. Do they have anything to do with this new direction?

  • Concerned parent

    I just read up some more, it seems like the answer is no.
    Can anyone confirm or deny this.
    I emailed a principal who stated that this was an OEA activity.

  • Katy Murphy

    The convention was for teachers, but it was part of the superintendent’s strategic plan — as is the task force for principals. The teaching task force is co-chaired facilitated by Ash Solar, a staffer from the central office, and co-chaired by Betty Olson-Jones, OEA president, and Maria Santos, deputy superintendent. It was not an OEA activity, though.

  • Kelly Jacobs

    To concerned parent,
    It is true principals were not invited. But it was an open convention and there were a few principals in attendance. As far as whether they will have anything to do with this new direction? I certainly hope so!

  • Mary Hill

    Katy and All, the Effective Teaching Task Force is co-chaired by Dept. Supt. Maria Santos and OEA Pres. Betty Olson-Jones, and facilitated by district staffer Ash Solar (the hardest working man in Oakland!). The task forces, from my understanding, were primarily promoted by Supt. Tony Smith. I am thankful that Betty made sure that teachers were adequately represented on this task force, because there are many other district staffers on it as well.

    As for administrators, their presence would have been a huge impediment to honest discussion at the convention. In fact, ineffective leadership was one of the major concerns that arose. A few administrators did check in–but most teachers probably didn’t even know who they were.

    The administrators’ task force should have a similar event for their colleagues where they are allowed to list what is working and not working at their sites and in the district through their eyes, and come up with some priorities for change. Of course, at some point, representatives from all perspectives should come together and share and promote ideas for the strategic plan.

    As for whether real change will take place, it won’t without the continued involvement of teachers in this process. Leadership needs encouragement–and pressure–to move forward with great changes.

  • gordon danning

    Re: #10

    Resources are good. Resources are helpful. But there is an awful lot of positive change that can be made without additional resources. For example:

    1. Teachers can collaborate more, and try harder to come to agreement on common goals, strategies and expectations. That can be done through weekly lunch meetings, or dinner meetings, or just coffee meetings after work. That will cost zero money.

    2. Speaking of expectations, I had a student write this in an essay:

    “Fascists thought that groups were more important. For example, Marxists believed that “the bourgeoisie are united against all workers. That shows that Fascism thought that groups are more important because Marxism divide the rich and the poor people. Bourgeoisie are the rich who have lots of stuff. Compared to the poor, they have less stuff. Workers don’t get paid much compared to the owners. Owners are the people who have people working for them in order to make money. Every poor person would like to be rich and have more stuff. So, they are against each other because they’re [sic] status is completely the opposite. There are more poor people then the rich. Since the rich would like to maintain their status, they would need people to be poor and have then work for them in order to have more profit. That’s why people were mad at inequality because they saw the world as the rich against the poor. The people didn’t feel like they belonged to the group, which is similar to Fascist people who are alienated and didn’t feel like they belonged to the society. When people feel like they don’t belong to the society, they aren’t important. So, people who don’t belong to the society and are alienated are not important to society.”

    That student has gotten nothing but “A”s in English. Not “A-.” “A” I am giving her a “D”. Now, of course, I teach an AP class, so expectations are higher, but STILL, there is something amiss here. Addressing this wide disparity in expectations does nto require extra resources.

    Long story short, teachers need to step up and take responsibilty for making schools the best they can be with the resources we have, and THEN start asking for more resources.

  • Harold

    @Gordon – I get where you’re coming from, but time is money. All that time collaborating (which I strongly believe is necessary) should be paid. Teachers in Oakland are already under-paid, in comparison to neighboring districts. There’s a point where the district needs to honor that type of commitment with dollars, or at the very least release time.

  • TheTruthHurts

    @Gordon, I’m glad you posted that. It is not a condemnation of calls for reality, it is a example of what truly happens day in and day out. It’s not to bash teachers or principals, but to call them to do what IS in their power right now.

    Despite what I often read here, it is possible to call for more resources AND do better with the time you have. Of course, that can be hard to see when you’re exhausted, stressed and in some cases – fearful.

  • MaryJo Schneider

    As one of the few Adult Education teachers who attended, I was first inspired (Thursday), next dashed (Friday), finally re-inspired (Saturday)! The convention was such a great opportunity to meet some of the amazing talent that hangs out in classrooms all over Oakland. On Saturday, someone told me we Adult Ed. teachers were a small but mighty group, which we are, so please make use of us! That being said, the teachers I was privileged to work with in small groups and one-on-one were of the highest caliber; they were most stellar! Equally, having Betty and Troy engaged with us, added so much to our process.

    In response to the teacher (I’m sorry, I don’t remember her name) who said we teachers need to check our own biases, I thought I would share this link, “Test Yourself for Hidden Biases” from Teaching Tolerance, at tolerance.org: http://www.tolerance.org/hiddenbias. Hopefully you all know about these lessons and teaching kits from the Southern Poverty Law Center. Onward and upward!

    Many thanks to all for lifting us up!
    M. J. Schneider

  • Gordon Danning


    I want to get paid more, too. But teachers cannot say, “I won’t work to improve instruction unless I get paid extra.” That is unprofessional. True professionals — doctors, lawyers, heck, even principals and administrators — are paid salaries, and put in the number of hours needed to get the job done. Lawyers and doctors do not get paid extra to attend conferences and the like — they are expected to do so. If we want to be treated like professionals, we need to act like professionals. If we want others to respect us, then we need to respect ourselves by doing the best job possible, even if there is not extra pay involved.

  • cranky teacher

    What is this obsession with the word “professional”?

    The adjective seems like one of those words folks use to put somebody in their place. As in, “You do things differently than I do, or than is the norm, so you are unprofessional, i.e., bad.”

    And the noun is similarly confusing. After all, sometimes lawyers are paid on retainer, sometimes they bill every hour. Some doctors work for peanuts to save the lives of refugees, while others bill for every minute they perform nose and boob jobs. Some principals work 9-3, others dawn to midnight. They are all “professionals”?

    Ultimately, Mr. Danning (who REALLY shouldn’t be posting student work!) is really stretching the definition of “professional teacher” when he says we should meet other teachers for dinner to do colloboration. If he wants to do so, fine. But you can’t tell me I’m unprofessional if I don’t!

    Sometimes I work lots of unpaid hours as a teacher and feel fine — if the work is inspiring, satisfying, helping others. Sometimes I work unpaid hours and feel exploited — if the work is dull, painful, seems useless. I am a free person and get to decide what and how to manage that.

    I don’t see myself as this mythic “professional” just because I went to college. We are civil servants, really. The closest jobs to ours are rangers, cops, public hospital nurses, firemen: We provide a free public service that is paid for by the taxpayers. We are, however, the only ones in that group who end up working hours for free (some of us, anyway).

    I think it’s sad that some teachers so desperately want people to think of us as professionals — so we’ll get some kind of reflected glory? Isn’t the job — caring for and teaching young humans all day — a big enough deal as it is?

    Reality is, people are always going to have mixed feelings about teachers, having spent so much time with such an array of them. Tough nuts. They say worse things about lawyers, and nobody really wants to hang out with cops.

    We need to stand up for ourselves and our “clients” (the kids), do the best we can and let the rest of it roll off our backs.

    Thanks to all the teachers who went to the event for three days.

  • Sonia Thacher

    Exactly. One of the most dynamic teachers at the convention was a young single mother, who honestly stated that she simply couldn’t be an ongoing part of an unpaid task force that met outside of contract hours because she can’t afford childcare.

    The reality is that there are so many unspoken expectations already for out-of-contract hours done by teachers that if we actually worked to contract, our jobs wouldn’t get done. Until people have a truly clear picture of what’s already on the plate, and until folks understand that different folks have different time constraints depending on their realities outside the job environment, a solution that expects more time from all teachers in the name of “professionalism” isn’t gonna fly.

  • Nextset

    MaryJo Schneider: I looked at your link about bias: It’s garbage, leftist propaganda from a group that’s not to be held out as in the interest of this nation.

    So I don’t think it’s useful or appropriate to use them in public education. You will probably disagree – it’s just one person’s opinion here and I feel as free to express this as you are in touting SPLC.

    In order for the public schools to retain support fo the taxpayers (and employers)- which is lacking – it is best that rad-lib politics not be flaunted in the public schools. It’s probably much too late to talk about that now, the die is cast it seems.

    The public schools exist to prepare students particularly the lower class, for competitive careers in industry, military and higher education. The public secondary schools do not exist to indoctrinate students that they are supposed to “tolerate” every type of activity and eccentricity, every foreign incursion and every demand that some people live and be maintained on the public treasury, every new and improved “right” for criminals and most particularly the notion that everyone is forced under pain of law to associate with and tolerate everyone else no matter what.

    Taking public education from training and instruction in language, science, math and research and using it for political indroctrination is a good way to get yourself defunded. Which is exactly what’s happening. The educrats have only themselves to blame for the dissafection they are engendering with the taxpayers.

    Again I compare the standing of Piedmont Unified and such districts (public Ivy’s) and OUSD and such ghetto identified districts.

    If OUSD kept rad-lib politics out of the schools and ruthlessly pursued discipline, academic success and the employability of it’s students maybe you wouldn’t be facing so many pink slips as you are now. You are abandoned by the taxpayers and the voters.

    Rather than complain about bias the schools might try adopting a motto used by another educational institution: We do not lie, cheat or steal nor tolerate amoung us those that do. And maybe expand things from there. You’d find that students brought up with such intolerances make better employees.

  • Oakland Teacher

    Cranky –

    You made many really good points in your posting about professionalism and all the baggage that goes along with it. Thank you for the reflection and careful wording that went into that posting.

    I was also shocked by posting of student work; doing so without permission constitutes a breech of FERPA, a decades old federal law protecting student privacy. While I am not an AP English (SS?) teacher, when I read that, I felt as though that student had a strong “voice” and was developing an understanding of systems. They certainly did not deserve to have their work publicly shamed, regardless of the quality of their work.

    Katy, that posting should be removed immediately.

  • Nextset

    Oakland Teacher: Posting unattributed excerpts in a blog doesn’t sound like a big issue. Do you have a cite to the FERPA that prohibits exactly that? Or a cite to an appellate case? Or is this a gray area.

    You may have a point on “best practice”. To go further than that and claim it’s a violation “of law” you need to cite your authority. Especially when you now demand censorship.

    Censorship is always the first resort of liberals. They really want to be facists.

    As far as your comment that the student in question had “…a strong “voice” and was developing an understanding of systems.” Well, maybe you hand out grades like candy for people whose politics you approve of. Cranky apparently doesn’t and goes for objective standards of writing. The writing doesn’t pass his cut.

    Grades are not to be handed out on the basis that the scoring teacher thinks the student might do better next time. Is that what you want?

    I’d prefer grading be done as it was in law school (and the bar) – test booklets are numbered and any identifying marks would be considered cheating. Teachers shouldn’t be covering for pets who don’t measure up.

  • Gordon Danning

    Cranky Teacher:

    I did not mean to imply that refusing to meet after school or at lunch is unprofessional; I meant that demanding pay for everything extra minute is unprofessional. And I was really addressing my comment to those who argue that teachers should be treated “as professionals.”

    Nextset: I think it was I, not Cranky, who said that the student work is poor.

    Everyone: Gimme a break. Posting a student writing sample without a name is technically illegal? I suppose there is some crazy judge out there who has said so, but I, like Nextset, would like to see a citation for that. The Supreme Court has held that it is OK for a student to grade another student’s paper (WITH a name on it), so I am skeptical. But, even if it is technically illegal, is it really “shocking”? Come on.

    Finally, the writing is clearly awful. One reason that kids write poorly is that teachers give smiley faces for such silliness as “having a strong voice,” which is a close to meaningless as one can get. Moreover, the sample barely makes sense. And I don’t know what”developing an understanding of systems” means, or how it is relevant to the simple issue of whether Fascists considered group or individual needs to be paramount (which is ostensibly the topic of the student’s paragraph).

  • Gordon Danning

    PS to Oakland Teacher: It is an AP World History class

  • Gordon Danning

    Re: FERPA: “Education records may be released without consent if all personally identifiable information has been removed.” http://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/fpco/ferpa/library/nashville_tn2004.html

  • Nextset

    I agree with Gordon completely on this one.

    Unless what he has done is clearly prohibited – it’s his discretion. He has a point about the writing. I do wonder if this isn’t how students are being taught to write by many teachers.

    I am informed that high school teachers and many college instructors are grading on the political content of a given writing more than most other factors. (anybody have info on this??) The passage quoted looks like typical political writing by a child. This must result in shocks for those rad-lib students who wind up in law school where you really are expected to be able to defend the devil with equal zeal. The devil gets a fair chance to win in legal argument.

    It’s too bad. We do no favor to young people to raise them as a bunch of Soviet style brats. They’re not competitive in the Brave New World.

  • Gordon Danning


    in (partial) defense of the student, she is not attempting to make a political argument. Instead, she is attempting to make an historical argument about the degree to which Fascists valued the needs and interests of the group over those of the individual. of course she then starts talking about Marxism instead, so perhaps she means to show that Fascism and Marxism are equally dismissive of individual interests. But then, she goes off into an endless and repetitive tangent about why lower class people found Marxist ideas appealing.

    That was my original point — the writing is a mess (and there are 5 more pages just like it). I know what she is trying to say, and I still can’t figure out what she means, or why she strings those particular sentences in that particular order.

    As for whether teachers give grades based on political content: I think that happens, but it tends to be more a function of the types of assignments are given. They tend to ask students to, for all intents and purposes, tell the reader how he or she “feels” about global warming, or the Holocaust, or globalization. Well, as the old saying goes, “If you are 18 and a conservative, you don’t have a heart. If you are 50 and a liberal, you don’t have a brain.”

    Now, I am personally a liberal (albeit only 49) so I am skeptical of the 2nd part, but the 1st part has a lot of truth to it. So, if you ask a kid a “heart” based question, you are going to get a pretty liberal answer.

    On the other hand, if you ask a more analytical question, you will get a wider range of answers. One of my students wrote something sorta kinda like, “the Fascists had some good ideas, but they went too far.” That’s a whole lot more insightful than the normal, “heart” based and superficial argument that “Fascists were evil,” which is something that a 5th grader could write, and hence should not be acceptable at the high school level.

  • Oakland Teacher

    Never mind that the student could see their work posted on the web as an “example of poor writing.” I disagree that removing the names is equivalent to removing all identifying information. Regardless, it was unnecessary to post a student’s work. My kids took AP World History (and got 4 or 5’s on the AP test) and I would not have appreciated their work being posted on the web as any type of example. Students should not be singled out in that way.

  • Gordon Danning

    Oakland Teacher:

    1. You have a very odd definition of “singled out.”

    2. The chance of that kid reading this blog is very close to zero.

    3. Even if he or she did read this, he or she might not recognize it as his or her work.

    4. Even if he or she did recognize it, he or she would get over it very quickly. High school students are not babies, even if we often treat them that way.

    5. You wouldn’t appreciate your child’s work being posted, even without a name? Tough. A parent’s disapproval is not a trump card.

    6. I show examples of good and bad student work in class all the time. I’m sure many teachers do — it is called effective teaching.

    7. MOST importantly, all human actions have costs and benefits. An action is justified if the benefits outweigh the costs. Yet, you seem to be arguing: A) What I did has a potential cost; B) Therefore, it was wrong. Uh, what about the potential benefits? Are they zero? Obviously not. There is enormous potential benefit to people realizing that students in OUSD are getting “A”s despite being unable to write a coherent sentence. Thus, since the potential benefits of posting the sample outweigh the potential costs thereof, there is nothing wrong with posting the sample.