An Oakland classroom, on national TV

Think College Now teacher Kristen Casaretto
photo of Kristen Casaretto by Hasain Rasheed Photography

Did anyone watch Education Nation on NBC last week? It highlighted the work of three teachers, including Teach for America alum Kristen Casaretto, who teaches fourth grade at Think College Now in East Oakland.

Talk about courage — the segment includes a live video feed from Casaretto’s classroom during a math lesson. (The above link takes you right to the Oakland part; to see the whole “Classrooms in Action” segment, go here.)

At one point, `Today’ show host Ann Curry says to Wendy Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach For America: “In this particular school, the numbers — I’ve gotta be honest with you — are not great … but these numbers are going up dramatically every single year.”

Kopp responds by saying she saw “a whole different set of data,” particularly for math — numbers that put the school on par with schools in Palo Alto, a district often used to illustrate the top half of the achievement gap. She went on to praise the teaching staff at Think College Now and its turnaround.

I think the two women saw the same data set, but parsed it differently.

Curry’s stats were accurate, as you can see here (although proficiency is not necessarily equivalent to “grade-level,” and each state determines how many correct answers are needed for a student to be deemed proficient): About 57 percent of students at Think College Now — most of them, English learners — showed proficiency on state reading tests this spring, and 77 percent did in math.

And Kopp is right that the math proficiency rates at TCN and at Palo Alto are comparable, at least in the upper grades. In fact, more fourth-graders from the Oakland school showed they had a strong grasp of math.


Second grade: 89% for Palo Alto, 73% at TCN
Third grade: 88% in Palo Alto, 57% at TCN
Fourth grade: 91% in Palo Alto, 96% at TCN
Fifth grade: 89% in Palo Alto, 82% at TCN

Numbers aside, congrats to Think College Now and to Ms. Casaretto’s class, which seemed remarkably unfazed by the live national broadcast. One little boy even yawned as the camera zoomed in on him!

Katy Murphy

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

  • Albert

    So proud of our school – Go Panthers!

  • http://www.gopublicschools.org Jessica Stewart

    Great teacher, great school. Congrats to TCN!

  • Ms. Sacks

    Ms. Cassaretto does an amazing job showing what is possible when we maintain high expectations for our students and ensure that all learning styles are engaged. Way to go Kristen…you’re an inspiration to us all!

  • J.R.

    Simply amazing! It’s wonderful to see a great teacher doing great things.

  • Nextset

    Remember what I’ve said about educrats always using primary schools to compare black and white scores when they want to gull foolish adults into thinking they have found the magic bullet to close the achievement gap?

    We are to believe these magic teachers are so much better than other teachers – they have actually closed the achievement gap – just by teaching! It’s a miracle. Let’s give the nice magic teachers pay bonuses. Lets cut the pay of all the other teachers who do not produce such scores, especially the teachers working in 8th through 12th grades. Let’s close their schools and replace them with Charters that teach the magic way…

    How dumb do they think people are?

    Every time I see this ruse played again I laugh.

  • J.R.

    This is not magic or miracles, this is high expectations and hard work. I see this in many districts every day. We just don’t see great teaching on a widespread basis so some people foolishly assume that solid learning is not actually taking place. I have witnessed this for decades in certain schools and classrooms and those kids by and large are successful adults now. Your theories are not cut and dried, and there is so much more to the human mind than we can even comprehend. The day science can read thoughts, you might have a leg to stand on, until then keep theorizing.

  • J.R.

    The strengths of charters are:

    1. They don’t answer to a union, they can do whats right for the child without interference.

    2. They can handle disruptive,truant children and parents more effectively without much constraint.

    3. These teachers need to perform or if not they will find someone who will(once again they are not forced by politics to keep teachers who aren’t doing the job).

    There are decades of evidence that the traditional school model is broke(but there are exceptions, and schools that succeed despite this fact).

  • Fletch

    I believe the point Nextset is making is that the achievement gap really only shows up with a vengeance in middle school.

    So, by focusing on elementary, these folks are purposely ignoring the real problems.

  • Nextset

    JR I agree with you completely that the urban public schools (as operated post Brown vs Board) are unsound and will have to be closed. I agree that Charters are (currently) always superior because they have enough aspects of a private school that they can still function as schools.

    That’s not the point here. False advertising is the point. It’s wrong to pretend that this school has found a magic way to close the gap. Not a thing they are doing has anything to do with the “Gap” which appears to be a physical construct of the physical differences between the ethnics. It’s the refusal to consider that problem that keeps most of the trouble going.

    Currently in PC America there is no effore to grade or score the incoming students by aptitude and match them to the programs offered to prevent children from being placed over their head and acting out in self defense from that situation. We all know the physical differences manifest with puberty. We run these one-size-fits-all schools on top of a welfare state on top of a flood of 3rd world students and wonder why-oh-why are the kiddies not the same and not behaving as we want them to in class.

    Of course the Charters eat the public schools. That was the plan all along. The public schools as run are never intended to be real schools. They are holding pens. And for the umteenth time – it’s the middle and high school level where things all fall.

    So I don’t really react well to educrats who darn well know the truth lying to the public that things have changed because of the claimed or true success of any primary school.

    We continue to rush to the destruction of the public school system generally and greater damage to greater society at large.

  • J.R.

    The problems show up by middle school because the basics were not learned in elementary, but yet children were passed on due to social promotion. A recipe for disaster, and the decades of evidence bear this out.

  • J.R.

    You are right on one point, ultra conservatives have always wanted to undermine public education(this has always been their wet dream). The reason is that they despise paying taxes for public schools and then paying again for private schools. Vouchers in effect would be a tax rebate for them, and no public schools would even be better in their minds. I am being practical when I say that public education in general has dropped the ball which gave these reformer people(some do have good intentions) the opportunity they needed. If public education did its job then no one would have(or could have) messed with it.

  • Harold

    When are (Oakland) charters going to start serving students with special needs (Disabled)?

  • Katy Murphy

    In case it wasn’t clear from my blog post, Think College Now — the topic at hand — is not a charter school. It’s run by OUSD.

  • J.R.

    I was merely responding to Nextset’s reference to charters. There is one interesting phenomenon related to Nextsets claim that blacks are on the low end of the intelligence spectrum. Is there any relation between these two facts:

    1. Between 2000-2011 the black population in Oakland declined.

    2. Between 2000-2001 Oakland has made the biggest gains in API for a large urban district.

    Is there any link? What do the numbers say?

    This will take some investigation but it may be very interesting.

  • J.R.

    Note: I do not recall the specific years for the OUSD API gains, but I have seen this claim on the OUSD web site. I just included the whole decade+ so as to not leave any years out. Someone will post specifics I am sure.

  • Fletch

    J.R. –

    Your assertion is false. Even when you have schools where some of the kids come from higher-performing backgrounds and some from lower, the differences tend to manifest in middle school, not in elementary.

    So, to be clear, in those cases, the kids are all going to the same elementary school. So, your notion that the basics aren’t being taught is false.

    And, these aren’t kids who are being socially promoted. They legitimately score just fine on the tests in elementary.

    I don’t know exactly why this happens. It probably is some combination of the schoolwork becoming much harder starting in middle school and intelligence differences manifesting around puberty.

  • J.R.

    If am not mistaken there is no promotion policy in place so in fact social promotion happens by default(teachers are required to do a lot of paperwork on children who are in danger of flunking)so its easier to just let it slide by. What does it tell you when kids need to be remediated in jr. high,high school, and college, it tells you that elementary(where the foundational knowledge of the basics happens) didn’t happen for these kids. You cannot build a structure that will endure on a bad foundation. I don’t know how you can even argue with that premise at all.

  • Fletch

    The evidence I posted proves you wrong. Not much more to say than that. If you can’t follow the dots, I can’t really help.

  • J.R.

    Your dots, no! Unfortunately not.

  • Oakland Dad

    Do you think you could put every post up twice? Once so that there could be a conversation about it, and once so JR, Fletch and Nextset could repeat their tired and somewhat boring arguments? Thanks, Everyone else.

  • Fletch

    Ok. Please explain the following given your belief system:

    “Even when you have schools where some of the kids come from higher-performing backgrounds and some from lower, the differences tend to manifest in middle school, not in elementary.

    So, to be clear, in those cases, the kids are all going to the same elementary school. And, these aren’t kids who are being socially promoted. They legitimately score just fine on the tests in elementary.”

  • Katy Murphy

    Very creative suggestion! It would be nice to hear more voices, or to have more discussions that stayed closer to the topic.

    Hey, now’s your chance!

  • Fletch

    O-Dad and Katy

    I actually agree completely with you. I’ve read this blog for a few months, and I have no idea why Nextset is so altruistic as to be willing to spend so much time shouting the truth as others ignore him.

    So anyway, I’ll stop posting. I truly don’t understand why folks are willing to expend so much effort validating a system so fundamentally broken. It’s like watching people deep in a hole showing up each day with shovels to dig it still deeper. But, I guess that’s why the status quo is so powerful.

  • Katy Murphy

    Fletch, I didn’t mean to discourage you from posting. I only meant to say that the discussions would benefit from more voices, and for discussions that more closely followed the thread. It does seem like the conversation tends to morph into a discussion/debate over the same two or three issues, almost regardless of the topic.

    I think the blog benefits from different perspectives, though, so you’re always welcome to share yours.

  • Nextset

    Fletch: Stick around and comment. Things are moving so quickly now in California we are in for an very interesting ride. I don’t mind adding my input to these threads. The Educrats think that they can publicly post their nonsense without somebody coming along and saying the Emperor has no clothes. So I do. Then they quickly remind each other what fine material the Emperor’s clothes are made from.

    I think it’s great a given school is having a good time with test scores. I think it’s wrong for educrats to delude people as to what is really going on. So I post the contrary view. And the usual people throw a fit and say they won’t talk about it.

    Meanwhile the prisons and welfare rolls swell with Blacks who could have been done better by their public schools.

    I am not so worried about Whites, Asians and Immigrants. They seem to be doing ok. What is OUSD going to do for the nearly 50% of black students that are headed for dropping out before the end of high school? Tell them to “Think College Now”? What does OUSD offer for the student who is not and never will be college material? And that’s a whole lot of people and a lot of them are black.

    Katy can you please show us vocational education, military enlistment prep and other such programs at OUSD for those who never want to go to college and have to make a living without that? Does the track for this have anything to start on in the late primary grades?

    And I still wish OUSD would assist in driver’s ed and training… There are too many things which I though of as normal that are now cultural badges separating the black students from the higher SES students.

    College prep is fine, it’s just not realistic for over half of the OUSD black population. What do we offer them?

    Brave New World.

  • J.R.

    …. and there you have it.

  • Debora

    Nextset: While I agree that middle school does draw a line in the sand I have been working with students to build the 16 habits of mind. (1. Persisting; 2. Managing Impulsivity; 3. Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision; 4. Listening with Understanding and Empathy; 5. Thinking Flexibly; 6. Thinking about Thinking – or metacognition; 7. Responding withWonderment and Awe; 8. Creating, Imagining and Innovating; 9. Gathering Data through all of the Senses; 10. Striving for Accuracy; 11. Taking Responsible Risks; 12. Questioning and Posing Problems; 13. Applying Past Knowledge to new Situations; 14. Finding Humor; 15. Thinking Independently; and 16. Remaining Open to Continual Learning)

    Developing and making a habit of these 16 traits must begin in elementary school to be able to use them effectively in middle and high school. Of these traits persisting, managing impulsivity and taking responsible risks are the traits that drop out students do not have. Making sure that students learn them in elementary school allows them time to slip up and make mistakes and accept the consequences without affecting the rest of their lives.

    What I see is that very well educated teachers have often had to persist through adversity. While it may look as though this teacher was given all of the advantages, there had to be persistence and delayed gratification (managing impulsivity). Good schools, whether public, public-charter, parochial or private teach these traits daily.

    I agree that all except the public schools have the ability to hold the students more accountable for their behavior. We should look at Think College Now, a public school, and find out how they manage student behavior and teach habits of mind. When a school program works it should be duplicated. We do not need to go to outside consultants when we have good examples in our own district.

  • Steven Weinberg

    Several posters have stated recently that Oakland needs a high school like Lowell in San Francisco which bases admission on test scores. The assumption is that high performing students would accelerate even faster in a school with only other high performers. A study cited in the August 31, 2011 Education Week casts doubt on that assumption. Researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research compared data for students who barely made it into such schools in New York City and those who barely missed making it, and found no significant difference in SAT scores in 8 out of 9 cases.

    A few posters have also claimed that lack of funding is not a serious problem for California public schools, and that if public schools followed the practices of charter schools everything would be fine. Education Week (8-24-11) interviewed the leaders of several successful charter chains, including Green Dot and Aspire, and each sited California’s low per student funding as a serious barrier to expanding in the state.

    The September 14 issue of Education Week includes an article stating that the states that agreed to tie student performance to teacher evaluations are having trouble fulfilling that commitment. Georgia has been granted a one-year extension, Rhode Island has asked for more time and is having some of the federal funding withheld, Delaware has also asked for a one-year extension, and disputes in New York have delayed the implementation of its program. It seems that these programs are a lot easier to mandate than they are to carry out.

    Finally, some posters have claimed that not making students repeat grades is the root of Oakland’s academic problems. Two Education Week articles shine some light on that. An August 10, 2011 article says that internationally high performing countries Finland and South Korea do not allow grade retention at all. It also points out that “countries in which schools frequently hold back or kick out students with low academic performance tend to have weaker, more expensive, and more socially inequitable education systems overall according to an analysis by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.” The second article, “International Test Scores, Irrelevant Policies: Misleading Rhetoric Overlooks Poverty’s Impact” (9-14-11), shows what the real problem is. It says that nearly 80 percent of the differences in reading performances between schools in the United States are accounted for by differences in socioeconomic status. The problem is poverty, not social promotion.

  • Harold

    @Mr. Weinberg – Poverty is a HUGE problem. We agree. But, if a young student is (socially promoted) from Roosevelt Middle School with a cumulative GPA under 1.0 … how is that student going to succeed at O-High, Tech or Skyline? Shouldn’t that student go straight into a vocational, or remedial program (high school)?

  • J.R.

    Steven & Harold,
    Poverty is a huge societal problem yes, and only because enablers have created a system where people who cannot take care of themselves have been assisted and encouraged to procreate more people who cannot take care of themselves. Until they come to the realization that education is their only chance to better themselves, we are all fooling ourselves. Children do not learn by osmosis(they need to decide to participate along with their parents), if you push a child into fourth grade who flunked third you have a second grader trying to to fourth grade level work and that won’t be successful. Socioeconomic reasons for educational failure are an overblown excuse. You people that keep repeating this fallacy are just enabling the kids to fail, and it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.Take a look at this:


    If a child wants to achieve, and works hard, they can succeed(irregardless of the circumstances that their irresponsible parents have placed them in). I have witnessed it time and time again(just not enough). Enough with the excuses, get to work and help these kids and stop babysitting.

  • J.R.

    Social promotion just kicks the can down the road. Whether it be financial(state) or educational, we have all seen firsthand(with the state budgets and pensions) what happens when you kick that can down the road with no forethought as to the consequences later on.

  • Debora

    Steven, Harold and J.R.:

    I just finished some research on the racial wealth gap. Age of the mother at the birth of a first child, separation of partners and divorce, number of siblings in a family and the education level of the parents STRONGLY affect the family wealth.

    In the U.S. for every 1,000 teens in these categories here are the birth rates (we’re excluding pregnancy rates which would really drive up the numbers) Source: Centers for Disease Control:

    White ages 15-17=24 ages 18-19=11
    African American ages 15-17=86 ages 18-19= 162
    Hispanic ages 15-17=69 ages 18-19= 156
    Finland ages 15-17=2 ages 18-19=5

    White ages 15-17=11 ages 18-19=46
    African American ages 15-17=32 ages 18-19= 98
    Hispanic ages 15-17=41 ages 18-19= 114
    Finland ages 15-17=1 ages 18-19=5

    Of course we have poverty. We need to take care of the birth rates. For those that compare the Finnish and South Korean educational systems – look at the birth rate, the education levels of the teachers and the fact that both of those educational systems teach all subjects except foreign language in only one language – the official language of the home country. Each of these are quite contrary to how we make our choices about fertility, education of teachers, and the languages we choose to use when teaching in the classroom.

  • Steven Weinberg

    Harold, I agree that the student you describe is unlikely to succeed in high school, but making him repeat eighth grade will not help him succeed either. Some other intervention will be required. The sad truth is that neither social promotion nor retaining students is a successful strategy.

  • AC Mom


    Students should have more opportunities to attend schools that either reflect their aptitude or their interests. Are there recent graduates/current students of Oakland puplic schools capable of being admitted to (and graduating from) Stanford or an Ivy League Univesity? Yes, but what specialized schools provide are opportunities for more focused and rigorous instruction in that schools focus area, socialization (different fields have their own social norms), networking opportunities, etc. The article you referenced (“Exam High Schools and Academic Achievement: Evidence From New York City”)can be intepreted a myriad of ways; however, the research and the results are by no means conclusive. One of the reports authors’ are quoted in the New York Times as stating:

    “Without longer-term measures such as income, health, or life satisfaction,” they note, “it is difficult to fully interpret our results.”

    As a current OUSD parent, I would welcome the opportunity for my children to have more educational choices, and I believe that a selective middle and high school is needed.

  • AH

    Does anybody track retention rates at Oakland schools? It’s not uncommon at our OUSD elementary to hold kids back. In fact, it’s common enough that there seems to be no stigma attached. Off the top of my head I can think of 10 or so children who have repeated a grade, often kindy or 1st, but I know of two who are repeating 4th grade this year. Is this rare in OUSD?

  • J.R.

    The larger question becomes, why has it become so necessary to hold children back? Why are we having to choose between a bad choice(retention) and a worse choice(social promotion)?

  • AH

    Actually, that’s not the larger question for me. Some of the grade repeaters are young for their grade. At least one is an adoptee, so who knows what his early years were like. For the kids I know who are repeating, often it’s obvious why they are repeating. That wasn’t my question at all. I just wanted to know how common it is.

  • Debora


    Parents often put their children in kindergarten at the age the school must legally accept them regardless of whether or not the student is ready to begin school. In the past the cut off was five years old by December 2 of the current year. For parents who held off on kindergarten when the student was eligible according to age there is a year and a half difference in age. Imagine a four year old sitting still and writing for 20 minutes, now imagine a six year old sitting for 20 minutes. Very different picture.

    A student in Oakland cannot be held back without parental permission – even in kindergarten or first grade.

  • J.R.

    Holding back for reasons of maturity is very different than holding for academic reasons(obviously).

  • Ms. J.

    It sounds like Cassaretto has some dedicated fans and her energy is certainly impressive! I don’t feel I have the information necessary to comment on her teaching, having only seen a few snippets of teacher-directed, scripted activities in her classroom. Nevertheless, I’m happy to celebrate her success!

    However, I take issue with Wendy Kopp’s statement that she chose this teacher because she lives and breathes teaching (or something to that effect). It is not a surprising statement and it fits right in with the superhero narrative, the idealization of these teachers who sacrifice their own lives to save their students. However, as others have pointed out, this is not a tenable response to the crisis in education.

    I’m not against teachers (or people in any profession) making a choice to devote all of their energy and time to their jobs. I am against the idea that this amounts to policy. For education to serve all children, schools and teachers need to be properly supported; issues of poverty and inequity which surround school systems must be addressed; education policy must take this into account.

    Many thousands of teachers might be spending ten and twelve hour days and doing great things in their individual classrooms, but this will not transform education. And while it is possible that some individual teachers will have the stamina and will (and lack of family, or generosity of partner) to keep up this level of single-minded dedication for many years, reports I’ve read indicate that such gung-ho 80-hour-a-week teachers are the very ones who leave teaching before five years are out.

  • wdcrachel

    Ms. J

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. It feels like the greatest asset of the singular focus on teachers is that lets those of us not in the classroom off the hook. If it all depends on the teacher, we have no collective responsibility for the success of schools and students.

  • Oakland Teacher

    #41 about sums up the entire political arena on education right now. Community, parenting, social welfare systems, health care, and financial support for education are all exempted. They can all be inadequate, but with the “right teacher” who works hard enough, all should be well.

    Time to get started on my day and to see which consultants will be involved in our PD day.