How would you rate Oakland’s superintendent, three years in?

photo by D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group

After three years, Tony Smith can no longer be described as Oakland Unified’s new superintendent. Still, he’s said the systemic changes outlined in OUSD’s strategic plan — approved a year ago — will take several more years to take root.

We have a profile of Smith in the paper today — and we’ve just posted an online poll on his leadership and on his community schools vision that I invite you to take.

What’s the most important thing Smith has done so far? What decision disappointed you the most? If he accomplishes one significant thing in the year ahead, what do you hope it is? What advice would you give him?

Please remember to keep your comments civil, free of name-calling and personal attacks.

Katy Murphy

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

  • Catherine

    Creating awareness of systemic racism and low expectations for African-American children = A
    Attempt at creating an Oakland Children’s Zone = A-
    Raising awareness and attempting to build self-esteem through love and caring rather than student academic competence = A
    Meeting the State mandated and ethical education for special needs students, including African-American special need students = D-
    Meeting the needs of Gifted Students (28% of school district) including Gifted African-American students = F

  • EffectsofReform

    The priorities that he voices are (sometimes) sound ones and socially just ones. But growing the charter presence and closing schools in low-income, URM neighborhoods will prove to be disastrous. Those families that need and deserve to have these resources at their doorstep will move–and they won’t be moving to the Hills. It’s not as simple as “commuting” from their neighborhood to a “better school.” Unless the Supe has the power to suddenly create affordable, safe housing near these schools, he’s just brought students out of their neighborhoods to a setting that’s simply not home. It doesn’t improve neighborhoods, it just tells them that they can visit a “better” one a few hours a day, nine months a year–if they can keep up the strain of commuting. The burden of seeking resources outside their community means that you’ll be one more person in the system that tells them to move along, or be patient.

    To Dr. Smith: I wish that you would use your considerable public influence to say–everyday–that our State has lost its way. It has defunded education and shredded the social safety net and we will pay the price for this for decades. We have over 20% of children living in poverty in the US and the schools simply do not have the resources to stand in the gap (there aren’t enough “partners” to help us fix this). This requires a massive investment–the scale of which must be on the State level in order to avoid further inequity. I’d like to see you talking about this.

    The process of closing schools will yield further gentrification (not mobility, but push-out) and “sorting.” Some of his diagnoses are correct–systemic racism, white privilege, but his solutions are simply wrong. We can’t cut, shut, and charter our way to equality. Take Santa Fe–what happened to enrollment after Adult Ed was closed? What about after the childcare center was shuttered? WHERE DID THOSE FOLKS GO? When you peel away resources from these schools and then watch enrollment drop and then propose “full service community schools” as a solution, well, I simply don’t trust you. You introduce instability, destroy communities and promise a better day, some day, somewhere. Your solutions negatively affect the most vulnerable populations and communities–this looks like history repeating itself wrapped in the veneer of a “new” solution.

    Your spokesperson keeps talking about how we have more schools than other urban districts, but you know very well, that all of the large urban districts are in big trouble financially–that’s not because of a “surplus of schools,” but because of a lack of funding that makes cutbacks necessary without regard to the fact that we need to teach and support all kids.

    Refuse to further degrade the teaching profession in word or deed. You’ve never been a classroom teacher: it’s important to remember that and to be very careful about your subtle (and not-so-subtle) denigration of the field. Children will remember their teachers–not a one will know who the superintendent was–unless, of course, you are the guy who made it impossible to retain good teachers and closed their schools.

    Finally: All that data that you are compiling won’t help a bit if there isn’t money to make change. All of your data will continue to stigmatize schools with a large proportion of ELL students, SpEd students, and students living in poverty and it won’t bring any more money from the State. Dr. Smith: use your authority differently, please. It need not be this way.

  • J.R.

    When your student population shrinks from 55,000 to 38,000 and you still have nearly 90 campuses, it is time for consolidation(it is foolish to do otherwise). How does being a classroom teacher make you more cognizant of the fiscal, and or academic realities? If anything, teachers will tend to be more biased toward keeping things as they are, which is a recipe for financial disaster.

    On the point of children living in poverty, you forget one important fact, their “OWN” parents have placed them in that precarious position. The children’s own parents are destabilizing their world around them, and you insist on blaming society for not furnishing their every need?

    In this present time we no longer have the luxury of getting everything we want, only hanging on to that which is most important and vital. We as a state were placed in this position by a debt burden driven by unsustainable public debt(public employee benefits and pensions which are growing geometrically). That is the cause good, bad or indifferent.




  • LK

    On the positive side, I would say that reducing Open Court fundamentalism in the district has been very helpful to me as a teacher. Having a bit of academic freedom has meant that I can tailor lessons to better fit my students’ needs and abilities. Related to that, professional development has been of higher quality and much more respectful of teachers.

    On the other hand, Smith has been very disappointing. The threat of mass layoffs last year just showed that he’s playing the same old game when it comes to dealing with teachers – scare us, divide us, play hardball. His neat little trick of creating those new tsa positions at Fremont and Castlemont has made me distrustful of his motives and methods. (There is a difference between being clever and being innovative.) He talks about equity and yet if you look at all the charter conversions, they are in flatland neighborhoods. With Santa Fe closing, there is no neighborhood school in north west Oakland. One would think that, for the sake of equity, Santa Fe should be kept open regardless of demographics. He doesn’t seem like much of an advocate for flatland schools and he’s stated that he doesn’t care if the whole district charterizes.

    On the whole, he’s a disappointment.

  • livegreen

    There was no “threat of mass layoffs” last year. OUSD is working with massive cuts from the State and delays in funding from the State for what’s left. And there are time limits imposed by the Unions in State law that requires so much notice to do layoffs that School Districts have to issue Pink Slips before they know what the State budget is going to look like.

    So blame the Unions and the radical left unpractical Sacramento politicians they finance for these laws. Not the School Districts that then have to find a way to work under them.

  • Catherine

    I really wish the union would be more flexible in meeting the needs of students and for the teachers working in the flat lands who have a much, much more difficult job than those in the hills. My evidence is that as teachers have more seniority and openings are in the hills, teachers tend to apply for the jobs. Also, the teachers in the flat lands must spend much more of their own money for supplies as the wealthier neighborhoods are able to put out “wish lists” and have their needs met.

    I think if the union had been more flexible with teachers earning another month of pay while working at the Fremont and Castlemont campuses, there would not have been a need to circumvent the union.

    I believe that in Oakland we need the union to protect teachers, however, I believe the union must begin to recognize that not all teachers spend the same amount of time, effort and money teaching the same grade and or subject from school to school. In most of the flat land schools teachers spend 25% of their time teaching background knowledge before teaching a lesson that middle class families teach their children – and I am not talking about taking their children places necessarily – it is vocabulary, questioning strategies, allowing children to make choices and helping them make friends and spend time with people who enhance their academic lives not deminish their academic lives. This means at 25% that every four years the students in middle class schools can be taught one full year of extra material in the classroom OR that the school day/year of the flat lands school need to be increased by 25%, thus the teachers need to make 25% more AT LEAST.

  • LK


    I am a teacher in the flatlands. I’ve been a teacher in flatland schools my entire career (15 years) and am well aware of how difficult it is to teach in high poverty areas. I have not witnessed much, if any, teacher migration from flatland schools to the hills. Hill schools have far less turnover in their teaching staffs than do flatland schools. It’s common in hill schools to find a staff that has been together for literally decades. In flatland schools it’s a far different story. There are a lot of new teachers in flatland schools because that’s where the openings are. The openings are created by new teachers flaming out because they can’t handle the pressure-cooker atmosphere, and by teachers leaving ousd for greener pastures. Last year a lot of the newer teachers who got pink slips decided not to wait for the district to rescind and found positions in other districts.

    As for union inflexibility, what I hear is that ousd was not in discussion with oea about the tsa positions. It was a complete surprise to oea and even teachers at the affected schools. There is a waiver process for school sites who want to pay teachers for extra work. If the district were acting in good faith with teachers, I would assume that they would work within the frameworks negotiated by ousd and the teachers.

  • Nextset

    Catherine: Your post about about having to waste time lecturing lower class kids to remediate bad family upbringing was interesting. No it doesn’t merit higher pay. If anything, lower caste children would be expected to have lesser paid teachers because the children have lower value. There is a saying that if you are going to work with your hands for a living you’d better start working early. So no, you do not spend extra money trying to “teach” low caste kids to think. They are not going to be paid to think.

    That is how things work in any economy you know. You can wish water to run uphill. You’re not a fairy princess.

    The schools could try to get more added value on their low caste products by increasing the use of automated teaching. Or a good reading list that the kiddies would actually read. I’d suggest Robert Heinlien’s juvenile series which is chock full of juvenile heros and heroines who make their own luck and change caste (stowaways to ship captain, servants to masters, poor to rich, etc). While extra lecturing is used to explain the facts of life and industry to lower castes, if properly taught they can read… Likewise assigning a lot of biographies of 20th Century industrialists, inventors and commercial pioneers. You might include Mitt Romney’s father who went from a no-college tradesman to a captain of industry and then a governor and presidential candidate. Not bad for a child of a really screwed up family either. The 20th Century is full of these personalities. Perhaps the kiddies can relate to the rags to riches ideation – without playing football.

    The point of all these stories and readings is to learn middle/upper class values and decision making. Ultimately to learn the critical importance of planning and future orientation which devides the poor from everybody else.

    But back to the flats kiddies. It would be nice if OUSD like the US Army would simply administer IQ tests and selective invite potentials to go to the functional equivalent of West Point. Use tracking to promote up poor children with potential (to better schools). We stopped doing that during the “civil rights” era so the poor black kids can just rot. All comrades are equal come hell or high water.

    Affirmative Action is not the same. AA is the promotion of unqualified people into situations where they are statistically likely to not fit in and fail, thus reinforcing the notion that there is something wrong with them, and that other people are expected to put up with the craziness and not say anything.

    Tracking worked and AA doesn’t.

    Brave New World!

  • Jim Mordecai

    I would grade Dr. Tony Smith an A in public relations and an F in administrative effectiveness. He looks good, tall, cool under pressure, and is always positive. In addition, he speaks well and is bright and intelligent and not just a stereotype
    jock. He has a vision of a better more just and equitable future for Oakland students. This translates to public attitude of give the man a $270,000 break he is trying.

    Problem is that having a just dream, a strategic plan, and a theory of change that looks good on paper is not all there is to the job. Tony Smith must also be judged on more than what he promises but what he does and that is where he fails.

    I give him a low mark on administrative performance because of too high a number of administrative mistakes during his administration of OUSD. His Administration’s most recent mistake was $8 million short fall in the special education department. These screw-ups undercut Superintendent’s public assertion that the District structural deficit had finally been ended.

    And, whereas Tony Smith looks great, his failed record on administrating school closings has been multiple; a political, an administrative and a public relations failure. He failed politically as he didn’t have the Black community support for the school closings, and the $10 million saved from closing down adult education meant economically it wasn’t yet urgent to close neighborhood schools. Additionally,
    closing QEIA schools meant the loss of millions in grant money, an administrative failure.

    Another QEIA failure was the failure of his administration to maintain the terms of the QEIA grant resulting in waiver requests from the Department of Education and flat out loss of QEIA funding by administrative failure.

    As a UC tight-end Tony Smith was practiced in administering crack-back blocks.
    This hit-them-where-they-lease-expect- the attack crack-back blocking mentality has been expressed in Superintendent Smith’s creative use of the District/Teacher contract language to claim that the existing contract language for teacher-on
    special-assignment (TSA) could be transformed into an accelerated TSA position for classroom teachers to work an extended year without having to meet with OEA to negotiate the newly transformed position with his Administration. An experience superintendent wouldn’t have pick this type of fight over the meaning of words in a District/Teacher contract. If an experienced superintendent wanted an accelerated TSA position, it would be negotiated, not imposed on a union.

    Imposing language on the union was unnecessary and just showed that the District had the bully power to impose, but it also showed it had not picked a superintendent with the wisdom to work with the union. So what did the District gain by its imposition other than the alienation of its union by it aggressiveness?

    The union has been advertising over and over that the District is out of compliance with the law requiring that 55% of the total of District expenditures
    goes to the classroom for cost of teachers and their instructional assistants. During the State take-over this requirement was ignored. But,when the Board’s
    Superintendent Mayer took over administering the finances as interim superintendent prior to Superintendent Smith, she exceeded 55% mark. And, Superintendent Smith has yet to met that minimum mark.

    For the above reasons and reasons not listed, I believe Tony Smith’s administrative grade would be an F grade. Average with his P.R. grade his
    final grade, in my mind, should be a D- grade!

    Jim Mordecai

  • livegreen

    Jim’s critique of Tony Smith seems valid to me. Where I depart is both about the Strategic plan and the constant NIMBY attitude towards his efforts, with School Closure being the primary example.

    The Strategic Plan is tremendously important to continue streamlining the District financially (to pay for a good education for all our children), work to stabalize student populations under stress through Community schools & services (IF he can get Foundation support), and build quality schools and programs in both flatlands, hills, and in between.

    Closing schools based on a well defined set of criteria in a school district that has decreased in population dramatically (as is being discussed in the other thread) is vital to the cost portion of this plan. In this case overhead vs. low local enrollment and community support. Throw in kids going on bus routes half way or ALL the way across town to get a good education makes the kids in highest need the most at risk to the negative pressures of the most negative kids, in addition to those looking to prey on them (gangs & pimps). The. Those negative pressures are shared with ALL the kids.

    Instead the NIMBYs look to find fault at the first sign of any change and put Dr.Smith into their preconceived game plan of anybody willing to take a leadership roll, casting him to be evil incarnate (almost a Republican). When he’s just a liberal who’s trying to implement change! In a City with one of the most diverse and complicated political cultures in the entire country.

    It is not just up to Dr. Smith to work with the OEA but also for the OEA to work with Dr. Smith. Instead at every juncture the OEA chooses to protest and resort to ideals it’s held since the 1960’s.

    The OEA should change its name to the OPA…the Oakland Protestors Association.

    Tony Smith deserves a B. His goals are good, communication needs to improve, Administration has waaaay too many Chiefs, the QEIA issue, the redrawing of school and district boundaries without enough community input and the neglect of schools in the middle are all areas he needs to improve. Middle Schools are stll OUSD’s biggest weakness.

    But he’s headed in the right direction. That is already a tremendous improvement.

  • Catherine

    Livegreen: Tony does not deserve a B in representing about 40% of the students in the district. The Special Education students were to have $8 million dollars cut from their budget because Tony and his staff could not calculate or check their figures. In 2009 Tony stated that 40% of the top performing students and 25% of students overall leave Oakland public schools at the end of fifth grade for schools outside the district or private schools. That is not above average work. When a district is only able to make it worthwhile for 75% of the students to stay in the district (across all ethnic, racial and socioeconomic lines according to Tony Smith) then there is a problem. If every year 25% of the customers from a business left, we would not call that service a B.

  • Catherine

    Nextset: Not all of the flatland students need the background knowledge, but the teachers teach it to all of the students anyway because they don’t pretest to know what knowledge students possess and use regularly. I sincerely wish there was a way for students to “test out” of the information they already know.

    I don’t think there is a teacher on this list who would love to go to a meeting every single Wednesday and be given the same information again and again that they know and use because the principal simply did not care enough to find out what they knew. Yet 25% or more of class time is wasted reviewing multiplication facts in third, fourth and fifth grades in flat land schools. Spelling pretests are given but a student earning 100% must still take the post test in almost every classroom. Until recently everyone read the same material every week in the same grade level and had the same vocabulary lessons in the same grade. If you’re reading at 10th grade level in third grade you’re still going to read about urban wildlife animals, if you’re reading at a first grade level in third grade you’re reading the same thing.

    So Nextset, it is not that all children are dull it is that we do not allow them to learn beyond the lesson we wish to teach.

  • livegreen

    Catherine, So you’re blaming him for something that was a problem before he even started and he was addressing head on the year he was appointed. Wow, that seems fair.

    Furthermore much of the flight is also do to safety issues coming to and from school, that then spill over into school. That is a City wide problem our City leaders are unable or unwilling to address, and has great impact on enrollment.

  • Catherine

    Livegreen: No, I am not blaming him for a problem that existed before he came on board. He seems to have the same misconception that you do about why students leave. Tony and you believe it is about safety, but in a questionnaire done by a research student at a local university the reason high performing students are leaving now, more than ever, is the low expectations for students in our schools. Students who have the ability to work substantially higher than the low level STAR test are not challenged in school and the focus is on the lowest performing students who are the closest to moving up to the next category – for example a student high below basic that can be moved into basic.

    Because of the lack of rigor in our elementary classrooms, the lack of science, music, social studies, geography, high level math courses and so on, parents lose confidence in the school system being able to meet the needs of students in middle school. Furthermore, there is very little in the way of allowing students to not be disrupted while they are attempting to learn.

    These are issues that can be dealt with at the school level. Honestly, teachers on this blog – how many of you have differentiated assignments across the curriculum to challenge your high ability and highly motivated learners? Do they have separate spelling and vocabulary words? Higher level math problems? More advanced science? Deeper level writing assignments? Independent work in which they are grouped with other gifted students in the areas they excel each and every school day? That is what the Oakland GATE plan says we are doing in elementary school with 28% of our students – beginning in kindergarten. Because when we choose to accept GATE money we are agreeing to differentiate instruction beginning in kindergarten – before the students are identified as gifted.

    From the research, fewer than 10% of the teachers in Oakland elementary schools differentiate at all, almost none differentiate across the full spectrum of curriculum and fewer than 10% cluster GATE students for learning. Tony has control of this – it is what he has promised the State of California. He has terminated – for all intenets and purposes – the GATE department.

    I believe that you, the school board and Tony should read the studies on why gifted students leave public schools – you will find that parents fought and fought a system that did not deliver the educational opportunities for gifted students that were stated in the district plans and the parents simply moved on to a district, private school or charter school that was willing to do what Oakland promised and chose to ignore.

  • Ann

    What OUSD needs is management at the school sites. Instead we have plans, meetings, tasks forces and PR. Meanwhile schools are more chaotic, great principals flee and the management culture of moving problems instead of fixing them and blaming teachers continues. Toni ignores the failing middle and high schools. The worsening conditions at Bret Harte and Edna Brewer are starting to affect the stability of the neighborhoods around them. Toni Smith’s mismanagement now threatens my property value as well as my children’s futures.

  • Mitsu Fisher

    Short answer, he’s a bust. Empty suit. No tangible achievements that I care about as a parent of two school aged kids in Oakland. Paper tiger, all Power Point slides and “plans”. No leadership and inept as an administrator. Is he a grifter? I don’t know. All I know is that the jury is in after three years and the verdict is that the School Board made a bad hire. I blame the school board for this mess. I’m looking forward to my next opportunity to vote them out unless they take effective corrective action soon. My final grade is for the school board and not Tony Smith. It’s the school board’s failing, not Tony’s. He’s just a guy who was able bo bamboozle an inept school board into hiring him at an outrageously high salary. Final grade: D-

  • livegreen

    Catherine, I agree OUSD has a major problem retaining gifted students leaving the District. It’s broader than that…it’s with middle class & wealthy families leaving after K-5 or not attending in the first place. I have acknowledged this in the past and have argued the same many times here before.

    At the same time the fact is you DID blame Dr. Smith for something that started well before him and you paraphrase his acknowledging the problem the same year he arrived as proof that he’s failing. Sorry but expecting a turnaround the very first year he’s in office is at the very least unrealistic, at most entirely disingenuous.

    As they say, you are entitled to your opinion but not your facts. And the facts are that between 2000-01 and 2007-08 enrollment in OUSD declined dramatically. Since then the rate of decline has been almost stopped, and is basically flat.

    I agree in part with some of your other critiques of OUSD. However one must also acknowledge this progress that OUSD HAS made. That is further demonstrated by the # of neighborhood families that attend their neighborhood elementary schools in the Hills. This is spreading more recently to K-5 schools in both the foothills & flatlands. Not long ago this was not the case!

    This is REAL progress that (in your zeal to both criticize & want more real progress) you conveniently omit or deliberately ignore.

    I agree, the Middle Schools is the big dropping off point in both enrollment (& I acknowledged this before). This is where the battle must now be fought. It’s time for Dr. Smith & OUSD to do more, and to do better.

  • Task Forces Rule !

    This one is easy:

    OUSD Superintendent Smith is:

    A great speaker, thinker. A good guy.

    A weak manager, lacking in school leadership experience.

    Grade: D

  • On The Fence

    Complete agreement, Mitsu! “Short answer, he’s a bust. Empty suit. No tangible achievements that I care about as a parent of two school aged kids in Oakland. Paper tiger, all Power Point slides and “plans”. ”

    I’ve also got 2 kids in OUSD schools and would not credit Tony Smith with any tangible improvements. Face it, the enrollment decline decreased because of the poor economy where families can’t readily afford privates like they did when their homes were appreciating and their jobs were secured. Furthermore, the very real successes at schools are due to anything BUT the district! It has been the parents, teachers and (sometimes) principals who have sweated, fundraised, invested, gardened, tutored, cajoled, promoted, and otherwise CREATED the increased demand in schools such as Kaiser, Crocker Highlands, Chabot, Redwood Heights, Peralta, Montera, Brewer, Oakland Tech, and many, many other schools. In many instances, these improvements have been foiled by the district.

    My main issue with Tony Smith is that he seems doggedly intent on serving only a fraction of the children at OUSD, all others be damned! A mere few weeks ago he was poised to decimate the Special Ed. program serving some of the most needy children in OUSD. He has completely ignored families with gifted children, pays no attention to the middle class, creates havoc in functioning communities like Crocker, and can you not remember that Kaiser Elementary was on the chopping block last year?!?

    My impression is that one must fit into the very poor, preferably black and preferably male category to expect any lip service or real service in the district. Is it a needy community? YES!! But can you build a functioning school district by ignoring all others? NO. Even worse, I do not have confidence that the ideas, such as Full Service Community Schools, will create the improvements for the district’s poor and minority students that he seeks.

    I do not predict a strengthening of our public school district through his leadership for any community; poor, minority, or otherwise. What I do predict is that Tony Smith will land a really great job for approximately 30% above his current (overblown) salary, running a charter organization or in another district, based on his ‘good looks’, ‘innovative plans’, and his “successes”. Grade: D

  • Jim Mordecai

    On The Fence:

    I have a different take on your statement: “My main issue with Tony Smith is that he seems doggedly intent on serving only a fraction of the children at OUSD, all others be damned!”

    I believe Tony Smith is not indifferent to other segments of OUSD student population, but beyond symbolic gambits, he doesn’t know how to implement his desire to bring structural change to the system and he doesn’t have enough experience/knowledge of the details of the system to keeping the system running while he makes changes. He’s big on big theory but poor on managing details.

    For lack of experience, or administrative know-how, Tony Smith’s theory of change for the District to better serve Black Male students is being implemented in a one step forward and two-steps back management style. Hiring an administrator to focus on Black Male students was one step forward. Pushing to make A-G a graduation requirement was, In my opinion, one step back by encouraging drop-outs, including impacting Black male students. Mishandling QEIA funding was a huge step back. Support for 100 Black Men charter school unintended consequence is weakening support for the Black students in OUSD by contributing to defunding the District by supporting charter school growth.

    Taking money from the general fund to pay an organizer for his favored charter school is not unfair to the students in OUSD from whom the funding was taken but unfair to the charter schools that didn’t get equal treatment. Sure the amount of money for the organizer was minimal but certainly an action lacking political wisdom when you are trying to uplift one subset of the student population with Robbing Peter to pay Paul approach.

    Detail that would impact Black male students as well as all students in poverty schools of Oakland is that a study of Oakland’s and San Francisco’s weighted student budgeting found Oakland was shooting itself in the foot by continuing Randy Ward’s policy of tying attendance success to ADA. Thus, poverty schools with the poor attendance suffer from portion of their ADA being redistributed to schools with higher attendance rate. Guess what? It is schools with wealthier student bodies that have better attendance. Small amount of revenue, but a detail that if corrected would end an identified failed policy. Superintendent Mayer attended to details, Tony Smith does not.
    Finally, in an interview with Tony Smith Katy Murphy drew out the comment that he was staying. But, in a double talk statement he said something to the effect that after three years he was about building support for his reforms. My belief he is going to leave as soon as possible because he doesn’t like the heat from certain Board members that want him to get the details right and don’t like surprises and not being told ahead of time what he is about to initiate. If opponents of his program get elected he might even accept another job with a cut in pay.

    Livegreen: I hope I am being a NIMBY for an Oakland Superintendent getting the details of the job right.

    Jim Mordecai

  • J.R.

    Everyone seems to be forgetting a few of the most important aspects that are directly responsible for our long standing(overall)structural,academic, and economic failure of OUSD. The voters have failed to support people with adequate skills to manage(people with economic and business degrees and or experience and kinow how in actually running day to day business operations) and run a rather large taxpayer funded enterprise(OUSD).We have now(as in the past)far too many under-qualified people who are over their heads(community activists,social justice wonks,and linguist art majors). In turn the board has hired successive educative system “yes men” who are next in line for the title and pay, all on reputation and none on actual ability. To be fair though, the superintendent cannot unilaterally remake a district. There are restraints imposed upon him by union mandated state law(via liberal Democrat lawmakers)and of course union contracts. For example the union maintains that its best teachers are the most experienced, and if so as a super I would want to use my best teachers as mentors at various struggling schools throughout the district, but union contract says “NO” teachers should self select. Contradictory, “Oh Yes”! Yes restraints are even imposed upon the taxpayers in this bureaucracy, they are not really represented on either side of the supposed opposing sides at the bargaining table. We implemented small schools(which multiplied principals,janitors, and staff) when we should have just stuck with manageable small class sizes and larger schools. Small schools were good for unions, and smaller classes are better for kids. In short the board made every stupid decision that could be made(this includes past incarnations of the board as well).

  • Nontcair

    One can’t objectively “rate” a public school district superintendent. The only distinctions one could make would be matters of *style*, ie whether he

    is a good thinker
    pays attention to details
    cares more about group A
    uses PowerPoint

    etc and so forth.

    The fact is that the Superintendent is a government bureaucrat charged with implementing literally *thousands* of public education regulations — a number of which are mutally exclusive — which are imposed at all levels of government.

    The best we can get is someone mediocre. Do you understand what I’m saying?

    Imagine you could hire anyone you wanted — Larry Ellison, Meg Whitman, Ken Betts, whoever — and offer him/her a 5YR, front-end loaded, performance-based compensation package worth $500M to significantly raise OSUD student performance by objective criteria such as standardized test scores.

    He or she would do NO BETTER than Smith.

    Smith deserves a very strong ‘C’.

  • J.R.

    Non wrote,
    “Imagine you could hire anyone you wanted — Larry Ellison, Meg Whitman, Ken Betts, whoever — and offer him/her a 5YR, front-end loaded, performance-based compensation package worth $500M to significantly raise OSUD student performance by objective criteria such as standardized test scores.

    He or she would do NO BETTER than Smith”(and you yourself have absolute knowledge of that, because)? Although with all the special interest groups that have to be satiated(various unions,parents,admin), you may be somewhat correct.

    If that were true, it would be because all the various special interests are looking out for their best interests, and resisting “true change,checks and balances and accountability” in the system. As i have always said, this system is not built to propel children to maximum potential, but merely to accept mediocrity and jobs for the masses. Only the truly diligent and motivated children and parents reap true success because they expect it.

  • Nontcair

    “Absolute” knowledge? No. Common sense.

    Can a public school Superintendent *dictatorially*:

    close underperforming schools?
    fire incompetent subordinates
    replace preferred vendors?
    alter graduation requirements?
    eliminate assessment tests?
    impose wage levels?
    change the menu at the cafeteria?

    on and on and on.

    So then how would anyone expect Smith (vel al) to “succeed”? As I wrote earlier, their only distinctions would be stylistic.

    It seems like you started out trying to write a *vigorous* dissent to my opinion and wound up basically convincing yourself that I’m correct.

  • J.R.

    What I’m telling you is, the system is a nearly immovable object in procedures and policies(children and parents succeed sometimes in spite of it, or by the strength of the portion of performance geared teachers. The culture must be changed from a culture of acceptance of mediocrity to a culture that expects and nourishes success at all levels. Some of these kids fail in JR.High and High School because they do not have the firm foundation of a solid elementary education built upon mastery of the basics. Vendors,grad.requirements(sadly lax)wage levels, menus are all tertiary endeavors. Students go to school to learn, and that should be(far and away) the first ten priorities of this district. BTW, I was not starting out to do anything but write my observations as to why we’ve had decades of mediocrity(with certain exceptions. I would not say that you are correct, you are too worried about things that do not matter much.

  • Gordon Danning

    No superintendent can succeed, because the District is an unmovable object? What a load of B.S. That is the whiny complaint of every incompetent manager.

    What if a superintendent visited every school and told teachers, “Everyone who is interested in improving instruction, meet me after school.” And, what if he told them, “If you come up with a plan to work together to improve instruction, I will back you, and I will make sure that your principal will back you.” And, what if the superintendent followed through? Wouldn’t there be tons of change?

    Instead, superintendents issue edicts, most of which are borderline silly, or impractical, or inapplicable to much coursework, or insulting to teacher intelligence, and so most of the teachers who are willing and able to work towards improvement simply roll their eyes and close their doors.

  • Nontcair

    Wouldn’t there be tons of change?

    You just don’t get it. NOTHING would change.

    What could the bureaucracy accomplish?

    Expel students with “unacceptable” numbers of absences?
    Sanction parents of unmotivated kids?
    Limit academic instruction only to Asians?
    Devote 98% of the resources to teaching poor kids?
    Deny services to illegals?
    Eliminate football?

    It could do NONE of these things without prior approval of the politically controlled Board.

    In most cases not without prior consultations with district lawyers.

    In many cases not without special dispensations from Sacramento and even Washington.

    OUSD *is* an immovable object. So are ALL bureaucracies.

    BTW. I mention public education policies which some think unimportant in order to provide a sense of scale. When you consider the amount of effort necessary to overcome the red tape governing some trivial policy you know it’s totally IMPOSSIBLE to implement some major reform.

  • J.R.

    I believe I wrote “nearly immovable object”. That is a historically true fact in OUSD. This district has had particular school flounder for decades,(with well known exceptions), and all we’ve gotten is token short term band-aid so-called solutions. There has historically been(with noted exceptions):

    1. Low graduation rates.

    2. High rates of student remediation in high school, and college(this is an embarrassment there is no excuse for).

    3. A majority of students who just are not prepared for higher education and or rigorous majors.


    These are facts, deal with them! This system won’t change(or the people in it) because it does not want to(for various reasons dependent on the particular group(admin,teacher,parent,student).

  • J.R.

    I used nearly immovable object, because if I would have added stupidity, Katy probably would have blocked it. This clip is indicative of the types of brazen incompetence and stupidity that keep the bar low. There are so many hidden messages within it if people will just pay close attention. FYI – The date has little to do with it.


  • IMHO

    Tony Smith’s lack of experience as a teacher and site administrator prevented him from gaining the necessary skills to work with both. Instead of forging alliances he alienated two very important stakeholders. Worse, he sounds as if he were hired to be the superintendent of only one section of Oakland. The U in OUSD stands for Unified. Tony Smith has not been a superintendent for all of Oakland. Three years is more than enough to assess his tenure, which has been utter failure. It’s time to bring in an advocate for all and who does more action and less PR and PowerPointing.

  • Gordon Danning

    Montclair and JR:

    I don’t disagree that bureaucracies are slow moving and resistant to change, and that they often set de facto policy, regardless of what the people at the top want.

    But, schools are different from other government agencies in that most of the most important policies are set and enforced by teachers in their classrooms, not by downtown bureaucrats. There is nothing that Tony Smith could possibly do in a million years that could be more important than, for example, a teacher insisting that “The Holocaust was wrong” is not an acceptable thesis in a high school paper, but that “People participated in the Holocaust because their free will was overborne” IS an acceptable thesis.

    Long story short, what happens in the classroom is vastly more important than what happens outside the classroom, and virtually nothing that the bureaucracy does has anything other than a minimal effect on what happens in the classroom.

    So, to return to my original point, a Superintendent can create meaningful change by identifying and supporting those teachers who want to work for meaningful change.

    PS: Here is a practical suggestion: Make all professional development days voluntary, and unpaid. Then, the only people who show up will be those who actually want to accomplish something.

  • J.R.

    “Long story short, what happens in the classroom is vastly more important than what happens outside the classroom, and virtually nothing that the bureaucracy does has anything other than a minimal effect on what happens in the classroom”.

    Which is exactly why reform is looking at effective teachers first and foremost as a primary means to address our woeful educational performance. Unfortunately there are many ways that a teacher can make life easy on him/herself and in the process the children learn little to nothing. Not every teacher carries their own weight, and the same go for these ” biologic breeders”(I hesitate to call them parents),and for that matter children as well.

    Part of being a high performing society is expecting everyone to do their part(we are sorely lacking in this area). The weight of society is being carried by far too few(which is pretty evident now, in these times).

    As to your practical suggestion, it is pretty good if people were able to take into account those who show up when decisions that require judgements of merit arise. The system of longevity is just a mess(look at the record over the decades).

  • Nontcair

    schools are different from other government agencies ..

    The schools are the Post Office with yellow delivery trucks.

    Keep dreamin’.

  • OUSD educator and parent

    Positives: He speaks well. I am moved by his vision.

    Negatives: His plans to implement his vision are a disaster. There are 2000 initiatives in OUSD. He’s appointed some people who are incompetent and toxic. I have seen outstanding teachers, administrators and entire schools leave/succeed from the district. They’ve been pushed out, told to leave, while the incompetent, grasping for power stay and are promoted. Furthermore, Smith has been unwilling to engage in dialogue about what’s going on. He talks about relational trust and doing “this thing” together and yet he’s alienated those who would have quickly joined him.

    Decision-making is all centralized, top down; major critical decisions are made sometimes by one person and there are no reasons given for what happens.

    I have one more year in this district and then I’m out and I’m pulling my kids from OUSD schools.
    I had huge hopes for Smith. Very sad.

  • Seenitbefore

    Too bad people didn’t listen to the teachers and community members who tried to point out the major flaws in hiring Smith in the first place.

    Business as usual in OUSD administration…. hire your family and friends, milk every penny you can find, push the latest wacko educational trend, destroy kid’s futures and drive AWAY anyone who attempts to speak rationally and truthfully about the cluelessness of the leadership….. then… BLAME THE TEACHERS.


  • IMHO

    When Tony Smith looks back at his inglorious tenure and how it finally imploded, he will realize that it started unraveling when, contrary to his promises and pronouncements, cronyism, nepotism and the appointment of inept administrators  became the norm like the old days throughout the district. His failure to take full responsibility for mismanaging district funds and instead blaming lower management for the what was a colossal “error” only helped exacerbate the problem. Worse yet, his poorly-planned attempts to get rid of the most essential special education personnel  and retreating only after massive parent and staff revolts showed that he was willing to pull the rug from under the neediest students in the district. To this day, not a single authority has been held accountable for gross mismanagement and incompetence at the highest levels. Tony Smith should not be surprised that the board has begun to see the light. 

  • Michael-David Sasson

    JR claims that small schools were good for unions and bad for children. Small class sizes are good for children.

    I don’t think the teacher’s union advocated for small schools. I believe OCO –which was in alliance with the OEA in the fight for smaller class sizes– who went on its own to convince the board to pursue a small schools agenda.

    OEA has consistently argued that OUSD doesn’t put the state-mandated minimum percentage of funding into the classroom implicitly asking for fewer principals etc per student. Implicitly that will come up against small school plans.

  • Jim Mordecai

    Michael-David Sasson:

    My recollection of events past on the issue of small schools regarding OEA’s role is the same as you stated.

    AI recall oncern OEA leadership had with small school movement was that the funding was soft money and the movement was not sustainable.

    Jim Mordecai

  • Jim Mordecai

    My last sentence should have read: “As I recall the concern of OEA leadership had …”

    Jim Mordecai

  • Catherine

    I would rather have a classroom of 40 students in fifth and sixth grade who are ready to work and who do not have electronics and vulgar language than a class of 18 in which the students curse, have cell phones bouncing and buzzing in their pockets and who do not take the work of school seriously.

    It is not the size of the classroom or the school – in school districts in which the majority of students are planned and the parents are educated class sizes are often 32 beginning in first or second grade and elementary schools often top 1,000 students. These schools are high performing and because they are larger with larger class sizes often have teacher specialties such as foreign languages, separate science, art and music teachers, book clubs, math clubs, and science clubs in elementary schools. There is one principal, one vice principal and two office personnel. For a similar number of students Oakland has two to three principals, one to three vice principals, one to five security personnel, four to six office personnel, no foreign language classes, no science or art teachers and no book club, math clubs or science clubs.

  • Special Ed

    My grade as a Special Ed Parent: Tony Smith gets a flat F.

    When asked what is working in Special Education, consistently gives the same tired example of a successful life skills program at Oakland Tech. He clearly doesn’t have a vision grounded in concrete and comprehensive knowledge of the experiences and work of staff and Special Needs families throughout OUSD.

    He ceremoniously makes the same tired speech that “we are no longer talking about the Special Ed budget ‘encroaching’ on the General Ed budget” and that he oversaw that change in language when he arrived. What’s the point of switching the language when the attitude and practice remains the same? He pits “these kids” against “those kids.” He allows for his most senior staff to fix its own error through the removal of whole categories of staff support, the further burdening of tragically already overburdened Special Education teachers and a dramatic reduction in the services available to students.

    What he supported in the last June meeting of the School Board was the virtual implosion of Special Ed through the disrespectful and radical elimination of an entire group of crucial specialized staff at the most sensitive time of the year, the wholesale and district-wide consolidation of Special Education classrooms, and the intention to mainstream without any plan for supporting students and teachers. And then he has the gall to say at the Board meeting that he might have gotten it wrong on the one item about eliminating program specialists. Appreciate the honesty but, “Did he consult anyone on the ground?! Did he ask his staff to do so?!” The answer is clearly NO. Or, the outcomes were known but ultimately irrelevant. Either is unconscionable.

    All of us—parents, staff, students, community partners–were blindsided by the decision to engage in massive cuts and impose a “re-structuring plan” sold at the last minute as a reform. So insulting to call this a vision of “inclusion” when all those affected were so absolutely excluded.

    To put it optimistically: Tony Smith has a lot of trust to re-build with the families of children with Special Needs–and we attend every single school and live in every region of this district.

    His record on Special Education and on supporting children with Special Needs: a failure.

  • http://OaklandTribune Marty Price

    He is great on pblic realtions talks a good game about “white priviledge” but exemplifies it. He has no credential, no classroom experiance and loves his cronies.We have seen a black princiapl , a tough administraotr leave a middle school because she had no district support and the school became a dumping ground for DHP kids cuasing white, and middle class flight to Brewer. Montera Middle school just won recognition as a Calif. Distinguished School in spite of downtown and then the principal leaves? Another successful black man driven out of Oakland. I mean the dude he reported to is a good guy, but Matt was in my mind a failure at Elmhurst and is now over middle schools. Makes no sense,..hell Mefsfun should have Smith’s job. I think Mordechai characterized him best. Ms. Murphy you are a reporter ask what the hell his buddy is doing at Skyline,why did he pass over credential folks or not promote credential, successful PE teachers with varsity experiance to the post of OAL director. He appointed Russell White , his Cal football buddy to the post. White was a failure in his two years as the Castlemont coach, but as an on field coach and as an administrator, losoing games becuase he did not check his players eligibility..that in of itself is basic. The man won what 2 games in two years, and is rewarded with a job that pays more then credentialed teachers make. $75,000 a year. This is administrative failure on the supts part.
    Further he does not understand that our neighborhood scchools are iconic, that our high schools are how our alumni define themselves and their relationship to their hometown. He was part of BAYCES when they Balkanized Fremont and Castlemont, purely for the GATES money. The result failed, the most successful of the Balkanized schools had their principal moved to another site when they reconstructed the school, oh yea he was black too. Then Smith goes to the press about how the teachers at those two schools will not embrace his”new”model, in spite of the chance to make more money!! He does not get it. How about owning up to the fact that your former organization created the failed model before you try and bribe professionlas to embrace your new model. He just does not get it.Teachers want to have a good wage bu do not enter the profession for money! I give him an F, and athe board an F minus for not seeing through this