Oakland and the status quo option

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Foot Race to the Top?

Race to the Top?

California’s lackluster Race to the Top ranking in Round 1 (27) came as a disappointment to state officials, who had pushed for legislation to make the state more competitive for the grant.

Today, the governor and the state superintendent of public instruction announced they were proposing a new set of performance criteria for the next round: race times in the 50-yard dash and half-mile.

Schwarzenegger, who declared war on “couch potatoes” as chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness years ago, is leading the charge. “We test in math, English, science — why not test in the area of physical fitness too?” he said in a statement released this afternoon.

But the fitness evaluation wouldn’t be limited to students. The race times of teachers, principals and even custodians and food service personnel would be averaged and submitted as part of the school’s grant application. Schools with less than a 90 percent participation rate would be ineligible for the funds.

Schwarzenegger says he’s confident the state board of education will approve this proposal — which, he said, would hold school staff and students accountable for their speed and cardiovascular fitness as well as their proficiency in the “three Rs”. He concluded his press release with a characteristic quip: “Now, drop and give me 20.” Continue Reading


Federal dollars, struggling schools and Oakland Unified’s dilemma

Oakland has the chance to infuse five of its schools with an unspecified amount of federal money.

The thing is, the grant in question has some serious strings attached. It would require these five schools (well, four of them, since Explore Middle School is closing anyway) to make major changes — and to make them in a hurry, before the start of the upcoming school year.

At 8 a.m. tomorrow, Superintendent Tony Smith will make an announcement about the district’s plan and take questions at a town hall meeting in the Elmhurst auditorium (1800 98th Avenue). Continue Reading


Schools, the government and appearances

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

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

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

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

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The schools that didn’t make the list

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

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

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


School reform deja vu

Today, when the state education department released its lists of “persistently lowest-performing schools,” I zeroed in on the five it identified from Oakland. They’re all middle schools: Alliance Academy, Elmhurst Community Prep, Explore Middle School, ROOTS International and United for Success Academy.

Alliance Academy and Elmhurst Community Prep both made the state list

My first thought was that most of those schools are less than four years old; how could they be persistently anything? (I did just turn a year older last month; maybe time is just advancing more quickly as I age.)

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LAO: Most state mandates don’t really help schools

Check out this report released today on California’s education mandates. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office says many of these activities are costly and don’t help kids or teachers.

Currently, the state requires K-12 and community college districts to perform hundreds of mandated activities, the majority of which provide little benefit to students or teachers. Since the state does not pay for K-14 mandates on a regular basis, the result is billions in outstanding costs the state must eventually pay. In this report, we recommend comprehensively reforming K–14 mandates. If a mandate serves a purpose fundamental to the education system, such as protecting student health or providing essential assessment and oversight data, it should be funded. If not, the mandate should be eliminated.

Do you agree? Which ones should go?


Tony Smith on federal school reform

“In a lot of ways, we are leading the race.” — Oakland Superintendent Tony Smith to Phil Matier in reference to the competitive Race to the Top grants.

Yes, OUSD applied for the federal funds (which it only stands to receive if California gets any money in the first place), though teachers union President Betty Olson-Jones says she will not endorse any program that uses a single test score to evaluate teachers or that lifts the state’s cap on independently run, publicly funded charter schools. “It’s one more quick fix that isn’t a fix,” she said about Race to the Top.


A sped up phase-out at McClymonds

mcclymondsSoon, the McClymonds high school campus will have just one small high school, instead of two.

District staff is recommending that BEST High School close in June — a year earlier than planned, Chief Academic Officer Brad Stam told a crowd gathered at the McClymonds cafeteria tonight.

Stam said it would be unfair to BEST students and too costly for the school district to keep it open next year with just a few dozen students, and that this year’s juniors (the youngest class at BEST) will likely attend EXCEL, the other high school, next fall. This year, the school district is providing a subsidy of about $330,000, Stam said.

EXCEL’s enrollment has dwindled to less than 250, and just 65 juniors and seniors attend BEST, according to a recent districtwide data report. In 2004-05, the year before McClymonds split into two schools as part of the Gates-funded small schools reform, 761 kids went to the West Oakland high school, according to data from the California Department of Education. Continue Reading


Survey: Oakland principals like to control their own budgets

THURSDAY UPDATE: You can find the memo here.

A survey of Oakland principals by a local advocacy group found support for the district’s unorthodox, largely decentralized school budgeting system, known as RBB; it also found that one-third of the principals surveyed didn’t feel prepared or equipped to run their entire school budget, as they’re expected to do.

A memo to the superintendent and school board, which contains the survey results and recommendations, was led by Think College Now Principal David Silver and Esperanza (at Stonehurst) Principal Sondra Aguilera. It was staffed by Great Oakland Public Schools, a coalition that supports greater school autonomy, so I would have been surprised if the survey found that principals disliked the model. About half of the OUSD principals completed the survey.

Here is a summary of the findings, straight from the memo: Continue Reading