Strategy and Analysis to Defend and Transform Public Education
The “Call for Quality Schools” is a policy that has 5 district schools (Fremont, Castlemont, McClymonds, Frick and Brookfield) submitting proposals that will have to compete against outside proposals, including those from charter schools.
In an article published today on Oakland Local, Dr. Chela Delgado, a former OUSD student and veteran teacher of color currently working in OUSD, responds to Wilson’s “Call for Quality Schools”.
Link to original post: http://oaklandlocal.com/2015/02/concern-about-education-and-oakland-youth-community-voices/
By Chela Delgado, an OUSD Teacher
Superintendent Wilson’s Call for Quality Schools will not help us to build quality schools. Don’t get it twisted — there is a crisis in public education, and the impact of that crisis on low-income kids and kids of color is unforgivable. As a high school teacher for almost 10 years, current OUSD educator, and soon-to-be OUSD parent, I live that crisis. I know without a doubt that the system of public education was not created to serve students of color or low-income students.
I grew up in Oakland. I went to Sequoia, then Bret Harte, then Skyline, in the ’90s, when there were out-and-out fights between Black, Latino and Asian kids; when my college counselor — who had 500 kids to ‘counsel’ — had never heard of the fancy liberal arts college I ended up attending; and when, as a light-skinned mixed kid who talked White, I wandered the halls of Skyline with impunity. Some of those realities have changed in OUSD; some haven’t.
I’ve worked in both charter schools and public schools and seen reform efforts play out in both. I began my teaching career in Philadelphia at a ‘no excuses’ charter school, which I eventually left when the CEO brought a proposal to tie students’ grades to their test scores — a policy that would have diminished my ability to individualize grading in a way that accurately reflected student effort and improvement. When I came back to the Bay Area, I worked at several small public schools — a model that was popular over a decade ago in Oakland but has dissipated with the end of small schools funding from the Gates Foundation. The main comprehensive report that evaluated the effectiveness of these small schools found that the schools didn’t raise test scores much but improved student attendance and college application rates. My personal experience at June Jordan School for Equity in San Francisco and Coliseum College Prep Academy in Oakland mirror that finding — with incoming students who have low reading and math test scores, we haven’t had miraculous improvements on standardized exams. Both schools, however, have higher college attendance and graduation rates than other schools in the districts — which I would argue is more important to a student’s future than his or her California high school exit exam score.
Given the last few decades of school reform in Oakland — the state takeover, the re-consolidation of our high schools, the continued low performance of our schools in the flats — I don’t blame parents and educators who want change. I certainly don’t blame parents who have chosen charter schools, hoping that these educational environments will better meet the needs of Oakland’s students.
I do, however, have concerns with Superintendent Wilson’s Call for Quality Schools, which is an open call for school communities or outside groups to submit plans to improve five low-performing Oakland public schools (Castlemont, Fremont, McClymonds, Frick and Brookfield). I want to bring some of these concerns to light, and in particular reach out to communities of color in Oakland. The battle over education reform, nationally and here in Oakland, has been a media battle for representation of low-income communities of color. Reformers advocating school closures and charter expansion portray themselves as the true champions of civil rights, while claiming that those of us critical of the market reform agenda are little more than pro-union, anti-student, defenders of a [racist, classist] status quo.
I am not a defender of the status quo. I know the damage currently being inflicted on communities and low-income children of color in Oakland, both through my personal experience as a teacher and parent, and through the research I did for my Ph.D. on the issue of the achievement gap and education reform. The combination of my personal experience and academic knowledge has led me to the conclusion that communities of color are better off fighting to keep and improve public education than abandoning the public system for privatized solutions.
Here’s the basis of that conclusion.
1. Public schools aren’t actually failing (at least not as badly as you think they are).
Talk of failing schools goes way back and is historically rooted in attempts to destabilize school integration. The first use of the term “achievement gap” occurred in 1956, in a newspaper article about underperforming Black students in recently integrated D.C. schools. By the 1980s, the alleged failure of public schools had become a commonsense assumption. A 1995 study showed claims of school failure were invalid. Average scores declined due to a larger pool of students taking standardized exams. This general trend continues today — more tests equal more students failing tests. Students are now taking, and expected to pass, hundreds of standardized tests in their school careers; these tests mostly show us what we already know — that poor kids and kids of color don’t do as well as their middle-class and White counterparts. This has more to do with racism and poverty than anything else. Under No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and all national reform efforts based on high-stakes testing, schools with low standardized test scores are labeled as failing and targeted for closure. Scholar Linda Darling Hammond nicknamed the school failure label a “diversity penalty,” while critical race theorist Zeus Leonardo calls it a “whiteness reward.”
Wilson’s Call for Quality Schools argues that the five schools identified for intensive support are performing below par “even when controlling for other factors such as funding, demographics, crime, etc.” While I agree that schools can always be improved, and with Wilson’s assertion that “students are capable of success” and that “we have a responsibility to create the conditions to ensure that they are [successful],” I find it hard to believe that schools alone can offset the impact of structural racism. And in fact, there is no evidence that any school ever has. The truth is, race and class are still the strongest predictors of children’s success in schools.
2. Charter schools aren’t actually succeeding (at least not as well as you think they are).
The single comprehensive national study of charter schools, a Stanford study that compared schools across 16 states that enrolled 70% of the charter student population, concluded that only 17% of charters outperformed their public counterparts, 37% performed worse, and 46% performed about the same. While many community charters are making strides toward educational equity, corporate charters are known for pushing out underperforming students and overdisciplining students of color. Most charters serve a much smaller population of special education students than their public counterparts; Oakland charters have about a 5% special education population in contrast to the district rate of 11%. Most charter schools that are more successful have more funding than their public school counterparts, but most often the significant factor between successful and unsuccessful schools that work with similar student populations is funding, not innovative leadership or school culture. Recent research confirms that across the board, whether charter or public, students do better in better-funded schools.
3. Closing ‘underperforming’ schools damages communities of color.
In Washington, D.C., one community organization said that school closures felt like “death by a thousand cuts.” They argued that first public schools lost resources like social-emotional learning, music and arts, etc. Then they were discredited by politicians and outside reform organizations. Finally schools were closed and replaced by charters. None of these actions solved problems for the students who were struggling most. In fact, communities had less ability to intervene with the new charter schools because they had few inroads for parent and student input in decision-making. The school closures in D.C. also destabilized communities, compromised student and community safety, limited educational access and lowered overall educational quality. In her work on the “Renaissance 2010” school improvement plan in Chicago, researcher Pauline Lipman links school closures to increased gentrification and dropout rates.
4. Charters, high-stakes tests, merit pay for teachers and closing schools are not the answer; addressing poverty and racism is.
Schools are expected to make up for inequities that are bigger than we are, and shutting a school down because it serves poor kids and kids of color isn’t the answer. I’m a teacher. I can do a lot, and I have high expectations for my students. Homelessness, lack of living wage work, lack of affordable housing, the trauma of deep poverty and being young and preyed upon by adults who abuse their power and position are bigger than my willingness to work harder. I can’t tell a kid, “No excuses!” when the reason she’s been out of school for two weeks is because her boyfriend forced her into doing sex work in another city. Or her family is living out of a car. There are many sad and angering stories like this and the stories are more prevalent in some schools than in others. What makes me livid is the idea that these problems can be fixed by creating a “college-going culture” in schools, or by fining students for disciplinary infractions, as some charters in Chicago have done. The thing is, class and race are still stronger predictors of student success than teachers or schools alone.
5. Why can’t we build on what is working in Oakland (rather than closing schools)?
OUSD’s restorative justice program and its Office of African American Male Achievement are nationally recognized for their innovative work. Small schools like MetWest, Life Academy, and CCPA have succeeded as community schools with their wraparound service model. Why not scale up what is working about these programs and schools?
Our schools do need changes. But the approach of the “Call for Quality Schools” is in the vein of so many school turnaround approaches, claiming to be aligned with the community but failing to build on the work that the community has already done. How different would it have been if Superintendent Wilson had conducted meetings with students, parents, and staff at each of the struggling schools identified in his plan and pledged district resources to expand on what is working well at each school site? No one knows the problems at these schools better than their own students and teachers.
Despite Wilson’s assurance that the Call for Quality Schools is not a call for charters, the national trend in school closures and charter expansion suggests that this will be the result. I do stand with Wilson and the students and parents of Brookfield, Castlemont, Fremont, Frick and McClymonds in their desire for quality schools for their students. I believe that before we force public schools to close and compete with the private money and interest of corporate charters looking to expand, we should give power and creative control to the people in those school communities to reimagine and reshape their school. We all have to trust that together, with power and resources of the school district at their disposal, these school communities know best what they need and how to accomplish the goals they set for themselves.
Quality schools require complex solutions that understand school failure for what it is — a reflection of race- and class-based inequities that exist outside of school doors. We need solutions that build on what’s working in Oakland and policies that will directly take on the realities of poverty and racism in our city, like affordable housing, supports for recent immigrants, increased funding for schools, internship and job readiness programs for all Oakland residents and expanded opportunities for parents and community organizations to have real power in our schools. Solutions like this are messy. Quantifiable success may take a long time, but real change is slow. And hard. And worth it.
Editor’s Note: This piece reflects an individual opinion and is not a reported story from Oakland Local. Oakland Local invites community residents to share their views about events and issues in Oakland.
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