Leader’s View: Why I Stepped Down from the Oakland Unified School District Board
Shanthi Gonzales: School quality is the most important issue for the Oakland district. But it isn't being taken seriously enough
A version of this essay appeared on the GonzalesforSchools blog.
On May 2, I announced that I will be stepping down early from my role on the Oakland Unified School District board.
In many ways, I’m proud of the progress the district has made over the last 7.5 years. However, our core issue has not been addressed, and this is hurting our prospects as a district serving Oakland students and families.
Most schools are not meeting students’ academic needs, meaning that students aren’t being adequately prepared for their next steps, whether that is middle school, high school or college and career. Students who can’t read or do math at grade level often become frustrated and disruptive, and many eventually drop out. Even if they graduate, students who aren’t prepared for college-level work will often drop out of college and have difficulty advancing in their careers.
Our efforts to improve school quality have been inconsistent and not nearly ambitious enough. I am proud that we have expanded access to quality programs at several schools and have redesigned others to improve quality. But this has not been undertaken as the urgent, citywide strategy it needs to be.
Aside from not preparing students adequately, school quality drives enrollment, so our refusal to really take it on in a focused, consistent and fearless way is leading to budget cuts, school closures and other negative consequences. We have lost 17,000 students in the last 20 years, and we have struggled with high leadership turnover for most of our history. As long as we refuse to focus on school quality with urgency, focus and consistency, enrollment will continue to decline and we’ll continue to face budgetary decisions that cause disruption, or be taken over by the state for a second time.
For the board, I think our biggest failing is in how we use our time at meetings. Way too much time is spent on issues that (while important) don’t have much to do with how students are doing academically. When I was president, I tried to address this by ensuring that each board meeting had at least one item related to academics, to keep student success front and center. Other steps the board can take included forming a committee on academics, that would have more focused (and more frequent) conversations about student success. Now that the pandemic is winding down, board members can do more classroom visits to learn about schools’ strengths and struggles. The bottom line is that we need to spend more of our time on how students are doing, because that is our primary purpose.
We also need to say “no” more, which is hard to do. The district is not a jobs program, or a social justice organization, or a small business incubator, or a housing organization, although those things are important. As long as we are struggling to ensure that students can read at grade level, it is a disservice to our students and families to spend so much time on issues that are not central to our core mission.
I came to the district with a background in the labor movement. However, in the time I have been on the board, I have become increasingly concerned about the Oakland Education Association and their seeming lack of commitment to student success (as an organization, not as individual teachers).
It is not enough to say students aren’t doing well because of poverty, or the state doesn’t provide enough funding. Other districts with similar levels of poverty and/or funding are achieving much greater results. One reason is that our teachers’ association has consistently resisted efforts to address school quality, and organized others against such efforts as well.
It may be true that the working conditions of teachers are the learning conditions of our students, but the interests of teachers and students do not always coincide. For example, we needed to reopen for in-person learning much earlier than we did, because students were suffering, especially students that need special and intensive services. The association did everything it could to prevent returning to in-person instruction, even though they knew that we weren’t meeting our legal and moral obligations, in particular to our most vulnerable students.
The association’s refusal to engage on the issue of school quality is hurting our students. And its long-standing resistance to operating fewer schools (including the April 29 strike) is a large factor in why we have the lowest salaries in the county and struggle to attract and retain quality teachers and staff. We need to concentrate our resources in fewer schools in order to ensure stable staffing for students. Stable, high-quality staff is essential to school quality.
For our community partners, there needs to be a deeper commitment to focus on student outcomes and school quality. Our new strategic plan is promising in the sense that it addresses the need for all our partners to work in concert toward the same goal, which is literacy. This new approach (a citywide focus) bodes well for the future. A lot will depend on the new mayor and our ability to retain stable leadership of the union. New people often bring new priorities, but what we need is to stay the course and not get distracted by shiny new ideas. If our community organizations that serve youth and families could all get behind the literacy focus of the strategic plan, rather than bringing other initiatives to the table, that would help a lot.
Finally, the way Oakland shows up during times of disagreement is a huge red flag for our prospects as a district.
Disagreement is to be expected when there are differences of opinion about how to address the serious issues facing the district. There is no way elected leaders will always agree with constituents on how to solve problems because our roles are different. Teachers only have to worry about the students they are serving now; the role of board members is to think about the health of our whole system, not just individual schools, and also the future health of the district.
There is vigorous dissent, which is critical to democracy, and then there is trying to silence debate through intimidation and harassment, which is poisonous to democracy. The safety of our elected leaders matters, both our physical safety and also our ability to sleep at night, not have our employment threatened, etc. It is impossible to make progress for students under these conditions. If we don’t find healthier ways to disagree, there will not be anyone willing to serve in this district who is actually willing to take on the persistent, difficult challenges that are undermining our ability to serve students better.