Is an 80% failure rate acceptable?

I was raised by exceptional parents. They were feminists, peace activists, and public education advocates who raised me, my brother, and two sisters with a healthy progressive view of the world. My father’s pragmatic intellectualism was balanced by my mother’s idealism and creativity. Our dinner table was home to discussions of politics, philosophy, religion, social justice, and peace. We moved to Oakland in 1968, as the civil rights movement peaked, and as the anti-war movement was revving up. From my parents I learned that justice and peace are the fruits of intentional, progressive action. They raised us to be social justice warriors.

This election is just one front on which the social justice battle is being fought. People have taken to the streets to raise voices for justice, for equity, and to call for an end to the systemic racism that has prevented America from becoming the ideal democracy that many of us believe it can be. I am here for this fight.

And what are we fighting for? What my parents taught us is that it is our duty to exercise our privilege in service of those who have been denied equitable access to the rights and privileges of our nation. I am fighting for the children of Oakland, especially those black and brown children who have been failed by our school district — in some schools 80% of students do not read at grade level. In what other context would we consider an 80% failure rate acceptable? Over the past months the other candidates and I have met and had conversations in multiple forums with the community. I have pushed to keep those conversations focused on what is important: confronting the literacy crisis; permanently bridging the digital divide; and making changes to the OUSD budgeting process to assure equitable funding for students across the city. Win or lose, I know that my campaign has helped to center the most important challenges facing our school district.

I aim to win, and to be in a position to push the agenda for a high quality education for every student in Oakland. If I am not elected, I am hoping that Maiya Edgerly wins the seat. Maiya is a powerful advocate for students in Oakland, and we are fully aligned on the issues. She will be the kind of social justice warrior that our children need. I am so glad to have met her during this campaign, and I am proud to call her a friend. If she wins, I will continue to support her as she confronts the challenges of sitting on the board. And if I win, I will lean on Maiya for her insight, her deep understanding of the community, and her wisdom. In Oakland’s ranked choice voting system, it’s important to win both first and second choice votes, and Maiya and I are encouraging voters to choose us both when making choices for the top two slots.

I know that many of you reading this are friends and family, and not necessarily voters in Oakland. I am extremely grateful for all of your support over the past few months. We are just days away from an election that will have major consequences for our nation. I know that we may be focused on those races that are at the top of the ballot, but I want you to know that your interest in this school board election (which is the last item on the back side of the last of several pages of the Oakland ballot) is just as important to the children of Oakland as the choice of a new president.

If you haven’t voted yet, please vote! And if you are an Oakland voter in District 3, please cast your first and second choices for me and Maiya. And if you have already voted, thank you.

PS – As I was writing this I heard that George Holland, Sr. (president of the NAACP Oakland Branch) endorsed me and Maiya. Several of my endorsements are dual endorsements with Maiya, further underlining the collaborative nature of our campaigns.

Choice

I came to Oakland in 1968. The United States was at war in Vietnam, and anti-war protests were building steam. In Berkeley, the university bulldozed a city block of single family homes drawing the ire of the community and triggering protests on the site that would become People’s Park. The United Farm Workers were fighting to earn fair wages and living conditions for their work in California’s fields. It was a time of unrest, and a time for protest.

Today, all across our city, people are joining hands and marching to confront some of the same issues that were present in the 60s: racial injustice, dis-equity, lack of access to housing, and un-equal access to a quality public education. In Oakland there are especially pernicious and persistent inequities when it comes to access to a high quality school. Some neighborhoods like the Oakland Hills have an abundance of top-performing schools. Other neighborhoods (primarily those in neighborhoods where families are struggling economically and battling the oppressive weight of hundreds of years of systemic racism) are served by schools that are historically ineffective.

For those of us with privilege it’s long past time to acknowledge the need for systemic change. We need to make reparations and reallocate resources to serve the communities that have been oppressed and denied access to a quality education.

Parents with the privileges of wealth and white skin have always had a choice when it comes to their children’s education. If the public school in their neighborhood is not up to their expectations, privileged parents have the option to choose a private school, or move through the tunnel. In Oakland’s flat lands, though, the promise of a quality education is elusive.

There are a lot of charter schools in Oakland, and like the schools run by the district, some are better than others. I know some of the people who operate teach in charter schools in Oakland and I know that they have the same passion and commitment to the education of Oakland’s children as their OUSD counterparts. These schools were developed to give parents a choice when their only other option was a school in their neighborhood where the district had failed to deliver on the promise of a quality education. Lack of choice is systemic oppression.

I intend to empower families in Oakland by assuring that there is always a choice to send their children to schools that offer the promise of a quality education. The charter schools in Oakland that deliver on this promise will continue to be authorized by the district to serve the city’s students. Schools that don’t deliver, will lose their charter. I pledge to work with the other directors of the board of education to develop policies that will hold the district administration and charter school leaders accountable for raising academic outcomes of students in every school in the city. In California, all charter schools are non-profit organizations. That means they must adhere to California law regarding financial transparency, and as a director on Oakland’s board of education I will expect every charter school in Oakland to report on their finances to the district. Charter schools will be held accountable to the same academic standards and financial transparency as every district run school in Oakland.

Priorities.

In my day job I work as a software product manager. My role is to receive input from various stakeholders, then create a prioritized plan for systematically addressing all those concerns. Our team uses the Agile Method to manage our work to achieve goals and move our product forward to serve the needs of our various constituencies. One of my roles in this process is to set the priorities for each sprint, a two-week development cycle that produces a set of new features that advances the effectiveness of our product. While my longterm plan must include a roadmap of our grand vision and all the goals we need to achieve in the long term, prioritizing specific achievable goals that can be reached in the course of our two week-sprint are the key to making meaningful change happen. The Agile process works because it helps organizations break down big, gnarly problems into smaller, prioritized steps that make it possible to solve problems that may otherwise seem unattainable.

OUSD is facing some daunting problems. The challenges of a global pandemic and the need to transition to digital classrooms and online learning has thrown district on its heels. The issue of impending budget cuts that are certain to be even more drastic in the face of the current health crisis. Literacy is a persistent challenge for the district. While we have a new Chief Financial Officer, we still face formidable obstacles to having a transparent budgeting process. The district overspends the state average on administration and underspends on teacher salaries. To overcome these challenges and achieve the goal of providing an equitable, high quality education for every student, OUSD needs to become more agile, more focused, more nimble.

There are three main mission focused parts of OUSD. The Administration is the business side of the district, charged with managing the resources and business operations that support the the district’s primary program and mission. Teachers are charged with carrying out the mission and educating the city’s youth. The Board of Education sets policies to guide the administration and hold the superintendent and her team accountable to the mission. A mission driven organization cannot function if operations, programs, and policies are not aligned, and it understates the problem to say that the present administration, teachers, and the board are not fully aligned around a unified vision of our mission.

There may be many solutions to unifying the district around its mission, but there is only one truth: if the district fails to find a path to unifying operations, program, and policy towards a shared mission, we will continue to see outcomes like we see today: 2 out of every 3 students do not meet the state standards for literacy. Effective movement towards unifying every member of the OUSD community around the mission will require listening and leadership. It will require significant change in the administration. It will require commitment of teachers and students (and their families) to working together in the face of an extremely challenging reality exacerbated by a global pandemic. It will require a board that understands the need for prioritizing goals, and focusing on policies that guide the administration and superintendent to confront challenges in a systematic and productive way.

Being agile does not require adopting the Agile Methodology, but there are lessons to be learned from the Agile mindset. The key for OUSD administration is setting and focusing on near term priorities — priorities that can be accomplished in short sprints of activity — that are aligned with the big, overarching policies established by the Board of Education. Oakland needs a board of education that can establish a long term vision, driven by community input, and a board that can set short term priorities that will help the administration focus on near term outcomes. As a board member I will commit to actions that support the goal of aligning our organization around the primary mission of serving the educational needs of every student in Oakland. And I will push policies to make the administration more nimble and more transparent, starting with:

  1. Adopt a district wide literacy plan and curriculum and empower experienced teachers to develop and provide professional development that assures the curriculum is taught with fidelity across the district, so that every student in Oakland reads at grade level by the end of the school year.
  2. Adopt a digital bridge plan that assures every student and every teacher in the district has a broadband connection sufficient for distance learning and that the district has a unified approach to delivering educational content so that students and teachers can focus on learning.
  3. Adopt a budgeting policy that makes OUSD’s finances transparent and clear to all stakeholders — the board, the community (parents and students), teachers, and the administration — so that future decisions about district financial policy are based on a clear and common understanding of the equitable allocation of resources that lead to a high quality education for every student in the city.

There are other goals that are critical in the long term, but it’s necessary to prioritize and focus on the goals that will unify us in the near term in order to have hope about the big challenges that lie ahead.

Let me know what you think. mark@markforoakland.com or @markforoakland.

New New Deal

Back in 2008, when he was leading the Ella Baker Center here in Oakland, Van Jones articulated a bold and modern reworking of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. The key feature of FDR’s new deal was that it put the unemployed to work while improving the functional and cultural infrastructure of the nation. The Green New Deal that Jones envisioned did the same, proposing to train and employ a large workforce to improve the green infrastructure of the nation for the purpose of saving our environment. Jones’ visionary Green New Deal has been adopted by many politicians and activists, but it’s helpful to remember that his vision has its roots here in Oakland. Jones’ idea was that we could address the dual issues of underemployment and climate change with a single bold initiative that trained workers in a green collar economy.

We need a similar new deal today. As we grapple with the lack of broadband internet access for our most vulnerable youth in urban communities like Oakland, we could address two problems in a single stroke. Unemployment has exploded in the past few weeks and students and teachers have been forced find ways to connect virtually. A coordinated program that trains unemployed workers to connect homes to lifeline services offered by internet service providers would address both problems.

Broadband access to the internet is table stakes for a comprehensive remote learning program. But that access is increasingly out of reach of many families in the country. As a nation we could have chosen to make access to the internet a basic service available to every American as a benefit of citizenship. The nation could have chosen to build the infrastructure for delivering network access to every address as an investment, supported by taxes. We chose a different option, though, offloading that infrastructure investment to profit-focused corporations (so that we could cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans). Included in our deal with those corporations was a provision for providing discounted services to families that couldn’t afford the luxury pricing that ISPs offered. Those discounted services are typically difficult to access due to complex applications and qualification processes. Making access universally and easily available to every citizen requires that we unravel the complexities that were created as a result of the choices we made as a nation decades ago. That’s a long process and will not be easy. But in the face of this current crisis, we could step up and create and train teams of Oakland youth within our community to assist in the process of applying for and installing the services that are necessary for providing access for our students. And with sufficient pressure, (like Dirk Tillotson applied when he pressured Comcast to relax its draconian rules that limited access to their offering) we can begin the process of moving towards equitable access for all.

Our founding documents guarantee the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as fundamental. To guarantee those rights, we also need access to basic services: healthcare; housing; nutrition; education; and an opportunity to work. Within each of those broad services are the implied access to services like access to information. Without equitable access to the internet we are denying citizens the enjoyment of their inalienable rights.

A joint effort of Oakland’s Mayor, our OUSD leadership, and concerned citizens could step up and make this happen.

Bridging the Digital Divide

Confronting the global coronavirus pandemic by closing schools, businesses, and public spaces has disrupted family life and knocked our community on its heels. The disruption has magnified inequity in Oakland, and families with the fewest resources are being disproportionately impacted. If ever there was a time for a community to rally in service to one another and to those with the greatest need, this is it.

In my day job at EducationSuperHighway, we have launched an initiative to leverage our relationships with governors and state education leaders, with the FCC, and with internet service providers to bridge the digital divide, especially as it impacts students at home. Our DigitalBridge K-12 program team is gathering resources and collaborating with school districts to develop a playbook for connecting the families that are currently being denied access to an education because they cannot connect online. (One of my tasks was to build a search tool so that families can enter a zip code to find the available programs that are being offered during the pandemic.)

For students in Oakland to thrive, learn, and grow they need to engage with one another and their teachers even as they are sheltering at home. This requires a combination of hardware, software, and a robust network. To deliver those resources to those who currently lack them is going to require quick, thoughtful, and decisive action. Later this week I am joining with other Oakland leaders in the education community to draft policies that will encourage the Board of Education to take meaningful steps to bridge Oakland’s digital divide. The task before us will extend beyond the short term need to connect students for the balance of this school year. This digital divide has been a persistent issue for disconnected families, even when school is in session. Students without broadband at home don’t have access to the resources that help them keep pace with their privileged peers, so policies set by the board should take into account the need to make internet access persistent and accessible for families even as we return to school and work after this crisis passes. (And the emerging common view is that even when students and teachers return to school there will continue to be impact from this pandemic for many months until a vaccine is broadly available.)

This work is only one piece of the inequity puzzle and as we confront this crisis, there are many organizations that are responding with urgency. Access to food, to shelter, and to safety are even more urgent — and the pandemic has brought into stark relief the deep and abiding inequity that is and has been pervasive in Oakland for decades, and these inequities cry out to be addressed by our service to one another. Organizations like The Oakland Reach are leading in this kind of service. This is a time for our community to heed the words of Mahtma Gandhi and confront this pandemic by joyfully taking up the opportunity to serve.

Service which is rendered without joy helps neither the servant nor the served. But all other pleasures and possessions pale into nothingness before service which is rendered in a spirit of joy.

Mahatma Gandhi

Literacy, Liberation, and Love

I attended a town hall meeting yesterday, sponsored by the Oakland Branch of the NAACP at Williams Chapel Baptist Church. The primary focus was on the need to address OUSD’s failure to unlock the liberating power of literacy for students, especially black students, in the city’s schools. (Only 18% of Oakland’s black students are reading at grade level.) Speakers at the event included representatives of 100 Black Men, Oakland Reach, the NAACP, Our Kids, and others who have a deep love for the children of this city. In attendance were many folks representing organizations like Educate78, State of Black Education in Oakland, GO Public Schools, OEA, and elected leaders. (Both the District 3 city council member, Lynette Gibson McElhaney and District 3 school board member Jumoke Hinton Hodge were there).

Literacy is the key that unlocks the door to an excellent education, and, many argue, a structured literacy curriculum is the way to cut that key. The New York Times posted an article this week that shines a light on the only two places in the country to see improvement in literacy scores, and in both cases the schools are focusing on a structured curriculum in reading that includes explicit instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness, rather than a “balanced literacy” curriculum like the one OUSD provides.

When looking at the school to prison pipeline, it’s easy to draw a connection to literacy: by some estimates, 85% of the prison population in the U.S. is illiterate. If we hope to break our country’s addiction to extreme incarceration, teaching reading is a critical and urgent priority. No child should leave third grade without basic reading skills. But that is not the current reality in Oakland — especially for black and brown children. Literacy is the pathway to success in almost every career, and a primary requirement for access to higher education. If black and brown children are to be liberated from the systemic inequality that is rampant in this country, literacy is a key liberator.

A fair and equitable society is based on mutual love and respect. To put it in grammatical terms, love is a verb. We must love all the children in this city (and love one another) if we hope to create a fair and equitable society. (Can someone please diagram that sentence for me?) “Of all weapons, love is the most deadly and devastating, and few there be who dare trust their fate in its hands,” said the theologian, Howard Thurman. To those who dare, trusting our fate in the hands of love is the pathway to equity. Let’s dare to love!

Social Justice

I read an interesting article this morning that articulates two definitions of Social Justice, one a modern progressive definition, the other an older, traditional definition. It clarified something that I’ve been grappling with for a while. Despite the appearance of divisions within our community around education policy, I believe all of us want the same thing. I defy you to find anyone in Oakland who would argue that we should preserve the systemic inequity that robs many of the children in our community of an excellent education. We’re not divided about the goal, though we may disagree about the path forward.

The article’s authors, Andy Smarick and Bruno K. Manno are conservatives who favor the traditional view of social justice. But they acknowledge that our goals around education are similar and they recognize an overlap in the foundational beliefs of social justice advocates of both stripes.

Because both approaches to social justice aim at fairness and the protection of individual dignity, especially for the most vulnerable, there is a great deal of overlap. But the understanding we’re advocating explicitly encourages the formation of a variety of groups aspiring to protect the common good and recognizes the danger of investing too much authority in distant, powerful bodies. It respects the right of social groups to take different forms and pursue different activities while holding such groups responsible for living up to their obligations. And it expects from all of us a high degree of civic participation, restraint, and collaboration.

Rethinking Social Justice

My quibble with Smarick and Manno is the characterization of the older, traditional flavor of social justice as being inherently conservative and rooted in Catholic tradition. I grew up in a family that was committed to social justice, and we were neither Catholic nor conservative. My father attended the a Augustana Seminary in the 1950s where he studied under A.D. Mattson, professor of ethics. Mattson taught and practiced the kind of social justice described by Smarick and Manno, but as a protestant (Lutheran) and liberal. The Augustana Lutheran Church (into which my father was ordained) had a strong social justice ethic, and was definitely on the liberal spectrum of religious denominations of the day. In 1915, an Augustana student, Conrad Bergendoff (who would serve as president of Augustana College and Seminary in the 1930s and 1940s) wrote (somewhat provocatively at the time) about the commonality of Christianity and Socialism. “Christianity strives to better the condition of man’s nature, Socialism to better man’s conditions,” he said. While it may be true that conservatives practice this kind of traditional social justice, we liberals have a long history of the tradition as well.


I am personally more aligned with the progressive view of social justice, and like my brothers and sisters in the Oakland Education Association, I see the challenges facing OUSD as urgent and pervasive, requiring immediate action. But I also see the need for a multifaceted approach to solutions that may require intermediate steps towards our shared ultimate goal. And I see the value in reaching out to those with whom we disagree and finding ways to work effectively towards our common goal. The students of our city deserve adult advocates who work collaboratively to bring about the systemic change that will lead to achieving the goal of truly equitable educational opportunity in Oakland.

OUSD 2.0

A friend and I were talking about the challenges facing OUSD and we observed that the central administration of the district is clinging to an outmoded culture and to old-fashioned business practices. Rather than a lean, focused, and nimble operation, the district administration is bogged down in bureaucracy. “The way we’ve always done it” is not a best practice for how to correct course when an institution is foundering.

It’s time for OUSD 2.o, a rethinking of how to manage a school district in the 21st century. We live in a region where creative innovation is a business model. We should be leveraging creativity and innovation spend smarter In Oakland. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond has described the need to prepare students for the creative economy:

“Creativity and appreciation for the arts is important for all students to have a well-rounded education, exposing them to new ideas and perspectives. Arts education boosts school attendance, academic achievement, and college attendance rates; improves school climate; and promotes higher self-esteem and social-emotional development.” Thurmond said. “In addition, proficiency in the technology related to creative work is becoming an important skill for students as they progress into college and career.”

According to a 2018 report by the Otis College of Art and Design, California’s creative economy generated $407.1 billion in economic output and 1.6 billion jobs, resulting in $141.5 billion in wages earned statewide.

State Superintendent Tony Thurmond Commends New K-12 California Arts Standards

Before OUSD can deliver on this kind of instruction, the district needs to apply creativity to, and critical thinking about, its administrative operations. “We can’t deliver a 21st century education with a 19th century institution,” my friend said. In the same way that the state updated its vision for public instruction in 2015, releasing the Blueprint for Great Schools, Version 2.0, OUSD needs an upgrade to OUSD 2.0. The key part of such an upgrade starts in the central office. This is where the board of education must apply creativity to effect change, working with Superintendent Johnson-Trammell, to design and apply modern business practices. There are creative minds and critical thinkers in this district and the board needs to set policies that empower them to unleash their creativity and align their efforts towards delivering the kind of education that our students deserve.

Creativity.

California is a hotbed of creativity, and a foundation of our state’s economy are the companies that depend on workers who are creative, critical thinkers. Our educational system needs to foster the next generation of creators, but for too long our schools have been pushing arts and creativity to the side in favor of focusing instruction on only those subjects measured by standardized tests. Despite evidence that engagement with the arts can lead to better academic outcomes on those same standardized tests, students in many neighborhood schools in Oakland receive little or no arts integrated instruction.

Create CA, advocates for the fulfillment of meaningful integration of the arts in public schools. The California Alliance for Arts Education further outlines how this is a central issue of educational equity. In the report, At the Crossroads of Arts and Equity the Alliance lays out the case for adopting broad and engaging arts integration in schools as a pathway to educational equity.

As a board member I will advocate for policies that ensure every student in the city has access to the kind of “creative, inclusive, whole-child education” that will help to prepare them to be participants in our creative economy.

See also: The Advantages of Arts Learning Continues Over Time.

MLK, Jr. Elementary

The STEAM driven program is helping produce positive gains in literacy at MLK Jr. Elementary

I visited Martin Luther King, Jr. elementary school this morning. Principal Roma Groves-Waters showed me around the campus and shared some of the challenges she’s faced during her 11 years at the school. As we walked And talked she greeted students by name, and cheered them on to their classrooms. There are about 400 students on the campus, which has successfully completed a merge with the former Lafayette Elementary. Classrooms are full. Among the classrooms we visited was a PreK/kindergarten class led by a woman who has been an educator for 54 years. The community relations administrator George Henderson told me that some students in the school are children of students who attended the school in years past. You can’t miss the good vibrations. There’s a large garden in the northwest corner of the campus, and the walls of the buildings are decorated with cheerful images and art.

OUSD could use this school as a model for other neighborhood schools. When I’m on the school board we will be looking here for inspiration.