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.