Moving Beyond Rumor to Honest Debates in Oakland

I was worried when I heard that Oakland Unified was potentially firing 17 principals.  While I think Oakland is moving in the right direction, I really had to question the District’s leadership in this case.

Further, this seemed to confirm the worst fears of OUSD’s critics, showing the District’s tone deafness, while reinforcing charter conspiracy theories, which saw deliberate sabotage of district-run schools as a way to clear the way for charters.

Thing is–it wasn’t true.  The article was wrong.  But as they say, a lie travels a thousand miles before the truth gets out of bed.

So the truth had a cup of coffee, and Superintendent Wilson responded to say that only 5 principals were given notice. Further, the notice didn’t mean they would be removed. The prior administration had sent 20 such letters, with no similar accompanying hype.

We Need Better Data and More Critical Reporting

Too much of Oakland’s debate is shaped by anecdote and rumor.  Some of what you hear is just patently untrue, some half-truth, some you don’t know, and some representative of real problems.  How much of each, nobody really knows.

We need to invest in better data to structure decision-making (ahem, philanthrocapitalists).  While I can critique aspects of the new Board study sessions of particular topics, where they present research and data, as well as break the audience into smaller study groups—I think those are a step forward.

But we need a leap.  Most of the data we need is or could be public data, we just need to invest in its collection and analysis.  Great examples exist.

The NYC Independent budget office, looks broader than education, but does quality studies of things like comparing funding of district-run and charter-run schools, or the rates of service of different types of special education students and their attrition for charter-run and district-run schools.

In New Orleans, Tulane, has the Education Research Alliance, that focusses on analyzing the effects of reforms on the school system.

Here we largely have a bunch of shills (myself included) that dominate the discourse.

Big Questions Need Better Answers

These questions matter—do charter schools tend to have better test scores because the selectively recruit, or because students learn more?

Do our most challenged students get their fair share of resources, how should we reallocate resources if not?

Since we know that low income students in Oakland are the most segregated in the country clustered in low-performing schools, how can enrollment changes lead to more equity?

How do students and families react to mainstreaming of special education students?

I am not saying we need to wait for these answers before we make change.  Things are bad enough, at least for subgroups in Oakland that we can’t wait.

When we start the debate with different “facts” it is even harder to agree.  And in an already contentious and passionate environment where resources are scarce and needs are high, that last thing we need is more heat, in Oakland.

So let’s invest in shedding more light, getting better debates, and working towards answers rooted in the results that our reforms have on kids and families who need them most.  It’s time for the shills to take a back seat and the facts and families to start to drive the bus.

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