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Tony Smith announced his resignation as superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District early this month, news that stunned much of the education community in the Bay Area. Although not without his share of controversy, Tony has done a remarkable job in his five-year tenure as superintendent. He possesses a rare combination of charisma, kindness, and an ability to articulate a powerful vision along with an enthusiasm for listening and learning from others. In a district known for its critique and discord, it is notable that, at this critical moment of leadership transition, there is almost uniform consensus that the next superintendent be someone who can carry forward and implement the bold vision of community schools that Tony and his team have crafted. This moment of transition in Oakland has profound implications for those of us who care deeply about our city’s public schools and it has important and far-reaching implications for other cities around the country.
In recent years, two trends have characterized the urban school district superintendency. First, urban superintendents rarely stay in their positions for more than a few years. Smith was a rare exception to this, especially in Oakland where few superintendents have lasted more than two years. Second, there is a tendency for new superintendents to start anew, with their own bold vision, in order to make their mark. This is nearly always a mistake; this strategy inevitably slows the momentum of progress and the consequent discontinuity often causes disruption in the lives of children, teachers and families.
Oakland needs a new superintendent who will continue the work begun by Smith and his administration. And we need more than that. We need a superintendent who is able to communicate this vision to the wider community, including parents and funders, with the same force and passion that Tony possessed, and we need someone with a deep understanding of teaching and teachers’ central role in successfully implementing this vision. At a time where teachers are increasingly blamed for the failure of urban schools, the next superintendent of Oakland should have a lived knowledge of classroom life and a deep respect for teachers.
The recent move toward hiring CEOs as superintendents to manage large, complex and often distressed fiscal systems and bureaucracies has meant diminished attention to the knowledge of teaching and learning required for this work. To implement the vision Smith has built with the district and community, and to maintain the district’s positive and substantive gains, the next superintendent must have respect and a deep commitment to teachers’ work and a complex understanding of what teaching entails. This vision should include more than knowledge of which tests to use to assess students’ success with the Common Core Curriculum and which evaluation programs to purchase that are developed outside of the district.
The knowledge the next superintendent possesses should be borne from classroom experience in urban schools, it should be honed by successful collaborative work across the various education sectors, and it should be bolstered by a serious understanding of current research and practice. The incoming superintendent needs to do more than commission or read reports on Teacher Quality that are based on current metrics. She or he must work with the schools to develop metrics that reflect their current gaps and needs while displaying their progress towards excellence.
Like many of our nation’s schools, Oakland is plagued by intractable poverty, persistent violence, and diminishing resources. The next superintendent will not be able to address these root causes alone. Yet, with the roadmap laid out by Smith, and with the support of the community, including the teachers and administrators who will implement the plans, the incoming superintendent can transform our schools and make Oakland a model for the nation. A starting place for addressing poverty and violence is to increase educational opportunities for all students. The concept of community schools that reframes learning as connected to the health and well-being of the community begins to build the necessary foundation for change.
Knowledge of teaching and learning is not found solely in books nor is it acquired after just two years in the classroom. Talk to successful teachers who have spent 10 or 20 years in a classroom and you will find a deep understanding of children, communities, curriculum, and knowledge of how to engage the most recalcitrant student in learning that connects to their lives and opens up opportunities. This is not to say that the next superintendent of Oakland must have taught for some minimum number of years. We need in this person both a respect for that knowledge and the willingness to think outside of conventional solutions to address the educational futures of children in our most impoverished school districts—certainly among the most important challenges we face as a country. Our next superintendent must also bring a commitment and ability to work as a partner with the teacher’s unions and understand the importance of building pathways for teacher development and leadership. We need a superintendent who can navigate the deep divide between traditional public and charter schools while opening up a dialogue about the meaning of “public” schools. Our urban districts are failing and we have the knowledge to address that failure through imagination, knowledge and experience. How we select and support our next leaders will make the difference.
Kathy Schultz is professor and dean of the School of Education at Mills College in Oakland. She is the author of the 2009 book, “Rethinking Classroom Participation: Listening to Silent Voices.”
This article was previously posted on the Washington Post’s The Answer Sheet.
Occasionally, we are lucky enough to meet colleagues or participate in programs that help us to look at familiar problems with new perspective and new insights. I recently had the opportunity to re-examine an issue I’ve considered for many years: How can we help young men of color to succeed in school and thrive in the world beyond school?
As an education funder and philanthropy consultant, I’ve spent the last decade confronting this problem. The statistics are grim and familiar. On a variety of standardized tests, African-American, Latino and Native American males achieve at significantly lower levels than their white and Asian-American peers. Fewer than half of black males graduate from high school on time.
I just attended an urban education study tour sponsored by Grantmakers for Education (GFE), a national association that promotes learning, networking and reflective practice for education funders. These tours allow funders to visit school districts that are facing tremendous challenges and responding with energy and creativity.
Our agenda included a visit to Oakland’s Edna Brewer Middle School, where we met Chris Chatmon, Director of the Oakland Unified School District’s Office of African-American Male Achievement, and his colleague, Jahi, who leads an after-school manhood development program.
I was inspired by Chris’s commitment to helping young men of color overcome the barriers that inhibit their social development and academic achievement. I was impressed with Jahi’s use of simple homemade drums to teach problem solving, teamwork, pride and discipline. And I was taken with the middle school students who described their own goals with maturity and poise.
Much of what I saw at Edna Brewer was familiar— I’ve met many other inspiring teachers and impressive students. Here’s what was different: In Oakland, the district leadership, beginning with Superintendent Tony Smith, has made the achievement of young men of color a tangible, explicit, measurable goal for the school district. Tony told us that one of his goals is to reduce the proportion of young men of color from Oakland who end up in the adult corrections system by 50 percent in the next decade. He sees efforts to promote manhood, responsibility and good judgment as essential components of the school district’s mission. He’s made it an imperative for the Oakland schools.
Helping young men of color to achieve their full potential is difficult work. It will take more than a few talented educators reaching more than a lucky few students in one program or one school. In Oakland, I saw the vision, commitment and district-level leadership that real change requires.
Founded in 1998, BTW is a woman-owned strategic consulting firm that partners with foundations and nonprofit organizations to improve their effectiveness and inform organizational learning. Their information-based services include evaluation, applied research, and program and organizational strategy development. BTW’s work is guided by their core values—integrity, intelligence and compassion—and their experience extends across diverse contexts, populations and content areas, including education, health, youth engagement, leadership and philanthropy. To find out more about BTW and their services, visit www.btw.informingchange.com
After working for twenty-four years as an elementary school teacher, elementary school principal, school district superintendent and professor, I was afforded the opportunity to take a sabbatical leave. I was excited at the thought of taking time to recharge and seek fresh perspectives on my teaching. As a seasoned traveler whose research and desires have taken me to Japan, France and India, I wanted to work and live in a part of the world I had never been before and about which I knew very little. A Fulbright teaching award seemed like that opportunity. As summer approaches, I want to share a little bit of my sabbatical experience in Armenia hoping that you, also, will find fresh perspectives on teaching and learning during your break.
Not an American tourist destination or vacation spot and isolated from much of the world by language, culture, and closed borders to the west and the east, Armenia is a country the size of the State of Maryland. Surrounded by Iran, Turkey, the Republic of Georgia and Azerbaijan, two million people live in the country, and of those one million live in the city of Yerevan. Yerevan was established in 782 BC, 29 years earlier than Rome, and is now Armenia’s capital. Nestled in a semi-circle of hills descending to the Hrazdan River, Yerevan is made up of broad avenues, modest dwellings, offices, shops, honking horns and masses of people. Over run and over run again, Armenia was once a large country covering most of the local region, in its 21st Century formation it has yet to emerge as a real presence in the global village. Modernity has been slow to come to Armenia with its old Soviet power grids, waterlines and phone lines forming the base of Yerevan’s infrastructure. A week with consistent electricity is considered a delight and daily hot water is a luxury.
After flying into a small airport just outside of Yerevan, entering the city in the dark disguised the dusty streets, cratered sidewalks and made it unclear that monuments and buildings there can decay without complete impunity. Yerevan is best understood in the morning when the light glistens off of the many buildings built of pink tufa stone. The tufa stone was the idea of Alexander Tumanyan, an Armenian architect, who created a general plan for Yerevan in 1924. New apartment buildings have jutted up in the city, mostly chalky pink blocks that are neither graceful nor harsh. The Armenian alphabet is Syriac and street signs are written in Armenian and Russian, obtuse for a person who reads, nor speaks either. Since few spoke English, pantomime and laughter were my main languages in shops and restaurants around town.
Yerevan in August was a teeming haze of pollution that sat atop the city as the temperature rose and Mount Ararat towered in the distance. The sky was a faded blue. There I was, people all around, on sidewalks, in the parks, on corners playing chess, and playing with children everywhere. I was struck by the fact that at five foot four inches I was tall and bigger than most men who passed me on the street. Armenians enjoy conversation, hospitality and sitting in summer sidewalk cafes until the early morning hours. I did not fully understand the semi arid continental climate that allowed for hot summers and snowy winters, but the residents had learned to stay outside and enjoy the heat before the cold winter fell.
Time slowed down in Yerevan. No one around me was scurrying or trying to attend to pressing business. Yerevan does not have a commuting culture and days are slow to start. As time passed, I too scurried less and noticed I remembered more – a loaf of bread, the newspaper, and the faces of people passing by. When a friend came to visit from the United States she wanted a cup of coffee at a cafe early in the morning, and was disappointed to find it impossible.
After six weeks of navigating the city, I started teaching at Yerevan State Linguistic University. The university is named for Valery Brusov, a Russian poet and writer, who translated many major works of literature into Armenian. I was assigned to teach in a master’s degree program UNESCO had founded a year prior in educational management and planning, the only program of its kind in the country. The goal of the program is to prepare students to lead elementary, middle or high schools throughout the country. I do comparable work at Mills, where I direct the administrative credential and master’s degree in educational leadership programs, so I felt well qualified to teach students in Armenia aspiring to lead schools.
The university sits on the corner of Tumanyan Street in downtown Yerevan. Surrounded by small shops and markets it is a large, three story, pink building that is in desperate need of repair. The atmosphere inside is more like an American high school than a university. The school enrolls mostly women, because it is socially acceptable for them to study foreign languages. After graduating many become tour guides for the few French, German or Russian tourists or they may work in souvenir shops where their proficiency in languages can be used. Adding to the aura of it being more like a high school than a university, there were constant giggles, clicking high heels and the use of lipstick was ubiquitous.
I taught a course titled, “U.S. Perspectives on School Leadership” to twelve young Armenian women, all less than thirty years old. My students were mystified by the “West” and established their fashion style from the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair, often wearing extremely high heels, short skirts and very tight pants, convinced that is how “American women” dress. Most of my students had never met an American before and only two of them had traveled outside of Armenia. They would often ask me, “What are your students like in the United States?” They wanted to know how they compared. My students could speak, read and write English and many of them had to advocate for themselves within their families to go to graduate school. Two of my students were married and one had a child. The level of oppression of women is more wide sweeping in Armenia, so managing marriage, motherhood and graduate school in that culture is even more complex than in America, requiring students to leave suddenly to resolve family problems when a parent, or, in particular, a mother-in-law would call. Students were fearful that when they graduated there would be little or no opportunity for them to lead schools that desperately need their talent, intellect and imagination.
My time in Yerevan constituted a successful cultural exchange because it reinforced in me that to live in another culture takes the capacity of respect. Respecting what you do not know about history, culture, language, terrain, bread and consequently requires the capacity for self-respect and dignity. I take away from this experience the knowledge that international teaching exchanges can be transformative when one is willing to examine our culture in contrast to those we visit. One teacher can make a difference when transplanted to the other side of the world if she is open to learning just as much as she will teach.
The current public discussion about education reveals our fundamental lack of trust in teachers and our inability to describe “good” teaching. There are several consequences to these gaps. First, as we have seen in recent battles over teachers’ pay and benefits, teachers are frequently portrayed as either demons (i.e., incompetent, overpaid, and lazy) or saints (i.e., beyond reproach or critique.) The truth lies somewhere in between these labels. Of course, as in every profession, there are incompetent teachers who simply clock in. But there are also countless talented and committed teachers whose work with children is breathtaking. And then there are the many teachers whose teaching falls somewhere in between. The problem is that when this complex reality is painted in a uniformly bad light, the default response is to stop trusting teachers altogether.
Teaching was once one of the most trusted professions; along with doctors, we trusted teachers. With the recent focus on curricula that teach via with scripts that teachers are mandated to read, snapping their fingers at the appropriate places, we have all but eliminated our trust in teachers’ professional judgment. In this context, meaningful teaching is too often replaced by teaching for the tests and deep learning by training in efficient selection of multiple-choice responses.
But there are other stances to take toward teachers. In the summer of 2005, after the South Asian tsunami, I traveled to Aceh, Indonesia with a group of teacher educators to work with the new teachers who were hired as a result of this large scale disaster and to improve teaching across the district. This work continued over four summers. More recently, we continued this project, called “Listening Schools,” with teachers working with Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. The foundation of our work to improve teaching was trust.
We began with respect for the knowledge teachers brought to their work – knowledge of their students, their classrooms, their schools, and their content. Although we provided new materials and pedagogical methods, our emphasis was not on demonstrating how to teach, but rather on giving teachers tools for sharing their knowledge with each other. We learned that teachers trusted us when we introduced new approaches and knowledge because we began by conveying our respect for their knowledge rather than critiquing their practices. Similarly, good teaching begins by acknowledging the knowledge children bring to the classroom, using their understanding of the world around them as a starting point for learning. Likewise, we began our work with teachers with the assumption that they had a foundational knowledge of their local context and that our work was to teach them new ways to work with and learn from each other, so as to expand that knowledge.
As I have read newspapers and on-line commentary in recent weeks, I have been struck by the lack of trust in teachers at this moment in our history. One article suggested that we place webcams – like nanny cams – in classrooms to watch teachers more closely. Along with other public sector employees, teachers have become a convenient target of taxpayer rage, our demons. As with their congressional representatives, people trust their own children’s teachers, and save their ire for teachers in general. Where did this mistrust come from?
Trust is closely connected to respect and integrity. Trusting one another requires that we place ourselves in a vulnerable position and take risks, knowing that others will support us. Trust is also connected to careful listening and paying enough attention to another to know how and when to respond. That’s also what characterizes strong teaching.
In Aceh and Lebanon, we learned to build trust with the teachers before we began our work together. We talked explicitly about the importance of trust, of their trusting one another, themselves, and our work together. Most of all we listened to them and asked them to listen to each other. We trusted the teachers to know how translate their experiences and the teaching practices we introduced into their own contexts. Beginning with this respect, with deep listening and trust, we worked across cultural and linguistic boundaries to forge new ways to work together and new processes for collaboration.
The results were striking. Teachers were willing to take new risks to try different ways of teaching, opening themselves up to learn from one another. They also engaged in difficult conversations about the challenges they faced in their classrooms. These interactions and discussions are rare in today’s classrooms where teachers often close their doors to their supervisors and colleagues, out of fear that if they admit to any worries or weaknesses, they will lose their job, rather than get help in solving problems.
This distrust is paralyzing. Our challenge is to change the discourse about teachers, replacing distrust with trust, allowing us to understand the complexity of teaching and learning. Only then will we see deep engaged teaching and successful learning in our country’s classrooms.