California gives us another example of why reports on charter schools should be read closely

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The Alameda County Grand Jury released a report on charters in OUSD this week which will have some fodder for pro and anti-charter groups.  And while there were some insights, at times the analysis was insufficiently nuanced and at others it seemed to misunderstand the context or the law.  Some of the more simplistic analysis probably will lead to misleading headlines that may not reflect reality.

For instance, the East Bay Times’ article was titled, “Grand Jury Report:Better Management Needed of Oakland’s Charter Schools.”  It focussed on some questionable test score analysis (see below), and wanting OUSD to “manage” charters more, which is not the role of the authorizer under California law.  The data and testimony is a good starting point, but the Grand Jury’s analysis was not sufficiently grounded in law or context.

Validly studying school performance or charter school performance requires understanding and nuance.  Sadly, student background characteristics have larger effects on achievement than schools tend to, so any comparison of schools really needs to look at growth and achievement of similar students or that in demographically similar schools, this nuance is missing in the report.  And the State Charter Association sent some additional data that seems to challenge the report’s findings around student performance.

So let’s take a look at some of the findings, recommendations and critiques.

Test score comparisons

The anti-charter headlines will likely focus on the academic comparison, which is written a little strangely and leaves maybe a worse impression than it should.  I am copying the original here, and the BOLD type is my insertions.

Using the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress Test Results for English Language Arts/Literacy and Mathematics for 2015, the Grand Jury determined that of the 37 Oakland charter schools that participated, 17 scored below the blended average of all Oakland unified public schools (with 20 scoring at or above) and 24 scored below the statewide average in English. Nineteen scored below OUSD averages (and 18 scored at or above) and 23 scored below the statewide average in mathematics. Within these results, there were 15 Oakland charter schools that scored below OUSD averages in both categories (and 22 didn’t). Many of these charter schools have been in Oakland for years and scored similarly on the previous API tests that are no longer in use.

So this says to me charters, are on average, doing about as well and maybe better than the district averages on one narrow measure; the first year of a new test.  And demographically we know that charters are more likely to have low income students and English language learners, while district schools have a higher percentage of identified special education students.  In this context it’s hard to know what to make of the academic data comparisons without more nuance in terms of similar schools or similar students.

This became even more murky when I asked the California Charter Schools Association about the data, here is the table they sent.

What percent of students are meeting/exceeding standards on 2014-15 SBAC tests in charters vs. non-charters?

ELA Math
charter average 41% 33%
non-charter average 25% 22%
OUSD avg. (charter & non-charter combined) 30% 25%
how many charters perform below the combined (charter+non-charter) district average? 18 charters (out of 36 with data), 50% 17 charters (out of 36 with data), 47%
how many non-charters perform below the combined (charter+non-charter) district average? 54 non-charters (out of 77 with data), 70% 56 non-charters (out of 77 with data), 73%

By this data comparison, a significantly higher proportion of charters are performing above the public school averages than OUSD-run schools.  But again without some more analysis of who the children are and what their learning gains are we really don’t know what this data really says about school performance.

Greater charter- district collaboration

The report also highlighted the need for more than “a tangential relationship” between the district and charter schools identifying special education, facilities, and common enrollment as potential areas of improvement.

As they stated around facilities—charters use space much more efficiently and that allows them to better focus resources on the classroom,

Most charter schools are fully enrolled and therefore occupy space efficiently. This allows a charter to focus funds on teaching. On the other hand, OUSD is responsible for 130 buildings, many of which are under-enrolled schools that are far below maximum occupancy. Furthermore, each school must be staffed. Without closing or consolidating schools, the district must continue to maintain many of these underused structures, thereby diverting funds from the classroom.

However, they also noted that the charter law has lower building standards, and that charter facilities, while up to code, may not provide the same protection during an earthquake.  There would seem to be a win-win here, creating full buildings, and safer kids, by using district facilities for charter students more efficiently, which is also required by law.  But I won’t hold my breath.

The logic and desire for a common enrollment system

Much like the 73% of survey respondents, the Grand Jury noted the challenges families have in accessing schools and the logic of a common enrollment system,

A recurrent issue addressed by witnesses is the existing multiple enrollment systems whereby OUSD schools and each charter school must be accessed separately. The Grand Jury views this as an undue burden on families to seek out each school separately and enroll using that school’s unique application and apply by its deadline. The Office of Charter Schools is a proponent of the common enrollment concept currently being evaluated by the Oakland Unified School District. This system allows families to review and select their desired choices from a single integrated process thereby providing an equitable access for all Oakland students.

Misunderstandings of Law or Authorizer Role

There were a few factual or legal issues that I think the Grand Jury missed.  It argues that Oakland should manage its charter growth more and that it only authorizes schools that sign the District’s Equity Pledge.  While I personally half agree, I agree wholeheartedly that charters need to collaborate more with the district.  OUSD, by law does not have this discretion.  The Charter Law requires that a district approve a charter that meets the legal threshold and the districts legally don’t have the power to add their own new requirements, like the Equity Pledge.

The Grand Jury also seemed to envision more of a school inspector regime, with a more than doubling of charter office staff.  A bigger office won’t necessarily lead to better oversight, and the district should be hiring bilingual aides, or special education teachers, not more central office staff.

I always welcome more honest data, and this is a good first step, I just hope over time we commit some resources to the deeper analysis we need of student growth to understand what is really working for children and families and how to best serve them.

Dirk Tillotson has worked for over 25 years with underserved students and communities expanding educational opportunities, and simultaneously striving for equity and excellence.  He blogs at and


How can we better survive the killing season?

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I’m an Oakland boy but the place that birthed me is in crisis and the world is numb to it. Chicago, one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen, is losing Black life at an astonishing rate. What’s worse is that very few folks outside of Chicago are discussing it. The past two weekends have been particularly bloody (read here and here).

The vast majority of my relatives live all around the Chicago area and it astonishes me how so many lives can be taken and the conversation be so small on the national front.

I’m gonna have a real moment with y’all right now. I’m that dude that people say are angry. Folks say there’s a chip there and I’ve always been this way. I go to work and intentionally walk around my entire office every single day and speak to people – not just because I’m this super friendly guy, but it’s because I know how people see me. It’s the way they’ve always seen me, so I put people at ease. But when there are so many inputs that let us know that Black life isn’t valuable and it’s reiterated to you time and time again, it changes you.

I’m talking about cops killing us, us killing us, food killing us, water killing us, education killing us, our government killing us, poverty killing us – ALL OF IT. So when we step up, we’re met with a prime mixture of animus and patronization.

The cop had due cause. Let the hood take care of itself, eventually they’ll kill each other off. We need Monsanto. Just give schools more money. Charters are manipulating you. Don’t blame teachers. If they just got jobs, this wouldn’t happen.

Get outta here with that, man! For real.

What are we doing, both collectively and individually to add value? So many people out here make money off of Black suffering. There are so many nonprofits. So many schools. So many candidates. So many books.

My people dying is a cash cow for this country!

If you’re happy in your life and have some success, I need you to mentor someone. If you’re a Black man and you spend time with your kids, bring along the kid with no daddy.

Murders go up when the temperature rises in Chicago!

How bothered do you need to be?

I just spoke on an education panel discussing the normal stuff; charter schools, achievement – you know, all the stuff reformers and anti reformers discuss. The arguments where neither side is changing the other sides mind. The spaces where we all are just taking up space. I just couldn’t get over what’s been happening to Black folks.

I feel like I just kept yelling that our education system has never really educated Black people well, especially after Brown vs. Board. I just kept going back to the shootings that happened over the weekend. Last weekend it was 40 plus shootings, this weekend (at the time of writing this) it was 18. 13 people killed. This is Chicago for people that look like I do. This is Chicago for poor folks. This is the America that poor folks of color often experience. In this story it’s Chicago, but it’s our country.

I’m all over the place so I’ll end it with this list because we can all do something:

  1. Be a mentor.
  2. Get in front of these Black boys and girls and show genuine interest in them.
  3. Dads and men matter – to the dads on the block, make room for another kid or two in the neighborhood. Take them with you.
  4. Black churches, come on now! You were and are the backbone of our communities. WE NEED YOU. There was a time when you could go to the Black church and get all the information you needed. There was a time when we used to see y’all in the streets.
  5. Mosques, we need you. When I was a kid, y’all had brothers on every corner as we walked to and from school. You brothers made us get to school on time, told us to respect the girls and asked us what we learned. Y’all corrected us and I always respected it, even as a Christian boy. We need y’all.
  6. Media, tell the stories. For real. Make this country care like you force me to care about whatever the Kardashians are doing. Why are there like five shows focusing on OJ Simpson right now? I don’t care anything about that dude.
  7. School leaders, both reformers and anti reformers, I want to see conversations about Black kids. Talk to me about how they’re achieving or no achieving.
  8. The list isn’t exhaustive. It’s clear I’m writing off pure emotion. So what I want to leave you with is DO SOMETHING!

Show these kids we care about them. Chicago, Oakland, Detroit, show em. Welcome to the Killing Season. Hopefully it’s the last one.

OAKLAND: Black parents choose charter schools because they know the main system is rigged

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Our parents almost universally want more challenging schools, at the same time they rightly believe that education is unequal according to a recent study.  I say, rightly, because there is compelling evidence of a broad and wide belief gap about the capacity of kids of color, and in reality, our kids often do get the short end of the stick.

Remember the settlement over “fake classes” last year in Oakland,

The suit cited cases in which youths had been assigned to “sham” courses that had them perform tasks in the school office or pick up trash.

Schools cited in the lawsuit had students retake courses they had already passed or sent them home early because there was no room in classes, attorneys said. Some schools employed rotating substitute teachers rather than fill full-time vacancies, the suit said…

“Their futures were treated as less worthy than their counterparts in more affluent communities,” said Mark Rosenbaum, director of Public Counsel. “Imagine as a parent if you asked your child what did you do in school today and you were told, ‘Well, I took out the school trash and cleaned erasers,’ day after day, week after week.”

One plaintiff, Erik Flood, said he spent a lot of time not learning during his four years at Fremont High in Oakland. He was assigned to three service classes at one point, filing paperwork in the school office or doing nothing, while taking credit-recovery classes online after school.

And this has a huge cost.  If the student doesn’t graduate there is an immense cost in lost productivity to them and society, and even if they do graduate and go to college they need to take (and pay for) remedial classes.  So they could take those classes, pay for them, receive no real college credit and leave school with debt.  In fact this happens all the time, and the overall costs of these remedial courses have been estimated at 1.5 billion with a “b” dollars.

This cost is not evenly distributed at all—believe me that kids in Piedmont would never have a class that consisted of picking up trash.  These practices took place at Castlemont and Fremont.  And while it is egregious to have students perform busywork, the effects are no less when a student has a class with permanent substitutes (as described at last week’s board meeting).

This is the way that “the system” works.  Regardless of the good nature of the person on top, there are old patterns that reinforce privileges and inequality.  Oakland is getting better, but its high quality schools are the most income segregated in the country-don’t believe me—here’s the report.

Look through it- there are no districts where things are fair.  This is not “districts” per se—its society, but if you are a kid picking up trash instead of taking chemistry- it’s the District or the school doing that to you.

I have a series of longer stories of frustration in working with districts, even smart well-meaning people tend to be chewn up, and things that should happen don’t, especially for underserved families.

Charter Options 

That’s why many Black and Brown families choose charters. That’s why I did.  The existing system is rigged, and I question whether we will ever dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools.  Despite all the challenges, strange alliances and bedfellows, we know the system.  And while charters are not perfect and often very imperfect, many of us hope that charter autonomy will give local communities the power to really control their schools and design them for their children.

This promise is a work in progress, and so far largely unfulfilled.  But for myself, given the choice between the devil and the deep blue sea, I know what the devil has in store for me, while if I can swim strongly enough, maybe I have a chance in the water.

Dirk Tillotson has worked for over 25 years with underserved students and communities expanding educational opportunities, and simultaneously striving for equity and excellence.  He blogs at

WATCH: Changing The Game For Young Black Males In America

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In 2010, the Oakland Unified School District launched the Office of African American Male Achievement with support from students, parents, teachers, community organizers, clergy, and city elders. Spearheaded by then-superintendent Tony Smith, the AAMA proclaimed “African American male students are extraordinary and deserve a school system that meets their unique and dynamic needs.”

Today school districts across the country, from Washington D.C. to Seattle, Washington, are implementing versions of the AAMA’s work in hopes of better supporting black males to reach their dreams.

The touching video below is a heartfelt look into the lives of black males who have been supported by the AAMA.

It is definitely worth watching.

Starting a charter school? Have you lost your damn mind?

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by Dirk Tillotson

You have to be Effing crazy.  I should know.  I have helped folks start schools for 20 years.  I run a school incubator, and that line about being crazy is the opening and closing line of my introductory training.  And I am serious.

We don’t have any hedge fund donors, aren’t drinking any free market energy drinks, ain’t privatizing anything, except the immense human costs in trying to start a new school, which comes in unpaid sweat equity from the founders and sometimes a second mortgage.

We are largely Black and Brown folks (and allies), from the communities we serve.  We do this work because we see the tragedy of our children reflected in their eyes and see ourselves, and know we can do better.  We do this work because the system is broken.

Correct that, the system is not broken, they system works the way it always has, to apportion privilege and disadvantage with predictable top dog winners and underdog losers.

It’s hard to find a large district that graduates 60% of black males, probably impossible to find one that graduates 75%.  You could replace “African American” with Native American, or even Pacific Islanders, special education students, English Language Learners, foster kids or a range of other categories that schools most generally don’t work for in their current form.  Same horrible results.

So yeah you have to be crazy.  For community folks who want to start a school, here’s what you are in for.

First, the planning process is unpaid, usually you need to hold down your day job for the year to 18 months prior to approval while hustling to gather support, do research and design a new school.  Second, once approved you get less money per kid from the State than the District schools do—I know many of you heard different but that’s the reality if you do the research in California and New York City.

You also just have to put up with a lot of BS. Many people whose kids are in private schools or exclusive neighborhood schools want to argue charter privatization with you, and talk about how you are destroying public education.  They have never been to your school, their kids will never go to the schools that your families are often fleeing.  And they actually don’t really know any of your potential parents, unless they are cleaning their house or office.

Their satisfaction with a privileged status quo is used as evidence that things are fine for all parents.  But they aren’t.  I can show you all kinds of graphics around, underperforming schools, where not a single kid reaches the proficiency bar, where achievement gaps yawn, and our most challenged students are disserved.  Some of these are charter schools too.

And really beyond all the crap, you need to be crazy in another way.  You have to believe in something that we don’t often see, you have to dream higher for students and families than they themselves can in some cases.  You need to look at a system where some students routinely and consistently are failed and promise to do much better.

  • ZERO percent of foster kids passed the A-G requirements last year in OUSD
  • 6% of special education students did
  • In NY 2.2% of English Language learners are proficient in 8thgrade ELA
  • And less than 7% of special education students are

So you have to look beyond the statistics and imagine a school where you do serve all students, where disadvantaged students have responsive services, and ultimately experience real success.  But as the musician Seal once sung, “no we’re never gonna survive unless, we get a little crazy.”

In this world, where inequity is so entrenched it seems like a natural part of the landscape, and you want to change that through a charter school.  Yeah you gotta be Effing crazy, but we need more crazy, because what passes for a sane and acceptable status quo is fucking bonkers.


This is republished from One Oakland United.