by Lisa Martine Jenkins

This is an excerpt from “Desegregation first step in Oakland School Reform” at the Chronicle of Social Change.

Public schools matter. The quality of the public K-12 school system should be the metric against which a city’s overall success is measured. However, public schooling is often instead a hotbed of socioeconomic inequality and the last frontier of urban renewal.

Rarely is this phenomenon as exaggerated as it was in Oakland, Calif., in 1999; no new school had been built for 30 years, leaving those that did exist overcrowded and in disrepair. Compared with the rest of the state, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) schools’ academic performance index (API) rankings were startlingly low. Furthermore, the district was home to striking educational disparity, with some of both the highest- and lowest-ranked public schools in the state. Those highly-ranked schools were overwhelmingly white, while the students at lagging schools were predominantly black and Latino.

Oakland schools in 1999. Image: The National Equity Project

Evidence shows that grassroots reform projects targeting neighborhood-by-neighborhood evolution can actually make important strides, a fact which inspired Oakland’s small schools initiative. In 1999, mainly instigated by the Oakland Community Organization (OCO), the initiative used grants (including one from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) to build new (primarily charter) schools focused on smaller class sizes in a bid to improve academic performance overall. And, in the first few years, graduation rates and API scores did increase dramatically. However, despite these visible quantitative gains, by the end of the 10-year program, few saw it as a success.

Bill Gates, in his foundation’s 2009 Annual Letter, described the program as an example of the trial-and-error “scientific process” of school reform. By then, reformers had found that the great success of new charter schools was skewing the picture of the larger OUSD. These had left existing schools in the dust, and in the full decade of the initiative, the very schools that reformers initially sought to help showed little improvement. This led Gates and the larger community of researchers and policy specialists to question whether reformers should redirect their methods of measuring success and maintaining accountability in the educational system as a whole.

Read the whole story here



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