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Shanthi Gonzalez Resigns from OUSD, blasting barriers to improving school quality

Dear FIA Community,

This week, Oakland School Board Director Shanthi Gonzalez announced she was stepping down. This was no ordinary good bye letter, but a searing manifesto of a frustrated and deeply disappointed leader.

FIA has with disagreed Director Gonzalez on the role that charters play in expanding access to quality in Oakland (80% of Black and Brown high school students complete A-G versus 40-50% in OUSD). The data is irrefutable that public charters are a lifeline of quality in Oakland, especially to underserved families.

Despite FIA’s differences with Director Gonzalez, her good bye letter shows we share common ground: frustration with a school board unfocused on the academic achievement crisis in OUSD, elected officials who tear each other down in public and who tolerate a culture of personal and religious attacks instead of working through disagreements with rigor and respect.

In fact, her accusations remind me far too much of how politics evolved during the Trump era: fake news, data denial, a focus on protest not progress and all about getting on the mic.

Oakland, aren’t we better than this? I ask you, will you stand with us at FIA in the fight to make IMPROVING EDUCATIONAL QUALITY our North Star?

The full blog from Director Gonzalez is below.

In community,

Kimi Kean

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Reflections on our Prospects for Serving Students and Families Better

POSTED BY SHANTHI GONZALES  ON MAY 02, 2022

Today I announced that I will be moving to Humboldt County and stepping down early from my role on the OUSD School Board.

In many ways, I’m proud of the progress the district has made over the last 7.5 years, and you can read more about that over here.

However, our core issue has not been addressed and this is hurting our prospects as a district serving Oakland students and families.

Our core issue is that most schools are not meeting students’ academic needs,* meaning that students aren’t being adequately prepared for their next steps, whether that is middle school, high school or college and career. Students who can’t read or do math at grade level often become frustrated and disruptive and many eventually drop out. Even if they graduate, students who aren’t prepared for college-level work will often drop out of college and have difficulty advancing in their careers.

Our efforts to improve school quality have been inconsistent and not nearly ambitious enough. I am proud that in District 6, we have expanded access to quality programs at several schools and have redesigned others (and we are in process of redesigning more) in order to improve quality. This takes courage on the part of district leaders and has not been undertaken as the urgent, citywide strategy that it needs to be.

The refusal to take this issue seriously has other consequences, aside from not preparing students adequately. School quality drives enrollment, so our refusal to really take on school quality in a focused, consistent and fearless way is impacting our enrollment and leading to budget cuts, school closures and other negative consequences.

We have lost 17,000 students in the last twenty years, and we have struggled with high leadership turnover for most of our history. As long as we refuse to focus on school quality with urgency, focus and consistency, enrollment will continue to decline and we’ll continue to face budgetary decisions that cause disruption, or be taken over by the state for a second time.

The lack of consistent focus on school quality also leads to unnecessary state oversight and interference that creates extra work for district leaders and can make it difficult to attract and retain leaders that are wary of having to report to both a school board and state officials, many times with divergent goals and demands on the Superintendent and other district leaders.

School quality is a shared responsibility of the Board, district teachers and staff and the community organizations that focus on education.

For the Board, I think our biggest failing is in how we use our time together at board meetings. Way too much time is spent on issues that (while important) don’t have much to do with how students are doing academically. When I was Board President, I tried to address this by ensuring that each board meeting had at least one item related to academics, to keep student success front and center.

There are other steps the board can take, including forming a board committee on Academics, that would have more focused (and more frequent) conversations on student success, and now that the pandemic is winding down, individual board members can do more school and classroom visits with district leaders to learn more about schools’ strengths and struggles. We also need to do more to ensure that all of our parcel taxes, and not just Measure N, are being used to directly advance student learning and not just covering our core operating budget (which is also important). Requiring site-based planning in order to receive funding, as with Measure N, would drive greater improvements in school quality.

The bottom line is that we need to spend more of our time on how students are doing because that is our primary purpose.

We also need to say “no” more, which is hard to do. OUSD is not a jobs program, or a social justice organization, or a small business incubator, or a housing organization, although those things are important. Our city is full of brilliant people who care deeply about our students and have many ideas about how to serve them better. However, I believe that as long as we are struggling to ensure that students can read at grade level, it is a disservice to our students and families to spend so much time on issues that are not central to our core mission.

I came to OUSD with a background in the labor movement, the support of labor and a deep commitment to the important role of labor unions in creating a more fair and democratic society. However, in the time I have been on the board, I have become increasingly concerned about the Oakland Education Association and their seeming lack of commitment to student success (as an organization, not as individual teachers).

It is not enough to say that there is poverty and that is why students aren’t doing well, or that the state doesn’t provide enough funding. These things are true statewide, and yet other districts with similar levels of poverty and/or funding are achieving much greater results. One reason is that our teachers’ association has consistently resisted efforts to address school quality, and organized others against such efforts as well.

Some examples:

  • OEA has resisted changes to the contract that would make it easier to attract teachers for hard-to-staff roles in Special Education, STEM fields and languages and CTE classes, leading to many students having long-term subs in core classes like Chemistry, Physics and math and to Special Education positions that go unfilled year-round.
  • Just last week OEA engaged in illegal strike activity due their disagreement with the board’s decision to close schools, even knowing how much instruction students missed over the last two years and how critical in-person instruction is right now.
  • From Open Court to the small schools movement to more recent efforts to redesign or merge schools in order to improve school quality, OEA has resisted change intended to improve our schools. Some of these reforms, like Open Court and the redesigns during the small schools movement, were the periods of the most rapid growth in student achievement over the last several decades.
  •  

It may be true that the working conditions of teachers are the learning conditions of our students, but the interests of teachers and students do not always coincide. For example, we needed to re-open for in-person learning much earlier than we did, because students were suffering, especially students that need special and intensive services. The OEA did everything they could to prevent returning to in-person instruction, even though they knew that we weren’t meeting our legal and moral obligations, in particular to our most vulnerable students.

The OEA’s refusal to engage on the issue of school quality is hurting our students. And the OEA’s long-standing resistance to operating fewer schools (including last week’s strike) is a large factor in why we have the lowest salaries in the county and struggle to attract and retain quality teachers and staff. We need to concentrate our resources in fewer schools in order to ensure stable staffing for students. Stable, high-quality staff is essential to school quality.

In my experience, OEA is always offered a seat at the table when the district is considering changes to improve school quality. If OEA’s leaders were committed to students success, they would take advantage of these opportunities to shape the future of the district. They would recruit and back School Board candidates who are focused on school quality and work in deeper partnership with OUSD to confront the issues we are facing instead of pretending there are not budgetary and academic issues that urgently need to be addressed. They would stop the drama, strikes, demonstrations, etc over issues that have nothing to do with whether students can read.

For our community partners, there needs to be a deeper commitment to focus on student outcomes and school quality. Our new strategic plan is promising in the sense that it addresses the need for all of our partners to work in concert toward the same goal, which is literacy. This new approach (a citywide focus) bodes well for the future. A lot will depend on the new Mayor and our ability to retain stable leadership of OUSD. New people often bring new priorities, but what we need is to stay the course and not get distracted by shiny new ideas. If our community organizations that serve youth and families could all get behind the literacy focus of the strategic plan, rather than bringing other initiatives to the table, that would help a lot.

Finally, the way that Oakland shows up during times of disagreement is a huge red flag for our prospects as a district.

Disagreement is to be expected when there are differences of opinion about how to address the serious issues facing the district. There is no way that elected leaders will always agree with constituents on how to solve problems because our roles are different. Teachers only have to worry about the students they are serving now; the role of board members is to think about the health of our whole system, not just individual schools, and also the future health of the district.

In the time I have served on the board, I have noticed two tactics that OEA and its allies consistently use to try to shut down debate of topics they don’t agree with:

  • Accusing leaders of being racist or anti-Black in response to disagreement. It is irresponsible and intellectually lazy to call leaders racist due to disagreement. This is a cheap attempt to stifle the reasoned debate that is necessary in a functioning democracy and avoid discussion of the substantive issues in question. If there is harm being done that disproportionately affects some groups of students or staff, let’s have that conversation rather than attempting to delegitimize and silence one another.
  • Attempting to silence board members and other community members through acts of intimidation (in my case, contacting my employer to ask that I be condemned for supporting school closures; in the case of others, vandalizing their homes, accosting them outside their homes at midnight, cutting their internet cables during board meetings, denouncing them during their church service as a “Black Judas,” flyering our neighborhoods with flyers calling us racists, and lots more).

There is vigorous dissent, which is critical to democracy, and then there is trying to silence debate through intimidation and harassment, which is poisonous to democracy. The safety of our elected leaders matters, both our physically safety, and also our ability to sleep at night, not have our employment threatened, etc. The union and its allies needs to stop engaging in irresponsible rhetoric that has led to escalating, threatening behavior toward board members. To my knowledge, they have not condemned any of the recent acts of intimidation toward board members, which is a sign of tacit approval.

And they can take part in coming up with solutions rather than just throwing rocks from the sidelines. OEA and community organizations are always invited to be part of solving problems; they choose not to because it’s easier to criticize rather than taking responsibility for actually solving the problems.

It is impossible to make progress for students under these conditions. If we don’t find healthier ways to disagree, there will not be anyone willing to serve in this district who is actually willing to take on the persistent, difficult challenges that are undermining our ability to serve students better.

So in closing, I ask you, is that what you want for Oakland? Sycophantic leaders who are dishonest about the challenges we are facing and who tell people only what they want to hear? How can we tackle problems if leaders don’t feel safe being honest about the problems we are facing?

I believe we need leaders who are willing to take responsibility for solving the challenges facing the district, and who are responsible in their speech and actions. Oakland has some of the most generous taxpayers in the state, and we receive more funds per student than most districts. We can do better to honor and respect the generosity of our residents by using our resources better, to focus relentlessly on student needs.

As I leave the board, I wish OUSD and all its stakeholders nothing but the best and more than anything, the courage to tell the truth about our challenges and to take the action necessary to maintain focus on school quality and student success.

 

 

*As of fall 21-22, over 47% of our high schoolers are one or more years below grade level in reading, with an additional 25% not even tested. 44% of high schoolers are one more years below in math, with an additional 43% not tested. This high rate of non-test takers likely means that the percentage of students who are not at grade level is even higher.

For elementary school students, it’s even worse, with 53% of students not reading at grade level, and it’s worse yet when it comes to math, with nearly 60% of students below grade level in math.

This information is publicly accessible at https://www.ousddata.org/public-dashboards.html under Assessments