Ask public officials in Oakland what their accomplishments are, and you will get a rapid fire list of Soviet-style awards and merit badges. The problem issues will be articulated and the buzzwords for the “known to work” solutions will get named. Something they have done will associate their names to “good work” with little discussion of how ineffective the institutions, programs, and non-profits are when looking at the big picture.
Point this out and you will get the latest cliché on auto play:
“We can’t let the ‘perfect’ hold up the ‘good.”
“We can’t let the ‘perfect’ hold up the ‘good.”
But maybe more often, the “not perfect” is really something “criminal”.
Crime number one in the Oakland Unified School District is to have so many kids not finishing high school.
Want to find these kids? You are guaranteed to find at least one of them a day at the courthouse, entering the revolving door of our failed prison and parole system. Not finishing high school was only part of the trap opening up for them. Prison and becoming a convicted felon is this trap snapping shut.
“Not perfect”? Well, I can see why a careerist politician would want to call it this.
Back in the real world, where we are prying numbers out of a system that does not want to provide them and does not want to count the dropout kids on their books as failures, we find about half of the Oakland youth who should have a high school degree, don’t have one. This non-graduate half is overwhelmingly black and brown youth who are overwhelmingly economically disadvantaged and are on track to have trouble finding good work. Our own OUSD Superintendent tells us that most of them will eventually find themselves arrested.
What I do not see is the urgency, the sense of emergency, the will to do something at the level that might really make a significant difference. Every year we totally fail hundreds of our young people who will have trouble finding a job and no trouble finding their way to a jail cell.
And what do we hear? Oh, the test scores are “most improved” and our graduation rate is, if not counting the dropouts, up a few percentage points. And what about the school-to-prison pipeline? The same crowd wants some kind of “perfect” solution with a lot of expensive and complicated planning to do something major.
The OUSD should declare the situation to be an emergency, transfer lots of people to the task of getting these young people back in school, and accept that such an effort will not be perfect. What more of an emergency do we need? Some of these kids will die in street violence, most will get involved in crime, and all will enter the job market with a strike against them. If we had to close all kinds of administration offices for a couple months and go visit every family affected, it would be worth it.
Seems we are selective about what is called “good enough”. What is being done now about the failure to stem the dropout rate does not rise to the occasion in my book. The dropout rate is a crime hiding behind “not perfect” and this crime has some siblings.
There is, first and foremost, the high crime of making school a boring, if not somewhat oppressive, institution with a drudgery of desk work with a misplaced focus on standardized tests and test taking. When coupled with a neglect of the other aspects of school, public education becomes an irrelevant and negative part of being young.
Where did we get the idea that school should not be fun? Where did we get the idea that by making it possible for all kids to have a chance at college, no kid will get a chance at learning technical skills or Spanish, not to mention learning how our government works, how to apply for a job, how to type, how to use a computer, how to fix a computer, how to drive a car, how to fix a car, how to insure a car, how to get an ID, how to file taxes, how to open a bank account, how to rent an apartment, how to check a circuit breaker, what to do in case of an earthquake, and?, and?, and?
Maybe if school offered more of the things related directly to our real lives, young people might find it useful to study them? In point of fact, after-school programs that offer projects for the young people to make their own are shown to have improved student participation and lowered dropout rates. In short, fixing the irrelevant school curriculum problem is part of solving the dropout problem.
It is a crime to call the death of non “core academic” programming just “too bad” and “not perfect” while we spend so much money on test giving, administrative costs, and doubtful building projects.
It is also a crime to overcrowd the classrooms. More than any other aspect of our public schools, classroom oversize and lack of stable, trained, and sufficient support staff makes day-to-day school a lot less than it ought to be for our students and teachers.
Classroom overcrowding is sluffed off as “well, not perfect” and then we go on as though somehow it is acceptable, or even workable. Then we start looking at how to judge teachers and whole schools, often using only those test scores, while crippling them with an impossible situation of over twenty-five students per class. Here is another emergency needing to be declared. We are in a long-term budget crisis caused by Proposition 13. Then what is our crisis plan? Maybe it is the administration that needs to have staff cuts and we should transfer those folks to on-site school jobs? If we are saddled with a long-term budget crisis, let’s at least choose which crisis to have and where to have it.
Classroom overcrowding subtracts time and resources from the students who need extra help the most, and often causes students who do not have a crisis to get lost between the cracks.
The last crime I will work on today is the crime of shutting down adult education before we had a new system to replace it. This is a the crime of destroying decades of public investment in a system that served thousands of residents. This crime was committed because "reality" was a short term budget problem that was solved by doing a long term damage to our educational systems. Where do people do their high school equivalency prep? Where do they learn English? Where do they finish up their diplomas if they did not graduate? Other districts, if at all. For the most part, not at all. The OUSD voted to throw those programs and people to the winds and just take the money.
I don't even see the "good" in trading long term damage for hand to mouth, short term budgeting, but I say a crime was committed against our community when adult ed was killed in 2010.
What do we do otherwise?
I’m not sure what the downside of slashing administrative costs to build back up staff at the schools would be, but I am willing to risk the experiment. To keep on as though “business as usual” is tolerably good, albeit admittedly “not perfect,” is to accept the unacceptable.