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.
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.
As innumerable students have concluded before them, true educational reform has to be built not around quantitative gains alone, but around the relationships in the classroom. These are impacted in no small part by social systems already in place; for many students, their relationship with their school community and their overall success is largely determined before they step into the classroom.
Urban educational reform is intrinsically connected to persistent issues of socioeconomic and racial tensions. Ameliorating this problem, despite being an implicit goal of the small schools initiative, was not addressed explicitly enough, which is a large part of why so many of the quantitative reforms seemed insubstantial.
De facto segregation has been an enormous impediment to the success of Oakland schools. Despite the fact that OUSD has open enrollment, white students consistently attend the most highly ranked schools in higher-income areas, while students of color remain in the classrooms of overcrowded and overworked low-income schools.
The Supreme Court struck down the legality of school segregation in the Brown v. Board of Education decision more than sixty years ago, but anti-segregation efforts in the Bay Area have stagnated. The University of California, Los Angeles’ Civil Rights Project reports that “major court decisions in California mandating desegregation that occurred in the 1970s were overturned by the 1990s,” setting the stage for many of the problems facing the small schools movement. In the last decades of the 20th century, the major influx of Latino students to California schools made them even more segregated and racially-isolated than their 1970s counterparts, but because California was not the focus of nationwide desegregation legislation, this problem got very little attention.
In the wake of the small schools movement, these issues remain— in 2011, despite the fact that the overall district enrollment was 31.5 percent black, 38.1 percent Hispanic, 15.6 percent Asian, and 9.7 percent white, enrollment in high-level STEM and college preparation classes was consistently dominated by white and Asian students. This phenomenon, which repeats itself to a lesser degree for statistics like SAT/ACT enrollment, illustrates the fact that certain opportunities remain largely closed to certain groups, even when those groups make up the educational majority. Furthermore, the reverse is true of in- and out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, with black students disproportionately on the receiving-end of such record-impacting disciplinary actions.
Reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, who made waves on a recent “This American Life” episode on the subject, says that this division is far from atypical. The school system sets up students of color to fail while their white counterparts succeed; the Oakland small schools initiative did nothing to mitigate this phenomenon.
In practical terms, today each neighborhood remains an educational island. While Oakland has open enrollment, too few students take advantage of this system—public transportation makes it difficult to cross the city to enroll in the highly ranked Oakland Hills schools, and often information about educational opportunities is limited. Perhaps the solution is a free school bus system with the explicit purpose of desegregation, or pouring more money into college and career preparation programs in schools that fall at the bottom of today’s Common Core rankings. Perhaps, as Bill Gates concluded, fewer restrictions should be placed on charter schools, encouraging more to open and more students to enroll.
The small schools movement was a Band-Aid for a bullet wound—yes, it raised test scores and made huge improvements in a few new, small, charter schools but it did little to change the reality of educational achievement on the community level. It was a sort of trial run, examining which tactics really matter for urban educational reform, and which are simply short-term fixes for a much larger problem. In the future, focusing on desegregation in the classroom and in the community will ideally achieve the same results as a focus on superficial fixes like upping test scores and attendance rates.
Regardless, these kinds of efforts should be at the forefront of future urban education reform projects in Oakland, emphasizing the entrenched link between education and the social workings of the rest of city. Ultimately, education is a cog in the larger urban machine, a cog with an important role that deserves more attention.