J.D. Moyer

sci-fi writer, beat maker, self-experimenter

Category: Education

Congratulations to Oakland Teachers and OUSD! What’s next? Reform Prop 13.

Emerson Elementary school auction -- a fun night, but I'd rather have $240,000 from Prop 13 reform.

Emerson Elementary school auction — a fun night, but I’d rather have $240,000 from Prop 13 reform.

Four months ago I wrote about the ongoing contract negotiations between Oakland public schools teachers (represented by OEA) and the Oakland Unified School District. I was very happy to learn that last week the teachers ratified a three-year contract with a 67.5% vote. It’s done! Congratulations to all the teachers, the union, the district, the superintendent, and the school board. The teachers received a significant pay raise. The contract also includes the following (copied from the press release):

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Emerson Elementary Fund Raisers — Help Some Great Kids!

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This is a short appeal to help Emerson Elementary, the local public school my daughter attends (and where my grandmother also attended). Here are two opportunities to support schools in Oakland that could use your help:

1) Emerson School Auction

Last year I had a great time at this event, and this year we have even bigger donations from local businesses. Kia is helping to organize this one, so I’ve had a sneak peek at some of the loot that is going on sale. Mind blown. This is going to be a fun event with good wine flowing at very reasonable prices, and lots of great stuff to bid on.  Also the venue Omni Commons is amazing and has a fascinating history (it was built in 1934 as an Italian-American community center, but was also a nightclub for many years). Bay Area folks I hope to see you there! Readers I haven’t met please introduce yourself if you attend. You can purchase tickets HERE.

2) Ride For A Reason

This bike ride from Oakland to Sacramento started off as a protest but has become a huge fundraisers for six OUSD schools (Claremont Middle, Edna Brewer Middle, Emerson Elementary, Oakland International High School, Oakland Technical High, and Westlake Middle School).

Here is Kia’s donation page — you are a HERO if you donate.

The funds raised from both events will support music and art programs at Emerson, and many other activities and programs the PTO supports. Ideally California would fully fund its public schools so parents like me wouldn’t have to scramble like this, but we’re not there yet. Public schools (like public fire-fighting and public emergency services) are a foundation of civil society. Schools like Emerson Elementary accept some of the least privileged kids in the city of Oakland, and these kids deserve to experience quality instruction not only in the “fundamentals” but also in art, music, poetry, and other great programs these events help fund.

Thank you in advance for your support!!

OUSD Teacher Contract Negotiations (and Cronyism at the Top?)

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As a parent of a child enrolled in an Oakland public school, I’ve been paying close attention to the ongoing teacher contract negotiations. Next week will be the 2nd week of teachers at my daughter’s school (Emerson Elementary) using “work-to-rule” as a means to protest the low salaries Oakland teachers receive as compared to neighboring districts.

OUSD (Oakland Unified School District) teachers have been working without a negotiated contract since 2008. From OUSD’s Collective Bargaining Agreements and Salary Schedules page, you can view the last full contract as well as the imposed contract implemented by the school board in April 2010 after several rounds of failed negotiations.

OUSD is offering teachers a 10% raise over three years (letter from current superintendent Antwan Wilson). The current average OUSD teacher salary is around $55K (starting teachers make around $40K). This may seem high to people outside of the Bay Area, but average rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in Oakland is around $4,000 a month. In other words average apartment rent in Oakland is approximately equal to 100% of average OUSD teacher after-tax income. Clearly Oakland teachers are underpaid. The statewide average is approximately $68K, while the neighboring city of Alameda pays an average of $65K.

[Correction: upon closer examination the link to Oakland rents includes neighborhoods with 10 miles of Oakland, which includes San Francisco. Oakland average rent is probably closer to $2500 — still very high for OUSD average teacher income]

To both attract and retain qualified, experienced, and talented teachers, Oakland needs to offer teachers higher salaries.

Negotiation Status

As of today OUSD and OEA (Oakland Eduation Association — the teacher’s union) have failed to reach an agreement. Here is the statement from the OEA. At issue are not only teacher raises but also Special Education class size caps and caseloads, student to counselor ratios, and benefits. The same page includes links to latest proposals from both OUSD and OEA.

Especially contentious is Article 12, which governs the rules for filling vacancies and assigning teachers. The district is pushing for changes that would reduce teacher job security and remove the role of seniority in placement and transfer rights.

Accusations of Cronyism

Jack Gerson of classroomstruggle.org has accused OUSD superintendent Antwan Wilson of hiring his pals from Denver with bloated salaries (including a husband-wife team), creating unnecessary new administrative positions, and giving all administrators pay raises that far exceed what OUSD is proposing for teacher raises. Reading Gerson’s post severely undermined my confidence in Wilson, and also the board that hired him.

Wilson states that he plans to “trim Central Office” but that does not seem to include the salaries of top administrators. What does this style of “pad the top, chop from the bottom” budgeting style really mean? According to Gerson:

So if Wilson is cutting the central administration budget, much of the cuts are likely coming from the lower paid administrative support. This would be a repetition of what Randy Ward did in 2003 – 6 when the state came in. He brought in all kinds of Broad Foundation graduates and residents at the high end (Troy Christmas; Jonathan Klein; and many others) and promoted some ambitious locals, while laying waste to central services — eliminating central copy services, almost annihilating maintenance (electricians, painters, window repair, etc.) and thus forcing schools to buy services from the likes of Kinko’s. Randy Ward made other cuts “away from the classroom” — of clerical, cafeteria, custodial, and other essential school classified staff positions.

Even if there is some central office fat to trim, and even if Wilson and his Denver team are a completely qualified and necessary team of brilliant administrators and deserve every penny of their sky-high salaries, Wilson should have deferred his own raise and the new top brass hires until a fair contract with the teachers was secured. It just looks bad.

I’d like to invite Oakland School Board members James Harris (President), Jody London (Vice President), Roseann Torres, Aimee Eng, Nina Senn, Shanthi Gonzales, Jumoke Hinton Hodge, and Antwan Wilson himself to respond to Gerson’s accusations, and either justify the administrative pay raises and new positions, or roll them back.

My Own Position

Originally I was sympathetic to points on both sides of the negotiations. Obviously teachers deserve a contract and a significant raise, but I can also understand the desire of the district to push for more flexibility in hiring and transfers, even if this comes at the cost of some job security for some teachers.

However in light of revelations regarding salary padding and fat new (and potentially unnecessary) administrative positions at the top, I believe the school board and the superintendent have lost all moral authority.

I don’t pretend to understand all the intricacies of the complex OUSD budget, but from what I can tell the teachers have put forward a reasonable proposal, which as a parent I fully support (I’ll be at Emerson later today to join an after-school protest supporting the teachers) .

The fault doesn’t lie entirely with the district; the district budget is closely tied with the state budget, and California lawmakers leave money on the table every year with absurdly low oil extraction taxes. Still, the district should move quickly to reach an agreement with OEA, and forget about changes to Article 12 for now.

Get the teachers the raise they deserve, and do it soon.

Let The Board Know

If you are an OUSD family member and you’d like to support the teachers in their negotiations, you may wish to send a “valentine” to the school board and the superintendent. A sample email and the board member’s addresses are below:

[email protected]
[email protected]
[email protected]
[email protected]
[email protected]
[email protected]
[email protected]
[email protected]

“Dear school board member: This Valentine’s Day we are asking you to show our teachers that you love them by giving them the modest raise they are asking for – without contingencies. As an OUSD parent/member of the OUSD community, we want to attract and keep the best teachers, and we think the teacher’s request for a contingency-free raise makes good sense. Happy Valentine’s Day!”

Another Reason to Send Your Child to a Less Affluent School

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A while back I wrote about why we chose to send our daughter to an under-performing, high-poverty public school in our neighborhood. Basically, a high rate of parental involvement and good teachers allayed any fears we had regarding low test scores (the concept of relative rank¹ was also a factor). Our daughter is now thriving in first grade, both academically and socially. School standards are high, and PTO fundraising has helped develop programs in art, poetry, and science (ideally tax dollars would pay for these things, but California schools are still struggling financially).

Yet Another Reason to Avoid the Affluent Schools

Recently Kia forwarded me this article which points out that vaccine opt-out rates in California have been on the rise for the past seven years. This had resulted in both measles and whooping cough epidemics. Research clearly showed that higher vaccine refusal rates fueled the epidemics.

Why are parents opting out? Fears linking vaccines to autism is the most likely reason, even though such research has been completely refuted. We still don’t know definitely what is behind rising autism rates in the U.S. (rates vary significantly by state). SSRI use during pregnancy is one possible factor, though a Danish study noted that depression itself is a risk factor, and that there was no difference in autism rates of children born to depressed mothers who had been taking SSRIs and those who had not. It’s also possible that more children are being classified as being on the autistic spectrum — a change in diagnostic trends. Bottom line, we still don’t definitively know. But vaccine avoidance isn’t helping anything, and is having devastating effects on herd immunity.

What’s herd immunity (or community immunity)? If your child is vaccinated, they’re safe against that disease, right? Unfortunately not. While being vaccinated reduces the chance of infection if a child is exposed to a disease agent, an additional benefit come from not being exposed in the first place. In other words, the protective effects of vaccines are cumulative, depending on what percentage of the kids are vaccinated.

Notably, wealthier communities, and wealthier schools within those communities, tend to have higher vaccination opt-out rates via the “PBE” (personal belief exemption). Marin county, the wealthiest county in the Bay Area, had an average 8% PBE opt-out rate (San Geronimo Valley Elementary in Marin had a whopping 79% PBE rate). Private schools also have higher PBE rates than public schools (on average).

Less affluent public schools (like our daughter’s school), tend to have a PBE rate of only 1%. Now there’s some community immunity!

Does Affluenza = Influenza?

Not all wealthy communities have high PBE rates. The San Francisco average is quite low (1.64%). Maybe Marin County, the land of crystal healers and psychics, just has lower scientific literacy.

Vaccines are not entirely risk-free. [CDC.gov] But in terms of cost-benefit analysis, the tiny risk of most vaccines is worth the protective effect against the disease. Just as importantly, you’re not only protecting your own child, but your child’s classmates.

If you’re considering NOT vaccinating your child, I can empathize. I considered it too — there are scary stories out there on the internet, real (but rare) cases of children being injured by vaccines. But please ALSO consider the risks of the diseases themselves, and check the published research in terms of the actual probability of serious injury. It’s far more probable a vaccination will save your child’s life than cause them any harm.

 

¹ On relative rank … sending your child to a school comprised mostly of elites can negatively warp their confidence and self-worth. If most of your child’s classmates are richer, smarter, more socially connected, more sophisticated, and/or more competitively oriented, your normal or above-average-under-normal-circumstances child might end up feeling a bit beaten down. Relative rank matters. On the other hand, if your child’s school is comprised of a more diverse cross-section of society, it’s more likely they’ll get a chance to shine in at least one area.

 

Why I’m Sending My Child to an Underperforming Public School

Emerson Elementary class portrait 1916

Emerson Elementary class portrait 1916

I live in a middle-class neighborhood (Temescal) in Oakland, California. I’m lucky enough to live very near two elementary schools. Park Day School is a private school, with tuition costs of roughly $20K/year. As far as I can tell Park Day is an excellent school, and some of my friends are sending their kids there. The other nearby elementary school is Emerson Elementary. That’s where my daughter goes, despite the fact that average test scores are quite low.

Why did my wife and I choose to send our daughter to Emerson? The obvious reasons apply. We support public schools, who accept all children from the community, instead of picking and choosing the easy and/or bright kids (the rambunctious son of an acquaintance of ours was rejected from Park Day’s kindergarten for “behavioral issues”). I don’t think that sending your kid to private school makes you a bad person, but I do feel like I’m doing the right thing by my community. It’s also nice to save the money on tuition.

But the main reason I’m writing this post is to explain why I think my daughter will get a better education at Emerson, despite the low average test scores, some students with behavioral problems, and tight budgets.

Great Teachers

Kia (my wife) decided to become active in the Emerson PTO (Parent Teacher Organization) a couple years before our daughter enrolled there. She made the commitment to get to know the school, and to do what she could to make the school better before our daughter started there (fund-raising for art and music programs, improving school grounds, increasing parental involvement, etc.). She was able to get to know many of the teachers, and observe them in the classroom. At least for kindergarten and the lower grades, the teaching quality at Emerson is so high that we did not even bother to submit a classroom preference when we enrolled. Both kindergarten teachers, Ms. Campos and Ms. Aiello, are excellent.

High-quality “value added” teaching (meaning that the teachers positively influence test scores) in primary school can have positive economic and social effects that reach into a young person’s twenties and beyond. Here’s a nytimes article that discusses the same study.

I’ve heard nothing but good things about the teachers over at Park Day, but if all other things are equal, I’ll choose the public school. Sending your kid to private school undercuts the public school system, depriving public schools of state funds. Sometimes there’s a good reason to do this, but in this case teaching quality isn’t an issue.

Of course, all things are NOT equal. Park Day has more money, and a carefully selected student body. Overall, the private school receives more kindergarteners who are better prepared, have a head start on their education, are better behaved (the most difficult kids are not accepted into the school), and on average come from homes with all kinds of economic and social advantages. So let’s get into that.

Test Scores Are Not Contagious, and the Benefits of Being a High Rank Student

Emerson gets some disadvantaged kids. 63% of the students are eligible for the free or reduced-price lunch program. A stable two-parent family is the exception, not the rule. Many of the kids didn’t attend preschool before starting at Emerson. Predictably, many of these children do not excel academically in elementary school, despite the best efforts of their skilled and motivated teachers.

My own daughter comes in with some advantages, including a great preschool experience, a culture of literacy at home, a stable family life, good nutrition, etc. She is not going to suddenly lose these advantages by having classmates who don’t share them. This seems to be the biggest mental disconnect of parents who obsess over standardized test score averages while school shopping. Your child’s academic performance is going to be influenced by their readiness, their innate ability, the quality of the teaching, and additional support and instruction they receive at home. Having classmates who are economically and/or socially disadvantaged (and thus possibly behind academically) is not going to bring your child down.

In fact, the opposite may occur. There is an academic benefit to being a high-ranked student that is just as strong as having a good teacher. In other words, being a “big fish in a small pond” can have an enormous positive influence on your child’s confidence, which can impel them to study harder and achieve even more.

I’m not making this up. High achieving students do better in worse schools (especially boys, and more competitive students).

Around 2009-2010, Oakland parents started enrolling their children in school later, so that their kids would be the oldest in the class. They did this en masse, so much so that our preschool had to add a classroom to accept all the redshirted laggards. Why did they do this? All because of a chapter in Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers that described how almost all professional hockey players are born in January or February (the oldest kids in the class are bigger, get the most time on the ice, get more practice and acquire skills more quickly, and maintain that advantage until the pros). Never mind that this advantage doesn’t translate to other sports (like basketball) or academics (the younger kids in a class tend to do better by the time they’re in high school). Middle-class Oakland parents are trendy and want every advantage for their child. [Edit: To be clear, I include myself in this category! Our daughter was not near the age limit but we might have easily made the same decision at the time.]

Now that Gladwell has gotten behind the “big fish in a little pond” theory of success, I wonder if we’ll see trendy Oakland parents flocking to the lowest-performing schools. 😉

Diverse Social Interactions, and a Diverse Worldview

Our daughter went to Temple Sinai Preschool in Oakland, and overall had a great experience there. The only thing that bothered me about that school was that it was overwhelmingly white. It’s a Jewish preschool, so to some extent that was to be expected, but my daughter was starting to exhibit some disturbing stereotypes about African-Americans that really bothered me. Once, at around age 3, she pointed to a picture of a middle-class African-American couple in a magazine and asked “Are they homeless?” Homeless people in Oakland? Check. Mostly African-American? Check. Lack of social exposure to African-Americans in general to balance her worldview? Check. No wonder she said that. The last item I could actually do something about.

Emerson is currently 58% African-American students (the remaining 42% being Hispanic, white, Asian, and multi-ethnic kids). A couple months into the school year, and I’m relieved to see that my daughter has friends of all skin shades. At this point she has fewer racial hang-ups than I do.

As an aside, when Kia told other parents at our preschool that our daughter was going to Emerson, she encountered in several cases an attitude that could only be described as “fear of blackness” (if not outright racism). While I understand the impulse of a parent to not want their child to be culturally isolated, Emerson is a diverse school, especially in the lower grades. It looks a lot like Oakland. To me, that’s ideal.

Of course, diversity is not just about black and white. 20% of of Emerson students are classified as “English language learners.” Check out the breakdown of languages spoken in the homes of these students:

Languages spoken in the homes of "English language learners" at Emerson

Languages spoken in the homes of “English language learners” at Emerson

There’s some American melting pot for you. Once again, I see this kind of cultural diversity as a clear benefit. My daughter will have direct experience at a young age that 1) English is not the only language in the world, and 2) there are other cultures worth learning about.

Summary

Sending your kid to any school is really an experiment. I’m not making a 100% no-matter-what commitment to Emerson, or to public school in general. We’ll have to see how it goes. And as for our friends who have chosen private school for their kids, I respect those decisions. Each kid is different and has different needs. All a parent can do is to try to make a good choice, and then observe closely and adjust course as needed. Here’s what I’ve observed so far at Emerson:

  • my daughter likes to go to school, at least on most days
  • academically she is progressing very quickly, learning to read and write and do simple math problems
  • in addition to basic academics, good programs exist for art, music, and poetry
  • parental involvement is high
  • teaching quality is high
  • the school is being led well by principal Kathy Hatzke
  • teaching and admin staff are open to ideas and suggestions for how to more effectively educate our children (especially if backed by empirical research); they are not “set in their ways” but rather are hungry for progress and improvement and creating better systems

On the downside, some of the kids definitely have some behavioral issues, primarily around poor concentration and emotional control/anger management. But these same kids are sweet and good-natured most of time, and still have tons of potential even if the odds are stacked against them. Their parents and teachers haven’t given up on them, and neither have other adults in the community (myself included). Ultimately you have to ask yourself (if you are a parent considering sending your child to a public school with poor test scores): why are the scores bad? Is it bad teaching, or is the school taking on the hardest kids, with the fewest social and economic advantages? If it’s the latter case, and the school has other good things going for it, there’s no good reason to fear sending your child there.

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