My friend Ted Shelton did something pretty cool a couple months back: He got in touch with Jerry Brown — mayor of Oakland, former California governor and presidential candidate, aspiring state attorney general — and talked to him about how to use the Net to speak to the people. The result is that Brown started his own blog. It exhibits everything I like and dislike about Brown, who is well into his fourth decade as an elected official. The part I like: The guy’s smart and quick and communicates ideas beautifully. The part I dislike? Well, I said it in a response (below) to a recent post he wrote on all he’s done for the Oakland schools: Brown’s got a razor-sharp sense for telling the story that casts him in the most glowing light. As to the unhappy scene that may lie just outside the frame of his self-portrait — that’s someone else’s problem. But that’s another thing I like about the blog — I can tell him just that, and there’s some evidence he’s actually reading what his audience has to say.
My comments to Mayor Brown:
Jerry, any public education success story is to be applauded, and the Oakland School for the Arts is no exception. It’s also refreshing to hear someone in a position of responsibility say the schools need both innovation AND money; cash isn’t a panacea for our public schools’ problems, but used wisely it’s a crucial part of the solution. You also mentioned "freedom" as a necessary ingredient for success; I’ll get to that in a minute.
But I have to say that your post is full of the kind of attitude and omission that long ago led me to conclude that while your intellect is a couple cuts above the average pol’s and you occasionally seem to be moved by the most noble motives, you’re at bottom a self-promoter and opportunist. …
… In this case, what you fail to mention is that, while it’s chartered as a public school, OSA is fundamentally different from the other high schools you compare it to in that it does not take all comers. As part of its charter, only kids who pass auditions get in. Fair enough. The school has a specialized mission and ought to have the freedom to take the steps needed to fulfill it. But it’s disingenuous to compare OSA to McClymonds or Skyline or any other high school in the district.
Second, it’s utterly shocking that you’re going out of your way to pat yourself on the back about what you’ve done for the schools when the district is in such a shambles, when achievement is so low, when the map of grossly underperforming schools is such a perfect match to your city’s lower-income and minority communities. It’s nice that a handful of kids in town — not necessarily from Oakland, by the way — are getting a stimulating education at OSA; it’s a tragedy what’s happening among most of the other kids in your city. I don’t believe you or any other individual is solely responsible for the situation there; it’s taken generations to create this mess. But you didn’t show up in the mayor’s office just yesterday, and it’s disingenuous again to congratulate yourself on your educational triumph in the midst of such a troubling reality.
You decry "the shameless votaries of mediocrity." Jerry, this sounds like code for anyone who disagrees with your ideas or impulses; especially, I suspect, the district’s teachers and their union. Of course, you have many others you can blame, too: The school board that refused to go along with your choice of superintendent, for instance; the district’s administrators, too. They’ve all let you and the city down, right?
The grain of truth is that people in all of the above categories are culpable for the way things are. But to paint everyone in each category as part of the problem is little more than Schwarzeneggian demagoguery and sows hurt and ill will among many of the very people who are devoting their lives to working to make things better for kids in your city.
I’m a witness to this process: My wife and several of her closest friends teach in some of the most challenging schools in Oakland. In my wife’s case, she’s up doing schoolwork before 6 every morning; she’s at school by 7:30 or 8 and stays until 4:30 or 5 every day; most evenings, she confers with parents about their kids until 9 or 9:30 p.m. Among her teaching peers, her hours and efforts are not unusual.
Yes, test scores in her classes and schools have been low since she joined the district in the late ’90s. Many of these teachers are dealing with a population to whom middle-class notions of school preparation are foreign (I wouldn’t call these "bad homes," as one commenter did; these are families often headed by single parents who were poorly served by the very same schools their kids are attending; this is why my wife and other teachers go above and beyond to open lines of communication with parents). Despite that, I see them maintaining a high level of commitment to their kids, a determination to make things better, and continuing optimism about their ability to succeed in the end. Having said all that, you can’t imagine how dispiriting and corrosive it is to hear you and others (such as the state administrator, Dr. Randolph Ward, and some of his minions) suggest they are agents of mediocrity. I think they deserve better from you.
And just one last word about freedom. You mention it as a key component of school success, and I assume you mean the freedom to experiment with and develop new ideas for schools. I’m sure you’d be interested to know that under Dr. Ward, the district is headed in just the opposite direction in many of its low-achieving schools. The administration is in the process of imposing a strict adherence to a reading curriculum called "Open Court" in many schools. Open Court’s been used in the district for several years with no apparent positive impact on student performance. Despite that, a program’s being put in place that will require teachers in Open Court schools to observe the program with no deviations; one aim, as it’s been described to teachers in the affected schools, is to make sure every teacher in every class is teaching precisely the same lesson at the same moment each day. No spontaneity. No teacher-derived enrichment or other activities. If need be, Open Court will substitute for concentration on social studies and science, too. That sort of approach sounds like freedom, Soviet style, to me.