What I Believe About Education


December 2015

It will be a year in January since I joined the OUSD Board.  I don't know if it could be said that I had a philosophy or theory about education when I joined the board, except that I believed (and still do) that education is the most critical service that our government provides, that people have a right to develop their capabilities, and that this is perhaps the most important thing that we do as elected leaders.  

What is different now from 10 months ago is that I have a much stronger understanding now of the process by which we develop strong schools, and therefore student capabilities.  Below are some musings on what I believe about education now.

1. There are no silver bullets. 

I do not believe in the idea of 'school transformation.'  Every school in Oakland that has made major progress has had five main factors at play:

  • sustained focus,
  • sustained investment,
  • stable leadership,
  • genuine involvement of families and the school community and,
  • hard, hard work.  

Strong leadership is necessary, but not sufficient.  What the best leaders seem to do is to inspire others in the school community to believe in their vision for the school, and then to build the capacity of everyone else in the school community to own and implement a piece of the vision.  Building capacity does three things: it builds the level of investment that everyone has in the success of the school, it broadens the base of people providing leadership within the school, and it simultaneously prevents burnout of Principals.  

2. There are no universal solutions.

Each school is different, and so must their approaches be to addressing the challenges facing them.  Some of the factors that affect how much and what kind of change a school can move include: the experience level of the faculty, the experience level of the principal, in general and at that school, the most pressing challenges facing the school, the willingness of the teachers to embrace the idea being proposed, the level of engagement of the parents in the school community, the resources the school has available for training, and most critically, how much social trust exists among people in the school community.  Change is always easier to implement in a school that has built up a good deal of social trust among those in the school community.

The importance of building trust in the school community is part of why it is so critical that people in the school community be involved in analyzing the issues facing their particular students, and identifying and offering up potential solutions.  Soliciting the involvement and ideas of others is an important way of showing respect and concern (I also think we end up with better decisions that way).

It is also true that we cannot just assume that an idea that has worked in one school community will work in another.  This assumption is one of the things that drives me crazy about corporate school reform.  Each community is different, and so is each school.  If the school community is not included in identifying the solutions being implemented, they will often not embrace the  idea and the experiment will fail, if not immediately then as soon as something else becomes the priority.  This is especially true in large districts such as Oakland.

3. Relationships are everything (well, almost everything).

I really heard this when I held my Taking Action on Attendance conference last month.  Strong relationships are what make it possible to work as a team with families to improve student achievement, which is critical because we can control only a small part of students' success.  If we can work with families on what they do at home with students, it is a huge service to our students.

Of course students still need all the things students always need: good teachers, safe schools, challenging curriculum, etc.  But nearly everything that students need to succeed is more likely to come about when there are trusting relationships in the school - between the principal and the central administration, between the teachers/staff and the principal, among teachers and staff, between staff and parents, among parents and other parents, and even between the School Board and the staff.

It is definitely the case that we need more resources to deliver the education our students deserve, but even that is dependent on a trusting relationship between Oakland (and California) voters and our school district/s.  

Therefore, one of the most high leverage things that we can do is to design everything that we do as a school district with an eye toward building more trusting relationships among those in our school communities and our district.  The best way to do that is a tough question, but here are some things that I think help to build trust:

  • Including people who are affected by decisions in decision-making.  I mean really including them, rather than saying "Here's what we are doing.  What do you think?"
  • Listening to people, including those we disagree with or don't like, and remembering that we are all in this together.
  • Working toward the highest possible level of transparency, especially regarding how decisions are made and how district resources are used.  
  • Creating a culture of predictability, through operating with integrity (doing what we say we are going to do).
  • Recognizing the contributions of every member of the district, especially those who are working with our students on a daily basis.  
  • Developing leadership at all levels of the district and empowering leaders with responsibility for the success of students.

It has been revelatory for me to learn that I can learn to work with and build trust with people that I don't agree with and sometimes do not like, when I focus on what we have in common, which is what we are trying to do for students.  I didn't know that about myself when I joined the board, and that discovery gives me hope for our schools.

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