This Cal Bear Gives Me Hope

And that’s no small feat because I confess, after thirty years in the game, I’m too cynical about the potential of educators to reform schooling in the U.S.

Tony Smith, a 44 year-old former offensive lineman for the Cal Bears, and current Superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District, gives me hope. Never mind that parents in the district are trying to recall five board members for supporting Smith’s proposals for improving Oakland’s schools.

If you need an infusion of hope, take eleven minutes to watch the interview with Smith embedded in this PBS story. I like what Smith says and how he says it. Money quote, “You can’t just transform a single institution and expect to change all the (negative educational) outcomes.

In essence, Smith is saying the dropout, or “pushout” rate, is not the fault of just the schools; consequently, reversing it will require the help of the County Health Department, Housing Authority, and lots of other groups and people in the community.

We have a choice. We can continue to think simply and single-mindedly about the dropout problem and blame teachers exclusively, or as Smith suggests, we can reframe the problem in terms of community development. Smith’s approach emphasizes school-community partnerships so that students begin developing the necessary skills to succeed at specific jobs in the region.

Liberals like me who are skeptical of meritocratic rhetoric will support Smith. Conservatives who lambasted Hillary Clinton’s book “It Takes a Village” will push back, hence the effort to recall the board members.

A note of concern. Eleven minutes isn’t nearly long enough to get much of a feel for Oakland’s schools, but I dislike when the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) religion sidelines the humanities and schooling is thought of strictly in utilitarian, preparation for work ways. Smith alludes to some female students becoming passionate about math and science work. Great, but what about the potential of the humanities and arts to light similar fires in students? Curriculum development shouldn’t be a zero-sum game.

The thing that most intrigues me about Smith is his use of language. It matters because ideas matter. “Pushout” versus “dropout” and “opportunity gap” versus “achievement gap”. Here’s hoping the Oakland parents chill and give Smith more than the typical three years to implement his ideas and see if they Bear fruit.

3 thoughts on “This Cal Bear Gives Me Hope

  1. Do people really blame teachers for drop out rates when those kids who do come from broken families where one parent is in jail and the other is using drugs? What about those children who are borderline homeless and can’t afford a few sets of new or even different clothes? (think buying at Goodwill)

    Any teacher who has survived years of abuse from parents and dealt with their undisciplined children has been tested by fire and doesn’t need to be solely viewed as the source of things like drop out rates.

    Nice commentary Ron

    • Thanks Larry. Not just the dropout rate, teachers are scapegoated for a long list of things. One of the newer ones. . . childhood obesity.

  2. Oh Bravo! Yes…it’s all about the village working together. Sick to death of the STEM to the exclusion of the humanities. And don’t get me started on the differentiation of workload between writing courses in the humanities and math–at least the way it’s currently being taught with canned curricula and assessments. Reaching kids who are not engaged is not just about teachers inspiring kids. It’s not just about curriculum that motivates and engages. It’s about each player in a community taking that WWII Rosie the Riveter responsibility and saying “We Can Do It!”

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