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.