Attendees at "Teaching Matters" forum in Oakland talk about their best teachers
Studies indicate the main driver of student achievement is effective teaching. While poverty, trauma and starting kindergarten with no preparation put children at a learning disadvantage, students can catch up if they have effective classroom teachers for at least three years.
But effective teaching doesn't just happen; it must be nurtured with mentoring, support and collaboration.
Such were among the findings discussed Thursday night when about 200 people gathered at an Oakland public school for a forum on "Teaching Matters," hosted by seven community organizations led by Great Oakland Public Schools.
They were joined by Education Trust-West, Oakland Community Organizations, Youth Uprising, Youth Together, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and SEIU Local 1021. Spokespeople from these groups spoke of wanting to support improvements at Oakland Unified School District.
Timed to coincide with OUSD's drafting and negotiation of a new teacher professional development and evaluation system with its teachers union, the Oakland Education Association, the forum drew scores of OUSD and charter school teachers as well as students, parents, community activists and a few administrators.
"Part of what brings us together is a challenge that our superintendent offered us," said Jonathan Klein, executive director of Great Oakland Public Schools, opening the forum. OUSD Superintendent Tony Smith, "challenged the community" to help turn around the Oakland district to one that provides "all students a quality education" not just some students, Klein said.
Smith issued this challenge two years ago when OUSD developed a strategic plan and determined that the financially strapped school district whose schools had mixed academic successes depending largely on neighborhood needed community involvement to help it create full-service community schools and work on closing an achievement gap. OUSD has been called California's most improved urban school district for six years running now, but still some of its students languish and the dropout rate remains high even as some individual schools in the district have great successes.
This academic year, OUSD has been tackling the tasks it identified in its strategic plan. Top on its priority list right along side providing safe schools is improving instructional quality.
"OUSD has made teaching excellence a top priority" Klein said, but it cannot do it without the community.
Each of the sponsoring organizations vouched their support.
"We are about the personal transformation of young people. We cannot do that without a quality education system," Lisa Hayes, Youth Uprising's director of career and education resources, said.
"In Oakland we looked at critical points in the pipeline," said Arun Ramanathan, executive director of Education Trust-West - a research firm that focuses on finding solutions for achievement gaps for students of color. "Fewer than half of OUSD students had strong preparation before starting elementary school."
At the high school level, nearly half of Latino and African American students do not graduate in four years, but instead drop out or repeat grades. While OUSD does well in getting most eighth graders to enroll in Algebra 1, an essential course for college preparation, only 23 percent of those enrolled in the course scored proficient in Algebra on the state tests.
"The classroom teacher matters most among any in-school factor to student achievement," Ramanathan said. Teaching is so important it can compensate for some of the factors from a child's life situation that may hamper his or her education, he added.
"Things outside of school matter, but good teaching can level the playing field."
Ramanathan also cautioned that "an effective teacher is not the same as an experienced teacher," a philosophy, which is at odds with the OEA teachers' union whose policies reward experience with pay and choice in assignments.
Participants were asked to remember their best teachers and what made them so good. People responded with memories of teachers who challenged them or who made learning fun.
The seven organizations behind "Teaching Matters" said they commissioned the National Council on Teaching Quality to study Oakland Unified and discern how it could improve. That report is expected to be out on March 20.
"The values driving this campaign," Klein said, are:
- That we must take collective responsibility for student learning.
- That Oakland teachers deserve our community's support.
- That Oakland needs a culturally-competent teaching force that reflects the diversity within its communities.
-That the group of community organizations should work with the teachers union and not undermine its ability to negotiate with the school district.
-That parents, students and community voices are essential to shaping this work.
Oakland Unified School District staff were not readily identifiable in the crowd of attenders, but newly elected Board of Education director James Harris from District 7 was there.