Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

How much more disruption must we suffer before we re-imagine public schools?

By Rebecca Cheung

Two students working with laptops and wearing masks.

Two students working with laptops and wearing masks.

Many students in Oakland are facing a fifth and possibly sixth year of disruption. Recently, a principal summarized things this way, “My first year as a principal (2018-2019) was the teacher strike, the second year (2019–2020) was the shut down, the third year (2020–2021) was distance learning, and this year (2021–2022) was re-opening. Now we are facing possible closure. Trauma and disruption is all I really know.”

While school closures are disruptive, we need to acknowledge that public education has been in crisis long before the pandemic. For example, issues with the educator workforce were already at play. In 2016–2017, 83 percent of districts serving the largest concentrations of low-income students reported having shortages. Significant numbers of districts addressed this crisis by making workforce compromises such as hiring untrained teachers and substitutes, assigning teachers outside of their specialization, and increasing class size. (See this report for more details).

The prolonged COVID-19 pandemic has both exacerbated existing challenges and created new ones such as increased need for technology access and mental health support. While the Oakland students who entered kindergarten in the 2018–2019 school year described by the principal above have only experienced disrupted public education through grade three, the richest Americans added $4.5 trillion to their personal wealth, becoming 40 percent richer during the pandemic. (See this article for more details.)

How do we build momentum toward a new way of “doing school,” especially for those who have been systematically marginalized and underserved? With a state budget surplus and new initiatives for schools and children, the hope of transforming public education is larger than it has been in many decades. However, we need more than funding to work toward equitable outcomes.

We need the will to challenge operating assumptions, use evidence to inform our designs, and be bold in our thinking. The reforms of the past were contained within the conventional notions of education. We need to flip the script. How can leaders be given permission to truly push the boundaries so that they create ambitious and responsive ways to meet student needs rather than continuing to replicate the factory model of schooling?

A good example is the California Universal Meals policy established in 2021. Now, schools are required to provide two meals free of charge (breakfast and lunch) during each school day to students requesting a meal, regardless of their free or reduced-price meal eligibility. This policy re-orients underlying assumptions from the traditional notion of “only those who qualify benefit from meals” to “all students benefit from access to two meals a day at school.”

In OUSD’s presentation to the Board on January 31, 2022, district leaders described two paths to take: staying the course of planned reductions or the consolidation of schools through closures and mergers. I assert a third path: embrace the disruption as an opportunity to demand more. Oakland students and educators are not receiving their fair share. Do we have the courage to abandon existing practices and structures?

Or, will we continue to add more to the plates of educators? Do we have the collective will to design and fully fund a responsive system that accelerates learning for those with prolonged interrupted schooling? How much more disruption is needed before we begin to challenge our fundamental assumptions about schooling?

Join me in thanking Oakland educators for their continued service during tumultuous times and let's realize conditions for our students and educators to thrive. We have historic opportunities to fundamentally change how we do our work. Let’s seize the moment.