School & District Management

‘OK, So You Want To Know My School Program?’

February 23, 2000 3 min read

Here are some excerpts from Staff Writer Catherine Gewertz’s interview Feb. 7 with Mayor Jerry Brown of Oakland, Calif., on the state of the city’s schools and his bid to win greater control over the district.

On why he abandoned his initial proposal, which would have allowed him to appoint the entire school board:

“People were yelling democracy ... and I’m not sure I could have gotten [sufficient support on the City Council]. I was being reasonable. Also, I wanted some degree of unity—let’s work together. And I thought I could do it by [backing] a slate. And I thought maybe, you know, democracy, OK. I’m listening. I’m not so stuck; I’ll try different things. So I backed off.”

On the central role charter schools and smaller schools play in his approach to improving the district:

“I focused on some schools I thought I could affect. I want to support parents who want to try different learning settings, like a charter school. I felt I could be of help to parents who had the motivation and the initiative, so that’s why I limited my focus there. As the months went on, I got drawn into the larger school debate.”

On choice and decentralization:

“There are a number of ingredients here. There is the idea of small schools, charter schools, independent study. The idea of giving the parents choice. ... We have enough choice in the public school system, between charters, independent study, smaller schools ... that if we could free up some of these constraints, there is a lot that could be done.”

On criticisms that his approach benefits too few students:

“So it’s ‘let’s do everything all at once, or let’s do nothing.’ That’s the theory. It’s totally stupid, disingenuous, and I think hypocritical. Let’s do something! Let’s create some success, generate excitement, hope, and give people options. [The system] keeps on failing because it isn’t decentralized enough. There isn’t enough variation to be sensitive to the differences that people have and the desires they have in their own lives. So you have to do many things. But you have to stick to what you’re doing. That’s all I’m saying, instead of having a centrally determined command-and- control.”

On how to improve achievement:

“OK, so you want to know my school program? They should, without apology, emphasize the test. Let’s go. [The Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition] is the order of the day? Then SAT-9 it is. Then, every report card period, get an indication for each child in each class in each school how they stand. The principal is reviewing on a virtually daily basis each of his or her classrooms, and at the end of the report card period, the principal has a clear understanding of where all the classes stand and how the teachers are doing. Then that principal reports in to the district and has to give an accounting, so we know at the end of the first report card period how it’s going. Then you get into the second and third periods. You discuss specific strategies about how you are going to increase test scores. ... I’ve visited nine schools, and I’ve yet to meet a principal who says: ‘You know, Mr. Mayor, the reading score for 3rd grade for this school is 2.5 percent, and let me tell you, I have a plan. I would to move to 12 percent in this amount of time, and here’s how I’m going to do it and this is what I need you to do.’”

On the current school board:

“They’re not committed—at least they haven’t been—to the tough decisions that have to be made. Maybe they’re going to do that now. ... If [new Superintendent Dennis] Chaconas does a great job, hallelujah. But it may already be the fact that they can’t climb out. They may be in such a gravity sink that they don’t have the thrust to get out.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2000 edition of Education Week as ‘OK, So You Want To Know My School Program?’

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