Attempting To Graft Broad & Oakland Stories Together, NYT Underplays Deep Race/Class Issues

 

NYT picture shows Oakland superintendent Antwan Wilson in a grey (lavender?) jacket with what appear to be white protesters waving signs at him that say “No New Jim Crow In Oakland.”

There’s a big New York Times front-page education story earlier this month, focused on the Broad Academy, a district leadership initiative funded by the Broad Foundation and Antwan Wilson, one of its graduates, who now heads the Oakland Unified School District.

Yep, they’re having hot times in Oakland these days. This isn’t the first time that the NYT has focused on Oakland schools. For example: Restorative Justice Programs Take Root in Schools (2013) , Grading Teachers With Data From Class. Nor is it the first time that the NYT has published a story on the role of outside philanthropists in education. Some recent examples include California Race Brings Democrats’ Differences on Education Into Focus

[Disclosure: This blog is funded by the AFT and the Education Post (which is funded by Broad, Bloomberg, and Walton foundations).]

However, this story attempts to link what’s going on in Oakland with the larger Broad Foundation agenda and with what’s going on in education nationwide:

“How [Superintendent Wilson] fares may say a great deal not only about Oakland, but also about this moment in the drive to transform urban school districts. Many of them have become rivalrous amalgams of traditional public schools and charters, which are publicly funded but privately operated and have been promoted by education philanthropists.”

Online, the piece was headlined “Oakland District at the Heart of Drive to Transform Urban Schools.” The print version was much more pointed in linking Oakland to Broad: “Oakland Is Flash Point in Billionaire’s Push for Charter Schools.”

ASSESSING THE BROAD ACADEMY

In theory, what’s under closest examination here is the $60 million Broad Center, a Broad Foundation initiative which has over the last 15 years trained a number of current and former big-city school superintendents. Graduates of the Broad Academy now run Boston, Broward County, Fla., and Philadelphia, among roughly two dozen districts, and have run Dallas, LA, and Chicago schools in the recent past.

In this piece, Motoko Rich makes the case that the money spent has yet to yield strong results. Broad alums don’t last much longer or produce greater gains than their non-Broad counterparts. “Like others in the field, they have run up against the complexities of trying to improve schools bedeviled by poverty, racial disparities, unequal funding and contentious local politics.”

While Broad isn’t opposed to pulling the plug on ineffective or worn-out initiatives (think EDIN’08 and the Broad Prize for urban school districts), he defends the Academy and seems intent on continuing it.  

WHAT’S BROAD GOT TO DO WITH IT?

The connections between the Broad Academy and the current disputes in Oakland remain murky at best. Rich doesn’t present any real evidence that Broad’s pushing a big charter expansion in Oakland as he is in Los Angeles, or that Wilson is implementing a Broad Academy agenda. Universal enrollment is not part of the Broad Academy curriculum, according to the Broad Center. Though it has supported charter networks that operate in Oakland (Aspire, KIPP), the Broad Foundation has not invested in common enrollment or SPED mainstreaming.

Indeed, Rich notes that the challenges facing Wilson and his counterparts in other big districts aren’t all that different from each other: “Regardless of training, any leader of a large school district faces daunting challenges.”

Wilson wasn’t even appointed by a non-elected board or state education chief or mayor, which is one of the frequent complaints about the current approach to education reform. He was approved (unanimously) by an elected school board.

So how do we we end up in Oakland, rather than some other town? “It was a national story that went to Oakland,” explained Rich in a recent phone call.The paper had already covered the Walton Foundation’s work, and Gates as well. “But we hadn’t really looked at the Broad Academy.” And the last four district heads in Oakland have been Broad graduates, according to Rich. “When you do a story like this you’re always looking for a place to tell it from.”

INADEQUATE SOURCE IDENTIFICATION

 

Are these folks best described as OUSD teachers, Oakland Education Association members, or something else? 

The piece opens with a protest at a recent OUSD school board meeting: “The 70 teachers who showed up to a school board meeting here recently in matching green and black T-shirts paraded in a circle, chanting, ‘Charter schools are not public schools!’ and accusing the superintendent of doing the bidding of ‘a corporate oligarchy.'”

In addition to opposing charter schools, we’re told “teachers and some parents” are also opposing a proposed new universal enrollment system that would allow parents to sign up for any school using a single enrollment system, which is being voted on in June.

But we’re not told how the teachers all ended up there wearing the shirts, or if the claim they’re making has any real merit. (Has mainstreaming special ed students hurt district schools in Oakland or in other places it’s been tried? Has universal enrollment led to a big increase in charter school applications/enrollments in other places? We don’t know.)

There are a few other instances in which, by not identifying sources, it seemed like the NYT story didn’t let readers in on what was going on behind the scenes:

Activist Yvette Felarca is quoted, depicted in an image accompanying the story, and features prominently in a video clip embedded in the story. According to this 2012 In These Times article, BAMN (the advocacy group which Felarca belongs to), is a radical progressive group that operates within the NEA/AFT. She apparently ran against current AFT president Randi Weingarten in 2010. It’s not entirely clear if she is an Oakland teacher or parent. 

“A new parent advocacy group” cofounded by Kim Davis (pictured below, center) also involves former AFSCME organizer Ann Swinburn and lists as one of its top two priorities “a strong contract and the best working conditions for Oakland teachers.” 

RACE AND CLASS DYNAMICS

Last but not least, there’s the issue of how the NYT story treats (ignores?) race and class.

The images accompanying the story make clear some of the racial tensions and dynamics that are taking place. The top image accompanying the story depicts activists accusing an African American superintendent and an elected school board of enacting “the new Jim Crow.” Another image shows a group of what appear to be white parents organizing to protest against OUSD. A third image shows a group of what appear to be white teachers protesting.

A local version of the story, reported by Bay Area News Group’s Joyce Tsai (Racial tensions flare over opposition to mainstream Oakland’s special ed students) describes an uncomfortable series of confrontations including one at which a white Oakland teacher was chastised by an unidentified black audience member for using the phrase “the face of new Jim Crow” that “culminated in the arrests of three teacher-protesters” and another meeting in which Wilson is quoted as having said “I’m not going to sit here as an African-American male and have someone that doesn’t look like me talk about Jim Crow whatsoever.” 

These confrontations resemble the ones that took place in Newark during the Cami Anderson administration, except that the races have been reversed. In Oakland, we seem to have white and/or college-educated protesters lambasting an African-American superintendent.

But little of this is addressed in the NYT version of the story. Superintendent Wilson is identified by race. Charter school parent Kenetta Jackson is identified by occupation. From the pictures, Davis and the protesting OUSD teachers appear to be white. Felarca appears to be a Latina. But there’s no information provided as to what Davis or Felarca do to pay the rent or what their racial backgrounds are, or where Davis sends her children.

Asked about Davis’ race and background, Rich seemed unconcerned. “If you want to know her race, look at the picture.”

As for Felarca, “one could tell from reading the story and watching the video that she was on the extreme end of things.” But Rich says she attended two full board meetings, and chose to quote Felarca because she was at both of them. “It didn’t seem unrepresentative.”

As for the racial issue in general, Rich says that there is “definitely a racial subtext” to the Oakland conflict, but that she was there in Oakland to write a story about the Broad Academy and that quoting Casserly on race was a nod to the broader issues. 

“Race is clearly an issue,” says Rich. “But I was looking at Oakland in a particular way.”

REACTIONS ROUNDUP

What have others had to say about the piece so far?

A pro-reform blog post from Great School Voices titled Hits and Misses in the NY Times article says that the piece “focused too much on the elite adult arguments and too little on the opinions and needs of actual underserved Oakland parents.” Lost in the piece were “the voices of everyday parents.  Those that struggle to pay their bills, live in sometimes dangerous neighborhoods, and are assigned to sometimes dangerous schools. These parents don’t have the luxury to sit through 4 hour board meetings, or engage in marches or protests.” A consent decree also goes unmentioned, as does the issue of racial segregation.

Trish Gorham, president of the Oakland Educators Associated, put out a press release praising the piece for “a fairly accurate picture of the conflicting visions for a quality public education between educators in the classroom and philanthrocapitalists in the boardroom.” In her statement, Gorham argues against charters, Broad Center graduates, universal enrollment. “In most areas of school improvement, the lines are clearly drawn. Which side are you on?”

According to veteran teacher and blogger Walt Gardner, writing in Education Week, Oakland Schools Are Battleground for Parental Choice, “I understand the anger that teachers in Oakland and in other cities feel.  The deck is indeed stacked against them in every way… But I think their anger is misdirected.  Parents want to send their own children to the school that they alone believe best meets their needs and interests.”

A OUSD employee Charles Cole III from One Oakland United shared his Thoughts on the NY Times Article Focused on Oakland: “Our district has failed children for a long time and I appreciate bold leadership to shift that. I wish this article would have quoted more poor people of color. Everyone in the city isn’t highly politicized.”

According to Rich, both fans and critics of Broad and Wilson have expressed appreciation for the piece.

None of this is to say that the Broad Academy program is any more transformative than Rich describes, that there’s no controversy surrounding the universal enrollment and SPED mainstreaming initiatives, or that OEA and other teacher and parent groups don’t deserve to have their say at board meetings or in the newspaper.

And, like Chris Rock said at the Oscars, “not everything is racist or sexist.”  Reporters and editors aren’t obligated to write the stories I want them to write and can’t possibly address every issue in a short time and limited amount of space.

For me, this piece does a nice job of introducing readers to the Oakland superintendent, updating us on the Broad Academy’s 15-year run, and giving us a snapshot of the current controversy.

But I don’t feel like readers are being given a chance to understand the full context of the story they’re being told. And that seems like a shame. 

Weak evidence of connections is a big issue for me, as is inadequate identification/ contextualization of sources who are being quoted. And I’ve written in the past about the tendency in education stories these days to create simplistic reform pro/con narratives, and to go for the loudest, most inflammatory issues or moments when there’s a more nuanced (and uncomfortable) story to be told underneath.

ALEXANDER RUSSO (@alexanderrusso) is editor of The Grade.

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