The 16-year-old student from Oakland’s Fremont High School was invited to research any topic for a journalism project.

“I want to research what it takes to keep a teacher in Oakland, how much it costs,” he said, despite his interests in sports, music and other teenage pursuits.

It was June, school was winding down for the year and all the talk in the halls of Fremont High, he said, was about which teachers were leaving and which staying.

Two of his favorites were slated to leave. His chemistry teacher had received a “pink slip,” meaning his job was unlikely to be renewed next year. His drama teacher, who had taught in the Oakland Unified School District for decades, was retiring. In all, five of Fremont’s 25 teachers would be leaving.

But to Giovanni, the only boy in a family in which his single mother takes care of his sisters and him as well as several cousins, the two male teachers played a key role in his life. His chemistry teacher, John Rim, and his drama teacher, Michael Jackson, are his mentors and role models as well as his teachers.

“My advanced drama teacher was Mr. Jackson. Yeah, we were pretty close,” Giovanni said further along in the conversation about researching teacher retention. “Mr. Jackson is a good teacher because he makes sure he connects with the students, he wants to know how you feel, how others feel and how we can all get along and work together,” he said.

“Chemistry also,” he said when asked his favorite courses this year. “I liked the teacher; Mr. Rim was dedicated, he always came prepared and did his job. Also, he would come to you, one on one, and make sure you understood.” Luckily, the chemistry teacher retained his job at Fremont.

It’s no surprise that chemistry and drama were Giovanni’s favorite classes last year, and classes he did very well in.

National studies and anecdotal evidence locally show that the quality of the relationship between a student and a teacher is a key determinant in whether that student will learn the subject and whether the student will achieve academically.

The National Institutes of Health, in a study of 443 students in Texas, affirmed numerous other studies that linked student achievement to the quality of the student-teacher relationship and to parent-teacher relations.

“Students who enjoy a close and supportive relationship with a teacher are more engaged in that they work harder in the classroom, persevere in the face of difficulties, accept teacher direction and criticism, cope better with stress, and attend more to the teacher,” said the NIH public access report.

Moreover, the NIH study also found that experiencing close and supportive relations with teachers is less common for low-income students of color than for affluent, white students, and that this is a contributing factor to the achievement gap between socio-economic groups.

“Of importance, our results suggest that African-American children and their parents are less likely to experience home-school relationships and student-teacher relationships that support children’s achievement,” the study said. One reason for this is a cultural or ethnic mismatch between students and teachers, the NIH said.

Oakland public schools experience frequent teacher turnover, with 13 percent of the teachers leaving each year and 70 percent of teachers leaving within five years of starting. OUSD has aggressively sought to recruit teachers from local communities that share the ethnicities of its students, but its teaching force remains majority white while its students are not.

While many Oakland teachers and students have described close and often influential relations — indeed, some teachers in Oakland have been known to provide the stability and nurturing roles of parents to foster and homeless children as well as those enduring trauma — the turnover and ethnic disproportionality could hamper the likelihood that more kids will experience those bonds. In some Oakland schools, the vast majority of students are Latino or African-American and the teaching force, while diverse, is statistically more white than the student body.

Teachers understand the importance of bonding with students and coming into the classroom knowing students’ experiences and interests outside the classroom.

Teacher Christy Carpenter, who teaches at United for Success middle school, said that getting to know the students well and understanding what their lives are like outside the classroom is essential in a city where some students come to school traumatized by violence, or hungry or afraid. She said building an atmosphere of trust is essential for student learning.

“I strive to make my classroom a place where kids don’t have to worry about making mistakes, about where they sit or who they going to offend,” she said. “Knowing there is a stable adult in the room, they feel safe.” Teachers often need to be more than teachers, she said; they need to be counselors, advocates and bastions of calmness and order in students’ lives.

Skyline High School teacher Lisa Rothbard said, “Teacher-student relations are of invaluable importance,” and a contributor to student achievement. “No matter what a teacher’s style is, when you have a positive, constructive relationship, it is going to work and the students are going to learn.” That entails, she said, knowing what is going on in their lives. Rothbard agreed. “We all come into the classroom with life experiences that either set us up for success or make it hard,” she said. “Students have a lot going on in their lives, so my opener question might be ‘What’s going on?'”

Oakland has strived to diversify its teaching force with special recruiting events and fairs. According to the most recent state Department of Education data that tracks ethnicity in schools and many other things, Oakland’s student population is 41 percent Latino, 30.5 percent African-American, 11 percent Asian and 8.8 percent white. Meanwhile, its teacher population is only 2.3 percent Latino, 18.4 percent African-American and 55 percent white.

data source: State Dept. of Education Ed-Data

“We are trying very hard to recruit Latino and African-American teachers,” said OUSD communications director Troy Flint. Not only does it seek potential candidates in Oakland and the Bay Area but OUSD recruiters go to the Central Valley to talk to recent college graduates there in hopes of finding Latino and Latina graduates of teaching programs. Flint said there is a shortage nationally of Latino and African American teachers in that college graduates from those demographic groups face many opportunities and competition from other industries to recruit them is high. Nonetheless, OUSD’s strategic plan cites the importance of what it calls “cultural competence” in teachers. In the two years since the state collected data, the teaching force may have changed.

Many factors go into student achievement. But it is worth noting that the achievement gap is wide between white and Asian students on the one hand and Latino and African-American on the other. According to Oakland Unified’s 2013 Academic Performance Index, which measures students performance on state tests last spring, the API for white students in the district is 895 and for Asian 824 while for African American students it is 643 and for Hispanic 687 and for all socio-economic disadvantaged students 691.

So important are strong teacher-student relations to student achievement that President Obama’s education initiative, “Race to the Top,” cites cultivation of those bonds as a criterion in this year’s Race to the Top challenge to school districts for education awards. “This year’s competition invites applicants to demonstrate how they can personalize education for all students and is aimed squarely at classrooms and the all-important relationship between teachers and students,” the U.S. Department of Education states in a notice inviting districts to compete for $120 million in grants.

Right now, the district is in the midst of developing new teacher professional development and evaluation systems with an aim to cut down on teacher turnover, increase teacher effectiveness and ultimately boost student achievement.

OUSD and the union, the Oakland Education Association, are piloting new teacher evaluations, all of which would put more emphasis on teacher-student relations and on student learning than the current evaluation system, and all of which involve coaching instead of just pass-fail measurement. Three potential evaluation methodologies will be piloted this fall within the district.

It comes none too soon. Outside agencies are putting pressure on Oakland Unified to focus on teacher retention and more meaningful teacher evaluation.

The Alameda County Civil Grand Jury, in choosing government issues to investigate this past year, called out teacher retention and teacher professional development in Oakland Unified as problems needing to be addressed.

“High teacher turnover within OUSD affects continuity and stability for students,” the Grand Jury said in its report released in June. “The Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) has been faced with seemingly insurmountable hurdles preventing it from making significant gains in student achievement,” it said, and in the context of this problem, turnover becomes even more urgent.

The Grand Jury cited low salaries and the teachers’ union intractable position on teacher placements as problems. It chastised the union for insisting that teacher assignments be based on teacher seniority without regard to whether the placement is a good fit for students, citing its defeat of a district effort for “mutual matching” of teachers to schools based on opinions from principals, parents and teaching peers as well as the individual teachers being placed. It noted Oakland teachers on average make $54,000 a year, where as the average teacher’s salary in Alameda County is $68,000.

But in a breakthrough this summer, OUSD and the teachers union agreed to a new contract that would, among other things, raise salaries for the first time in six years. The contract raises salaries 1.5 percent a year with gives a one-time 2.3 percent bonus.

Teachers Rothbard and Carpenter are two members of the team of teachers selected by Great Oakland Public Schools, a community non-profit, to study the potential teacher evaluation and professional development systems the district and union are piloting this year. They say all three plans would be vast improvements over the perfunctory and largely ignored system used in previous years. All would put more emphasis on teachers’ impact on students.

One is called the Teaching Excellence Network and looks very specifically at relationships as well as relevance and responsibility. It uses surveys of teachers, students, administrators and parents to identify areas that individual teachers should focus on for growth and that schools should focus on.

A second is called the Teaching Effectiveness Pilot (TEP), which was developed by teachers and administrators at Oakland’s Elmhurst Community Prep and United for Success Academy. It would use observation, constant feedback and student achievement.

A third system under study was developed by a wide group of Oakland teachers, administrators and parents in meetings over several months. The “Effective Teaching Task Force Pilot Teacher Growth and Development System” measures effectiveness in four categories: planning and preparation, classroom environment, teaching and learning, and professional responsibilities.

But first, students need teachers who know them and care for them.

That importance of strong relations with teachers is underscored by the experience of another 16 year old chemistry student in Oakland. Venessa Ortega is a strong student and conscientious about her studies. So her charter school, Unity High School, assigned her and a class full of other students to take chemistry online last year.

“It is hard to learn, though, because you don’t have a teacher that can advise you or a teacher that can teach you,” Venessa told Oakland Local. “Sometimes a teacher comes in and helps us out, but usually there’s not.”

Unity High School last year had one chemistry teacher, but one was not enough to cover all sections of chemistry needed, so a group of kids were selected to take the course online. Venessa said she stressed about it,”I was like ‘how do I do this?’ I needed more help,” she said. Unity High Principal Sam Brewer said that this year all chemistry classes, and in fact all classes in all subjects, have a teacher who instructs them.

As the 2013-2014 year unfolds, the ability of Oakland schools — both public and charter — to hold onto teachers, adequately compensate them, and nurture their bonds with students, will be issues to watch.


This story and the entire Education Voices series were made possible through the support of The California Endowment. Our student reporters for this series are participants in programs at Urban Peace Movement.  Our lead trainer in the Education Voices project is Irene Florez of Oakland Local staff and our staff reporters are Barbara Grady and Jon Leckie. Many thanks to the Endowment and UPM  for the support of this program, and to our wonderful coaches, trainers and student reporters.

Follow the entire series here:

See our earlier California Endowment supported reporting package at

5 Responses

  1. Janis Mara

    My heart goes out to these kids. Just goes to show that a good teacher is more priceless than rubies!

  2. Colin

    “One reason for this is a cultural or ethnic mismatch between students and teachers, the NIH said.”

    Perhaps I missed it, but I read the entire NIH report you linked to, and I did not see this. Their emphasis was on teacher-home relationships developing, regardless of ethnicity.

    While the widest possible range of ethnicities is a good thing – I would argue this is as true in racially diverse places such as Oakland as it is in the most lily white suburb – I’m not seeing any evidence suggesting that that’s a cause of problems in that study. Perhaps you have some other NIH report that you’re referring to? Perhaps you can point me to where it says that in the one you linked to?

  3. Barbara Grady

    Hi Colin – Thanks for your question. Here are words directly from the study on that topic:
    “Of particular interest to this investigation are findings that minority, especially African American, children and children of low socioeconomic status (SES) are less likely than Caucasian or higher SES children to enjoy supportive relationships with teachers (Entwisle & Alexander, 1988; Hamre & Pianta, 2001; Ladd et al., 1999; Wehlage & Rutter, 1986). Although the reasons for these differences are not known, the fact that the teacher workforce in the United States is predominantly Caucasian and middle class may contribute to racial and income differences in teacher–student relationship quality. In 2003–2004, 84% of elementary teachers in the United States were Caucasian (National Center for Education Statistics, 2005a). Conversely, 42% of elementary children in 2003 were part of an ethnic minority (National Center for Education Statistics, 2005b). The ethnic imbalance between teachers and students gains in significance in light of several studies reporting that teacher–child ethnicity match is associated with more positive teacher ratings of closeness (Saft & Pianta, 2001; Zimmerman, Khoury, Vega, Gil, & Warheit, 1995).

  4. MRMarshall

    Let me point out the key notes in the last response:
    “…minority, especially African American, children and children of low socioeconomic status (SES) are less likely than Caucasian or higher SES children to enjoy supportive relationships with teachers. Although the reasons for these differences are not known… several studies reporting that teacher–child ethnicity match is associated with more positive teacher ratings of closeness.” Emphasis on “although the reasons for these differences are not know.”
    May I also point out that this article acknowledges the importance of parent-teacher relationships. In my experience, those students who were most successful had parents who were highly involved/invested in their child’s education. Perhaps the academic success gap for students of low SES can be attributed to lack of parent involvement and/or interest in the child’s success in school.
    “No other success can compensate for failure in the home (Quoted from J. E. McCullough, Home: The Savior of Civilization [1924], 42).”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.