All Rise for the New Chief Academic Officer

Alameda’s public school teachers have just learned that Alameda Unified School District (AUSD) has hired a new chief academic officer (CAO). Just the title alone inspires confidence that real progress or an apparition of progress is imminent. The teachers await an uptick in any educational metric.

Try to imagine the collective sigh of relief; knowing there are no empty swivel chairs over at AUSD headquarters. Rarely would I be this honest with a trusting, literate public, but, having taught in Alameda for nearly 25 years, I have never seen or met a CAO. 

Perhaps these officials stay too busy responding to inane demands for reports and data from their counterparts in Sacramento or at the county level. They enjoy a certain commensalism: “You justify my job and I’ll justify yours.”

To set the record straight, it is the administrative cadre we do not see that forms the impervious bulkhead and the crenellated ramparts of AUSD; indeed no one would have the temerity to look at the district and whisper vulgar irreverencies like feather-bedding, bloating, sinecure or top-heavy.

In order to embed a smattering of factoids into a possible column — which will be limited to fawning accolades, hyperbolic panegyrics and kowtowing obsequies — we need direct answers to blunt questions, the circumlocutions to which may be challenging.

  • Does the CAO knock down a six- or seven-figure salary?
  • The salary of the CAO will be how many times the salary of a commoner like a music teacher, an art teacher or an extinct vocational education teacher?
  • In a given week, the CAO will meet with how many teachers that currently work in the trenches?
  • Will these meetings take place on the chaotic battlefields or safely within the plush, puzzle palace that is AUSD headquarters?
  • On average, how many students will the CAO be meeting with weekly?
  • Given that there is a CAO one might assume that there is an Academic phalanx, department or squadron to back this official up. Will there also be a simple academic officer, assistant academic officer and a suite of academic deputies to actually do the grunt work — assuming there is grunt work beyond the usual fluff?

According to veterans of AUSD, in 1991 16 people worked at AUSD headquarters. Now the number of indispensables is closing in on 200.

Don’t tell me that this does not represent progress in public education. Leave efficiency considerations to rapacious capitalists and bottom-line obsessed private enterprises.

Back in the day we had tell-tale metrics that alerted the public as to what percentage of students read or performed math at their grade levels. Actual objective accountability, although it sharpens the edges of reality, is so over-rated and is often unsettling to a public expecting results.

As for me, I measure quality education by what portion of the budget is siphoned off by hematophagous educrats before it gets squandered on the working-class minions hunkering down in the classrooms. As a socialist slightly to the left of left, I belief in the efficacy of big government and even bigger AUSD headquarters — perhaps an annex or two should be added.

Were it not for the tempting loopholes in the tax code, I would gladly pay more taxes to support AUSD apparatchiks if not AUSD education. The new superintendent is suggesting a floating a parcel tax so teachers can receive a raise and at the same time we can continue to divert fungible millions, unstaunched, to the mavens and sapiens at AUSD Headquarters.

Our new chief of academics expresses a belief “that all children can learn.” To get the public to drop its guard, we need more platitudes as trite as that one; as my Uncle Cusper used to say, “An ounce of image is worth a pound of performance.”

The new hire fluidly lards up the conversation with all the right, resonating, anesthetizing buzz words of public education: equity, social justice, under-funded (more money, please), equitable, overextended school leaders (more leaders, please), rigorous, engaging, standards-aligned, reform, empowered, professional trust, innovative (this invites trouble), imaginative (more anarchy), collaborative, feedback (brace for the critics) and culturally responsive.

Such fluency in edu-speak is promising; perhaps stock phrases like achievement gap, standardized tests scores, literacy and numeracy will remain crowded out of the active lexicon for just a while longer.


Jeff Smith teaches mathematics at Encinal High School.

Editor’s note: It seems to us that the use of definition two for the word “academic” may be particularly apt here. Academic: not of practical relevance; of only theoretical interest; synonyms: theoretical, conceptual, notional, philosophical, unpragmatic, hypothetical, speculative, conjectural, conjectured, suppositional, putative.