1, 2, 3, 4, 5 Challenge

Jason James issued this blogger challenge to me, so why not. I have about five other blogs in my head right now in addition to all the work stuff I need to be doing, but I like these. They bring us together as a blogging and #oklaed community.

What has been your ONE biggest struggle during this school year?

One? Just acclimating to any new job is a big deal, but moving to a new district as a first-time superintendent is an over-arching challenge with layers of challenges beneath it.

I’m going to say that finding balance has been hard. I’m expected to be active in all facets of the community. I want to be in schools and getting to know teachers and students as much as I can. I want to be at events – not just to be visible, but because I really enjoy immersing myself in the culture of our various schools. I also need to learn the parts of my job that are unfamiliar to me. I spent seven years over curriculum in Moore. I have a dissertation in school finance (but probably more things I don’t know in that world than things I do). I’m trying to find the sweet spot in our bonding capabilities so that we can move on our next round of projects. I’m still teaching C&I at Southern Nazarene (because  teaching feeds my soul). I’ve even continued blogging – more now, since my frustration with the state is mounting again (though it’s directed at different offices). And then there’s a personal life. I’d like one of those. I seem to remember enjoying that at some point. It’ll come together at some point, though. This is year one. It gets better, right?

This is where other superintendents chime in with all the reassuring comments.

Share TWO accomplishments that you are proud of from this school year.

I’m tempted to highlight my knockerball prowess. Or maybe appearing on Flashpoint. As fun as those were, I have to say that mine are more social media related.

First is the night I co-moderated an #oklaed chat with three Mid-Del students. They were insightful and witty, and they’ve been in and out of our chats ever since. My predecessor, Dr. Pam Deering put together my student advisory group, In the Mix. She left a lot of things headed in the right direction for me this summer. This may be the best one.

Second would be the #GiveItBackOK campaign that I had a part in starting through social media. It wasn’t my idea alone, but I have been fortunate to be able to give interviews and support it. Several districts’ foundations have set up donations campaigns for it. Our own foundation went through a leadership transition around that time, but donations keep coming in with the hashtag announced. While this doesn’t restore the hole in our state funding, and it doesn’t help us give teachers the much-needed raises they deserve, it helps us support our most creative, motivated, and innovative teachers with the projects they want to do for their students. Sometimes I forget the power of social media and need a reminder like this.

What are THREE things that you wish to accomplish before the end of the school year?

First, I want to figure out as many cuts as possible to make that don’t impact the number of teaching positions we have next year. We know we will have to make cuts, but I don’t have to like it. I’ll go kicking and screaming into the process, and we’ll get through it. It’s going to impact teaching and learning, though, no matter how we slice it.

Second, I want to help find candidates to run for the Legislature so there won’t be so many uncontested races this time around. Remember, in 2014, only 49 of 126 seats that were up for election even had to be on the ballot. It’s like we’re taking Democracy for granted.

Third, I want to find ways to unburden our teachers and principals. Our job as central office people should be to shoulder the mandates that our Legislature gives us. Maybe we can help schools understand that teaching is the best test prep – way better than designated (or pre-packaged) test prep. The sooner we can get back to just letting teachers teach, the better.

Give FOUR reasons why you remain in education in today’s rough culture.

Obviously, I’m a stubborn mule sometimes. I just can’t take those greener pastures. Mainly, I just love kids. Still, I look at my desk sometimes and can’t see anything that helps me remember why I majored in English and thrived in this profession. So I go out and find it. Allow me to elaborate.

  1. Kids
    IMG_3087 (1)
  2. Teachers
    MD6
  3. #oklaedCBXEy-fUUAAnwMu
  4. Words

darkandstormy_5013

My response to the #oneword challenge last month was purpose. Educating children is my purpose. Helping the people who spend every day with kids is my purpose. It’s who I am, plain and simple.

Which FIVE people do you hope will take the challenge of answering these questions?

I’m going to give a cop-out answer here. Rather than challenging current bloggers, I’m going to challenge groups of people who need to see what happens when they use their words. It’s powerful and transformative. It changes me more than I change anyone else.

  1. Any of my current and former SNU students. I’m not saying you’ll get bonus points for this, but what do you think I’ve been having you do by writing class reflections with hashtags like #onecoolthing all semester?
  2. Any of my co-workers in Mid-Del, especially those in leadership positions. Remember who your boss is. Remember that I don’t have to always be right or have your agreement. Speak your mind. Put it in writing. We are a community of diverse, intellectual thinkers.
  3. Joy Hofmeister. Ok, she’s not a group of people, but I’d love to hear what she thinks – not on policy, we hear that all the time. I just think she’s at her best in moments like these when we get to hear her riff.
  4. First year superintendents. I don’t know about the rest of the people in the first-year superintendents’ program, but I find plenty of time to catch up on emails and work on my blog during these sessions. We have another one coming up on the 24th. Have something out by then.
  5. Any legislator who vehemently claims to support public education. I probably don’t have to explain why.

On the Turning Away

February 6, 2016 1 comment

Fridays are typically fun times for catching up on Twitter. Take yesterday, for example. While waiting for an appointment, I came across this exchange between Tyler Bridges and Brent Bushey (and eventually Scott Haselwood and me):

On the Turning Away isn’t my favorite Pink Floyd song; it’s my favorite song that Pink Floyd released during my senior year of high school, though. And the lyrics remind me of how our state leaders have impacted public education in Oklahoma during the last several years.

On the turning away
From the pale and downtrodden
And the words they say
Which we won’t understand
“Don’t accept that what’s happening
Is just a case of others’ suffering
Or you’ll find that you’re joining in
The turning away

Since 2008, Oklahoma has cut state funding for public education by more than any other state. My god, I don’t know how many times we have to repeat this. All I know is that we will soon get to update our bar charts. As our state treasurer reports, our  revenue situation is just getting worse.

GRC fuuuuuddddggggeeee.png

Oil and gas production is down. This leads to jobs being cut. This leads to people not being able to shop. This leads to another declaration of revenue failure in the coming months.

Whatever your school district has told you they’ve been cut in funds this year by the state, prepare for it to get worse. Much worse.

I’m angry. Yes, I get that oil producing countries in far-off parts of the world have created the market glut that has impacted our economy.

crude-oil-price-history-chart-2016-02-06-macrotrends.png

What I don’t get is where the influx of money was just a few years ago. Right now, when we’re hurting, oil is trading for $30.89 a barrel. In June 2014 – merely 20 months ago – it was at $105.22. In April 2011, it was at $115.76.

Did our state leaders restore funding for education and other core state services during that time? Of course not. They cut taxes on corporations and the rich. The middle class really hasn’t felt that. Again, how many times do we need to repeat that before people understand it?

More Pink Floyd:

It’s a sin that somehow
Light is changing to shadow
And casting it’s shroud
Over all we have known
Unaware how the ranks have grown
Driven on by a heart of stone
We could find that we’re all alone
In the dream of the proud

As a superintendent who recently conducted a district climate survey (with 400 responses and counting), I can tell you that I hear the calls for smaller class sizes and larger salaries. These are things I want to see happen. When our district faces cuts of millions of dollars next year, though I don’t see that it’s possible. That’s why we need more patron involvement.

It can’t just be educators beating down the doors of our elected leaders. We need parents and community members saying that enough is enough! And before any smart-aleck representative asks back, “How much is enough?” I’ll just let you know that we’re nowhere close. I don’t have a number.

Maybe enough is giving our schools funds to restore the class size limitations enacted over 25 years ago that the state suspended during the recession. Maybe enough is getting Oklahoma’s teachers paid something resembling something. Maybe enough is funding textbooks, technology, and buildings adequately so that districts don’t have to deepen the debt burden to their communities through bond elections – that is, the districts with any sizeable bonding capacity. Maybe enough is listening to the students, parents, and teachers who decry failed accountability measures such as ACE, RSA, TLE, and A-F, and the tens of millions of dollars we pour into preserving them each year.

I don’t have a number. You’re lucky I have my nice words. Just keep adding, and we’ll tell you when you get there.

Let me skip to the end of the song:

No more turning away
From the weak and the weary
No more turning away
From the coldness inside
Just a world that we all must share
It’s not enough just to stand and stare
Is it only a dream that there’ll be
No more turning away?

Who are the weak and the weary? It’s our students, most of whom qualify for lunch subsidies. It’s their parents, many of whom work multiple jobs just to elevate their household income from the free lunch range to the reduced-price range. It’s our teachers, who feel the lack of funding and respect from the state as intensely as anyone. It’s our support staff, who are often left out of the conversation when we talk about raises. It’s our building principals, who have less time to run their schools because of senseless mandates. And it’s our central offices, who – when we’re working at our best – try to bear the burdens of all of the rules and moving targets thrown at us by the federal and state government, so that the impact on schools is minimal.

What is the coldness? I’d have to say that this describes the words of the Legislature and Governor. Don’t say you support education. You had a chance when times were good, from 2011-2015. You missed it. And now, when things are tough? You’re all voucher this, A-F that. Well A-F that is right!

Look, I know that the Oklahoman wants us to keep the conversation civil. I also can’t forget that the most read post (by miles and miles) on my blog was a guest column written by a pissed off parent. Civil is good. Logical is good too. It doesn’t always change the world. Here’s from the paper this morning, though:

There will plenty of debate this legislative session over education funding, school choice and other issues. Here’s a call for voices on both sides to keep the rhetorical low blows to a minimum. Our concern stems from some of the things written by bloggers at #OklaEd, a site that allows educators to use Twitter to “share ideas, resources and inspiration.” One English teacher attached a graphic to his anti-education reform post that said, “Admitting you’re an a–hole is the first step.” Writing about Education Savings Accounts, an administrator at Sand Springs said, “If you are a parent who wants to use the Bible as your child’s Biology text, ESA’s are for you.” Passionate defense of education and educators in Oklahoma is one thing. But such uncivil discourse does little to help the cause.

First, it cracks me up that they refer to #oklaed as a site. It’s a hashtag. On the Twitters. I shouldn’t be too harsh, though. My own teens often tell me I’m Internetting wrong. Maybe it’s a site if you most recently checked your email from your Earthlink account that you installed on your Windows 98 computer with the disk that you picked up at Wal Mart. Or something like that.

Second, admitting you’re an a-hole is a step. It’s probably not the most constructive place to start a policy discussion, though. Maybe a better way to say it is that if you’ve consistently supported policies to over-regulate public schools in Oklahoma while draining them of funding and blaming all the regulation on the feds and then shown yourself unwilling to loosen those regulations once the feds told us we could, and if you constantly fight to send tax dollars to private schools that will have none of the fiscal or academic accountability as public schools…wait, what was I saying? Oh yeah, I was explaining why we shouldn’t call people a-holes. Sorry, I’ll have to come back to that another time. I kind of got off track.

Third, we must be getting to them. It makes me think of two movie scene. First is from The Princess Bride:

“What did this do to you? Tell me, and remember, this is for posterity. Be honest. How do you feel?”

The most civil thing we can do is to be honest. It’s for posterity. We’ve said please. We’ll keep saying please. There is also a time to look people in the eyes and say, “You’ve failed us.” We can’t turn away from that.

The other scene comes from The Shawshank Redemption (of course it does).

“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies”

Maybe this is why we stick with education. We know that our kids need us. We know that our colleagues depend on us. Maybe we’re just gluttons. All I know if that I’ll be civil and angry, to the extent that I can do both. And that I’ll take no part in the turning away. After all, it’s not enough just to stand and stare.

Two Things: #SOTS and Groundhog Day

Happy Groundhog Day!Don't Drive Angry

Yesterday, Governor Mary Fallin gave her State of the State speech to the Oklahoma Legislature. Among other things, she made her education agenda perfectly clear. I’ll address that below in my Tuesday Two Things post. Overall, I found it fitting that Fallin included inher remarks Yogi Berra’s quote, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

First, I have to say that I was impressed by one particular part of the speech. She proposed sensible sentencing reforms for non-violent drug offenders. Oklahoma has overcrowded prisons; this is a long-standing truth. What is also true is the sociology behind these sentences. These lengthy sentences impact minorities and the poor disproportionately. They permanently remove people from the mainstream of society, often before they’re independent adults. I’m all for being tough on dealers and violent criminals. Let’s just not overly penalize people for the mistakes they make when they’re young – especially when the crime is more or less self-abuse.

Here were her suggestions:

  • First, let’s allow district attorneys to have the discretion to file any first drug offense as a misdemeanor.
  • Next, we lower the mandatory sentence from two to 10 years in prison, to zero to five years in prison.
  • For second felony offenses for drug possession, lower the mandatory sentence from two years to life, to zero to 10 years.
  • And for third felony offenses for drug possession, lower the mandatory sentence from six years to life with no probation to zero to 15 years.
  • For property crimes, let’s raise the value of a felony crime from $500 to $1,000. The $500 benchmark has been in place since 2002, and it needs to be raised. A teen who steals someone’s smartphone today could be branded for life as a felon because smartphones cost more than $500; twenty years ago, most cell phones cost less than $100.

I don’t know if the Legislature will move on this proposal or how much money it will save if they do. I just know that this makes sense in terms of human potential. Unfortunately, that doesn’t provide for a seamless segue to Fallin’s comments on education.

  1. Things I liked:
  • Fallin proposed $178 million in new money for a permanent $3,000 raise for teachers. If that happens, Oklahoma teacher pay would rise all the way to 44th in the country. It’s not enough to make our salaries regionally competitive, but it’s at least something. As always, something is better than nothing.

  1. Things I didn’t like:
  • The 3% funding cut to education prior to the infusion of $178 million in new money. So we’re supposed to go ahead with the cuts we’re trying to absorb and then reward everybody who survives with raises? They’ll need it. Things are going to be tougher on our remaining teacher, for sure. Districts will still have to cut teaching positions to balance budgets.
  • Her push for school consolidation. I know she’s only talking about the K-8 districts, but honestly, we don’t really save money through her scheme. It’s just a distraction.
  • The flexibility to use district’s building funds for salary. This is great for the districts with high assessed property valuations, but for many districts, there just isn’t a lot of “there” there.
  • Her love of A-F Report Cards and the RSA law. These are two failed reforms. Ask teachers and parents what they think of them. Better yet, ask kids.
  • As for her “100 percent support” of vouchers, they’re my line in the sand. You can’t say you support them (especially with zero accountability) and also say you support public education. This is all just the ALEC playbook. It shows no original thought. It has nothing to do with Oklahoma values, whatever that really means.

That’s all for now. I’ll spend some more time processing/writing later in the week or over the weekend. In the meantime, here are a few links for you, if you want to read more:

And because today is Groundhog Day, I thought you’d enjoy this:

Challenge Accepted: State of the State Preview

January 31, 2016 1 comment

In advance of tomorrow’s State of the State address to be given by Governor Fallin, some of my rebel friends in the blogosphere have wondered what surprises await us. We know she’s going to propose a pay raise for teachers, but we also know the state faces at least a $900 million revenue shortfall. Tyler Bridges has suggested that some of us take a crack at predicting some of the high points from the address, as it will relate to education.

Oh there are so many ways I could go with this. As I write this, the 2010 movie Alice in Wonderland is on TV as background noise. I considered going conceptually through the looking glass, so to speak, and getting all mimsy borogoves with this post, but I’m just not feeling very frumious at the moment.

I also thought of writing it from the perspective of wondering what theoretical Governor Joe Dorman’s 2nd inaugural address would sound like…

and we will build upon the gains we made last year, continuing to restore public education budgets until they exceed 2008 levels and we can pay our teachers regionally competitive salaries…

And maybe a bit of …

just as last year we removed the expense and wasted time of the End of Instruction exams, this year we are going to eliminate all state testing that isn’t federally mandated…

Theoretically, of course, I especially liked this part…

…vouchers, are you kidding me with this?

But alas, even though the majority of Oklahomans who send their children to public school also live in households below the threshold to qualify for free or reduced prices lunches, we continue to elect leaders – including a governor – who insist on cutting taxes that favor corporations and people with executive salaries. We vote very badly, and against our own interests in this state. It’s a phenomenon I’ll never completely understand.

Anyway, back to the challenge. I think the place for me to start is with a certain point of emphasis from Fallin’s 2014 SOTS address:

Just as it’s our responsibility to help maintain a motivated and skilled workforce in state government, it’s also our responsibility to maintain and preserve state buildings and assets.

In the case of the state Capitol, we are failing in that goal.

In fact, this building has become a safety hazard. We are doing a great disservice to our state and its citizens by allowing the Capitol to crumble around us.

The exterior is falling apart, to the point where we must actually worry about state employees and visitors – including teachers and students on field trips – being hit by falling pieces of the façade.

The yellow barriers outside are an eyesore and an embarrassment.

The electrical system is dangerously outdated.

And guys, the water stains you’ve seen on some of the walls downstairs? I have bad news for you. That’s not just water.

Raw sewage is literally leaking into our basement. On “good” days, our visitors and employees can only see the disrepair. On bad days, they can smell it.

We must begin repairing the People’s House now.

As the façade crumbles and the basement fills, we see the impact of decades of neglect – of the mentality that this problem can be fixed later. We can make many parallel statements about the condition of public education in Oklahoma.

I don’t pretend to know what the governor will say about education this year, but I think the parallel still exists. We mostly differ, though, on what causes things to stink so much.

I’m a school superintendent. I’m trying to find more than a million dollars in cuts for the current school year, and I can only guess how many millions I’ll have to cut for next year. We have outdated textbooks and technology. We have … well, I’ll let my friend Melonie Hau, the Duncan Public Schools superintendent, explain the pain that so many of us feel right now:

Hau said Duncan has managed to absorb cuts dating back at least to 2008 by reducing payroll through attrition and by making tough decisions to cut some jobs completely, like an assistant superintendent’s post and an assistant principal’s position, and to add to responsibilities of counselors and others.

The district also has cut some programs that were expensive and didn’t affect large numbers of students. Home economics is one, for example, that the district used to have but no longer does. Driver’s education, too, has veered off the list of curriculum choices offered to students.

Other expenses have been trimmed by putting off purchases of new textbooks, delaying purchases of technology and turning more to free sources of classroom materials offered through the Internet. Additionally, the district employs fewer people now than it did a few years ago to take care of day-to-day upkeep of school buildings or to fix things when they break.

We’re cutting what we can cut. I wouldn’t say that we’re cutting waste, though. Sometimes, I think educators are our own worst enemy. We absorb fiscal and policy abuse from the state and find ways to make things work. We still have school. Teachers fund their own classrooms. We try to make the impact on students and learning as small as possible.

We’re past that now. There’s nothing on the cutting table in my district that won’t impact student learning. Yes, we’ll still provide ACE Remediation and summer school to support the Reading Sufficiency Act. We’ll be cutting some of the support we have for those programs though because we have to find the money somewhere. Since the State Board of Education gave us that flexibility this week, we’re going to use what we can.

The article about Duncan Public Schools continues, and Hau makes a strong point:

The Duncan district’s share of state budget cuts last year amounted to about $1.2 million. Another $380,000 has been cut so far this school year and administrators across the state have been told to plan for another 3 percent cut before spring. Hau said the state’s budget mess will extend into next year as well. In Duncan, the share of anticipated cuts may amount to another $1 million.

Students and teachers have already been affected, she said, adding that it irritates her to hear people say that schools ought to be run more like businesses, where managers might reduce supply because of a decline in demand. Oklahomans shouldn’t be asked to “streamline” their children’s education.

The demand for public education isn’t declining. In fact, as state funding for public education continues to shrink, student enrollment continues to grow.

statewide-enrollment_crop

With this in mind, how can we possibly brace for additional cuts. I heard State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister say yesterday – as I heard her say a couple of weeks ago – that we just shouldn’t accept this.

I still haven’t really answered Tyler’s challenge. I haven’t predicted what the governor will say tomorrow. My best guess it will resemble what I read on the editorial page of the Oklahoman today. The writers cite legislative pushes for school consolidation, caps on administrative spending, and vouchers. Remember that Oklahoma not only ranks 49th in teacher pay; we also rank 49th in total spending for PK-12 education.

Not one of these proposals will change our state rank in either measure. Should we consider consolidation? Of course – everything has to be on the table. The potential for cost savings will be inflated, though. Reducing the number of superintendents without reducing the number of school sites really won’t save much money.

Some of these issues are distractions. Others, such as the voucher conversation, are just completely insulting. If our state leaders will do anything to avoid talking about how they’ve abdicated their responsibility to properly fund education, then we need new people.

I don’t know what the governor will say tomorrow. The truth is that it really doesn’t matter. Yes, I always tell people to use their words, but actions matter more. I care about what happens after the SOTS address. I care about funding and policy. I care about the 14,600 students in Mid-Del Schools. Moreso, as a father, I care about one student in particular in the Norman Public Schools.

Say anything. Just do something useful for the kids. As for me, when I visit the Capitol, I’ll make sure I still don’t touch the walls. I’ll try to avoid the Kool-Aid too.

Two things: Finding things in plain sight

January 26, 2016 4 comments

Sunday night, State Senator Kyle Loveless made the media rounds suggesting a report card for school district expenditures.

As Fox 25 in Oklahoma City reported:

State Senator Kyle Loveless has a new goal, to create a transparent spending system throughout Oklahoma’s school system. He says the information is out there, but it’s hard to find and he wants to make it easy for parents and tax payers by creating a fiscal report card.

I don’t want to debate the merit of his plan right now. Honestly, it just sounds like a distraction from someone who doesn’t want to talk about the fact that the state of Oklahoma has made deeper cuts to K-12 education than any other state in the country. Instead, I’ll give you two places, where the aforementioned financial data hides in plain sight.

  1. If you want to find out all kinds of information about schools and school districts, just hop on over to the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability (OEQA), formerly the Office of Accountability. Click on the county of the school district you want to research. Then click on the name of the district. Let’s use Mid-Del Public Schools as an example.MD EQA 1 MD EQA 2

    What you get is a two page report card with demographic, expenditure, and student achievement information. The downside is that some of the information is a little behind. Here we are in 2016, and the newest figures on here are from the 2013-14 school year. Still, you can get a general idea of how districts spend their money, if that’s a thing you want to know. Let me zoom in closer.
    MD EQA 3As you can see, during this school year, Mid-Del spent 54.6% of all expenditures on instruction and another 4.3% on instructional support. That’s a total of 58.9%. The state averages were 52.7% and 3.8%, totaling 56.5%.

    Mid-Del spent less than the state average (by percentage) on district administration, but more on site administration. Overall, the district spent about the average for the state. What does any of this mean? Whatever you as the person reading the information want it to mean. The point is that the information is there. It has been since 1997 – in plain sight.

  2. It hasn’t been around as long, and maybe it’s not as easy to find, but the Oklahoma State Department of Education has a site that breaks down expenditures into even greater detail. It is the Oklahoma Cost Accounting System (OCAS) site. Here you can pick a district and review their data. Let’s pick on mine again.MD OCAS 1 MD OCAS 2

    These reports are for the 2014-15 school year. You can click on the links and see details as minor as the fact that we spent $899.90 on overtime costs in Child Nutrition for the school year. You can even download everything into a massive spreadsheet.

    There are a number of different reports in PDF files as well. And if you want, you can even look at the data by school site. It’s all right there. It may not have one of those fancy pie charts that Loveless wants us to use; instead, it has all the information we could want to answer our questions. If you’re really curious, that should be what you’re looking for.


Regardless of where you find your information on how a district near you spends its money, there is one thing you need to remember. The main thing we do in schools – the reason we have schools in the first place – is for teaching and learning. Every penny we spend – whether it’s on teachers, textbooks, and technology, or it’s on utilities, buses, and lunches – supports instruction. Every superintendent worth a damn knows this. Every school patron has a right to know it. That’s why the information is already out there.

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A Plan to Plan to Plan

January 25, 2016 2 comments

This week, State Senator David Holt announced that teachers in Oklahoma deserve a $10,000 raise.

In related news, puppies are adorable.puppies

I don’t want to sound unappreciative. Of course teachers in Oklahoma deserve at least that much. It’s been a long time coming. The problem is, of course, that raises take money. And that money has to come from somewhere. This being Holt’s sixth year in the Legislature, I started to wonder what he’s been doing so far to lay the tracks for such an outstanding proposal. So I checked his official Senate bio:

Having introduced an income tax cut bill every session, David has also worked to advance the conversation about how tax cuts can grow Oklahoma’s economy. David has also been a leader in fighting for taxpayers to have more control over their tax dollars, including efforts to bring more transparency to the Legislature and to reform laws that place government unions over taxpayers. David has also fought for better public schools, having authored legislation to give parents the ability to turn around a failing school and to expand public school options for families in the inner cities of Oklahoma City and Tulsa. David has also been a leader in efforts to increase voter participation, in light of severely declining turnout in Oklahoma.

Not to sound like a downer here, but it’s hard to raise teacher salaries while cutting state revenue. No matter how much Holt and those like him want to pretend differently, a major portion of our current budget deficit is a direct result of tax cuts. Continuing to pursue them has neither stimulated the economy nor provided additional funding for all the things state government is supposed to support.

Holt also touts his own efforts to label schools as failures and turn them over to parents. He has a record as being a no excuses legislator when it comes to school performance. Meanwhile, I have a record as being a no excuses blogger and administrator when it comes to discussing the performance of our state leaders.

They’ve failed to fund public education properly for years. They’ve created a projected $900 million budget hole for next year (which will probably be worse). They want to blame OPEC. Too bad. We’re just judging you by your outcomes. And if we don’t like them, hopefully we’ll instigate our own takeover and hand the reins of budgeting and public policy over to people who we trust more.

I try to be hopeful, often in the face of every piece of evidence telling me not to be. Sometimes, though, you just can’t choose how to feel. Still, I have been following the press surrounding Holt’s proposal, including this interview with Oklahoma Watch. Here is how Nate Robson framed it:

A Republican senator said he had a “moral obligation” to propose a complicated, six-part plan to give Oklahoma teachers a $10,000 pay raise without a tax increase, despite the state facing a $900 million budget shortfall.

The $400 million proposal, released Thursday by Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, instead would seek funding from overhauling tax breaks, by consolidating the number of school districts and by diverting a portion of future budget growth to education.

I agree that this is a “moral obligation.” I also agree that it’s a complicated proposal. I just don’t agree that it’s a plan. Parts of it are a plan to plan. Others seem more like a plan to plan to plan. To explain further, we will need to look at each of the six pieces of legislation that Holt has proposed.

SJR 57: Constitutional amendment; requiring consideration of tax reform; prohibiting granting of tax credits under certain conditions.

The text of the measure basically reads as an ultimatum to end tax credits. It would also require the recovered revenue to go to teacher salaries.

This measure enacts a new Section 2.1 of Article 10 of the Oklahoma Constitution. It requires the Legislature to consider significant reform of tax credits, rebates, exemptions and deductions. If such significant reform is not enacted prior to January 1, 2018, no credit against any state tax shall be granted in calendar years 2018 and 2019. Significant reform would be determined to have been met if changes to the laws relating to tax credits, rebates, exemptions and deductions result in an increase of $200 million in the amount available for appropriation by the Legislature for fiscal year 2019, as compared to the amount for fiscal year 2017. The State Board of Equalization would make this determination. If significant tax reform was enacted, the Legislature would be required to appropriate at least $200 million in additional funds to be used to increase teacher salaries. This section would expire and be repealed on July 1, 2030.

The funny part about this is that the challenge to getting OU President David Boren’s  penny sales tax came from conservatives who claimed to be concerned against logrolling – the practice of creating a ballot question that contains more than one topic, as this one clearly does. It’s a good thing the state Supreme Court ruled that Boren’s plan is in fact constitutional. Otherwise, Holt’s proposal would have no chance.

The problem I see is that he wants the voters of the state to command future legislators to find the credits that can be reformed. He’s setting a deadline and saying find $200 million to cut, or nobody gets a tax credit. This would have to be completed by the end of the 2017 legislative session (or an ensuing special session) to go anywhere. Holt isn’t saying he has an idea where those reforms can be found; he’s just saying he’s certain they’re there and that we had better find them or else. It’s a plan to plan.

SB 1238: Teacher pay; providing for an increase in teacher compensation.

This is a classic if A and B, then C kind of proposition.

For the 2018-2019 school year, each full-time certified teacher shall receive a pay increase equivalent to a Five Thousand Dollar ($5,000.00) increase in the previous school year’s compensation, exclusive of any one-time stipend or overtime payments.

SECTION 2. The provisions of this act shall not become effective as law unless Enrolled Senate Joint Resolution No. 57 of the 2nd Session of the 55th Oklahoma Legislature becomes effective as law.

If voters approve Holt’s initial state question, and the Legislature finds $200 million to cut in tax credits, then all teachers get a $5,000 raise.

In this scenario, A is a longshot. And B – picture nearly 150 legislators trying to hash out which credits get cut – is a longer shot. First, they’d have to navigate through all the lobbyists swarming the Capitol. If those two things happen, surely nothing can get in the way of teachers getting raises, right?

Not even the current $900 million shortfall we’re facing?

We’re simply moving money from pile to pile. Maybe a better way to say it is that we’re simply moving deficits around to appear flush.

Shell Game

Before we start promising future allocations to be appropriated off-the-top (a practice about which I heard several legislators moaning last Wednesday), first we have to figure out how to pay our current bills. If the state has any chance at not cutting education funding further this year, the Legislature will have to reform tax credits now.

SB 1256: Teacher compensation; creating the Securing Teacher Compensation Fund; providing for apportionment of revenue.  

This bill creates a new fund of off-the-top revenue to be distributed exclusively for teacher raises. It’s called the Securing Teacher Compensation Fund. It counts on future revenue growth, of which the first $200 million would be exclusively and permanently be reserved for increasing teacher salaries.

That sounds great, except for a few problems. One is that student enrollment is increasing. We are going to need more teachers. Another is that our support employees work 40 hour weeks, in many cases year-round, and make way less than our teachers. We’ve shifted the cost of textbooks and technology to our bond funds (those of us with any bonding capacity). We’ve moved utilities and maintenance into the building fund. And we still can’t afford to properly staff our buildings.

Our budgets are being held together by threads, and teacher salaries are just one of the problems. It’s a huge one; these are the people who spend every day with our students. It’s the problem we need to address first. If Holt’s proposal were to come to full fruition, though, we’d just be getting started.

SB 1278: Teacher pay; directing the State Board of Education to implement certain salary increases upon certain apportionment.

This is where Holt takes that magical $200 million and turns it into $5,000 raises again. If he passes all these bills, he can say he supported public education, even if we don’t see a penny.

Sidebar: I will give Holt credit for one thing. There’s zero chance these bills have the ALEC or OCPA seals of approval.

Another problem with this pair of bills is that we have to see growth in state revenue – as we continue to cut taxes. Remember, Holt will keep authoring bills to cut taxes. He believes it’s the right thing to do. I respect that. It’s just no way to fund the raises he promises on the backs of unicorns and rainbows.

Maybe that’s too harsh. Here’s how Holt’s press release describes SB 1278’s hopes and dreams:

We know that the economy will improve sometime in the future, and we know that state tax revenues will rise as well. Rather than an oral commitment, this makes it lawfully required that future revenue growth goes first to teacher pay raises. The current shortfall actually presents an opportunity to do something we might have otherwise found impossible. Two years ago, if you had suggested that the state find $200 million in existing spending and redirect it to teacher pay raises, it wouldn’t have happened because no one wants to rob Peter to pay Paul. But this year, we have no choice but to take money from Peter because we don’t have it. So, the hard part will already be accomplished. When revenue growth returns, it will no longer be spoken for. Let’s turn today’s pain into a future opportunity to increase teacher pay.

It’s a Doerflinger-esque statement. We have an opportunity. Someday my prince will come. Or something like that. The economy can’t suck forever, and when it finally recovers from what we’ve done to it OPEC, all the growth will go to public education. We mean it this time.

SJR 58: Constitutional amendment; creating the School Modernization and Renew Teaching Commission

Now we’re going to compound the good deeds we’re doing by consolidating school districts:

This measure adds a new section of law to the State Constitution. It adds Section 9 to Article 13. It creates a commission to propose a new school district map that would contain only 200 school districts. It provides for appointments to the commission. It requires the commission to submit its proposal to the Legislature by a certain date. It establishes requirements that the proposal must meet. It provides a process for how the proposal is to be considered by both branches of the Legislature. It provides for consideration of the proposal by the Governor. It states that this section of the Constitution shall expire on a certain date.

There’s this pervasive myth that we’re burning money by having so many school districts in Oklahoma. Each one needs management. What we fail to discuss too often is that many of our small, rural districts function with one administrator only.

Holt wants a state question that will force consolidation to an arbitrarily chosen number of school districts – 200. I don’t know how he arrived at that number. In fact, nobody knows how he arrived at most of the details in his bills. As he states in his interview with Oklahoma Watch:

I didn’t need to talk to education folks because there is no education policy in here. This needed expertise in politics, which I have.

I didn’t think it was imperative to work with a bunch of people because this is a complicated plan. I didn’t want people saying it couldn’t be done or saying we should wait to do this later. Instead, I wanted to unveil a plan now and see if anyone else can come up with something better.

Leadership is not waiting to have a consensus. Good leadership is coming up with a bold plan and then seeing if you can come to a consensus.

Actually, that’s the opposite of good leadership, Senator Holt. Consensus is something that involves the opinions of people who do the work. You want to close school districts, but you don’t think your ideas have anything to do with education policy? You’re wrong. Simply wrong.

I know you say schools won’t close – just districts. What you fail to realize is that you really can’t save money without closing them. You’re being bold and pandering to your metropolitan voters, casting the problem of school funding as an effect of having too many rural districts. What you’re not doing is putting yourself into a position in which you’ll have to make the decisions about which districts close.

Look, I’m a product of large, suburban schools. Until 2002, that was all I had known, as a student or a professional. Then I spent two years in Medford as a secondary principal. What you’re proposing would save little while costing communities more than you can understand.

SJR 59: Constitutional amendment; requiring State Treasurer to certify certain savings amount; providing for use

This is a third state question (for a guy who frequently calls for a state constitutional convention to sort out how convoluted it is, he sure proposes a lot of constitutional amendments) that would shift all savings from consolidation into more teacher raises.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument that we consolidate to exactly 200 districts and 300 superintendents lose their jobs. At best, that saves about $30 million. At best. Again, some of these superintendents are also building principals and teach classes. In many small, rural districts, the superintendent does much more than run the district.

I know $30 million sounds like a lot. In the grand scheme of the state budget, though, it’s not. That’s not even another $1,000 to teachers, or to other costs.

The fact is that what Oklahoma spends per pupil is well below the regional and national average. It’s a numerator and denominator thing. If the amount we spend doesn’t change, and the number of students doesn’t change, then per pupil spending doesn’t change.


 

Overall, Holt’s proposal is built on wishes. I categorically reject the last two bills because I don’t think school district consolidation is the financial windfall some want it to be. At best, it’s a political distraction pitting city folk against country folk. When our state leaders are unwilling to roll back a .25% tax cut that costs the General Revenue Fund between $120 and $140 million this year, consolidation should be political non-starter.

The two bills in the middle are tied to future revenue growth. I’d love to think it could happen, but it’s not something on which to build a plan. Again, if we keep cutting taxes, the chances for revenue growth just grow slimmer and slimmer.

As for the first two bills, I say why wait? Reform tax credits and off-the-top spending in 2016. What’s the problem with that? Courage is what you do now, not what you plan to plan to do in the future. Someone who would seem to agree is state Representative Jason Dunnington.

Dunnington1   Dunnington2

As Dunnington wrote on Facebook last night:

Many folks in HD88 and members of the education community have asked my opinion of recent proposals to raise teachers salaries without raising taxes. First, let me say I am thankful that my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are beginning to see what the business community and Democrats have been saying for years. Without a renewed investment in Oklahoma education we will not produce the quality workforce needed for growth and prosperity.

To be blunt, when Republicans have 71 of 101 votes in the House of Representatives, 39 of 48 in the State Senate, and every state wide elected office, if you want to raise teacher pay then raise it. With a supermajority Republicans have all the votes needed to do it now. To propose future raises based off finding new efficiencies in government, or repealing available tax credits, deductions, rebates or exemptions would make sense if we didn’t need those to cover our current billion dollar shortfall. The fact is, Oklahoma doesn’t have enough revenue to cover our existing obligations let alone increase investment in our most basic functions of government. If raising teacher salaries is really a priority, even a moral obligation, then new revenue must be a part of the conversation or recent proposals will be nothing more than lip service.

I don’t know if Dunnington’s comments are a direct response to Holt’s proposal, but I’ll treat them as such. The Republicans control the entire Legislature. They have every statewide office. If they think they can cut taxes, reform tax credits, and raise teacher salaries, they should do it right now. It’s an election year, after all. It’s an opportunity!

The truth is that there is no silver bullet to fixing the state economy, the revenue streams that fund public services, or the problems resulting from a systematic de-funding of public schools over the last eight years. If school consolidation were that plan, I’d bite my teeth and support it. It’s not.

I appreciate that Holt at least had an idea – a complicated idea – and put it forward. Maybe some of this will happen, someday. I have more than 1,000 teachers working for me, though, and they’re tired of waiting for someday.

What can you do for us now, when you hold all the cards? That’s the question. Quit planning. Start doing.

Two Things: Perspectives on 0.25%

January 19, 2016 Comments off

1. As the Tulsa World reports this morning, voices of reason are starting to emerge in Oklahoma’s Legislature:

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Mike Mazzei said Monday that Oklahoma’s “financial management options” should include suspension of the 0.25 percent reduction in the state income-tax rate that went into effect Jan. 1.

“Given the financial stress the state faces, we should consider a number of financial management options, one of which is a delay in the reduction from 5.25 to 5 percent in the top tax rate,” said Mazzei, R-Tulsa.

Mazzei last week filed Senate Bill 1073, which voids the reduction approved by the state Equalization Board in December 2014 and specifies such a reduction cannot occur in a fiscal year in which a revenue failure has been declared.

SB 1073 also raises the requirements for triggering a rate cut from 5 percent to 4.85 percent.

As those of us who agree with Mazzei keep saying, the tax cut is irresponsible at this time. I’ve heard personally from other legislators who get it.

2. Why wouldn’t you fix part of your problem while you can? Maybe because the Oklahoman says so:

Critics argue the money left in citizens’ hands through tax cuts would be better spent on government. They say increased funding for things such as schools, roads and social services makes a state more attractive to businesses than a low tax rate.

If so, Connecticut should be booming. Instead, since 2010 Connecticut has experienced almost no growth in state gross domestic product.

No doubt, some proponents of higher tax rates will note GE is relocating to Boston. So the company is exiting one high-tax state for another nationally lampooned as “Taxachusetts.” Yet the Tax Foundation ranks Massachusetts’ business climate 25th best in the nation, while Connecticut’s was 44th. In comparison, Oklahoma ranked 33rd.

Clearly, if it’s good for big business, it’s good for the state, right? Just ask all those homeowners in Edmond who are dealing with cracks in their walls. Or maybe ask the drinking water aficionados from Flint, Michigan.

It serves the Oklahoman‘s narrative, though, to frame this as the left wanting to hijack your hard-earned income. Like a Geico commercial, that’s what they do.

I actually agree with the closing paragraph of the editorial, though:

No one should argue that tax rates are the only factor in business location decisions. But it’s a fool’s errand to pretend they’re irrelevant.

It’s true. They also consider the quality of the schools. Schools cost money. That requires some taxation. You can’t have it both ways.

Happy Tuesday, everybody.

Appreciating Lost Talent

January 18, 2016 Comments off

The Eagles were my first favorite band. It wasn’t my choice. Well, maybe it was just a little. I remember that when I was eight years old, my brother and I had two records: the greatest hits compilations of the Eagles and the Steve Miller Band.

steve miller gheagles gh cover

First of all, the Eagles cover was much cooler. Although the horse’s head on the Steve Miller Band cover appears to be flaming, the eagle head appears as if it’s going to hunt you down and eat you, even if you’re on a getaway horse that appears to be on fire.

The Eagles album had better songs too. Don’t get me wrong; I love Jet Airliner and The Joker, but the best song on the album may have been Fly Like an Eagle. That’s right: an Eagle. It all comes full circle.

I’ll even admit to having seen the Steve Miller Band in concert three times. I only saw the Eagles once. All were great shows (but not Tom Petty or U2 good). The Eagles broke up when I was 12 and reunited when I was 24. I just didn’t have as many opportunities.

As a kid of single-digit age, I didn’t have much say in my likes and dislikes. By the time I was in middle school the band may not have been a thing anymore, but I wore out two copies of their live double album tape.

I now own it on CD and have it loaded on my iPhone. It still has its days as my only playlist as I make the rounds.

That said, the Eagles didn’t remain my favorite band. I bought and enjoyed the solo work of the the band members, especially Joe Walsh. I went through phases with other bands being my favorite: Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and – I’m a little embarrassed to admit this – Styx. Don’t judge me. I was 12.

By the time I was in high school, however, I owned every Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers record. That was my group. That was the singer and music that spoke to me. I still loved the Eagles and so many other artists. I was learning about Motown and early rappers like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. And I had yet to really go back and explore the greats from before my time, like the Beatles and Bob Dylan.

But the Eagles, and that first greatest hits album, will always be the first set of songs I knew by heart.

If you’ve followed my blog any amount of time at all, you know I love music. You know I love all kinds of it and for so many reasons. Mostly, you know that words matter to me.

My favorite Eagles song of all time, and one of my 10 favorite songs ever, was Saturday Night. It’s not popular on the scale of Hotel California or Desperado. It just has a phrase I’ve always loved.

What a tangled web we weave
Go ’round with circumstance
Someone show me how to tell the dancer
From the dance

It’s one of their early songs, and it didn’t make it onto the album cover with the deranged eagle skull, but it’s definitely my favorite 70s soft rock song featuring a mandolin solo.

From the Eagles, and later from Don Henley, and eventually from every other song I loved (not counting Safety Dance), I learned to appreciate words. My favorite songs may be ones to which I can headbang while driving; more likely, though, is that they have words that do something for me. Santa Monica by Everclear. Invisible Sun by the Police. Pretty much everything Stevie Wonder has written. Great music, but more profound language.

Tonight, when I learned that Glenn Frey, one of the founders of the Eagles, had died, I felt a significant sense of loss. I don’t usually react much to celebrity deaths. It’s not like I knew them. It’s not like I won’t have access to their words and works. In the last week, however, we’ve lost David Bowie, Alan Rickman (not a musician, but a brilliant actor and huge to my kids as Professor Snape).

Tonight, after I heard the news, I started posting Eagles songs on Facebook. I found that most of my favorites were actually Glenn Frey or Randy Meisner songs. Still, Glenn Frey was there, and he had a phenomenal mustache.glenn frey

Music stays with you. I don’t know how you would survives without having it feed your soul. To quote Stevie Wonder:

Music, at its essence, is what gives us memories. And the longer a song has existed in our lives, the more memories we have of it

The Eagles were my first favorite band. I can still name most of their songs in one note. I still have that first album I owned hanging on my wall at home, along with several of my other favorites. photo

I know this is supposed to be an education blog, and that this is one of those posts that will get dozens of page views instead of thousands. I don’t care. I write what matters to me.

Honestly, the Eagles probably have nothing to do with why I am an educator. They may have something to do with why I write like my brain is on fire, though.

Rest in Peace, Glenn Frey. And thanks for the tunes.

 

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On Coyotes and Road Runners

January 16, 2016 2 comments

Pardon me for reminiscing, but when I was young, Saturday mornings were full of cartoons to warp my mind and curve my spine. I couldn’t get enough of Scooby Doo or the Superfriends.

Superfriends.png

I watched hours of the Jetsons and the Pink Panther. Hong Kong Phooey was another favorite of mine, especially after I was older and realized that his character was voiced by Scatman Crothers, the caretaker from The Shining.

My favorite part of Saturday mornings, however, was the hour of Looney Tunes reruns. Schedules changed from year to year. I seem to remember at one point, it was even a 90 minute block. Talk about feeding my indolence and pursuing it passively!

I even loved the opening. It was a catchy song – maybe my first experience with an earworm.

Overture, curtain lights

This is it, the night of nights

No more rehearsing and nursing a part

We know every part by heart…

Later, when I was in my 20s, I learned that Jerry Seinfeld would launch into the opening theme song at the mere mention of the word Overture.

As with Seinfeld, all my knowledge of high culture comes from Bugs Bunny cartoons.

A great cartoon is one that entertains children and has humor that adults are more likely to appreciate. It’s good clean fun, until somebody gets hurt.

That brings me to the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. Apparently, animation director Chuck Jones had nine written rules for their episodes.

road runner rules.jpg

After seeing these circulate on Facebook last night, I saw something familiar. Is this a metaphor for the state budgeting process? If so, who is the Road Runner, and who is the Coyote? Let’s look at the rules and decide.

Rule 1: The Road Runner cannot harm the Coyote except by going, “beep-beep!”

Not that #oklaed is the only stakeholder impacted by those who develop the budget, but let’s just say in the last few years, we’ve been saying a lot of “beep-beep!” Occasionally, it even progresses to “bleep-bleep!” If we accept that the Coyote represents certain legislators (and perhaps a former state superintendent), I guess we’ve actually done some harm.

Rule 2: No outside force can harm the Coyote – only his own ineptitude or the failure of the ACME products.

If we accept the metaphor, and we accept that the Coyote is inept, what we’re saying is that those who’ve made our budget were perhaps certain their plans would work. They believed that if they cut taxes enough, state revenue would continue increasing.

By the way, income tax cuts seem to be about as effective as a slew of ACME products.

As the Oklahoma Policy Institute shows, our leaders have meticulously cut state revenue to this point. While the price of a barrel of oil is less than half what we would consider healthy for our state’s economy, that is not the only reason we have a massive budget hole to fill.

Beginning with the Great Recession that reached Oklahoma in 2009, the state has experienced a continuing budget crisis. Even after the economy recovered from a severe national recession, Oklahoma’s funding for core services remains well below pre-recession levels. Many state agencies still operate with one-quarter to one-third less state support compared to fiscal year 2009. Overall, this year’s state appropriated budget is $896 million, or 11.4 percent, below that of 2009 once adjusted for inflation.

This is why we keep saying that the budget hole was both predictable and preventable.

Rule 3: The Coyote could stop anytime – if he were not a fanatic. (Repeat: “A fanatic is one who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim.” – George Santayana)

Who knew that the foundation of the conflict between these two was rooted so deeply in early 20th century philosophy?! Sadly, those of us who have been paying attention for years know this all too well. Follow me here for a minute and rest assured, you won’t be tested over dates.

  • 1990 – The Oklahoma Legislature, spearheaded by Republican Governor Henry Bellmon, enacts House Bill 1017, a landmark education reform measure that increases and protects funding for public education.
  • 1991 – Oklahoma voters defeated State Question 639 which would have repealed HB 1017.
  • 1992 – Oklahoma voters passed State Question 640, which established limits for how tax increases could be enacted.

Under SQ 640, a revenue bill can only become law if: (1) it is approved by a 3/4th vote of both legislative chambers and is signed by the Governor; or (2) it is referred by the legislature to a vote of the people at the next general election and receives majority approval.

Since passage of SQ 640 in 1992, Oklahoma voters have approved only one state question to raise taxes: SQ 713, which increased the tobacco tax in 2004. SQ 723, which would have increased motor vehicle fuel taxes, was defeated in 2005.

This is truly the era of origin for the problem at hand now. Properly funding public education and other basic functions of government is expensive. When education supporters get loud and have an impact, forces that oppose us rise up and convince voters that all tax cuts are a good thing.

Because of SQ 640, the Oklahoma Legislature couldn’t raise taxes if they wanted to. They wouldn’t get 75% support in both houses. They wouldn’t get a signature from the governor. Just this week, we’ve heard the governor and her staff double down on the idea that the most recent tax cuts are a good thing – in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

Rule 4: No dialogue ever, except “beep-beep!”

They say nothing of consequence. In response, #oklaed and other people who use facts respond in the only way we know how. It’s not exactly dialogue.

Rule 5: The Road Runner must stay on the road – otherwise, logically, he would not be called Road Runner.

For all the crippling cuts and horrible policy decisions that have impacted public schools in recent years, we’ve done our jobs. We’ve stayed on the road. Occasionally, we stop and let out a “beep-beep!” but we are busy doing what we need to do for our students. Drop an anvil, and we’ll keep moving. Paint a picture of a road on the side of a desert rock, and we’ll turn it into a freaking road.

tunnel road.gif

And then the Coyote will crash into it. It’s what Coyotes do.

Rule 6: All action must be confined to the natural environment of the two characters – the Southwest American desert.

For our purposes, the natural environment of the Coyote is closed-door boardrooms with billionaires. For the Road Runner, it’s thrift sales and fundraisers.

Rule 7: All materials, tools, weapons, or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the ACME Corporation.

Our state’s budget is definitely driven by corporations. That’s how SQ 766 passed, costing communities millions that would have stood to benefit schools and municipal services.

Another interpretation of the metaphor here is that the ACME Corporation stands for the state purchasing contract. That also explains why our computers don’t always work as they should.

Rule 8: Whenever possible, make gravity the Coyote’s greatest enemy.

This explains adherents to trickle-down economics.

They like to pretend it’s helping, but in the end, they just look foolish.

Rule 9:

ncis_gibbs_rule_9_baby_hat.jpg

Wait, that’s from a different list.

Rule 9: The Coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures.

Oh, how I wish this part were true. I don’t know that our leaders who make the budget are harmed by their failures. Instead, they’re defensive. Some legislators are even sending constituents surveys such as this one from House District 53.

District 53.jpg

I don’t believe the representative here wants true input. For the first question, there’s a third choice: stop cutting taxes when we already have a revenue failure. Question seven creates  a great straw man. However, I would expect someone as seasoned as Rep. McBride to know that the law already places limits on administrative expenditures.  Question eight is a voucher question. Question ten is another false choice.

When you receive something like this, keep in mind your opinion doesn’t matter. The Coyote already has his mind made up. He’s going to do whatever the ACME Corporation tells him to do.

At this point, unfortunately, we know every part by heart.

 

Two Things: Enrollment Increases and #GiveItBackOK

January 12, 2016 1 comment

Quickly today, I want to draw your attention to two things.

First is that public school enrollment continues to climb. Superintendent Hofmeister’s office released this statement yesterday:

The number of students enrolled in Oklahoma public schools increased by more than 4,000 in 2015, continuing an annual upward trend.

A total of 692,670 students were enrolled in pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade at the start of the school year, an increase of 4,370 over the 2014 total of 688,300 and 33,055 more than in 2010.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister emphasized that the state should be prepared to continue serving a growing student population each year.

“Once again, Oklahoma schools are educating more students than ever,” Hofmeister said. “While it’s not a surprise, it is important to remember that statewide enrollment increases every year. Given the current fiscal reality and the teacher shortage crisis, many schools started 2015 ready to add additional students to their rosters with few new resources. We need to plan for this trend to continue in the future and do everything we can to minimize the negative impact on students.”

Districts record enrollment every year on Oct. 1 and report the figures to the Oklahoma State Department of Education. Currently, Oklahoma has 516 public school districts and 1,795 school sites, including 14 charter schools not sponsored by a district.

Well, that’s about half of the statement. The release also included several graphics, including this one showing how public school enrollment has continued to increase since 2009.

statewide-enrollment_crop.jpg

Please remember that Oklahoma schools have more mandates, more students and less per-pupil funding than they did in 2009. Don’t let anyone get away with telling you differently.

Also, if you’re any kind of a data nerd at all, you might enjoy the data tables the SDE has provided showing state, district, and site numbers.

The second thing is that I want to say thank you for the thousands of positive responses to #GiveItBackOK, which a small group of rebels – including myself – concocted Saturday night. I also appreciate the coverage that several local TV stations have given the movement, as well as Nour Habib’s write-up for the Tulsa World.

Sand Springs Assistant Superintendent Rob Miller and several other state education advocates, including Mid-Del Superintendent Rick Cobb, launched a grass-roots campaign on social media last weekend encouraging people to give back the money they’d get through a new 0.25 percent reduction in Oklahoma’s income-tax rate.

Miller said the idea for the campaign, which they’re calling #GiveItBackOK, came about spontaneously as he and others expressed their frustration about the fiscal shortfall and the midyear cuts that schools will have to deal with.

“All the while, the Legislature has moved forward with an income tax reduction at a time when the state doesn’t have enough money to support its core services,” he said.

Miller said the tax cut will result in a minimal return of money for most people — for an average teacher, it’ll be a return of about 4 cents a day, he said.

We’re not asking people who can’t afford to donate to schools to give. We’re not asking people to give their entire tax return to schools. We’re not even saying you need to write a check to your district’s general fund. There are countless ways you can give.

I say countless ways, but Claudia Swisher has started a list.

  • Donate to the school district lunch program. In trying to alleviate cuts to schools, the OSDE cut our state’s matching funding for the school lunch program by 30.28%. Check with your district office and see if you can earmark your donation to hungry kids.

  • Donate to your school’s general fund…that’s what schools use to buy paper, pencils, supplies, printer ink. Those funds will take a huge hit in order to continue funding vital services.

  • Ask your child’s teacher for a wish list of supplies and buy all of them and more

  • Ask the music and art teachers if they could use some help. My granddaughter’s art program funds itself by selling candy bars between classes…and that was before the revenue failure.

  • Join your PTA or PTO and donate to their efforts.

  • Does your district have a school foundation? Donate!

  • School libraries have been hurting for years, and this will be hard on them. Donate to the library and invite the media specialist to get the books students have been asking for.

 

Giving feels good, and it can help teachers know that you support them. It doesn’t begin to solve the state’s funding problem, though. Then again, step one is admitting you have a problem.

Late yesterday, after this movement began gaining traction, the governor’s office released a statement about criticism over the latest tax cut.

Most of the state’s revenue decline can be attributed to the cyclical nature of the oil and gas industry and the 70 percent decline in the price of oil in the past 18 months. We’ve lost about 12,000 jobs from the energy sector decline, and that has an effect upon our sales tax, our income tax, our use tax, our motor vehicle tax and certainly the gross production tax on oil and gas. Modest, incremental income tax reductions are not the problem.

“The income tax cut’s budgetary impact is $120 million in the upcoming 2017 fiscal year, which is only a little more than 10 percent of the projected budget hole. It’s a fact, the state would still have over an $800 million budget hole even if that tax cut hadn’t taken effect.

“Up until the energy downturn, Oklahoma had the fourth-fasted growing economy in the nation. This tax cut will prove its worth in the long term. Tax policy is long-term policy and over the long term, a lower tax burden is good policy and the policy the voters have asked for in Oklahoma. If Oklahoma wants to attract and retain good jobs – rather than losing them to neighboring states – we must improve our tax climate.

Not all elected officials are all in on the tax cut, however. So far, two legislators have pledged to participate in the #GiveItBackOK movement.

Supporting schools, for most Oklahomans is an easy choice to make.

Oh, and if there would be a third, very location-specific thing this morning for all of the Owassoans who are registered voters, please do your civic duty. Vote today. They don’t call these special elections for nothing, you know.

Start of the 2016 Election Cycle

January 11, 2016 Comments off

Tomorrow, voters in Senate district 34 will take the first stab this year at changing the composition of the Oklahoma Legislature. As long-time readers know, I don’t usually make explicit endorsements on the blog. Well, I have twice, and I’m one for two.

I especially don’t like to interject myself into a race in which I’m not a voter. With District 34, I’m not even in the area code.

Dallas Koehn, the brilliant author of the blog, Blue Cereal Education, does live in the 918, however. He’s working on a series of posts on key legislative seats that takes our #oklaed advocacy work to another level. He did a special piece on this senate race, which Owasso voters will decide tomorrow.

I encourage you to read it all. One candidate favors eliminating the state income tax altogether. The other is a school teacher who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s not that hard to guess which one I support.

Follow Blue Cereal’s #OKElections16 series. Read his blog. Chase him around Twitter too. You’ll love it!

vote here.jpg

 

Fight the Arrogance #GiveItBack #oklaed

January 9, 2016 7 comments

This may not be a surprise to those who know me, but apparently I’m arrogant. That’s what Oklahoma Finance Secretary Preston Doerflinger thinks of those of us who believe that continuing to cut taxes in the face of massive state revenue failures is bad public policy. I guess that’s why he went after new Tulsa Regional Chamber chairman Jeff Dunn in two separate Facebook posts yesterday. Here’s how the Tulsa World covered it:

Finance Secretary Preston Doerflinger, a Tulsa resident, was responding to Chairman Jeff Dunn’s blunt criticism of “a senior Cabinet official” for defending the 0.25 percent reduction in the state income-tax rate that went into effect last week, even as state agencies were told to trim spending by 3 percent because of a general revenue failure.

Although Dunn did not name the official when he made the comments during a speech to the chamber Thursday, it was understood to be Doerflinger because of recent comments he has made.

The two Facebook posts — one on Doerflinger’s own page and one on Dunn’s — used the hashtags “really?,” “outoftouch,” “ohthearrogance” and “disingenious,” apparently to describe Dunn.

What this tells me is that those of us who’ve taken to social media to express our outrage are making a difference. Why else would a member of the governor’s cabinet slam a Chamber leader on Facebook? Remember how tight Governor Fallin has been with big business? This seems to indicate a rift.

It could also mean that politicians facing re-election feel vulnerable. I thought the comments further down on Dunn’s Facebook page were also enlightening.

dunn doerflinger FB spat.png

One of Dunn’s friends commented:

I’m with Jeff Dunn, schools, healthcare providers, those who depend on safe roads and bridges, economic incentives to attract businesses to Oklahoma, higher education, and all the things that a responsible state government is expected to secure for its citizens – and against those who shrug in the face of our self-inflicted injuries (fleeing teachers, closing hospitals and schools, more earthquakes) and blame energy prices alone. Irresponsible unneeded tax cuts have consequences and we are seeing them now.#GetSerious

Doerflinger’s response was to link to an editorial in yesterday’s Oklahoman, and add the endorsement,  Couldn’t have said it better myself. Really? Could you have tried?

Yet to hear some critics, you’d think the $901 million shortfall facing legislators this year is all the result of tax policy. Rep. Scott Inman of Del City, who leads the House Democratic caucus, typified such thinking in a recent Facebook post. Noting that Oklahoma’s income tax rate dropped from 5.25 percent to 5 percent on Jan. 1, Inman argued that the income tax cut only “reduced the amount of revenue growth that could have come into the general fund” to spend on things like education, health care and public safety.

He dismissed as “laughable” the idea that allowing Oklahomans to keep more of their own money could contribute to economic activity and growth.

We’ll grant that the timing of this income tax cut isn’t ideal. Previous tax cuts came from surplus collections during economic booms.

But for too many on the political left, tax increases are the only answer to a downturn. They simply can’t imagine that it might be good for government to ever streamline or pare any activity.

Is anyone calling for an increase? No, we’re saying don’t cut taxes when you can’t fund the basic government services that you’ve promised to the people of the state.

Remember, it was as cloistered group from the governor’s office and the legislature who wrote the budget at the last minute in May. It was this small group that built the budget based on revenue projections that weren’t realistic in the first place. They plugged holes with one-time funds. They did nothing to address the predictable, preventable position we’re in now.

I would think a private sector CFO would be fired for striking out that egregiously.

But those of us who saw it coming and can’t contain our anger now…we’re the bad guys. Here’s more of Doerflinger, from the World:

“In light of Jeff Dunn’s comments at the Tulsa Chamber meeting … let there be no doubt I am always going to be in favor of the hardworking, tax paying citizens of this state being able to keep more of THEIR money. Modest, incremental tax reductions are not the problem and it is disingenuous to suggest otherwise. The arrogance of those who would suggest to YOU, the tax paying citizens of this state that you should not be able to keep more of your hard earned dollar astounds me.”

The Oklahoma Policy Institute has covered this thoroughly. They even have created an online calculator to illustrate how much we save by letting the .25% tax cut happen. I’ve run some numbers below to show you just how blessed you are to have leaders such as these in place.

Taxable Income Married Children Savings
$35,000 Yes 2 $9
$35,000 No 2 $20
$75,000 Yes 2 $109
$75,000 No 2 $118
$125,000 Yes 2 $224
$125,000 No 2 $226
$200,000 Yes 2 $388
$500,000 Yes 2 $1,040

If you’re a teacher, and you’re single raising kids, your tax cut is about $20. The OPI placed the median tax cut at $29. For that amount, the state is losing $147 million in revenue. If your taxable income is $500,000, and your line in the sand is $1,040, then you’re a huge part of the problem.

We have a $901 million dollar hole. Our leaders have chosen not to reverse a policy decision that would have filled about one-sixth of that hole. It’s simply foolish.

At this point, I want to see a show of hands. If you’re a state representative or senator, and you still think that keeping the most recent .25 percent state tax cut was a good idea, knowing everything we know now, we need to know who you are. You need to be challenged in your primary. If you escape that, you need a hard challenge in November.

Our state is in a serious economic and policy crisis. We need people in our statehouse who are, for lack of a better term, statesmen and stateswomen stately. When someone like that speaks his mind, we don’t need the state’s largest newspaper mocking him. For those who continue supporting tax cuts at any cost, please don’t call yourself a public education supporter. You’re simply not.

I’m fortunate to have two good incomes in my household. My tax cut is in the three-digit range. I’ll be donating it to the Mid-Del Public Schools Foundation. I’ll also be making donations to candidates who can serve this state with reality in mind.

With all that in mind, tell me which of these people is arrogant. I’ll make it multiple choice, so we can standardize our responses.

  1. The kindergarten teacher who doesn’t like having 32 students in a classroom
  2. The student who doesn’t like having fewer course options from which to choose
  3. The principal who just wants all the computers in the lab to work at the same time, just once, dammit
  4. The superintendent who has a running list of deferred building maintenance that he hopes will hold until the next bond election
  5. A state cabinet official who thinks this is an opportunity

There’s no correct answer; it’s only an field-test item try-out interrogative opportunity.

As I said above, I’ll be donating my tax cut back to my school district. You can too. If you’re not sure the best way to do so, contact a principal, or a teacher, or the PTA. They’ll have suggestions. You can even give a little extra to one of the high school booster clubs. It still helps the kids, and that’s what matters.

giving back to kids.jpg

If you’re a teacher, and your tax cut is somewhere between $9 and $29, you’ve probably already donated at least that amount in-kind with your unpaid days and personally-bought classroom supplies.

On top of that, find us some real pro-education candidates. And donate to them.

The state of #oklaed as depicted with emojis 

January 9, 2016 Comments off

I don’t know about you, but as I sit in my house enjoying the snow, I don’t feel like doing much of anything.

It’s not a brutal snow. It won’t keep me from getting out and running errands later. But snowy days often make me think of one of my favorite movies.

The Shining

Yes, I know this movie is older than many of my readers. But it’s on Netflix. I checked. You should watch it.

You could even read the book. Spoiler: it’s different than the movie.

Today also makes me think of the time comedian Jordan Peele tweeted the entire plot of the movie using only emojis.

So I’m thinking we can probably sum up the current state of public education using nothing but emojis, right? This isn’t exactly a traditional blogger challenge. Then again, I believe you have to ❤️ the 👬👭more than the 📋. Or something like that.

Anyway, below I will attempt to sum up the my feelings on where we stand right now.

 

The Budget in One Word: Catastrophe

January 7, 2016 6 comments

Maybe it was a coincidence. Three things were happening at about the same time, around 1:00 this afternoon.

  • The State Board of Education was preparing for a special meeting with one agenda item: addressing the three percent cut to state aid.
  • Several curious parties – including quite a few district superintendents – were arriving to hear the discussion about these cuts first hand.
  • The credit union in the Sequoyah Building – which is directly to the south of the Hodge Building (which houses the SDE) – was being robbed.

bank robbery

I’m pretty sure this was not an elaborate scheme to stabilize school funding. In any case, the article listed the suspect as 6’2” and wearing a red-hooded sweatshirt. Maybe it was this guy:

red hooded sweatshirt

The timing made for extra tension and security inside the Hodge Building, and that says quite a bit. We were already on edge because Superintendent Hofmeister was there to announce a $46.7 million funding cut:

State Board of Education makes required 3% budget cut to preK-12 in wake of revenue failure

OKLAHOMA CITY (Jan. 7, 2016) — In the wake of a revenue failure affecting all of Oklahoma state government, the State Board of Education today approved a required 3-percent reduction in a $46.7 million funding cut for preK-12 public education. The reduction impacts the remaining six months of Fiscal Year 2016, which ends June 30.

“There is no denying that this cut poses serious challenges for school districts during a time in which every dollar already is precious, and not all districts will be affected the same way. But the State Board of Education and Oklahoma State Department of Education have addressed the required cuts as fairly and judiciously as possible, while attempting to minimize student impact,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister.

While the cuts are certain to have a significant effect on Oklahoma’s 550-plus school districts (a figure that includes charters and co-ops), Hofmeister and her fellow board members were able to soften the blow by transferring $4.6 million from the Public School Activities appropriation to the State Aid Funding Formula that provides the bulk of money to school districts.

Each line item in School Activities took a minimum 3-percent cut, which includes such programs as alternative education, Teach for America, the early childhood initiative, Sooner Start and the Oklahoma Arts Institute. Four line items are contributing well above 3 percent to cushion a hit on the funding formula. In addition to the transferal, the board approved a $3.9 million cut in the School Activities appropriation.

After the transferal, the funding formula — also known as Financial Support for Public Schools — takes a $25 million funding cut.

Flexible Benefits Allowance funding to districts will be lessened by $12.4 million, a 3-percent cut.

The cuts will be reflected in the next six monthly payments to school districts.

All in all, the SDE staff did the best they could with the completely predictable, preventable budget collapse that the state dealt them. Three percent became 2.53% because of some funds under the activities budget that they were able to shift.

Percent Cut.png

It is also important to note that state aid to schools comes from two buckets of money. First is what’s known as the HB 1017 fund, which is a dedicated revenue stream created in statute in 1990. At this time, the state hasn’t declared a revenue failure for the 1017 fund. That’s why the top line shows a 1.33% cut to state aid. Keep in mind, however, that this could change.

The easy way out would have been simply cutting each line by three percent. I can assure you that the Board and those of us in the audience appreciated the decision to protect the formula as much as possible. Still, as I look down the spreadsheet, I see some money that is simply wasted. There’s $8 million for ACE Remediation and $4.5 million for testing. In case you’re interested, that’s about the cut to the Flexible Benefit Allowance – you know, our health insurance.

After today’s meeting, I feel two things. First, I’m grateful that Hofmeister’s staff did what they could to soften the blow. Second, I’m furious. Then again, I’ve been that way since late November when it became obvious we’d reach this point.

I don’t know how familiar you are with catastrophe theory. Essentially, the idea is that slight changes to variables add up and move a system from a state of balance to the cusp of disaster.

cusp catastrophe.jpg

It can be a miscalculation that eliminates the stable state. It can be happenstance. It can be direct influence from an outside actor. It can be negligence. Eventually, the instability of the system causes a collapse. It seems sudden, but it’s not.

“How did you go broke?” “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” – Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Maybe that image and explanation are too highbrow. Let me try it a different way.

We as a state were certain that we could tax cut our way to prosperity. That’s why we (and I’m using the royal we here) voted for SQ 766. That’s why the Legislature and Governor won’t halt the tax cuts that net average citizens about $30 and cripple critical state programs.

What could possibly go wrong?

coyote.gif

It’s also what Malcolm Gladwell would refer to as a tipping point. Then again, not all tipping points are bad. He also explains:

If you want to bring a fundamental change in people’s belief and behavior…you need to create a community around them, where those new beliefs can be practiced and expressed and nurtured.

That’s pretty much what we’ve done with #oklaed over the last three years. As this spring progresses, as we talk to our elected leaders – who may be tempted to throw their hands up and act helpless – we have to remember that they brought us to this tipping point, this catastrophe, this funding disaster. This was a choice that was made gradually, with the outcomes realized suddenly.

Pretending differently is also a choice. Let’s not allow anyone to do so in our presence.

Two things for Tuesday

January 5, 2016 Comments off

One of my new year’s resolutions is to blog more. Since time is scarce, I’ll try to have a brief post on Tuesdays, in which I briefly touch on two points, and a longer post on the weekend.

  1. Today, we welcome back our students. I know that some districts had kids yesterday, but many I know begin the spring semester today.

    In the case of Mid-Del Public Schools, we welcome back about 14,600 students. My friends in Moore, and in many other school districts, are excited to see the kids again too.

    For too many of our students, today means a hot meal, a safe place, and a loving adult. With all the talk of gloom and doom and budget cuts, our teachers just want to do their jobs. Hopefully, we can stay out of their way.

  2. I can’t tell you how many teachers and administrators in Oklahoma worked over the break, but I know it was more than zero. I know it was a lot. I saw collaboration on Facebook and Twitter. I’m sure if I used Instagram and Pinterest, I would have seen it there too.

    MD6MD5When I was out Christmas shopping at the last minute, I even heard teachers rummaging through clearance items, discussing what could be used in their classroom. And in districts that had professional development yesterday, many were all in, first thing in the morning.

    The point is that teachers may take time off, but their brains don’t. They may be out shopping for their own families, but they don’t stop thinking about the students they will see in no time at all.

    We all deserve time off, and I hope it was good time off. I hope it was refreshing. I hope for those of us who work in the schools, we at least had a few moments that weren’t all about the students during these last two weeks.

    We’re back now, and so are the kids. Let’s have some fun and learn something.

#oneword: Purpose

January 3, 2016 Comments off

I wasn’t going to have any New Year’s resolutions. I now have three: blog more, run more, drink less soda.

I also wasn’t going to respond to the #oneword challenge for 2016. I  now have three words in mind for this as well.

Awareness

Urgency

Purpose

Along with the rest of the Rebel Alliance in the #oklaed blogosphere, I write to raise awareness about critical policy issues, willful mythology disparaging schools, and general threats to public education. And as I wrote back in April, I’m probably impressed with our new state superintendent’s sense of urgency more than  anything else. This mindset is also probably why I often tell people to find what feeds your soul and pursue it fiercely.

As fitting as these words are, I’m choosing purpose as my one word for 2016. I wrote about this word last July, along with the words autonomy and mastery with respect to Daniel Pink’s book Drive.

As a superintendent, I’m fortunate that my board gives me as much autonomy as they do. As for mastery of my job, I hope that will come in time. The key is to have purpose. If I get to do what I want – even if I’m good at what I choose to do – none of it matters if I don’t have reasons for doing what I do. Sure, happy accidents are a thing that happen, but I don’t want to live my life, and I certainly don’t want to pursue my career, waiting for things to happen.

Here are a few quotes that use the word, and what they contribute to my thinking as we begin 2016:

“The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.”  – Albert Camus

This is why we #oklaed bloggers blog. This is why we go to the Oklahoman website and hold our collective breath knowing that there is a decent chance our profession is being marginalized. This is why we chose not to remain silent during the four horrific years of Janet Barresi’s administration. We write because of the people in power who are hell-bent in destroying our public education system with lies and neglect.

“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”  – Kurt Vonnegut

More importantly, we write because of the students who show up in our schools each day. This is why we teach. This is why we do our jobs. I keep saying that we have to love the kids more than we love the rules, and this goes for the lousy rules that have been made for schools and that only serve to harm children. Fortunately, we have parents who understand that teachers don’t create education policy.

“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”  – Eleanor Roosevelt

When our schools function well, this is what we do. When we are saddled with mandates that reformers don’t see as necessary for the private schools to which they want to feed vouchers, we fall short of utmost. Test prep booklets and remediation software programs are definitely beneath the threshold for qualifying as newer, richer experiences.

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”  – Ralph Waldo Emerson

While I agree with Emerson, in part, I still think that we can do these things and be happy. We can taste experience to the utmost and still live useful, honorable, and compassionate lives. The last phrase here, to have lived and lived well is what keeps those of us who’ve stayed in education right where we are. When our office collected money for an elementary student to have Christmas presents he wouldn’t otherwise have had, and he looked at us halfway through opening them and said, I must be the luckiest kid in the world, I’d say we had experienced a purposeful moment. The trick is to add these moments up so that they are common, but that they never feel routine.

 “One, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it. Three, if you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don’t throw it away.”  – Stephen Hawking

When I was in my 20s, I used to say that what we do isn’t who we are. I was a teacher, but that wasn’t what defined me.

I was an idiot.

Teaching defines me. Even 13 years after I taught my last group of tenth graders, I consider myself to be a high school English teacher. I wish I had known the Camus quote from above then, but I definitely stressed the importance of writing. I wish I had known lots of things then.

Public education is my upbringing. My mom taught special education in Chickasha and Norman for 29 years, and my step-father was a college professor at OU.

Public education is my work. For 23 years, I’ve tried to help students in this state get farther in life through what they know and what they can do.

Public education is even my hobby. I read and blog education. I teach a masters class. My spare time is consumed with my profession.

mountaintop

Each of these quotes have personal meaning to me too. Just as, much to my chagrin, my 18 year-old saying that she drives with a sense of purpose, resonates with me. I don’t know where she learned that…probably from her mother.

Last week, when I was in Colorado fiercely pursuing a different passion – one of few I have not related to education – I snapped a picture from the top of my last ski run of the day. I had three choices going in all different directions, all of which would lead me down to the base. Did it matter which one I took?

It made me think of Robert Frost: choosing the road less traveled. If you like a less-traveled road, take it. If you like crowds, follow them. As for me, I just look at the path and see if it seems to have something I like as I begin to travel it.  Sometimes there are people there. Sometimes not. Unlike Frost, I don’t think the wear on the path makes all the difference. I think knowing what you want when you finish it does.

In other words, purpose matters more than the path.

From that signpost, I went downhill. I went fast. I lowered my head and let gravity take me to the bottom as quickly as it would. I guess I ski like my daughter drives – with a sense of purpose.

Other words may fit specific occasions as 2016 progresses. When I’m speaking with those who hold public office and candidates who may replace them, I’ll be direct. When I’m discussing changes and cuts that we will face in my district because of the state’s completely predictable and preventable budget collapse, I’ll be as delicate as possible. I hope to have passion this year. I also know that we all have to be ready for disappointment.

None of these will deter me from my purpose, though.

I am a teacher. I am a public education advocate. I will speak my mind. I will write when I can. I will share what others say and keep the conversation going.

Whatever tomorrow brings, I’ll be there.

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Hair of the Blog

January 1, 2016 2 comments

As with the rest of us, our two biggest state newspapers are waking up resolved to find hope for what 2016 will bring. Take this cheerful outlook from the Tulsa World this morning:

Meanwhile, the state Board of Equalization certified a preliminary general revenue projection for the coming budget year that is $900 million less than the year before.

That’s roughly the equivalent of overall ticket sales so far for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Unless creator George Lucas can spare some change, or the price of oil makes a meteoric climb, the new year isn’t going to feel very new. Rather, it threatens to be a rerun of 2015 with further downsizing of an already shriveling state government.

Those who argue that is not the worst thing that could happen, should say that to the face of a public school student or teacher. Ranking at the bottom of the barrel in per-pupil spending for common education is never acceptable, no matter what the circumstances.

On the promising side, Oklahoma has ridden the energy price roller coaster before and always rebounded eventually.

The last line is my favorite. The editorial board is basically saying, We know we’ll see better days. We always have, right? That’s what I call forward thinking. Surely there’s a unicorn out there somewhere!

Still, as usual, it’s better than what the Oklahoman editorial writers have given us this morning. In their 2016 wish list, they have two Thunder-related items, but just one for education: vouchers.

Education Savings Accounts: Status-quo forces in education often claim Oklahoma students’ academic performance will never improve unless huge spending increases are provided. Yet if parents were given the ability to use their child’s per-pupil allotment, as would be the case with Education Savings Accounts, those officials may be shocked by how quickly improvement occurs. ESAs would allow parents to use a portion of the tax money already dedicated to their child’s education to spend on tutoring, online learning, or private school tuition. It’s time Oklahoma lawmakers provide beneficiaries the same flexibility with education funds that they are provided for other government programs, such as food stamps. One size does not fit all students, and it makes no sense to act as though children will receive a better education if they’re assigned a school based on geographic proximity to one’s house rather than based on a child’s individual needs and parental involvement.

This is where that morning-after blurry-eyed effect hurts me. I’m going to have to go through this one sentence by sentence.

Status-quo forces in education often claim Oklahoma students’ academic performance will never improve unless huge spending increases are provided.

I’m glad to see they didn’t use the trite verbiage Education Establishment. Maybe that’s a sign of a resolution they’ve made. Actually, what those of us who teach students and lead districts illustrate is that huge cuts in state aid have hurt our ability to provide services for students. We point out that the state’s abdication of responsibility vis-à-vis funding public schools at a proper level has made providing teacher raises of any significance impossible. This, combined with mandates that create meaningless work for already over-tasked teachers, has driven quality people out of the profession.

We’re not asking for huge spending increases; rather, we want a reversal of the huge funding cuts that we’ve seen since 2008. Let me just point out that for the 2013-14 school year (the most recent available data), Oklahoma districts received less than half of their funding (48.0%) from the state. The rest came from local and federal sources. This continues a 15 year trend that shows no sign of reversing. Year-by-year, the Legislature has been less committed to funding public education, and more committed to regulating it.

School Year % Funding from the State
2013-14 48.0%
2008-09 52.0%
2003-04 53.4%
1998-99 57.1%

Yet if parents were given the ability to use their child’s per-pupil allotment, as would be the case with Education Savings Accounts, those officials may be shocked by how quickly improvement occurs.

Picture0005Actually, we wouldn’t see any improvement, because the voucher pushers in the Legislature and the newspaper also insist that we shouldn’t hold private schools accountable in any way for student achievement. In other words, they want the money, but not the rules.

As for schools, we just get the rules.

ESAs would allow parents to use a portion of the tax money already dedicated to their child’s education to spend on tutoring, online learning, or private school tuition.

As Alex Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Jason James pointed out a few months ago, a voucher isn’t going to help the poor families get into private schools to the extent that their supporters insist:

The voucher bill currently on the table, SB 609, would provide benefits to a student who “previously was enrolled in the first one hundred (100) days of the prior school year in an Oklahoma public school district.” In other words, students currently enrolled in private schools wouldn’t have access to the voucher – for now. If 609 passes, expect to see a lot of school-flipping.

Another important consideration is that private schools don’t have to accept everybody. And they shouldn’t have to accept everybody. They have a specific mission, which is why parents choose them. Our mission as a state – as a system of public schools – is to educate everybody who shows up. Given that charge, we do a damn good job, no matter what narrative serves the convenience of voucher proponents.

If voucher supporters truly believe that private schools are better education providers, they need to support doing the schools that would accept voucher students committing to two things:

  1. Accepting all students.
  2. Meeting all state and federal mandates.

Otherwise, this isn’t a serious conversation.

It’s time Oklahoma lawmakers provide beneficiaries the same flexibility with education funds that they are provided for other government programs, such as food stamps.

I’m glad the Oklahoman supports flexibility for how people qualifying for public assistance, such as public school employees, spend their benefits. On the other hand, the paper also supports cuts to the food stamps program.

To be clear, food stamps are a benefit for people living in poverty. Vouchers are a benefit for people in the middle class. Those are the students that private schools would accept. Those are the students whose families could make up the difference.

A food stamp recipient can shop anywhere. The merchant will accept the business because it has cash value. A customer spending food stamps is a paying customer, in their eyes.

A voucher recipient will not have these same choices.

It’s just not the same.

One size does not fit all students, and it makes no sense to act as though children will receive a better education if they’re assigned a school based on geographic proximity to one’s house rather than based on a child’s individual needs and parental involvement.

I agree. That’s why thousands of parents have chosen to transfer their students across school district boundaries. It’s also why I oppose many of the mandates that this paper supports.  We could provide more choices within our arguably-publicly funded schools right now, if the Legislature passed a few simple bills.

  • Replace the EOIs with the ACT.
  • Repeal ACE.
  • Cut all tests not required by the feds.
  • Take quantitative measurements out of teacher evaluations.
  • Create an accountability system that focuses less on testing.

Simpsons_24_10_P1We’re the educators. We would love to focus more on meeting each child’s individual needs. We don’t want to spend another minute preparing our most profoundly disabled students for state tests or the portfolios that serve as their proxy. We don’t want to spend another minute slowing down our gifted kids in classes that continue to get bigger while we prepare the masses for poorly-developed state tests.

The upcoming legislative session is critical. I can think of at least three term-limited legislators who would love nothing more than to pass a voucher bill. Doing so would serve as their springboard into some of the statewide races that will be up for grabs in 2018. Every vote for SB 609 – or anything resembling it – is a vote against public schools.

 

2016: A Real Opportunity

December 31, 2015 1 comment

Yesterday morning, The Atlantic published an article online titled, Can Schools Be Fixed? Normally, I cringe at articles with titles such as these, mainly because I cringe at the premise that public education is a broken system. Then again, maybe it is.

As a state and as a nation, we are deep down a rabbit hole of expensive reforms that haven’t done a bit of good. For example, the state of Oklahoma has spent millions of dollars with companies such as Battelle for Kids, which manages the convoluted roster verification process in Oklahoma.

By the way, BFK is technically a non-profit, albeit one with $25 million in annual revenue. GuideStar lists the mission of BFK thusly:

BATTELLE FOR KIDS IS A NATIONAL, NOT – FOR – PROFIT ORGANIZATION THAT PROVIDES STRATEGIC COUNSEL AND INNOVATIVE SOLUTIONS FOR TODAY’S COMPLEX, EDUCATIONAL – IMPROVEMENT CHALLENGES OUR MISSION – DRIVEN TEAM OF EDUCATION, TECHNOLOGY, COMMUNICATIONS AND BUSINESS PROFESSIONALS SPECIALIZES IN CREATING STRATEGIES THAT ADVANCE THE DEVELOPMENT OF HUMAN CAPITAL, THE USE OF STRATEGIC MEASURES, AND THE IMPLEMENTATION OF EFFECTIVE PRACTICES IN SCHOOLS.

If that doesn’t make you want to teach, what does?!

What we’ve spent on lousy ideas is a sunk cost. We can’t get that money back. Eliminating processes such as these, which only hurt the effort to develop and maintain human capital quality teachers, should be a quick priority in 2016, now that those pesky feds have told us we can.

But I digress…

The Atlantic article gave different “scholars of, experts on, and advocates for K-12 education” a chance to give one reason for despair and one reason for hope.  My favorites were Linda Darling-Hammond and Diane Ravitch. Here’s what Ravitch wrote:

Diane Ravitch, historian of American education and author of Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools

Reason for despair: In my field, public education is under unprecedented attack by a bipartisan coalition that calls themselves “reformers.” It includes the Obama administration, the Republican leadership, the Gates Foundation, the Eli Broad Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, hedge-fund managers, ALEC, and rightwing governors. They seek alternatives to democratically controlled public schools, such as privately managed charters, for-profit charter schools, virtual schools, and, in some states, vouchers for religious schools. The reformers’ excessive reliance on standardized testing as both the measure and goal of schooling has corrupted education. Because of the reformers’ attacks on teachers, experienced teachers are retiring early, and the number entering teaching has dropped sharply.

Reason for hope: The reasons for hope are two-fold: first, the public doesn’t want to abandon its community public schools. No district or state has ever voted to privatize its schools. Second, every so-called “reform” has failed to promote better education or equal opportunity for the neediest children. Neither charters nor vouchers consistently get better results for children, unless they exclude the weakest students. Measuring teachers by student test scores has been a costly failure. The great majority of the public admires their public schools and their teachers and wants them to be better, more equitably funded, not eliminated. If democracy works, these misguided “reforms” will be consigned to the ashcan of history.

This is why I have hope, the absence of which is hopelessness. Even though I was an English major in college, I’m not so much of an existentialist  that I feel hopeless. There are still things we can do to improve education in this country in general, and Oklahoma in general.  We are making strides in policy, but we have miles to go before we sleep.

After reading the Atlantic piece, Rob Miller issued the following challenge to his fellow Oklahoma bloggers:

Limiting myself to one reason for despair and one for hope, as the article’s contributors have done, is a tough task. It’s like asking someone to sum up the movie Clue in under a minute.

Despair: Oklahoma is dealing with at least a $900 million shortfall for the 2016-17 school year. This comes on the heels of cuts in state aid for the remaining six months of the current school year. These figures just add to the $900 million that Oklahoma school districts have lost in state aid since the 2008-09 school year.

All this, and state leaders are calling it an opportunity. Seriously.

You know the drill. More students. Unfunded mandates. Biggest cuts to schools in the country.

We’ve been beating the drum for years. Until now, no one who has the power to reverse the trend has been listening.

As Oklahoma school districts enter 2016, many face the prospect of losing three percent of their state aid, or at least the portion that goes through the formula. For large districts, this could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars. For some, it could be millions.

The state leaders who created this crisis with tax cuts for the wealthy and tax credits for the energy sector blame the state deficit on OPEC. Sure, that’s part of the equation. It’s not the whole story, though.

My despair comes as someone who has to deal with the funding crisis head on. We cut positions after the 2002-03 shortfall. Many of those haven’t been added back. We cut positions after the 2009-10 shortfall. Again, we haven’t added all of those positions back.

This story is true throughout Oklahoma. Someone at the state level will need to act with courage to keep this problem from worsening.

Hope: To be fair, I can name two state leaders who seem to understand the folly of continuing to do what we’ve been doing for years: State Treasurer Ken Miller, and State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones.

First, this from Miller (as published in the Oklahoman):

Miller argues that conservatives in the Legislature ought to stop trying to eliminate the state income tax, and instead work to revamp a tax structure that is currently premised on an economy that no longer exists. “The ideal tax structure,” he wrote, “would broadly apply low rates to generate a stable and diversified revenue stream that does not unfairly burden property owners, discourage consumption or reward idleness and retains the profit motive that drives entrepreneurship.”

Meantime in the near term, he says any additional tax cuts should be revenue neutral — with lawmakers getting rid of $1 of spending or credits for each dollar cut in taxes.

Given the significant fiscal challenges, tackling a new approach to budgeting will likely have to wait until economic conditions improve. But he said it has to happen at some point, and he’s right. Oklahoma cannot continue to rely so heavily on one-time funds, even if some of those accounts are made up of fee revenue that replenishes annually.

Miller sums it up well in remarks worth remembering: “Eventually, policymakers must start down a path toward long-term sustainability, rather than cobble together more short-term fixes that leave the same problems for future legislatures — until the one-time revenue well runs dry.”

Diversified…what’s that? Basically, Miller seems to be suggesting that our state needs to figure out how to fund public services using a variety of continuing revenue streams. The question is which members of the Legislature have the courage to do it.

Meanwhile, Jones has taken to social media online media to make a similar case.

GJ1

In an interview with NONDOC, Jones makes what reasonable people would call constructive suggestions.

In February, the governor ordered a freeze on hiring and giving raises. For the last couple of years, our office has been focused on conserving as much as possible to help make it through these tough times — reducing staff and cutting spending. We recently became aware that the very agency responsible for overseeing the governor’s order had given literally millions in raises based on a study.

If we are going to solve the tough problems facing this state, we need to have a comprehensive plan that is fair to all state employees and agencies. Giving themselves raises of 20 percent to 60 percent while telling others to cut back does little (to) build confidence. Solving our financial problems is going to require sacrifice by all.

There are some serious problems with how our state creates a budget. Last year, a small group put it together at the last minute and gave the House and Senate about 24 hours to vote on it. They used one-time funds to hold education dollars flat. They did nothing to halt tax cuts or tax credits that continue to cripple the budget.

Wait, this is supposed to be the part where we have hope.

Does it make you smile a little bit to know that we have 30 term-limited legislators? Some have been what I would consider friends to education. Some have merely said they were. I’ll be honest. I’m happy to see some of these people go, but I’ll be even happier if we have some strong challenges to some of the incumbents who will seek re-election in 2016.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, during the 2014 election cycle, only 49 of 126 seats in the Legislature that were  up for election had contests that went to November. In other words, 77 people were basically elected by acclimation. That’s a heck of a lot of unopposed seats.

THIS. IS. THE. OPPORTUNITY.

If we want to make a difference in 2016, we need to make sure more people hear Jones and Miller. They’re the ones making sense.

If we want to make a difference in 2016, we need to make sure more people – more strong candidates – run against incumbents, who simply aren’t helping the future of this state.

Look, I know the power of #oklaed. We can get the votes. Just a few weeks ago, the people who really care about our state’s children and the people who teach them voted in full force to earn several of us some national blogging awards. Collectively, we had two wins and four second-place finishes in the Edublog awards.

The category for which I won, Best Administrator Blog, kind of surprised me. Especially surprising was that Rob Miller’s View From the Edge came in second. (I don’t know about the rest of you, but I voted for Rob.)

I appreciate the support, and I’m honored to win, but that’s not the important thing to consider here. Two Oklahoma blogs came in first and second. There must have been a heck of a lot of us voting. There must have been a lot of our parents and friends voting too. We won over the likes of George Couros, who is an internationally-renowned writer and speaker.

Do Rob and I really have the two best administrator blogs in the country? Probably not. We just have amazing readers who are passionate about public education in this state.

Now let’s channel that same kind of passion towards making real change.

For one, we need to write more, as Blue Cereal Education is doing. We also need to hold our elected leaders accountable. Those 30 term-limited legislators scare me as much as anything. Some are going to try to make a splash and position themselves for a run at statewide office in 2018.

We need to find the candidates to run against legislators who simply don’t support public education. And we need to vote.

We have the passion. We have the awards.

Now we have the numbers.

Happy New Year.

Make 2016 an #oklaed statement year.

2015 Year in Review (Part III)

December 24, 2015 Comments off

In Part I of my year-end review, I covered some of the changes from January to June of this year. We were all warm and fuzzy because we had a new state superintendent and she liked us and listened to us and invited us to hang out at her office and all that good stuff. More than that, she was in the same fights we were, but – and this was the real departure from the previous four years – she was on our side. We didn’t win all of the fights, but some that seemed to go away on their own actually disappeared because of political finesse. That’s still a win in my book.

Part II had less focus. I blame me changing jobs and having less time to write. Still, in the last month or so, I seem to have found a groove. Over the last six months, we have gone everywhere from the collective apathy around the state over A-F Report Cards to the return of voucher propaganda around the state. We also learned, sadly, that we’re broker than broke. We’re MC Hammer broke. We’re not Greece, but we’re not exactly Monaco either. And it’s not that people in this state aren’t making money either. Let’s just say that if somehow, all of Oklahoma had been responsible for all of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and its billionty dollar opening weekend, our state leaders would have found a way to keep from generating any state revenue from it.

Not good with money

Now, to the top five posts for the year:

  1. I am okeducationtruthsFor all the people who supported the blog when I was writing anonymously, I had no idea that the number of readers and followers would grow so much once I removed the mask.

I couldn’t have done what I did for the first 29 months of the blog without support from so many friends and colleagues who didn’t even know they were contributing. As more blogs have emerged during the last few years, we’ve collectively built something really special here. Our blogging presence, the success of our EdCamps, and our Sunday night #oklaed chats are gaining national recognition. While our writing has a pretty limited focus, mostly to pushing back against bad education policy in this state, our story parallels so many others. We are both a cautionary tale and a success story.

  1. Save API didn’t write much on this post. Mainly, I included a few lines of discussion from legislators who were questioning whether or not it was ok to have Advanced Placement classes in Oklahoma at all since they resembled Common Core, with the critical thinking and all. The main issue was the scheduled course redesign of AP US History, which Southmoore High School Teacher David Burton covered thoroughly. More specifically, a few legislators were afraid that we were teaching students bad things about the country.

Here is a page from a presentation made by College Board Vice President Trevor Packer at a conference I attended in February.

APUSH

Of the five points shown on this particular page discussing World War II, four are clear statements about the strengths of our nation. Only one – mention of the internment of Japanese Americans – is negative. And I don’t see anything wrong with including that. The framework leaves it to the teacher’s discretion which battles, treaties, events, and individuals to emphasize during the course. Most of it will be positive. We studied Japanese internment camps when I was in school, and we were deeply disturbed by it – most of us to the point that we’d never want to see that happen again.

There was nothing to see here. Sometimes, I guess birds just flap their wings to hear the sound of the wind.

There is no confusion like the confusion of a simple mind – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

  1. 182 Emergencies and Counting!Well, now we’re up to 977 for the current school year.

977 emergencies

As I’ve said previously, some teachers start with emergency certification and become great educators. Unfortunately, many – lacking teacher preparation courses and hours logged as student teachers under veteran teachers – succumb to how difficult the job is and last a short period of time. Some leave within days, and then we’re back where we started.

  1. Shortage of Teachers, Shortage of PayThis was my first post of the year, and it was even more popular in March than it was in January. In fact, this post has had a decent number of page views during each month of the year. This is the conversation we can’t quit having. There’s a teacher shortage. Teachers haven’t had an increase in pay in years. There’s no change in sight to this cycle.
Salary bars

(from Washington Post)

Keep in mind, as you look at the chart, that this includes all compensation – salary, insurance, and retirement. This does not include administrator salaries in the averages. Every time I use the chart, I get comments along the line of I’ve taught for 20 years and I still don’t make $44,000. And you are correct. But if you add the benefits together, this is the cost to your district of employing you. Or something like that.

We also know that with a $1,000 raise, Oklahoma teachers would still be in 49th place. With a $5,000 raise, Oklahoma teachers would move up to 36th place. At least we would if everyone else were standing still.

Sigh. We’re the ones still standing still.

At least we still have Mississippi and South Dakota below us.

  1. Guest Post on the Teacher Shortage from a POed Parent – It’s no coincidence that the three most popular posts on okeducationtruths from this year have to do with the teacher shortage. At this point, we’re all frustrated about where we are now and worried about the future. By we, I mean educators, parents, and even legislators. That’s right, the majority of our elected officials are worried about this too.

Dan Vincent, the post’s author, was very clear about why – other than just money – people aren’t flocking to the profession:

Over the past several years I have also observed waves of educational reforms crashing into the doors of classrooms and onto the desks of students—reforms initiated and passed into law by our state legislature. If you are a student or teacher, you’ve felt it; my kids have felt it. The changes included things like the A-F, the RSA, the ACE and the TLE to name a few. These have been widely recognized by educational leaders in our state as doing more harm than good, especially when it comes to teacher morale and student engagement. Professional associations, parent groups, blogs and personal anecdotes have documented how these reforms are negatively impacting Oklahoma districts, classrooms and kids. There has also been much written about how these reforms are DRIVING GOOD TEACHERS OUT OF THE CLASSROOM. Legislators have been told this over and over. Personally, I have had civil discussions about the issues I see; I have written umpteen letters to lawmakers pleading for change. I have friends who written many more.

I always say that the teacher shortage comes down to two things: money and respect. Some legislators really do understand that teacher pay is too low. Unfortunately, several of those think that there are solutions other than the state coughing up more money to put into the formula. Combined with the group that just doesn’t get the magnitude of the problem at all, we’re just not getting anywhere.

Roll all of that together with an alphabet soup of reforms that have been copied after Florida and thrown at schools, and it just keeps getting harder to keep good people around.

Maybe now that more parents are catching on, legislators will listen more too. If not, let’s get some new ones.


So those were my five most popular posts of the year. What follows are five more – they weren’t as popular, but they meant a lot to me. Mostly, they remind me why, in spite of the issues we face, I’m glad I chose this career.

Blogger Challenge: The Things We Pretend

Throughout the spring and summer, many Oklahoma bloggers responded to various blogger challenges. I love these, mainly because it’s like an extended thought version of one of our Sunday night chats. In many cases, it helps me see that there’s some substance beyond the 140 character universe to which we often limit ourselves.

This challenge stemmed from Iowa’s Scott McLeod, who writes at Dangerously ! Irrelevant. If you click to his link, you’ll see ideas from across the country. This is a question we need to ask ourselves frequently.

Blogger Challenge & The Heartbreakers

This was a response to another blogger challenge.

When I was in the classroom, my favorite thing to do was to challenge people to like things that wouldn’t ordinarily appeal to them. This was true with poetry. Teaching sophomore English, I could have just jumped in with Wordsworth or Teasdale or some other ancient that English majors love. No, I started with Free Fallin’. Because I could.

Good Luck in Austin

IMG_3899Maybe it’s because she’s a middle child. Maybe it’s because Austin is a fun place. Maybe it’s because she could. In any case, my daughter left her comfort zone in August and started college at the University of Texas. Yes, even though her mother and I have four degrees between us from the University of Oklahoma, she headed south. So far, it’s been a good choice for her. And we have more reason to go to Austin and eat at my favorite breakfast place (it’s really more of a lean-to than a structure, per se).

 

Why Teach Here? Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

This was the second part of my response to the blogger challenge, Why Teach? Given the teacher shortage, I think the second question, why teach here? is equally important. I want teachers to want to be where I am.

Using Daniel Pink’s book Drive, and a ten minute video that gives a pretty good explanation of motivation, I distilled my goals for the people around me into these three words.

Drive - Motivation

If teachers, principals, and even crazy central office people had more of this, they’d have a lot more satisfaction.

So would our students – and this is the kind of district I want Mid-Del to be.

Welcome to New Teachers

I stressed pretty hard over this one. As a first-year superintendent, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say to 180 people I’d never met before and who were really curious about what they were getting into. What I do when I’m uncomfortable is blog, so I treated the moment as I do so many of the other significant milestones in my life now.

If you’ve heard me speak, you know there’s a pretty big gap between what I intend to say and what actually comes out of my mouth. I’m more comfortable walking to the front of a stage or moving throughout a room winging it than I am standing behind a lectern. I want people to know where my passions lie.

So if what I wrote here was any good, I can’t say that it’s what I delivered the next morning. We’ll call it close.

Oh, and since it’s Christmas Eve, here’s some Annie Lennox and Al Green:

State Revenue Failure: A Three Percent Opportunity

December 23, 2015 Comments off

Do you remember a few days ago when I posted The Next Cut is the Deepest? Well, it’s here. And it’s real. And it’s spectacular.

Do you also remember how I posted the meme of Ralphie from A Christmas Story – the one where he drops the lugnuts?

fudge

We may need to kick it up a notch.

State Finance Director Preston Doerflinger just announced that all state agencies will receive a three percent cut to their state aid for the current fiscal year. That doesn’t mean that future state aid checks to districts will be cut by three percent. That means districts – unless the SDE has some triggers in place to mitigate the impact of this cut to schools – will have a three percent cut that is retroactive to July 1. Immediately, Superintendent Hofmeister issued a response:

Superintendent Hofmeister comments on education funding cut due to state revenue failure

OKLAHOMA CITY (Dec. 23, 2015) — State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister made the following remarks today after the Office of Management and Enterprise Services announced state agencies will receive a 3-percent cut for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2016 as the result of a state revenue failure. That amounts to a $46.7 million reduction in funding for preK-12 public education between January and June of 2016.

“Now that we know the extent of the cut for the remainder of the fiscal year, school districts will soon be able to plan accordingly. The reduced funding was inevitable in the wake of the revenue failure, but I know that the Oklahoma State Department of Education and district leaders statewide are committed to lessening the impact on students as much as possible.

“School districts will not be affected equally. Some districts rely on state aid for upwards of 90 percent of their budget. Others, particularly those in western Oklahoma, will feel very little impact from this cut. Within the next two weeks, districts across the state will receive a mid-year adjustment that reflects the revised figures.

“It is unrealistic to suggest there will not be some adverse effect on students, but Oklahoma educators will do what needs to be done to protect classroom instruction.”

She’s correct. There will be adverse effects on students. There’s no way around that. As a superintendent, my mind is already spinning. So much for a break, right?

Just yesterday, we were looking at our recently released mid-year adjustments. Can you believe I was actually happy that my district only had a 0.27% reduction? Still, that’s $111,000 and change, but given the projections, I was ready to make some small immediate cuts.

Tonight, I looked up the mid-year adjustments posted yesterday and added a couple of columns at the end of the OSDE spreadsheet. The first shows how much three percent would cost districts based on the mid-year adjustment figures. The second shows the combined impact of mid-year adjustments and the revenue failure – if it actually results in three percent cuts in state aid. Overall, eight districts are set to lose more than a million dollars in funding right now.

District Mid-year Adjustment Revenue Failure at Three Percent MYA plus Revenue Failure
TULSA  $ (1,918,675)  $ (2,757,041)  $ (4,675,716)
OKLAHOMA CITY  $ (1,286,610)  $ (3,211,787)  $ (4,498,397)
MOORE  $ (584,397)  $ (1,857,802)  $ (2,442,199)
EDMOND  $ (1,347,901)  $ (949,502)  $ (2,297,403)
PRYOR  $ (1,948,714)  $ (47,832)  $ (1,996,546)
ARDMORE  $ (1,343,274)  $ (198,540)  $ (1,541,814)
MID-DEL  $ (111,425)  $ (1,233,121)  $ (1,344,546)
LAWTON  $ 537,886  $ (1,566,827)  $ (1,028,941)

Of these eight districts, Lawton was actually set to get an increase mid-year. Now – again, this is if the SDE has no way to cushion the blow – they have to find a way to absorb more than a million in cuts during the next six months.

As the Oklahoma Policy Institute points out, not all agencies are hit with the same percentage of cuts exactly. The three percent applies only to legislatively-appropriated funds. As with many agencies, the OSDE gets some funds off-the-top before the Legislature begins the appropriations process.

This year, of total state appropriations of $7.138 billion, just over three-quarters – 76.4 percent – came from current year General Revenue. The remaining $24.6 percent, or $1.681 billion, came from other funds, including the HB 1017(Education Reform) Fund, Constitutional Reserve Fund, the Cash Flow Reserve Fund, the State Transportation Fund, agency revolving funds and numerous other sources. In some case, the funding sources for specific agencies are set out in statutes; in others, the Legislature simply decides each session on the mix of funding streams.

Another $46.8 million lost in state aid? Someone’s going to have to adjust that bar chart showing how we lead the nation in cuts to education since 2008.

Announcing that the bottom had fallen out this week, Doerflinger described the revenue failure as an opportunity. Here’s where that comes in.

Looking at other funds available to us, I could quickly come up with about $440,000 in savings for my district in direct costs. That would be about a third of the deficit we are facing for the current school year. The problem is that they are funds that we can’t move into our general fund.

  • Professional Development (PD)
  • Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA)
  • Achieving Classroom Excellence (ACE)

Right now, we have the perfect opportunity. We desperately need money. We know the ACE program doesn’t work. We know that RSA is a paperwork morass that does more harm than good to children. And while I appreciate good professional development as much as anyone, something tells me that right now, our teachers would love to have some of that taken off their plates. We just can’t afford nice things.

Call a special session for the first week in January. End ACE and RSA. Allow districts to move those balances to the general fund. It doesn’t plug the whole hole, but it’s something. And right now, I’ll take something.

Come on. Opportunity awaits.

2015 Year in Review (Part II)

December 22, 2015 1 comment

Yesterday, I shot down memory lane through the first part of 2015, when everything was unicorns and rainbows, and we were going to save public education with one new elected official and a whole lot of blogging and phone calls.

Murica

It was, as my Boston friends say, wicked awesome. Well, January through June were. The blog post was self-indulgent, but then again, on some level, isn’t all blogging?

Anyhoo…on to the second half of the year…

July: “The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.” – Malcolm Gladwell, Tipping Point

The quote above pretty much sums up the EdCamp experience at the OSDE summer conference. It was the largest EdCamp in the history of the universe, including the countries that Steve Harvey got wrong Saturday night.

It was the perfect lead-in to EngageOK, Superintendent Hofmeister’s re-branded summer conference. It was nice to spend a few days with teachers and administrators from other districts, OSDE staff, and many other people interested in driving education in Oklahoma forward. It was even nicer to do so without the constant insults we were used to enduring from the previous office-holder.

More than anything, this week showed all of us the power of collegiality. None of us have to be the one person with the brilliant idea. We work together. We build from each other’s thoughts. We improve each other’s ideas and become unstoppable.

Then at the end of the month, we started to see the incredible number of emergency certifications being granted by the state. In case you missed it, in July, the State Board of Education handed out 182 emergency teaching certificates. These are people who didn’t go through a teacher preparation program or qualify for alternative certification.

Keep in mind that the state offers nine pathways to certification before you have to look at emergency certification. This is truly a last ditch effort. At the same time, our job as leaders is to support these teachers as well as we can. We don’t care how you came to be a teacher. We just want to help you be good at it.

Unfortunately, this group is less likely than any of the others to stay beyond a full year. In fact, many don’t even make it through the first year. Even more unfortunate is the fact that we are now close to hitting 1,000 emergency certifications for the school year – and it’s only December.

One other notable thing happened in July, but it was personal. For the second time this year, I stepped way outside my comfort zone. First was when I revealed my identity on the blog in January. This time, I left a job I absolutely loved in Moore as assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction to become superintendent for Mid-Del Public Schools. After five months, I feel I’ve traded one love for another. I’ve never worked this hard in my life, but I also feel closer to teachers and students than I have in years. It’s not one of the easiest gigs, but I feel as if I was made for it. I just hope that feeling remains mutual.

Besides, it’s fun.

August: “I say there is no darkness but ignorance.” – William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

Well, crap. I just re-read the post I wrote before sending my daughter out-of-state to college. In spite of the low traffic it received, a close friend told me it’s the best thing I ever wrote. I guess if we’re doing this right, we save our best for our kids.

She’s back from the first semester now, and more…what’s the word? Aware? Maybe that’s it. Her worldview is changing. She’s part who we raised her to be and part what her passions drive her to be. It’s a pretty good mix. Excuse me for a minute. I’m going to pause and listen to Vienna again.

“…take the phone off the hook…” Good one, Billy Joel! What is this, the 70s?

On the #oklaed front, this was the month our kids came back to school. As a state, we’re up 50,000 students since 2008. Funding hasn’t kept pace. Teacher salaries haven’t moved in that time. The mandates have kept coming.

Superintendent Hofmeister made a big splash this month, announcing that she would spend $1.5 million of the OSDE’s allocation to pay for all juniors to take the ACT. Naturally, she met opposition from the usual suspects.

Joy’s press release listed several great reasons why this is a good thing. It included support from Deb Gist and Rob Neu:

The superintendents of Oklahoma’s two largest school districts said this program is great news for their respective students.

“I applaud this effort by state Superintendent Hofmeister and the Oklahoma State Department of Education. Offering the ACT for free to all juniors in Oklahoma will provide invaluable information on individual students and districts; this information is crucial as we retool our curriculum standards to meet the needs of all students,” said Rob Neu, superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools.

“It’s also a benefit to families who want their children to have a successful future after high school; families shouldn’t have to worry about whether or not they can afford to take the ACT, this pilot program will lift that financial burden and allow students to focus on this very important achievement test.”

“We are grateful to the state of Oklahoma for providing the ACT exam to our 11th graders through this pilot program,” said Superintendent Deborah A. Gist of Tulsa Public Schools. “Experiencing the ACT is an important opportunity for all students, and this pilot will increase equity, as it will be available to all high school juniors this school year. We welcome the opportunity to use a highly-regarded and widely-used measure of college and career readiness to provide all kids with access to a better future.”

For the record, the superintendent of the 10th largest district agrees.

September: “They use everything about the hog except the squeal.” – Upton Sinclair, The Jungle

It’s funny. I’ve been blogging for close to four years, and it still seems that my guest posts are more popular than the things I write. I knew that UCO professor Dan Vincent had put something strong together when he sent me an email that started with, I’m a public school parent, and I’m pissed off. My first thought was, Stand in line, buddy. So I posted it on my blog, and within days, it was the most popular post ever on okeducationtruths – by nearly 10,000 page views.

Apparently, eight months into what was supposed to be our education perestroika, we still had a little angst. Dan wrote:

We know that money matters and we know that teaching climate matters. Legislative leaders have tremendous power over both and have done little to nothing to create REAL SOLUTIONS for teachers. In fact, I am not big on conspiracy theories but I am now seriously thinking our legislative leaders are purposefully making a teacher’s life miserable so they can justify their own policies meant to ‘help’ the problems in education—problems they have created with the war on teachers. And this is all being done TO OUR KIDS.

We also know that we’re fighting the same fights, day after day, month after month, year after year. Three months later,  I still agree with Dan’s seven proposals to solve the teacher shortage problem:

  1. First and foremost, do your part tofix the educational climate in Oklahoma. Stop the blame game and be real about solutions to our teacher shortage. Ask the educational leaders in our state (who are really informed about the issues they see firsthand) for input and take it seriously.
  2. Stop the High Stakes Testing(found in the RSA, the ACE, the TLE, the A-F). This would also save some money on administrative overhead and ink for signing RSA documents.
  3. Seriouslyrework the TLE. It is well known that value added measures are junk science yet our state leaders insist they can work. This could also save money by reducing administrative overhead.
  4. Stop the A-F charade. OU and OSU put together a prettygood summary of the charade. And this also could reduce administrative overhead.
  5. Publiclysupport teachers, but more importantly seek out educational leaders so your public support can be turned into fully-informed legislative action.
  6. Develop a workable plan toincrease teacher pay. Money matters. Our state invests public money to support the STEM industry and others. Let’s get real about how to invest in the profession that can support all industry.
  7. EitherUNMANDATE or FULLY FUND. There are many unfunded mandates placed on schools and this solution could both create a better climate in schools AND free up money that could be used on teacher salaries. One good example would be to eliminate the ACE graduation requirement.

These are all important steps towards solving the teacher shortage. And no matter what Speaker Hickman says, it’s a real thing.

October: “Pride had given way at last, obstinacy was gone: the will was powerless.” – Emmuska Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel

October was pretty uneventful. Nothing really happened. Well, the OSDE released the fourth edition of the A-F Report Cards, but as I said before, nothing happened. Really, nothing. Apparently, I was busy. I didn’t even mention them on the blog. I did, however, along with a group of hundreds of other superintendents co-sign a letter calling the accountability measures useless.

More importantly, I loved Superintendent Hofmeister’s statement about the release:

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister has indicated she has no confidence in the validity or reliability of the report cards in their current framework. The Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) determines the grades using a formula that had been mandated by a 2013 state law. The OSDE supports strong accountability for education, but problems with the A-F Report Cards have seriously undermined the system’s credibility. Even the U.S. Department of Education has criticized the report cards and required modifications as a condition for receiving the No Child Left Behind waiver.

We will probably have the A-F Report Cards, in their current format for one more year. Huge changes are on the horizion. That is, unless someone blocks huge changes, and what we get is merely window dressing.

November: “Some people could look at a mud puddle and see an ocean with ships.” – Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

By Halloween, we were all discussing pennies. Specifically, we were discussing OU President David Boren’s proposal for a statewide penny sales tax to fund education. I never came out and said I loved the idea, but I haven’t seen a better one.

Here’s the problem: education funding (through the formula) is down cumulatively about $900 million over the past eight years. Now, the state faces an overall shortfall for 2016 that is at least that big.

Oklahoma school districts face a cut to per-pupil funding, beginning in January, and lasting through the rest of this fiscal year. The 2016-17 school year budget will be even worse. These are two things we just know.

So why not discuss a penny sales tax? If you don’t like the idea, come up with a better one. Or don’t vote for it.

Of course, first, penny sales tax proponents have to clear the legal hurdle of what should be ruled a frivolous legal challenge to reach the ballot at all:

Then again, one of the OCPA’s side ventures has filed suit – against the reigning State Teacher of the Year, among others – claiming the Boren plan violates the Oklahoma Constitution. In short, they claim the initiative constitutes a “textbook example of logrolling.” By logrolling, the plaintiffs mean that the proposal violates the state’s single issue rule. The fact of the matter is that the proposal is for one thing – a penny sales tax, and what should be done with the proceeds of that penny. The plaintiffs know this. Then again, as I said, they have a long, long history of trying to block all things that would benefit public education.

The State Supreme Court heard the challenge in December. Hopefully, a ruling will come soon. Oklahomans should have the right to vote either for or against this.

December: “How did you go bankrupt?” … “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” – Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

It’s December. It’s the end of the year. We still have a budget crisis, and now, our leaders, elected an otherwise, have put their own spin on it.

Oklahoma Secretary of Finance Preston Doerflinger called the billion dollar shortfall an “opportunity.”

Those who crafted the state budget in May left out one key ingredient: reality. And it has come back to haunt us.

Meanwhile, we’re still fighting the voucher battle. And Congress and the President have finally replaced NCLB with ESSA, which actually is an opportunity – if our Legislature will seize upon that.

The biggest splash of the month, though, came from my former boss, and a few old friends in Moore.

They state simply and clearly the problems we really face. Teachers want what’s best for their students, but they also want what’s best for themselves and their families. They shouldn’t have to choose.


In Part III, I’ll look back at top posts from the year, and a few of my favorites that didn’t really get the clicks on WordPress. In Part IV, I’ll talk about 2016.

2015 Year in Review (Part I)

December 21, 2015 3 comments

Barring something unusual happening in the next few days, I’m going to finish the year with a series of all-over-the-place posts. I’ll talk about the blogging awards, this blog’s five most popular posts from 2015, five posts that meant more to me than the popular ones, and where I think we’re headed in 2016.

I wrapped up 2014 with a song from my own iPod for each month of the year. Those of you reading back when I was still writing anonymously should’ve been able to narrow from those selections that I’m a 40-something suburbanite. This year, I’ve added plenty of new music to my collection, and I’ve used some of it on the blogs too. I’m not going to use music to thread this one together, though. I’ll stick with what I know best – words, from some of my favorite authors.

January: “Even the darkest night will end, and the sun will rise.” – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

This was a pretty eventful month. Janet Barresi left office, hiring and firing people up until her last day. Joy Hofmeister was sworn in as state superintendent, and suddenly, #oklaed had everything we had ever wanted, right?

Come One Come All

No, It’s not that easy. It never is. While I have no reason to believe that Hofmeister’s attempts at providing relief to students, parents, and educators from the mistakes of the previous four years have been blocked at the governor’s office, there have been several instances of the Legislature closing the door on meaningful change for no other reason than spite. Still, from day one, the culture at the Oklahoma State Department of Education has been different. It has been better. Joy has invited – and utilized – the input of actual practicing educators in her decision-making process.

As I wrote at the time:

I can’t promise you that next week all your public education dreams will come true. It won’t happen in a month or a year, either. It’ll take some time – and I assume that I won’t get everything I want out of the Hofmeister administration. Neither will you. Honestly, Joy Hofmeister probably won’t get everything she wants out of her time in office either. That’s not how this works.

And that has shown to be pretty accurate. The OSDE has experienced wins and losses. They’ve taken positions close to the ones that I would have taken. They’ve also done things that made me bite my tongue. Well, maybe not entirely. I’ve been pretty vocal about the policy differences I have with them. Unlike a year ago at this time however, I can talk to them, and they’ll listen. It’s refreshing.

One other big change in January was that I quit writing anonymously. Rob Miller had announced a few days earlier that I would reveal okeducationtruths’s identity after a Sunday night chat. Up until I hit the submit button, I was making edits. I was sweating bullets. I didn’t know if this would be a good thing for me or not. Until that point, the blog had been about ideas more than me as a person.

The anticipation leading up to the reveal was a blast too.

The one with all the masks

Up to that point, I think fewer than ten people knew who was writing this blog. There were probably others who knew but had the good taste to keep their thoughts to themselves.

Since January, I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked about writing anonymously – mainly whether it was the right decision. With some of the stories I’ve heard from OSDE staff since then, I’m going to say that it was a good call.

February: “There is no limit to desire but desire’s needs.” – John Gardner, Grendel

Joy kept the early surge of momentum going with two actions geared towards supporting writing instruction. First, she killed the field test for fifth and eighth grade writing. Then she graciously recorded a message for students at Moore West Junior High in advance of a writing showcase they were having. Here’s what I thought then:

It doesn’t take a perceptive person to understand that I love writing. It’s why I majored in English in college. It’s why I became a teacher. Fundamentally, I believe that writing well opens doors for people. In desperate times, it can be the thing that feeds the soul.

As an administrator in Moore at the time, I can’t express enough how much this message meant to our students and our teachers.

Meanwhile, a fringe group of legislators was busy trying to convince us that Advanced Placement US History was a witch and that we should burn it. This became one of the most discussed topics on my blog, and then it went away. It’ll come back in February, though, so be ready, and know two things: (1) we can’t let this go anywhere; (2) it’s a convenient distraction from the burning house our Legislature has left us with financially.

Oh, and #oklaed fought against vouchers, yet again. The bill went nowhere in 2015, but it will be back in force come February. This time, the pushers behind it are in their last legislative session before they face term limits. They will pull out all the stops to get the bill passed.

This is why it’s worth taking the time to review 2015. Some of what we have seen will reappear.

March: “I don’t think you fully understand the public, my friend; in this country, when something is out of order, then the quickest way to get it fixed is the best way.” – Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

March began with EdCamp OKC, which had been postponed from the last week in February because of snow.

lousy-smarch-weather1

This was my first EdCamp – and my first of three in 2015. I’m already signed up for two in the first three months of 2016. That’s how much I love these. There’s no agenda. Professional development forms organically. If a session doesn’t suit you, you’re free to walk on to another one. Social media helps drive the engine. Oh, and I can’t state this clearly enough:

THERE. ARE. NO. POWERPOINTS.

This was also the first time I had a chance to be in the same room with such #oklaed advocates as Claudia Swisher, Rob Miller, Tyler Bridges, Kevin Hime, Jason James, and Joy Hofmeister at the same time, discussing our efforts at raising awareness towards a common goal: improving education. That’s why we get together and discuss strategy for communicating with parents and the public. That’s why we try to work with our legislators.

Speaking of which, March was the month when we most actively pursued replacing the meaningless End-of-Instruction exams with the ACT. To refresh your memory, right now, students have to pass four of seven EOIs (or their alternate exams) to graduate. Many students pass the first four by the end of their junior year. Many have alternate scores in place that keep them from having to take the tests at all. No colleges look at the scores. In other words, they’re a colossal waste of time. Meanwhile, most Oklahoma high school graduates have taken the ACT at some point.

This will come up again in 2016, this time with the blessing of the feds. It makes too much sense to do this. Let’s not let the moment pass again.

April: “I stuck my head out the window this morning and spring kissed me bang in the face.” – Langston Hughes, The Early Simple Stories

In April, Joy showed us what the phrase sense of urgency really meant. When online tests started showing students their score levels on the first day of testing, she had her staff working with the testing company around the clock to find a solution. Maybe this wasn’t the biggest problem in the world, but since we knew she had said she didn’t want students defined by a test score, the fact that she acted so quickly was a huge illustration of her character.

We also celebrated a time 25 years ago when urgency was nigh (or maybe it was Bellmon). April marked the 25th anniversary of the passage of HB 1017, which overhauled our state’s education system, providing us with standards, accountability, and funding. Unlike the reform onslaught of 2011, these measures were student-centered and came with cash to support them.

May: “We’d all do well to start over again, preferably with kindergarten.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Cat’s Cradle

The Oklahoma legislative session ends each may, usually with much rejoicing.

This year, the big news was that in spite of facing a $600 million shortfall, the state managed to cobble together a budget that held education funding flat. Using that precedent, and knowing that we face a shortfall twice this size, we should expect what? An increase maybe?

In truth, the budget was an illusion. The revenue projections included in it were never realistic. I suspect that many of those who presented the budget to the full Legislature for approval knew that.

In any case, last week, Superintendent Hofmeister asked for an increase in funding, just as she should have:

Despite a dramatic revenue shortfall projected for the upcoming fiscal year, State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said it was her duty to advocate for Oklahoma students and teachers by asking for $60 million to fund a teacher pay increase in fiscal year 2017.

“It is my job to advocate for the needs of the school children of Oklahoma and what they need more than anything is a teacher in every classroom,” she said Tuesday following her agency’s budget hearing in the Senate. “That means solving the teacher shortage and there is no other way to solve that but to include in that a regionally competitive compensation plan. I’ve asked for that plan to begin.”

The teacher shortage is worsening. This modest increase would help, but it’s just one of many steps our leaders need to take.

June: “It’s easier to bleed than sweat.” – Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood

For administrators, June is the month in which we are furiously planning for the year ahead, completing myriad statistical reports for various agencies, and reviewing spreadsheets of student testing data for any kind of coding errors. We don’t have to keep an eye towards Oklahoma City for policy changes or budget discussions. We are closing out one school year while preparing to begin another.

In 2015, June began with the announcement that the writing test would not count towards the A-F Report Cards for the second year in a row. Math and English/Language Arts standards writing committees were in full force. And some of us were contemplating career moves. Just your standard summer slide, right? This lull in visible activity made room for those who will oppose just about anything anyone does to concoct some of the most hysterical conspiracy theories ever.

And that’s where I’ll leave off for the first half of the year.

Cut the crap, not the budget.

December 17, 2015 4 comments

In April, when I blogged about a lesson I taught using my favorite song, Free Fallin’, I had no idea I was describing what was to happen to the state budget. We should have seen it coming; tax cuts galore; a state budget cobbled together in secrecy and approved by legislators who had about 24 hours to view it; funds and estimates that were never anything better than an illusion. Yeah, this was our fate the whole time.

By definition, any object in motion, only affected by the force of gravity, is in a free fall. I think we’re just about there. And it’s a self-inflicted nightmare.

Tonight, I want to thank Keaton Fox with Fox 25 in Oklahoma City for covering a press conference of state leaders. Since there’s nothing on either House Speaker Jeff Hickman’s page or Senator Clark Jolley’s page on the Legislature website, I’ll use Fox’s news story as a de facto transcript of their statements. As necessary, I’ll also pull from William Savage’s coverage on NonDoc, as he hits a few different points from the press conference.

Here are the basic facts:

  • Oklahoma faces at least a $157 million shortfall for the rest of this fiscal year (July 1, 2015 – June 30, 2016).
  • Official estimates by the Office of Management and Enterprise Services (OMES) place the shortfall for the coming fiscal year (July 1, 2016 – June 30, 2017) at $900.8 million.
  • Oklahoma Secretary of Finance Preston Doerflinger expects those numbers to get worse.

This is grim news, unless you choose to spin it differently:

“The fact that we find ourselves in this position is providing us with a tremendous opportunity,” Doerflinger pitched to a crowd of reporters. “I’ve been talking for years about the structural problems the state faces. Now, we find ourselves in a very challenging situation. Panicking about the situation is not productive. We need to use this as an opportunity to do the things we otherwise might not have the will to do.” [NonDoc]

It’s a tremendous opportunity?

That’s one of the most absurd things I’ve ever heard, and I’ve lived in Oklahoma all my life.

“We need to cut at least $157 million dollars across the board,” said finance secretary Preston Doerflinger. “We’ll probably cut a little more than $157 million to give an extra cushion and somewhat soften next year’s reductions.”

For the next fiscal year, estimates are projected at $900 million, but that will likely worsen Doerflinger said.

“Frankly, I see the situation worsening by the time [the legislature] is back in February,” he said. “I think the hole could get bigger this year and next year.”

Doerflinger says though the situation is bad, it’s not as bad as 2009, when cuts to agencies were close to 7%. This year, agencies are looking at another 2-4%, though he cautioned the problem was fluid and could worsen.

“Make no mistake, the vast majority of the challenge we face ahead of us started at the OPEC building in Saudi Arabia, not at this building,” Doerflinger said. [OKCFOX]

To paraphrase Shakespeare, I think the Secretary doth protest too much. OPEC has artificially deflated the price of oil. Every time I pass OnCue and see the price of gas lower than my weight, I flinch. It’s not all OPEC, though. Doerflinger and State Treasurer Ken Miller said as much:

While Doerflinger and other state leaders blame oil and gas, they also point to budget fixes in previous years, including last year, where one-time funds were used to shore up cuts. Doerflinger, along with state treasurer Ken Miller, both say that these methods don’t work, and say they’ve warned state leaders against them.

“Outside of government, it is well accepted that nonrecurring revenues should not be used for ongoing expenditures and that recurring revenue streams should not be cut when current costs exceed them,” Miller wrote in his monthly commentary. “Yet under the capitol dome, that has become standard operating procedure and changes shouldn’t be expected next session given the expected severity of the shortfall.” [OKCFOX]

My favorite phrase here is outside of government. School districts, which are government entities, get this. We project budgets out for several years. In a year that appears to leave a healthy carryover in the budget, we know sometimes that we are seeing an illusion. We don’t increase recurring costs based on a one year surge. It has to look sustainable.

Here’s what really ticked me off tonight, though:

[School districts] have more money to spend than they ever have,” Hickman said, when asked about school funding.

“When you look at all sources of their funding… it’s over $8 billion, if you take out retirement, it’s just under $8 billion,” [Speaker Jeff] Hickman said.

Hickman acknowledged the state’s teacher shortage, saying every state is suffering with the problem except Pennsylvania, along with teacher pay problems, but tempered it with total spending concerns.

“Our concern is if we’re spending more money than we ever have, why is that not getting into teacher salaries?” Hickman said. “In large part, those dollars haven’t gotten to where they needed to go.”

Hickman says the big problem is health insurance costs that eat up step raises and increased to teacher pay. Hickman says the state pays $420 million in health costs for education employees alone, with an additional $30 million expected the coming year.

He says if the health costs hadn’t gone up, you could give each teacher a $10,000 pay raise.

None of that is true. None of it. The cost of health insurance for teachers has increased by about $1,600 per year in that time – not $10,000. They’re also not spending more money on education than ever before.

graph.png

Let’s look at the numbers again. Oklahoma has cut funding by nearly 25% since 2008. Next highest is Alabama, and it’s not even close. Speaker Hickman can try to explain his way out of this, but nobody who truly supports public education should buy it. It’s complete garbage.

Here’s another way of looking at it. During the 1999-2000 school year, over 57 percent of school district funding came from the state. During the 2013-14 school year (most recent year with data), that was down to 48 percent. The state has abdicated its responsibility, and in a huge way.

Here’s another way of looking at it. Districts get state aid based on a formula that involves weighted average daily membership (WADM). Every student enrolled counts for at least 1.0 weights. Some categories of students get extra weights (such as gifted, special education, economically disadvantaged). Below is the state aid for WADM for the last several years (all that are available online). Where exactly is the increase?

Fiscal Year WADM
FY11 $3,113.40
FY12 $3,038.60
FY13 $3,035.00
FY14 $3,032.00
FY15 $3,075.80
FY16 $3,079.60*

*Based on November calculations – the final amount will be considerably lower.

We are spending less per pupil. When you calculate the increase in the cost of living over time, the cuts are worse.

Now, imagine another billion dollars on top of that.

Senator Clark Jolley only echoes Hickman’s claims:

“On average, no question, every school district in Oklahoma has more money than it’s ever had,” Jolley said. “Their argument is that they also have more students than they’ve ever had. Ironically, the chart that shows that Oklahoma leads the nation in cuts to spending does not include… a lot of dollars that are directly flowing to education. And that report is flawed and is not comparing apples to apples.”

Statistics from the National Center for Educational Statistics, however, that compares all school districts equally, shows Oklahoma’s per-pupil spending is ranked 48th in the nation.

Jolley said at a national conference with other budget leaders, many others had the perception that they were 48th in the nation, suggesting that many states are low in spending, depending on the formula. [OKCFOX]

Jolley blames the methodology. He doesn’t think the policies he’s pushed during the last 10 years have anything to do with it. The idea that districts have more money than ever before is simply wrong. It’s a lie. I can’t even figure out what makes people like Hickman and Jolley think it’s ok to repeat. Sure, blame the districts. We funded raises; those mean districts and Obamacare kept them from you.

We still get less money than we did eight years ago. We have 50,000 more students. Don’t ever forget that.

“As we get more of our supply on the market, then the price should go back up,” Hickman said, pointing to a 70 percent drop in oil prices in the past year. The price even dropped Thursday, finishing at $34.95 for a barrel of crude.

Jolley noted a different sort of oil-price paradox during the press conference.

“We’re one war in the Middle East away from high gas prices and high oil prices,” he said.[NONDOC]

So, there’s that. Jolley has a solution. More war.

Keep in mind Jolley and Hickman are both term-limited. Who knows what office they’ll run for next?

Friends, we need to remember all of this. According to the people running our Legislature, it’s the fault of the districts that teachers can’t have raises. According to them, the tax cuts are still working.

We know better. We know that when the 2016-17 school year opens, there will be more students and fewer teachers in our schools. We know that districts will have made all kinds of distasteful cuts. We know all of this, and our Legislature does too. Some of them just like to pretend differently.

We’re in a free fall, approaching terminal velocity. It’s time to make it stop.

 

 

Leadership Vacuum

December 16, 2015 13 comments

This press release from 2014 gubernatorial candidate, Joe Dorman, pretty much sums up how I feel about the deep budget abyss and the reasons it exists:

[Oklahoma City, OK, December 16, 2015] Joe Dorman, 2014 Democratic nominee for Governor, former State Representative of House District 65, and current Chair of Oklahoma’s Fourth Congressional District Democrats released the following statement today in response to news of Oklahoma’s revenue failure:
“The news received regarding the massive budget shortfall was tragic. The governor and legislature have gone so crazy with tax giveaways that they are jeopardizing Oklahoma’s future just to cater to a few huge corporate special interest campaign supporters.
“The required cuts for the remainder of this fiscal year, along with the estimated $900.8 million fewer dollars the state will have to appropriate next year should be no surprise to anyone. This follows the $611 million reduction last year and the $188 million shortfall from the prior year. This crisis ties in with the implemented tax cuts which reduced collections even further.
“We should not forget there is another income tax cut on the books which will set essential services back even more once signs of improvement are seen. Action needs to be taken this session to restore the fiscal responsibility we have not seen in recent years from our elected officials.
“Our state desperately needs new, strong, smart leadership and needs it soon. Oklahomans will have the chance to correct that course in 2016 and 2018.”
I’ll just leave that there. I’ve probably already said enough this week.

The Next Cut is the Deepest

December 15, 2015 6 comments

Today, I want to share two news releases with you. First, district superintendents received this email today from State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister:

Regarding a midyear notice of allocation

OK State Dept of Ed sent this bulletin at 12/15/2015 07:33 PM CST

Dear Superintendents,

We hope to have a midyear notice of allocation to you by early next week as planned. In addition, based on today’s news of a possible state revenue failure, any decrease in funding will cause an allocation adjustment. We will keep you informed of details affecting your midyear funding and when any adjustment has been posted to single sign-on.

In case you are interested, I submitted the following statement today upon news of the potential revenue failure:

“The state revenue failure will have a significant and painful impact on our schools during a time in which every dollar is precious. It is difficult to foresee a scenario in which Oklahoma’s schoolchildren will not feel the negative impact of this crisis. The Oklahoma State Department of Education and schools across the state of Oklahoma are bracing to take action given the new fiscal reality. Our hardworking and committed educators are already doing heroic work under difficult circumstances. We owe it to them and most importantly to the children who depend on them to move forward responsibly and with the importance of every single student’s education in mind.”

Sincerely,

Joy Hofmeister

Every July, school districts receive an initial notice of state aid. It used to come in the form of little envelopes at the end of the state superintendent’s Leadership conference. You’d see superintendents huddled around looking at numbers and either exhaling in relief, or sweating bullets, trying to figure out where they can make immediate reductions for the coming school year.

Now, we get those notices online. It’s 2015, after all.

Our state aid is calculated based on all kinds of statistics thrown into a formula. If you’re a quickly growing district, your initial state aid notice does not account for the added enrollment. That’s where the mid-term adjustment comes in. On the other hand, some districts fear the mid-term adjustment because they are either declining in enrollment or flat.

On yet a third hand (the one you use for a face-palm), when state revenue collections fail to meet projections, we all fear the mid-term notices. The link in Hofmeister’s message to us takes us to a separate news release from the Office of Management and Enterprise Services (OMES).

I’ll tackle it in three parts. Here’s the beginning of the release:

Weak GRF receipts to cause revenue failure this fiscal year

$900.8 million budget hole likely for next year

OKLAHOMA CITY — With sustained low oil prices further weakening General Revenue Fund (GRF) collections, the state will enact midyear budget reductions for appropriated state agencies this year and likely face a $900.8 million appropriated budget hole next year.

As state government’s main operating fund, the GRF is the key indicator of state government’s fiscal status and the predominant funding source for the annual appropriated state budget. GRF collections are revenues that remain for the appropriated state budget after rebates, refunds and mandatory apportionments. Gross collections, reported by the State Treasurer, are all revenues collected by the state before rebates, refunds and mandatory apportionments.

November GRF collections of $354.1 million were $50.1 million, or 12.4 percent, below the official estimate upon which the FY 2016 appropriated state budget was based, and $28.4 million, or 7.4 percent, below prior year collections.

Total GRF collections for the first five months of FY 2016 were $2.1 billion, which is $101.9 million, or 4.6 percent, below the official estimate and $97.3 million, or 4.4 percent, below prior year collections.

We’ve heard various officials tossing around ballpark numbers for several months, but now it appears the state is willing to roll with an official projection. No, the Legislature will not have to make a budget for Fiscal Year 2017 with a billion dollar shortfall. It’s only $900 million. Well, $900.8 million.

This doesn’t impact our soon-to-be-released mid-term adjustment notices. Still, to quote Chevy Chase in Christmas Vacation, Where’s the Tylenol?

haphaphappiestchristmas.jpg

Here’s the second part of the release:

REVENUE FAILURE

Oklahoma state government builds a five percent cushion into every appropriated state budget to prevent mandatory budget reductions if revenues fall below the official estimate. If revenues are projected to fall more than five percent below the estimate for the remainder of the fiscal year, a revenue failure is declared and mandatory appropriation reductions must occur to maintain a balanced budget.

While the five percent threshold was not reached through November, the Board of Equalization next Monday, Dec. 21, will consider an updated FY 2016 revenue forecast that projects GRF collections falling 7.7 percent, or $444.3 million, below the initial estimate the board approved in June. If the board approves the updated forecast, a revenue failure declaration will be necessary.

Agencies on Tuesday were informed of the likely revenue failure by Secretary of Finance, Administration and Information Technology Preston L. Doerflinger, who is statutorily assigned the revenue failure declaration responsibility in his role as OMES director.

“A shortfall is all but certain after 18 months with the oil price as it is, so agencies have been formally advised to prepare for a midyear reduction if they have not already,” Doerflinger said. “It’s going to be the biggest fiscal challenge since the years following the 2008 recession, and we’ll need to meet it head on with all hands on deck.”

Following a revenue failure declaration, monthly general revenue allocations to agencies are reduced across the board by a percentage sufficient to cover the dollar amount of the shortfall projected for the remainder of the fiscal year. Most, but not all, appropriated state agencies receive monthly general revenue allocations.

The reductions each agency will receive will be determined following the Board of Equalization meeting. The state last declared revenue failure in 2009 during the most recent national recession.

I think a quote from a different Christmas movie is in order here:

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Each school district receives monthly state aid checks. What this means is that revenue collections to this point of the current fiscal year have been so low that we will be receiving cuts to our monthly checks, possibly beginning in January. This will be on top of our mid-term adjustment.

Now, the third act of the OMES notice:

FY 2017 BUDGET HOLE

The board on Monday will also make the first projection of revenues available for the next appropriated state budget.

Preliminary information shows the board will consider a revenue projection that would result in $900.8 million, or 12.9 percent, less revenue for the FY 2017 appropriated state budget than was appropriated for FY 2016.

The appropriated state budget comprises about one third of all state spending.

With the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries refusing to adjust production levels to account for the global oil supply glut, West Texas Intermediate crude has dropped below $37 a barrel in recent days – the lowest prices seen since the last U.S. recession in 2008. The oil price has fallen 70 percent since June 2014.

As a result, Oklahoma during that time has lost 11,600 energy jobs and 59 percent of its active oil and gas rigs, which has caused significant tax revenue declines. Other major energy-producing states, such as Alaska, Wyoming, Louisiana, North Dakota and West Virginia, are experiencing similar tax revenue declines.

“Tax revenues in energy states are collateral damage in the market warfare OPEC is waging on U.S. energy producers,” Doerflinger said. “As tempting as it may be to send OPEC and Saudi princes a $900 million bill, we can’t do that and have to manage this hole realistically and responsibly with the tools at our disposal.”

The Board of Equalization will make a second revenue estimate in February that will be used by Gov. Mary Fallin and the Legislature to develop the FY 2017 appropriated state budget.

“The universal truth of Oklahoma state finance – as oil goes, so goes state revenue – is playing out once again,” said Doerflinger, who is Fallin’s lead budget negotiator with the Legislature. “To panic is not productive, and neither is forgetting history. Oklahoma is resilient and will emerge from this boom-bust cycle as we have many times before.”

Uhhhmmmm…this:

Scrooged.jpg

Doerflinger is right. This is not the time to forget history.

Raise your hand if you’ve been in the Legislature for 10 years or more. You back there…we see you.

Raise. Your. Hand.

If you voted for every income tax cut, if you fed into this problem by supporting a seemingly endless supply of tax credits for corporations, if you campaigned for changes to the state constitution such as SQ 766 that further starved education and other public entities, you’re part of the reason we are here today. It’s fun to blame OPEC. Heck, it’s even kind of true. It’s just not the whole truth.

If you still have your hand raised, and you oppose the one-cent sales tax proposed by OU President David Boren, I’d love to hear what other big ideas you have.

Ok, I said the OMES release had three parts, but here’s the coda:

Major tax categories in November contributed the following amounts to the GRF:

  • Total income tax collections of $110.4 million were $16.9 million, or 13.3 percent, below the estimate and $10.5 million, or 8.7 percent, below the prior year.  Individual income tax collections of $110.4 million were $16.6 million, or 13.1 percent, below the estimate and $10.5 million, or 8.7 percent, below the prior year. Corporate income tax collections were entirely consumed by refunds and contributed nothing to the GRF.

  • Sales tax collections of $160.5 million were $19.9 million, or 11.1 percent, below the estimate and $13.6 million, or 7.8 percent, below the prior year.

  • Gross production tax collections of $8.9 million were $16.9 million, or 65.6 percent, below the estimate and $14.7 million, or 62.4 percent, below the prior year. Natural gas collections of $8.6 million were $10.5 million, or 54.9 percent, below the estimate and $615,900, or 7.7 percent, above the prior year. Oil collections of $287,306 were $6.4 million, or 95.7 percent, below the estimate and $15.3 million, or 98.2 percent, below the prior year.

  • Motor vehicle tax collections of $14.4 million were $83,473, or 0.6 percent, below the estimate and $10.7 million, or 290.5 percent, above the prior year.

  • Other revenue collections of $59.9 million were $3.7 million, or 6.6 percent, above the estimate and $307,859, or 0.5 percent, below the prior year.

Yes, they give us bullet points (at least it wasn’t a PowerPoint) to illustrate how the shortfall breaks down.  My personal favorite is this line:

Corporate income tax collections were entirely consumed by refunds and contributed nothing to the GRF.

So you’re telling me we have a $900.8 million shortfall, and that we’re receiving nothing in the way of corporate income tax collections, but that OPEC is to blame? Yeah, history isn’t important at all.

With these projections, if the Legislature refuses to take action to reverse tax credits, then one New Year’s prediction is certain. Oklahoma will continue leading the nation in cuts to education.

I know what my district will be asking Santa to bring us for Christmas:

 

 

ESSA: A New Hope?

December 13, 2015 4 comments

A long time ago (about 15 years) in a conference between members of two of the wealthiest, private school-educated families in this country (George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy), an Act of Congress was forged to control and ultimately destroy public education as we know it. Known as the No Child Left Behind Act, this new law mandated more high-stakes testing than ever before, leading to teacher shortages, narrowed curriculum, and a boon for publishers and software developers.

After some time, new leaders (President Obama and Secretary Duncan) found this law’s promise of every student reaching proficiency in reading and math to be unreachable. They added their own spin: state waivers and Race to the Top grants. All states would adopt “College and Career Readiness Standards.”  Teacher evaluations would be tied to student test scores.

This didn’t work either. Now we have a New Hope…or do we?

Imagine those words scrolling slowly in yellow across a black background at about a 30 degree tilt. It’s much more dramatic that way.

ESSA A New Hope.png

I keep reading all of these “ding dong, the witch is dead” (yes, I’m mixing my pop culture metaphors) posts about the demise of No Child Left Behind and how much better off we are with the Every Student Succeeds Act, but I’m still looking for the part that’s supposed to thrill me. Maybe I’m just tired from doing that victory cartwheel [photo not available].

According this AASA fact sheet, here are a few things we can look forward to:

  • No change to third through eighth grade testing – reading and math every year, science once in elementary and middle (sorry social studies);
  • One test for reading, math, and science in high school, but the flexibility to meet this requirement with the ACT;
  • College and career readiness standards;
  • Accountability for schools will still be based on test scores, but with states having much more flexibility in how that will be accomplished;
  • States are no longer required to include a quantitative component in teacher evaluations; and
  • States will determine what happens to schools and districts that fail to test at least 95 percent of students, as the Opt Out movement continues to build steam.

If you don’t want to read the entire bill (as I don’t), here’s how the Obama administration is framing ESSA:

USDE ESSA BS.jpg

Peter Greene over at #Eddies15-nominated Curmudgucation has a great takedown of all the points in this image, so I won’t hit all of the same points. Writing standards and testing students over them is the typical political answer to all that ails us.

I have news for those who make education policy – even those I like. Adopting standards does not standardize education. It’s nice that we all want to speak the same language. Of course we want all of our fourth graders to enter any fifth grade classroom in the state ready for what is coming. We want a challenging, well-articulated course of study for all students in all content areas.

Documents don’t make that happen. With all deference to my friends on the Math and English/Language Arts standards writing teams, teachers make that happen. And no, I’m not trying to standardize teachers either. We all bring unique qualities into the classroom. Think about your own time in school. Teachers with personality, creativity, and drive are the ones you remember.

Will the feds accept Oklahoma’s new standards? I hope so. I don’t see why not. They should. Of course, our Legislature needs to do that first. But this isn’t what will ensure that Every Student Succeeds.

OWK Standards.jpg

For ESSA to give us any meaningful relief, our Legislature has to act. That has been the number one talking point from our congressional delegation, right? States make better decisions than the feds. It’s why our Legislature voted in 2014 to overturn the Common Core standards they adopted in 2010, right? We want to set our own rules. If that’s the case, here are five quick things Oklahoma can do in 2016 to turn my cartwheel into a backflip [picture still not available].

Replace the EOIs with the ACT.

I’ve argued about why we should do this for years. ESSA gives Oklahoma the ability to do this. No high school student cares about the EOIs. No college ever has or ever will care about them either. The ACT is a nationally recognized test that most Oklahoma students take before graduation. This is slightly different than what Superintendent Hofmeister has initiated, but why not give every student two tickets to take the ACT on a national test date? We would have no class disruptions. Students who chose not to test wouldn’t have to. Students who want to improve their score would have a chance to wait and take it again, on their own schedule.

If students choose not to take the ACT, that would also be acceptable. If they’re involved in a career track program, either in high school, or at a Career Tech center, they could pursue industry certification. These students could also still take the ACT.

The point is that high school students are more forward-thinking than we often credit them with being. They can choose from multiple tracks, and they can even choose when they shift between them. Testing, rather than being a gatekeeper for graduation, would then become more of a tool for guiding and informing them as they plan for the future.

Doing this would produce an immediate cost savings for the state, restore weeks of instructional time in high schools, and allow counselors to meet the individual social, psychological, and academic needs of their students. It’s right there, friends. Do this. Do it first.

Repeal ACE.

This would be another way to save money fast. The 2016 budget includes $8 million for ACE Remediation. Put that money in the formula. I know it’s only a drop in the bucket, but at least it’s that.

If my numbers are right, even with ACE, we are still graduating over 95 percent of our seniors. It’s typically only a gatekeeper for students in special education, English language learners, and students who frequently move. In other words, we’ve spent more than a decade and tens of millions of dollars identifying the students who are most likely to struggle in any system.

ACE isn’t tied to any federal legislation. No, this is a state-inflicted travesty. It does nothing good. End it.

Cut all tests not required by ESSA.

This is where I usually make my social studies friends mad. All I can say to them is that when it’s tested, human nature causes us to limit how we teach it. We want that score.

What I want is for seventh grade geography teachers to decide how they meet the standards and which standards to emphasize in time. I want more project-based learning and less test-centered preparation. I want this for fifth, eighth, and high school US History courses as well.

I understand why there will be some push back to this, but remember, if we can lower the stakes on the tests we keep, then the untested subjects will rise in prominence. The way we teach history will always fall under scrutiny. Tests don’t fix that.

Just last week, I was talking to a friend in another district who had fielded a parent phone call over the fact that we even mention Islam in school. I used to get this question once or twice a semester when I taught in Moore. It gave us a chance to discuss that particular standard in relation to the entire curriculum. Islam is a real thing. It impacts geography and history. So do the world’s other major religions (as well as many of the minor ones). It stays. Each district, school, and teacher decide how much emphasis is placed on discussing the world’s religions, though. Standards, tests, and textbooks don’t do that for us.

As for the writing test, it just needs to go. To make it useful, we’d have to double what we’re willing to pay for it. And if you think that I don’t value writing instruction, then you’re just not paying attention.

Take quantitative measurements out of teacher evaluation.

Remember: no test score has ever been part of the formula for evaluating any teacher in the state. Up to this point, the only information that has been collected through Roster Verification and Value-added Measurements has been for informational purposes only.

I lead with that statement because I still run into teachers who think their students’ Biology I EOI scores are going to count against them in their evaluations. They won’t.

Originally, the plan was to have test scores count for some teachers (and a complicated morass of other data for others) for the current school year. Last year, the legislature gave the state TLE commission a one-year moratorium on putting this in place. This means that right now, teachers are still being evaluated under a qualitative system. Unless the Legislature acts, that changes in August.

They should simply eliminate the component. If administrators want to use test scores, growth models, or any other metric to proscribe professional development, I can live with that. If student performance contradicts everything our observations tell us, though, then we have bigger problems.

We know that students don’t learn when they’re paralyzed by fear. We should also realize that teachers don’t perform well that way. This is probably why a few teachers are still confused about the impact testing might have on them.

More importantly, we need to be realistic. If I have principals who recommend teachers for rehire based on observations and conferences, I’m not going to look at test data and countermand that decision. Teachers are with the students day in and day out. Principals are with the teachers day in and day out. I get to schools where I can, when I can. I don’t see what they see. I’m not firing teachers and replacing them with the candidates I don’t have in our personnel office.

There is no accurate measure of teacher effectiveness. You can’t put a number on it. No matter what mental gymnastics you do, this won’t change.

Create an accountability system that would make Arne Duncan cringe.

We’ve already established our contempt for the feds, right? Then let’s really stick it to them.

Nelson haha.jpg

Let’s take our newfound freedom and go crazy. If a minimum of 51 percent of the school accountability model has to be tests, let’s limit it to that. And let’s have some fun with the other 49 percent. If you have students who go to academic, band, vocal music, speech and debate, or any other kind of contest, you get points. If they win, you get points. If your football team earns an academic state championship, you get points. If you get half your middle school to participate in science fair, you get points. There are a lot of things we can do to show how great our schools are. Few of them require testing.

As Meghan Loyd wrote this week:

Another thing that I’m a fan of is new the flexibility accountability system. Music and Fine Arts in general don’t really fit the mold of most evaluation tools. Being able to include areas of evaluation such as student and parent engagement and school climate and culture as measurable tools is pretty exciting!

We can come up with some really good tools to tell our story. We don’t even have to fall into the trap of taking all of that information and distilling it down into letter grades.

In the end, I’m like that line in the Schoolhouse Rock song, Interjections, about the word being set apart by a comma when the feeling’s not that strong. I’m glad Congress got rid of NCLB. I’m glad ESSA passed. I’m just not exclamation point glad. Let’s see what happens in the next few months.

A Blatant Double Standard

December 12, 2015 1 comment

Yesterday’s editorial in the Oklahoman shows the clear intent of school voucher supporters. They want private schools to have the benefits of taxpayer support, but with none of the accountability.

Starting with the first paragraph:

AS lawmakers debate policies giving Oklahoma students greater education choice, including the use of taxpayer funds for private schools, it’s important to keep regulation of those programs to a minimum. Counterproductive red tape only drives providers away and robs students of opportunity.

You read that right; this is the same newspaper editorial board that has argued for A-F Report Cards, tests to determine 3rd grade promotion and high school graduation, college and career readiness standards, and countless other red-tape reforms over the last several years. Now they’re telling us something we already figured out: every bit of that is counterproductive. It robs students of opportunity. The editorial board may be worried about that type of nonsense driving away potential private education providers. My concern is the extent to which it has contributed to driving away public providers.

You mean you want me to meet more mandates for more students with less funding, and continuing decreases to my take-home pay? Where do I sign up?

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Yes, red tape and accountability mandates are just as responsible for driving good teachers away as the lack of raises over the last eight years. But wait; there’s more:

For example, some argue that any private school accepting students with state-funded scholarships should be required to administer state-mandated tests and report results. Yet that requirement can dramatically limit participation of quality private schools. Greene noted state tests can impact a school’s curriculum and instruction.

I have a question for the educators here. Have you ever had students who were so close to getting the point of a lesson, the theme of a story, or the connection between two historical events, and then, for some inexplicable reason, they just don’t have that final moment where it all comes together? That’s how I feel reading this paragraph.

Of course tests impact a school’s curriculum and instruction. They’re the number one reason for many of the misguided decisions that have happened in schools over the last 15 years. If you’ve ever had a child who had to give up music, art, or recess to spend more time on reading and math, blame the testing culture that this very paper has supported for more than a decade. It’s almost as if they are doing everything imaginable to make the public school experience suck while offering up private schools as a pristine alternative.

I have a better idea. Let the teachers teach the kids. They actually know what they’re doing.

I also want to key in on the phrase “quality private schools.” How do the writers define quality? With public schools, they use a misleading rating system based on test scores. Are Bishop McGuinness, Cascia Hall, and Oklahoma Christian School worthy of an A? Maybe. How would we know? They seem like great schools, but we don’t have A-F Report Cards telling us so. If fear of accountability is going to drive away the quality private schools, then maybe that word doesn’t mean what we think it means. It’s why the organized homeschool lobby in Oklahoma seems to want nothing to do with vouchers.

Side note: as of right now, SB 609, which carries the water for vouchers in the 2016 legislative session, only includes private schools. Although that could change at a later date, there’s no reason to think homeschooling language will be added to the bill in the next five months.

“A lot of private schools don’t teach the state curriculum — on purpose,” Greene said. “They have their own vision of what an educated person is, and that’s what they’re teaching. That’s why they’re private schools. They’re alternatives. They’re something different.”

Believe it or not, most of us who work in public education also have a “vision of what an educated person is.” What we’re doing right now doesn’t resemble that vision. What we’re doing right now limits student autonomy and teacher professionalism. What we’re doing now flies in the face of cognitive development. What we’re doing now is borderline malpractice – and it’s all proscribed by policies that non-educators created.

By the way, the words in quotes belong to University of Arkansas professor and frequent OCPA contributor Jay P. Greene. (I know you’re shocked that there would be a connection between OCPA and the Oklahoman.) Here’s more of what he thinks of public education, from his own blog:

Two of the great pillars of our country are equal rights and freedom for diverse beliefs. Neither of these pillars is consistent with a government school monopoly, nor with the educational oligopoly of limited school choice.

A monopoly or oligopoly exists by stamping out the rights of challengers in order to protect the privileges of the powerful. When educational entrepreneurs are denied the right to start new schools on equal terms with dominant providers, all of us lose. A society where the education of children is controlled by the few is a society that doesn’t respect equal rights.

And the education of our children is at the very heart of how we all live out our most central beliefs about life and the universe. Our country can never fully live up to its commitment to freedom for diversity until we undo the monopolization of education. Part of the reason we created the government school monopoly in the 19th century was bigotry and a childish fear of religious diversity. It’s long past time we, as a nation, grew up. Let’s leave those fears behind us, in the nursery of our national history.

Let’s be clear about which institution better protects equal rights and freedom for diverse beliefs. In public schools, we accept all comers. We don’t care what gender or color you are. We don’t care if or how you worship. We accept you if you’re straight, gay, or transgendered. We take students from birth to age 21 with all kinds of physical and learning disabilities. And I’m not just paraphrasing my district’s compliance statement. This is what I really believe. This is what most of us in public education believe. This is who we are.

Public schools embrace diversity. If you want greater homogeneity, look inside the private schools in your community.

Greene also brings us back to the dreaded Blaine amendment. Representative Jason Nelson was on Twitter this morning rattling this familiar cage too.

In case you don’t have a subscription to the Wall Street Journal, as I don’t, let me sum it up for you anyway. Those of us who oppose school vouchers must be religious bigots. We believe that public funds should not be used for sectarian purposes.

I haven’t re-read all of my old blogs (or Claudia’s, or Rob’s), but I don’t remember this being the center of our arguments. I don’t remember this being the center of any argument made by the OEA, CCOSA, or the OSSBA, either. No, we tend to focus on the fact that this state does a horrible job of funding the public schools and we don’t want to see the stream diverted to private schools that select their own students and answer to no one (at least not publicly).

We teach all the kids we get. Pardon us for not wanting to share funding with schools that want to teach only those students they deem worthy. Back to yesterday’s editorial:

Similarly, requiring private schools to accept all applicants in order to receive state funds can change a school’s culture and mission. In theory, Greene noted participating Catholic schools could be required to accept students who are virulently anti-Catholic. How does that make sense?

It makes no sense. None of it makes sense. I don’t want to tell the Catholic schools (or schools tied to any other denomination or faith) that they have to accept students disruptive to the way they teach their beliefs. I also don’t want to pretend that these schools have the same purpose as public schools.

As my daughter says, “You do you.”

“The only schools who are willing to do whatever the state tells them they must do are the schools that are most desperate for money,” Greene said. “If you don’t have enough kids in your private school and your finances are in bad shape, you’re in danger of closing — probably because you’re not very good — then you’re willing to do whatever the state says.”

At this point, I’m wondering if the Oklahoman editorial board wrote this or just cut and pasted from the Greene playbook. What I’m reading now is that the writers – whoever they are principally – want precise metrics for judging public schools but apply reasoning such as “probably because you’re not very good” to private schools who would accept any state accountability for funds. Funny, that’s the same logic the Oklahoman typically uses against the Education Establishment when they gripe about us speaking our minds.

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Diligently moving forward, the Oklahoman and Greene turn to direct attacks on public schools:

Public schools don’t accept all comers. Districts typically serve students in a limited geographic area. Since many of the better public schools are in upper-income areas with more expensive housing, this means many schools are effectively off-limits to low-income families. Public schools also routinely decline to serve students with significant special needs. Those students are sent elsewhere.

First of all, I want to thank the Oklahoman for saying what those of us in the Rebel Alliance have been saying all along. Yes, many of the “better” schools are in upper-income areas. That’s not a coincidence, you know. Since the upper income areas tend to have wealthier families, and wealthier families tend to have higher educational attainment in the home, and since their children tend to have  better pre-natal care and nutrition from birth to age five, and since affluent homes tend to have more books and words and vacations and stability and such, it only follows logically that the schools there would be full of students that we couldn’t screw up if we tried.

Stuff about all the things.jpg

On the rest of this paragraph’s point, thousands of Oklahoma students attend schools out of their geographically-assigned district. In fact, I think at least one prominent voucher supporter in the Legislature has children attending school in another district. As for the claim that we send our high-needs students elsewhere, Mr. Greene should probably know that the sending district still pays the bill for these students – and it’s huge. Sometimes the least-restrictive environment (LRE) in which we provide a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) is much more expensive than what the district receives through special education funding for that student. Then again, maybe you’d actually have to do my job for a few minutes to know that.

Here’s the closing:

Some public school administrators will object that they should also be exempt from testing and accountability requirements. If lawmakers give parents the power to freely use taxpayer funds to put a child in any school, that’s a point worth debating down the road.

But for now, school choice policies should give parents true alternatives — not force private schools to become another version of the status quo.

That’s me: some public school administrator. It’s not that I don’t want accountability requirements. I just want some that make sense. I just want to know that the people who write them into existence won’t insult me with drivel such as this. For us, the status quo has become public education policy crafted by members of two of this country’s “royal” families (Bush and Kennedy) – two people who never spent a day in public education. Nobody should have to live like that – private, public, or homeschool.

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We have over 30 legislators who will serve their last year in 2016 because of term limits. For a few, passing a voucher bill into law would be a legacy accomplishment. It may even be the stepping stone that some want to use moving into the statewide races that will be up for grabs in 2018. The campaign has begun.

2015 Edu-blogger awards

December 8, 2015 Comments off

This is trite, but let me say it’s an honor to be nominated – in two categories. For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, the finalists for the 2015 Edublogger awards have been named. And yes, this is a real thing.

Overall, Oklahoma blogs have been named as finalists in several categories. In addition to my nominations, here are some others for whom you could vote:

I made several nominations myself, and I see that some of the blogs (or posts) I submitted didn’t make it through to the finals. What’s even cooler is that there are blogs on here I have never read before. You know what that means….

New words!

One thing I have loved about blogging since I started in 2012 is that I find myself getting connected with other writers from within Oklahoma and from around the country.

For example, in the category of “Most Influential Blog Post,” I nominated an Oklahoma friend (#totalhomer), who wasn’t named a finalist. However, my current favorite national writer (Peter Greene, author of Curmudgication) was named a finalist for his post, Stop Defending Music. I use this post in my graduate Curriculum and Instruction class each semester.

One thing to remember as you look at the Oklahoma entrants (and maybe peruse a few other blogs to expand your knowledge base) is that every blog began somewhere. Even Diane Ravitch was a new blogger once. In 2012 (the same year I started), she came in fifth in the category of new blogs, garnering a whopping 111 votes.Ravitch in Fifth

Currently, her blog has over 24,000,000 page views. For comparison’s sake, I’m approaching 600,000 all-time views.

My point in writing about this is not to encourage you to go vote for me. It’s actually to encourage you to begin writing. Start your own blog. Whether you want to advocate for the profession, showcase your classroom, or discuss innovation, just get started. You don’t have to post every day. You don’t have to keep a consistent schedule even.

This is the Internet. We’ll be here, whenever you decide to return. And so will your words.

Go Vote!

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: ,

The Other Shortage

December 6, 2015 1 comment

Other than fringe think tanks and editorialists who selectively interpret facts, Oklahomans universally understand that we have a teacher shortage. School districts have contracted  positions and increased class sizes. The State Board of Education has granted nearly 1,000 emergency certifications. Principals all over the state can tell stories of having just one applicant for key teaching positions. At times, the folder is completely empty. That’s to be expected when the starting salary for a position that we all claim to value is mired in the low 30s.

We have another shortage in Oklahoma, though. There’s another job that people who may not know better see as part-time work and with a salary mired in the 30s. Not enough people are signing up to run for the Legislature.

During the 2014 election cycle, all 101 House seats and 25 of 48 Senate seats were up for grabs. On the House side, 50 of those seats were decided without a single vote being cast. Another 15 seats were decided in the primary. That means that only 36 races made it to November.

In the Senate, eight seats were unopposed, and four were decided in the primary. That means that 13  races made it to November.

So out of 126 seats that were up for election in 2014, only 49 were contested in November. We don’t just have a teacher shortage.

2014 Legislature Elections Up for Election Unopposed Primary Only Elected in November
House 101 50 15 36
Senate 25 8 4 13
Total Seats 126 58 19 49

One thing the state was supposed to get by imposing 12-year term limits in the Legislature was frequent turnover. While this goal has been achieved in part, the fact remains that for most legislators, the toughest race is the first one. After that, there’s a better chance than not that after filing and perhaps a cursory primary race, that an incumbent won’t have to do anything between summer and fall.

The point of me saying this is not to bash those who run and serve in the Legislature. Nor is it to argue that our elected leaders are scant of money and respect, the way our teachers are. No, my point is that this job must not appeal to that many people either.

I think I understand why few people run. I never want to put my own name on a ballot. I have known candidates I respect who are consistent 80 percent of the time, and then they speak to certain groups, and their message changes. Maybe they don’t flip-flop on positions, but they soften or harden their stance, based on the size, tenacity, and influence of the group.

Candidates have to fund raise, which involves a lot of plastic chicken dinners (followed by Taco Bueno on the way home). It also involves a lot of conversations with people who have a singular agenda (such as those of us right now solely focused on the teacher shortage).

Candidates have their words twisted and their skeletons explored. There is plenty of opportunity for both to be taken out of context and provide for embarrassing (and often unnecessary) apologies.

More than these things, though, running for the Legislature is economically unfeasible for many who would probably serve their districts and the state well. I know a number of teachers and principals who would be good legislators. They’d have to give up their careers, though. That’s true for many who would consider running.

The primary duties of our representatives and senators fall between February and May. However, as with most teachers, most legislators work year-round to study issues they may want to bring into legislation at a later date. They spend time with constituent groups, including those of us concerned with education.

That leaves a small group of people who can really run for the legislature. First is people who don’t currently have careers. They could be straight out of college, retired, or perhaps just individuals who never entered the workforce in a full-time capacity. Second is people who are independently wealthy. Third would be business owners who are comfortable stepping away from day-to-day operations of their enterprise for weeks at a time.

We also need to remember that most who come from these three groups (or anyone else not captured by that description) don’t inherently have a teacher’s perspective on public policy. As Claudia Swisher pointed out last night, they may have a relative who used to be a teacher or something similar, but that’s not the same thing. Nothing replaces having those years with students.

What we need to remember is that most who serve in the Legislature do so with a significant measure of sacrifice. They’re not getting rich while serving, at least not from what the state pays them. If you have to give up your career to serve, and you’re currently making more than $38,000 a year, you’re probably not very motivated to run.

On our end, as voters, as educators and parents, we need to be beating the bushes to find candidates who get it. Some of my favorite legislators ran unopposed in 2014. Call it my reckless love for the democratic process, but I want those representatives and senators to draw opponents too. We need to find people who really support public education. Remember, they all say they do, but their votes count. So do their other actions. Some good ideas die in committee before any votes are cast.

It’s one thing to say you support testing reform, but if you have the power to kill a bill that would eliminate the travesty that is the state writing test before the House can vote on it, I don’t believe you.

It’s one thing to say you want teachers to have raises, but if you refuse to discuss either rolling back corporate tax credits or the proposal for a one-cent sales tax, I don’t believe you.

It’s one thing to show up at public schools for photo opportunities, but if you’re leading the charge to funnel public school dollars to private schools*, and you don’t want the recipients to have any of the accountability the rest of us do, you’re no friend of public education.

With Congress taking requirements of a quantitative teacher evaluation tool out of the renewal of the ESEA (now ESSA), if you refuse to budge on that half of TLE, you can’t say you’ve been listening to us either.

My point is that if we have more candidates – if more races are contested all the way to the end – then the candidates will have to listen to us. It’s not enough to have the right vote on one or two key issues. Every legislator is either helping to curb the teacher shortage or making it worse – whether actively or passively.

Our elected leaders deserve our thanks and respect for choosing to serve us. We deserve their attention and understanding. Don’t settle for less.


*Update – The previous version of this post stated that certain legislators want to funnel public school dollars to private schools and homeschool families. The current version of HB 609, which was held over from the 2015 Legislative session, does not include ESAs for homeschooling. This is an important distinction. While that doesn’t mean the bill won’t be amended, it is my understanding that many in the homeschool lobby would prefer to be left out of the bill altogether.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: ,

Breaking the Silence

December 3, 2015 2 comments

You have to watch this video. It’s only 12 minutes long. It’s a group of Moore Public Schools teachers talking about the struggles of students and of teachers. It finishes with each discussing why they stay.

If you receive my blog by email, click on the link and open the video. It’s that good.

As you probably know, before coming to Mid-Del in August, I spent seven years working with these people. They’re my friends. The teacher who opens the video, Ray Robinson, was my roommate during a conference in the DC area in 2013. He’s an interesting guy with a hell of a backstory. He loves his school. He practically lives up there during the summer, off the clock, for free.

That’s what teachers do.

What breaks my heart is the student teacher who loves the district but has done the math, and has decided to leave the state. That’s a real story too.

Teachers working second jobs. Real.

Teachers leaving the profession in tears because they want to support their families better. Real.

Teachers staying, even though they qualify for government assistance. Real. Trust me. I’ve been there too. Unlike this teacher, we took the help. That’s when I decided to leave the classroom.

The people in this video all work in Moore. They could just as easily work in Mid-Del, Mustang, Medford, or Muskogee, where I’ve also worked. They could even work in districts that don’t start with an M. These are the stories of teachers in Idabel and Woodward; Sand Springs and Duncan; Tulsa and Oklahoma City. These are rural, suburban, and urban school teachers. Moore just happens to be the one telling the story right now.

Speaking of my friends from Moore, Dr. Jason Perez today published an article on Hot Chalk talking about the importance of teachers advocating for the profession; their students; themselves. For those of you who aren’t aware, Jason was a principal for many years before becoming the Executive Director for TLE at the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

I’m proud of my friends in Moore.

Thank you for sharing your struggle.

Thank you for using your words.

Use your words

As for the rest of us, we need to make sure our legislators see this video. We need to make sure the governor sees it. As Dr. Romines says at the end, we really don’t care if it’s the one-cent sales tax or something else, fund education. Now. Quit making excuses.

Money and respect. That’s all it will take to fix education. Maybe it sounds trite, but our children deserve better. So do the people who spend every day with them.

Break the silence. Speak up. Tell your story. And share until you can’t share anymore.

So much thanks

November 25, 2015 Comments off

I can pretty much assume that if we’re going to talk about our blessings this Thanksgiving, that there will be some common things 90 percent of us say. Our families and friends. The servicemen and women who protect this great country. Sunsets. Bacon.

Just a few days ago, I even wrote about how thankful I am that former students from more than a decade ago still reach out to me to let me know I’ve had some kind of impact on their lives.

I want to push myself farther this year and give 45 very specific reasons to give thanks – one for every birthday I’ve had. So we’ll take the ones from above as givens and shoot for a more personalized list.

  1. Jazz bands

  2. The #oklaed online community
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  3. Reruns of Thanksgiving episodes of Friends
  4. Coffee and donuts
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  5. Books
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  6. Free songs from the Foo Fighters
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  7. Taco Bueno after bad banquet food
  8. A leadership team that really gets me

  9. A former staff that did too
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  10. A great boss and mentor in Moore
  11. Really, a lot of great leaders and co-workers throughout my career
  12. Getting to meet Diane Ravitch
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  13. Bloggers, parents, and other rebels throughout Oklahoma who fight for children and their schools
  14. Superhero day at elementary schools
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  15. Speaking of superheroes, Baker Mayfield

  16. Speaking of superheroes, Russell Westbrook (featuring unicorns and rainbows)
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  17. The first day of school
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  18. Breaks
  19. High school classmates who are long-time Mid-Del teachers
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  20. Tom Petty

  21. Friends who can quote Hemingway
  22. Friends who can quote Shawshank, Princess Bride, and Seinfeld, on command
  23. Birthday wishes from Joe Dorman
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  24. Nerd humor
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  25. Humble beginnings
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  26. Independent thought
  27. Guilty pleasures
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  28. Austin being weird
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  29. A state superintendent who is the real deal
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  30. A school board and community that took a chance on me
  31. Students in leadership
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  32. Students in leadership volunteering to moderate chats
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  33. Running
    running
  34. Skiing
  35. Surprise reunions at holidays
  36. First-world problems
  37. Words
  38. Old movies
  39. Students who step outside their comfort zones
  40. Teachers who step outside their comfort zones
  41. The finales of Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, the Colbert Report, and Letterman
  42. A new Sarah Vowell book
  43. Reporters who give public schools a fair shake
  44. The opportunity to work with graduate students
  45. The future, whatever it holds

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. And if you get tired of leftovers, go get a taco or some Funyuns. And read a book or two.

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Sometimes, Knowing is Enough

November 22, 2015 2 comments

It’s that time of year when we all share things that make us thankful. As with most people, I have many blessings about which I can reflect this year. One of them is that I’ve had the opportunity to impact so many young lives throughout my career. Because of social media, many of my former students even let me know what they’re doing with their lives.

I started my career at West Middle School in Muskogee (which isn’t even a school anymore) in 1993. These were my eighth grade students, and my sixth grade academic team.

I was only there a year, but I had a great principal and great colleagues on our eighth grade team. I’ve occasionally seen names of students from this group on Facebook, but there are only a couple who I really know anything about. I would say this group probably shaped who I became more than I shaped them.

My years at Mustang High School, however, have given me many friends – both from among the colleagues I had, and the students I taught. Since I left the classroom in 2002, all the students I ever taught are in their 30s now. They have families and careers. Some are even teachers. Some have found happiness and success. Some have found hard times. I told them all that when they graduate from high school, they need to get used to calling me Rick, rather than Mr. Cobb, since it was my intent that they become my peer as adults.

Of all the groups I taught, I probably have the fondest memories of the students I had the good fortune to keep for two years. At the end of the 98-99 school year, I had been teaching freshman for four years. I had two sections of regular English and three sections of honors English. Because one of our teachers was moving into an assistant principal position, I had the opportunity to move up. On the first day of school, rather than covering the syllabus and the student handbook, I opened with, “so, when we left off in May…” and then we started learning.

This was before I had ever read anything about building relationships with students and how much that impacts their learning. It was just obvious to me. When I was coaching volleyball, and I had some of my players in class, it was easy to connect with them. The better you know your students, the better you can teach them. It’s not rocket surgery.

This is also the group of students I taught that has connected with me as adults in the greatest numbers. The two pictures below show my honors classes from that year. Of the students pictured, I’m friends with 25 of them on Facebook. I’ve actually seen most of them since they finished high school, which is even more notable since I left Mustang the year they graduated.

Some would come back to me when they were juniors and seniors and ask for advice with their AP papers. Even after I moved to Medford as a principal, I had students who reached out to me.

The last year I was in the classroom, I had a student named CM. He was funny and smarter than he knew. What he probably didn’t realize was that when we were discussing some story or a writing topic, I would give him a little latitude to circle around to the point. He didn’t always take the most direct line from the question to the answer. He made it there, but indirectly. And he’d stick the landing. It was worth the processing time to get to the result.

It was with CM’s class that I stopped in the middle of a class discussion one day in April and just stared blankly at my students. I had already accepted the Medford job and was in the process of selling a house and changing everything. I just had this clear moment of what I was leaving behind. After a few silent, awkward moments, one of the students asked me if I was ok. I said something along the lines of how I just had realized everything I was giving up. My job was to discuss books I love with some of the most interesting people in the world. It was like Oprah, but without her paycheck.

I still think that’s a pretty cool job.

Eight months later, as I was in my office getting ready for a much needed break, I got a phone call from Mustang. It was CM and two other students from that class. They just wanted to tell me Merry Christmas and ask me how I liked being a principal. We probably talked for five minutes or so, and that was that.

Until this August, I hadn’t heard from CM for nearly 13 years. Out of nowhere, I received this Facebook message:

Hey Mr. Cobb, this is CM… I had you for AP English II at Mustang.., I am doing my student teaching at Mustang this semester and I have sophomores in English II LOL… My mom said I needed to friend you on Facebook and I thought it was a good idea so I sent you a request and here is a message attached. Anyway, I just thought I would say hello and let you know what I was doing… Just FYI I wanted to let you know you are a big reason why I decided to go into teaching. You were a great teacher, awesome person, and a great influence so thank you for everything!

I love it when my former students become teachers. I quickly tried to hire him because, well, you know, there’s a teacher shortage. Mostly, I just love hearing stories about how the people I taught turned out. I know their parents influenced more than I did. I know they had other teachers. But when one of them takes the time to tell me that something I did shaped their life in a positive way, I feel like I’m watching a SportsCenter highlight of myself.

After leaving the classroom, I spent two years as a principal, four years as a state employee, and then seven in the central office before becoming a superintendent. For the last 11 years, I haven’t had the direct day-to-day contact with kids. I have made friends at each of those places. I have provided training for teachers all over the state and developed a professional network that I treasure. I know that my work has made a difference. And sometimes, knowing is enough.

But I have to take it on faith. I don’t see the students and watch them from May to August. Sure, principals can give me their data points, but I think we all know how I feel about data points. They’re not people.

I knew once I left the classroom, I would never have that kind of relationship with students again. If anything, that’s probably what motivates me to be in schools as much as I can be right now. I love opportunities to work with kids, but more than that, I get to see teachers building those relationships with students, and with families. I take selfies with classes because it reminds me why we do what we do.

Sometimes, though, I get messages that my nine years in the classroom mattered to someone else besides me. And for that, I’m thankful.

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on Obstruction and Serious Conversation

November 19, 2015 2 comments

If my math is correct, and it usually is, Oklahoma school districts have lost over $900 million in State Aid since the 2008-09 school year. Even if the Legislature could pull a minor miracle and keep funding for schools flat for the 2016-17 school year, the total revenue decline would be more than $1 billion in just eight years.

The funny thing about losing that much money is that you miss it. It hurts. The only thing that hurts worse is when you realize it isn’t coming back. That’s when you have to act boldly.

To me, that is what we’re seeing with Governor Senator OU President David Boren’s penny sales tax plan. Born of necessity – because frankly, nobody is proposing any other credible solution – it stands as the only option on the table. Sure, the Oklahoma’s Council for Pushing ALEC – or whatever OCPA stands for – came up with an alternative. It includes several one-time solutions – such as selling off art collections (that the state doesn’t technically own) for teacher raises.

Oklahoma's Council for Pushing ALEC.jpg

Here’s a fun fact for people who’ve never had to cobble together a school district budget and worry about paying thousands of teachers and support employees: you can’t use one-time funds for raises. What are you going to do the next year if nothing to match those funds is in place?

Then again, why would we expect a group that has invested decades trying to destroy public education to bring anything serious to the conversation? I only bring them up because they carry water for and to certain obstructionist legislators who share their voucher-centric agenda. They’re part of the conversation, whether they have any business being in it or not.

I haven’t yet written about the Boren proposal for a couple of reasons. First, I have a lot of friends and colleagues working in municipal government. I fear that a state penny sales tax will limit their ability to continue generating local revenue through their own initiatives. We need well-funded schools, but we need well-funded city governments as well. It’s not a trade-off for me. They’re both critical needs.

Second – and maybe this should be first – is the fact that over the last ten years, our state government has methodically reduced the tax base by passing income tax cuts (that really didn’t benefit the middle class or the working poor), increasing tax credits for corporations, and pushing nebulous amendments to the state constitution that limit growth in ad valorem collections.

As Oklahoma Watch points out, some who are critical of the Boren plan feel like the state is replacing income taxes that are progressive with  sales taxes which are, by definition, regressive. As Boren points out, however, “Our choice is to either do this, or nothing.” In other words, we can lament the fact that our elected leaders knew they were tying their own hands, or we can propose a solution.

high anxiety.jpg

That billion dollar projected hole in next year’s state budget reflects the billion dollars in lost state aid that schools have seen over the last seven (going on eight) fiscal years. Reversing this trend through legislative means is a feat that is against all odds. While I’d welcome some teamwork and help from our elected leaders, until that happens, why not let the people decide if a penny sales tax is the best way to help public education.

Then again, one of the OCPA’s side ventures has filed suit – against the reigning State Teacher of the Year, among others – claiming the Boren plan violates the Oklahoma Constitution. In short, they claim the initiative constitutes a “textbook example of logrolling.” By logrolling, the plaintiffs mean that the proposal violates the state’s single issue rule. The fact of the matter is that the proposal is for one thing – a penny sales tax, and what should be done with the proceeds of that penny. The plaintiffs know this. Then again, as I said, they have a long, long history of trying to block all things that would benefit public education.

What they forget, however, is that public schools are responsible for teaching 90 percent of students in this state. What they forget is that parents and communities support their local schools and the people who work in them. What they conveniently try to forget is that those parents and communities are sick and tired of budget cuts and teacher shortages, and that voters increasingly realize that the school districts didn’t create these problems.

Oh, and 2016 is an election year. Every House seat and half the Senate seats are up for grabs. I recently read that more than 30 seats will be impacted by term limits. If incumbents have opponents, they all can be. If incumbents throw up their hands and say there is nothing they can do to prevent cuts to education funding, then we should see more challengers.

With all that said, one conservative Oklahoman I respect tremendously is Phyllis Hudecki. She has been – among other things – Governor Fallin’s first secretary of education. She has been involved with the Oklahoma Business Education Coalition for more than a decade. She recognizes the problems that shrinking education budgets and stagnant teacher pay have brought to our schools. She published a strong editorial in this Sunday’s Oklahoman saying as much:

Our teachers are leaving the state in droves. In fact, schools began this year with about 1,000 teacher vacancies and a record number of adults in classrooms without teacher preparation.

Teachers haven’t had a state-funded raise in nearly a decade, which is, in part, why the state ranks 48th in teacher pay. We have a moral and economic imperative to fix this now.

While money is not the only answer for all that ails our schools, it is certainly a large part.

The Oklahoma Business and Education Coalition recently commissioned a study of teacher attrition and pay in Oklahoma, Texas and comparable jobs in the private sector. The study showed that teacher salaries in Oklahoma are about 16 percent lower than teacher salaries in Texas and 28 percent lower than median salaries for similar workers in Oklahoma’s private sector.

Nibbling around the edges and tinkering with smaller changes may save a little, but it will not catapult funding to the levels needed now.

The only comprehensive funding plan on the table is the ballot initiative to add a penny sales tax.  The measure would provide approximately $426 million to increase teacher salaries.

Ideally, the upcoming legislative session would include serious movement towards rolling back tax credits that really haven’t proven to stimulate the economy. Failing that, we have the Boren plan. At the least, Oklahoma voters should have the right to decide its merits – and to do so without obstruction and misinformation from right-wing lobbyists.

A-F Breakdown: Let’s Define #ourschool Ourselves

November 8, 2015 2 comments

Each of the last two weeks the Journal Record has published columns by individuals affiliated with a certain right-wing non-partisan think tank in which the writer is critical of those of us who have been critical of the A-F Report Cards. I enjoy watching people defend the indefensible as much as anybody, but it’s probably good to run a scorecard of the responses we’ve seen so far.

First, it was Oklahoma City University professor Andrew Spiropoulos who wrote about being puzzled that Governor Fallin didn’t even defend her own reforms:

But when you don’t control the debate, you lose control of the government. Look at what has transpired this month concerning the issue of education reform. One of the most important and bitter fights of the Gov. Mary Fallin years was the establishment of the state A-F school and district grading system.

While managing the system is always a difficult work in progress, the system’s benefits are evident. Every month, it seems, you read an inspiring story about a school, usually in the inner city, that used a failing grade as a spur to transform itself and, because of these efforts, improved both student achievement and its state grade.

But the education establishment isn’t going to allow proof that a reform is working to temper their lust to repeal it. As you would expect, the bureaucrats took the certification of this year’s grades as an opportunity to once again criticize the system and call for its repeal. The state superintendent of public instruction, the education establishment’s hired hand, refused to promote or even defend her own department’s work.

Did he really just call us the education establishment? That’s so 2014 of him.

I also find the governor’s silence telling. Maybe she’s busy managing the boon to our economy that a decade of tax cuts has brought the state. As deeply moved as Spiropoulos is by anecdotal stories of schools making great gains, he fails to see that outliers prove nothing  when it comes to dispelling trends. For most of those schools, the gains have come with the infusion of federal school improvement funds and a narrowed academic focus. One of those is a good thing. The other is a narrowed academic focus.

As I’ve said in different ways countless times, a singular focus on testing sucks the passion out of both teaching and learning. Curiosity – not test prep packets and the loss of electives – is the root of learning.

Michael Carnuccio, the outgoing president of said think tank also expressed his disdain for our collective show of frustration with the A-F grades.

When Oklahoma’s new A-F report cards were released last month, many in the education community were quick to pronounce the grading system “flawed” and “unfair” and to insist that the grades don’t accurately reflect student performance.

Tulsa World columnist Jay Cronley noticed the defensiveness and remarked (sensibly, I thought) that “if people focused more on improving themselves and their families than complaining about everything from the headline in the newspaper to the testing procedure, maybe more schools would improve their grades.”

First, I’ll take issue with Jay Cronley. I can’t speak for the entire education establishment, but in the course of my typical 60 hour week, I maybe spend an hour or two complaining about public policy issues. I do some more on my own time, as if that’s a thing. The truth is that we’re too busy trying to teach kids and run schools to sit in our palaces and dwell on every bad idea. Yes, we have increased our advocacy against those who insist on repeating the false narrative that public education is failing. We do plenty more than that, though.

Carnuccio then lists every other report card known to man. For each, I could have a separate response. I’ll be brief, however. Oklahoma schools have more students in poverty than most other states. Oklahoma is outperformed by most other states. The US has more students in poverty than most of the comparison countries. The US educates ALL students; other countries don’t. So yes, there are statistical differences there too.

With Oklahoma’s A-F Report Cards, if we were to compare school sites’ poverty levels to the report card grades, we would see a strong correlation, just as we did in 2012, 2013, and 2014. Similarly, if we ranked states and countries by poverty levels, we’d see similar trends. Oh, wait, that’s already been done.

Thanks, Rob.

For what it’s worth, in case you missed it, Dr. Joe Siano (Norman) and I wrote a brief message expressing our thoughts on the A-F Report Cards. The Oklahoman was kind enough to run it. It wasn’t just two OKC metro-area superintendents, though. CCOSA sent the letter in advance to their members, and over 230 superintendents around the state signed off in agreement.

Are we dodging accountability? No, just mythology. Here’s how we ended the letter:

Fortunately, a task force is working with researchers to study options and solutions to address flaws that have been identified. Researchers from the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University have questioned the methodology and the usefulness of the A-F calculations. And, the creation of the task force, proposed by our own state leaders, clearly demonstrates that inaccurate and misleading information is being distributed to parents about Oklahoma’s schools.

As teachers and administrators, we should be held accountable for our work. However, any accountability system should be an accurate measure of the comprehensive work that contributes to the overall success of our students and schools. In spite of the millions of state dollars spent annually on the current system, it is not helpful in guiding districts. Instead, district and state officials spend countless hours tracking data errors for a product that has no instructive value.

Regardless of the accountability system used, we remain committed to student success and will continue to advocate on behalf of our state’s future leaders. We hope that ongoing research and commitment by state leaders and school district officials will lead to an improved measure that we can use in helping patrons understand all the indicators of school success.

Others who came out against the report cards include State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister and Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist. Hofmeister’s press release points out that even the USDE has problems with the system. In fact, few in the Legislature who still support it. That’s why they ordered a study about ways to reform it. That study includes researchers from the state’s flagship universities who have criticized the grades from the first year moving forward.

All this is to say that the scorecard stacks more heavily to the side of those of us who think these report cards are a slap in the face. Maybe it’s a breakdown in confidence that caused the governor’s silence.

(Did I say breakdown? Hold on for some gratuitous Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.)

I’ve always objected to the letter grades on a very basic level. If all you want to tell me about my school is that we are an A or an F or something in between, you’re missing the bigger picture. We do things that aren’t measured – always have, always will. Sometimes, that one thing that keeps a child in school is something that a test or a report card just can’t capture.

That’s why I floated the idea of a new hashtag to a couple of blogger friends the same day that Spiropoulos published in the Journal Record. None of us could come up with a good one that we could use to capture what’s right with our schools. They were either to clunky or too easy to mock if you’re a middle schooler.

That night, I was excited to read Seth Meier’s post on his blog, Excellence in Mediocrity. It was simply titled #OurSchool. He included several sources of pride for Jarman Middle School. It was something I could appreciate as both a blogger, and his superintendent. Here are some of the things Seth highlighted:

  • #ourschool examined referral data that focused on student demographics, which allows us to individualize positive behavior supports for students.
  • #ourschool provided a huge basket of goodness for a teacher that recently endured a heart attack.
  • #ourschool had school-wide team competitions to help build unity within our grade-level teams.
  • #ourschool gave food to families that do not have any.
  • #ourschool teaches with integrity, even when we feel that we aren’t appreciated.
  • #ourschool has worked with amazing parents.
  • #ourschool has been parents to those that need it.
  • #ourschool has helped homeless families.
  • #ourschool has challenged our kids in the best ways.
  • #ourschool has grown as a family.

This is what we should all be doing. We should be fighting back with the things that bring us pride. Instead of letting think tanks that want to destroy public education define us, we must do it ourselves.

All Star Edition of #oklaed #studentsask Chat

October 25, 2015 1 comment

Here are my favorite responses to tonight’s chat questions, all in Twitter form. Since I had the chance to sit with three high school seniors while co-moderating the chat, their reactions are a factor in my choices. Drew Price, I think you were the fan favorite at my table at Starbucks.

chat at Starbucks

Q1 How can schools balance the need for increased security measures with having a welcome climate for students and parents?

Q2 What has your school or district done to make high school schedules align with research on teenage sleep patterns?

Q3 What should schools do to help students use technology more effectively and responsibly?

Q4 How can schools give students more academic choices and autonomy?

Q4b How can schools make electives as important as core classes?

Q5 Should high schools students be asked to select a major or area of academic emphasis?

Q6 What can we do to make teachers feel less rushed and less focused on testing?

Q7 How can schools help students with testing anxiety?

Q8 How can schools hold teachers and coaches accountable for the balance between homework, activities, and life in general?

Q9 Should all students have a career path chosen by the end of high school?  

Q9b What should schools do to help students explore careers?  

Q10 Should schools limit the number of AP classes students take at any one time? Why or why not?

If you want to review the entire chat, it’s up on Storify. Thanks to all who participated!

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10.25.15 #oklaed chat questions

October 25, 2015 1 comment

I hope you can join me tonight for the weekly #oklaed chat from 8:00 to 9:00. I will have three co-moderators: leadership students from each of the high schools in the Mid-Del school district.

We have a group of 24 students – juniors and seniors, eight from each school – who meet monthly to discuss a variety of issues. They are nice enough to invite me to join them, so I’ve spent a couple of days asking them to come up with questions they’d like to ask us.

Here’s where we’re headed tonight:

Q1 How can schools balance the need for increased security measures with having a welcome climate for students and parents? #oklaed

Q2 What has your school or district done to make high school schedules align with research on teenage sleep patterns? #oklaed

Q3 What should schools do to help students use technology more effectively and responsibly? #oklaed

Q4 How can schools give students more academic choices and autonomy? #oklaed

Q4b How can schools make electives as important as core classes? #oklaed

Q5 Should high schools students be asked to select a major or area of academic emphasis? #oklaed

Q6 What can we do to make teachers feel less rushed and less focused on testing? #oklaed

Q7 How can schools help students with testing anxiety? #oklaed

Q8 How can schools hold teachers and coaches accountable for the balance between homework, activities, and life in general? #oklaed

Q9 Should all students have a career path chosen by the end of high school? #oklaed

Q9b What should schools do to help students explore careers? #oklaed

Q10 Should schools limit the number of AP classes students take at any one time? Why or why not? #oklaed

We’ll start promptly at 8:00 with introductions, and begin with the questions at 8:04. About every 5 minutes, we’ll add a new question, but as always, feel free to keep the conversation going on anything that you feel remains unfinished.

And get your own students to participate, if you can. We need to hear their voices too.

See you tonight!

School District Size; School District Spending

September 23, 2015 1 comment

I’m used to reading ill-informed attacks on school funding. They come from newspapers. They come from think tanks. They come from academic-type folks. Today’s editorial in the Oklahoman from Ph.D. economist Byron Schlomach with the 1889 Institute hits the myth trifecta.

Among his claims:

  • The 300 smallest school districts in Oklahoma account for less than 13% of all public education expenditures.
  • The 12 largest school districts in the state account for 40% of all public education expenditures.
  • The 12 spend about $500 more per pupil than the 300.
  • Oklahoma districts overall spend more than $10,000 per pupil.
  • The state makes it hard to find information about school spending.

I’ll start with the last claim. It’s not that hard to get data on school districts and spending or really anything else. Just contact the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability and ask for their most recent database. This one happens to be for the 2013-14 school year. They’ll send you data going back to 1997 if you ask.

I’m against using geographic or other differences to pit school districts against each other. On the other hand, I’m superintendent of one of those 12 mega-districts that Schlomach thinks should be torn asunder. Using the 2013-14 database, I ran a few numbers on the whole state, the 12 largest districts, and the 300 smallest ones.

Variable 12 Largest 300 Smallest All Districts
Enrollment 249,916 83,087 668,054
Economically Disadvantaged Students 157,461 56,260 413,578
Special Education Students 34,463 15,626 101, 090
ELL Students 31,536 1,885 42,271

The 12 largest districts in the state actually educate 37% of the state’s students. The 300 smallest districts educate about 12% of the state’s students. The numbers of economically disadvantaged and special education students follow within a couple of percentage points. The ELL population heavily leans towards the biggest districts; these 12 have 67% of all the state’s ELL students. Hold that thought.

Variable 12 Largest 300 Smallest All Districts
Total Spending 1.95 billion 777 million 5.26 billion
Local Funding 47% 43% 10%
State Funding 35% 52% 14%
Federal Funding 40% 48% 12%

The 12 largest districts spend a lot of money. According to these figures, during the 2013-14 school year, they accounted for 37% of all school spending in Oklahoma. Meanwhile, the 300 smallest districts accounted for about 15% of all spending. This sounds about right. It’s pretty close to the enrollment percentages too.

The Oklahoma City and Tulsa districts have a number of factors that complicate their districts, but overall, this group has the ability to provide broader, unduplicated services in their larger settings. Small districts can’t be as efficient. It’s a fact. It’s just not a clarion call for consolidation. Remember, I’ve worked in rural schools too. I see their value.

The other issue with his research is the $10,000 amount. He’s including bond debt – twice. That’s what happens when you count debt repayment and the sinking fund separately. They’re the same thing. He’s also counting activity funds. Yes, that volleyball cookie dough fundraiser is counted as revenue and expenditures in his methodology. Technically, it is money in and money out, but it is not tied to the direct instruction or operation of the school district.

The problem with bond debt is that it’s very localized and quite varied. More than 130 districts have no debt repayment listed. That means either their patrons haven’t passed a bond recently or that they just don’t have the assessed property valuation to make a bond issue worth it.

Whether you’re one of the 12…

Or one of the 300…

300 movie

…one thing is certain. State aid is still lower than it was in 2009 – to the tune of about $149 per pupil. The districts that have the bond indebtedness have moved more instructional and operational costs into here than ever before. This stymies capital improvement, such as modernizing heat and air systems for aging schools.

This is nothing but a distraction from the fact that schools still teach more students under more mandates and with fewer teachers and less funding than they did 6 years ago.

I’m no economist. I’m just an administrator who wrote his dissertation over Oklahoma school district expenditures, with a focus on economies of scale and diseconomies of scale. If you were one of the 12 people who read it, you would’ve been dazzled with passages such as this:

Ok, none of it was really exciting. It’s a dissertation.

I also did a little research on the group Dr. Schlomach represents, the 1889 Institute. According to their website:

The 1889 Institute is an independent non-profit 501c3 education and research organization that analyzes and develops state public policies for Oklahoma based on principles of limited and responsible government, free enterprise, and a robust civil society. We disseminate analysis and recommendations to both public policy makers and the general public. Our focus is on education, healthcare, welfare, economic liberty, and state finance.

The 1889 Institute does not engage in policy advocacy but does provide policy expertise to public policy makers and advocacy groups. The Institute does not have members or engage in grassroots organizational activities.

Funny, his editorial sounds like policy advocacy to me. Maybe I’m just reading this part wrong:

Diseconomies happen when enterprises get so large that it is impossible to manage them well. The state’s 12 biggest districts seem to have entered diseconomies territory. Instead of a big effort to consolidate our smaller school districts, let’s work to split up some of our largest.

Sure, there’s no real plan there. Sure, the facts are quite specious. Still, he’s taking a position.

Since they’re a non-profit, I decided to look up their funding sources on GuideStar. What I found is that this organization formed in 2014. Since they’re that new, there’s no 990 tax form on their website as of yet. I can make some guesses, based on the people who were excitedly retweeting the article today. That would be speculation, however. I’ll stick to facts I actually know.*


*On the other hand, since the 1889 Institute shares the same physical address as a prominent right-wing Oklahoma non-profit think tank, maybe I wouldn’t be speculating all that much.

mic drop

Guest Post on the Teacher Shortage from a POed Parent

September 20, 2015 18 comments

I received the following this week from UCO professor and #oklaed advocate, Dr. Dan Vincent. I present it to you, unedited. 


I’m a public school parent and I’m pissed off. I keep hearing that our state has a teacher shortage but I don’t see it this way anymore. I see an unusually high causality rate from the WAR ON TEACHERS.

Dan Vincent BAT

Let me explain….

As a parent with two kids in public school I try to keep informed on issues related to education. I read the news, follow legislation and even research topics to be more informed. For the past few years, at the start of the schoolyear, I have read stories about the growing number of vacancies in Oklahoma classrooms—vacancies that districts cannot fill. Class sizes get larger and courses get cancelled. This number has gradually been creeping up and it has hit larger urban districts particularly hard. Now, even large suburban districts, where there has historically been an abundance of qualified applicants, are being hit by this shortage.

Over the past several years I have also observed waves of educational reforms crashing into the doors of classrooms and onto the desks of students—reforms initiated and passed into law by our state legislature. If you are a student or teacher, you’ve felt it; my kids have felt it. The changes included things like the A-F, the RSA, the ACE and the TLE to name a few. These have been widely recognized by educational leaders in our state as doing more harm than good, especially when it comes to teacher morale and student engagement. Professional associations, parent groups, blogs and personal anecdotes have documented how these reforms are negatively impacting Oklahoma districts, classrooms and kids. There has also been much written about how these reforms are DRIVING GOOD TEACHERS OUT OF THE CLASSROOM. Legislators have been told this over and over. Personally, I have had civil discussions about the issues I see; I have written umpteen letters to lawmakers pleading for change. I have friends who written many more.

So what I fail to understand with the ‘teacher shortage’ in our state is why –  WHY – legislative leaders have stood by and allowed this to happen. The teacher shortage is not an unforeseen consequence of a poorly timed tax cut, but the steady attrition of teachers who have HAD ENOUGH of nonsensical educational reform policy and poor pay. The teacher shortage is not an unavoidable crisis caused by federal laws, but a compounding of state-level educational policies that fly in the face of what is known about learning. And as a parent, I hold legislative leaders responsible; they have created a WAR ON TEACHERS and our teacher shortage is a sad result of this war. It is a moral failing by our state leaders in not taking seriously their job of properly supporting a free public education.

We know that money matters and we know that teaching climate matters. Legislative leaders have tremendous power over both and have done little to nothing to create REAL SOLUTIONS for teachers. In fact, I am not big on conspiracy theories but I am now seriously thinking our legislative leaders are purposefully making a teacher’s life miserable so they can justify their own policies meant to ‘help’ the problems in education—problems they have created with the war on teachers. And this is all being done TO OUR KIDS.

Imagine if we had a shortage of qualified STEM candidates to fill the jobs in our state. Do you think our current legislative leaders would do anything to attract quality candidates? Do you think they would initiate policy to help the STEM industry will those positions? Do you think they would be advocating for the STEM industry? Would our leaders actively seek out leaders in the STEM industry for ideas on how to attract applicants? Would they try to fill the STEM pipeline with qualified applicants?

You bet. In fact, Gov. Fallin says there is a STEM shortage in our state, and our leaders have already done the things above (in fact, our governor’s 3rd annual STEM Summit is a few weeks away). But not for our teachers. Not for our kids. WAR ON TEACHERS continues.

A few weeks ago, I felt a glimmer of hope when I read House Speaker Jeff Hickman and House Republican education leaders calling for a “more cooperative approach” to address the teacher shortage. Not three weeks later however, Speaker Hickman wrote an opinion piece for the Daily Oklahoman blasting district administrators for not doing more themselves to pay teachers a higher salary; I also suspect School Boards felt targeted. I wonder if Hickman cooperated with any Oklahoma administrators on the ideas for this OpEd? I doubt it. WAR ON TEACHERS continues.

Just this week, the Republican leadership offered up a plan to allow retired teachers $18,000 per year to come back to the classroom and teach. On the surface, this sounds admirable, but honestly, how many retired teachers would be willing to work for that pay under the same educational environment that drove many to retire in the first place? Does this address the current issues our teachers face—pay and climate? Sounds like a Band-Aid solution to a war-time wound. WAR ON TEACHERS continues.

In short, the solutions offered up by republican leaders thus far only deepens my suspicions of how serious they are about addressing our state’s desperate need to put well-qualified teachers in EVERY classroom. My kids deserve better. Our state’s kids deserve better. So here are some things I would offer as solutions. I would encourage every parent, grandparent and relative that has a kid in school to write their legislator and tell them to end the WAR ON TEACHERS with some of these bullet points (no pun intended):

  1. First and foremost, do your part to fix the educational climate in Oklahoma. Stop the blame game and be real about solutions to our teacher shortage. Ask the educational leaders in our state (who are really informed about the issues they see firsthand) for input and take it seriously.
  2. Stop the High Stakes Testing (found in the RSA, the ACE, the TLE, the A-F). This would also save some money on administrative overhead and ink for signing RSA documents.
  3. Seriously rework the TLE. It is well known that value added measures are junk science yet our state leaders insist they can work. This could also save money by reducing administrative overhead.
  4. Stop the A-F charade. OU and OSU put together a pretty good summary of the charade. And this also could reduce administrative overhead.
  5. Publicly support teachers, but more importantly seek out educational leaders so your public support can be turned into fully-informed legislative action.
  6. Develop a workable plan to increase teacher pay. Money matters. Our state invests public money to support the STEM industry and others. Let’s get real about how to invest in the profession that can support all industry.
  7. Either UNMANDATE or FULLY FUND. There are many unfunded mandates placed on schools and this solution could both create a better climate in schools AND free up money that could be used on teacher salaries. One good example would be to eliminate the ACE graduation requirement.

In closing, I honestly hope our legislative leadership can do something soon to refresh the souls of educators in our state. I hope parents will a) get pissed off with me and b) constructively express their frustration to leadership in our state. Their current attempts are a far cry from the real, workable solutions needed to address the root causes of our teacher shortage. With the upcoming session being near an election cycle, I think more ears will be open to listening.

Let’s end this war.


Dan Vincent is a former public school teacher, turned university professor who has two kids in elementary school. Although he was not teaching in the K-12 schools when many of these educational reforms were passed into law, he and his wife are frequent volunteers in schools and have seen firsthand the impact of these reforms on classrooms, teachers and kids.

With All Due Respect, Vol. 3

September 13, 2015 10 comments

This morning, while I was out on a run, my phone was buzzing with friends responding to an editorial written by House Speaker Hickman and published in the Oklahoman today. The piece purports to address the Oklahoma teacher shortage with facts. I seem to have missed some of them, and I’ve read through it three times now.

The first paragraph sets a negative tone. Pretend it’s 2002, you’re in my English II class, and note the author’s diction:

Recent claims that Oklahoma schools can’t fill 1,000 teaching positions have education proponents again demanding the Legislature provide more taxpayer dollars to increase teacher salaries. Education organizations argue that schools are unable to find quality applicants because Oklahoma’s best teachers move to neighboring states to earn more money. Yet Oklahoma’s starting minimum wage for first-year teachers is higher than Texas, Missouri, Arkansas and New Mexico.

The first thing I notice is the word claims. We aren’t claiming anything. We’re reporting the conditions that impact our ability to  provide the best possible education to all of Oklahoma’s public school children. We  really don’t have the applicants. Next is his use of the phrase taxpayer dollars, which is really all we have access to in schools. During Hickman’s time in the Legislature, state aid for schools has decreased. Later in his editorial, he claims that school funding is at an all-time high. I’d love to know his methodology for that claim.

It’s good to note here, even though it’s not germane to the teacher shortage per se, that the Legislature last spring cobbled together a budget with one-time funds from the cushions of the couch in order to fill a $600 million dollar budget shortfall. Well, it’s happening again. We’ve all been warned – not just education.

OPI QOTD

The third and fourth paragraphs of Hickman’s piece squarely lay the blame for low teacher salaries on local school boards:

A recent report from the U.S. Department of Education shows it may be because local school boards have committed a growing percentage of their funding to salaries and benefits for administrative and nonteaching staff.

Between 1992 and 2013, enrollment in Oklahoma schools increased by 14 percent while the number of teachers increased by 11 percent. Administrative and nonteaching staff increased by more than 33 percent. If nonteaching staff had increased at only the same rate as enrollment, Oklahoma schools would have nearly $300 million more available annually to pay teachers higher salaries.

The problem with newspaper editorials is that they don’t link to source documents. That’s why I only read them when they’re blowing up my social media accounts. Perhaps the report Speaker Hickman references is actually this report from the Friedman Foundation, which uses data collected by the USDoE. I suspect it is, since Oklahoma’s leading non-profit conservative think tank trots it out from time to time (and since the editorial’s language mirrors that of the report; see page 19), failing to mention that the foundation’s namesake, Milton Friedman, was all about abolishing public schools. In Friedman’s own words:

A radical reconstruction of the educational system has the potential of staving off social conflict while at the same time strengthening the growth in living standards made possible by the new technology and the increasingly global market. In my view, such a radical reconstruction can be achieved only by privatizing a major segment of the educational system–i.e., by enabling a private, for-profit industry to develop that will provide a wide variety of learning opportunities and offer effective competition to public schools. Such a reconstruction cannot come about overnight. It inevitably must be gradual.

Yes, that’s been the political agenda for a segment of conservatives in this state, and in this country, for more than two decades. On the other hand, in the very same paper, Friedman also said this:

If the widening of the wage differential is allowed to proceed unchecked, it threatens to create within our own country a social problem of major proportions. We shall not be willing to see a group of our population move into Third World conditions at the same time that another group of our population becomes increasingly well off. Such stratification is a recipe for social disaster. The pressure to avoid it by protectionist and other similar measures will be irresistible.

Surprisingly, the aforementioned think tank never addresses income inequality, except to dismiss it.

Wow, I’ve really digressed from the main point. That’s what happens when I don’t have much free time to blog.

Sorry, back to Speaker Hickman, who deserves my undivided attention at this point. He was talking about the growth of non-teaching positions. Others have previously pointed out, as I will here, that much of that growth is to help meet ever-increasing state and federal mandates.

Allow me to illustrate. Each school district communicates and reports information through the Single Sign On (SSO) system with the Oklahoma State Department of Education. Different users have different access levels in the system. As a superintendent, I can see them all. The next seven screenshots show them. Indulge me, as I show you why we’ve added staff.

The top of the alphabet has so much of the good stuff: A-F Report Cards; Accreditation (featuring Highly-qualified teacher verification); three separate areas for the Achieving Classroom Excellence morass; and a place to check allocation notices.

SSO1

Page two starts and ends with routine reporting and plans. Let me point out right in the middle of this page is the District Arts Assessment Report. There are mandates that make me mad (ACE, A-F, RSA) and mandates that just make me want to say, Really!?! (Sorry, Rob – I know that’s your schtick.)

SSO2

When you click on that report, you see this notice:

As stipulated by Oklahoma law, 70 O.S. § 1210.508, “each school district shall administer to each student in the district in Grades 3-8 an assessment designed to assess the student in the fine arts of visual art and general music.” This method of assessing the arts in Oklahoma public schools has given school districts greater control and flexibility in integrating and assessing the arts in the classroom.

The new online assessment report is similar to the .PDF documents you are used to completing. For each grade that your district serves, data must be entered for at least one Visual Arts standard and one Music standard. Please save each page before going to the next screen or the data will be deleted. Once the report has been submitted, the superintendent will need to certify the report.

This is how some school employees spend their time. One sentence of the instructions is so important, they’ve added emphasis. Twice.

Why are we assessing the arts? If it’s to ensure that students get to experience it, then the moment has passed. I don’t want to audit the amount of time that we spend on the arts in grades 3-8 – in my district or any other. Too often, schools have cut this time (or taken it for remediation) because of the other mandates. In my mind, the logic goes like this: We’ve sucked the soul out of education with all of this testing. Let’s make sure the arts aren’t lost. Let’s test them too! I’ve never ascribed to the if you value it, measure it mentality. You can’t measure love or passion. At one high school’s open house last month, I heard a parent express excitement over her daughter’s love of music. That matters. I value that. I can’t measure it. I won’t try.

Page three is where any of us who have ever managed Federal Programs budgets and plans for a district formed those red spots on our foreheads. They came from hitting our heads on our desks repeatedly while operating in the Grants Management System application. I’m tempted to get more screenshots inside the tab, but trust me – there are just some things that can’t be unseen.

SSO3

Page four is another place district employees have to spend a considerable amount of time. I personally spent two hours last week signing RSA forms. Some were for retentions. Some were for promotion. If I, as a superintendent, spent two hours just signing and dating papers, how much time was spent by the school and district staff preparing documentation, remediating and retesting students, contacting parents, and meeting as committees?

SSO4

Page five is just old tabs of school personnel records going back several years. There are a lot of records in there. When you have more than 14,000 students, you have a lot of employees. I know I’ve only been in my new role about six weeks, but I haven’t found one we don’t need yet.

SSO5

The highlight of page six is the Wave. I even like the logo, although a surfer on an actual wave might have been better. This is where all the student data lives.

SSO6

All the free/reduced meal data, academic records, online courses, testing, and so forth is stored. I can see this portal, but I’m afraid to enter it. If I do, I might have to read messages like this:

We were having issues sending the STN’s back to local SIS systems earlier in the week, and have corrected the issue. If you are missing STN’s in your system and you have zero students on the STN Wizard please send in a help desk ticket toHelpDesk@omes.ok.gov and we will have them re-published back to your local SIS.

And this:

If on the Data Validation Wizard you are seeing the warning “Lunch Eligibility Determination” was not provided, check the spelling of the word “Determination” in PowerSchool for the SIF agent.  If it is missing the letter “a” that is the issue that needs to be corrected.  If you have corrected the spelling and still have the same error, be sure to restart your SIF Agent so the change in the spelling can be applied to the agent.

On the last screen, we have a few more reports for Federal Programs and the TLE Reports. Inside of this well of data, I can view the value-added reports for teachers and administrators. Well, I could, but they’re not in there. Or maybe they’re just not loading for me. These things happen.

SSO7

I’m just fortunate I have great people around me who take care of all of these very detailed reports. They may not be classroom teachers, but their positions are important too.

The Hickman piece continues with a suggestion: just eliminate the minimum teacher salary scale:

Roughly half of states have no statutorily mandated minimum salary for teachers, and it is interesting how they compare to Oklahoma. On our borders, neither Kansas nor Colorado has a mandated salary, yet they pay teachers an average salary of $48,000 and $51,000, respectively, compared with the average salary of $44,000 in Oklahoma. This is basic economics: Mandated minimum salaries restrict wage growth potential. In states where no minimum salary is mandated, schools pay what they feel the market warrants to attract and retain quality teachers. It should also be noted that, unlike Kansas and Colorado, Oklahoma provides health insurance for our education employees.

First – and this always comes up – anyone claiming the average teacher salary in Oklahoma is $44,000 should note that this figure includes insurance and retirement. That means the teachers in Colorado have a larger total compensation package, even though they have to find their own health insurance. For 2015, the health benefit for teachers is $499.42/month – roughly $6,000 per year. Teachers struggling to feed their families – and there are many – get rightly frustrated hearing the larger amount when they know their taxable income is far lower. Eliminate the minimum salary? I don’t think so. It’s a safety net.

I’m still in the same place I’ve been since I began blogging when it comes to the treatment of teachers. It’s going to take serious money to recruit more people into (or back into) the profession. We need higher starting salaries, bigger annual increases, and more of a bump for earning advanced degrees. We need fewer mandates. We need elected leaders who don’t think that testing is how you tell the value of teachers or kids. We need respect for the teachers we have, however they got here.

The shortage is real. These 506 emergency certifications granted at the August SBE meeting aren’t a figment of anyone’s imagination. I should know. I signed the request for several of them.

Good luck in Austin

August 16, 2015 6 comments

Normally I don’t write personal things here, but today I’m going to make an exception. If you’re not interested, I won’t be offended if you stop reading.

As most of you know, for the first 33 months I had this blog, I wrote it anonymously. Other than a handful of people I told and a handful more who figured it out, it wouldn’t have made sense for me to write include personal stories here.

That was really hard for me in 2014 when my son Jordan graduated from high school, moved into an apartment with friends, and took a trip to Italy, all within a week. As proud as I am of my profession, I’m even prouder of my children. Jordan is brilliant and lives about five miles away, attending his second year of college. He’s one of the most considerate kids young men I’ve ever known. Every time I see him, I feel like his mom and I have done something right.

100_3390

I also don’t want to slight my youngest, Duncan, who is a sophomore at Norman North. As an eighth grader, she managed to raise $2,000 by herself to go on a mission trip to Haiti. She has been an athlete and is a talented actress and singer. She has had the same group of friends, more or less, since early in elementary school. There are a lot of them, but they are great kids. She has more honors and accomplishments at this age than I probably have had by the time I was twice her age. She has unlimited potential and drive, and I can’t believe we only have three years left with her at home.

Duncan Haiti 1

Today though, is about our middle child, Stockton, who leaves tomorrow to start college at the University of Texas. I’ll see her soon enough; Friday, I’m going down to Austin to help her move into her dorm. Still, for a while anyway, tonight is her last night at home, in her own bed, secure with her parents down the hall.

As last year unfolded, I can’t tell you how many people asked me where Stockton was going to attend college. She started with a long list of schools. Ultimately, she was going to be at one end of I-35 or the other. Her final choices were UT and the University of Minnesota. She didn’t apply in-state. Most of the people at work asked me how I could let my daughter go so far away.

It’s easy. I’m a realist. I know this child. Just try to stop her.

This world is bigger than Oklahoma. She wants to see more than the area where she’s lived her whole life. She has academic interests and career goals, most of which could have been met had she matriculated from Norman High School to the University of Oklahoma. After all, that’s what I did. I took the safe route; I just rolled down the street.

Probably what I admire most about Stockton is that she’s willing to shed comfort for adventure, for opportunity. She doesn’t take the safe way out of anything. I guess another way of saying that is that sometimes she infuriates her mother and me by making things harder than they have to be. Still, I think it’s this strong will that will serve her well as she fiercely takes on the world.

Stockton has always marched to drums that no one else necessarily heard. When she was a toddler, she would just make up words, and they would stick. When she was learning to count, and we introduced her to abstract concepts like a million and a billion, she naturally assumed that the next level up was a stillion. A stillion is still the hyperbolic word choice around here for large sums of money. For example, your back to school shopping budget isn’t a stillion dollars! She also gave us the word skrunkle, which is a measure of cheese. This is an actual conversation that happens here:

Would you like a skrunkle of cheese?

-Could I get a half-skrunkle?

I think most families are like this; they have a sub-language that only makes sense to them. I also know that what I’m experiencing is hardly unique. Kids grow up. They go to college. They move away. For a while, I probably won’t want to go in her room. Or maybe I’ll knock on the door, expecting an answer. Perhaps I’ll be so busy with the new job and Duncan’s activities that this will seem normal sooner than I expect.

As a parent, I don’t second-guess every decision we’ve made. I look at the big picture, though. Is Stockton ready for the world? Yes. No. Maybe. Probably. Is it ready for her? Who knows…

My belief as an educator is that our job is to prepare the students to have as many choices as possible by the time they graduate from high school. I think we’ve met that standard as parents. I think the Norman Public Schools did their part too. It’s more than that though.

This child

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has become this young lady

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yet there are times I wish they could be like this forever:

Selected Pictures from CD as of 11-29-03 001

(yes, they’re going to be furious at me for that last one)

Stockton, you have an unbelievable future ahead of you. The only thing that could stop you is you. I feel I have inadequate words for telling you how proud your mom and I are of everything you’ve already done, and everything you can do. Since my own words fail me now, I’ll close with my favorite lines from your favorite Billy Joel song, Vienna.

You got your passion, you got your pride
But don’t you know that only fools are satisfied?
Dream on, but don’t imagine they’ll all come true
When will you realize… Vienna waits for you?

Good luck, Stockton. Good luck, Austin. And as much as it pains your Sooner-grad parents to say this, Hook ‘em!*


*offer not valid Oct. 10

Welcome to New Teachers

August 9, 2015 3 comments

Tomorrow, I get to welcome new teachers to Mid-Del Public Schools. I’ve been involved in new teacher training for the last seven years while I was in Moore, but this is my first run at it as a superintendent. I feel I have more to say than I have time for, and I’m not well-known for sticking to a script once I get going – especially when coffee and donuts are in my line of sight. For those of you who made tomorrow’s schedule, I apologize in advance.

With that in mind, here’s what I would like to say, again, if the script mattered.

—–

Welcome to Mid-Del Public Schools! For the next 9 months, and hopefully longer, you will be responsible for educating the 14,500 students in this school district. First of all, we want to thank you for accepting that responsibility. These are children who need you, who need a good education, who need to know that what we do everyday has relevance to their lives.

We have school for one purpose – to teach children. Parents send their kids to us for one reason – so they can learn.

Before that, though, we have to promise those parents one critical thing – that we can keep their children safe. We have to be on our toes because with this many children and thousands of adults around, we have a lot of moving parts. We all know what it means to treat each other with respect and with dignity. Most of the people who work for us know it too. I’d even go so far as saying that most of our children know it too. It’s an inherent quality – maybe it’s the golden rule. Whether we’ve formally been taught this or not, we know from an early age that we want to feel safe and that other people do too. That’s why you see children run to hug other crying children that they don’t even know.

Most of us understand this, but unfortunately, there are no absolutes when it comes to human behavior. There will be students, teachers, even parents who cross these lines. Some may not even realize they’re doing it, and what we’re left with are students who hate school from an early age.

Think about a four year old you’ve known in your life. If you’re a parent who’s driven your children across the country, did they try to count to 100 or to whatever high number they could reach? Did they sing? If you stopped at a national monument or a historical marker, did they listen intently as you read it to them? A four year old who can’t read, but who has been exposed to parents who not only can, but do, will pick up a book and make up a story. A four year old will play in the dirt, swing from a tree limb, dance, and color on the walls. They’ll even watch TV and learn a foreign language if you show it to them.

When you think about it, there isn’t a single academic content area that a four year old WON’T participate in. So why does that change? Do we do something to change it?

First of all, not all of the children we get are anything like the four year olds we were or the ones that we have raised. Some children come to us hungry and scared. And some just come and go, come and go. Our job then, is to teach them as well as we can for as long as we have them, and to remember that we might be the best experience they ever have in school.

Sometimes, the difference we make is obvious. We see students succeed academically. They win awards. They get scholarships. They come back from college and slap us on the back and tell us they never would have made it without us. Sometimes, though, we don’t see it at all.

I’ve carried a note around with me from job to job for the last 17 years. It was written by a freshman who was having a bad day. Apparently, I said something to help. She wrote: 

Mr. Cobb,

I just want to thank you for your concern. Not many people would take the time to ask how someone was doing. My friends don’t even seem to care sometimes. Thank you again. It means a lot to me.

At the time I received the note, I didn’t remember what I had said to her. Years and jobs later, I really don’t recall. I messaged that student on Facebook a few weeks ago and showed her a picture I took of the note. She remembered it even better than I did.

student letter

Maybe another story illustrates our importance even better. One time when I was a principal, the chief of police was waiting for me in my office at 7:00 am on a Monday. We had a student – a ninth grader – whose parents had been in a fight the night before. It took all night to get the dad out of the house and get him to jail. Our student, who was often in trouble and really didn’t care about school, also had his own temper. Little things would set it off. This was no little thing.

I addressed my staff that morning at our scheduled faculty meeting and gave them the details I could. Since this was a small school and everybody knew everybody, there wasn’t a teacher who didn’t need to know that the student would be even more on edge that day. Towards the end of the meeting, I asked them to show some understanding, and if he needed to excuse himself from class because he was about to explode, that they needed to let him come see me voluntarily. One teacher stood up and said, “But Mr. Cobb, rules are rules!” Without thinking, I responded, “Yeah, but we have to love the kids more than we love the rules.” I think for most of my teachers, that was my defining moment as principal.

Rules are important. We can’t have chaos in our classrooms, our halls, our lunchrooms, our playgrounds, or on our buses. We also have to know when to bend. You have to love the kids more than you love the rules. You have to love the kids more than you love lots of things: the rules, your test scores, your won-loss record, your quiet little piece of the master schedule.

First, you love the kids. Then you keep them safe. Then you teach them.

So before we get to the first thing, we have two other things. Yes, school is about teaching and learning. Yes, it’s ok if you love physics or Spanish or English or programming or music.You should be passionate about what you teach. You should just be more passionate about who you teach.

How many times have we heard about the impact of music on math and literacy scores? While this is undeniable, what we forget is the impact of music, and art, and drama, and reading, and just all around curiosity, on the soul. All of these things matter in their own right, not just for some outcome tied to high-stakes testing.

Four year olds get this. We should too.

Let me close with a few words that I wrote last year at this time.

Work hard and contribute something. Be the first teacher that some student has ever liked. Don’t try to measure everything. Take pictures of the first group of students you teach and look at them from time to time. Make friends at work and defend your profession fiercely. Treasure your mentors. Cherish what you do. Most importantly, if you ever get to the point that you don’t love working for the children every day, leave. And if that’s the path you choose, leave on the highest note possible.

Those comments were written specifically for first year teachers, but I think they apply to all of us. I could tell you who my mentors have been, and rest assured, I treasure them. I also still have the picture of the first group of kids I taught in Muskogee in 1993. 

For all the evidence my students have given me through the years that I’ve made an impact in their lives, I have more proof, tangible and personal, that they have made mine better. I used to say that your career doesn’t define who you are. I quit saying that a few years ago. This is who I am. I’m an educator. I’ve done this for half my life now. There’s no denying it. I’m proud of it, and I hope you will be too. I hope you’ll tell the world, too, after this year, two very important things:

  1. This is a great profession.
  2. This is a great place to work.

Have a great year!

182 Emergencies and Counting!

First thing first: if you’re teaching in an Oklahoma classroom next year, I’m rooting for you. I want you to be successful. I want you to have students you love, parents who support you, colleagues who help you grow, and administrators who provide you with the resources you need. Once you’re signed, sealed, and delivered,  I really don’t care about how you got here.

You might have been a 4.0 student in college, or you might have just squeaked by. You might have chosen the teaching profession at age 20 or age 50. You might be in that classroom for one of 100 different reasons, and you might have taken one of 100 different pathways to get there. I don’t care; I wish you well.

I say this because, as you may have heard, the State Board of Education issued 182 emergency certificates this week. Think about that number: 182. These aren’t alternatively certified teachers. These are people who’ve reached agreements with schools to fill classrooms while working on earning a teaching certificate. Here’s how state law (p. 269) explains the distinction:

Nothing in the Oklahoma Teacher Preparation Act shall restrict the right of the State Board of Education to issue an emergency or provisional certificate, as needed. Provided, however, prior to the issuance of an emergency certificate, the district shall document substantial efforts to employ a teacher who holds a provisional or standard certificate or who is licensed in the teaching profession. In the event a district is unable to hire an individual meeting this criteria, the district shall document efforts to employ an individual with a provisional or standard certificate or with a license in another curricular area with academic preparation in the field of need. Only after these alternatives have been exhausted shall the district be allowed to employ an individual meeting minimum standards as established by the State Board of Education for the issuance of emergency certificates.

In other words, if a school district can document the tall buildings it has leaped in trying to find a teacher, when there are just no suitable applicants (yes – we still reserve the right to interview and decline to hire people who we just can’t imagine putting in a classroom with children) it can petition the SBE for an emergency certificate for a prospective teacher. Keep in mind that there are many pathways to gaining either a traditional or an alternate teaching certificate.

Procedures published by the Oklahoma State Department of Education provide nine columns of pathways to earn a teaching certificate. That’s right – there are eight ways in addition to simply going to college, earning a degree, and beginning your career in the classroom at 22 or 23 years old.Teacher Pathways 1

  • Option 1 – Traditional
  • Option 2 – Alternative
  • Option 3 – ABCTE PassPort to Teaching
  • Option 4 – Troops to Teachers

Teacher Pathways 2

  • Option 5 – Teach for America
  • Option 6 – Four-Year-Olds and Younger Certificate
  • Option 7 – Career Development Program for Paraprofessionals to be Certified Teachers
  • Option 8 – Out of State Teachers Seeking Oklahoma License or Certificate
  • Option 9 – Non-traditional Special Education

So these teachers getting emergency certification don’t fall into any of the above categories – 182 of them. Allow Tyler Bridges to put that number in perspective:

It’s staggering – 182 emergency certificates this month, but 189 for the entire year of 2013.

As I said at the top, though, I’m rooting for these people. I’m cheering on all of our teachers. Still, even with the pathways and emergencies, we just don’t have enough teachers to staff our schools. Back in March, during the #oklaed chat prior to the rally at the Capitol, several of the usual suspects commented on how the teacher shortage has impacted their schools.

Last year, hundreds of positions were never filled by a permanent teacher. I’ve heard more than one legislator say that businesses have this happen all the time; there are always an acceptable number of positions open.

This is yet another reason that public education doesn’t fit a business model. Maybe these numbers are acceptable at AT&T, Apple, and Dell. They aren’t acceptable where we’re trying to teach seventh grade math, AP Physics, or first grade everything. If you don’t believe me, ask the parents and students impacted by these shortages.

If the AT&T store is shorthanded, I have to wait a little longer for my service. If a school is shorthanded, instruction can grind to a halt. If a teacher materializes two months into the school year, that time is just lost.

This is still the most critical issue in public education. It’s going to take a serious investment to get more teachers into classrooms – an even greater one to get them to stay.

Why Teach Here? Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

A few weeks ago, I answered the blogger challenge, Why Teach, and ended with a promise to write a sequel, Why Teach Here? Well, since then, I’ve been a little distracted. I’ve started and stopped several times.

One distraction in particular has been the adjunct class I teach for Southern Nazarene University. This past week, I showed my grad students this 10 minute clip discussing motivation.

It’s been on the Internet for years. Rob Miller even wrote about it (and the book Drive by Daniel Pink that inspired it) back in 2013. In the first few minutes of the video, the speaker talks about the research on incentives and how poorly they serve as motivators. Our take in class this Wednesday night was that money is important, but that people who have a job they love would need significant sums of money to leave what they’re doing. In other words, if you are a teacher and love your job, you’re not going to a neighboring district for a $500 or even $1,000 pay raise. The amount of money that it would take to disrupt their lives was varied, but in all cases, much more significant than that.

After we finished the video, we went back to the five minute mark and listened to what I consider to be the key takeaway.

Drive - Motivation

The screenshot shows three factors that Pink says lead to better performance and personal satisfaction: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. But what does that have to do with this post?

Using this framework, I’m going to try to answer the question Why Teach Here? in a general sense – rather than trying to sell you on a specific district or school.

Autonomy

As a teacher, you want to know that you work for a district and for people who value the unique qualities you bring to the classroom. The more decisions that are taken out of your hands, the less comfortable you become. Yes, there will be mandates – local, state, federal. No teacher has absolute autonomy. Districts and schools do, however, have some discretion over how to implement those requirements – or how many more to add.

The key to achieving this balance is to get teachers involved in agreeing to common expectations in a school. What are all teachers expected to do? What decisions to teachers get to make for themselves? A high-performing school with many veteran teachers can slide that continuum pretty far to the high-autonomy side. Too often, though, leaders will take over a school and want to make a huge imprint right away – in the process, damaging many of the conditions that make veteran teachers want to stay where they are.

Additionally, we need to realize that just as no two students are exactly the same, neither are any two teachers. We all have gifts and skills that make us who we are. No student ever wants to hear, I wish you were more like so and so. Teachers don’t either. I can’t teach English the exact same way as the people I admire the most in my discipline. My work is informed by their example, and I have appropriated many of their ideas – always with my own spin, though.

In class, I like to say that our goal for Curriculum & Instruction should be to get people on the same page without literally getting them on the same page. (If you know me and how much I detest the overuse of the word literally, then you understand how serious I am right now.) We need a common set of goals across the state for subjects such as fourth grade math. These are the standards. We may exceed them, if our students are ready and willing. We may improvise in how we reach them. We just shouldn’t be carbon copies of the next classroom, school, or district.

Mastery

Pink says that mastery manifests as the desire to get better at stuff – or words to that effect. Think about that for a minute. If you are an exceptional teacher, you were either born that way or you worked really hard to get there. For most of us, it was the latter. We had principals who supported high-quality professional development and allowed us to take risks. We had colleagues who were experts in the state or nation in our disciplines. We were young and teamed with veterans who never lost their idealism.

Even if we were rock stars as young teachers, with shining moments that set us apart in our buildings, how many great days did we have in a year? I can still remember my first year teaching. Before school started in August, we had a week-long training from the Oklahoma Writing Project in writing across the curriculum. I had activities that I could use for weeks and ideas that I could modify for other purposes. I had that principal who supported me. I had that eighth grade team that collaborated for the best interest of our students. Still I believe I had more days that year in which I struggled than days in which I didn’t. The struggle fueled my desire to learn – to get better at stuff.

Think of the best teacher you ever had growing up. Was he/she better with content or better with people? One of my all-time favorites, Bill Fix from Norman High School, was my Physics teacher in 12th grade. His class was the first time I ever enjoyed math. Yes, I know Physics is a science course, but there’s a ton of math in there too. I had always done well in math, but never enjoyed it. Mr. Fix was good at teaching the content, but he was also good with people. It was, for me, the perfect mixture of lecture (probably about 15%), deskwork (maybe another 15%), labs (65%) and tests/quizzes (at most 5%). We did stuff. We launched things across the room and then worked with our groups to determine how the different variables worked together. We didn’t look up formulas and then take off to the lab. We did the labs and then worked to create the formulas. When it was frustrating, he made it less so. When we got it right, even though he’d seen it before a hundred times, he was thrilled for us.

I think Bill Fix enjoyed teaching because he was good at it. Or maybe he was good at it because he enjoyed it. Either way, it worked for me. What also probably worked for him was that he had the autonomy to develop the mastery he needed to be successful in the classroom.

No one can hand you a packaged curriculum and tell you to master it as a teacher. That’s not how it works. You have to find your own way, and for each of us, the path to mastery is different.

Purpose

The last quality ties back nicely to Mindy’s original challenge and some of the responses to it:

“no personal reward in my career is as meaningful as when one of my students takes what he or she has learned and uses it to impact their world.” – David Burton

“I teach because I believe in children and families.  I believe that community and relationships can have a positive effect on education and vice versa.“ – Room 20 Awesome

“I want to make a positive impact on the next generation.  I did this for years in public high schools, teaching math and coaching soccer.  Each year was fun and different, the students were new (most of them) to me and we would start our year long journey.  I enjoyed coaching soccer as well.  I have had the opportunity to coach both boys and girls and they were fun young people to be around.  I did not get into teaching to coach soccer, far from it.  I knew nothing about soccer when I first started.  Soccer coaching wasn’t who I was, it was another place that I was able to teach.” – Scott Haselwood

All of these are great examples of how we as educators find and restore our sense of purpose. In spite of the mandates, the interlopers who want to bless our profession with a corporate style of management, and the salaries that lead many teachers to take second jobs, we do what we do because we know it matters. That’s our purpose. That’s our drive.

Why Teach Here?

All three qualities work together. When one expands, the other two seem to expand with it. When one contracts, so fall the other two. If you love your job you likely have at least an abundance of two of these things. If it’s only two, please tell me that purpose is one of them. On the other hand, if you don’t love your job, or if you’re an administrator whose teachers don’t love their jobs, think about ways to increase at least one of these three traits.

One more thing: if autonomy, mastery, and purpose matter to you, imagine how much they matter to your students.  Keep that in mind as summer winds down over the next few weeks.

I changed hundreds of lives…CLICK HERE to find out how!

That title, in Internet parlance, is what’s  known as clickbait. Surely you’ve seen examples such as these during your web-browsing adventures…

Here’s the secret to cheap car insurance your state doesn’t want you to know…

17 fun facts you didn’t know about #oklaed bloggers…

This amazing ingredient is the hidden key to permanent weight loss…

I clicked on the last one. The answer is hemlock.

I start today’s post with the clickbait hook because fellow educator Mindy Dennison has challenged those of us in the blogosphere to answer the question, Why Teach? Given that we’re always discussing the teacher shortage and policy conditions that diminish the profession, this is a very hard question to answer. I want to do while sounding neither cliché nor like authentic frontier gibberish.

I also want to turn it into a two part question for administrators, with the second one being, Why Teach Here? We not only need to sell our profession; we also need to sell our own schools and districts. Sure, it’s a little self-serving, but most of us have chosen to teach/work where we are. There have to be good reasons.

Those of you who know me understand that I’m not much into hype. I say what I think. I won’t try to tell you why teaching is better than every other profession in the world. I’ve met people who thought they wanted to teach and found out they were wrong. I’ve also met people who left some other more lucrative career and never looked back.

From 22 years in education, I can pretty much sum up most people’s reason for entering teaching into three categories –

  • Kids
  • Content
  • Convenience

Each of these can be valid reasons, but they don’t equally translate to likelihood for success. I’ll expound a little bit on each:

(Passion for) Kids

The best reason to enter the teaching profession, hands down, is that you are driven to make the lives of children better. You don’t care who or where you teach; you just want a room full of kids. It could be that you were raised by teachers or that you remember a teacher who reached out to you when it seemed as if no one else would. It could be any number of things. On the other hand, what 18, 20, or 22 year-old knows for certain that he/she would love to spend the next 35 years around kids of any age? I didn’t. I learned within the first month that helping students learn and find success in this world is my passion. I just can’t pretend that this was my initial motivation.

(Passion for) Content

I love writing. Have I mentioned that before? I love reading too, but at 17 when I chose English as my major, it was because of my love of writing. I chose teaching because I thought it would be enjoyable to emulate some of my favorite English teachers. I could see myself teaching students, having a similar impact on them to what my teachers had on me. I loved the idea of reading my favorite books with students and discussing what they mean.

Similarly, I know plenty of teachers who are passionate about the various subjects they teach: biology, French, math, music….really anything – including athletics. They feel that part of their job is to help more students find passion in those subjects as well.

This is great to me. Students love it when teachers care about the subject matter. Still, I can’t say that all my students were converts. No teacher can. On my best days, though, I could share my passion with a room full of people who would at least indulge my interests and consider – be it ever so briefly – that what got me riled up might work for them too. They didn’t all enjoy reading Shakespeare, but that doesn’t make the kids bad or strange.  Making Shakespeare more interesting, more fun, and more engaging was my job. And it was an enjoyable challenge.

Convenience

This reason isn’t as bad as it sounds. I knew a lot of people in college who had picked majors without picking a career. Studying history as an undergraduate student sounds nice. Maybe you thought you’d go to law school with that degree, but you’ve come to find that you really just don’t want to be a lawyer. Meanwhile, your roommate is an education major. You decide to give it a try.

Yes, there are people in our schools who teach because when it came time to convert a line of study into a career, they simply said, sure, I’ll try it. Some who have done this have thrived and now can’t imagine doing anything different. Others, just as some in the first two groups, have entered the profession and quickly left.

The myth that teachers teach to get summers off probably has a root somewhere. Surely that has motivated someone somewhere to teach. That said, most teachers I know work second jobs in the summer or spend as much time as possible taking classes or going to conferences.

Conclusion

Any of these reasons can be good reasons to begin teaching, but there’s only one reason to stick with it: kids. I want more people in this world to have a passion for making the biggest difference they can in the lives of children. I want every teacher to have the seemingly paradoxical attitude of wanting to be the best teacher these kids have ever had while hoping that they have someone even better somewhere down the road. And I want teachers to be honest and reflective enough to say when they just don’t have the drive for it anymore.

I still remember students from my first day in the classroom. If I pulled out the picture of our 8th grade team on the steps of the Oklahoma Capitol, I bet I could even remember many of their names, 22 years later. I don’t know where they are now, what they’ve become, or their year with me has made any difference in their lives. I’ll probably never know that. I can say with certainty, though, that each of those students helped shape me into the teacher that I became, which means that they in turn impacted every student I had after that.

I’m 44 and I became a teacher half my life ago. I still can’t imagine choosing any other career.

Teach because it will mean something to you. For the second part of the question, teach here because…

…well that will have to wait for my next post.

One Year Later: How Far We’ve Come

It’s hard to believe it’s already been a year, but it has. On June 24, 2014, Oklahoma voters not only elevated Joy Hofmeister over the incumbent state superintendent; they did so with a more decisive margin than any of us had imagined. Many of us went into the day worried that Hofmeister would fall just short of the 50% tally necessary to avoid an expensive run-off election. As the evening unfolded, Hofmeister not only won the primary, she comfortably surpassed 50. Furthermore, if she had faced a run-off election, it wouldn’t have been against the incumbent. Janet Barresi had finished in third.

Among the Democrats in the race, voters had narrowed the choices to two. John Cox would eventually defeat Freda Deskin in a late summer run-off. Then something amazing happened. Hofmeister and Cox went around Oklahoma debating one another. In public. Pretty much everywhere. It was one of the most civil things I had seen in politics in a long time. When I finally saw them at Westmoore High School in October, the general election was but a few weeks away. By then, they probably didn’t have many surprises left for one another. Most of the discussions were on point. A few barbs by each were political in nature, but very few. It was largely a substantive discussion.

SIDE NOTE: I had this picture in the back of my head of the two of them driving all over the state in an old VW van continuing their debates as they moved from stop to stop. Yes, I know that’s not how it all happened, but don’t ruin this for me.

Meanwhile, Barresi had more than six months remaining in her term. During that time, she continued the work of the previous 42 months. The only difference was that more of us were speaking out against her. She defended herself rather crassly at the Vision 2020 conference. She created a crony position for an in-house investigator who paraded around Oklahoma trying to intimidate leaders in various district. Board members called her out. She swore at one of them. Even on her last day in office, she fired people pretty much just because she could.

At noon on January 12, Hofmeister took office. She then had an open house at the SDE to greet people and set a new tone for her upcoming administration. The big WELCOME #OKLAED banner in front of the building did that. As I chatted with several old friends, we all expressed optimism.

For me, that feeling hasn’t faded.

Superintendent Hofmeister has had some early victories in her administration. She eliminated the field test for fifth and eighth grade writing and announced that the prompt would ask students to write in the narrative mode. A few months later, when the tests came back with the exact same problems as last year, she wasted no time in announcing that the scores wouldn’t count in the A-F Report Card calculations. Last year, if you’ll recall, it took an entire tortured summer for Barresi to finally make that decision.

To me, the most impressive thing she’s done, is gather her assessment team and get Measured Progress to change the practice of a student’s score range appearing on the screen after finishing each state test. She did it quickly. Most Oklahomans were appreciative.

She worked with legislators to try to curb testing. If it hadn’t been for a few in leadership positions, they would have been able to eliminate the writing tests.

This needs to happen, by the way. Nobody values writing instruction more than I do. Lousy prompts on lousy tests lead to dubious writing that is scored by temporary labor who are poorly trained and poorly compensated.

Hofmeister even came to the rally at the Capitol in March and has continued fighting to curb the teacher shortage. At times, it has seemed as if her ideas are left hanging in mid-air because we still have the same governor, representatives, and senators we had before. She hasn’t won every political fight for us, but it was only the first year.

She still has some critics on the fringe of each party. Many of them hold dearly to petty, perceived slights and are susceptible to every conspiracy theory they can imagine. It’s to be expected.

The Oklahoman also hasn’t warmed up to Hofmeister, but then again, they still have Barresi’s first campaign manager’s husband writing editorials. Similarly, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs continues pushing back against her and all things public education. Expecting something different would be like asking the sun not to shine.

In spite of this, I do still feel optimistic. More importantly, I feel respected. I feel that my profession and the children we are passionate to serve have a voice – and that her voice will only become more influential during the next several years.

Going back a year – actually, a year and two days – I hosted the Sunday night #oklaed chat and asked several questions about the primary election. I want to share a few responses to the second question, which was, “What should a new state superintendent do on day one in office.”

Yes, there were a few snarky, Paul Lynde “center-square” type answers in there, but most were along the lines of inviting parents and educators to the SDE (done) and helping remaining SDE staff understand their role as a true service agency (visible progress on that front).

A year has made a huge difference. I’m still excited. I owe that feeling to Joy Hofmeister and the people of this state who decided a year ago that they had seen enough.

6-14-15 #oklaed Chat: Teaching and Assessing Writing

June 13, 2015 Comments off

6-13-15 #oklaed Chat: Teaching and Assessing Writing

I don’t want to spend much time talking about the fact that for the second straight year, Oklahoma’s fifth and eighth grade writing assessments won’t be used in calculating the A-F report cards. I was appreciative when Superintendent Hofmeister made the decision to throw the scores out, although there was a small amount of backlash from her usual critics.

How much did we spend on that test?

I don’t know. How much did you spend on the food that went bad in your fridge during the last 12 months? Just because you spent the money doesn’t mean you have to eat the rancid cheese. It will make you sick, for crying out loud!

To me, this sequence of events highlights the Legislature’s failure to act in any meaningful way to deal with education issues during the 2015 session. They’ve ordered the SDE to study the A-F Report Cards. Meanwhile, we’ll still receive them.

They also put off the elimination of any state tests until the new math and English/language arts standards are in place. I can see the logic there, to an extent. On the other hand, I don’t care what standards we have in place; the writing tests we currently give students have always been – and will always be – a complete waste of money. I also – as you might have gathered last year – have a complete lack of faith in the ability of the testing industry to assess student writing ability.

That’s enough about that. As I have mentioned before, I became a teacher because of my love of writing.

darkandstormy_5013

Even now, as an adjunct professor, my favorite part of teaching is reading what my students write. I have strong opinions on writing instruction by the language arts teachers, but I also have strong opinions about other teachers’ expectations for student writing. Some of the best writing instruction I received in high school was from my tenth-grade U.S. History teacher, who I seriously underappreciated at the time.

The ability to write effectively is a key to unlocking more doors as adults. Dare I say that it’s critical to college and career readiness? Maybe I should change it to what Tyler Bridges suggested yesterday: future ready.

With that in mind, Sunday night’s #oklaed chat, which I will be hosting, is over the instruction and assessment of writing. Below is a preview of the questions; the first one is huge and will likely require follow-up discussion.

Q1: How should writing instruction look at the various grade levels?

Q2: Should writing expectations vary from subject to subject in school?

Q3: How has writing instruction changed as a result of technology?

Q4: What mode of writing (descriptive, informative, narrative, persuasive/argumentative) is most critical for students to learn?

Q5: How could blogging or tweeting be used in the classroom?

Q6: What is the best way to provide grammar instruction to students in order to improve writing?

Q7: Should writing and reading be taught as a combined discipline or two separate subjects?

Q8: What would it take for a state writing assessment to mean something to students, teachers, and parents?

See you on Twitter Sunday night at 8:00! Remember to use the #oklaed hashtag with all of your responses.

On the State Budget Agreement

Yesterday when legislative leaders announced that they had come to an agreement on the state budget, in conjunction with the governor’s office, I immediately checked to see how education funding looked. We had been warned that with a $611 million hole in the state budget, we could expect cuts from two to four percent.

I was relieved to see that funding for public schools was held flat. Of course flat doesn’t mean even. More students, higher expenses, and the reduction of oil and gas production in the state mean that we’ll have less per pupil to spend during the 2015-16 fiscal year than we did this year. Still, flat was as good of an outcome as could be expected. Then again, the Horse Racing Commission was also held to flat funding.

It could be worse. Higher Education took a 2.44 percent cut. Career Tech took a 3.5 percent cut. And the State Ethics Commission took a 42 percent cut. See, flat funding isn’t so bad. In light of this, I’m not going to pick through the inconsistencies and try to make sense of them.

bart-simpson-generator

I will, however, reprint the words of State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, who released the following statement yesterday.

Supt. Hofmeister comments on state budget agreement

OKLAHOMA CITY (May 19, 2015) — State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister made the following remarks in reaction to the recently announced state budget agreement:

“With Oklahoma in the midst of a serious revenue shortfall, I am thankful the Oklahoma State Department of Education budget was not reduced.

“It’s a severe disappointment that this agreement was unable to address a crippling teacher shortage that continues to negatively impact Oklahoma schoolchildren. The longer we fail to make our investment in common education a priority, the more likely it is we will pay economic and societal costs down the road. Our teachers deserve better than salaries that are among the lowest in the nation.

“In the months ahead we will renew our efforts to establish common education and our teachers as the very top of priorities for the children and citizens of Oklahoma.”

Again, I will not editorialize about the things they could have done differently to avoid the $611 million hole in the first place. That subject has been covered elsewhere.  It took a lot of hard work to hold funding for the House, the Senate, and the Legislative Service Bureau flat while cutting the Department of Transportation budget by 6.25 percent. With the cumulative cuts to education over the last seven or eight years, it’s probably even farsighted that the agreement increases funding for the Department of Corrections by nearly three percent.

The small, mostly term-limited group that worked behind closed doors to reach this budget agreement was thinking to the future. And apparently, the future is when we’ll begin to address the teacher shortage in Oklahoma. Bills on testing, teacher evaluation, and the A-F report cards have also yet to make any serious threats to earn a signature. This is all being saved for 2016, an election year, I suppose.

To paraphrase J. Peterman from Seinfeld,

incoherent drivel

Kudos on a job….done.

Categories: Uncategorized

Biting their thumbs and capping revenue

May 18, 2015 Comments off

One of my favorite dialogues from Shakespeare comes in the first scene of Romeo and Juliet (SPOILER: after that, it’s all downhill).

SAMPSON

Nay, as they dare. I will bite my thumb at them;
which is a disgrace to them, if they bear it.

Enter ABRAHAM and BALTHASAR

ABRAHAM

Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?

SAMPSON

I do bite my thumb, sir.

ABRAHAM

Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?

SAMPSON

[Aside to GREGORY] Is the law of our side, if I say
ay?

GREGORY

No.

SAMPSON

No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I
bite my thumb, sir.

Today’s thumb-biting comes in the form of House Bill 2244, which appeared through spontaneous generation in the Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget. With no budget agreement in sight (which could mean it exists Charlie Pride-style – Behind Closed Doors), today we began to see several bills emerge that were on no one’s radar last week. This bill in particular has great potential to both hurt education and also twist the knife in the backs of all of us who support public schools. Since there’s no record of this bill coming through the regular legislative process, we are left to imagine.

Maybe one day last week, our legislative leaders were sitting around trying to figure out how to plug the hole in the state budget. They looked at all available revenue sources and noticed that one in particular – the motor vehicle tax – was actually growing. They decided to cap the revenue source at current levels and divert the remaining money in future years to the general fund. Whatever this tax produces for education funding in the current fiscal year is the maximum it will ever produce. Never mind that enrollment and expenses are rising. This fund could yield as much as $20 million next year above the cap and start to chip away at the $611 million deficit in the budget that they created.

You Serious Clark

In other words, they can’t fund education because of the budget hole, so they’re going to divert money away from education to try to very partially fill the hole. In case you’re wondering, HB 2244 passed through A & B on a 13-4 vote after minutes of debate. With that kind of transparency and consideration, I just have to ask why we keep electing these people.

The Legislature has been in session more than 100 days. Is this really the best they can do? What other surprises await us this week? Will they bite their thumb again, or show us an altogether different digit?

This is a time when your voice matters. Call your representative and senator. Call someone else’s too. If you have time, call them all. Tell them you’ve had enough of the nonsense. They’re either serious about funding public education or they’re not. It’s time to quit pretending.

Oklahoma Senate Directory

Oklahoma House Directory

Two Weeks to Go: Will the Legislature Act to Curb the Teacher Shortage?

In January, Kevin Hime, Superintendent of Clinton Public Schools, did everything he could to push the Oklahoma community of education supporters to view the 2015 legislative session through a singular lens:

I have been pushing for #oklaed to have a one issue legislative session.  I believe the only issue we should be discussing until fixed is #teachershortage.  Recently looking at SDE documents I noticed #oklaed employed almost 60k teachers in 2008 and a little more than 52k in 2014.  Mathematically it looks like we should have almost 8K Teachers looking for a job but we started 2015 over 1000 teachers short.  We are setting records for alt certs and emergency certifications every year. Why is my issue so much more important than yours?  What is your issue?

One of the leading conservative minds in Oklahoma has accused us of blowing this issue out of proportion, but these numbers don’t lie. We have fewer teachers and larger classes. Imagine if we had kept all the closed positions open; we’d have several thousand vacancies!

With less than two weeks to go, how are our elected leaders doing? Let’s look at Kevin’s six criteria and assess.

Testing: In a recent survey conducted by our State Superintendent elect, testing was the first issue she needs to address.  How many teachers have left our profession because they feel students are over-tested.  If teachers are indicating in a survey that testing is the #1 issue, how can we fix teacher shortage without correcting our testing problems.

As of late last week, word reached several of us who follow the Legislature that SB 707 is still alive, but barely. Although it appears that a majority of members in both chambers support this legislation, it also appears that a small few in the leadership do not. This is not the time for the few to bully the many. This is the number one issue – even more than pay – decimating our teaching force. Some of the opposition has centered on the ACT, which the bill does not explicitly name as the replacement to the EOIs.  We have to start somewhere with reducing the emphasis on testing in Oklahoma schools. This bill does that.

Teacher Pay: Ask the governor or any legislator how are we going to fix teacher shortage and most will mention teacher pay.  So instead of starting with teacher pay start your discussion with teacher shortage.

I would love to see many changes in the way we compensate teachers in Oklahoma. Starting pay should be better, but veteran pay should be a lot better. The distance between lanes for degrees earned should be widened. And state aid should be solidified through dedicated funding that will not be exhausted in one year. The scheme that has been floated to use money dedicated for teacher retirement fails on both counts. It is not a recurring source of revenue, and it hardly moves the needle. A $1,000 raise for teachers would be appreciated, but it would move us from 48th to 48th in teacher pay. Oh wait, that’s no move at all!

Teacher Evaluations: Does anyone think VAMS, SLOs, SOOs, are any other acronym are good for teacher recruitment and retention.  Without fixing our evaluation system we will continue to struggle with recruitment and retention.

So far, nothing is fixed. We have hit pause on some things, but the terrible quantitative measurements of teacher effectiveness still loom.

Teacher’s Retirement: Just the threat to change scares current teachers.  If they change the system it will have a negative effect in the present climate.  I hate to be against an idea until I know what the idea is but change today when teachers have zero trust for those proposing the change will not help teacher retention and recruitment.

Technically, the legislators haven’t touched teacher retirement yet. Again, though, I should mention that the idea is being tossed around to divert funds for salaries – this one time only. The state treasurer is against it. The Oklahoman is against it. Don’t screw with retirement. Just don’t.

School Funding: Have you looked at Texas, Arkansas, or Kansas school buildings lately.  Recruiting teachers based on facilities if a non-starter for #oklaed. When you are 49th in school funding teachers find another state to work.

Again, we seem to be getting nowhere. During the March rally, many legislators blamed the economy. Others blamed their leadership. Here’s a fun fact: your constituents didn’t vote for the House and Senate leadership. They voted for you! Own your agenda. Represent your constituents and answer to them. Forget the leadership. Forget the lobbyists who buy your coffee, breakfast, and lunch. Make things better or admit to the voters that you failed them.

RSA, A-F,  and other REFORMS are all legislative burdens that have landed in the middle of teachers desks and hamper teacher recruitment and retention.

We seem stuck on these reforms. We still have the A-F Report Cards, and some in the Legislature are determined to make the Reading Sufficiency Act even more complicated. Let’s double the number of committees for our finishing third graders and have some for first and second graders as well. And let’s not fund any of this. And let’s make it clear to the dastardly education establishment that this is the price for keeping retention decisions in the hands of human beings.

So far, I can’t point to a success. Yes, the Legislature managed to make dues collection for teachers’ associations harder, but that’s hardly a selling point. They make promises, but promises don’t buy bread. Promises don’t restore priorities and balance to teaching. Promises don’t entice college students and recent graduates to pursue teaching careers in Oklahoma.

Action makes a difference. Nothing else.

Concidentally, the teacher shortage was the topic of tonight’s #oklaed chat on Twitter. Here are some of my favorite comments from the discussion.

Throughout the chat, we kept coming back to the fact that salary matters, but so do the working conditions of our schools.  I still believe that we’re losing teachers equally to both of these factors. We’ve tried and tried to explain this, but I don’t know if the politicians get it yet.

We have two weeks left to make them get it. Call. Write. Email. Visit. Don’t limit your time to your own senator and representative. Pick several. Call the leaders. Even if they tell you to call your own people, be persistent. They chose to lead. This is what they get.

Oklahoma Senate Directory

Oklahoma House Directory

Find their Facebook and Twitter accounts. Post articles using your own social media and get more parents and educators (and other citizens who care) involved.

We have two weeks to make sure the people we may or may not vote to re-elect listen to us and do something of value to stem the teacher shortage. Use it well.

Third Grade Reading Scores – Pick a Headline

Today is the day that many third graders, their parents, and their schools have been anticipating. Schools now have online access to student scores on this year’s third grade reading (featuring language arts) test. The data portal seems to have worked for administrators retrieving results, and statewide, scores are up from last year.

For fun, let’s play a matching game. In the box below, on the left are three headlines. On the right are the sources of each. Try to guess which came from where.

Headline Source
Slight improvement seen in state third-grade reading test scores Oklahoma State Department of Education
More than 7,000 Oklahoma third-graders failed reading test, face retention Tulsa World
At least 85% of state’s third-graders pass to next grade under RSA The Oklahoman

This is the fun thing about data. All of these things are true. Let’s see how each source framed today’s results.

From the OSDE:

osde rsa

From the Tulsa World:

tulsa world rsa

From the Oklahoman:

jokelahoman rsa

How did you do? If you thought that the OSDE would have the most positive approach and that the Oklahoman the most negative, you’d have been right. Also, keep in mind that the writers don’t typically write their own headlines.

Here’s the rest of Superintendent Hofmeister’s press release:

At least 85 percent of Oklahoma third-graders pass to next grade under Reading Sufficiency Act

OKLAHOMA CITY (May 15, 2015) — Preliminary results from this school year’s third-grade Oklahoma Core Curriculum Test (OCCT) reading test indicate that at least 85 percent will be promoted to the next grade.

Out of more than 50,000 test-takers, 67 percent statewide scored “Proficient,” while 14.6 percent scored “Unsatisfactory.”

Preliminary results are as follows:

  • Unsatisfactory: 14.6 percent
  • Limited Knowledge: 15.9 percent
  • Proficient: 67 percent
  • Advanced: 2.5 percent

Under the Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA), third-grade students who score “Unsatisfactory” on the assessment and fail to meet an exemption are subject to retention for intensive remediation in reading. Students who score “Limited Knowledge” are not held back, but must receive reading remediation in fourth grade.

However, students have multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery in the area of reading.

  • According to the RSA law, “any student who demonstrates proficiency on a screening instrument which meets the acquisition of reading skills criteria shall not be subject to the retention guidelines.”
  • Students can be evaluated with one of seven good-cause exemptions.
  • Probationary reading teams consisting of parents and teachers can meet to determine retention or promotion for students who scored “Unsatisfactory.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said renewed focus on reading as a result of RSA has shown signs of improvement among Oklahoma’s third-graders.

“Literacy is critical for success in academics and throughout life, and the RSA plays a valuable role in ensuring that skill,” she said.

“While these numbers are preliminary and will change slightly, it appears the percentage of ‘Unsatisfactory’ has decreased. And more students evidently scored ‘Limited Knowledge,’ showing improvement between ‘Unsatisfactory’ and ‘Limited Knowledge.’

“But it is important to remember, too, that the current third-grade OCCT test given to satisfy federal test requirements was not designed to measure reading level the way it is being used for RSA. Instead, a valid reading test should include five essential elements: fluency, phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary and reading comprehension.

“For this reason it is very important that students who did not pass the OCCT reading test now be assessed by an RSA committee. These panels will examine other specific reading evidence to determine the need for retention or targeted intervention for next year. As these committees are essential to ensuring success, I urge the Legislature to keep their voices in the RSA process.”

The RSA committees are scheduled to dissolve at the end of the current school year unless lawmakers pass legislation to extend their existence. Additionally, lawmakers are considering a measure that would include “Limited Knowledge” students under the provisions of RSA. This year, for example, that would mean an additional 7,900 students evaluated for possible retention.

Over the next few weeks, school districts are required to contact parents and legal custodians of students who scored “Unsatisfactory” and determine the most effective course of action for these children.

Approximately two-thirds of students who scored “Unsatisfactory” are English Language Learners, on an Individualized Education Program (IEP), or both. That same designation also applies to roughly 39 percent of test-takers who scored “Limited Knowledge.”

Hofmeister’s words make me want to reiterate several important points that I’ve made at other times:

  • Scores have improved (slightly, as the World indicates) from last year.
  • This test is a poor measurement of reading ability.
  • The RSA promotion committees have worked well around the state.
  • Doubling the number of students in the promotion/retention committees dilutes the work needed for our most struggling students.
  • Without the RSA committees, we will be retaining special education students and those just learning to speak English at highly disproportionate levels.

This is why we all need to be aware of ongoing legislative discussions. Senate bill 630 is out of conference committee. The Legislature’s bill tracking site shows the most recent version with a date of April 22. Here are the key changes:

  • Keep the RSA Committees for promotion through the 2019-2020 school year (p. 4).
  • Add an RSA Committee for students not meeting benchmarks on screening instruments in first and second grade (p. 5).
  • Add students scoring Limited Knowledge into the retention discussion (p. 11).

The 2015 legislative session is almost over. Let your representative and senator know what you think about these changes.

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