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Four Quick Thoughts

Yesterday’s State Board of Education meeting had little public drama. It was long, and they did spend a lot of time in closed session. I was able to keep up with the meeting from Oklahoma Watchdog via Twitter. After digesting notes from various sources, I have four quick thoughts.

1. At least they didn’t publish more students’ names. The agenda listed students by case number as should have happened all along. Even though the SDE continues defending the previous practice, doing things differently now must mean something. And I wonder if this has anything to do with the change in legal counsel for the department.

2. I’d hate to be a student whose appeal came up one vote short, knowing that one board member was absent. There’s no way of knowing if that would’ve turned the tide, but you have to wonder. With 72 appeals left to be heard, we can only hope that this is as important to board members as it is to the students.

3. For some reason, the SDE decided to withhold the names of the five companies bidding on state testing. They recommended the contract be awarded to “Company A.” The documentation provided lists the prices of the contract, but not the names of the vendors. Note: it is permissible to publish the names of multi-national corporations to which you are awarding multi-million dollar contracts.

4. Bids for training for TLE came in at roughly $4.6 million. The SDE has a budget of $1.5 million. They say they negotiated the cost down to $1.7 million, but since they don’t have the money to fill that gap, they’re releasing funds to schools to use on training as they see fit. My problem is this: will the vendors make training available to schools at the $4.6 million rate or the $1.7 million rate? That will be worth watching.

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June 28 State Board of Education Meeting

June 27, 2012 Comments off

The agenda for the June 28 State Board of Education meeting is online, and it includes more student graduation appeals. I notice that this time, the agenda lists each student with a numerical identifier – a case number if you will. Three weeks ago, I was one of a number of people who suggested that would be more appropriate than either listing student names or publishing their academic records. Meanwhile, the SDE insisted that what the had done was perfectly fine.

For whatever reason, they’ve now changed their tune. With students fighting for their futures, no one should complicate the important board discussions with FERPA violations. (Incidentally, signing a waiver to have the state board members view your records does not mean the SDE gets to publish them.)

This board meeting also happens to come on the heels that the SDE has failed to procure affordable training for school districts to implement new teacher and principal evaluations. That will be discussed late in the meeting.

I’ve heard from a number of people who plan to speak during the public comment period. This could get interesting.

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False Dichotomies

Superintendent Barresi must be feeling the heat coming from all angles: parents and the state board over her handling of graduation appeals; school leaders over the SDE’s inability to adequately fund training for the new evaluation system; and members of her own party in the legislature over taking liberties with funding last year in opposition to legislative intent. With all of that in the background, she has another state board meeting tomorrow, and I don’t know anybody who expects it to be smooth.

That must explain why she published two separate editorials today – one in the Oklahoman painting her critics as beholden to the status quo, and one in the Oklahoma Gazette pouring more fuel on the flame around vouchers for special needs students to attend private schools. Good politicians know that when things are going well, it’s best to stay focused on one consistent message. They also know that when the pressure is on, they need to unleash their entire arsenal.

The first piece offers this statement, which has been a point of emphasis since she began campaigning for office:

We must shift our focus — from the needs of adults to helping students be successful; from an education system that obscures information to a system focused on transparency and accountability; from a system that crams information into a student’s head (what to think) to a system that equips students with critical thinking skills (how to think); and from a system based on an outmoded industrial model to a system focused on choice.

This loaded statement is worth breaking down into its component parts:

…from the needs of adults to helping students be successful: In making this statement, Barresi paints teachers as not only recalcitrant, but also obstreperous. The truth is that teachers sacrifice time and money to meet the needs of children. They always have. Teachers take a lot more pride in the successes of their students than in their paychecks or 25 minute uninterrupted lunch periods (that tend to get interrupted).

…from an education system that obscures information to a system focused on transparency and accountability: The State of Oklahoma has made student outcome data available to the public electronically since 1996. No Child Left Behind report cards have been available for a decade. They are being replaced by a new report card modeled after Florida’s – one that takes 32 pages to explain and distills all of the different data down to a letter grade based on criteria that were developed somewhere other than broad daylight.

…from a system that crams information into a student’s head to a system that equips students with critical thinking skills: If she’s referring to Common Core, she’s referring to the reform piece getting the least resistance. Unfortunately, for all the strengths within the new standards, there is also tremendous confusion over what the testing process will look like. One thing we do know for certain is that there will be more of it. Nothing kills the creativity inherent in teaching and learning like excessive emphasis on testing. Going back to her point on accountability – teachers and principals don’t oppose testing; they oppose death by testing.

…from a system based on an outmoded industrial model to a system focused on choice: I don’t know very many people working in schools who want the education they provide to look much like the education they received. Barresi states earlier in the article that our Prussian roots are what holds back Oklahoma achievement. I would argue that the problem with our educational system is that the state has never really funded the industrial model. Also, we don’t do a very good job of accounting for the fact that teaching in high-poverty, high-mobility schools requires a deeper financial commitment from the public. Should we be more 21st Century than 19th? Absolutely. Professional educators understand this better than the public they’ve been explaining it to for years.

The second article takes the idea that you’re either with her or against children to an even more unfortunate extreme. She starts with a tired analogy about how we have more choices in milk than we do with school. Lost within this metaphor is the fact that parents do have the right to choose non-public options for their children. When they do, they are also choosing to send their children to schools unencumbered by standards, transparency, and accountability. In the sense that they would be choosing something opaque like milk, I guess it makes complete sense.

Later in the Gazette column, she decries “opponents to the scholarship program [who] try to make the reform sound like a nefarious plot with breathless rhetoric about ‘dismantling public education.’” I don’t know if she and her top staff have a plan to dismantle public education, but I know they lack the skill set to improve it. Meanwhile, among her strongest supporters is the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, an ultra-conservative think tank that assails all government spending. This is an organization that would end public common education and public higher education.

It boils down to the fact that the state constitution prohibits the use of state funds for religious purposes. The judge who ruled the scholarship program unconstitutional agrees. The two districts (also referred to by her former staffer as dirtbags) suing the parents are actually counter-suing them – a distinction lost on the countless Oklahoman articles that have discussed it.

Oklahomans who want a well-educated public must accept reforms – that much is true. A reluctance to accept the SDE’s clumsy implementation of those reforms does not indicate a preference for the status quo. Believing that it does is convenient, at best.

As Long As We’re Holding People Accountable

June 26, 2012 Comments off

The blog is getting an unusually high amount of traffic today. As someone who writes when I can (and still misses quite a few good blogging opportunities), I appreciate the fact that what I’m doing finds an audience. Take my post yesterday, for example. I was mad, and something needed to be said on behalf of the countless people impacted by the SDE’s failure to effectively procure training for one of their cornerstone reform efforts. While I didn’t think it was my best work, today has been my highest traffic day since starting the blog a little over two months ago.

So before I go on, I want to say thank you for the people who come back to read okeducationtruths, and also that I appreciate all the sharing that seems to be happening. I wouldn’t describe readership as viral, but it’s already more than I ever expected. And to my readers in Canada, Japan, France, and the UK today…WOW! That was truly unexpected!

And since I have your attention, I want to point out that the State Board of Education will be meeting Thursday morning at 9:30. At this time, the agenda for the meeting is still not posted. When it is, you’ll find the link here. And when I have a chance tomorrow, I’ll write more about it.

UPDATE: The agenda for tomorrow is now posted and under the hyperlink above.

One thing that is certain to be discussed is the way student graduation appeals were handled at the June 5th board meeting. I wrote about that at the time, aghast that the SDE would publish student records – including special education records – online with their board documentation.

I wasn’t the only one who wrote about that. So did Diane Ravitch. So did Parents Across America. And Education News. Their actions also bothered at least one legislator from Superintendent Barresi’s own party. There’s no other way to say it: releasing student records publicly has disgraced the SDE.

Here we are three weeks later, and people are still mad about it. They should be! I know some members of the board have already asked questions, and I expect they will continue to. Barresi is one of a breed of education reformers who like to extol the virtue of accountability. Well somebody needs to be held accountable for what happened. Whether through design or incompetence, the public forum created by the legislature for students to appeal for a high school diploma turned into an embarrassing circus. Students were bullied. Excuses were made. And somewhere, in the time and distance, nobody forgot that any of this happened!

This agency, under Barresi’s direction, squanders opportunity after opportunity to lead. Rather than capitalizing on the momentum from the 2010 election and effectively pursuing the agenda that got her elected in the first place, she – along with her top staff – insist upon steering the ship directly into the iceberg. Regardless of whether you’re for her or against her – embracing her reforms or resisting them – you have to admit that the performance of the SDE has been consistently disappointing.

Make sure the state board knows how you feel. They may surprise us all this Thursday.

Dropping the Ball

As part of the education reform agenda passed through the 2011 legislative session, the governor signed a law establishing the Oklahoma Teacher and Leader Effectiveness Evaluation System (TLE). This post will not discuss the relative merits of TLE; that is a conversation for another time. The law has been passed, requiring that by the 2013-14 school year, all school districts will use an evaluation system based 50% on qualitative measures, 35% on quantitative measures of student academic growth, and 15% on quantitative measures of other academic factors.

This will be the evaluation system for principals and administrators alike, and the SDE is requiring all districts to participate in piloting TLE during the 2012-13 school year. Again, without editorializing about whether or not this is a good thing, I want to give a little background.

This TLE Commission Report to the legislature and governor, approved by the State Board in December 2011, provides an easy-to-understand overview of the law, explanation of the adoption process, and breakdown of the components of the TLE system. Page five of the report explains that three teacher evaluation models (Tulsa, Marzano, and Danielson) and two leader evaluation models (McREL and Reeves) have been approved. In spite of Superintendent Barresi’s state preference for the Marzano model, the Commission voted to make the Tulsa model the default teacher evaluation model for the state. More than 400 school districts then proceeded to choose the Tulsa model.

In the background during this process has been the understanding that the SDE would provide training to school districts in a timely manner to prepare them for successful implementation of TLE. Along with this understanding has been Barresi continuing to assure districts and policy makers that this – along with all other reforms – can be implemented with minimal cost to districts.

Then on Friday afternoon, superintendents around the state received their Leadership Post newsletter from the SDE in email. In it, the Department explains that while anticipating a budget of $1.5 million for all districts to train necessary staff would be enough, the proposals for training actually came in nearly three times that amount. Unable to negotiate the price very far between $4.3 million and the budgeted amount, the SDE had but one choice. I’ll let their words speak volumes.

Given that time is of the essence, to best serve the needs of districts, and to provide you with more autonomy over these funds, SDE has determined that it will indeed be most effective to distribute the $1.5 million directly to districts to seek TLE evaluator training.

That one sentence has so many parts to it:

  • Given that time is of the essence: If that were true, the SDE wouldn’t have waited until June to complete the RFP process. By statute, evaluators must be trained by August. With a limited number of trainers available across the state to work with districts, there will be a scramble to get something set up quickly by all 521 school districts in the state. Compounding the problem is the fact that July is the absolute worst time to try to have training. This is when most principals on an 11 month contract are off. Some will still be around and available, but not all of them.
  • To best serve the needs of the districts: This would be believable if the SDE hadn’t spent the entire spring trying to countermand the will of the Commission and promising to have the training set up – while blocking districts trying to proactively get out in front of their training needs.
  • To provide you with more autonomy over these funds: We’re only giving you funds that will cover 1/3 of the actual cost of the TLE training, but use them as you wish – and good luck making up the difference!
  • The SDE has determined that it will indeed most effective to distribute the $1.5 million directly to districts to seek TLE evaluator training: You’re on your own, and we’re probably not going to be able to give you any precise figures on how much money you’ll actually have for a while; just carry on knowing that you’ll be absorbing those costs on your own.

In the movie Heartbreak Ridge, Clint Eastwood had a word for this type of situation. I’ll let you Google it and come back…

Cathartic, isn’t it?

Per Pupil Spending

Not wanting to break form, the Oklahoman and Oklahoma State Department of Education are again showing that they just don’t understand public education. An article in the paper this morning highlights the fact that Oklahoma spent more than only three states per student in 2010. The map below shows state-by-state spending more clearly.

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In the article, SDE spokesman Damon Gardenhire glibly states, “If you look at academic results, per-pupil spending doesn’t necessarily correlate to good academic results…Most people would agree Washington, D.C., is … very challenged academically.” Referencing D.C. schools makes for a nice distraction, but it isn’t relevant to Oklahoma, for a number of reasons. While only slightly larger than OKC and Tulsa Public, the political and socio-economic structure of the population served is altogether different.

The article showed per pupil spending from the districts in Oklahoma with more than 10,000 students. Using 2010 data, since that correlates with this study, I also looked at the achievement scores of the highlighted districts. To provide context, I also added a column for their free/reduced lunch rates.

As you can see, the state’s two largest districts are also the poorest districts on this list. They are also the highest spending and lowest performing districts represented here. (For reference, I used the published API scores from 2010 – you know…the ones that Superintendent Barresi thinks confuse parents…because numbers are harder to understand than letter grades that take a 32 page treatise to explain.)

District 2010 Spending 2010 Poverty 2010 API Score
Broken Arrow $6,669 30.8% 1194
Edmond $6,868 23.6% 1346
Moore $6,924 39.7% 1257
Union $6,924 47.0% 1166
Putnam City $7,116 65.9% 1124
Norman $7,243 41.9% 1259
Mid-Del $7,390 63.5% 1114
Jenks $7,492 26.3% 1298
Lawton $8,022 57.5% 1098
OKC $8,252 83.5% 896
Tulsa $8,630 83.1% 920
State Average $7,896 58.9% 1092

For the most part, the data show that Oklahoma’s larger school districts have less money to spend per pupil than the state average. Since OKC and Tulsa have such high levels of poverty, they get more federal funding, boosting their capacity to spend. The data also clearly show that the districts with less poverty do better academically. Of course, I showed that as well as I know how when I started my blog two months ago, writing that rewarding academic achievement is really little more than rewarding relative wealth.

In Remedial Math for Legislators, I also showed the extent to which state support for public education has declined. By keeping education funding flat this year, the state of Oklahoma is still funding public education at a lower level than it did in 2007. Gardenhire, who has never worked in public education, goes on to say that “a scattershot approach” will not work. He’s right about that. The state should target specific needs and fund them. The agency paying his salary is doing neither of these things.

It bears repeating that the legislature and SDE are implementing more reforms at one time than public education in this state has ever seen. It also bears repeating that schools have to do more, for more students, and more poor students than ever before – but with less money. We have a moral and ethical obligation to teach children effectively. No amount of rhetoric from disingenuous politicians and their complicit newspaper can change that.

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My Letter Grade for Vision 2020

Vision 2020 is coming to a close, and having been at most of it, I think the SDE can call it a success. In reality, even if it didn’t measure up to anyone else’s standards, they can call it that. Politicians (and these people are still more politicians than educators) know that you always declare your efforts successful.

I’d like to give the conference a rating – if only there were a scale for doing so. You know what? I think I’ll make one up. Since everybody knows what A-F grades mean, I’ll just use that as a way to measure the conference. In case you missed it, I was going to have a hearing to explain the criteria for this, but then I decided that I didn’t care if anybody attended and that I wasn’t going to show up myself.

I have to consider that this is part new conference and part old Leadership conference. The Thursday and Friday sessions had the feel of SDE staff giving administrators information they need to know about state initiatives. The only thing really missing – besides the lavish parties thrown by vendors – was information for district officers about their actual funding. Believe it or not, that was always a big draw for districts.

The professional development part of the conference was decent. There were quite a few big name presenters: Bill Daggett, Cathy Seeley, Ray McNulty, Larry Tihen, and Ron Clark among them. I do question how much money was spent on the keynote speakers (which were not a big part of previous SDE conferences) and the impact that will really have. Anybody who has worked in education any amount of time knows that big name speakers are great, if a staff hears them together and uses the keynote address as a springboard to instructional improvement. Having a swarm of big names at the beginning of the summer heard by a lot of people from around the state – but a critical mass from few places – will have a limited impact. It had the feel of a huge tent revival; as such, the amount of backsliding will be interesting to watch.

In the end, the SDE pulled off the conference after initial hiccups in getting people interested. Thousands attended. Complications with hotels were not the agency’s fault (much like the conditions that are outside the control of school districts). I just didn’t get the feeling talking to attendees, SDE staff, and vendors, that the time and expense of the conference (not to mention the man-hours by agency employees for the last several months at taxpayer expense) were entirely worth the effort.

I’ll give it a C. And I won’t even publish protected student information if anyone wants to appeal that.

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