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False Dichotomies

June 27, 2012

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.

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  1. Outta Here
    July 5, 2012 at 8:32 pm

    The new social studies standards are interesting. They leave out anything that happened before 1500. That’s a convenient way of avoiding, rather than confronting, the topic of human origins, don’t you think? Of course, the social studies director seems to have wallowed in the KoolAid.

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