Archive for July, 2012

True Believers

Note: This is the post I’ve been trying to write for weeks. For as long as I’ve been working on it, I still don’t feel like it’s finished. The idea I’m trying to bring forward probably isn’t one that can be fully discussed in 1200 words anyway. After I put this on the blog, I’m sure I’ll immediately wish I had said something else. I’m sure this isn’t the last post I’ll make with this subject.

In truth, the idea for this post came to me a few months ago, before I even had a blog. I had a chance to visit with a University of Florida professor (who is also a retired superintendent) about the extent to which Oklahoma’s education reform movement mirrors her state’s – only from a few years behind. She talked openly about the problems with Turnaround schools in her state and the confusion created by A-F Report Cards. She said that charter schools had re-segregated students in much of the state. When I asked how state leaders react when presented with these facts, she said that they either don’t or can’t believe them, because they are the “True Believers.”

Her point was that the education reformers who brought us charter and virtual schools (or taken them to perverse extremes), promoted simplistic accountability systems, and in some cases, fought to funnel public education dollars to private schools, are so entrenched in their beliefs, that the idea that they might be wrong is unfathomable. I used the word “fanatics” to describe them over the weekend, and that might be a better word choice.

So where do these True Believers or fanatics come from? And where do they get their ideas?

It is simplistic and wrong to say that all of one party is out to destroy public education and all of the other party is its savior. This always has been a false premise. It’s also inaccurate to believe that all who propose education reform are out to destroy public education. There are good ideas out there, and these good ideas need to be explored. What we’re seeing now goes beyond any of this.

On the national level, one major player is a group called Chiefs for Change. If you click the link, you will see that Janet Barresi is one of the ten state superintendents (or equivalent) who belong to this group. While they don’t represent a majority of states, they are nonetheless an influential group. Just below the header on their website is this statement of purpose:

Chiefs for Change is a coalition of state school chiefs and leaders that share a zeal for education reform. Together, they provide a strong voice for bold reform on the federal, state and local level.

Below that is the organization’s mission statement:

Chiefs for Change is committed to putting children first through bold, visionary education reform that will increase student achievement and prepare students for success in colleges and careers.  

One thing that strikes me is the use of the word “zeal.” It goes with the concept of these reformers as fanatics. Another is the idea that this organization is necessary to “put children first.” Might I remind them that public school teachers have been putting children first with zeal for more than a century!

Another group of True Believers is the Michelle Rhee organization, Students First. Rhee was chancellor of the Washington, D.C. school system from 2007 through 2010. Her time in DCPS is now under scrutiny for testing irregularities.

Prior to her time with DCPS and Students First, Rhee was a teacher with Teach For America, where she used some sort of tape over mouth concoction to control students. (For the record, I’m against that.) She later founded The New Teacher Project, a group that has brought a lot of attention this week for writing a post called “The Irreplacables.” The idea in this is that good teachers are not encouraged to stay in the profession and trying to figure out who is to blame for this.

On their website, Students First is described as a “grassroots movement … designed to mobilize parents, teachers, students, administrators, and citizens throughout country [sic], and to channel their energy to produce meaningful results on both the local and national level.” Read that again, and hear the zeal. These are the reformers that national politicians in both parties listen to. These are the people who keep beating the drum and saying that our public education system is a failure. They are well-funded, and they are relentless. Students First even released a horrible, offensive, Olympic-themed ad criticizing public schools. Education Week criticized it for “playing up obesity for laughs.” Other critics of the ad claimed it to be mocking the effeminate qualities of the “athlete.”

(By the way, for fun, I follow the Twitter account of Rheefirst – a parody mocking Michelle Rhee and exposing her inconsistencies.)

Speaking of Twitter, I also follow the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and some of their employees’ accounts. The tweets from OCPA, SchoolChoiceOK, and Oklahoma Truth Council all come from the same place. And they tweets among these groups and top staff from the State Department of Education are beyond chummy. When the Tulsa World criticized Damon Gardenhire in an editorial a while back, Brandon Dutcher with OCPA was quick to his defense. The public exchange between the two included criticism of vitriol and ad hominem attacks in political discourse. Soon to join them was Jennifer Carter, formerly of the SDE (and most famous for calling certain superintendents “dirtbags.”) It should be noted that Carter’s husband is an editorial writer for the Oklahoman, and any anti-education editorial by that paper should be taken with a grain of salt. It should also be noted that OCPA tends to decry any public money spent on anything.

The connections between the SDE, OCPA (which frequently publishes anti-education columns in the Oklahoman), and the newspaper itself lead to a near-monopoly on the public discourse. These are people who are convinced that public education is responsible for the destruction of Americana. They are convinced that poverty is not a determinant of student outcomes. And they are convinced that if they create excessive burdens for public education and give parents the choice of schools that lack those same burdens, parents will begin to pull their kids out in droves.

Judging from what has happened in Indiana, Florida, New Jersey, and Louisiana (all Chiefs for Change states), we will soon be farther down the path towards charters and vouchers. We will see more obfuscation of facts in the name of transparency and more withholding of allocations in case the charter schools fill up. We will see more propaganda that fills our mind with images of children succeeding, without the offset of facts. We will see more attacks upon those who oppose the True Believers.

As the calendar turns to August tomorrow, we know that in Oklahoma City, the 2012-13 school year has already started. Soon, administrators, then teachers, and finally students will all report to public schools. This is a pivotal year in determining the future of public education. If the True Believers have their way, it will be a crippling one.

As for me…I’m just starting to fight back.

Accreditation…With a Side of Warning

July 30, 2012 Comments off


A reader today pointed something out to me that I had completely missed. At last week’s State Board of Education meeting, while I was paying attention to budget questions and ACE appeals, they approved accreditation requests for school districts – some with deficiencies, some with warnings. According to the SDE news release:

For the coming school year, there are 372 nonpublic, public, charter, and career and technology education districts accredited with no deficiencies; 83 with one deficiency; 27 with multiple deficiencies; 111 districts accredited with a warning; and 9 listed as on probation.

The complete list is here.

The reader’s concern is that the number of districts receiving a warning with their deficiency report has increased from 38 to 111. The short answer to this is that the procedure is routine and goes back three or four years. The number of districts with warnings correlates to the number of schools that were placed in Needs Improvement status under the No Child Left Behind rules – rules that no longer apply due to the state waiver. Last year, as expected under the unrealistic goals set by NCLB, the number of schools and districts not making AYP spiked.

So a school district’s accreditation status for 2012-13 depends in part on test scores from the 2010-11 school year. Regardless of who is running the show up there, that’s ridiculous.

I also found interest in this nugget from my reader. For the 2011-12 school year, all charter schools in the state were accredited with no deficiencies. Warnings are not listed on the spreadsheet.

Compare that with the 2012-13 accreditation report and … wait … only one charter school received a warning? Santa Fe South Middle School received a warning, but not Justice A.W. Seeworth Academy (234 API –Needs Improvement). While several other charters did not make adequate yearly progress, they had still avoided the Needs Improvement designation.

I don’t know if this is an oversight or an inconsistency. And it really doesn’t matter. What it really points to is the idea that accreditation (a state process) should never have crossed streams with Adequate Yearly Progress and Needs Improvement (federal). If districts meet state statutes, that should be enough to keep accreditation.

Informed Discussion on Consolidation

Rural schools are necessarily inefficient.

Read that statement again; it’s not a slam on rural schools. It’s just a statement of fact. If a school has 30 seniors every year, the cost of educating students ends up being higher on a per pupil basis. Add to that the higher transportation costs and other associated expenses that come with being located in remote areas, and this simple fact is exacerbated.

Today, the Oklahoman ran a feature on the difficulties in the state pursuing consolidation from a policy perspective. In this respect, they have the issue right. So many legislators represent at least one small, rural district, that consolidation is tantamount to political suicide. And as you know, our elected leaders don’t exactly qualify for the sequel to Profiles in Courage.

Some districts have consolidated in recent years because of lagging funding from the state. They simply can’t continue operating. In public sector terms, they have gone out of business.

In western Oklahoma, many of the smaller districts get so much of their funding from ad valorem taxes from oil and gas that they wouldn’t necessarily feel the pinch from the loss of state aid and have to close down.

Another issue raised in the feature is the average salary of superintendents. Similarly, a story in the Tulsa World yesterday questioned the practice by many districts in the area of providing cars for superintendents. These are local decisions made to attract and keep top area leaders. I see a number of inconsistencies in salaries across the state, and I question the wisdom of providing cars for administrators, but these aren’t the decisions crippling school funding.

The Oklahoman also draws comparisons to Arkansas and Oregon. They do not mention why those two states are good exemplars for Oklahoma, but Arkansas has gone through a huge overhaul to its education system in the last decade. The results were twofold – fewer districts, and more total spending for education. Even if the legislature, state superintendent, and governor could agree on a consolidation plan, the more spending part would never happen.

This is a serious conversation that needs to happen, but it needs a foundation in reality. Leaders from urban and suburban areas need to spend meaningful time in rural communities and schools to gain an understanding of what the challenges are in these areas. Only then will they have some perspective about how their decisions might impact children.

True Colors

Thursday at the State Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Barresi faced criticism from several board members about the fact that funding is being withheld from schools, in excess of what is necessary, and without warning to districts that have to plan a coming school year. Here was her response, as quoted yesterday in the Tulsa World:

“Funding for education in this country has doubled over the last 10 years with flatline results. Do we just throw a lot more money at it? Respectfully, school choice is a right in this state. It is not a luxury. It’s an important part of the mix in education.”

Her deflection of legitimate criticism from her own board – appointed just for her after Governor Fallin relieved the previous board of their responsibilities – misses the point. We’re not talking about funding nationwide. Nice try anyway.

The statement I quoted is one of the favorite lies of the fanatics who love to claim that public education is failing. It’s much more than that, though; it’s actually a big lie made up of several smaller ones. Let’s take a look…

  • Funding for education has not doubled, in Oklahoma, or nationally. In 2010-11, schools in Oklahoma spent $7,586 per pupil. Compare that to $5,925 in 2000-01. Adjust the 2001 dollars to 2011 dollars, and the figure from 10 years ago becomes $7,525. Nothing has doubled.
  • One thing that has increased is poverty. Ten years ago, 48.8% of Oklahoma public school students qualified for free and reduced lunch. In 2011, that had increased to 60.6%.
  • Meanwhile, the contribution of the state to school funding has decreased from 58.0% ten years ago to 45.5% now. So schools are spending roughly the same amount of money they were ten years ago, but more of it is coming from the federal government now. The state burden for public education has actually declined on a per pupil basis.
  • Results have not flatlined. Nationally, NAEP scores on math, reading, and science are up. In Oklahoma, they are also up, but not with the same rate of increase. Also, as recently as Thursday, Barresi was praising Oklahoma test results, saying that test scores have been rising for several years.
  • Providing district funding at the start of the school year would not eliminate the choices that parents have for their students. Barresi simply chose to prioritize charter and virtual choices, funding those schools at the level of the maximum number of students who could enroll in those schools. That is little consolation to districts like Owasso and Bixby that are growing so fast that they start every school year over capacity.

The one consistency in all of this is that Barresi praises schools when it suits her and calls them failures when it doesn’t. Backed into a corner by her own board, her true colors came through.


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Thanks and Onward

July 26, 2012 Comments off

There’s an old joke about a man who constantly seeks external validation. When his therapist explains this to him, the man asks, “That’s ok, isn’t it?”

To the point of the joke, it’s probably safe to say that people who blog also seek external validation. I know enjoy it when the typical number of readers view one of my posts. The one that I researched most intensely and was the first on my blog has been seen over 250 times. I occasionally prod new readers to take a look back and read it, and occasionally they oblige me.

Sometimes my audience surprises me. To date, the blog has been viewed by readers in 27 countries outside the US. One morning, I looked at my stats, and I had 26 page views – all from Pakistan! I’m going to go ahead and state that I don’t know a lot of people who live abroad – especially in countries that our State Department (as opposed to State Department of Education) keeps under that close of a watch.

The post I made last Friday discussing the deliberate decision by the SDE to withhold money from school districts has been viewed over 2,000 times. It has been shared on Facebook 445 times. The second most viewed post on this blog has been clicked 329 times. So to sum up, what I wrote last Friday has been shared more than any other blog post has been read. I guess I struck a nerve.

And yet I feel like I’m only scratching the surface. I know there are more than 2,000 angry, frustrated people out there who care about public education. I’m trying to reach as broad an audience as possible, hopefully sharing facts that otherwise wouldn’t see the light of day.

I have more I want to write than I have time and energy to write it. I read probably a dozen other education bloggers daily – most notably Diane Ravitch. I follow a number of activists on Twitter – teachers, parents, administrators, politicians, writers, union activists. I try to keep up with education trends, not only in Oklahoma, but across the country.

Ironically, I wrote this morning that the SDE is busy patting itself on the back. I guess that’s what I’m doing right now. I don’t think I’m changing the world; that’s what teachers are for. I do think people are listening, though, and for that, I’m more than grateful.

Thanks for following. If anyone ever has something you want me to look into, let me know in the comments, on Facebook, or in a Tweet.

Patting Yourself on the Back

Shortly after noon today, the SDE sent out this release explaining that test scores in Oklahoma are on the rise and are an indication that the ACE reforms implemented in 2005 are making a difference. In her remarks, Superintendent Barresi goes out of her way twice in the same paragraph to praise teachers for their hard work.

The release also calls the ACE exams “one of the most important indicators for college readiness” and points out that scores have been rising on the exams for several years. Let me go ahead and state the obvious then: it seems schools were on the right track two years ago when she was going all over the state campaigning and saying how badly schools were doing. And let me point out another obvious point: increases in ACE exam scores don’t correspond at all with performance on the ACT or SAT – indicators also cited by this administration (when it serves them) to point out the lack of college readiness.

She ties the gains to the ACE graduation requirements and makes the logical leap to saying, “This shows the need to press forward with our new third-grade graduation reading requirements next year, as well as our emphasis on science, literacy and math.” As this release went out, and as I write at this moment, the State Board of Education had convened into executive session to discuss graduation appeals for more than 80 students. This is the third board meeting with graduation appeals on the agenda, and this is the third different method the Board has used in listing the appeals for the public. It seems they’re still trying to zero in on an efficient way to manage the process without violating FERPA.

All of this leads me to another obvious statement: test results released today indicate that 72 percent of students passed the third grade reading test. While the rules adopted by the state board allow schools to promote students to fourth grade if they received a score of limited knowledge, proficient, or advanced, it’s pretty clear that we’re going to be looking at a lot more third grade retentions than we are ACE graduation appeals. I sure hope they get FERPA figured out before May 2014, when parents of third graders start swarming board meetings.

More on State Aid

A useful tactic when trying to control a hot narrative amid justified criticism is to tell the people questioning you that they are confused or misinformed. That explains yesterday’s Leadership Post from Superintendent Barresi.

Earlier this week, school districts across Oklahoma received their initial state aid notices from the SDE. Given that the legislature funded public education at a flat level and that enrollment was up by 11,000 students last year, districts were expecting a small dip in the per pupil allowance in the funding formula.

As Barresi points out, “Oklahoma is required by state law to withhold dollars from the initial allocation in order to account for a variety of factors. At a minimum, this is mandated at a floor of 1.5 percent.” She then gives the following breakdown of how money was withheld:

  • Retained for midyear growth & surplus (anticipated growth of ADM) – $35,446,095
  • August adjustment – (this includes new charter applications) – $18,848,842
  • Retained for mid-year adjustment for virtual students – $8,056,285
  • Retained for Lindsey Nicole Henry – $1,500,000
  • Pending adjustments – $105,444
  • Total Amount Withheld: $63,956,666

Yesterday, I criticized the choice to withhold 3.52 percent (more than twice the mandated amount) from state aid to schools. That blog post has spread beyond my wildest imagination, with 189 shares on Facebook as I write this. Reaching even more people was the Tulsa World, which interviewed area school district leaders. The $1.75 million less allocated to Tulsa Public, $210,000 less to Jenks, $522,827 less to Owasso, and $692,000 less to Union will make a difference in how those districts staff schools for the beginning of the school year. Today’s editorial in the World astutely points out that this decision “appears to short regular schools to accommodate virtual and charter schools.”

Damon Gardenhire, the SDE’s spokesperson, goes on to explain that the department is “trying to err on the side of caution and not have districts take a hit mid-year” and that “everything that’s left over will be distributed to schools during their mid-year adjustments.” That’s all well and good, but district leaders are making staffing decisions now. While 90 percent of that planning occurs in the spring, school districts – which are used to receiving funding notices earlier, I might add – watch enrollment during the summer and add positions as needed. When test scores come back (on time this year), they make further decisions based on the areas of greatest need.

And that’s the perspective lacking from the non-educators making these decisions. Most of the top leadership at the SDE does not have experience running a school district. In times like these, it shows. The state department has chosen to withhold more money from school districts than they are required to. This choice will hurt students. Barresi closed yesterday with the hope that her post “clears up any misunderstanding that may have occurred as a result of any misleading information you may have received.”

Then understand clearly what the 2012-13 school year has in store for Oklahoma districts: more students, more mandates and regulations, and less money.

I hope that clears it up.

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