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Archive for July, 2012

Another Bad Decision

Once again, the leaders at the Oklahoma State Department of Education are showing what they do with discretion. As this Leadership Post from Superintendent Barresi explains, public education received no increase in funding this year in spite of an increase in enrollment of 11,000 students. Blame the legislature for that one (as I did in May), but what comes next is truly baffling.

The SDE has made the conscious decision to withhold a greater portion of state aid for schools. As the Tulsa World explains, “the education department withheld nearly $64 million, or 3.52 percent, of all state aid, compared to the $41 million, or 2.26 percent it kept in reserve at the beginning of 2011-12.” The article is a great read, with typical flimsy excuses from SDE staff, comments from Tulsa-area administrators about the real impact of this decision, and even a caustic remark from a legislator who is frustrated with all of this.

The World goes on to discuss the fact that all the large districts in the Tulsa area will receive less aid than last year. In short, the SDE tells districts not to worry – the money will come at the mid-term adjustment. In the meantime, it would be irresponsible for districts to set staffing levels based on what might happen in December. Districts that are growing at a fast pace will be teaching more students with less money. All of this occurs in the backdrop of numerous sea-change reforms to public education, all of which are costing school districts tremendous amounts of money.

This is just another example of bad decision making at the SDE. To refresh your memory, in the last few months:

  • They botched the bid process for TLE funding, so that it will now cost schools extra money;
  • They used federal jobs money to hire 60 REAC3H Coaches for school districts, promising them employment for three years although funding ends after one;
  • They tried to divert money from textbook allocation to their activity fund, but legislators in Barresi’s own party called them on it;
  • They switched accountability systems to match Florida’s A-F report cards and then had to bring in former SDE employees to run No Child Left Behind Report Cards – which didn’t even get to schools until April (instead of the customary October release);
  • They posted student records on their website, insisted they had done nothing wrong, and then caved anyway;
  • They’ve handled personnel situations poorly – both with incumbent and new staff; and
  • Their curriculum team is down to bare bones, while the communications staff is expanding at the rate of suburban school enrollment.

Did I miss anything?

School board members, administrators, and parents need to get involved. Call your legislators. Call the governor. Heck, call the SDE. Make them listen. Let them know that the people of Oklahoma did not elect them so that they could wreck public education due to incompetence. I’m angry and embarrassed that these are the people leading public education. If you’re paying attention, you should be too.

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Interim Studies

Even though the legislature has adjourned for the year, several interim studies will be done by our elected leaders to help chart the course for future bills. This is an annual occurrence, usually not amounting to much in terms of substance. However, with 2012 being an election year, we can expect for some of the studies to involve an element of playing to the base, rather than doing any actual legislating. This year, there are eleven studies relevant to common education on the House side, and four more on the Senate side.

House Interim Studies

  • 12-010 – Special Education
  • 12-011 – Native American Education
  • 12-013 – Performance Pay
  • 12-015 – Common Education – Funding
  • 12-016 – Common Education – Testing
  • 12-019 – National Board Certified Teachers
  • 12-024 – School Redistricting
  • 12-036 – Educational Administrative Efficiencies
  • 12-056 – Class Size
  • 12-063 – Student Rights to Privacy and Education Reform
  • 12-066 – Bridge to Literacy

Senate Interim Studies

  • 12-5 – Study school funding formulas.
  • 12-21 – Joint House/Senate study on facility funding for charter schools.
  • 12-25 – Study on creating administrative efficiencies and streamlining costs for schools with the goal of putting more money in the classroom.
  • 12-27 – Study of all sources of funding for Oklahoma common education and develop comparisons to other states.

I find it interesting that the House and Senate display the information differently. For example, you can download explanatory comments on the House studies. Study 12-010 is “A study of special education – solutions for the shortage of teachers, educational preparation for teachers (requirements for teachers).” I don’t really get a lot from that, but it’s more informative than the Senate studies, which only tell you as much as you see above.

Just looking at the two lists, I see that how we as a state pay for schools is a common them, as is a renewed interest in efficiency (unicameral legislature, anyone?). I think the charter school facility funding issue could get tricky, since Oklahoma is one of only eight states that do not provide facility funding for schools at the state level anyway.

Representative Sally Kern’s study on privacy could be worth a look too. The explanatory comments on the scope of the study say:

“The right for public school students to maintain privacy of their education records is protected by federal FERPA laws. Recent changes in these laws combined with Oklahoma’s effort to create a Statewide Longitudinal Database for public school students ages Kindergarten to age 20, can pose serious risks to the privacy of student records.”

My first thought is who needs a data system to violate FERPA? That’s what State Board of Education meetings are for. Seriously though, the way Rep. Kern is known for grandstanding and last year tried to get Oklahoma to pull out of Common Core, there’s no telling where this will go.

As these topics are studied, I’ll keep an eye out for updates. When reports are posted to the legislature’s website, I’ll add my own thoughts.

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Choice and Accountability

I am an unabashed supporter of public education, so it may seem somewhat contradictory that I also support school choice. I do not, however, support School Choice. Allow me to elaborate.

I believe that our society benefits from having a well-educated populace. As such, we have an obligation to make sure that a quality education is available for every child. We can all disagree about what “quality education” means, and that’s fine. We can also point to places and times of students not receiving the kind of education that we would want for our own kids.

It’s human nature to want better things for our own kids than we want for all kids. I have heard urban and suburban parents say they would never send their kids to school in small towns, and I have heard rural parents say they would never send their kids to large high schools. The preferences come down to the environment you want for your kids.

I don’t want my child getting lost in the crowd.

I don’t want my child going to a school where so little is offered.

I don’t want my child to have to ride a bus for 45 minutes to get to school.

I don’t want my child going to school in a 70 year old building that looks 100.

And on it goes. As parents, we are responsible for making the lowercase choices and deciding what is best for our kids. We select where we live, in part, based on the schools that our children will attend. We expect the state-supported schools to meet minimum standards, both in terms of curriculum and community values.

But there is a difference between school choice in principle and School Choice – the movement. Advocates of the movement also favor full-on vouchers that will allow federal, state, and local dollars to follow their children into any educational environment.

Sometimes, parents want something more or something different, they decide to pull our children out of public school. Many parents who want their children’s education to include a religious component put them in private, sectarian schools. This – of course – is fine; it’s the parents’ choice. This choice should not be funded with state dollars, however.

Other parents choose to homeschool their children. For them, Oklahoma is one of the least restrictive states. Parents do not need the state’s permission to homeschool children, and students are not required to demonstrate any kind of mastery. There will be no 3rd grade retention or ACE graduation appeals for homeschool students because the state of Oklahoma only provides funds to test public school students.

Oklahoma parents also have charter schools and online schools from which to choose. And now, you can combine them for online charter schools. Some public school districts have magnet schools, as well. In fact, you could even make the argument that the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics is a school of Choice. The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs’ Brandon Dutcher and I had a Twitter argument over that a few weeks ago. He promptly ended it explaining that he doesn’t engage in discussions with anonymous “lurkers.” Then he quit following okeducationtruths on Twitter.

My argument with OSSM – as well as with many private, charter, and magnet schools – is that it’s not a school of choice if they don’t have to choose you back. Governor Fallin chose to decrease taxes, but the legislature didn’t comply with her choice. I can choose all kinds of things, but I can’t achieve them if there is a person on the other end who may or may not reciprocate my choice.

Where our state falls behind others is in the use of vouchers as a means of school choice. Only through the Lindsay Nicole Henry scholarship may parents of special education students choose to put their children in private schools. Where some districts and the courts have objected, still, is the use of public funds for religious purposes.

Oklahoma’s use of vouchers, to date, has been limited to the special education domain. At the risk of having a master or rhetoric tell me I’m falling prey to a slippery slope argument, I expect this is the beginning of a push for a full-scale voucher program, like the one in Louisiana. Recent stories from that state involve the use of public dollars to fund textbooks from Bob Jones.. And one legislator saying she never would have voted for vouchers if she knew they were going to allow Muslims to use them to open a school.

When I say I support a lowercase school choice, I mean that I support parents and their right to choose to teach their children inaccurate, racist, and narrow-minded versions of what students are learning in public school. Public funds shouldn’t support this practice though.

Back in January, our governor and our state superintendent celebrated National School Choice Week, with Superintendent Barresi saying, “In a free country, with so many exceptional school offerings, there is no reason a child’s education should be bound by his parent’s income level or his geographical location.”

Does she think Holland Hall is going to open the floodgates for all of Tulsa County’s population, regardless of a parent’s ability to donate? Does she think Christian Heritage Academy is going to teach children of all creeds?

And let’s say for a minute that they do, will the state hold them accountable with cumbersome A-F report cards?

I doubt it.

As Long as the Oklahoman Wants Answers

July 11, 2012 Comments off

The Oklahoman is outraged! It seems a district attorney in Norman has fired an employee, and the DA didn’t give the former employee or the newspaper a good enough explanation about why that happened. From the article, it seems pretty clear to me. If you have a public battle with your boss, it probably won’t end well for you.

I don’t usually get involved in what happens in a prosecutor’s office. It’s not an education issue, and while I have thoughts about balancing transparency against individual privacy, it’s important for me not to try to opine on all public matters. I started this blog to write about education and provide a little insight in places where the prevailing public discourse is misleading.

That said, I can think of a major state agency that in the past 18 months has unceremoniously fired quite a few people. In many cases, as the employees were given 30 minutes to vacate the premises and a box into which to place their belongings, they weren’t given much of an explanation either. Do you think the Oklahoman has looked into that? Have they asked about the decency of calling a staff member into the office from vacation to be fired? Or why a long-serving staffer would be promoted to assistant state superintendent only to be fired a few months later?

For that matter, I wonder if the Oklahoman has gone to the Hodge Building and asked why so many of  the people the SDE did keep around are jumping ship now. It’s like a sieve up there. Besides a handful of people nearing retirement, the only people left there are the True Believers (which will be the title of a future blog post) in the mission to fully merge public, private, and corporate education into one entity funded by taxpayers.

Somewhere Between 1500 and Higgs Boson

Some say you know people by their words. I say you know them by the inconsistencies in their words. That’s why the decision by the State Department of Education not to participate in the development of national standards in Science or Social Studies is so curious.

Oklahoma participated in the development of the Common Core State Standards for literacy and math. Oklahoma has adopted them as the default standards beginning with the 2014-15 school year. The previous governor and state superintendent (Democrats) and the current governor and state superintendent (Republicans) all agree that adoption of these standards was an important reform measure. I’ve said repeatedly that of all the recently enacted changes, this is the one meeting with the least resistance from teachers and administrators.

I’ve personally heard Superintendent Barresi say (on multiple occasions) that Common Core will finally give us a chance to see how our students perform in comparison with students in other states. Back when she used to record video messages, she even said that adopting new standards will “further empower students by giving them a clearly rigorous education that will put them on par with their national peers.” That’s a goal shared by veteran educators as well as education reformers.

Unfortunately, that goal – if the means to achieving it is participation in national curriculum frameworks – is undermined by inconsistent approaches driven by politics. While the state is fully on board with national standards for math and literacy, the same cannot be said for social studies and science curriculum. (It should be noted that we are ok with reforms written by national policy-making groups on issues like digital learning, grade retention, and teacher evaluation).

During the 2011-12 school year, the SDE led educators (yes, actual educators) through the process of developing new social studies standards. While similar work was being done on a national level, Oklahoma chose not to participate. This explains, in part, why American History seems to start at 1500. In truth, I’ve heard a lot more social studies teachers at all grade levels who are dissatisfied with the changes than I’ve heard people who are happy with them. The only defenders of the new standards seem to be the people who worked on developing them.

The only core content area remaining is science. While Oklahoma has yet to officially announce its plans as far as participating in the development of Next Generation Science Standards, all signs point to us moving forward in developing new science standards on our own. Nevermind the countless press releases from the SDE last year when our NAEP scores in science were announced – our plan is going to be to help students perform better on a national assessment by burying our head in the sand and writing our own standards (that will avoid critical issues such as evolution and climate change).

Meanwhile, in a land outside the borders of this state, scientists celebrated the discovery of a Higgs boson (maybe not the Higgs boson – but a Higgs boson). Hopefully, Oklahoma students will have the opportunity to learn about it.

Oklahoman: Meet Context

July 8, 2012 Comments off

Leave it to the Oklahoman to take a quote from an Oklahoma school superintendent out of context and use it as the foundation for a diatribe against those who oppose certain reforms. Today’s gem comes from an editorial written at the expense of Lloyd Snow from Sand Springs. Snow spoke recently at a State Board of Education meeting and pointed out that “other states are beginning to turn the clock back” on high-stakes testing. They claim that Snow “wants to move the state backward [emphasis theirs]” and that people like snow “wish for the standards-free good ol’ days when the living was easy for administrators.”

There are many problems with this characterization. First is that Snow does not suggest moving the state backwards. He says that as we have followed other states deeper into the high-stakes testing morass, we should probably note that many of those states are now in full or partial retreat. Nor does Snow – or any other superintendent I’ve talked with – promote going to the time before standards. In all honesty, few administrators remain from before the days of PASS. For the vast majority of educators in this state, a profession with content standards is all we’ve ever known. Besides, of all the reforms being implemented in this state right now, the one getting the least resistance is the transition to the Common Core State Standards.

I’m also not sure what the Oklahoman means by “when the living was easy for administrators.” Maybe they’re referring to years past when all state mandates were fully funded. Oh wait – that’s never happened. Perhaps they mean prior to January 2011 when the state had a superintendent who ran an agency full of professional educators with some capacity to understand what it meant to spend every day of your contract year working with children. We didn’t appreciate them then, but in retrospect, those were some pretty good times.

The editorial goes on to use statistics out of context to continue their obsession with Tulsa-area districts that get in trouble for refusing to sit down and shut up. They state that there have only been 120 appeals so far out of more than 39,000 seniors in the class of 2012. While that may be accurate, they fail to mention that more than 2,000 students have been denied diplomas under the ACE requirements.

The piece ends with more vitriol towards Snow, who the paper insists was disappointed that so many of his students succeeded. It also warns against wishing we still lived in 1960 – which Snow is hardly doing. That point, however, is probably good to remember the next time the Oklahoman yearns for simpler times in some other regard.

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Reality Bites

Today’s editorial in the Oklahoman serves as a reminder that some people have power and some people don’t. It also highlights the fact that the people with the power get to mock the people who don’t when they try to exercise their voice and get noticed.

The editorial starts with the statement that “Fancy websites run by advocacy groups don’t necessarily translate into good political strategy.” It has the ring of an old man saying, “These kids today, with their fancy websites,” and putting his hands up to make quotation marks in the air at the end of the sentence. The nerve of these people – thinking that by promoting awareness for the critically low funding for public education in this state, that people might carry their flag forward.

They go on to scoff at the organization 49th is Not OK for urging voters to “ask the candidates running for office what they plan to do for public education if they’re elected” [used in quotation by the Oklahoman as well]. In the next paragraph, the editorial writers basically say, sorry education lovers, you don’t have enough money and influence to buy seats in the legislature. It stings…because it’s true.

As one commenter on the NewsOK website pointed out, teachers don’t have the same access to politicians that the entrenched, corporate elite do in this state. Every politician has an education platform that he or she says will benefit children. Even politicians with opposing platforms all believe that they’re doing everything they can for kids. Reality shows us otherwise, though.

Oklahoma has never funded public education the way it should have. This was true when Democrats controlled things. It’s true now under Republicans. The Oklahoman says there’s nothing you can do about it, what with your fancy little Internet and all.

What you can do, though, is keep contacting your legislators and telling them that what they’re doing isn’t good enough. Talk to your school board members and tell them to be more active. And remind them all that public education as an institution does a lot of good with very little support. The Oklahoman will continue be willfully ignorant and boastful about the fact that they get a seat at the grown up table. That’s fine, but it doesn’t mean the rest of us are going to shut up.

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