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She Blinded Me With Science

August 12, 2012 Comments off

On August 6, the SDE’s spokesperson tweeted the following:

On one August weekend, we saw a new Martian landing and a man in the Olympics running on carbon-fiber blades – let’s remember this.

In her weekly newspaper column Friday, Superintendent Barresi in fact did remember this:

On one weekend in August, 2012, the world witnessed two remarkable scientific accomplishments. While South African runner Oscar Pistorious sprinted towards the tape in his first Olympic semifinal race, the rover Curiosity barreled towards a very different finish line about 35 million miles distant.

I guess it’s not theft of intellectual property if it’s your own staff. And I shouldn’t be too hard on them – it was an amazing weekend for science, discovery, and imagination. I was also in awe of both events. It’s just too bad, though, that we live in a state that denies so many tenets of science.

One of the great talking points of this administration is that our state is doing a lousy job teaching science. As with any national comparisons, you have to look first at the policies and standards in place to get a good understanding about why that happens. Our state standards are poorly written and not up-to-date. Our legislature maintains a focus on Creationism and limits the emphasis in the curriculum on environmental science.

As our state pursues the development of new, “C3” standards in science, we’re going it alone. We are not participating in the development of Next Generation Science Standards being spearheaded by Achieve, even though it says right across the top of the page that the standards are geared at College, Career, and Citizenship readiness. I’ve asked this question on my blog before, but if a big picture approach to math and reading was best for Oklahoma, why shy away from that in science.

Another angle from which to look at Barresi’s column is the way she closes it:

This is the kind of ingenuity and drive we would like to see in the students who will fill seats in our STEM classes as they return to school this fall. We want them to dream that their creativity and their inventions can change the lives of people both on the surface of this planet, and those whose work takes them a bit further afield.

Two things that diminish the “creativity” she discusses are the suppression of facts in science curriculum and our national obsession with testing. As teachers are now going to be evaluated by the test scores of their students, curriculum will rarely stray from the path of published test blueprints. In the event that current events such as these provide us with teachable moments, they will be lost in the corporate education culture that results from the farce education reformers call “accountability.”

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LNH Scholarship

August 7, 2012 Comments off

I’ve been avoiding writing this post because I hadn’t watched the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs video on the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship. I’ll comment on the video itself later (as well as those responsible for it). First, I want to characterize the discussion I have heard from politicians, school leaders, newspapers, and on Twitter. It seems that in discussing the scholarships, there are four general positions:

  1. Support for the LNH Scholarship because it is a break from the monopoly of public schools;
  2. Support for the LNH Scholarship because it gives parents of the most vulnerable students options they wouldn’t otherwise have;
  3. Opposition to the LNH Scholarship because public and private schools are not held to the same standards; and
  4. Opposition to the LNH Scholarship because public dollars should never be used for religious purposes.

The first and fourth positions are extremes. The second and third are more in the middle. I would characterize my own views as largely in the third slot, but with some of the fourth thrown in as well.

At about the 2:30 mark in the video, a quote from Temple Grandin appears: “A treatment method or an educational method that will work for one child may not work for another child. The one common denominator for all of the young children is that early intervention does work.” This is an ideal to which all who work with not only special needs students, but all students, should aspire. Rep. Jason Nelson (who seems to be a mix of one and two, but mostly two) points out the high number of students who are identified on Individual Education Plans (IEPs) in schools.

Federal law already requires schools to do everything possible for special needs students. The well-meaning parents appearing in the video who only want what’s best for their children are right to pursue whatever opportunities exist for their children. The problems I have with the videos come from the unsubstantiated claims. One is that schools do not use the money received from the state and federal government for special education students. The opposite is true, in fact, and school districts have to give a strict accounting for how those funds are spent. Another is the emphasis on bullying. Any teacher who went to college and studied for four years to work with special needs students is also going to be sickened at those students being pushed around.

Rep. Nelson, who is a tireless advocate for the LNH Scholarship, is also willing to engage opponents in reasonable, polite discussion. While I don’t agree with his position on a number of issues, I appreciate the Twitter conversations and the fact that he responded to the comment I left on his blog. He wants parents to have more choices. While I’m not against that, he also equates parental choice to accountability. Public schools have test after test that our legislature has mandated in the name of accountability. No Child Left Behind (and its waiver) requires even more. Is this onslaught of testing best for any student – especially special education students? Not at all. But the tests keep coming, all so we can have A-F report cards and continue evolving into what Florida’s education system is – and that’s not a good thing.

As for OCPA, their position on public education has been clear for years. They want it gone. Look here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here … They’re also the only think tank I know of that wants to see fewer college students.

Not all supporters of the LNH Scholarship are in category one above. Similarly, not all of the opponents are in category three. Some – such as the Tulsa area districts famously referred to as “dirtbags” by a former SDE official oppose the scholarships to the extent that they feel it is worth litigating. To me, it’s really not necessary, on a number of levels. Most private schools (and some charters) don’t even want special needs students. Very few parents have opted to use the scholarships. On principle, I suppose I agree with the litigation. I just don’t know that I would have opted for that myself.

I guess the bottom line is that the LNH Scholarship is probably overhyped by political supporters and opponents as either the greatest or worst solution to problems that may be isolated in the first place. I want what’s best for special needs students too, and so do the thousands of public school teachers who work in one of the most thankless areas of our profession.

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Bizarre World Indeed

August 6, 2012 8 comments

When it comes to public school funding being diverted to charter schools, the two largest newspapers in the state have different views of reality. On one hand, the Oklahoman describes complaints from superintendents as a glimpse into the “bizarre world inhabited by some members of the education establishment.” On the other hand, the Tulsa World describes the SDE’s decision to reserve a higher percentage of funding from schools than is customary as “the latest blow to local districts that already were trying to contend with tens of millions of dollars in state funding cuts over the last few years.”

The substance of the argument is that charter schools are being funded at the level of their potential enrollment. Meanwhile, traditional public schools are being funded at a level less than their existing enrollment. It bears repeating that the SDE used discretion to withhold money from school districts. Required by statute to reserve 1.5 percent of funding in order to make midterm adjustments, the department held back 3.52 percent. This $64 million dollar cushion means that growing Oklahoma school districts, such as most of the big suburban ones, have significant growth in enrollment and significant cuts in funding.

This is not what the legislature had in mind.

The Oklahoman goes on to make the argument that public schools shouldn’t complain. Charter schools are public schools after all.

As an example, look at the state’s first charter school – Independence Middle School in Oklahoma City. It is instructive for both its longevity, and for one of the founders – Janet Barresi. In the ICMS application packet, for the 2012-13 school year, two warnings (both appearing on page 7) to parents discourage students who might not already be successful from applying:

  • Parents and guardians of applicants should be advised that the very minimum level of preparedness that a student should achieve in order to be successful in our school is mastery of all the PASS skills for their last completed grade and achievement of a fifth grade reading level.
  • While we provide special education services to any student accepted to our school with an IEP, we feel it is important that parents of these students are aware of two points. First, one full time and one half time teacher staff our learning lab. They serve the students of our school who qualify for lab services. The Special Education Guidelines dictate a limit to the number of students that each teacher may serve. This ensures that a standard of quality in instruction is maintained for each student receiving services. Please be advised that as new students are admitted to our school they will be admitted to our learning lab to be served on a first come, first serve basis. If it is determined that the minimum number of students are being served at this site, any other new students admitted to the school requiring special services will be served in a learning lab at an alternate school site based on availability at that site.

On the first point, apparently charter schools – which were created to save students from low performing schools – can choose to accept only students who are already performing well on state assessments. Or they can at least strongly discourage low-performing students from applying. On the second point, ICMS is telling parents that they may not have enough special education staff to serve their students and meet the provisions of an IEP.

I find both of these caveats in the memo to parents troubling for one simple reason:

PUBLIC SCHOOLS TEACH ALL STUDENTS WHO SHOW UP!

We don’t tell parents that we don’t want them or that we may or may not have the capacity to serve their students. We happily take the brilliant, high-achieving students. And we happily take the students who struggle.

And that is the best glimpse into the “bizarre world … of the education establishment” that I can give you.

(Special thanks to Melissa Abdo for pointing me to the ICMS application packet) 

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