Archive for September, 2012

September Review / October Preview

September 30, 2012 1 comment

For September, the blog has had nearly 4,000 page views (from 16 countries) – not as many as in July, but still enough to keep me encouraged. I’ve had tips from readers that I’ve been able to follow, and others that I’ve bookmarked for later. Before looking back at the five most viewed posts of the month, I want to look ahead to October.

  • Momentum is building for a Parent Trigger Law. The SDE will likely frame this issue as a battle between parents and the Education Establishment. Yes, OEA and AFT (representing many teachers), CCOSA (administrators), and OSSBA (school boards) will all oppose this law. So far, the PTA (parents) is neutral, but informative on this issue. Keep in mind as The Oklahoman joins in the call for this law that their parent company also bankrolled the film Won’t Back Down.
  • The SDE will release A-F Report Cards October 8. Final NCLB Waiver designations for schools will be released later in the month. Schools will be held accountable for tests taken five months ago following a methodology that continues to evolve (along with the story for how it was created). Most of the schools with low grades will have high poverty, and most of the schools with high grades will have low poverty. And I’ll be providing comparisons on the blog.
  • With Damon Gardenhire’s move to the Walton Foundation (which will in turn have an increased influence in Oklahoma education policy) and growing frustration by school districts about the conflicting explanations they are receiving on regulatory issues, there is likely to be more movement among top staff at the SDE.
  • There’s an election in November, and there are actually some competitive races in Oklahoma. This blog is not about national politics, and while I’ve been toying with a comparative look at the Republican and Democratic platforms in terms of their focus on education, I’m not making an endorsement either way on the presidential election. Infer away!

With that, here are the five most popular posts from September:

  1. Dial O for Outrage – This is in the top three of all-time blog posts for me, probably because it captures the frustration of school officials over the inconsistent and inaccurate information that the SDE has been providing. The anger came to a head after testing staff admitted to a group gathered to discuss Focus School status that the formula for calculating school designations had been run incorrectly the first time.
  2. To Everything, Churn, Churn, Churn – This post tries to extract meaning from the fact the top six people Barresi hired failed to make it 20 months in her administration. This includes the three people who were paid illegally with private funds before they were hired officially.
  3. Complicit in the Façade of Accountability – I itemize misleading statements from the an editorial in The Oklahoman in which the paper blames school administrators for corrections having to be made on A-F Report Cards. Their simplistic view of education and accountability either informs the SDE or reflects it. Hard to say.
  4. With All Due Respect – I provide a list of questions I’d like superintendents to ask Barresi whenever they get a chance. Several superintendents met and created their own list. Then, when she had her advisory meeting, she was not interested in answering questions. Even the SDE’s written response to the few questions they chose to answer was evasive at best.
  5. The Wonderful Thing About Triggers – This post from two days ago has already moved into the top five for September. I don’t know that it’s my best writing, but I think it’s some of the most important. Most of the posts on this blog have been a response to things that were either happening in the moment or part of decided policy. We have an opportunity to mobilize against the Parent Trigger before Oklahoma follows this foolhardy path.

I began this blog in April with the intent to write when the record on public education in Oklahoma needs to be set straight. As we’ve seen in the last five months, the need is constant. October will be another month in which those of us who care about public education must be vigilant in defending it against myths and political ambition.

This Trigger Thing Got Me Thinking

September 29, 2012 2 comments

Maybe I’m looking at this all wrong. As long as we’re considering letting parents storm the castle and overturn school board decisions, what else could parents opt to do? Are there local, state, and federal policies in place that parent could individually choose to disregard for their children? Here are some thoughts:

“It’ll take a miracle!”

  • Compulsory attendance
  • School start age
  • Classroom assignment
  • Seating charts
  • School lunch and bus rules
  • Using #2 pencils
  • Remembering who your buddy is on field trips
  • Attendance, dress code, and discipline policies
  • Making students pass classes (or live within a school’s attendance lines) to play sports
  • Graduation requirements
  • And of course, high stakes testing

If parents are going to assert their rights, why not start with the ultimate waste of time and money. Testing is a multi-billion dollar industry. It does not tell us things that we wouldn’t otherwise know about our kids. But it does cost us instructional time and squelch creativity – both from the teacher and the student.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers

September 28, 2012 6 comments

So it comes to this. With today’s ballyhooed release of the blockbuster* motion picture “Won’t Back Down,” every education-reformer-who-never-taught-a-day-in-their-life is advocating the Parent Trigger.

If you haven’t spent a lot of time considering the issue, I urge you to consider the viewpoint of an Oklahoma State Senator and our State Superintendent. On the national level, Diane Ravitch has written pervasively on the topic.

The gist is that parents of a failing school have a right to demand change, and if 51 percent (or 50 percent plus one, which is how democratic voting really works) of parents sign a petition saying that they’ve had enough, those parents can wrest control of the school away from the school district and seek private or charter options.

I have several problems with this. So yes, here’s another list:

  1. We can’t agree on what it means for a school to be failing. Last year it meant one thing. This year it means something entirely different, but still not exactly what the adopted rules for failing say. Oh, and there are two lists for failing – one mandated by the state, and one by the feds. And even better, the federal accountability rules changed in August without the state notifying school districts in advance.
  2. A community’s investment in a school is not borne of a moment in time. Schools are paid for by the whole community, usually through bond elections (requiring a 60 percent supermajority, I might add). How would this look in a district with multiple sites for a grade span? As examples, consider the Putnam City and Union districts. Both have schools with the markers of suburbia, but both also serve student populations coming from deep urban poverty. If a group of parents wants to storm the castle and extract a particular school from the district, shouldn’t all the district’s taxpayers have a say in that?
  3. Following up the previous example, within a large district, attendance boundaries have to  be redrawn every few years to make the most out of existing resources. There are only so many classrooms, and when the population shifts, districts have to make the best decisions they can to make sure that every student is well-served. The school building in one Tulsa neighborhood belongs to all the patrons of Tulsa Public Schools, not just to the students attending it in a given year.
  4. Charter schools can create policies that are less inclusive than public schools.
  5. Private management companies will always worry more about the bottom line than students.
  6. The SDE can’t handle disseminating school funds now, and Oklahoma doesn’t even have that many charter schools complicating the formula. I can’t see the Parent Trigger making that process smoother.
  7. Governor Fallin wants to consolidate school districts. The Parent Trigger is antithetical to this initiative as it extracts school sites from school districts and allows them to manage themselves, essentially creating new, smaller, self-serving districts.
  8. Reformers preach about allowing schools flexibility, but they won’t allow the regular schools to have any. Unless the school is failing. And unless 51 percent of the parents say so.

In spite of all the forthcoming rhetoric, what’s really happening here is that Senator Holt, Superintendent Barresi, Jeb Bush, and countless other reformers still don’t trust professional educators to do the jobs they have dedicated their adult lives to. We know that State Board of Education member Bill Price believes that teachers should quit repeating the myth that student poverty makes their jobs harder.

He apparently has never worked in a school with high poverty, high mobility, and high achievement. They exist. They require that the school staff start from square one every single year. You never get to build on last year’s gains, because last year’s kids are gone, and this year’s kids start the year with the same deficits as last year’s kids. Compounding that is the fact that teachers don’t stay in these schools for 20-30 years most of the time. The lowest-performing schools are also the hardest schools to staff.

Keep in mind that Florida rejected the Parent Trigger law in March. For once, I’d actually be ok with us following their lead.

*Ok, maybe “blockbuster” is an exaggeration. As I write this, WBD is getting shredded on Rotten Tomatoes.

Priority Means First

September 28, 2012 Comments off

The Tulsa World called Governor Fallin’s statements about education at a town hall meeting “lip service” in an editorial this morning. I have to agree. Here’s what she said:

It (education) is a priority for me and certainly for our administration that we do everything we can to see that our children get the best education possible.

To me, the word priority indicates that you take care of something first, or prior to something else. It comes from the Latin word prioritas meaning fact or condition of being prior. Not only has the governor failed to understand the meaning of the word, she has failed to make education a priority.

The World then rightly calls Fallin’s solution – another commission to study ways to make education more efficient – what it is: a stall tactic. They capture the essence of the problem:

The fact is, public education has been in the Republicans’ crosshairs for some time. Arbitrary grading systems for schools, funding cutbacks or at the very least standstill budgets that force school districts to lose teachers and increase class sizes and unfair end-of-year exams are only some of the tactics used to choke public education in this state.

Cut education funding, make schools look bad and then blame it on the schools. It’s a too familiar tactic.

Fortunately for now, the steward of studies, Rep. Jason Nelson never made it to the State Board of Education meeting yesterday. Due to a scheduling mix up, we’re left to wonder what his promised-but-not-delivered update contained.

Maybe, at the next SBE meeting, his update will be a priority.

Let’s Not Forget FERPA

September 27, 2012 2 comments

Since starting this blog five months ago, I have “met” several people who are just as passionate about high-quality public education as I am. Many are also quite well-informed in discussions of education policy. One of those is Melissa Abdo, who is worth following on Twitter and Facebook. Today, she spoke at Rep. Sally Kern’s interim study on Student Privacy and was kind enough to share her prepared remarks with me. I’ll let Melissa’s comments speak for themselves, but let me just say that we need not lose sight of this story. The SDE acted recklessly this summer in publishing student records, insisted that they were right in doing so, and only backtracked when the pressure within Barresi’s own Republican Party got too hot.  Her prepared comments are below:

OK House of Representatives: Interim Study- Privacy


Melissa Abdo- Coordinator, Tulsa Area PLAC (Parent Legislative Action Committee)

A parent led advocacy group which supports public education in Oklahoma.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak today today and for discussing this very important topic. I am pleased to provide you a parent’s perspective on this very important subject.

There are two components to the collection of student data that give cause for concern:

The first is personally identifiable information being shared and used without parental consent.  I have to believe it would be very difficult to find any parent who, once made aware of this, would

support such a practice.

The second would be information which is shared by consent, but which may then be at risk to be misused, or used in a manner which was not anticipated.  We have seen a very recent example of this in Oklahoma.

Like what? What type of information are we collecting? What type of information are we asking from parents?  Name, address, birthdate, test scores.  If that weren’t enough, notice p. 3 states:

Please attach a separate document explaining in detail the rationale behind the appeal…..

This type of info included IEP information, transcripts, letters from school officials and family members detailing student’s learning challenges, medical conditions which impact academic performance, and explanations of private family circumstances.

On June 5th of this year, this information, about 25 Oklahoma students, was published on the State Department of Education website. It is heartbreaking to imagine parents submitted this information on behalf of their child, acting in what they believe to be  their child’s best interest- and it was made public.

As of this morning, the records of those 25 students remain posted on the agency’s website. They have been partially redacted, but the redacting is incomplete, and of poor quality with first and last initials and some students names still appearing in the documents. Who have we held accountable for this action?

Thankfully, the agency now uses a numbering system to identify students on the agenda, and they have not again published the students’ information packet.  But their position that no law was violated leaves the door open for the possibility.

Another misuse of information would be the cover sheet for the Appeal form. This was added after the media coverage of the publishing of records.  The last line is troubling….

My documentation and application will also be redacted and posted online.

As a parent, I would actually expect this cover sheet to say the opposite.  It should say “This information will be discussed in executive session.  Your documentation and application will be kept confidential.”

Last spring the Legislature unanimously passed a law allowing the for student’s right to appeal the state’s graduation testing requirements. Can a state agency put a condition on that right, by requiring you to agree to have private information posted online?

I was so upset this could happen, I contacted my legislators. I have contacted our State Supt. I have spoken to the SBE during public comments at their June 28th meeting.  I have been in contact with the U.S. Department of Education, Family Privacy Officer.

Here is the situation we find ourselves in: Information which is misused puts students at risk.  Their safety is at risk, and their dignity is at risk.  Oklahoma parents still do not have the answers to why this happened, how it happened, and what we will do to make sure it never happens again.

Parents are concerned that we want to collect more and more data, to be shared with more and more agencies, and available to more and more people. We don’t have a system to protect students from types of misuse we’ve already seen.

As a parent, I would please ask the Legislature to always err on the side of caution when dealing with anything that involves student information.

Thank you for your time today.

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Who’s Next?

September 27, 2012 Comments off

Last week, I had the foresight to ask “What Comes Next?” And I was rewarded with a prompt answer: a parent trigger law.

This week, I ask a different question, “Who’s Next?” We’re near a major milestone in Superintendent Barresi’s administration, and throughout the last 20 months, those have often come with a box for employees to use in collecting their belongings. So who will be asked to vacate the premises next?

Barresi has already lost most of the top staff she brought in just after taking office. She has even fired some of the people she promoted from the previous administration.

A-F Report Cards are due to come out October 8. I wonder who else will be released shortly thereafter.

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Leadership Without Listening

September 26, 2012 2 comments

I’ve had questions from readers wanting more information about Superintendent Barresi’s Leadership Advisory Council that was held Friday in Oklahoma City. I am in possession of an agenda from the meeting, which I have scanned and included below. I am not in possession of a list of the Superintendents who were invited to serve, however. I can say that they came from all parts of the state, and they came with questions in hand.

As the agenda shows, the day was tightly planned down to the minute and the morsel. SDE staff would not entertain questions about finances. The welcome did not include introductions of those in attendance. The policy discussion was more of a lecture. The A-F suggestions were laughable. The open Q & A was contentious and unproductive.

Superintendents were seated in table groups with an SDE attorney in each group to facilitate discussions. Participants were reluctant to follow the expected discussion protocol. They wanted their questions answered. SDE staff actually left the room at one point to regroup.

After lunch, a vendor from out-of-state spoke about how the Value Added Measurement (VAM) might work when the quantitative piece is added to TLE. Maybe he wasn’t around for the morning, because he took questions. Suffice it to say that didn’t go well either.

I question whether anything was gained at this soirée. You actually have to give people a chance to talk before you can ignore them. In any case, I hope the buffet lunch was good.

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Question Everything

September 25, 2012 4 comments

In case it hasn’t become just perfectly clear, there’s a lot of frustration in schools and beyond about the manner in which the SDE has been conducting their business. We’ve reached the point now where everybody in the Education Establishment looks askance at the True Believers and vice versa. Everybody is working for the children, or nobody is. It depends who you ask. And what day you ask it.

Two articles today – one in the Tulsa World, and another in the Oklahoman – typify this problem. In short, school districts are fed up with the lack of straight and consistent answers that a service agency should be giving them. While captains are being forced from the ship (or jumping off voluntarily) at the SDE, somebody continues steering the ship directly into the iceberg.

In all matters education reform, the SDE continues to expect the public to accept the unacceptable. A commenter on the Tulsa World article points out that when questioned:

Damon Gardenhire’s response is typically combative. The discussion here IS about the process, not the rules, and should not be dismissed. Barresi’s office never misses an opportunity to take an antagonistic posture toward local districts.

Combative is one word; maybe evasive is a better one. Here were Gardenhire’s comments:

That’s actually in the rules that were approved by the state board and the Legislature last spring. We can have disagreements, but there’s another discussion about the process, and I would like to keep them separate. The Legislature passed the law; the board passed the rules; and the governor signed those rules. 

Do you notice how Gardenhire completely abdicates responsibility for the A-F rules? The Board and Legislature approved the rules, and the governor signed them. Who wrote them, Damon? Keebler elves? Is that why they’re so tasty?

Teachers and administrators are mad. School boards and legislators want answers. Nobody is buying what the SDE is selling anymore, and it’s causing quite the tone at meetings across Oklahoma. Wherever an SDE official goes to meet with professional educators, the tone quickly turns caustic. Even last week’s leadership summit between Barresi and school superintendents turned into something other than what they signed up for.

They’ve brought this on themselves. They have earned no benefit of the doubt. The fury and outrage will continue until they begin to operate with a modicum of understanding of what it’s like to work in public education. At this point, the Education Establishment is right to question everything: accountability reports, budgets, new interpretations of federal guidelines, and the integrity of those remaining at the SDE.

That Was Quick

September 24, 2012 Comments off

Last week, I looked into the crystal ball and asked What Comes Next? Today, State Senator David Holt (R-OKC) answered the question, announcing that “he would file legislation for the 2013 session that will empower parents to force positive changes in chronically low-performing schools” with a “parent trigger” law.

From the Oklahoma State Senate news release:

As a rule, I think local control of education is best, and there’s nothing more localized than the parents at a neighborhood school…The parent trigger model isn’t going to work in every situation, and it’s only an option where everything else has probably already failed. But I think there’s something inspiring about giving parents who care a tool they can use to fundamentally change the failed school that is attempting to educate their children.

The parent trigger, as implemented in other states, typically does one of two things: transition the school into a charter, or turn the management of the school over to a private party. In some cases, the third party has even campaigned for parents to sign the parent trigger petition.

This represents a new thrust in Oklahoma education reform, and as with all of the rest of them, it is not an original thought. Holt credits the soon-to-be-released movie Won’t Back Down as motivation. Stephanie Rivera wrote an excellent critique of the movie from a preview that included a panel discussion. And Diane Ravitch nailed the critical question about parent triggers in her blog post, Who Owns the Public Schools?

Twitter – the great scientific survey that it is – was quick to respond both positively and negatively. I think the plan is going to run into issues with groups disagreeing on how to define terms like “choice” and “failing.” (The SDE can neither accurately calculate accountability scores within its own formula nor effectively explain them to educators or the public.)

Something tells me this is just the first salvo to be fired (or misfired) in the next wave of reforms. We’ll see.

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To Everything, Churn, Churn, Churn

September 23, 2012 2 comments

Let’s go back in time to January 27, 2011. The State Board of Education was meeting with a new state superintendent for the first time in 20 years. Several key positions needed to be filled on the new staff. Superintendent Barresi had submitted her slate for board approval, and was expecting a fairly smooth ride. Among the positions to be filled were:

  • Jennifer Carter – Chief of Staff
  • Damon Gardenhire – Communications Director
  • Jill Geiger – Director of Finance
  • Jessica Russell – Legislative Liaison

With Gardenhire’s announced departure late last week, all of these people – in addition to early hires Lisa Endres (General Counsel) and Chris Caram (Deputy State Superintendent) – are now gone. Some chose to leave; others did not.

Think about that: these were maybe the six top people Barresi hired at the beginning of her administration. This is in addition to the staff that remained in place following the transition and then left. Barresi’s top key staff didn’t even make it to the midpoint of her term in office.

We have seen bungling of every initiative that the new, transparent, service-oriented Oklahoma State Department of Education has undertaken. School districts have always had to deal with bureaucracy at the SDE, but rarely anything on par with the inconsistency of the last 20 months. Maybe the constant churn of key professional positions is one of the reasons.

And maybe – just maybe – this is something of a lesson about the wisdom of filling key leadership positions with political operatives rather than well-versed professionals who are familiar with what it takes to educate the public. Some of the hires were simply outmatched. Others were consistently arrogant to the public they ostensibly served. As a group, they took their lead from Barresi and treated the Education Establishment like dirt (or dirtbags, more specifically).

Maybe this will be something of a turning point. Barresi met Friday with a group of superintendents nominated by their peers. And there seems to be a modicum of caution at the SDE with all things accountability right now. Maybe the replacements to these early hires will be a little less political and a little more professional.

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