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Six Months on the Blog

October 25, 2012 Comments off

It’s hard to believe that I started doing this six months ago. At first, I was happy to have just a few visitors reading my thoughts. An average day this month is close to 350 page views. It’s not Diane Ravitch good, but it’s better than I expected.

I wrote the first post, About Those Reward Schools, two weeks before I created the blog and had nowhere to post it. I didn’t think I’d be writing as frequently as I do. I didn’t realize there was so much shared angst around the state. Concerned educators, parents, and community members continue to contact me via Twitter, Facebook, and email. The number of people who come to this page daily – even when I don’t write anything – is quite humbling.

On the agenda today is another State Board of Education meeting. News broke yesterday that there are now two different methodologies being suggested to solve the A-F Report Card standstill. Governor Fallin is even weighing in. Whatever happens today, I plan to compare the published report cards to poverty levels and report on that over the weekend.

Additionally, the SBE will discuss Superintendent Barresi’s budget request for the next school year. That will likely result in its own blog post. As I’ve mentioned previously, I have some concerns about the priorities her proposal would establish. And as we’ve seen over the last few months, her Board is likely to ask tough questions and not just accept what they’re told at face value.

So thank you for following the blog, but more importantly, thank you for caring about setting straight the public education record in Oklahoma.

Love, Respect, and Desperation

October 24, 2012 4 comments

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve read on Twitter and other blogs that many educators are tired of hearing that politicians and business leaders love teachers. What would be better is if these same people showed some respect for teachers. True as that is, another reality is that the same part of the public that consistently bashes teachers occasionally has to admit that it needs them – more of them in fact.

This morning’s editorial in the Oklahoman illustrates both the need for more teachers (intentionally) and the need to show them more respect (unintentionally). While crediting No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top as reforms that have improved public education (false claims, by the way), the paper asks how the state can develop and keep more high quality teachers.

The first part of this – developing great teachers – is multi-faceted. Teacher prep programs around the state do a good job, to a point, of developing a pool of quality teaching candidates. Every new teacher I’ve ever asked, though, has told me something they wish college would have prepared them for. Until you’re the teacher of record with a group of students to call your own, there are just some things you can’t plan for. Of course, developing talent is something that has to continue after teachers begin their careers. Professional development is important in any field. Collaboration time is also critical. Unfortunately, the state has never provided more than token support for the time and money these processes take. In the last few years, that support has completely disappeared.

The second part – keeping great teachers – is also complicated. There has never been a time when the entire teaching profession has been under attack as much as it is now. The discussion of the supposed problems with teachers often centers on calendars, lack of accountability, and unions. These topics are mere distractions. So are the solutions. Proposals of merit pay assume that teachers would be motivated to work harder if student performance were incentivized. The problems with such schemes are myriad, but largest is that students at the greatest risk often have the least experienced teachers. Merit pay will only amplify such discrepancies.

A third part of this discussion should be the areas of teacher shortage. Some of these are by subject (math, science), specialization (English Language Learner, special education), or geography (inner city, rural). Schools can’t always find the teachers they need when they need them. As such, schools sometimes have to hire the one applicant they get and then try to find someone better the next year. It’s a cycle that repeats itself.

The important things to remember are that teachers (a) work hard; (b) don’t get paid enough for it; (c) serve a public that demeans their work; (d) and suffer through specious reform ideas concocted by people who just don’t have a clue. Those of us who’ve invested a career in the profession have often said the greatest rewards aren’t the tangible ones. Without support (in multiple senses), fewer people are going to accept that.

And Now, Budgeting

October 23, 2012 1 comment

In addition to finally approving the A-F Report Cards (with few discernible changes) Thursday, the State Board of Education will also be asked to take action on the budget request brought forward a few weeks ago. I addressed the budget then, but now I’d like to focus on three specific concerns:

1. The request for additional funds doesn’t go far enough. The proposed budget would restore weighted per pupil funding to 2010 levels, given projections for next school year’s enrollment. Unfortunately, nine of the ten years prior to 2010 had higher weighted per pupil allocations. That’s not even adjusting for inflation and the cost of living. The cumulative effects of fiscal austerity are simply not understood by the SDE and the legislature, both of which continue to try to find efficiencies in this grossly underfunded, yet core state service. Compounding this is the fact that school districts are not equally equipped to meet needs that arise in terms of facilities, transportation, and technology.

2. The request for additional professional development money does not protect school districts from having the SDE determine how best to spend those funds. The proposed budget includes a slight increase in AP funds, $2.5 million in new staff development money for schools, and $5 million for REAC3H coaches. Unfortunately, with the first two items, there is no guarantee that school districts will have any say in how they spend that money. Last year, the SDE took all the AP money and sunk it into the Vision 2020 conference. And the staff development money could be re-routed on behalf of school districts into statewide initiatives. The money for REAC3H coaches could also be better spent. The SDE likes bringing in expensive big name national speakers (such as Bill Daggett). However, schools don’t have the funds to spend on his training and conferences. We all know that focused, sustained professional development makes a difference. We know that opportunities to collaborate create meaningful positive change in schools. Unfortunately, these types of professional development are not prioritized in this budget.

3. The state is poised to spend $6 million more next year on testing than ever before. This represents an increase of 46%. What will this increase bring us? Better instruction? Hardly! The SDE can’t even manage to award a testing contract. The EOI vendor is making promises of new benchmark tests, then changing the deliverables on those tests. Is this worth $5 million more that could be spent on any number of more worthwhile things.

These three concerns don’t include ongoing doubts about the sustainability of programs like Reading Sufficiency and ACE Remediation. Both of these initiatives aimed at student remediation continue to receive funding at levels lower than what the statutes call for. And in the case of RSA, what funding districts do receive is typically allocated after the school year has started and districts have already planned, to the extent possible, use of those funds.

Of course, the Legislature doesn’t have to give the SDE what they ask for. Additionally, given some of the frustration expressed in May and throughout the summer over Barresi’s circumvention of legislative intent, it would be surprising to see them give her all the freedom she is asking for. Most importantly, we have to hope that the request for an increase is at least heeded at the Capitol.

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No, Really This Time

October 23, 2012 2 comments

Barring something completely unexpected, the State Board of Education will authorize the release of the A-F Report Cards this Thursday. The recent groundswell of protest allowed board members to see the reason to push the pause button, but three weeks later, the report cards are set to be released. With the release, schools will need to communicate with parents and the community. As I wrote last month, the SDE has provided districts with a sample letter. I have included it below, along with changes that I would suggest.

Our school recently finally received its new letter grade from the State Department of Education as part of a statewide reform initiating an A-F School Grading System.

This grade reflects several different factors, such as test results of all students, growth factors that compare test results from multiple years as well as growth in the 25 percent lowest performing students, and whole school performance factors such as attendance, graduation and dropout rates.

This grade reflects a snapshot of test scores and student growth measures – all of which have been put through complicated calculations to provide you with something ridiculously simplistic.

As parents or community members, you help to play a role in the grade our school receives. We are able to receive bonus points based on the number of school climate surveys we receive each year. You can assist by supporting and reinforcing the hard work needed by your student to learn the information taught in school. One way to do so is by volunteering in the school because we also receive bonus points based on the involvement of parents and community members in our school. As we look ahead to improving our letter grade in the future, we’ll be working with you on ways to increase these bonus points.

We appreciate that you want to know how our students are performing on state tests and other measures of achievement. We’ll be glad to talk to you about those any time. As for volunteering, we’d prefer to have you do it just because you know the value in contributing to the education of children. Bonus points aside, we’d love to have your help and commitment to helping every student here be successful.

Our letter grade is important for several reasons. Though it should be seen in light of a complete context and is one measure of our performance, it shows areas where we are doing well and it highlights areas where we need to improve.

Seriously, the essence of each child in this school cannot be explained in one test score – or even a series of them. Similarly, the value of this school cannot be explained with one capital letter. A high grade does not show you the areas that concern us. A low one shows you neither the struggles we face or the successes that we’ve worked hard for.

Perhaps more importantly, this new report card provides more straightforward information than performance ranking systems used in the past that were confusing and cumbersome for the average parent or community member to understand. The information provided in the report card is clear cut and is available to you online as well.

The new report card is anything but straightforward. For the first section – which is the simplest section – you take test scores and plug them into this formula: (A*1.2 + P*1.0 + LK*0.2 = U*0.0)/N. After that, it takes another 30 pages and 40 charts to explain it. I’ve put together a PowerPoint to share with patrons, but a Sominex will do just as well.

We hope you will view this grade as a way to become more involved in [our school]. As part of this new reform, State Superintendent Janet Barresi has launched Raise the Grade Together — an effort to help every school in the state improve and succeed.

The State Department of Education has offered all kinds of programs to help schools. In fact, there are so many that they are rarely on the same page. We’ll take the help that makes sense to us, but more importantly, we’re going to work as hard as ever to meet the individual needs of the children in this school. Whether it be a struggling reader or a student working above grade level in math, every student deserves the opportunity to pursue high academic achievement.

Help us raise the grade together by taking the mission of educating children as a community approach. Where you see weak areas in student achievement or attendance, help us to shore up those areas by offering mentoring assistance. As always, we need volunteers to help in a classroom or in the media center at our school. Attend school functions. Communicate with us about your child’s needs.

Together we can strive for excellence in all areas of education. Together we can raise this grade.

Call us anytime. We’re always glad to answer your questions.

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Why Do We Test?

October 20, 2012 Comments off

All tests should have reliability and validity. The first is the extent to which results would be likely to be repeated if the tests were run again. In other words, if a student passes a state test for reading, and we can assume that the student would pass the test again tomorrow, and next week, and a month from now, then the test is reliable. The second is a determination of whether the test is a good test. Simply put, if the student can pass the test without being a good reader, the test lacks validity.

Measuring student achievement through state tests is (arguably) valid and reliable. Test questions are developed from state standards that teachers use in their classes. Maybe the cut scores are too high. Maybe they’re too low. In any case, the questions were written to test student learning.

Using the tests to measure teacher quality is not valid. It is not what they were designed to do. It is also not reliable because teachers operate under different conditions. Even within the same school, there are differences between the classes that teachers get. Some teach honors students. Some teach remedial students. Some teach exclusively in classes that students have chosen. Different levels of motivation, preparedness, and home resources all contribute to student achievement.

Using tests designed for one thing to try to tell us something different is inherently flawed. Doing so is a willful commission of poor research methods and bad analysis. Oklahoma isn’t there yet. We have yet to develop rules and procedures for quantifying teacher effectiveness. When we do, I assume it will be messy. Florida messy.

Schools lack confidence in the results of these tests (and the agency that administers them). So does the public. If the scores are too high, they’re too easy. If they’re too low, expectations are unreasonable. If they’re adjusted to compensate for either of these things, we’re just tinkering with facts. Whether the agenda is someone wanting schools to look good or wanting them to look bad, these things can be manipulated at the state level. Applying test results to determine things like third grade retention, high school graduation, teacher effectiveness, and school letter grades.

And now, we don’t even have a testing company for 3-8 grade tests in Oklahoma. By this point in the school year, district test coordinators are usually heavy into planning the test process. With so many assessments online now, this requires managing computer labs and often disrupting classes. This Tulsa World article explains the hardships this will cause schools in more detail.

By the way, a clerical error? That’ why April is going to be complete chaos?  I hope the public, legislature, and State Board of Education remember that. In six months, when students are taking more tests than usual, and learning is more disrupted than ever, there will be some complaints. The list of frustrated superintendents is likely to surpass the horde of 300 from earlier this month.

Oklahoma is poised to spend $15 million on testing contracts next year. That’s an insane amount of money to commit to a process with results that are easy to dispute. It’s time for parents, schools, policy makers, and the public to have a long conversation about whether it’s worth the hassle and expense.

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Adventures in Efficiency

October 19, 2012 Comments off

Legislators this week held several interim studies related to making public education more efficient. Oklahoma Capitol Source has a good summary from Tuesday’s meetings, and the Tulsa World has a good summary from Wednesday.

The first study looked at the effects of class size restrictions, eventually evolving into a discussion of deregulation. After an initial focus on the exemption to class size laws in districts with high amounts of bond debt, they then began to question the extent to which this should be a matter of local control.

The second study – on digital learning – seemed to meander between topics. There was a discussion of electronic textbooks. Rep. Nelson wanted to know how technology staff were coded. Probably the most important discussion was about the varying degrees of infrastructure for technology in districts throughout the state. In some rural areas, it’s not even a concern about money. It’s about access to the bandwidth itself.

Wednesday’s study focused on created administrative efficiencies and centered on this report from the Office of Accountability. An estimate of cost savings that could be achieved through consolidation, its preparers were careful not to promise that those figures were a sure thing. The truth is that a district with 1,000 students and six schools will have more expenses not directly related to instruction than a district with 1,000 and three schools. I respect the fact that the Office of Accountability study intends to keep schools open; however, the cost of keeping the building open is the biggest reason that the cost savings are unlikely to materialize.

We’ve heard in the last few months that Governor Fallin is for consolidation. And that Superintendent Barresi is against it. We’ve also heard a cacophony from Republican legislators who can’t decide whether they’re going to increase the budget for public schools. There’s so much noise about efficiency right now, it’s really hard to predict what form this momentum will take.

A little bit of a REAC3H

October 18, 2012 2 comments

A year ago, the SDE launched a new initiative designed to support public schools: REAC3H (sometimes REAC3H; sometimes REAC3H). The acronym stands for Regional Educators Advancing College, Career, and Citizenship Readiness Higher.

The launch of REAC3H came with a summit last fall for more than 100 districts that were chosen to serve in lead roles. Actually, it was two summits – one for rural districts and another for urban/suburban districts. At the end of the day, superintendents in attendance were asked to come forward and sign a commitment letter that they had just received.

At that time, the stated purpose of REAC3H was to provide districts with collaboration opportunities to assist with the transition from PASS to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Problems with this were immediate. Some of the districts not selected to be leaders never heard from those that were. Some had robust curriculum departments, while others relied on teacher leaders to lead the implementation in their spare time. What was true during the implementation of PASS over 20 years ago was still true: districts are differently equipped to move through the change process. As such, implementation would not and could not be standardized.

To assist districts with the transition, the SDE began producing a series of toolkits. The first explained CCSS. The second discussed steps for aligning curriculum. The third then focused heavily on the soon-to-be announced Teacher/Leader effectiveness program.

This shift in focus led to schools asking questions during the second REAC3H summit in January. The third summit – held in the spring – was downright unruly. Schools kept asking questions – about all the reform initiatives – and not getting answers. There were some nice breakout sessions put on by schools, but nothing to help with systemic change. It was sort of a mini preview of Vision 2020.

Over the summer, REAC3H took on another meaning as 60 instructional coaches were hired to work with schools around the state. They are being paid this year with federal money that is set to expire, and Superintendent Barresi has included $5 million in funding in next year’s budget request to maintain the program.

Interestingly, the coverage areas for these coaches are not aligned at all with the REAC3H consortium. They operate in pairs, and for the most part, use office space in Career Tech centers around the state. Some serve only one or two districts.  Other pairs serve more than 20. They have been well-received in some places and kept at arm’s length in others.

At first, REAC3H coaches were going to help with every reform initiative. Now they are focusing on K-2 reading. Since many of the coaches were secondary teachers and may not even be certified in English/Language Arts, their impact may be questionable. (Though to be clear – many schools are reporting satisfaction with their REAC3H Coaches at this time.)

Last month, the SDE released the fourth REAC3H toolkit, providing insight to the testing process that will accompany full implementation of CCSS. Maybe I just find this amusing since the SDE can’t even seem to select a testing company. And they’re now set to hold the fourth REAC3H summit on Election Day (at a yet-to-be-determined venue – in Oklahoma City – probably). This one will have a different format again. Starting early in the morning, participants will again choose breakout sessions – few of which are related to the topic of the fourth toolkit. Then they will spend an hour at the end of the day in a keynote session with David Coleman, who is the head of College Board. The meeting has no built-in time for interaction with SDE staff or for collaboration.

Between the networks, toolkits, conferences, and coaches (and time and resources spent developing and supporting all of them), there are moments where people from disparate groups actually arrive at the same place at the same time. Unfortunately, they are quite rare.

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This is Only a Test

October 17, 2012 12 comments

Once again, the Oklahoma State Department of Education is having some difficulty with the testing process. Yesterday, superintendents and district testing coordinators received an email stating that the 5th and 8th grade writing tests – usually administered in February – would be pushed back to April this year. This is problematic on a number of levels, but I want to key in on one bullet point in particular:

The February Writing Test has been delayed until Spring testing in April. Due to some administrative challenges, the SDE has placed the Grades 3-8 contract back out to bid.

Some administrative challenges? What does that even mean? Did CTB-McGraw Hill pull out after the fact? Did another vendor protest the contract? Did the Office of State Finance find an irregularity in the selection process?

This continues a pattern of inconsistency and poor communication of the testing process dating back almost two years. Throughout the spring 2011 testing cycle, school districts all around Oklahoma were struggling with Pearson – which at the time held all testing contracts for the state – to get student data pre-coded correctly into their files. As a result, batch after batch of test data came back incorrect during that summer. The SDE was not able to release test data to schools until October that year. Then, for some unknown reason, it took them another six months to issue the NCLB report cards.

During the 2011-12 school year, agency staff were falling all over themselves to assign blame to Pearson. From all indications, they deserved it. However, the lag between data being finalized and the ultimate issuance of federal accountability report cards was entirely the fault of the SDE. Yes they were shorthanded, but it was their choice to run off key personnel who were more equipped to calculate schools’ and districts’ API scores.

This summer, a new testing company was announced for the End of Instruction Tests: CTB-McGraw Hill. The big bonus was that they would be developing benchmark testing that schools could use for free (read: the cost is actually factored into your bid, Oklahoma). Those tests would come online this fall. Then they wouldn’t – the reason being that the SDE had also awarded CTB-McGraw Hill the testing contract for 3-8. Now they would be preparing benchmark tests for all tests (except social studies and science). So the roll out of these benchmarks would be in January. Maybe. Not to worry though, there will be more benchmarks later. Next year. Probably.

And now, due to some administrative challenges, the contract for 3-8 grade testing is going back out to bid.

Isn’t accountability the cornerstone of education reform? Aren’t these tests supposed to tell us everything we need to know about our students, teachers, and schools? If so, a clear plan and straight story would be a refreshing change. Remember the SDE’s budget request that would raise spending on assessment from $11 million to $16 million?

Not worth it.

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Annual Measurable Whatevers

October 16, 2012 3 comments

After last week, I told myself not to write about the A-F Report Cards for a while. So technically, this is a post about the NCLB Waiver instead. Oklahoma schools actually have to deal with two accountability measures. The report cards are the state system. The waiver is federal.

Under the waiver, schools can receive one of five labels designations – or none at all. Here is what the guidance from the SDE says about each:

  • High Performance Reward – High academic performance; A on report card; missing no more than two Annual Measurable Objectives (AMOs)
  • High Progress Reward – High Academic Progress
  • Focus – Low performance in one or more of the following subgroups: Black (yes, we still use this rather than African American) reading and math; IEP reading and math; ELL reading and math
  • Targeted Intervention – D on the Report Card
  • Priority – School Improvement Grant sites; bottom 5% in reading and math; F on Report Card; Graduation Rate below 60%

My understanding is that most schools will have no designation under the federal system. I have been told, however of some inconsistencies between A-F grades and the federal designations. An example of this is schools with a B on their report card getting the High Performance label at the same time. Not only is this confounding; it doesn’t seem to match the stated criteria either.

Another concern, in light of all the controversy over Florida having different standards in place for different races, is the fact that the SDE still hasn’t released the AMOs to schools yet. Whether the score to be proficient is different or the percentage of students passing to avoid sanctions is different, the fact is that students are being held to different standards based on race. Even worse, it’s the middle of October and schools still don’t know what that standard is.

SDE staff have also stated the intent to keep a low-profile on these designations. They prefer the A-F grades. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but so do I. The irony is that they wrote the waiver rules in the first place.

Depleted Enough

October 15, 2012 4 comments

Oklahoma voters will have a choice in a few weeks on two ballot measures that have serious implications for school districts and the students they serve. State Question 758 would lower the amount that assessed property values can be raised from the current 5% cap to 3%. State Question 766 removes taxes from intangible property.

Before I add my thoughts and some links to information about these state questions, examine this graph from the Oklahoma Policy Institute.

 

The graph and accompanying article show that common education funding has seen a decreasing share of the state budget. Peaking in fiscal year 2004 at 38% of overall allocations, common education received only 34 percent for fiscal year 2013. School districts are already short on cash flow due to legislative inaction. This is compounded by the SDE’s continued withholding of money that is supposed to flow through the formula.

These two state questions give voters the chance to make schools’ fiscal conditions even worse.

This list of talking points from CCOSA begins to explain the policy implications. As the state becomes a less reliable funding source, school districts that can pass bonds rely on that revenue for all sorts of things – buildings, buses, computers, and even textbooks. Yes, school districts have been using their textbook allocations to pay salaries and utility bills these last few years (which the legislature has specifically permitted) and deferred the cost of books to bonds. Again, to be clear, school districts are now so poorly funded that they borrow money in order to buy textbooks.

Oklahoma Policy Institute demonstrates in this article that SQ 758 will “create a widening gap between taxable and fair market values.” In this one, they show that SQ 766 could cost local governments up to $50 million a year in tax revenue. Most of that goes to school districts.

Opposing these state questions is not a matter of greedy school districts trying to take your land and intellectual property. It’s a matter of schools having adequate buildings and resources to educate your children. And if not your children, your neighbors’ children. This is about preserving the most visible investment that communities make.

Inform yourself. Visit the Oklahoma Secretary of State web page and learn everything you can about these state questions. And for the love of common sense, vote no and stop the hemorrhaging.

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