Archive for December, 2012

Day Five – A Bad Idea

December 18, 2012 8 comments

The thought of teachers and principals packing heat at school scares me. People owning guns because they like to hunt, participate in shooting competitions, or feel the need to protect their homes – that’s all fine. But guns at schools? I just can’t accept that.

Nonetheless, it’s an idea that will probably get serious consideration during the next legislative session. I imagine it will be discussed more than school funding, in fact.

In the last 24 hours, I’ve talked with some teachers, administrators, parents, and students. I talked to people I know, so this was – to say the least – a sample of convenience. The vast majority of people I discussed this proposal with were against it. Some were not. While I find the idea to be completely unreasonable, there are a number of otherwise reasonable people who disagree with me. That reality still doesn’t make it palatable.

If you’re a teacher faced with the unthinkable, your duty is to protect your children. Your responsibility is to stay with them. It is not your job to create crossfire. Or to run down the hall on some sort of a quest. As a teacher, it is always your job to supervise your students.

Locked doors have served as a deterrent in past shootings, including the one Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Guns in classrooms will create anxiety to a degree that far outweighs any theoretical benefit. While some students in our classrooms have grown up around firearms, some have not. While some students are well-trained in gun safety, others have had their neighborhoods torn asunder by violence and would prefer not to see a gun in the place where they’re supposed to feel safe.

This is part of the conversation we need to have about making our schools safer. It’s an idea that we’ll hopefully discuss, seriously, and then reject. You can be completely well-intended and still have bad ideas.

The conversation cannot stop there, however. We have to talk seriously about our values. After the last few days, I’ve learned that I’m supposed to be afraid of: single mothers, guns, drugs, video games, movies, atheists, religious fanatics, the mentally ill, schools, special needs children, gun enthusiasts, and gay marriage. This list of scapegoats shows our collective grasping for an explanation.

The truth is that we can never have a world in which all people treasure each other for their differences. We don’t know what made the shooter snap, and as I said Sunday, I’m not interested in reading up on him. I’m not interested in that as much as I am in the stories of heroic teachers, grieving families, and a recovering community.

On the political side, yes, I do think it’s fair to ask our elected leaders what loyalty the NRA has bought with their donations. I think it’s time to ask if it’s ok that someone could walk into a public place (remember, this doesn’t just happen in schools) with enough ammunition to just keep spraying until the authorities arrive. That’s another idea that I hope we find ludicrous.

By the way, I get that this is Oklahoma. I get that my opinions here may cost me some of my following. That’s fine. I’ve tried to address some of these ideas as respectfully as I can, and I always welcome respectful dissent and discussion.

Worse Than It Sounds

December 17, 2012 5 comments

I still remember my Oklahoma History teacher in high school explaining to us the meaning of a political aphorism that now sounds like an anachronism: All politics is local. The idea is that you and I, as citizens, can make the biggest impact by getting involved in the political processes closest to us: city council, mayor, school board. Then county and state government. Finally the federal level.

At no point did any teacher of mine explain that state and local policy should be set by Jeb Bush’s Foundation. This, however, is my main takeaway from yesterday’s thorough investigative work by the Tulsa World.

Do yourself a favor. If you haven’t already, read the article and click through to all the links. You’ll be enlightened.

The World asked the State Department of Education for emails in October related to discussions over the A-F Report Cards. Two months later, they received a fraction of their request. What they received shows contempt for superintendents (continued derisive use of the word “Establishment” to describe career educators). The emails also show a culture beholden to out-of-state influences. At one point, Damon Gardenhire, the former communications director cites the promise of these outside groups as reason for leaving the SDE:

Just keep in mind that the local supts will keep doing this on every reform until choice is introduced into the system. Until then, they will continue to play these kinds of games. Only choice can be the fulcrum to make them truly responsive. A big part of why I took the Walton gig was because I see real promise for bringing positive pressure to bear that will help cause a tipping point with enough (superintendents) that the ugly voices like Keith Ballard will begin to be small and puny.

Gardenhire’s contempt for school superintendents was not unique to him while he worked at the SDE. It was (and remains) the central element of the culture there. The reason that Superintendent Barresi to this day has not had a meaningful conversation with a group of superintendents is that she simply doesn’t care what they think.

The World documentation also includes an email exchange between Governor Fallin’s Secretary of Education, Phyllis Hudecki, and State Senator Clark Jolley, of Edmond. While both show disappointment for the way Barresi has caused some of the political confusion Jolley saves most of his scorn for the school leaders:

As much as we can fault Janet for some of the bumps in the road, on most of these, I frankly believe it is that they figured out they don’t like their grades. They say Janet hasn’t talked to them. That is complete bull. She and her staff have spent hours upon hours trying to answer questions only for the superintendents to allege they were “ramming it through” without even listening Or giving them answers to the questions they posed. I saw the SDE’s responses. They did answer the questions. They just don’t like the answers.”

I wrote about the meeting Barresi had with 51 superintendents in October. That was no discussion. I also posted the responses the SDE gave to superintendents’ questions. Those answers, as I titled my blog post, were evasive at best. What Jolley doesn’t seem to have an explanation for is the fact that the superintendent he most frequently talks to is Edmond’s David Goin. Edmond had great report cards, and Goin thinks the product is flawed and that the SDE was unresponsive. The truth is that no superintendents were satisfied with the process. This isn’t about the final grades at all.

Altogether, the emails the SDE provided to the World, our collective experiences with this process, and the path already travelled through other states point to several realities:

  • These people think public schools are failing.
  • These people are funded by out-of-state groups.
  • These people care little for transparency.
  • These people listen to the people who fund them rather than the people they supposedly serve.
  • These people will stop at nothing to impose school choice, which is their sanitized way of saying voucher.
  • Among the ranks, there is dissent about the competence and political skill of Barresi and the SDE.
  • There is no dissent about the ultimate goal, however.
  • The governor will remove any board member who does not fall in line like a good little toy soldier.

One last thing: the Oklahoman’s silence on this matter speaks volumes.

Day Three: Recovering

December 16, 2012 Comments off

Every blurb I read about Newtown (I’m finished reading about the shooter), creates a more vivid montage – one part Thornton Wilder, one part Norman Rockwell, and one part Garrison Keillor. This is a town where people have high hopes for their children – a town where people are connected to their nation but full of pride for their community.

I grew up in a town like that, and I live in one now. Many – I hope most – of us feel that way about the place we call home. As I listened to President Obama speak tonight in Newtown, I set aside the other blog post I’ve been writing off and on all day. It’s just not my priority. I’m still fixated on what it means to have your family, your school, your community, and your entire worldview shattered.

Our Town focuses on the stages of life, with a mixture of nostalgia and irony. As the characters rush to reach the mundane, they walk right past the significant. The children killed at school Friday don’t have a chance to make it to Act II even.

Perhaps the most famous work of Rockwell’s portfolio is the Four Freedoms. One of these is the Freedom from Fear. This will be the hardest thing for people to gain back after Friday. It’s not so much that we keep thinking if it can happen there it can happen anywhere. Of course it can. And it has. Repeatedly.

We all believe – as do the residents of Lake Woebegone – that our hometown is a land “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” This is, in part, why we also believe through the despair that we can live beyond such a tragedy and repair the lives that remain.

We weep and grieve collectively when children are murdered. We know it’s unnatural. We feel something similar to a lesser degree when a family member, friend, or colleague goes too early – say in their 40s. But we all understand, that statistically speaking, it’s just so much more unnatural for children to go.

I am – sometimes to a fault – always interested in data. If someone dying at age 45 is a standard deviation off from the normal distribution, then someone dying at 16 is at least two away. Someone dying at six is at least three.

It’s the magnitude of the loss that continues to bother me. Students taken way too soon. Three standard deviations or more too soon. And so many of them. And for no apparent reason. It doesn’t match what we know about our communities – whether we’re talking about the local level or the nation as a whole. This just doesn’t happen.

I’m still alarmed at my own reaction Friday; I was prepared to be numb at another school shooting in a high school. At least my brain has formed a schema for that – a cold, pragmatic schema. Suburban angst has been chronicled by bands such as Rush and Nirvanna. And it has been lived out far too many times.

We are a sometimes callous nation with a tremendous capacity for action and empathy when catastrophe strikes. It’s not enough to care about the children – or the communities – just when times are tough. We have to care all the time.

And yes, this is part of the reason I’m proud of the career path I’ve chosen. I know what it’s like to stare at a room full of 35 students and know there is no limit to what you would do for them. I know what it’s like to become ensconced in the community. I know what it’s like to grieve with students in times of tragedy and work with them as they collect food or help build homes for the needy.

Tomorrow, we still grieve. And many of us will do so publicly. Many of us – a thousand miles away from Newtown – will grieve with students asking questions that we still don’t know how to answer. And maybe the best thing we can say is, I love you, and I’d do anything I could to keep you safe.

Then the day after tomorrow, we can work to keep every student free from fear. We can work to make sure they’re all still progressing towards above average. And we can reclaim our towns.

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Day Two: Anger

December 15, 2012 Comments off

People who frequent my blog know that I like to use numbers to explain my thoughts. After reading about the victims in Newtown, the numbers that got my attention were the single digit ones. All the sixes and sevens on the page. It still makes me sick, but today, I’m mostly angry.

Twenty children got to live a third of their childhoods.

I’m angry at the media for putting cameras in the survivors’ faces, for getting the facts wrong, and for showing parents in their most vulnerable moments. I’m angry at people who continue to ignore that this country has an obsession with violence. I’m angry at people who think it’s ok miss the trend data. And I’m angry at myself – because every thought I have on legislation that should be passed would (a) punish law-abiding people I know; and (b) not have done a thing to prevent yesterday’s slaughter.

I’m angry, in part, because I know we have a problem, and I can’t for the life of me figure out how to solve it. More than that, I’m angry because there are also people who don’t want us to have the conversation at all.

This is the hardest thing in the world to talk about. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort. People keep dying. Some are adults, but some are six and seven.

The time has come to have this conversation.

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December 14, 2012 1 comment

I heard the news during lunch today. There was another school shooting. I couldn’t eat. It sickened me.

Then I saw a headline: 27 dead. Unconfirmed. Maybe that wasn’t right. But it was. And that made the tragedy several degrees worse. I was sickened and cold.

Then I read an article. The shooting was in an elementary school this time. Somebody did the unthinkable in a kindergarten classroom. And for some reason, again, this made it worse. I was sickened, cold, and unable to breathe.

Why worse? Loss of life to violence at any age is tragic. I guess it’s hard to explain, but it just is worse. I’ve been a parent to children of all ages. I’ve worked in schools with children of all ages. This shooting changes more lives than we can count – forever. The fact that this happened somewhere that should be nothing but a happy place would make me mad, if I could get past all the other emotions. But I can’t.

I know I haven’t felt this way in about 11 years. I’ve been in classrooms full of children during all kinds of tragedies: the Murrah Building, Columbine, 9/11. There are never words to answer the questions children have in times like these. And the parents call. What are you doing to keep my kids safe?

Every school has a disaster plan. But nobody has a plan for this. Nobody should have to. Every fear of every student and parent is legitimate. The feelings are real. They’re raw. And they’re recurring. Teachers have those fears too. They try not to think about it but they talk. What would you do if…I have no idea what I would do…I hope we never have to find out. That conversation has happened thousands of times in schools today. None of us know the answer, because we weren’t there.

In the past few hours, I’ve seen some poignant statements about the tragedy – some asinine ones too. Mostly just comments from completely numb parents, grandparents, and educators who can’t imagine someone killing children – of any age.

I love public education because I love kids. I love hope. I love a world of unlimited possibilities.

I hate today.

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Math for Charities

December 13, 2012 1 comment

A local non-profit that loves bashing public education (and really any government expenditure) asked readers to help with a math question. Using publicly available data, they posit that the average classroom costs schools $149,418. Since the average teacher salary is $44,094, they ask where the rest of that money goes.

They even use this misleading graphic to illustrate their point:

bad at math pie chart

(not the true cost of a classroom teacher)

The writer – who according to the organization’s IRS Form 990 (Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax) makes roughly the amount in red – could easily have answered his own question, rather than asking it rhetorically and implying that something nefarious happens with that money. He cites the Office of Accountability, which most recently published data for the 2010-11 school year. If he cared to, he could have included the following information, showing a breakdown of school expenses:

Expenditure Category

Statewide Percentage of Expenses



Instructional Support


District Administration


School Administration


Student Support


District Support




The Office of Accountability describes those categories in more detail, but logic can answer some of those questions too. A teacher making that salary also costs the district about $15,000 in benefits and payroll taxes. Textbooks cost money. So does heat and air. And buses. And computers. And electricity. And other staff such as clerical, custodial, and maintenance employees.

The article even has a snarky comment from the state director of another charity, blaming the exorbitant cost of district administration. Yep, that 2.8 percent is keeping money out of the classrooms, alright.

As I’ve mentioned before, Oklahoma is rife with partisan non-profit think tanks with highly-paid employees operating under the same tax-exempt rules as real charities, such as Habitat for Humanity. They are given credence and a voice by the state’s largest newspaper. Their tactics include maligning all things public, presenting partial information, or in this case, butchering elementary math. Their only goal is to further the tax cut agenda for the wealthiest of Americans, and more importantly, corporations. Truth doesn’t matter.

I went to public school, and I can figure that out.

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Et tu, Gazette?

December 11, 2012 Comments off

I think we’re all used to this paradigm by now: the Oklahoman shills for groups trying to destroy public education as we know it (or in the case of OCPA, destroy it altogether); meanwhile the Tulsa World presents a counterpoint showing the fallacy of various reform initiatives, sometimes with great zeal for being contrary. Meanwhile, independent publishers such as the Oklahoma Gazette provide coverage of education issues that falls somewhere in the middle.

That’s why today I was shocked to read the editorial by the Bill Bleakley, publisher of the Gazette, calling for a takeover of the Oklahoma City Public Schools. While I don’t have all the answers to remedy the problems of urban school districts, I do have enough of a filter to recognize a solution that would cause more problems than it would solve.

Bleakley does a good job tracing some issues that have impacting the district since the 70s – desegregation, then white flight, and for many years, an aging infrastructure. But he misses the mark on others. Collective bargaining is not to blame for low student performance. The OKC Schools Foundation was never intended to be an accountability task force.

For some reason, he doesn’t mention poverty and the dissolution of families at all. Nor does he discuss the fact that budget cuts have forced the district to cut back on instructional staff and student support (such as counselors, tutors, and social workers).

Rather than admit to the obvious impact of these issues, Bleakley suggests dissolving the existing bureaucracy and replacing it with a more complicated one. In the end, the State Department of Education would have more oversight of the district. Unfortunately, the last two years have shown that the current occupants at the SDE lack an understanding of how school districts function. They change their instructions to school with regularity, and they fail to adhere to their own adopted administrative rules. They believe in reinventing government on the fly, and their model for education is even less well-constructed.

Adding to this disconnect, Bleakley trots out OKCPS’s D on the School Report Card as evidence that “nothing’s happening here!” Giving this flawed product of a process born of subterfuge and dubious math any credence at all is not the highlight of a strong rhetorical argument. The SDE, legislature, and governor have all stacked the deck against schools and districts serving high numbers of students in poverty. Even leaders in affluent districts agree with this. Can OKCPS do better? Absolutely. Is the report card an indicator of this? Absolutely not.

Unfortunately, some writers are more taken to conflate the crisis with statements such as this:

Thousands of lives have been diminished, if not ruined, by depriving its students of a meaningful education. Lacking the social and economic potential that education provides, most are challenged to become good parents, workers, and citizens.

As of 2011, 85 percent of students in OKCPS were served by the free and reduced lunch program. The state average was 61 percent. As of 2010, 45 percent of the students in the district came from single-parent families (or a non-parent home situation). The state average was 32 percent. The mobility rate is 12.5 percent. That means that one in every eight students is either leaving or entering a new classroom at some point after school starts. This is disruptive for the learning process for all students. The people who spend every day working with these kids know how hard the job is. Publishers do not.

Bleakley knows – as we all do – that urban schools struggle to recruit and retain the best teachers. While OKCPS can have a higher salary scale than many surrounding districts, it is not enough of a bump to incentivize the most talented people to stay. That is why the average experience of teachers in the district is two years lower than the state average.

Bleakley’s editorial has gone viral today. The usual suspects have been sharing it all over Twitter and Facebook. These are the people who want to dissolve the school districts serving our most vulnerable populations and give students the right to apply to “Schools of Choice.” What they all fail to mention is that the school you choose doesn’t have to choose you back. That will leave the public schools as the last refuge for all the students nobody else would have.

This is not the best thing for children. These cynical reformers know it. It’s important that everybody else does too. I’ll never have the readership of the Gazette, and surely I’ll not be the writer with the most thorough, articulate rebuttal to this half-cocked proposal. But if you care about the children of Oklahoma as much as public education’s critics claim to, you have an obligation to help that message reach as many people as possible.

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Another Look at District Report Cards

December 9, 2012 Comments off

Readers commenting on Friday’s blog made two good, critical observations and asked one really good question.

  • Causation does not equal correlation.
  • District GPA cannot be considered a continuous variable.
  • How does the distribution of district grades correlate to school size?

First, Joe Love made the point that causation does not equal correlation. This is probably the most fundamental thing to understand when you hear any statistical observation. My all-time favorite example is that students who eat breakfast are more likely to be successful in school. The truth is that students who come from homes with adequate resources are likely to have the following factors in place: better nutrition, greater access to health care, parents (or siblings) who read to them, appropriate clothing and shelter, and high expectations. Better nutrition likely is important to school success. However, it is typically a byproduct of the extent to which all household needs are met. Of all these variables, it is the household income that typically produces the strongest correlation to school success. So yes, I would argue that socio-economic status produces a causal relationship to student achievement (and therefore, school report card grades).

Next, Kathy points out that on the scatterplot, all the grade point averages line up in rows, and that they represent more of a rank ordering of districts than they do a continuous variable. This is also a correct point. Honestly, it’s one of the biggest criticisms I hear from principals. They want to know why an 89 is treated the same as an 80. If schools (and districts) received points based on their performance within a letter grade range, the scores would spread out more. Some B’s would become A’s, and some C’s would become B’s. We couldn’t allow that to happen, though.

The question was an interesting one to me, in part because I know a lot of small school teachers, principals, and superintendents. I did the same thing as before, matching districts by GPA and school size, then running a Pearson test (but not the $1.7 billion kind). Remember from Friday, that the correlation between free and reduced lunch participation rate and GPA was -0.44, which would be considered moderate. This time the correlation was 0.03, which is completely negligible. This tells me that large districts are no more or less likely to have a particular letter grade than small ones. It also tells me that if I ran a multiple regression model using both poverty and district size, the impact of size would be negligible.


On a slightly related note, I thought the Tulsa World did a good job this morning discussing the real intent behind assigning letter grades to schools: humiliation. Meanwhile, the Oklahoman points out that the two districts receiving F’s face no sanctions. Both are worth a read.

District Report Cards: Poverty Still Matters

December 7, 2012 8 comments

Yesterday, with little fanfare, the Oklahoma State Department of Education released district A-F Report Cards. Predictably, most districts fell into the B and C range. You can view district (and school) grades here.











The same criteria were used for districts as for the school report cards. Accordingly, the distribution of grades was similar. For the most part, districts with high poverty did worse than districts with low poverty. For the sake of being thorough, though, I spent a few minutes matching the districts to their free and reduced lunch participation rates. Running a simple Pearson regression test, I found that there to be a moderate, negative correlation (-0.44).

What this means is that districts with higher percentages of poverty tended to have lower report card GPAs. The tendency is not an absolute, but it shows the extent to which poverty predicts student performance. For further illustration, I have plotted school performance below, and included a line of best fit.


The distance from the trend line shows you how much a district over-performed or under-performed based upon statistical expectations. The dots to the far right represent the 13 school districts earning a 4.0 GPA (one of which got a B – yes there are penalties assessed for things like not testing enough students, leaving your name off your paper, or forgetting to write in cursive). Those districts range in free and reduced lunch participation from 36 to 87 percent. Yes, it is possible to have high achievement with high poverty. However, the schools and districts achieving this are outliers.

And yes, having outliers is a good thing. Maybe we can learn from the districts with high poverty and high achievement what the secret is to defying the sociological tendencies we all know to be true in education. Maybe poverty is but one variable explaining some of the variance in school scores. Maybe unemployment, mobility, parent education level, and family structure explain some of this as well.

I can accept any of that. What I can’t accept is the premise that these letter grades tell you how qualified or how effective the teachers in any of these districts are. Poverty explains a lot – maybe not everything, but enough that our leaders should be paying more attention to it.

Hide Your Kids! (Hide Your Money!)

December 5, 2012 1 comment

If you’re reading this, it may already be too late. You may not be aware, but the school where you teach – or worse yet, that your children attend – is unsafe. The charity workers at OCPA (look up their 990s – the local mouthpiece for the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute somehow qualify as a charity) and the writers who meet the editorial standards at the Oklahoman want you to know that with a little bit of legislative maneuvering, any parent may be able to pick any school and take a voucher for their kid – just by claiming that they feel the school their child attends is unsafe.

Consider this editorial Saturday by Vicki Alger of the Independent Women’s Forum. She puts forward the idea that because schools are unsafe parents should be able to transfer their children to any other school – even a school that other parents feel is unsafe as well. She suggests:

Students shouldn’t have to wait for safer options — and state lawmakers shouldn’t wait for Congress to act. Oklahoma should consider implementing a Safety Opportunity Scholarship (SOS) program. Under an SOS program, parents with a reasonable apprehension for their children’s safety — including instances of bullying — could transfer them immediately to safer schools of their choice within or beyond their resident school districts, including public, charter, virtual or private schools.

Scholarships would match the state per-pupil funding at students’ current public schools. If parents opted to send their children to less expensive schools, the savings would revert to the state general fund — leaving more money for programs to help all schools become safer. An SOS program would fulfill No Child Left Behind’s stated goal that “All students will be educated in learning environments that are safe, drug-free, and conducive to learning.” Such a program would also have numerous advantages over the current PDS mandate.

Calling it a scholarship makes it sound tidy and benign. This latest push is nothing more than a blatant attempt to institute a voucher program in Oklahoma. Conservatives on the fringe have long wanted the option to take public money and use it in private schools. The catch is that the private schools don’t have to take your child or the state’s money. This would be nothing more than another way to write off the students with the fewest resources and smallest support systems.

During the discussion of the use of public dollars at religious schools for the LNH scholarship for special education students, proponents insisted that this was not a trial balloon for a more large-scale voucher program. Some were sincere in that insistence.

However, Saturday’s column falls on the heels of the rally led by OCPA a week before at the Capitol pushing for legislation to address parents’ concerns. If you follow any OCPA writers on Twitter (or state officials who are chummy with those writers), you know that they think all public schools are unsafe. They herald any bad news coming from a school as evidence of the entire system’s failure. They never show appreciation for the good done by the tens of thousands of professionals who spend every day in this state working with children.

To believe that this element of next year’s legislative agenda is about student safety is beyond naïve. It’s about money and privatization. It’s about tuition breaks for the parents who have already chosen private school for their children. And it’s about destroying public education as we know it.

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