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November Review/December Preview (2013)

November 30, 2013 1 comment

What a month this was! We finally had the release of our A-F Report Cards. We had insult after insult from the state superintendent and a veiled threat from the governor. We also had more people than ever speaking out about it. Parent meetings are becoming more common all over Oklahoma, and at each, the common thread is that state policy makers are out of touch with communities.

It’s no wonder that this blog is getting so much traffic. Allow me to stat-brag with a few numbers.

April – December 2012 31,418 views
October 2013 20,731 views
November 2013 32,243 views*

*as of 11:00 am 11/30/13

October set a record by about 3,000 page views. November blew it away, with more views than I had in the blog’s inaugural year. While I’m incredibly thankful that so many people keep stopping by to see what’s being read, I know that the traffic is more of a result of what’s happening in this state than how I’m responding to it. It’s no wonder then that November saw five of the ten most viewed posts ever on the blog (each with over 2,000 views).

  1. I Too Will Be Damned – At first I thought it was just Superintendent Barresi lashing out irrationally at her detractors (which is a trend). It turned out to be a new campaign theme. Barresi has said, “I’ll be damned if I’m going to let the unions or anyone else in the education establishment lose another generation of Oklahoma’s children,” on multiple recorded occasions now. It’s the biggest slap in the face a state leader has ever given teachers. She’s quickly approaching Chris Christie territory, and this behavior shows no signs of abating. Next thing you know, she’ll be calling schools “failure factories” and wagging her finger in teachers’ faces.
  2. Education Reform Candidate Meeting – This was another place where Barresi repeated the line about being damned. What was interesting about the two hours of video from this campaign event was that Barresi had her positions questioned by a potential challenger, as well as from voters in the audience. Through all the politics, you can hear the fears of parents who have unique concerns for their children and the impact of Barresi’s reform agenda. Remember that these parents vote.
  3. About the Governor’s Letter – After Governor Fallin (or her spokesperson, depending on what you choose to believe) started a fury by questioning whether complaining about the A-F Report Cards would prove counterproductive when asking the legislature for more money, she backtracked and asked for calm. In defending the A-F Report Cards, she resorted to something far short of logic. I countered each point, and apparently, that resonated more with my readers than the veiled threat itself.
  4. Things that correlate to A-F Grades – This was one of my most deeply statistical pieces. Usually, I put a ton of work into calculating data and writing these, only to find the response disappointing. Not only did the post resonate, but it also generated additional research by other readers and bloggers. In short, we keep finding a strong correlation between poverty and accountability measures.
  5. Speaking of Cheap Political Theater – This was the original Fallin post after she made what seemed like a threat. Her spokesperson said it’s wrong to tell parents the law is wrong (which sounded to many readers like a double standard).

What we’re seeing, in addition to continued attacks on public education, is a tightening of the ranks among elected leaders right now. As they attempt to silence discord, both within the Republican Party and outside of it, the clamoring for change grows louder. In terms of her re-election, I’ve always thought Fallin was pretty safe. Maybe that’s why she’s marching lock-step with Barresi now. Or maybe it’s part of a larger strategy to be relevant nationally in 2016. Who really knows?

Fortunately, December is usually a calmer month. We won’t have as many major announcements or political events. Then again, since most of what I write comes as a response to something that surprises me, we may set more records.

Black Friday Education

November 29, 2013 1 comment

I started a post Wednesday about the things I’m thankful for as a blogger. First was my career. I wouldn’t write passionately about public education if I hadn’t had such an amazing time working with students, parents, teachers, and administrators over the years. I’m also thankful that so many people are reading and responding to what I write. It lets me know I’m not alone. Add to that the increase in Oklahoma educators writing their own blogs, following each other on Facebook and Twitter, and we can all agree there is as much passion for public education as ever in this state.

I got distracted. I never finished the post. That happens more often than you realize. I have several unfinished posts that don’t seem very timely now. There’s one titled “About That Thirty Percent,” discussing the OU/OSU research report. There’s an untitled one discussing struggles that districts have had with Acuity (the free benchmark testing program from CTB/McGraw-Hill) during the time when schools are trying to give winter EOIs. There are many of these. For this Thanksgiving weekend, I think I’ll let Rob Miller’s post from yesterday do my talking for me.

Today, however, I want to talk about the day after Thanksgiving. One of my favorite things about Black Friday is all the people posting something along the lines of spending the day after you said what you were thankful for trampling people to get to things you don’t really need. There’s something about today that’s fairly instructive for us in education.

It starts with the hype. Act now and get this laptop! Today only, 75% off of skinny jeans! For a limited time, buy the only product fully aligned to the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Assessments!!

What? One of these things doesn’t belong? Think again.

We shop on Black Friday or Cyber Monday because of the hype. The truth is that retailers sell the electronics with the least amount of power at the low, low price they’re advertising just to get you in the door (or to their website). Clothing stores give you limited time offers that expire right before the next ones begin. Education vendors do the same thing. They’re all aligned to whatever initiative is new and shiny. They’re all the only ones who have cracked the code.

This is also the emerging business model of corporate education reform. Create hype (such as charter schools, virtual schools, and vouchers). Increase demand for your product and services by pretending that it already exists (leading to waiting lists). Promote your successes and hide your failures. Control the narrative through media. Demoralize the people working for you while pretending to the world that they have the sweetest deal and best benefits in the world (certain politicians and retailers do this very well). Foster a culture in which parents camp out, line up, and trample each other for the false promise of a better education for their children.  Reformers, like retailers, thrive on convincing the public that their deal is the only deal worth having.

I would like to think that Thanksgiving, rather than Black Friday, says more about who we are as a society. Most of us would rather show gratitude for something that works than act horribly in pursuit of something that isn’t really an upgrade. Retailers and reformers hope differently.

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Another Textbook Cycle Shuffle?

November 25, 2013 18 comments

A comment on one of my posts from last week got me thinking about the Oklahoma State Textbook Committee.  I’m glad it did; otherwise I might not have known that the committee was meeting tomorrow. Looking at the agenda, two items caught my attention:

9. Discussion on changing subject cycle
10. Vote on amending subject cycle

It seems we’ve altered the cycle already a couple of times in recent years. It is not clear from the agenda what it is we are changing this time, but something tells me it might be science. As it stands, the SDE still has not adopted new science standards. Until those are in place, it is impossible for the publishers to create materials that they claim are aligned to them.

Currently, most schools in Oklahoma use science books that are at least eight years old. They aren’t in good shape, and schools don’t have money to replace them. If nothing changes, districts will likely have to choose between purchasing new science or reading books in 2015. If science is pushed back another year, the textbooks will be 10 years old before they are replaced.

This creates uncertainty and sends reinforces the message that science is less important than other content areas. Given all the grandstanding about college and career readiness that we see in this state, it’s absolutely the wrong message. I don’t expect much publicity from the meeting, but hopefully, somewhere out there, somebody has more information on this.

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“Typical” Remediation

November 25, 2013 6 comments

Last week, Oklahoma school districts received their allocation notices for two major reform programs: the Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA) and Achieving Classroom Excellence (ACE). The RSA money is based on counts of current K-3 students reading below grade level, as assessed by one or more benchmarks. The ACE money is based on the number of students who scored below proficient on the Spring 2013 assessments for seventh and eighth grade math and reading, and any End of Instruction (EOI) exam.

The per pupil allocation for RSA is about $76. For ACE, it is about $66 for each student with an unsatisfactory score and about $50 for each student scoring limited knowledge. If a “typical” district has a going rate for tutoring of $15-20 per hour, and schools decide to use their money this way, there would be enough funds for three to five sessions per student. This, of course, would leave nothing for materials, software, summer programs, or professional development – which is how the SDE recommends districts spend 25 percent of their RSA funds.

The “typical” district has to decide how to manage this. Is it better to invest resources for students in need of the greatest assistance now (third graders, and high school students needing help before re-testing on an EOI) or in those in danger of being harmed by the current laws later (K-2 students, and eighth and ninth graders)? Should we focus on tutoring now, including time away from music, art, and PE, or just plan on having RSA summer school? Should we keep middle school and high school students out of elective courses or provide last-minute cram sessions before the winter and spring re-testing windows?

Complicating this decision-making process is the fact that districts don’t know until November how much funding to plan for. The quantity is finite, and the state splits it up among all participants. In the case of RSA, the SDE has to wait for all districts to report the number of students reading below grade level to slice the pie (in spite of statutory reporting deadlines). In the case of ACE, as they pointed out last week, we know that there are 30,806 more students needing remediation than there were a year ago. We also know that Biology was the only EOI in which the state average pass rate decreased in 2013.

Every district in Oklahoma has to make these choices. Each has to make them differently. See, in Oklahoma, there is no such thing as a “typical” district. The sizes vary – from fewer than 100 students to over 40,000. Some are remote, some are densely populated, and some have both rural and urban characteristics. Poverty levels are different, as are the levels of support from home and community.

The one constant among all districts is the lack of support from the state.

Remediation Budgets

November 21, 2013 Comments off

School districts received their allocation notices for two important programs today: the Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA) and Achieving Classroom Excellence (ACE) Remediation. In both cases, the funding hardly covers the need.

The RSA program has been in place since 2006. The stakes are higher than ever now, though. School districts have had two years to adjust to the fact that third graders will be retained for an unsatisfactory score. In 2012-13, districts received no RSA funds. In 2013-14, they just now received them, and less than what was given to them in 2011-12.  The SDE was kind enough to provide a PowerPoint telling them that this is all they get, and that they should spend 25% of the money on professional development for teachers. That and supporting Kindergarten through second grade students will leave hardly anything for direct interventions and summer school.

ACE has also been in place since 2006, and as with RSA, funding is nowhere near matching the need. Along with the allocation notice today, superintendents received this information today.

ACE Remediation Funding Allocations FY14

OK State Dept of Ed sent this bulletin at 11/20/2013 01:24 PM CST

Superintendents:

The State Department of Education is now in the process of allocating state funds for ACE (Achieving Classroom Excellence) remediation dollars, and we want to provide you with details on the process. Allocation were made available on November 19th, and payments will follow shortly.

In June, the State Board of Education approved Fiscal Year 2014 funding for ACE remediation for a statewide total of $8,000,000. These dollars help districts prepare students to meet the testing requirements of ACE, and each district is required to provide remediation and intervention opportunities to students who score Limited Knowledge or Unsatisfactory on ACE exams listed below:

  •     seventh grade reading
  •     seventh grade math
  •     eighth grade reading
  •     eighth grade math
  •     any end-of-instruction exam

Districts are provided with ACE remediation funds based on the number of students who qualify for remediation.  Allocations are made on a per-student basis. Here are some key numbers on this year’s allocation:

  • This year’s statewide count for Limited Knowledge is 79,214 (an increase of 8,458 over last year) .
  • The maximum remediation amount for Limited Knowledge is $180 per student.
  • If allocated at 100%, the total amount for Limited Knowledge is $14,258,520 .
  • Available funding is prorated at approximately 27.89% for $3,977,022.
  • Total count for Unsatisfactory is 60,097 (an increase of 22,348 over last year).
  • Max remediation for Unsatisfactory is $240 per student.
  • If allocated at 100%, the total amount for Unsatisfactory is $14,423,280.
  • Available funding is prorated at approximately 27.89% for $4,022,978.

Attached is a detailed spreadsheet on ACE remediation allocations.

Please do not hesitate to contact the ACE office (405-521-3549) regarding allowable expenditures and the State Aid office (405-521-3460) regarding the funding calculations.

My point here is that as the legislature continues emphasizing reform, they need to pay for the programs that support students. While I don’t love ACE, and I absolutely detest RSA in its current form, I want the funding to follow the mandate.

This deficit is entirely on the legislature. The SDE has asked for huge increases for both programs (172% for ACE, 147% for RSA). These increases need to happen.

Meanwhile, we need to have an honest discussion about the impact of budget cuts on accountability, as Okie Funk discusses today.

As I’ve written before, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has shown that Oklahoma has cut education funding by 23 percent since 2008. That’s a staggering cut. It’s simply indefensible to implement a new draconian ranking system of schools after such a decrease in funding. It’s also obvious that when considered together, the funding cuts and the A to F system represent the culmination of a right-wing agenda to damage the credibility of public education here. It’s a classic case of “starve the beast” ideology.

The beast is starving, serving more students than ever, and answering to more mandates and reforms than I can count.

That has to stop.

More Accountability Analysis

November 21, 2013 1 comment

I have great readers; let me start with that. They are astute, and they have initiative.

I think the people who frequent this blog understand that I love a number of things. Kids are first on that list. That’s why I became a teacher. That’s why I’ve dedicated my career to education. I also love the public school system, which is why I’m always interested in making it better. I reject poorly-researched ideas that are more political than productive. Still, I have always believed that this profession is too important for those of us in it ever to be content that we are doing enough. The children are too important. We can always do better.

This leads me to another thing I love: the use of data to contribute to a narrative. I always believe that good numbers tell us something. I also always believe that numbers are never the entire story.

This takes me back to several things I’ve learned from my readers over the past few days. As you’ll recall, on November 6th when the State Department of Education released the A-F Report Cards for schools (and initially for districts), I provided statistics of how the scores broke down by district. Harold Brooks has provided a comment on that post, providing even more details.

I looked at everything labelled HS, MS or JHS, and ES and then binned everything else together into another category. Most of the “other” are single schools in small towns that I assume are elementary, but I’m not going to go through all of that. “Other” also includes schools that don’t follow the standard naming convention in most of the grade file.

The results. First, raw counts:

Grade

HS

MS/JHS

ES

Other

A

21

18

108

21

B

173

81

218

45

C

91

105

250

44

D

21

50

168

34

F

11

28

99

34

Second, by percentages for each kind of school (e.g., numbers under HS are percentages of HS getting that grade):

Grade

HS

MS/JHS

ES

Other

A

41.6

6.4

12.8

11.8

B

34.1

28.7

25.9

25.3

C

17.9

37.2

29.7

24.7

D

4.1

17.7

19.9

19.1

F

2.2

9.9

11.7

19.1

HS is that easiest school to get an A or B (3 out of 7 HS are A, 3 out of 4 are B or better). There’s not a lot of difference in the rest of the categories, but MS/JHS is hardest to get an A.

A good school is a good school. I don’t believe that Oklahoma’s high schools are that much better than Oklahoma’s middle and elementary schools. Last year’s grades showed the same tendency. However, under the previous accountability system (yes, there was one), the converse was true. Elementary schools consistently scored much higher.

Another reader pointed me to this spreadsheet showing all school districts in Oklahoma, their student counts, and the percentages of students eligible for free and reduced lunch. The table also has bilingual student counts, which is information I previously didn’t have. Last week, I ran correlations between school grades (and district grades) and poverty. Yet another reader suggested to me that I run correlations between the grades and poverty, this time only using districts with more than 1,000 students.

Comparison Correlation
All District Grades to Poverty -.52
Large District Grades to Poverty -.80
Large District Grades to Bilingual -.32
Large District Grades to Poverty + Bilingual -.76
Small District Grades to Poverty -.51
Small District Grades to Bilingual -.10
Small District Grades to Poverty + Bilingual -.45

Both factors – poverty and bilingual education – seem to impact large districts to a greater extent. Statistically speaking, there are a couple of factors here. One is that the data for bilingual counts include a lot of schools with none reported. Zeros in statistics skew results (as they do with student grades). Another factor is that there were 131 of the large districts (still a statistically significant sample) and 386 small ones.

My takeaway from this is that while the report cards tell the story of schools’ accomplishments only to a limited extent, and while my analysis from before built on that, there is always more to learn, if you’re willing to unpack the data and find out what is happening. Among our largest schools, we see more variance in socio-economic levels. We also know that urban poverty and rural poverty are not identical.

I can’t state enough how much I appreciate the work that went into compiling this data.

Finally (for this post), I want to point to a graphic that I saw posted several times on Facebook and Twitter yesterday. The article, “How Poverty Impacts Students’ Test Scores, In 4 Graphs,” shows that nationally, students in poverty struggled more than those not in poverty on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) exams in 4th and 8th grade reading in math.

Look for yourself. There’s always more information out there, if you’re just willing to “research” it.

Taking One for the Team (Part 2)

November 19, 2013 12 comments

I’m not an expert in whole language. I know just enough about the practice to be dangerous. I probably know more about it than Superintendent Barresi, however. On that note, let’s explore the highlights of part 2 of the District 2 Candidate Meeting. This section includes questions from the audience and responses from both Barresi and one potential challenger, Linda Murphy. As with the first section, I forced myself to sit through the whole thing.

  • 6:20 Barresi claims that the US Department of Education is more scared of us (states) than we are of them. She claims to fight with them frequently and that they don’t know what to do with her. If her idea of fighting includes stepping aside and letting them dictate how our state wrote its waiver to NCLB, I agree. If it includes adopting all of the du jour reforms of the hour in order to apply for (and not receive) Race To The Top funds, I agree. If she’s talking about winning a single battle with the feds that appreciably improves the learning conditions of students or the working conditions of teachers, I must be missing something.
  • 9:05 Barresi states, “If you don’t measure, you don’t care.” It’s one of the things she keeps saying. In part one, she said, “If you don’t measure it, it doesn’t matter.” Somehow, we have become a society that only cares about the things that can be counted. Scratch that, I think I’d rather say it this way: WE CAN’T LET SOCIETY DECIDE IT ONLY CARES ABOUT THINGS THAT CAN BE COUNTED! The qualitative things are important too. Of the things that count, only a few can be measured. (If I stick with this long enough, I’ll have a t-shirt or bumper sticker.)
  • 11:15 She claims that her hands are tied about the textbook committee because of the state constitution, which she doesn’t want to change. I don’t see why not. We vote on silly state questions every couple of years. Sometimes, we even do so in a way that really hurts funding for education (SQ 766, anyone)? If something is outdated in the state constitution, work on it. That’s part of the process.
  • 14:20 She repeats the statement that Limited Knowledge means that students are reading two grade levels behind. It doesn’t. It’s somewhere between one and eight correct responses away from proficient, which in theory is on grade level.
  • 16:15 She responds to a question about the third grade retention law by stating that the intent is for identification of struggling readers to be a process spanning from Kindergarten to grade three. That’s four school years. Between the passage of the legislation in 2011, schools have had two years to prepare.
  • 16:30 This is the statement I teased in the intro: “I’m now finding out … University of Oklahoma believes in Whole Language. So they’re teaching Whole Language.” So we’re having to go back with high school teachers and teach them phonics-based instruction. Don’t even get me started on that.” Well, Dr. Barresi. You started. Let’s discuss.
    Once upon a time, colleges of education around the country debated the best approach to teaching literacy to the youngest students. While some dabbled in Whole Language instruction for a year or two (much like one might have dabbled in speech pathology a year or two), Phonics won the day. The claim is baseless. It is a continuation of her war on academia. She’s engaging in party politics on a Saturday morning seven months before the primary. Anything she can make sound liberal is red meat for her audience. I heard both laughter and anger after posting that comment on Twitter earlier. Mostly anger.
    Plus, I don’t see any mention of Whole Language here or here.
  • 21:30 Barresi responds to a question about liberal teachers by saying, “There will still be liberal teachers after the Common Core, unless the local board acts.” I have to ask: should school boards be actively finding and eliminating the liberals in their midst? Maybe she misspoke. Or I misheard. Nope. I just listened again. I heard correctly.
  • 22:00 and counting…For about a minute, it seems there is coughing coming from around the area of whoever was filming. But the coughing seemed like a word – a word being repeated for a minute. A word actually, that is often spoken in a cough in an attempt to show disbelief. A word actually, that we consider to be synonymous with politics.
  • 22:45 Barresi goes on a rant mocking the deans of the colleges of education at OU and OSU. It finishes with “Can we just teach them how to teach reading and how to teach math?” I have to say, the potential candidate standing next to her has taught more kids to read and do math than Barresi ever will.
  • 23:00 Speaking of Murphy, here she directly challenges Barresi’s complete acceptance of the Common Core and her insults at teachers. The next several minutes are awkward but unremarkable.
  • 36:00 Barresi fields an emotional question from a parent of a stressed out special education student. She responds by digging in on the third grade retention law. Again she blames school districts, claiming that they waited until this year to act. She conveniently forgets two facts. First is that until August, school districts had received no guidance from the SDE about how to take the six good cause exemptions written into the law from statute to action. Once again, here is the process: Statute to Administrative Rule to Guidance for Implementation. For all of the training that school districts have received (or not received, depending on the REAC3H coaches), in assisting third graders, the real trick is knowing how to enact the law. The second fact is that school districts received no RSA funding last year and still wait to receive their notices of funding for this year. Schools continue working with students and waiting endlessly on the SDE.
  • 36:45 Barresi states that districts dumped the Common Core on teachers this year. That’s also not true. Districts large enough to have curriculum specialists have been working to transition the local curriculum to the Common Core since 2010 – before the final version of the standards were written. Then came the SDE and it’s since-abandoned REAC3H Networks and inconsistent REAC3H conferences. In truth, teachers, principals, and other district staff have been taking every opportunity they can to find Common Core resources, with little tangible help from Barresi or her people.
  • 43:00 Murphy takes a shot at John Kraman, the Executive Director of the Student Information system. She states he came to Oklahoma directly from Achieve, Inc., which was the organization most directly responsible for the final draft of the Common Core State Standards. She also goes after state Career Tech Director Bob Sommers – who serves in a dual capacity as Governor Fallin’s Secretary of Education. She mentions that he was previously associated with Carpe Diem, a nationwide for-profit charter school chain. This is also factual. Barresi fervently defends both. It’s probably the tensest exchange of the two videos.
  • 47:00 Murphy points out again – and accurately – that federal money is tied to the reforms that Barresi has implemented since taking office. Barresi again lets it be known that she hates the federal government: “I won’t let this continue. There is no connection of testing dollars with any of the reforms. I won’t let that line of argument go forward.”

Sorry, Barresi. You couldn’t stop it if you tried. You’re too invested now.

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