Is This Your Card?
The most important skill of any magician is to be able to get the audience to look one direction while the important action is happening somewhere else. Draw attention to yourself on stage right while the assistant slips away into darkness on stage left. As 2014 begins, we run the risk of being the unsuspecting audience.
Social media is abuzz this weekend because Superintendent Barresi declined a meeting with the OEA. She responded to their campaign questionnaire, insulted them, and heralded her own transparency. From the Tulsa World:
She said she was “refusing to accept more back-room deals and politics as usual” and did not want her views “filtered through the lens of liberal union bosses” at the Oklahoma Education Association, which represents more than 35,000 teachers, school support staff and retirees.
She posted answers to OEA’s candidate survey on her campaign website and challenged her opponents to divulge whether they “were willing to meet with the OEA behind closed doors and what promises were made.”
This really isn’t a surprise. Barresi frequently calls her opponents liberals, even though many of them are Republicans who simply don’t support her. The funny thing about all this is that throughout the first three years of her term, she has frequently tapped the OEA for help. She hired the OEA’s top lobbyist as her chief of staff. She even used them to garner support among teachers during the rollout of TLE. Thousands of the state’s teachers have been trained in the new evaluation system by OEA trainers. The OEA has been a partner with the SDE in the transition to the Common Core State Standards as well.
Painting this issue as one of a transparent conservative against a liberal union serves two purposes. It feeds red meat to her base supporters during the primary campaign. And it distracts from important issues.
Fortunately (and surprisingly) the Oklahoman provided a good overview of several issues that we should watch closely during the upcoming legislative session and campaign season. The editorial posted this morning calls for a more cooperative tone between Barresi and the district superintendents and lists four critical points to achieving this wish:
- Common Core: Stay the course
- A-F system: Keep working
- Third-grade reading: Reality check
- Teachers and funding: More support needed
The next few paragraphs will explore each these points, which are far more critical to public education than who meets with whom for political purposes.
Common Core: Stay the course
The Oklahoman cites concerns “about some of the specific content in the reading/language arts and math standards” as the source of consternation within Barresi’s own party. This is only partly true. The larger concern is the fact that Oklahoma’s ELA, math, and now science standards were written by national groups and rebranded as if they were written by Oklahomans. I’m in the group that has less of a problem with what’s in the standards than the fact that the SDE continues this masquerade. If they really think that the standards written under the direction of Achieve, Inc. are best for Oklahoma’s children, they should have the guts to say so. At least the Oklahoman has the decency not to use the contrived (and silly) Oklahoma Academic Standards moniker when discussing the Common Core.
Buried in this section of the editorial is a passing reference to testing. This would probably have been my lead. Testing has reached a tipping point in public education. It drives the instructional process, scheduling, accountability, teacher evaluation, and budgets of school districts. Testing will singularly determine whether school districts retain third graders. As the editorial mentions, this focus on test results often comes “at the expense of art, music, science, social studies and other important areas that keep kids excited about learning.” Many parents now join teachers as those who are sick of the obsession with standardized testing.
Staying the course with the Common Core will increase the frequency and cost of testing. It will continue eroding support for all programs not specifically labeled reading and math. It will cause more students, teachers, principals, schools, and districts to be labeled as failures. And it will open the door for more companies – both for-profit and non-profit – that see students as nothing other than potential revenue streams.
I’ve never written specifically on this blog that I either support or oppose the Common Core. The reason is that it’s not as simple as that. I believe in standard-based instruction. Good teachers start instruction with an idea of what skills they want students to learn. A good education in any discipline and at any grade level should not vary much from class to class, school to school, or district to district. To that end, I support the Common Core.
The flip side of that is sage advice I received early in my career: Follow the money. Public education policy these days follows a disruption-based philosophy. The key is that the public has to believe the narrative that claims public education is failing. Only then can legislatures appropriate less of the funding that education receives away from the schools themselves. Only then can the corporate interests (including for-profit charter school chains and testing companies) extract that funding away the public entities that traditionally receive it. Doing this requires heavy use of loaded language attacking unions, the education establishment, and the dreaded status quo. It requires us to pay attention to red herrings all lined up in a row.
With all that said, I’ve spent four years now indifferent to the fate of the Common Core. I don’t view the standards themselves as completely flawed. Actually, it’s the confluence of supporters behind the development and adoption of the standards that I find distasteful. My apathy has become antipathy. Let it fall. Disrupt the disruption.
A-F system: Keep working
The Oklahoman believes that the state’s signature accountability system “has promise.” I don’t. I believe that we could try our best to improve the system and get the grades right, but that we’d still have a lot of schools serving affluent students making an A or B and a lot of schools serving poor students making a D or F. A letter grade is just too simplistic of a measure to give schools.
The A-F system is only one set of calculations the state uses for accountability. It is window dressing, nothing more. It has no teeth.
More critical to school districts is the NCLB waiver agreement between the SDE and the US Department of Education. Using different computations than what the legislature has established for A-F, schools can receive labels of Focus or Priority. The problem with this is that the SDE, in an overture of transparency, neither makes the calculations nor the lists public. The state can say that a school is in the lowest 10 percent of a subgroup, but they don’t have to show their work. If the tortured month of October taught us anything, it should be that the SDE must always be required to show their work.
Schools subject to the provisions under the waiver face extreme disruption. Portions of their Title I money are diverted away from serving students. Staff have to complete mind-numbing reports and commit to meeting targets. Principals have to guess what the subgroup targets are because the SDE also does not release this information.
The public gets to see the window dressing and sometimes the faulty machinations behind them. What they don’t realize is that if you remove the curtain, there isn’t a window. They’ve really decorated a wall – a cold, sterile, bureaucratic wall that surrounds a system that really has no purpose.
Third-grade reading: Reality check
Again, the Oklahoman delivers a critical point about a major reform:
Under the law, students must pass tests showing they’ve achieved at least a second-grade reading level before advancing to the fourth grade. Sadly, too many students won’t make that cut. Rather than continue social promotion, schools must instead be provided the resources to successfully implement this law and help lagging students catch up. We’re not convinced those resources have been provided.
That’s one big problem. Another is that neither the legislature nor the SDE has figured out how to handle special situations, such as those faced by students on a special education plan or English-language learners. While this is a topic of legislative concern, schools have no guarantee that the flimsy safety net in place for these students will be strengthened.
It comes down to the fact that those who wrote the law (or at least those who sponsored it locally based on model legislation provided by ALEC) did not anticipate the low quality of implementation by the SDE. They also didn’t know that they were placing the law in the hands of a state superintendent who believes that 75 percent of all special education students have been misidentified.
In terms of support, district superintendents received the following email on New Year’s Eve:
|Superintendents, Principals, and Reading Specialists,On Thursday, December 19, 2013, the Oklahoma State Board of Education approved, pursuant to 70 O.S. 1210.508E, the following scientifically research-based programs for use by school districts in Summer Academy Reading Programs (SARP) offered to meet requirements of the Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA).
1. Dynamic Measurement Group
2. Literacy First
3. LETRS Foundation*
4. Current Reading Specialists Certified by the Oklahoma State Department of Education
*The LETRS Foundation is a new program approved by the State Board of Education. 30 of our REAC3H Coaches across Oklahoma are certified to train you in this program. They will be available to help you with this training starting January, 2014.
Please contact your REAC3H Coach if you are interested in training with the LETRS Foundation.
Let me point out here that we start testing in less than four months. Retaining third graders is probably a bad idea in most cases. As usual, the SDE is playing catch up to one of its own initiatives. While district staff work tirelessly to help get as many children as possible to the finish line, Barresi’s staff can’t get out of its own way. It’s also worth noting that while four programs are approved for remediation, the SDE is only providing support for one.
Again, follow the money.
This law makes the most sense to the people who least understand child development. Teachers who work with our youngest students know that third grade is late to be retaining children. They also understand that students in early grades learn at very different rates. The results of this law are potentially disastrous, and this is an election year.
Teachers and funding: More support needed
The Oklahoman acknowledges that schools need more money and that too many students are in poverty:
It’s easy to look at how poorly Oklahoma fares on national rankings of school funding and be frustrated. Clearly, Oklahoma has plenty of room for improvement; students and teachers can’t afford to do education reform on the cheap. Too much is at stake.
Perhaps it’s also time to consider a governmental or at least a gubernatorial Cabinet structure that brings a more cohesive look at meeting all the needs of children. The educational success of children is profoundly affected by whether their other basic needs are met. Oklahoma ignores this reality at its own peril.
Quality costs money. Reform costs money. Improvement costs money. And poverty matters. They’re acknowledging all of these things here, but the words ring hollow. Just a few days ago, they posted on the same editorial pages a column written by one of their frequent contributors, Brandon Dutcher, the senior vice president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs – a conservative think tank. Dutcher disputes rankings showing how low funding is for education in Oklahoma. Jason James effectively refutes his arguments on his own blog:
Mr. Dutcher is of the opinion that money can’t help schools. He says Oklahoma isn’t 49th in educational spending it’s 29th when adjusted for comparable wages. Why is it when educators point out American test scores are the highest in the world when adjusted for poverty – they’re leapers, but opponents of increasing school funding can adjust per pupil funding by using comparable wages – and it’s a legit point? Why is it people who are against paying for a public education are always quick to point out money hasn’t helped Washington DC? Does Washington DC do anything right? I know of no one who wants to follow the Washington DC model for education. Blindly throwing money at public schools has never been my or any education organization’s goal to make our schools better for our children. It is a tactic that has been used to persuade public opinion, and it is disingenuous. What 49th isn’t OK wants, CCOSA wants, OEA wants, and teachers want is for the State of Oklahoma to provide funding for the goods and services required of public schools to educate the public’s children. Anyone who suggests we can increase the quality and quantity of these services when decreasing funding is just not sane.
Oklahoma has suffered for years under the Starve the Beast mentality of key legislators who want to disrupt public education. They continue significantly cutting taxes for huge corporations while throwing an occasional quarter of a percentage point for Joe Taxpayer. They ask schools to meet more mandates for more students with less money. When they increase funding for education, little of it filters into the school funding formula. Most of the increases are reserved for the SDE and the testing companies.
Continuing their trend behaviors of being late and lacking transparency, the SDE released mid-term adjustments to school districts December 30. Usually these calculations are given to schools earlier so they can plan for second semester adjustments in a timely manner. This time, they also weren’t posted to the SDE’s finance page. It’s always instructive to be able to see who is getting an increase and who is getting a decrease. Last school year, as you’ll remember, there was even some concern that the SDE had miscalculated appropriations. That would be consistent with everything else we’ve seen from them.
This state needs greater support for public education. That means more money, constructive rhetoric, and policies that make sense. Lip service just won’t do.
I think it’s a mistake for Barresi not to meet with the OEA. It’s bad form, just as it was when she walked out of the candidate forum in Oklahoma City last August. She keeps saying that she wants what’s best for teachers, but she shows them disrespect at every turn. Unfortunately, this is not new information for us.
We have to acknowledge that 2014 is a critical year for the future of public education in this state. We will either restore local control or continue selling out to Achieve and ALEC. We will improve access for all students to diverse and engaging academic choices, or we will hold them up as a sacrificial offering to corporations and shady nonprofits.
In 2013, more voices emerged in the resistance. This year, we need more active bloggers, more strategic social media, and more contact with lawmakers. An engaged public can’t won’t be ignored. There’s nothing magical about a loud, well-informed electorate.
Oh, and Happy New Year.