Archive for January, 2014

Next We Will Standardize Character

January 13, 2014 3 comments

One of the fun surprises of blogging is that I never know when something I write will resonate with a large audience. There are times that I pour every detail I can into a post, release it onto my blog, and then check later to find that it really isn’t getting much attention. Other times I will spit something out in about ten minutes, and it will go viral.

Then there is that random January day when a post that was viewed over 4,000 times in November gets 1,000 more page views. I haven’t written for a week, so I was not expecting to go quasi-viral, if that’s even a thing.

The post having such a great revival is Education Reform Candidate Meeting, which covered comments Janet Barresi made in November. If you love that one (and I know you do), then don’t forget to give my coverage of the second part of the video a quick read.

Barresi’s remarks to the local party faithful reveal both her educational philosophy and her campaign strategy. Among her outrageous statements:

  • Misinterpreting the meaning of Limited Knowledge on the 3rd Grade Reading test
  • Claiming that 75% of all special education students are misidentified
  • Vowing to protect our students from learning about climate change and evolution
  • Using air quotes to describe the OU/OSU researchers who authored the A-F Study
  • Damning the education establishment and liberals for losing at least one (possibly more – hard to tell from context) generation of Oklahoma’s children
  • Blaming OU and Whole Language for students who struggle with reading
  • Deferring blame for slow implementation of the Common Core to the school districts

Maybe people are re-reading these old posts of mine on the heels of last week’s news that 20 elected Republicans have thrown their support behind Barresi’s challenger in the primary, former State Board of Education member Joy Hofmeister. To me, this is the key statement from among those supporting the challenger:

“I think this is maybe unprecedented, but I think the nature of how she (Barresi) has ruled has brought this about,” said House Republican Whip Todd Thomsen, of Ada. “It’s ‘do this or we’ll just run right over you.”

It’s not the fact that Barresi is trying to make changes that bothers this group. It’s the way in which she has done it.

It’s with all of this in mind that I had to laugh when I read my email a few minutes ago and saw Barresi’s newspaper column on Character Education. After extolling Martin Luther King, Jr. for insisting that intelligence plus character is better than intelligence alone, she announces a task force that will be formed with the intent to improve character education in schools.

Success, whether in academics or the workplace, depends on strong character and traits — perseverance and tenacity, courage and compassion, integrity and honesty. Being a good citizen means being of solid character.

Children need more than knowledge in English and algebra. They need other tools for success in life, tools that can help them earn a living wage, take care of their families, contribute to society, be involved in civic matters and shape the course of their lives and of future generations.

Character education will look different for each school district. Kids in an affluent suburb may have different needs than children in an impoverished area, for example. A child born into a life of struggle and chaos will have a very different set of challenges than another student who hails from a more stable environment.

This is where the task force plays a role. It will examine what’s needed for effective character education, how to ensure local control for districts, and how the state can provide opportunities for that to happen.

Task force members will determine what constitutes valid character education and determine a way to measure needs and what would be appropriate programs. Next, the panel can work to develop an inventory of character education programs statewide. At the same time, it will work to find consensus on a common terminology so we are all on the same page.

Yes, the biggest bully in our state education system is talking to us about character. She’s also talking about the differences in the affluent suburbs and the impoverished areas. She doesn’t mention what will become of the impoverished students in the affluent areas, and this might be the hardest nut to crack.

The task force will determine what constitutes character, what makes for a good education program for teaching character, and who will be allowed to provide it.

All in the name of local control, right?

I claim no monopoly on truth or character, but I will mention a few qualities (along with my own definitions) that should be considered for the officially-vetted program.

  • Humility – valuing the perspective and experience of others at least equally to your own
  • Earnestness – engaging in an activity with sincerity and seeing it through to completion
  • Cooperation – demonstrating the ability to work with other people in a variety of circumstances
  • Realism – understanding the difference between things in their preferred and actual condition
  • Appreciation – showing people who matter most to you that what they do has meaning

Ok, I’m not describing a program of study, per se; I’m talking about the qualities I’d like to see in an elected state superintendent. As long as we’re creating new standards, let’s start there.

Planning for Failure

January 7, 2014 9 comments

When readers send me things, I sometimes get a view into the inner-workings of some of our state’s policy measures. In this case, it’s a perspective many of us would have missed.

As all Oklahoma parents, educators, and concerned citizens should know by now, this is the first year schools will be forced to retain third grade students who score unsatisfactory on the state reading test. Since those tests are less than four months away, the Oklahoma State Department of Education has begun to help us plan. This week, schools affected by this law should be receiving a form asking them to predict how many students will score unsatisfactory on the third grade reading test.

The form also asks principals to predict how many students will qualify for each of the six Good Cause Exemptions. For the unfamiliar, they are (and please note that I cannot be held responsible for the lack of parallel structure in the form):

1. Be identified as Limited-English Proficient (LEP)/English Language Learner (ELL) on a   screening tool approved by the Oklahoma State Department of Education Office of Bilingual/ Migrant Education and have a Language Instruction Educational Plan (LIEP) in place prior to the administration of the third grade criterion referenced test; and the student must have had less than two (2) years of instruction in an English Language Learner (ELL) program.

2. Students with disabilities who are assessed with alternate achievement standards (AA-AAS)    under the Oklahoma School Testing Program (OSTP) with the Oklahoma Alternative Assessment Program (OAAP) qualify for the good cause exemption.

3. *Scoring at or above 45th percentile on one of four Oklahoma State Board of Education approved alternative standardized reading assessments:

  • Stanford Achievement Test, Tenth Edition (SAT 10)
  • Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) Complete Battery, Form A, C, or E, Level 9, Reading Comprehension
  • Iowa Tests of Basic Skills (ITBS) Core Battery, Form A, C, or E, Level 9, Reading Comprehension
  • Terra Nova, Third Edition Complete Battery, Level 13, Reading

4. *To promote a student based on evidence from the Student Portfolio, the Student Portfolio shall include evidence demonstrating the student’s mastery of the Oklahoma state standards in reading equal to grade level performance on the reading portion of third grade OCCT.

5. Students with disabilities who participate in the statewide criterion-referenced test and have an IEP may qualify for a good cause exemption. To qualify for this exemption, the student must meet the following criteria: (A) The student must have been previously retained in kindergarten, first grade, second grade, or third grade; (B) The student’s IEP must: (i) Identify Reading as an area of education need for the student or identify some type of special education service in the area of Reading; and; (ii) Reflect that the student has received intensive remediation for more than two years. Intensive remediation may include any type of program offering intensive reading instruction that is identified as appropriate by the IEP team.

6. Students who demonstrate a reading deficiency and have been previously retained may qualify for a good cause exemption. To qualify for this exemption, the student must meet the following criteria: (A) The student must have been previously retained in kindergarten, first grade, second grade, or third grade for a total of two years, and; (B) The student must have received intensive reading instruction for two or more years.

* Good Cause Exemption 3 and 4 are provisions designed for students who read on a proficient level.  

Whether you knew it or not, this should be a solid reminder that the safeguards designed for ELL and Special Education students are quite flimsy. It should also be a wakeup call for anyone who has forgotten the added burdens that school reformers are placing on students and their teachers. The SDE is asking schools to predict – by mid-February – how many students will score Unsatisfactory on the test in spite of being proficient readers. That’s what the asterisked exceptions do.

In addition to having principals complete this worksheet, the SDE will send their Regional Accreditation Officers around in the next few weeks to have superintendents sign their Reading Sufficiency Act Awareness Statement. This form provides assurances – after the fact – that schools have provided reading instruction as proscribed by law, administered frequent benchmark assessments to students, and adopted policies to address issues such as mid-year promotion. It also serves as a de facto evaluation of the REAC3H Coaches who are serving the districts.

None of this will make students better readers or teachers better at reading instruction. It’s another series of checklists and forms. This process, by design, provides cover for the SDE, for schools, and ultimately for teachers. If you believe that more fear and bureaucracy are the necessary components to improving reading instruction, Oklahoma is on its way to 100% literacy by 2020.

Is This Your Card?

January 5, 2014 12 comments

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.

In Conclusion

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.

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