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Horton Hears What?

April 9, 2014

Yesterday, Superintendent Barresi and her Republican Primary challenger, Joy Hofmeister, answered questions during a luncheon in Tulsa. This was the first time they’ve spoken to a group at the same time (not counting last summer when Barresi left the building after speaking at a candidate’s forum). I wish I could have seen that. Fortunately, the Tulsa World has reported the details.

Although I could surely point to more, I take issue with three things in particular that came out of Barresi’s mouth during the debate (which may not be the best word to describe the event). Unless otherwise noted, all quotes below are from the World article

Third Grade Testing

In her opening statement, Barresi noted many parents have voiced their concerns about the third-grade reading law, which mandates that children pass the state standardized reading test or be retained in third grade.

The focus should be not on how many students will be retained, but how many students are illiterate in Oklahoma and how it will affect their lives, she said.

“A child who scores unsatisfactory on a third-grade assessment can’t read and comprehend ‘Horton Hears A Who.’ But they’re being sent into fourth grade where they are expected to read and understand “Little House on the Prairie,'” Barresi said.

This is yet another in a series of talking points that Barresi and her few remaining political allies will be using to influence us. How do we know this? Today, the Oklahoman quoted Rep. Jason Nelson saying essentially the same thing.

Students who fail a third-grade reading test would be granted new options for promotion to the fourth grade under an amended bill approved late Monday by the Common Education Committee of the state House of Representatives.

Students would be allowed to appeal to the local school board if they can obtain the backing of their parent or guardian, teacher, principal and teaching specialist, if the school has one, under an amendment successfully presented to the committee by state Rep. Jadine Nollan, R-Sand Springs.

The students also would be eligible for promotion if they pass one of the screening tests leading up to the main reading test, under an amendment by state Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City.

Nelson said his amendment to Senate Bill 1971 is designed to offer relief to children who can read at the proper grade level, but happen to perform poorly on one test.

However, Nelson argued against Nollan’s amendment, saying it would provide an avenue for children who can’t read books like Dr. Seuss’ “Horton Hears a Who!” to be promoted to the fourth grade where they would be expected to read books on the level of “Little House on the Prairie.”

“I just can’t understand how we would be doing anyone a favor,” he said.

Yes, one of our Legislature’s strongest advocates of parental rights wants parents to have no input in retention decisions. Fortunately, this is not the prevailing view at the Capitol right now.

Fortunately, two other Jasons (fellow bloggers Bengs and James) have this covered in their respective write-ups of the conversation. Essentially, they point out the disconnect between the Lexile level and interest range and the fact that comprehending Seuss is not exactly the prerequisite a reading teacher would choose before diving into Wilder. These are bad examples and were likely chosen more for the fact that the titles would resonate for political purposes rather than for their comparative value.

Hofmeister had her own thoughts on the RSA law.

As a former first-grade teacher, Hofmeister said that third grade is not a good year to hold children back.

“The evidence doesn’t support that. We need to act on evidence,” she said. “If we’re serious in our state about having third-graders reading at grade level, we need to put the emphasis and the support in place in the kindergarten, first- and second-grade years.”

That’s what teachers and parents have been saying for two years. At least one Republican candidate has listened.

Working With Educators

“Yes, I will fight against the establishment. I will fight against the unions. I am strong and I am committed to move forward with all of the reforms,” she said.

As I’ve mentioned before, Barresi could not have implemented the qualitative piece of TLE without the help of the Oklahoma Education Association – Oklahoma’s largest teacher’s union. They have also been instrumental in providing training in the Common Core. To the extent that anything the SDE has done was effective during Barresi’s first three years, she had help from the teachers she vows to fight.

Hofmeister provided a pleasant contrast.

But Hofmeister, who served on the Oklahoma State Board of Education for more than a year before resigning to challenge Barresi’s re-election, said that Oklahoma education needs leadership that listens and fosters relationships.

“We don’t have that right now,” she said. “I saw missed opportunities as a board member watching how it was all unfolding. I saw missed opportunities to work with practitioners in the field, missed opportunities to work with scholarly experts.’ I saw missed opportunities to keep government small and respect local control.”

Hofmeister said that is why parents are frustrated and teachers are demoralized.

“When it comes to education, those closest to the students know them best and know their needs and the best way to serve them,” she said.

I question anyone with blanket animosity towards the unions, but in any case, it is important to note that there are many teachers who choose not to join. (I recently heard someone say membership is below 50% statewide, but I honestly don’t have the numbers to back that up. It’s safe to say membership varies from district to district.) More than that, Barresi, Nelson, Governor Fallin, and anyone else taking shots at educators for resisting the SDE and their reforms, needs to remember that thousands of parents have locked arms with us in our resistance.

Administration Costs

Both said schools need to be adequately funded, but Hofmeister charged that much of the state’s education funds are being used to “grow bureaucracy at the state Department of Education” rather than going into the classrooms.

Barresi argued that isn’t true, adding that during her term she has trimmed the agency’s overhead and administrative costs by $250,000 a month.

“The only thing that’s growing in schools is the administration. We have to take a look at funneling money back into the classroom … in a targeted and focused way,” she said.

When the people hell-bent on destroying public education find themselves in a corner, they quite predictably launch this missile. It falls flat in the face of facts, however. Below is a comparison of administrative costs from 2008 (the year before budget cuts started) through 2012 (the most recent year with published data). These are state averages.

Year Percent of Total Expenditures for District Administration District Administration Expenditures Per Pupil Percent of Total Expenditures for Site Administration Site Administration Expenditures Per Pupil
2008 2.9%  $222 5.5%  $418
2009 2.9%  $228 5.5%  $429
2010 3.1%  $243 5.4%  $422
2011 3.2% $246 5.4%  $411
2012 3.1%  $235 5.5%  $419
Change 0.2%  $13 0.0%  $1

Figures include salaries for superintendents, principals, directors, and the like. They also include other staff working in administrative capacities, such as secretaries, and the associated costs of running their offices (technology, utilities, etc.). Over the last five years, these figures are virtually unchanged. Adjusted for inflation, they actually represent a decline of about $27 per pupil in administrative expenses over this time period.

It makes a good talking point, but it lacks truth. Barresi’s opponent knows this.

Hofmeister also said that the state Board of Education has become a rubber-stamp for Barresi’s preferences, citing a specific instance when the board agreed to pay millions of dollars to her “vendor of choice.”

“This is an example of centralization of power and decision-making happening at the state department level. That’s not good for the economy and it’s not good for education,” she said.

Barresi refuted that charge and said all rules and regulations were followed in hiring vendors and that decisions were made in an appropriate manner.

Really? All of the purchases have been above board? What about the time CTB/McGraw-Hill (good luck with your servers this year, guys – seriously!) was selected as the testing vendor, then the selection was invalidated, and the whole thing had to go back out to bid again? Remember that? Oh, wait, I do. I wrote about that in October 2012. The SDE blamed it on “administrative challenges,” which is code for “people insisting we follow rules when spending wasting millions of taxpayer dollars.”

I’m tired of the nonsense. I’m ready for a change. Whether it’s Hofmeister or one of the Democrats challenging for the position, this state deserves better than having a state superintendent who will say pretty much anything to keep her job.

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  1. Rob miller
    April 9, 2014 at 8:26 pm

    Hammered this one! You’ve come back stronger than ever! Well done.

    Like

    • April 9, 2014 at 8:29 pm

      Thanks! It’s like Chicago sang….”Everybody needs a little time away…”

      Like

  2. Skeptical Teacher
    April 10, 2014 at 10:13 am

    So, is parent input desired or not desired? At times I hear that our job is to “defeat the Bubbas,” to “make the students unlearn everything that their ignorant parents have tried to teach them.” School systems throughout the state run various programs–from transgender ed to Muslim sensitivity training–in defiance of parental wishes.

    But, NOW, since parents don’t want their children who can’t read to be retained in the 3rd grade, as state law says that they should, and Janet Barresi’s policy is in compliance with the state law, they are NOW fountains of wisdom and knowledge.

    So, I ask again, what is it? Do we want parental input or do we not? Or do we want their help when they agree with us on some particular issue, and tell them to pound sand the rest of the time?

    About teachers’ unions, it should be obvious that their goal is not to make sure that the state has the best possible educational system for the least burden on the taxpayers. Their goal, as is the case with every union, is to improve pay and working conditions for their members. If schools get better, if they become more efficient and cost-effective, in the process, so much the better. But those improvements are not the goal.

    Like

  1. April 14, 2014 at 6:08 pm
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