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A Little More About the Messenger

April 14, 2014

I had a reader question how thoroughly I research people today. The comment was made by Lorie Brady on the Testing (Our Patience) post from last week.

I would like to point out that Teri Brecheen completely transformed her poverty riddled, rural school district. It went from a failing school to a nationally recognized academic success story. If there is anyone who knows about reading instruction and passion for student success, it is Teri. I suggest that you find out a little more about the messenger before you start taking shots at her.

Thanks for the suggestion. I have in fact done my homework on the Cottonwood “miracle.” Here are some basic numbers from the K-8 district in Coal County from the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years (the year before Brecheen joined the SDE, and the following year):

Cottonwood Public Schools 2010-11 2011-12
Average Daily Membership 245.2 247.2
Free/Reduced Lunch % 58.9% 63.3%
Special Education % 33.9% 34.4%
3rd Grade Reading Passing % 90% 69%
4th Grade Reading Passing % 94% 95%
5th Grade Reading Passing % 90% 94%
6th Grade Reading Passing % 100% 75%
7th Grade Reading Passing % 80% 100%
8th Grade Reading Passing % 100% 83%

While I firmly believe that numbers tell part of a story, I don’t believe they tell the whole story – probably less than half (which is why I hate high-stakes testing, A-F Report Cards, VAM, and Roster Verification). In this case, let’s see what story the data tell.

In 2011-12, the state average for special education was 14.8 percent of students. Cottonwood more than doubled that. In fact, Cottonwood has had more than 30 percent of its students on an IEP every year since 1998-99. Prior to that, they were in the teens. Their high year came in 2001-02, when they hit 42.4% of students classified as special education. For the 2011-12 school year, this ranked Cottonwood 12th out of 522 school districts for highest percentage of students in special education programs.

I point this out because Ms. Brecheen’s boss’s boss likes to claim that schools don’t know how to identify special needs students. Last fall, Superintendent Barresi stated that 75 percent of all identifications were wrong. Earlier this month, she said it was between 50-60 percent. It’s also worth noting that those reading scores above only include regular education students.

As for poverty, Cottonwood’s free/reduced percentages are within a couple of points of the state average. In 2011-12, they were above it. The previous year, they were below it. There is a lot of poverty in the community, but not to a remarkable extent.

Fortunately, I’ve also had the opportunity to hear Ms. Brecheen speak on multiple occasions. I heard her discuss management strategies that are definitely important. It is clear that she paid attention to reading in the early grades. For a superintendent to be that involved in at least understanding where the students and teachers stand in the development of that most critical learning skill is noteworthy.

What I haven’t heard from her is anything concrete in terms of teaching strategies. Every time I hear her talk, it’s an amalgam of folksy anecdotes, and it’s heavier on faith, hope, and love than it is on methodology. I agree with the commenter in terms of Ms. Brecheen’s passion for student success. I remain unconvinced of her understanding of quality reading instruction.

That said, I have nothing against faith, hope, and love. This blog is predicated on the faith I have in our state’s teachers to do the best job they can (while continuously improving). Every student – even the most challenging or at risk kids – deserves our genuine hope. And any teacher incapable of loving children doesn’t belong in the classroom.

On top of that, Ms. Brecheen saying that our students’ struggles are due to our teachers’ inadequacies shows her lack of contact with the rest of the state. Cottonwood is one school district. It’s a small one. It’s a K-8 school. What works there might not work in a K-12 district…or one with 1,000 students…or 10,000…or 25,000. And so on. Her experiences there might not even translate to another district with 250 students in the next county. Every district has different kids, different needs.

Then again, how many of us in the blogosphere have been saying that until we turn blue?

Another way to say this is that I have no need to disparage the hard work of the teachers at Cottonwood. It is clear that they have been tireless and had a tremendous amount of success with their regular education students. I have no data confirming or disconfirming the success of their special education students during Ms. Brecheen’s superintendency. I’d go look at the old API reports from that era if the SDE hadn’t removed them in the name of transparency. Or something like that.

This state has some incredible teachers working in tough situations. No doubt many of them are in Cottonwood and other small communities. I’d just like to hear something resembling respect and understanding from Brecheen – and others at the SDE – when talking about the rest of the state.

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  1. dan vincent
    April 14, 2014 at 7:24 pm

    Interesting post. I also don’t know as much about the person, but I have looked at a few of the items that have her name on them. One is an “Informational powerpoint” on scientifically based reading research (bottom right of this page: http://ok.gov/sde/reading-sufficiency-act . I asked a few friends with Doctorates in reading/literacy or early childhood education about their thoughts on the powerpoint. They claimed the information was really out-dated and was not aligned with current research and best-practice in literacy instruction. A few were a little upset that this kind of information was being put out by the SDE reading team. Although I am not a specialist in literacy, I have confidence in those I asked. I’m curious if any who is an expert in literacy has an opinion? Maybe there is more to this than i am seeing.
    If we are demanding accountability from teachers for their students, I feel we should also demand accountability from those advocating for laws like the RSA.

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  2. Kathy Taylor Spivey
    April 15, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    Common sense, logic and truth go hand in hand. Well written!

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  3. Teacher N. Reading
    April 15, 2014 at 4:13 pm

    “For the 2011-12 school year, this ranked Cottonwood 12th out of 522 school districts for highest percentage of students in special education programs”….This translates to “lets put everyone that’s below average on an IEP so that we are only held accountable for the test scores of the above average kids.” Cottonwood doesn’t employee licensed or certified teachers in every subject. There is a teacher of record, but most classes are taught by aids that are paid an aids wage. When you have people working for you who are uninformed of school law and rules, it sure makes those rules a lot easier to bend….just saying…

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  4. Breezy Mustgo
    April 16, 2014 at 9:43 pm

    It is also very easy to get nationally recognized if you pay for it.

    Josh Brecheen campaigned on education by stating: “”I watched my mother, as Cottonwood Schools Superintendent for 18 years, turn a struggling K-8 program completely around by tapping into the strengths of passionate teachers using good curriculum combined with unified discipline standards. In 2006 they were one of only 30 schools in the nation to be a Blue Ribbon School of America.”

    http://ballotpedia.org/Josh_Brecheen

    One would think he was talking about the US Department of Education’s National Blue Ribbon School Program. A list of all schools recognized form 2002 – 2013 is located here: http://www2.ed.gov/programs/nclbbrs/list-2003.pdf But Cottonwood is not on that list.

    If you go to Cottonwood’s school website http://cottonwoodschool.net/ you will notice in the upper right hand corner a seal. That seal is not from the US Department of Education. Their seal is on the upper right hand corner here: http://nationalblueribbonschools.rmcres.com/

    So who is Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence? You will find them here: http://www.blueribbonschools.com/

    For a fee, they will come to your school and do an assessment. http://www.blueribbonschools.com/assessments/schedule-an-assessment

    If you are good enough, they might just nominate you for an award.
    And guess who won (paid for) an award? That’s right:
    December 2006 Blue Ribbon Schools Lighthouse Award Winners
    Cottonwood Elementary School – Coalgate, OK

    http://www.blueribbonschools.com/assessments/lighthouse-school-awards

    More on the award.

    “His private business is not to be confused with the U.S. Department of Education’s No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon Schools award initiative, considered one of the most prestigious in the country. Winning schools don’t pay anything to be considered for awards from the federal government program.

    In the federal program, schools must be nominated by a state board of education and are honored for helping students achieve at very high levels and for making significant progress in closing the achievement gap. Some schools have students with state test scores in the top 10 percent.”

    http://prev.dailyherald.com/story/?id=201532

    If it sounds to good to be true…..

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    • April 16, 2014 at 9:51 pm

      That is information I did NOT have. Thank you for passing that along!

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  5. Teacher N. Reading
    April 17, 2014 at 10:30 am

    I was not aware of this…but coming from Cottonwood is certainly is NOT surprising. Thank you for the info!

    Like

  1. June 16, 2014 at 8:51 pm
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