Reason #16 to Pick a New State Superintendent: Questionable Personnel Decisions
Elections have consequences. We’ve been dealing with that reality for the last 42 months. As we enter turn one on this lap down memory lane, today’s reason to vote for someone else is really an amalgam, covering the entirety of Superintendent Barresi’s term in office. In fact, it really began prior to her being sworn in.
#18 – The Hearing no one Heard
#17 – 2K4T
#16 – Questionable Personnel Decisions
When Barresi took office, many expected she would overhaul the staff of the SDE, starting with many of the most high-level positions. Again, this is what happens when state agencies change leadership, especially via election, and even more so when the political parties flip.
The typically routine business of hiring top staff became contentious at Barresi’s first State Board of Education meeting, January 27, 2011. In all, the Board rejected three of her choices, for a variety of reasons. She decided to keep them on board, having their pay come from a private foundation. In essence, she had people making policy and personnel decisions while under the employment of an outside agency. As much as I’ve complained over the years about the appearance of outside influence, I guess this route eliminated all guessing.
When the SBE acted, a state senator asked the newly-elected state attorney general to rule on the legality of paying her people with the slush fund donor money. Here’s how he responded:
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt today issued an opinion stemming from an inquiry made by State Senator Andrew Rice (D-Oklahoma City) who wanted the ruling in light of State Superintendent Janet Barresi hiring three people over the objections of the State Board of Education, paying them through donations made to a third-party non-profit group. In the opinion, Pruitt says that a person “hired by someone who does not have appointing or hiring authority, who is hired over the objections of the governing body that does have appointing or hiring authority, is neither an employee nor a de jure or de facto officer… such a person is a usurper who lacks the authority to carry out the official duties of the State.” Pruitt goes on to say that, “employees and officers may only be compensated as authorized by law. At present, Oklahoma law does not authorize an employee or officer to be directly compensated by a private entity or person.”
Eventually, the legislature authored the governor to fire the entire SBE and appoint replacements for each of them. This included Barresi’s primary opponent, Joy Hofmeister.
Side note: I’ve made it a point not to endorse candidates. Clearly I don’t support Barresi. The third choice in the Republican primary doesn’t seem to be campaigning any more than having a website. He hasn’t shown up at any of the candidate forums as far as I can tell.
I’m still not explicitly endorsing Joy at this time, but do the math.
Since that time, Barresi has hired and fired countless people. In many cases, they were folks who were long-time public educators who knew their field and could help school districts navigate the regulatory morass that goes with the territory. In part, I write this blog for them. Many have been replaced with less qualified individuals who don’t know a thing about their job or about customer service. While I still have praise for quite a few individuals at the SDE, the list seems to shrink daily.
To illustrate the questionable hiring practices, I will point to three specific, recent examples – all of which have been topics of blog posts in the last six months.
1. Megan Clifford – Though nobody can find record of the SDE posting the job or the SBE approving the hire, we know the SDE hired this Harvard graduate to serve as the Executive Director of Analytical Leadership. So far, all we’ve really heard from her is a resounding “nuh-huh” in response to the OU/OSU researchers who wrote about the flaws in the A-F Report Cards. The Tulsa World wrote at the time:
But Megan Clifford, a Harvard University Strategic Data Project fellow at the Oklahoma State Department of Education, conducted her own analysis of the system with input from her Harvard professors.
“We think that the conclusions of this study may be misleading to the public and have prepared this response in order to clarify some of the claims made by these researchers,” she wrote.
Clifford began in August with the department with the goal of increasing the agency’s capacity for data analysis and improving student outcomes in public schools.
One of the primary problems with the OU/OSU study is that it relied on a “small, non-representative sample of state data” for its conclusions, she said.
OU/OSU research scientists analyzed more than 15,000 student test scores from 63 schools about 3 percent of available data in their study of the grading formula.
The department’s analysis used data from the entire state to get more reliable estimates, Clifford said.
“When you have a really small number, your estimates on what the impact of being an A school is going to be really prone to error and bias,” she said.
And I can’t tell you what she’s done since. All I know is that a sample size of 15,000 buys you 14,999 degrees of freedom, as the kids are saying these days. There’s nothing small about it.
This whole thing, of course, came on the heels of Barresi’s famous use of air quotes to describe researchers. If you can’t beat them, buy your own!
[SDE Director of Communications Phil] Bacharach said Wes Bruce, a nationally recognized consultant in the field who has been working with the department since before McBee’s decision, agreed to expand his role in assessments in the interim.
“We do anticipate a smooth transition,” he said. A national search is already underway for her successor. and Bacharach said there are some strong candidates in the field.
Bruce is the former chief assessment officer for the Indiana Department of Education under former Superintendent Tony Bennett, who lost the election in 2012 for another term.
Bennett then became Florida’s education commissioner. He resigned less than eight months later amid accusations that he changed the state’s A-F grading formula to raise the grade of a charter school backed by influential Republican donors. Bruce retired last fall under Bennett’s successor, Glenda Ritz.
Bacharach said Bruce does not live in Oklahoma. “But under terms of his agreement with SDE, he is here for a number of days each month and is in routine contact via Skype, email, etc.,” he said.
It is unclear whether that will continue under his interim leadership.
We hired a guy with connections to Tony Bennett to work out of his mother’s basement in his pajamas commute via the Interwebs. My only problem with this is that I didn’t think of it first.
3. Lisa Chandler – In March, the SDE replaced veteran testing expert Meridyth McBee with a policy analyst. After the SDE sent us an announcement of this, I found her résumé on Indeed.com. Here is an overview of her work experience:
|POLICY CONSULTANT / GRADUATE STUDENT
Independent – Austin, TX 2010 to Present
• Earned master’s degree in public policy and administration, Northwestern University
NATIONAL MEASUREMENT CONSULTANT
Pearson – Iowa City, IA 2007 to 2010
• Acted as key advisor on large-scale assessment programs and accountability systems
DIRECTOR, STUDENT ASSESSMENT
Texas Education Agency – Austin, TX 2003 to 2007
• Directed the design and development of assessments in math, reading, writing, science, and social studies
SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR: FINANCE AND ACCOUNTABILITY
Texas Education Agency – Austin, TX 2001 to 2003
• Coordinated special projects and research related to school accountability, accreditation, and finance
SENIOR POLICY ADVISOR: CURRICULUM, ASSESSMENT, AND TECHNOLOGY
Texas Education Agency – Austin, TX 1998 to 2001
• Conducted policy and fiscal analysis for the areas of curriculum, assessment, textbooks, and educational technology
POLICY AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
Texas Education Agency – Austin, TX 1993 to 1998
• Coordinated the management and administration of policy and business operations
While she’s been around for a while and moved up the ladder in her career, she lacks the credentials that I would want out of the person running testing. It’s one thing to hire people out of their field to be your top political advisers. That is why – circling back to the top – I actually had a problem with the SBE rejecting Barresi’s choices at that first Board meeting. These were political operative being placed into positions to serve in that capacity. They were not educators running the curriculum, testing, finance, or federal program divisions.
Since that day, however, there hasn’t been a single personnel decision that has made sense. The SDE has spent the last 42 months running off good people and replacing them with political hacks. That doesn’t help the schools or the children they serve.