Archive for August, 2014

What a Week Today Was!

August 28, 2014 12 comments

I had big plans for today. Go to work. Come home. Do a little yardwork. Paint a little bit. And then settle down with some bar food and herald the return of live college football. Maybe I’d blog a little bit about the decision by the State Board of Education to reject the cumbersome SDE plan for writing new standards. That was the plan.

Then all hell broke loose.

It actually started out well. At 10:22 this morning, the SDE issued a bulletin that resolved a long-standing issue from the summer:

Supt. Barresi announces 5th- and 8th-grade writing scores will not be part of A-F this year

OKLAHOMA CITY (Aug. 28, 2014) — In an abundance of caution, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi announced today the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) will withhold fifth- and eighth-grade writing scores from the calculation for the overall grade of this year’s A-F school report cards.

Some districts expressed concern about the writing test scores earlier this summer when they saw many instances of across-the-board scores of the same numerical value from testing vendor CTB-McGraw Hill. Preliminary figures indicate about 130 of approximately 430 contested test scores were changed, which represents about less than 1 percent of scores for all Oklahoma fifth and eighth students tested for writing.

By lunch, I was thinking about taking each paragraph and discussing it on its own merit. While I may still do that over the weekend, this wasn’t the biggest news of the day. Superintendent Barresi could have decided in June that the SDE was going to set aside the writing test scores. Instead, her department doubled down and told schools they just needed to do a better job. This was in spite of the fact that the flaws in the scoring process were obvious and pervasive. It was also right before the election primary, in case that mattered to anyone. There’s more to the bulletin than these two paragraphs, but since this will probably turn into a 3,500 word post, I’m going to limit the amount of attention I pay to this.

Early in the afternoon, we also learned that a district court judge ruled the Lindsey Nicole Henry scholarships to be unconstitutional.

Oklahoma County District Court Judge Bernard Jones has ruled unconstitutional a portion of a law that allows the use of public funds to send special-needs students to private religious schools.

State Attorney General Scott Pruitt said he would appeal the ruling, which says that funds from the scholarship program cannot be used to send students with disabilities to religious schools. The judge’s order has been stayed pending appeal, which means the scholarship program remains unchanged for now.

“Prohibiting the use of Lindsey Nicole Henry scholarship funds from being used to send students with disabilities to religiously affiliated schools would require the state to discriminate against those schools,” Pruitt said in a written statement. “That is highly troublesome and why we will appeal the ruling.”

So for now, nothing changes. Four years into this fight, something tells me we’re not even halfway finished with it.

Then, at 2:03 this afternoon, the SDE issued another bulletin:

News Conference: 



WHAT: The U.S. Department of Education (USDE) announced today that it is rejecting Oklahoma’s application to extend its waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act. This decision will impose serious new federal mandates on Oklahoma schools. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi will address the USDE’s decision, speak about what schools will now face and take questions.

WHO: State Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi; Oklahoma State Department of Education staff

WHEN: Thursday, August 28, 3:15 p.m.

WHERE: State Board Room

My first reaction to this news was alarm.


We all knew this would happen. As soon as the HB 3399 was signed into law, this moment became inevitable. Quickly, Twitter learned of the news and tweeters began responding. The retweets and speculation paused briefly, as Governor Fallin issued her own response to the decision, blaming President Obama, of course.

OKLAHOMA CITY – Governor Mary Fallin today called on the Obama Administration to stop playing politics with children’s education and reverse its decision to strip Oklahoma of its No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver. The federal government today announced that it would not continue to grant Oklahoma schools a NCLB waiver. The change in designation came in response to the state’s decision to repeal the Common Core State Standards and replace them with college and career ready standards developed by Oklahomans. As a result of Oklahoma losing its waiver, schools may have to reexamine their budgets to comply with NCLB federal requirements.

Common Core was repealed when the governor signed bipartisan legislation that passed with overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate (HB 3399 passed 71-18 in the House and 37-10 in the Senate).

“It is outrageous that President Obama and Washington bureaucrats are trying to dictate how Oklahoma schools spend education dollars,” said Fallin. “Because of overwhelming opposition from Oklahoma parents and voters to Common Core, Washington is now acting to punish us. This is one more example of an out-of-control presidency that places a politicized Washington agenda over the well-being of Oklahoma students. I join parents, teachers, and administrators in being outraged by this decision, and I will fight it with every tool available to the state of Oklahoma.”

I smell a lawsuit – another perfect waste of taxpayer dollars. The truth is that Mary Fallin has nobody to blame but herself. Yes, our legislature overwhelmingly passed HB 3399, but up until the week she signed it, she was still all for the Common Core. She had ample warning that this would happen. It’s the natural consequence of her actions. Blaming the president is just a convenient by-product.

Still trying to follow the story before Barresi  spoke, I found the actual news release from the USDE. Interestingly, they didn’t frame the story as Oklahoma loses its waiver. No, the headline was, Obama Administration Approves NCLB Flexibility Extension Requests for Indiana and Kansas. They only mentioned us in the third paragraph.

Also, the Administration announced today that it is denying Oklahoma’s request for a one-year extension for flexibility. Since its initial approval for ESEA flexibility, Oklahoma can no longer demonstrate that it has college- and career-ready standards in place, a key principle of ESEA flexibility. The Department is providing Oklahoma with additional transition time to implement supplemental educational services and public school choice, which are required under NCLB and must happen no later than the start of the 2015-2016 school year.

Oh, by the way, you disappoint me, Oklahoma. Too bad, too. We had such a good thing going. Fellow blogger Jason James wondered if the difference was a red state/blue state thing.

That’s not it. The last time Oklahoma and Kansas voted differently in a presidential election was 1948. Oklahoma went with Dewey. So that’s not it. The difference is that Indiana replaced the Common Core with something new while we reverted to something old. Politico had a good explanation.

The Education Department said it’s yanking Oklahoma’s waiver from No Child Left Behind, making it the second state to lose its reprieve from the law. But Indiana will receive a one-year extension of its waiver because it did what the Sooner State could not: find a suitable replacement for the Common Core.

The move marks the latest battle between states and the Obama administration over what has been perceived to be heavy-handed federal education policy that will continue for the next few years.

Since some Oklahoma children have already started the school year, the Education Department will phase in some of the consequences of No Child Left Behind that Oklahoma had escaped under the waiver: The state must provide tutoring services and public school choice options no later than the 2015-16 school year. But schools that will need a total overhaul must begin that process this school year.

Yes, we don’t have to face the harshest penalty yet. We have a year to phase that in. If only the Legislature had thought to do the same thing, we wouldn’t have lost the waiver.

Also before Barresi spoke, the leaders of OSSBA, CCOSA, and USSA issued a joint statement on the waiver rejection.

“The U.S. Department of Education’s denial of the waiver request is disappointing but comes as no surprise. This was a foreseeable consequence of the passage of House Bill 3399.

Today’s announcement means schools throughout the state could have a change in school improvement designation. The change means schools will have to re-examine their budgets and employment contracts to comply with the No Child Left Behind requirements.

It’s unfortunate this decision was hastily made without first conferring with our State Regents for Higher Education, who are currently reviewing the state’s Priority Academic Student Skills standards and could very well certify them as “college and career ready” for the purposes of keeping the waiver.

Our commitment is to work with state and federal officials, as well as local educators, to pursue possible appeals, write a new waiver request, and provide guidance as our members take their next steps under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

No doubt this is an unsettling development for schools. Staffs for the associations are working to determine the ramifications of the denial, and we will keep you informed as we know more. Please be assured it is our intention to provide a high level of support as districts navigate this change.”

That raises another important point. Oklahoma had until August 12th to submit our application to extend the NCLB waiver. If the State Regents had been able to certify PASS as college/career ready standards by that date, then we probably would have been able to keep our waiver. And we wouldn’t have to worry about all of the federal intrusion that comes with reverting back to the original provisions of No Child Left Behind (the ultimate #TBT).

While I was still waiting for Barresi to speak, I thought it would be fun to look up the provisions of the state waiver. This bulletin from February 9, 2012 explained it fairly succinctly.

Oklahoma is one of the first states in the nation to gain flexibility from federal restrictions under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), providing the state with an opportunity to move forward quickly with its own reforms.

“This is a game changer,” said State Superintendent Janet Barresi. “We now have added urgency to press ahead with implementation of reforms and a chance to help schools in our state improve. Having this flexibility will empower Oklahoma teachers to focus on each individual student and their growth. No Child Left Behind was a positive bipartisan reform that brought focus to accountability and rigor, and now it’s time to take the next step. With today’s announcement, no longer will schools in Oklahoma struggle to meet artificial goals. Instead we can focus on effective instruction in the classroom.”

Governor Mary Fallin said, “More flexibility to pursue Oklahoma-based education reforms is a good thing for the state, our teachers and most importantly our students. Acquiring a No Child Left Behind waiver allows our schools to more accurately measure progress in student achievement without a rigid federal formula. The results will be a more dynamic learning environment for our children.

“Moving forward, accountability, transparency and a commitment to improving student achievement remain as important as ever. Oklahoma passed several landmark education reforms last year, and we expect those improvements to our educational system to continue to improve the quality of our schools, raise performance levels among students and ultimately lead to a better educated and more highly skilled workforce.”

What were those Oklahoma-based education reforms? Common Core (not Oklahoma-based). Test-based teacher and principal evaluations (not Oklahoma-based). Third grade retention (not Oklahoma-based). An A-F grading system (not Oklahoma-based). Focus and Priority Schools (not Oklahoma-based). Everything in the waiver falls into the “something borrowed” category, yet Fallin and Barresi were beaming with pride in their handiwork.

This makes me think maybe we should just say “screw the waiver” and get rid of the rest of the Florida Oklahoma-based reforms that went into it. I hated NCLB from day one. I wasn’t terribly fond of the waiver either; I just thought it was a split-hair better for students. Maybe after all, if we have to sell our souls to get it, we shouldn’t consider it much of a prize.

Finally, Barresi spoke. Then the SDE issued its third bulletin of the day.

Oklahoma begins task of compliance with NCLB after loss of flexibility waiver

OKLAHOMA CITY (Aug. 28, 2014) – In the wake of the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) decision not to extend Oklahoma’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi today directed state education officials to immediately begin the task of compliance with NCLB, which is part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).

“This decision by the federal government is disappointing and frustrating. Oklahoma has made significant strides forward in strengthening our schools, progress that has largely been possible because of the flexibility of the waiver,” Barresi said. “The State Department of Education worked hard making Oklahoma’s case to USDE. The state’s congressional delegation provided staunch support for the waiver extension, as did many others.

“Unfortunately, the USDE decided otherwise. The loss of the waiver will be a significant challenge for our districts and schools, as well as for this state agency. But Oklahomans are resilient and resolute, and our education community will do what needs to be done to meet the requirements of NCLB.”

On Aug. 28, USDE notified the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) that Oklahoma is losing the NCLB Flexibility Waiver that gives the state and districts relief on 13 federal regulations.

Although USDE directed Oklahoma to comply with the bulk of NCLB as soon as possible, federal officials stipulated that a key component of that law won’t have to be implemented until the 2015-2016 school year. USDE said Oklahoma will have one year to comply with a requirement that 20 percent of Title I funds be set aside for supplemental educational services (SES) and transportation for school choice.

That additional time will be helpful to districts, said Kerri White, OSDE assistant superintendent for teacher and leader effectiveness.

“In this era of teacher shortages and minimal per-pupil funding, the additional year to prepare for a set-aside for SES and choice-related transportation will likely spare districts from laying off additional teachers and support staff,” White said. “Students will have direct access to services and supports they need to improve their reading and math skills this year, while administrators plan for these additional funding restrictions and federal requirements to go into place next year.

In the meantime, OSDE will be required to monitor district compliance with all other regulations that have been waived for the last two school years, including limiting how districts can spend many of their federal dollars.

No Child Left Behind regulations also limit which schools may apply for certain grants, what annual targets must be set for improvement in each school, and even which schools are eligible for Title I funds. Most notably, NCLB regulations will require some schools to replace staff, change curriculum or possibly shut down.

The OSDE first applied for the flexibility waiver in November 2011, with the waiver eventually granted the following February.

But the signing into law of House Bill 3399 earlier this year placed Oklahoma’s waiver in danger.

The USDE requires all states applying for waivers to use standards that are considered college- and career-ready. HB 3399 required Oklahoma’s K-12 schools to return to using Priority Academic Student Skills (PASS) standards in English Language Arts (ELA) and math for two years, during which time new academic standards would be crafted by Oklahomans.

Immediately following the passage of HB 3399, Supt. Barresi asked the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education to review PASS standards in ELA and math for alignment with college- and career-ready guidelines. Higher education officials were unable to complete that task before the Aug. 12 deadline to submit the waiver’s extension request.

As a result, Oklahoma submitted its application without an assessment of PASS by higher education. USDE had indicated an assessment by higher education officials would be essential in determining the adequacy of PASS.

Now that the application has been rejected, Oklahoma schools will now fall back under the mandates of NCLB.

“Because the State Department of Education has oversight authority for a number of issues relating to federal education funds such as Title I, it will be critical that SDE personnel provide immense district technical assistance training on the rudiments of ESEA’s No Child Left Behind Act,” said Ramona Coats, SDE assistant state superintendent of federal programs.

“Districts will need a clear understanding of both fiscal and programmatic requirements regarding maintaining the integrity of both the program and the funds under ESEA. Some district superintendents are new to their positions this year and may have never served under ESEA compliance requirements. This will be a steep learning curve for some. For others, refresher trainings will be necessary.”

Upward of 90 percent of Oklahoma schools are expected to be affected to some degree by the loss of the waiver. Under NCLB, schools must meet 100-percent proficiency on a number of benchmarks to avoid being designated as a school in need of improvement. The number of failing schools in need of improvement could now swell from its current 490 to more than 1,600, according to NCLB definitions of failing.

“The loss of the waiver became all but inevitable with the passage of HB 3399. That became more of a certainty when higher education did not evaluate PASS to be college- and career-ready and the State Board of Education delayed starting the process toward new standards. The federal regulations being imposed on Oklahoma are counterproductive and overly rigid, but the time for hand-wringing is over,” said Barresi.

“Oklahoma must craft and implement outstanding academic standards for ELA and math that are college- and career-ready. To simply take PASS standards and attempt to improve them and call them college- and career-ready may satisfy the federal government to allow flexibility in spending, but it relegates our children to the same sad culture and set of expectations that existed when I entered office.”

If you back that bus up, you can see remnants of the Barresi-Fallin friendship in the tire treads. You can also hear what we’ve all feared in the warning that the number of schools in improvement status will triple with this ruling. You can also see she still has contempt for everything that ever happened before her and everything that will follow.

There have been some interesting reactions tonight. While I can’t find any response from John Cox, there was this from Joy Hofmeister on Facebook.

In revoking our ESEA Waiver before the current academic standards review process could be completed by our State Board of Regents, the Obama administration has rushed to penalize Oklahoma for the repeal of Common Core.

This is an example of a punitive overreach by the federal government that shows a lack of caring for our students, and I consider it an outrage to penalize students and children simply because the administration is angry that our state has chosen to chart it’s own course on educational standards

It is the right of a state to chart its own education standards. I have confidence in our State’s Board of Regents and their process to review our academic standards. It is unfortunate that the administration has shown a lack of willingness to work with Oklahoma children, their teachers and their schools.

I have full confidence in our teachers’ ability to navigate standards and focus on student learning. However, the redirecting of funds away from our school classrooms to outside supplemental providers is a terrible waste of our taxpayer dollars. I witnessed this waste in the early years of No Child Left Behind. Our children cannot afford to lose teachers and classroom funding due to this required diversions of funds. It’s wrong and our children deserve better.

I will continue my work to fight the federal over-regulation of this failed national initiative. We must focus on what’s best for our students.

Yes, federal over-reach. That’s all true, but our Republican legislature voted to join the Common Core movement four years ago. I don’t think they were a fan of federal over-reach then either. They had plenty of warning that this would happen, and they did it anyway.

I drive to work on a particular highway that is populated with patrol cars – speed traps. I don’t appreciate the fact that they’re there, but I acknowledge that they do exist. One day, maybe I’ll decide to thumb my nose at their presence and hit the gas hard. That’ll show them! My defiance won’t change the fact that I’ll have a hefty consequence to pay.

Such it is with Oklahoma losing the waiver. I blame President Obama and Arne Duncan. This is a sick power trip for them. I equally blame Governor Fallin and the Oklahoma Legislature. They knew this would happen and they acted in their own political interests rather than with the children and schools in mind. By thumbing their nose at the federal over-reach, they knowingly allowed more of it into the state.

Our entire congressional delegation seemed to channel the show Newhart after the announcement. It was like listening to the local version of Larry, Darrell, Darrell, Darrell, Darrell, Darrell, and Darrelwayne. It’s all Obama’s fault. No Oklahoma leaders share the blame. Typical.


A host of pride and miscalculation led us here. For four years, Oklahoma’s educators, parents, and students have chased the things that Obama, Duncan, Fallin, and Barresi have told us to chase. When the state pulled back, we knew what the feds would do. Then they did it. And our leaders had the audacity to act shocked. It makes it hard to take any of them seriously – Oklahomans or the feds, Republicans or Democrats.

There is so much to read and synthesize; I am just getting started. There’s a long weekend coming up. I’ll catch up on football, chores, and blogging eventually. Today started with the hope from a rare decision that seemed to make good sense. Maybe that was merely a diversion from Barresi, who knew that the day would end with the promise chaos. Good job, leaders. You need to act like the adults in the room and fix this soon. To much lies in the balance.

Then There Were Two

August 27, 2014 3 comments

Congratulations to John Cox, who won the runoff election last night to claim the nomination as the Democrat in the race to replace Janet Barresi as state superintendent. Over the next 10 weeks, he will turn his sights towards Republican Joy Hofmeister, who annihilated Barresi in June. And no, saying that never gets old. Hopefully we will see a clean, positive, issue-oriented campaign. It’s politics, though, so I assume we’ll see some of the nasty stuff too. Maybe there will be more on the good side.

On the blogger side, Brett Dickerson was out of the gate early this morning with his take on the top issue in the campaign.

Charter School Debate Is Not Over

Investors believe that corporate charters paid for by taxpayers is a huge market waiting to be sprung open. So there are millions that have been spent and will be spent lobbying for laws that will usher in charters as direct competition with public, democratically controlled  schools even in the rural areas.

In April I published two posts against the corporate charter school approach that ALEC and it’s affiliate organizations were promoting:  Bill Allowing Charter School Debt Threatens Education Funds in Oklahoma, and This Is What Happens When Bankers Run Public SchoolsBoth pieces point out the weaknesses and even dangers of corporate charter schools, cynically called “public charter schools” by proponents.

Eventually the radical charter schools proposal, SB573 was defeated. But something similar will be back. “Money never sleeps,” as the saying went in the movie Wall Street.

Brett is right to point to charters as a huge issue moving forward. If I were a venture capitalist rather than an educator, I’d be all excited about corporate education reform, including charters and virtual schools. If you can extract school funding with fewer quality controls than public schools have in place, you can turn a nice profit. That’s not what the charter schools in Oklahoma currently do, but widespread expansion would lead to that. Still, with all due respect to Brett, this is not one of my top four issues as we decide in 69 days between Cox and Hofmeister (as well as between Dorman and Fallin).

Teacher Shortage

As you know, we are about 800 teachers short in Oklahoma right now. Imagine sending your child to kindergarten or Algebra I or any other class and finding out that a long-term substitute is in place. You’d be frustrated at the least. You might be furious, even. I hate paraphrasing any part of No Child Left Behind, but every child deserves a highly qualified teacher in every class every day. I don’t think it makes sense to be mad at the schools. They can’t conjure applicants from the atmosphere.

The problem lies in the allure of the education profession at this time. People entering the profession never expected to get rich. They loved children. They loved their content area. They came from a family of educators. They had friends who had taught and told them how meaningful it was. They had a teachers who changed their lives. Any of those things could have inspired someone to become a teacher. Any still could. But the likelihood of a confluence of factors serving to recruit future educators decreases every year that salaries lag and the profession faces public caning by politicians who lack the … nerve to teach. I still wouldn’t trade my career for anything. I’m proud of what I’ve done and what I do. Fewer people are choosing to follow this path though, and it’s a huge problem.

Excessive Testing

Recently, Arne Duncan himself said that testing is “sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools.” I want a state superintendent and a governor with a plan to restore sanity – a workable plan. While I’d like to see the ACT and it’s suite of testing replace our current state tests, there are legislative obstacles to that happening. It also would cut out all of the other companies who bid on such things. What we have right now is a system by which we spend tens of millions of dollars for test results that are ill-fitted for the high stakes we’ve attached to them. We have tests over high school subjects that colleges ignore. We have little alignment between the third grade “reading” test and the alternate tests that can be used in its place. We have testing companies that fail us time after time. It’s insane.

Assessment has always had a place in public schools. Decades ago, we had the ITBS in all grades. We had the Otis-Lennon. We had all kinds of diagnostic instruments that helped us understand the students we taught. We’ve gone away from that. At this point, who can point to what we do and give a succinct statement (15 words or fewer) explaining why we test? That’s where the conversation needs to start.


We slayed the Common Core in Oklahoma, and now other states are looking to our example to figure out how to do the same. In turn, Oklahoma should look to states such as Tennessee and rid ourselves of teacher evaluations tied to test scores before they ever fully take effect. We should never be in a position to let someone’s mysterious algorithm replace qualitative observation by an administrator. In many cases, we’re just making things up so we can measure them. It’s like the EOIs all over again.

On the other hand, we have a colossal teacher shortage. Will school districts really be able to fire teachers with low VAM scores? Who will they get to replace them?


Oklahoma schools lost about 20% of state aid from 2008 to 2013. We got a piece of that back this year, but still, our class sizes are rising and our infrastructures are suffering. Many schools are using old, out-of-date textbooks held together with duct tape. This is not the picture of a state that supports public education.

The state salary schedule has not been adjusted since 2006. Some district have made their own increases to the scale, but others have not been able to. At this point we need a drastic bump for anything positive to happen in terms of teacher recruitment. I’d propose a 10% increase to each line on the scale, but that actually seems too modest. It hardly moves the conversation. All aspects of school funding need an increase. Districts shouldn’t have to use bond money to buy textbooks. Technology and buildings should be bigger priorities. Duct tape shouldn’t be a classroom supply.

We have a long way to go until November. All of these issues deserve serious discussion – not empty rhetoric. The candidates need to spare us the clichés and loaded words that typify campaigning. When I hear a real solution, I’ll make it known on here.

HD 69: For Melissa Abdo

August 26, 2014 Comments off

Usually I don’t make explicit endorsements, but I will make an exception today. I don’t know if anyone in House District 69 cares, but if you do, I strongly encourage you to vote for Melissa Abdo in her Republican runoff election today. In the last three years, social media activism has made a real difference in the political climate of this state. Collectively, bloggers and tweeters have helped pass through some good initiatives and helped defeat some bad ones. As gratifying as that is, it hardly compares to the grass root work of parents.

When I began this blog in 2012, Melissa was one of my first followers. We engaged in many healthy discussions via Twitter. She is well-informed and thoughtful. Most importantly, her main supporters are local. With all the early momentum, she had to deal with ads from out-of-state, secret-money groups who opposed her. Most of the friction came from the fact that she has been a vocal critic of corporate reform darling, Janet Barresi. I trust the voters in her district who know Melissa will make the right choice.

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Today’s Runoff Election

August 26, 2014 3 comments

Across Oklahoma today, voters will make their final selection of candidates for the November elections. In the race for state superintendent, Either John Cox or Freda Deskin will emerge as the Democrat to face Joy Hofmeister. While I have a preference between these two, I’m still not sharing it here. The bottom line is that any of the remaining candidates would be a tremendous upgrade over the incumbent.

I have plenty of contacts – both as a blogger and as a real person – who are passionate about this race. They love Deskin because of her varied experiences in public education. Or they love Cox because he is a school superintendent. Conversely, they worry about Deskin’s charter school experience or the fact that Cox’s district is very small.

I don’t worry about those things. Deskin has repeatedly stated that she’s against the expansion of charter schools outside of the urban school districts. I take her at her word. Peggs may be a small district, but then again, so are most Oklahoma school districts. Both are veteran educators who have dedicated their careers to improving the lives of children.

I have two requests today. First, if you are a registered voter, please go to the polls. I don’t care the race or the party, the fact that so many ballots go unused in this country is sickening. Second, if you are a Democrat voting in the state superintendent race, and your candidate loses, quickly lick your wounds and get back in the game. Oklahoma deserves an education leader who can rally support. In November, one of three people will get the nod. If my preferred candidate doesn’t make it all the way, I’ll be fine.

Our next state superintendent deserves our support, our ideas, our hope. Even those of us who didn’t vote for Janet Barresi in 2010 tried giving her a chance when she came into office. After all, it took me 15 months to start a blog! Her replacement – Democrat or Republican – will merit our attention. There is too much collateral damage from failed reforms all around us to have half of the passionate education voters on the sidelines. Whoever wins, I’m all in. I’ll do whatever it takes to help.

Help Wanted: 800 Teachers

August 21, 2014 4 comments

The most important news story this week relative to public schools in Oklahoma is the fact that as children have returned to classes, districts still have over 800 teaching vacancies. This is the count released by the Oklahoma State School Boards Association in a survey of districts this week. According to the Tulsa World, about 70 of those vacancies are in Tulsa Public Schools. According to the Oklahoman, 70 more are in Oklahoma City Public Schools. This is not just an urban schools problem. Across the state, all kinds of districts are struggling to find teachers. The OSSBA survey also found:

  • More than half of districts with vacancies said they have sought emergency certification for teachers who aren’t fully qualified to teach the subject and/or grade level for which they were hired.

  • About half of the districts also said they will use long- or short-term substitute teachers to fill vacancies.

  • Many districts that reported no vacancies said they have hired short- and long-term substitutes in place of full-time teachers.

  • The shortage is hitting districts of all sizes in every area of the state.

  • Special education is the most difficult teaching area to fill, followed by elementary education, high school science and high school math.

  • A handful of districts offer incentives to improve teacher recruitment and retention, but most districts do not, citing financial constraints.

  • Not only are local school officials deeply concerned about the scarcity of applicants, they are worried about the quality of educators who do apply.

This is a problem on many levels. Students deserve good teachers, whether it is at the foundational level, such as in first grade classes, or in specialized upper-level courses, such as chemistry and calculus. No principal wants to hire a teacher just because he was the only applicant. Yet sometimes that happens. The third point in the findings – that special education positions are hardest to fill – has always been true, just never to the magnitude that schools are experiencing this year.

When I posted the story to Twitter and Facebook on Tuesday, one reader had this comment:

Let me get this straight… Not many people want a job where they get to put up with undisciplined youth, unclear standards, and low pay? Plus completely inept leadership at the state and federal level? Hmmm….. One does wonder….

That’s a pretty good summary of what keeps people away, but I’d say the top three reasons go in this order:

  1. Pay
  2. Lack of respect
  3. Working conditions

Every story on the shortage circles back to pay, and that’s a big part of the problem. Oklahoma has not increased the salary scale for teachers since 2006. While districts have added incrementally when they are able to, there is no additional state funding to support this. In fact, state aid to schools is still below 2008 levels. The things that teachers have to buy for themselves and their families, however, are not below 2008 levels.

Teacher salaries in Oklahoma have always been below our neighboring states and most of the nation. When I started teaching, we used to always say, “Thank God for Mississippi!” Fortunately, we still have them, plus an occasional Dakota, to make us look good. Why is this impacting staffing now? In the past, teachers have had more job satisfaction. It’s a big deal to know you’re making a difference in children’s lives. You may be the only adult who is kind in their lives. Or you may be one of many. In any case, you know that you’re needed, and you stick with it – until you can’t.

Over the last 15 years, respect for the profession has eroded, pretty much as the influence of for-profit education has risen. The private sector thinks it can do a better job, and they’ve convinced enough politicians they’re right that they’re getting a turn at the wheel. Politicians (in both parties) bash the teachers unions. The problem I have with that is you can’t bash the union and say you support teachers. Who do you think populates the unions? And are the NEA and AFT so powerful that teachers are making states go broke? Hardly!

We hear all the time about using test scores to evaluate teachers, but in the corporate world, these models are being shelved. Even Microsoft has gone away from this kind of quantitative ranking of employees! Salaries are stagnant, but politicians would rather listen to the Fordham Foundation, Eli Broad, Bill Gates, Campbell Brown, and the Waltons talk about education than the teachers doing the job. Yes, pay matters, but respect is important too.

Over time, we’ve also seen schools become a harder place to teach. I should mention that after decades in the profession, I still love students. If you can’t go a day without lamenting that these kids today are different, you probably shouldn’t be a teacher. Yes, they’re different. And no, they’re not. They still want to feel safe and be accepted. They still have hopes and dreams. And just as when we were kids, they still think that the adults are out of touch. They don’t get that we were their age too – which is perfectly fine.

More than ever, though, teachers are burdened with tasks that have nothing to do with instruction. The paperwork demands with justifying their own employment are ridiculous. This has led to more and more veteran teachers taking retirement at the first possible opportunity. It would be different if the policy churn and regulatory climate of public education were meaningful. Instead, schools are increasingly houses of frustration. It’s hard to see the difference you are making when you constantly have to document minutiae. Budgets also impact class size, custodial services, and the availability of instructional resources. These things matter to teachers too.

Ours is a profession that fewer people want to enter. While this disappoints me, I completely understand. Just the same, if I could talk to the 20 year-old me who picked this career path, I would simply say, “go for it.” I still have positive relationships with my former students and their families. I enjoy meeting new teachers and working with veteran educators. I see the difference we make every day, and when we can find committed people who want to impact lives, I still have no problem advising them to enter the teaching profession.

Many of us are fortunate enough to live in communities that support education and help out where the state and federal governments merely interfere. Overall, though, the world will never truly grasp what we do or why we defend it so fiercely. Right now, the state needs about 800 more people who understand.

Writing the New Standards: No Rush

August 17, 2014 Comments off

When the Oklahoma Legislature passed HB 3399 and Governor Fallin signed it into law, school districts throughout the state scrambled to turn the clock back to 2010 – sort of. In many places, the transition from PASS (our old standards) to the Common Core had failed to launch. Teachers, aware of the fact that the state tests were still aligned with PASS, focused on those standards. In other places, the transition was fairly thorough; teachers were using a hybrid of CCSS and PASS. In many of those districts – especially those using some form of curriculum mapping – teachers will continue to use a hybrid set of standards. They will simply align to pass and employ strategies or enhancements from the Common Core as necessary.

My point is that if you walk into any good veteran teacher’s classroom in 2014, you won’t see the exact same thing you saw in 2010, 2006, 2002, and so on. Though some may not like to admit it, our state’s dalliance with de facto national standards has changed us. When the SDE submits new Mathematics and English/Language Arts standards to the legislature in 2016, the finished product will likely reflect that.

I know I have readers who hate the Common Core with a blood red passion. I also know they disapprove when I mention that I do not. I don’t like that the state adopted them when they were in draft form. I don’t like the ratio of non-educators to educators who were on the drafting committees. I don’t like the fact that their development seemed to be for the benefit of testing companies and other vendors, rather than children. The language of the standards was rather boilerplate, if you ask me – which you didn’t. If you were to look at the ACT College Readiness Standards from 2008 or any number of Advanced Placement course syllabi on the College Board website, you’d find similarities to many of the Common Core standards.

So on one hand, good teachers are constantly evolving. On the other hand, some things never change. Children learn to count before they learn to add. Students who can read and write can learn and communicate what they’ve learned. Meanwhile, students who excel at reading and writing stand apart from those who are merely competent. We have always had students at various levels in our schools – struggle, competence, and mastery often sit side-by-side-by-side in the classroom, then eat lunch together in the cafeteria, and then run in a pack on the playground. We can call our standards whatever we want. We can use different words to describe performance levels. We can even spend millions developing new tests to tell us the exact same things we already know. Some children struggle. Some meet the mark. Some excel.

What we do for each of these groups of children is far more important than the standards or the tests. How do we provide remediation? Do we integrate it into instruction or do we pull students away from activities they actually enjoy, essentially sucking whatever joy they feel out of the school day for them. With our competent students, do we push them to find the places where they can stretch their comfort zones, or are we content with their competence? And what energy do we have at the end of the hour/day/year for the students who could have completed our work at a high level before we even started teaching?

I have always believed that a clear standard is a good target for us to have in place. And part of me is still naïve enough to think that some of the Common Core’s developers and promoters believed that too. As much as Oklahoma’s critics have found fault either with the standards or the process by which they came to exist, the larger problem is with the way the SDE stumbled in implementing them. Kevin Hime explained this well on his blog yesterday.

The year is 2011 and Janet is the new state superintendent.  She is attacking public schools and decides common core will save us.  Her stump speech rhetoric centers on how Oklahoma students will fail the Common Core at an alarming rate and how these new standards will make our students college career ready but, WHAT IF Janet Barresi would have be championing the awesome teachers in Oklahoma.  WHAT IF she would have said, “Standards do not make students College and Career Ready, Teachers do!” She may have followed up with “What Oklahoma’s teachers need is the legislature to provide the resources needed to prepare students for the 21st century not new standards.”

As right as he is about the tone Barresi took with educators, one thing we all need to remember is that the Legislature adopted the Common Core in 2010, while Brad Henry was governor and Sandy Garrett was state superintendent. What they adopted, they left to their successors to implement. We also need to remember that Barresi and Fallin were all in on the Common Core, until they started campaigning for their primaries earlier this year.

We already know that Barresi will be replaced. Six months ago, few of us thought Fallin would be in a tough fight for re-election, but she is. Part of the reason is that she still can’t entirely shake the stigma of the Common Core. While she still has to be considered the favorite in the race, momentum is a funny thing. Yes, there is a chance we will have both a new state superintendent and a new governor. Even if only Barresi goes, we should not be excited about the leadership she has in place to do this job for us. It will be a new state superintendent and new staff beneath him or her who will present the new standards to the Legislature in 2016.

Twice already the State Board of Education has balked at approving the SDE’s standard-writing process. Barresi told attendees at Vision 2020 in July that she had discussed the process with Board members, and that they would approve it. That’s just one more thing she has been wrong about.

Even though no process is in place, the SDE has kept the application to serve on committees and a rough calendar of dates on its website as if it were. If you would like to serve on one of the Executive Committees, you’re out of luck. The deadline to apply was Friday. If you want to serve in any capacity, the deadline is still two weeks away.

The same people who failed at implementing the Common Core are forming committees in spite of failing to get SBE approval to begin the development of new state standards. Does that sound like a good plan to you? Their successors will inherit a process that is heading in direction that they might want to change. Start. Stop. Reset. Start over. After the last four years, that is the last thing we need.

Yesterday, Democratic candidate for governor Joe Dorman issued a press release highlighting the approach he favors for developing the new standards. Here’s an excerpt:

“For the third phase of my Classrooms First plan, I am proposing a system that will involve participation by parents, educators, students and administrators,” said Dorman. “Together, we will develop rigorous, but developmentally appropriate and workable standards that reflect Oklahoma values.”

Dorman said he will create a Blue Ribbon Commission to craft these new standards. The Commission will consist of teachers, parents, principals, superintendents, school board members and Oklahoma college education professors. These Oklahomans will represent the different schools, communities and regions throughout the state. This includes urban, suburban and rural educators, elementary through high school teachers, and both gifted and special needs educators.

“These people are involved directly in education and have an in depth understanding of the needs, abilities and challenges facing our students today,” said Dorman. “No one else — certainly those outside of Oklahoma who have been used by Fallin and Barresi — will better craft quality standards for our children.”

Dorman added that the standards developed by the Commission will ensure a challenging curriculum necessary for gifted students and provide accommodations and modifications for special needs students. The Commission will fund, develop and provide remediation programs for those who struggle to meet the standards and who cannot perform at grade level.

“To ensure accountability, once the Commission writes the standards, town halls and public forums will be held around the state, allowing Oklahomans to voice their opinions and concerns,” said Dorman. “The Commission will then refine the standards based on this feedback.”

Along with the Commission, Dorman said he will establish a Superintendents Advisory Board to develop the best ways to implement these policies in individual school districts while maintaining local control.

Sidebar: what exactly are Oklahoma values? Hard work? Faith? Community? Find me a state whose leaders don’t think those values describe them. I know mincing a politician’s words is futile and that buzzwords get the ballots punched. This phrase has no meaning to me, though. Both sides are going to use it, so I guess it balances out. The same is true for college and career ready. It’s always been our goal to prepare students for all things that come after high school. That’s just a reformer’s way of pretending differently.

What I read in the process Dorman describes is similar to what the SDE has proposed. It will include all kinds of people from all kinds of schools in all parts of the state. It will be similar to what we did for the Social Studies revisions in 2011 and Science revisions last year.

Take a moment and fast-forward to 2016. At a town hall somewhere in Oklahoma, a member of the community will take a microphone and make a comment about the newly-written standards. At least once, the person speaking will do so without having read the standards. For the most part, the people of Oklahoma will listen to those around them who are well-informed. Whether the new standards written by Oklahomans and demonstrating our values gain broad acceptance depends mainly on the leadership presenting them. Few members of the public will ever actually read the content.

If we are to have new standards, we can wait a few months to start writing them. We can’t afford to have any part of the process tainted by the current occupants of the SDE. Start in January with a new state superintendent and possibly a new governor. That still leaves enough time to meet the requirements of HB 3399.

Mary Fallin’s Education Record

August 7, 2014 2 comments

This morning, the Oklahoman published a puzzling editorial about the alliance between Governor Mary Fallin and Republican nominee for State Superintendent, Joy Hofmeister. Probably the best way for me to describe it is that I agree with their premise, in part, but dispute their analysis of her record over the past four years. Here’s a teaser:

GOV. Mary Fallin and Republican state schools superintendent nominee Joy Hofmeister have announced that they’re “working together on an agenda to strengthen Oklahoma public schools and produce better outcomes for Oklahoma students.” Problem is, published details of that agenda are notable mostly for their lack of specifics.

The release was notably silent about Fallin’s first-term education agenda. That’s disappointing because Fallin has compiled a strong record on education. After the 2011 legislative session, she issued a report declaring it a “banner year for education reform in Oklahoma ….” She specifically identified the creation of an A-F grading system for public schools as a success, as well as a reading law that prevented illiterate students from being promoted to fourth grade. During her State of the State speech this February, Fallin again cited both laws as major achievements and also praised adoption of Common Core academic standards. She fought valiantly, if unsuccessfully, to preserve the third-grade reading law this year even as lawmakers worked to gut it.

Several people commented on the clause to which I added bold emphasis. This was my favorite:

Yes, saying Fallin’s record on education is strong only works if you’re writing parody. Initially, she was a consistant ally of the corporate reform movement – issues such as vouchers, charters, high-stakes testing, union busting, teacher evaluations. Now we really don’t know what she is. She seems to have softened on the third-grade test. Or maybe that’s just what she says now. She changed positions on the Common Core when popular opinion was overwhelming for repealing it. Maybe she’d be succeptible to a different position on value-added measurements too.

One other piece from that quote above stands out to me: the use of the word illiterate. This is the most offensive way possible to describe eight year-olds who struggle on what the state calls a reading test. As districts around the state have learned, even with the exemptions in place, the amended Reading Sufficiency Act, as passed in 2011, really hurts special education students and those learning English. Fallin vetoed HB 2625, which gave parents a voice in retention decisions. The Oklahoman likes to say that “lawmakers worked to gut” the law. It would be more accurate to say that they added a measure of sanity to it.

The Oklahoman also mentions that for each of the last four years, Fallin’s proposed education budget was lower than the Legislature’s, which was in turn lower than Janet Barresi’s. Even with the gains that have been made, the 2014-15 budget still gives less state aid to schools than they received seven years ago. And for some reason, the money added to the formula hasn’t exactly translated into gains to districts on the funding notices they received late last month. In other words, Fallin sure has waited an awfully long time to start supporting schools.

Mary Fallin briefly poked the bear on school consolidation. She hired an Ohio charter school purveyor to run our Career Tech system and then gave him the dual title of Secretary of Education. He never moved here, and resigned after 13 months. She threatened to cut school funding if administrators didn’t quit speaking their mind on the A-F Report Cards. She toured the KIPP Charter School campus in Oklahoma City with Jeb Bush and waxed poetic over its virtues. Yeah, she’s been a peach to public education.

All that being said, I don’t hold it against Joy Hofmeister that she’s presenting herself as a team with Fallin. And I hope she doesn’t hold it against me that I will determine my vote on those two positions independently. I assume when the Democrats finally have a nominee, that person will make appearances with Joe Dorman. This is politics. It’s just how it works.

In the back of my mind, however, I have a little voice that keeps warning me. It says, “The only thing that scares me more than an incompetent corporate education reformer is a competent one.” The voice talks to me quite frequently. With the three remaining candidates for Barresi’s job, we have platforms and vagaries to consider. With Fallin – as we did with Barresi – we have a track record. The sum of her actions are really no better than Barresi’s. She’s just more polished. She has better handlers. And she’s fairly astute, politically.

Fallin’s re-election campaign was supposed to be a cake-walk. It isn’t. Now that she’s in an unexpected battle with a legitimate challenger, she’s talking a different game. Her words aren’t worth much to me. Her accomplishments are. She brought political competence to the Barresi agenda. Dorman has repeatedly called her out on it, and she simply has no answer.

One of my readers commented on my Facebook page today with a quote from Star Trek: Next Generation:

“Villains who twirl their moustaches are easy to spot. Those who clothe themselves in good deeds are well-camouflaged.” – Jean-Luc Picard

It’s a great way to sum up what I’m thinking today. As I’ve said before, with a governor, you have to look at all the issues, not just education. But when I look at her education track record, I’m convinced we can do better.

New Teachers: Welcome to the Profession

August 6, 2014 3 comments

All across Oklahoma, teachers are finishing their vacations, earning some last-minute professional development points, and putting their classrooms together. They may not be on contract, but many are already putting in the time. Their commitment may not be completely visible to parents, students, and those who never set foot in schools, but their colleagues and administrators surely notice.

There is another group getting ready for the school year right now: new teachers. Yes, there are still college graduates in their early 20s entering the profession, just as there are people transitioning careers later in life and becoming educators. This group needs our respect and support as well.

I don’t know if I’d be the best person to stand up in front of a group of new teachers and motivate them, but if I had that opportunity, I’d dig deep into my memory and try to remember how I felt, at age 22, when I started teaching. Actually, I’d dig into a file that I’ve carried around since the end of my student teaching semester. Inside is a two-page paper I wrote a long time ago titled, “My Educational Philosophy.”

I probably shouldn’t include the whole dot-matrix thing for two key reasons:

  1. Some of what I wrote would be too revealing. At that point, I would basically be holding my hands in front of my eyes and yelling, “You can’t see me!”
  2. I have a much better command of language now. Some is definitely better than all.

Instead, I’ll include a few excerpts of younger blogger with some commentary from today. Bear with me; I’m trying something new here.

Students and teachers alike rarely take the time to reflect on the purpose of education. “Why are we here?” Presumably, school prepares its students for life – all aspects of it. To better prepare students for the world beyond school, the education process should teach students the learning process, effectively model communication skills, and promote a sense of self-awareness.

That’s how I perceived school at 22. I thought I was the only reflective person around. I now know differently. Yes, on a given day, we all may be caught up in the details of our lives, suffocating under pressure and demands. We may even have long stretches of times when our jobs don’t exactly look like we pictured them. Still, we must take the time to consider the impact we have in our jobs. For some reason though, we keep coming back. Most first-year teachers become second-year teachers. (And yes, I used the word process twice in the same sentence. I was hoping you wouldn’t notice that.) Oh, and apparently, I was thinking in terms of College and Career Readiness decades ago. I should have trademarked it way back when.

Not to be overlooked is the importance of analysis on a job. An employee with the ability to take apart a situation and understand it is likely to advance in his/her workplace. Without this ability, the worker stays running in place for forty years without a promotion.

Maybe what I was trying to describe then, without exactly having the life experience to explain it well, was initiative. Just as we don’t want students to hit their peak in high school, we don’t want adults to top out their first year in whatever careers they choose. There’s nothing in the world wrong with being content, but most of us want more. And when you feel stalled, you want to have options. That’s the power that a good education provides. You should be prepared for more than one thing. Sometimes your dreams change. Sometimes your circumstances change.

Teachers should show students that they can hear as well as speak. One of the largest gaps in communication is between people who do not listen to others. Sometimes teachers are even guilty of this. When this is the case, students observe the behavior and may adopt it for themselves. A teacher who does not listen to the students does not give them a model to encourage them to listen to each other. Listening to each other will produce cooperation, which is a communication skill in and of itself. By showing the students that their input is valuable, the teacher will receive more of it and be more credible in the students’ eyes.

This was far more important to me at the end of my student teaching experience than it was at the beginning. I actually had thought the entire room was just going to be in awe of my decision to be there. I quickly learned otherwise. During those four months, and every year that has passed since then, I have learned new ways to show children and adults that I value their opinion. I don’t necessarily know what each child needs. I do know some things that they don’t know, and I do know that there are some parts of their future they haven’t even considered yet. I also understand that it’s okay to wonder. It’s even ok to wander. No six, eight, ten, twelve, fourteen, sixteen, or eighteen year-old needs to have the future entirely planned out. At 22, I thought I did, and it’s safe to say that my career has been a very different journey than I what I thought it would be.

Most importantly, schools should encourage students to get to know themselves better. A young mind is creative (not that older minds are not). Sometimes, teachers force students to put this aspect of themselves away. Assignments are often too rigid to allow for the students’ curiosity and creativity. If this natural ability to stand apart from a crowd is stunted, students lose a critical tool for all of life.

I think what I was trying to say in this word salad was that too often, we put kids in a box. We put our whole class in a box. We don’t think about the work we assign students and why it might not interest them. And this was before the age of hyper-standardization and high-stakes testing.

Confidence and self-esteem are traits of leaders – people who are secure enough in themselves to follow their own desires and not be pressured into the traps of the world. Life has plenty of obstacles and school can’t point them all out. It can prepare students to face them on their own and wisely.

As a new teacher, you’re going to be faced with decisions you’ve never had before. It will be a year of firsts, and at times, this may overwhelm you. When you do stop to reflect, however, ask yourself if you’re helping the students you see gain or lose confidence. I would never suggest sugar-coating the truth or minimizing the importance of standards. However, every teacher, every school, and every district should be all about building leaders. We do that by finding out what interests our students and running our schools with that in mind.

Ideally, a school would do all of these things and much more. As a future teaching professional, I plan to see that any student who sits in my classroom has the analytical, communication, and self-awareness skills to get through life. That isn’t to say I will always succeed, but if I can know myself as well as I try to teach my students to know themselves, I’ll do my share. I chose this career because I wanted to have a hand in the preparation of the next generations of leaders, workers, parents, and citizens. School only has a role in preparing students for life, but that role has to be played to its potential for students to achieve theirs.

Can you tell I wanted my students to be self-aware? It’s subtle. After years in the classroom and following trend after trend of education policy, my advice now to new teachers is quite simple.

Make. Lives. Better.

Work hard and contribute something. Be the first teacher that some student has ever liked. Don’t try to measure everything. Take pictures of the first group of students you teach and look at them from time to time. Make friends at work and defend your profession fiercely. Treasure your mentors. Cherish what you do. Most importantly, if you ever get to the point that you don’t love working for the children every day, leave. And if that’s the path you choose, leave on the highest note possible.

All you can do right now is work hard and make a difference. Somebody must have done that in your life, or you wouldn’t be here now. If it’s possible, thank that person. Teachers never get tired of that.

Bart Simpson

Oh, and don’t worry about that first paycheck. It gets better.

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