I am okeducationtruths
Hi! My name is Rick Cobb. I am the author of okeducationtruths.
In this post, I’m going to write about myself. You have no idea how uncomfortable that makes me. For the most part, I won’t resort to humorous images, classic rock, or references to Shawshank. I’ll just try to be as real as possible.
My first teaching job was in Muskogee in 1993. As my winding career path has led me to the position of Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction in Moore, I had only ever worked under one state superintendent – Sandy Garrett – until 2011. During Janet Barresi’s campaign against Sen. Susan Paddack in 2010, she had said several caustic things about teachers and about schools, but you never really know how campaigning will translate to leading. I voted for Paddack, but I was willing to give Barresi a chance. Elections have consequences, after all.
Then that crazy first State Board of Education meeting happened. Barresi wanted her own people, and she didn’t care how they were paid. She fired many great educators with a long history of helping schools help kids. I resigned myself to waiting out her four-year term in silence.
Obviously that didn’t last. Below, I attempt to capture the journey that led to me being an outspoken blogger, and eventually more vocal in real life.
Why did I start blogging?
Three events during Barresi’s first 15 months really accelerated my frustration.
- Serving on the ESEA waiver committee – In the fall of 2011, I was invited to serve on one of three subcommittees at the SDE to help draft Oklahoma’s waiver request. By the first break, many of us had come to realize that we were just there as window dressing. The essence of the waiver had already been written, with greater input from Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence than any of us.
- Nobody to listen to the A-F public comments – In March of 2012, when the rules for the A-F Report Cards were still in draft form, the SDE held a forum for public comments. Apparently, attending this forum was not a priority for Barresi, her top staff, or the state board members.
- Observations about the reward schools – The next month, I had the privilege of attending a ceremony at the SDE to receive certificates for the schools in my district that were deemed Reward Schools by the SDE. We have more than 30 campuses in Moore. Of these, 17 have a Title I program. Eight of our nine Reward Schools were not. While all of these schools have staff that work hard, so do our schools that didn’t make the list. I inquired about the criteria, but I couldn’t get any answers. I got a complete list of the schools, though, and I started doing some research. There was a strong correlation to free/reduced lunch percentages. The system artificially creates winners and losers. In the process, it demeans both groups. We have a lot to be proud of in Moore – more than just those nine schools.
I wish I could find the picture of Barresi, SBE member Baxter, and me posing with those nine certificates. It would have been a great image to include here. After the SBE meeting in which he called for her resignation and she called him a name, that picture immediately popped into my head. Unfortunately, it was probably lost in one of the moves our Administrative Service Center has had to make in the last couple of years. No, I never framed it.
Why did I write anonymously?
Fourth Generation Teacher, Claudia Swisher, is a long-time family friend. Her son and I graduated from high school together. She drove our basketball carpool in middle school. After the Reward School ceremony, I put some numbers and language together and sent her an unsolicited guest post for her blog. I emailed her the draft of my first blog post on April 17, 2012. We tried, but we couldn’t make it work with all the tables I had made. After some consideration, I started okeducationtruths eight days later.
I didn’t want to put my name to the blog for several reasons. I didn’t want the attention on me or my school district. I didn’t want the principals, teachers, parents, and students in Moore to think that I didn’t appreciate the schools that were rewarded. My point, which I was afraid might get lost, was that we have great schools NOT being rewarded – including two Title I schools that had recently been named Blue Ribbon Schools by the USDE.
I don’t know how I came up with the title, or the motto, when the record on public education in Oklahoma needs to be set straight. I guess they’ve worked pretty well, though.
As the number of readers grew, I did occasionally receive interview requests and invitations to speak at events. I seriously considered these. However, I decided that what made this blog work was the ideas – not the personality.
I’ve had many people send me information that has helped me shed light on public education issues that otherwise would not receive attention. I can’t count them, and I’ll never name them. Their anonymity is just as valuable as mine has been.
Who knew, and when?
Other than Claudia, my wife was the only person I told right from the beginning. My only promise to her, as far as the blog was concerned, was that I would never publish anything using Comic Sans.
Until the last few months, I hadn’t even told anybody in Moore. Until the last few days, I hadn’t even told my mom, who was a 29 year special education teacher.
Over the last three years, a few people have figured it out, either through mistakes I’ve made (like tweeting from the wrong account), or just similarities between things I say publicly and the content of this blog. I’ve even had people let me know they had figured it out but that they wouldn’t tell. I assume more people know than I realize. The discretion of those in the know has impressed me. I’m grateful beyond words.
I will mention, however, how I revealed my identity to fellow blogger Rob Miller. (This is almost identical to how he told it last night on A View From the Edge, which was funny to me because I already had this section written.) I wanted to introduce myself to him at the March rally at the Capitol. There were so many people, that we couldn’t connect. I told Rob that if I saw him, I would identify myself with a gesture (yes, it’s the same image he used). Since The Sting is one of my all-time favorite movies, I chose this:
In early June, I saw Rob in Norman at a conference and made the gesture and introduced myself. Until then, he didn’t know who I was. He told me he had suspected, based on some of my comments under my real life Twitter handle (@grendelrick). Since then, we have shared a number of ideas.
Did I ever consider quitting?
There have been a number of times I wanted to quit. One of the biggest reasons is time. Almost all of the countdown from last June (20 reasons to vote for anyone other than Barresi) was written over coffee and cereal. I find writing both cathartic and exhausting. After June, I was exhausted. That’s part of the reason I haven’t written as frequently since then.
From the beginning, I never planned on being a blogger. I wanted to write one piece, present it as something of a white paper to Claudia for her blog, and go back to my under-the-radar life. I was in the middle of writing my dissertation, and I needed to focus on that. I did find that writing the blog helped me get into a zone and finish my dissertation, though. So that was a nice thing. I successfully defended in March 2013 and figured I would write more. Two months later, everything changed.
Those who personally know me understand why I don’t like to talk about the tornado. For a while after the storm, I figured the blog really didn’t matter. Eventually, it was one of the things that helped me heal. I have rarely mentioned the storm or our district’s recovery on okeducationtruths because I don’t feel like that’s my story to tell. It’s a shared experience among all of us who’ve been through it. I decided this really wasn’t the place to open a window into the district.
The next month, when Barresi sent every Moore Public Schools employee an email – a really badly written email – explaining state aid, I decided not to write about it. Then I received several copies of it in my blog email account. I decided I should share it. Then last June, when Barresi compared recovering from the tornado to the state losing CCSS, I lost it. Rob let me know he’d be writing about it, which gave me some time to calm down before I started. When our superintendent, Dr. Robert Romines, commented on Rob’s blog, I was proud of both of them. I don’t speak for the district, especially when it comes to the tornado.
There have been many times I just haven’t felt like blogging. I’m like each of you with jobs and families. Sometimes, other things are more important than what I do Because of this, I’ve probably missed a few news cycles. When I do, it’s really no big deal. There are always other bloggers out there to catch things I miss. When I take little breaks, I miss it for a few days, then not at all. So far, something has always brought me back.
Has blogging interfered with my job?
No, it hasn’t. Barresi’s SDE has interfered with my job, but blogging has not. If anything, it has helped me do my job better by broadening my professional learning network.
As Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction in Moore, I wear many hats. I supervise a talented group of curriculum specialists. I serve on the district’s Professional Development Committee. I directly manage the Title II program and indirectly supervise the Title I program. With so many responsibilities that were new to me when I came to the district in 2008, I came to find value in several groups that met at the SDE. One of these was the School Improvement Advisory Council.
For years, the SDE had hosted SIAC once a month. Most who attended were in similar positions in other districts around the state. Individuals from higher education and career tech also attended. We discussed initiatives in our own district and legislative/policy issues. At some point during Barresi’s first year, those meetings stopped. A group of nearby schools formed the Metro Teaching and Learning (MT&L) consortium in its place. This is still the group I call when I have questions or ideas that need vetting.
In fact, this group gave me much of the language I needed when I wrote about A-F, RSA, and countless other issues. On occasion, they would even wonder openly about the identity of okeducationtruths. I didn’t know whether to feel proud or uncomfortable. Honestly, given the early content, it could’ve been any of us.
Early on, I decided that if I said something at work, I wouldn’t use it on the blog. I might write about the same issue, but I wouldn’t use the same language. My commitment to the people who pay my salary is greater than my commitment to blogging.
This stance changed last June. Principals and teachers in our district were upset about the irregularities with the state writing tests. We had too many examples where we disagreed with the score to just sit idly by. The MT&L consortium had an impromptu meeting at the CCOSA conference, and we decided somebody should speak at the next State Board of Education meeting. My superintendent was fine with me speaking, so I did. Below is a picture of me addressing the SBE two days after Hofmeister won the primary.
What I said that day was the same message I had on the blog. It was the same thing I was saying to the people at work. I trust our students and teachers more than I trust the testing company. In August, when the SDE threw out the writing tests, it was for reasons similar to what I had said in front of the SBE in June. Much of the language came from the MT&L consortium. More came from people in Moore. Some even came from stories my readers were sending me and details posted to other blogs. It showed me how interconnected we all really are.
What are some other awkward moments I have had as a blogger?
One of the first worlds colliding moments I ever had was when a co-worker sent me my blog via email. I think I just replied that it was really interesting. Then in August 2012 – four months after I started blogging – I was sitting at a funeral in Norman when Superintendent Barresi sat down right beside me. I didn’t introduce myself.
By the first Vision 2020 conference, I began to realize that I was making an impact. I overheard SDE employees talking about the blog during one of the general sessions. I also began hearing about the blog from several of my colleagues around the state. Soon, I would see long-time friends posting my blog to Facebook. Social media is the lifeline of this blog, and learning how to use it effectively has been a trial-and-error process. I must be doing something right. Thousands follow the blog’s Twitter and Facebook accounts, and that still blows my mind.
I have heard me quoted back to me now more times than I can count. It’s probably the highest form of flattery I can imagine.
What do I think the blog has done well?
Rob has told me that he owes his blog to me having mine. Similarly, I owe mine to Claudia writing hers.
This blog has helped me find my professional (and occasionally unprofessional) voice. It has rekindled my love of writing – something graduate school had killed. When I’m firing on all cylinders, I think I effectively articulate common frustrations. Also, since I used to work at the Office of Accountability (now the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability), I am fairly familiar with some of the more useful sources of data concerning education. I think I do a pretty good job of putting those numbers in perspective for others.
I wouldn’t say that I’ve united the #oklaed community, but I have started a lot of important conversations. I’ve been in the middle of some pretty nasty spats too. I’ve enjoyed watching more and more educators start writing themselves. I think they look at mine and think blogging is so easy even a caveman can do it!
Collectively, we have turned back a wave of people who seek to destroy our schools. Most Oklahomans support public education. Those who don’t have to manufacture a crisis to chip away at us. I think people understand this better than they did before I started writing.
Do I have any regrets?
I have many.
My best posts are well-researched, but some miss the mark. Occasionally, I have taken shots at some of Barresi’s hires, intending to focus on the position and process rather than the person. I have not always effectively made that distinction. One such employee began an email conversation with me last year and explained that to me. It made me feel as if I had become the bully. While I regret nothing I have written about Barresi, I wish I had been more matter-of-fact in discussing some of the SDE employees. None Few of them have ever done anything to me personally.
I also hate that my blog became so focused on Barresi, but I don’t know how I could have avoided that. She is the embodiment of the false narrative that Public Education is failing. For four years, she was Oklahoma’s messenger. I have written about the Oklahoman and it’s obsession with preserving her legacy. I have written about other policy-makers. I have even written about the national parallels to what we’re dealing with here. Mostly, I have written about Barresi, though.
Smaller things bother me too.
For example, I had several good sources when I wrote in the fall that Barresi’s chief-of-staff Joel Robison had resigned. That turned out not to be true. I respect journalists too much to think that I am one. Someone with training probably would have avoided that mistake. He’s gone now, but I was wrong at the time.
Those aren’t the only regrets, but it’s a decent sample.
Why reveal my identity now?
Honestly, I wanted to open when I spoke to the SBE in June with the same thing I have at the top of this post. I would have loved seeing their reactions. For that matter, I would love seeing the look on many of your faces right now. That would have made everything I said after that pointless though. I never wanted the blog to be about me. It has been a great place to share and discuss ideas.
At the same time, I really didn’t want to draw the SDE’s attention to my employer. After everything else, we really didn’t need that extra hassle. We do our jobs and serve our community. We follow the rules. Nonetheless, with Barresi’s reputation as a vindictive leader, I didn’t want to invite her wrath. Ask Rob Miller. Ask any number of employees at the SDE who feel fortunate to still have their jobs. This was a concern of mine until noon on Monday.
Now that I’m not writing as much and that I don’t worry about retribution, I don’t see the point of staying anonymous. I didn’t want to take any of the attention away from Superintendent Hofmeister this week, so I waited. She was gracious at her reception at the SDE, and she was on point when speaking at the OASA Legislative Conference on Wednesday. On Thursday, coincidentally, she was in Moore to speak to a group of stakeholders from around the state who had come together to discuss high-stakes testing. Revealing my identity before that meeting didn’t seem right either.
Will I continue writing?
What I write isn’t that different than what I say or do publicly. I don’t have a separate set of opinions or values for the two separate worlds. I also don’t claim to speak for anyone else.
Of everything I’ve ever written, my favorite post was probably I am a Teacher; I Add Value. I wrote that two years ago as Oklahoma was just starting to try to figure out how to measure a teacher’s contribution to each child’s education. I don’t believe you have to measure everything to show that it matters. I also don’t believe you can ever assign a number to a teacher’s effectiveness. I will say that to anyone, anywhere, anytime. In case you’ve missed it, some of the administrators in our district have done a great job of explaining what’s wrong with the quantitative portion of the TLE.
I had absolutely nothing to do with the content or the video, which just shows that I don’t have to be the one speaking all the time in order for the message to be heard. Our state leaders are listening – to all of us. I’m no more insightful than anyone else. I just took the time to say what I was thinking.
If you think you can make a difference, start your own blog. Just buckle up first. It’s quite a ride.