Yesterday when legislative leaders announced that they had come to an agreement on the state budget, in conjunction with the governor’s office, I immediately checked to see how education funding looked. We had been warned that with a $611 million hole in the state budget, we could expect cuts from two to four percent.
I was relieved to see that funding for public schools was held flat. Of course flat doesn’t mean even. More students, higher expenses, and the reduction of oil and gas production in the state mean that we’ll have less per pupil to spend during the 2015-16 fiscal year than we did this year. Still, flat was as good of an outcome as could be expected. Then again, the Horse Racing Commission was also held to flat funding.
It could be worse. Higher Education took a 2.44 percent cut. Career Tech took a 3.5 percent cut. And the State Ethics Commission took a 42 percent cut. See, flat funding isn’t so bad. In light of this, I’m not going to pick through the inconsistencies and try to make sense of them.
I will, however, reprint the words of State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, who released the following statement yesterday.
Supt. Hofmeister comments on state budget agreement
OKLAHOMA CITY (May 19, 2015) — State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister made the following remarks in reaction to the recently announced state budget agreement:
“With Oklahoma in the midst of a serious revenue shortfall, I am thankful the Oklahoma State Department of Education budget was not reduced.
“It’s a severe disappointment that this agreement was unable to address a crippling teacher shortage that continues to negatively impact Oklahoma schoolchildren. The longer we fail to make our investment in common education a priority, the more likely it is we will pay economic and societal costs down the road. Our teachers deserve better than salaries that are among the lowest in the nation.
“In the months ahead we will renew our efforts to establish common education and our teachers as the very top of priorities for the children and citizens of Oklahoma.”
Again, I will not editorialize about the things they could have done differently to avoid the $611 million hole in the first place. That subject has been covered elsewhere. It took a lot of hard work to hold funding for the House, the Senate, and the Legislative Service Bureau flat while cutting the Department of Transportation budget by 6.25 percent. With the cumulative cuts to education over the last seven or eight years, it’s probably even farsighted that the agreement increases funding for the Department of Corrections by nearly three percent.
The small, mostly term-limited group that worked behind closed doors to reach this budget agreement was thinking to the future. And apparently, the future is when we’ll begin to address the teacher shortage in Oklahoma. Bills on testing, teacher evaluation, and the A-F report cards have also yet to make any serious threats to earn a signature. This is all being saved for 2016, an election year, I suppose.
To paraphrase J. Peterman from Seinfeld,
Kudos on a job….done.
One of my favorite dialogues from Shakespeare comes in the first scene of Romeo and Juliet (SPOILER: after that, it’s all downhill).
Nay, as they dare. I will bite my thumb at them;
which is a disgrace to them, if they bear it.
Enter ABRAHAM and BALTHASAR
Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?
I do bite my thumb, sir.
Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?
[Aside to GREGORY] Is the law of our side, if I say
No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I
bite my thumb, sir.
Today’s thumb-biting comes in the form of House Bill 2244, which appeared through spontaneous generation in the Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget. With no budget agreement in sight (which could mean it exists Charlie Pride-style – Behind Closed Doors), today we began to see several bills emerge that were on no one’s radar last week. This bill in particular has great potential to both hurt education and also twist the knife in the backs of all of us who support public schools. Since there’s no record of this bill coming through the regular legislative process, we are left to imagine.
Maybe one day last week, our legislative leaders were sitting around trying to figure out how to plug the hole in the state budget. They looked at all available revenue sources and noticed that one in particular – the motor vehicle tax – was actually growing. They decided to cap the revenue source at current levels and divert the remaining money in future years to the general fund. Whatever this tax produces for education funding in the current fiscal year is the maximum it will ever produce. Never mind that enrollment and expenses are rising. This fund could yield as much as $20 million next year above the cap and start to chip away at the $611 million deficit in the budget that they created.
In other words, they can’t fund education because of the budget hole, so they’re going to divert money away from education to try to very partially fill the hole. In case you’re wondering, HB 2244 passed through A & B on a 13-4 vote after minutes of debate. With that kind of transparency and consideration, I just have to ask why we keep electing these people.
The Legislature has been in session more than 100 days. Is this really the best they can do? What other surprises await us this week? Will they bite their thumb again, or show us an altogether different digit?
This is a time when your voice matters. Call your representative and senator. Call someone else’s too. If you have time, call them all. Tell them you’ve had enough of the nonsense. They’re either serious about funding public education or they’re not. It’s time to quit pretending.
In January, Kevin Hime, Superintendent of Clinton Public Schools, did everything he could to push the Oklahoma community of education supporters to view the 2015 legislative session through a singular lens:
I have been pushing for #oklaed to have a one issue legislative session. I believe the only issue we should be discussing until fixed is #teachershortage. Recently looking at SDE documents I noticed #oklaed employed almost 60k teachers in 2008 and a little more than 52k in 2014. Mathematically it looks like we should have almost 8K Teachers looking for a job but we started 2015 over 1000 teachers short. We are setting records for alt certs and emergency certifications every year. Why is my issue so much more important than yours? What is your issue?
One of the leading conservative minds in Oklahoma has accused us of blowing this issue out of proportion, but these numbers don’t lie. We have fewer teachers and larger classes. Imagine if we had kept all the closed positions open; we’d have several thousand vacancies!
With less than two weeks to go, how are our elected leaders doing? Let’s look at Kevin’s six criteria and assess.
Testing: In a recent survey conducted by our State Superintendent elect, testing was the first issue she needs to address. How many teachers have left our profession because they feel students are over-tested. If teachers are indicating in a survey that testing is the #1 issue, how can we fix teacher shortage without correcting our testing problems.
As of late last week, word reached several of us who follow the Legislature that SB 707 is still alive, but barely. Although it appears that a majority of members in both chambers support this legislation, it also appears that a small few in the leadership do not. This is not the time for the few to bully the many. This is the number one issue – even more than pay – decimating our teaching force. Some of the opposition has centered on the ACT, which the bill does not explicitly name as the replacement to the EOIs. We have to start somewhere with reducing the emphasis on testing in Oklahoma schools. This bill does that.
Teacher Pay: Ask the governor or any legislator how are we going to fix teacher shortage and most will mention teacher pay. So instead of starting with teacher pay start your discussion with teacher shortage.
I would love to see many changes in the way we compensate teachers in Oklahoma. Starting pay should be better, but veteran pay should be a lot better. The distance between lanes for degrees earned should be widened. And state aid should be solidified through dedicated funding that will not be exhausted in one year. The scheme that has been floated to use money dedicated for teacher retirement fails on both counts. It is not a recurring source of revenue, and it hardly moves the needle. A $1,000 raise for teachers would be appreciated, but it would move us from 48th to 48th in teacher pay. Oh wait, that’s no move at all!
Teacher Evaluations: Does anyone think VAMS, SLOs, SOOs, are any other acronym are good for teacher recruitment and retention. Without fixing our evaluation system we will continue to struggle with recruitment and retention.
So far, nothing is fixed. We have hit pause on some things, but the terrible quantitative measurements of teacher effectiveness still loom.
Teacher’s Retirement: Just the threat to change scares current teachers. If they change the system it will have a negative effect in the present climate. I hate to be against an idea until I know what the idea is but change today when teachers have zero trust for those proposing the change will not help teacher retention and recruitment.
Technically, the legislators haven’t touched teacher retirement yet. Again, though, I should mention that the idea is being tossed around to divert funds for salaries – this one time only. The state treasurer is against it. The Oklahoman is against it. Don’t screw with retirement. Just don’t.
School Funding: Have you looked at Texas, Arkansas, or Kansas school buildings lately. Recruiting teachers based on facilities if a non-starter for #oklaed. When you are 49th in school funding teachers find another state to work.
Again, we seem to be getting nowhere. During the March rally, many legislators blamed the economy. Others blamed their leadership. Here’s a fun fact: your constituents didn’t vote for the House and Senate leadership. They voted for you! Own your agenda. Represent your constituents and answer to them. Forget the leadership. Forget the lobbyists who buy your coffee, breakfast, and lunch. Make things better or admit to the voters that you failed them.
RSA, A-F, and other REFORMS are all legislative burdens that have landed in the middle of teachers desks and hamper teacher recruitment and retention.
We seem stuck on these reforms. We still have the A-F Report Cards, and some in the Legislature are determined to make the Reading Sufficiency Act even more complicated. Let’s double the number of committees for our finishing third graders and have some for first and second graders as well. And let’s not fund any of this. And let’s make it clear to the dastardly education establishment that this is the price for keeping retention decisions in the hands of human beings.
So far, I can’t point to a success. Yes, the Legislature managed to make dues collection for teachers’ associations harder, but that’s hardly a selling point. They make promises, but promises don’t buy bread. Promises don’t restore priorities and balance to teaching. Promises don’t entice college students and recent graduates to pursue teaching careers in Oklahoma.
Action makes a difference. Nothing else.
Concidentally, the teacher shortage was the topic of tonight’s #oklaed chat on Twitter. Here are some of my favorite comments from the discussion.
Throughout the chat, we kept coming back to the fact that salary matters, but so do the working conditions of our schools. I still believe that we’re losing teachers equally to both of these factors. We’ve tried and tried to explain this, but I don’t know if the politicians get it yet.
We have two weeks left to make them get it. Call. Write. Email. Visit. Don’t limit your time to your own senator and representative. Pick several. Call the leaders. Even if they tell you to call your own people, be persistent. They chose to lead. This is what they get.
Find their Facebook and Twitter accounts. Post articles using your own social media and get more parents and educators (and other citizens who care) involved.
We have two weeks to make sure the people we may or may not vote to re-elect listen to us and do something of value to stem the teacher shortage. Use it well.
Today is the day that many third graders, their parents, and their schools have been anticipating. Schools now have online access to student scores on this year’s third grade reading (featuring language arts) test. The data portal seems to have worked for administrators retrieving results, and statewide, scores are up from last year.
For fun, let’s play a matching game. In the box below, on the left are three headlines. On the right are the sources of each. Try to guess which came from where.
|Slight improvement seen in state third-grade reading test scores||Oklahoma State Department of Education|
|More than 7,000 Oklahoma third-graders failed reading test, face retention||Tulsa World|
|At least 85% of state’s third-graders pass to next grade under RSA||The Oklahoman|
This is the fun thing about data. All of these things are true. Let’s see how each source framed today’s results.
From the OSDE:
From the Tulsa World:
From the Oklahoman:
How did you do? If you thought that the OSDE would have the most positive approach and that the Oklahoman the most negative, you’d have been right. Also, keep in mind that the writers don’t typically write their own headlines.
Here’s the rest of Superintendent Hofmeister’s press release:
At least 85 percent of Oklahoma third-graders pass to next grade under Reading Sufficiency Act
OKLAHOMA CITY (May 15, 2015) — Preliminary results from this school year’s third-grade Oklahoma Core Curriculum Test (OCCT) reading test indicate that at least 85 percent will be promoted to the next grade.
Out of more than 50,000 test-takers, 67 percent statewide scored “Proficient,” while 14.6 percent scored “Unsatisfactory.”
Preliminary results are as follows:
Under the Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA), third-grade students who score “Unsatisfactory” on the assessment and fail to meet an exemption are subject to retention for intensive remediation in reading. Students who score “Limited Knowledge” are not held back, but must receive reading remediation in fourth grade.
However, students have multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery in the area of reading.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister said renewed focus on reading as a result of RSA has shown signs of improvement among Oklahoma’s third-graders.
“Literacy is critical for success in academics and throughout life, and the RSA plays a valuable role in ensuring that skill,” she said.
“While these numbers are preliminary and will change slightly, it appears the percentage of ‘Unsatisfactory’ has decreased. And more students evidently scored ‘Limited Knowledge,’ showing improvement between ‘Unsatisfactory’ and ‘Limited Knowledge.’
“But it is important to remember, too, that the current third-grade OCCT test given to satisfy federal test requirements was not designed to measure reading level the way it is being used for RSA. Instead, a valid reading test should include five essential elements: fluency, phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary and reading comprehension.
“For this reason it is very important that students who did not pass the OCCT reading test now be assessed by an RSA committee. These panels will examine other specific reading evidence to determine the need for retention or targeted intervention for next year. As these committees are essential to ensuring success, I urge the Legislature to keep their voices in the RSA process.”
The RSA committees are scheduled to dissolve at the end of the current school year unless lawmakers pass legislation to extend their existence. Additionally, lawmakers are considering a measure that would include “Limited Knowledge” students under the provisions of RSA. This year, for example, that would mean an additional 7,900 students evaluated for possible retention.
Over the next few weeks, school districts are required to contact parents and legal custodians of students who scored “Unsatisfactory” and determine the most effective course of action for these children.
Approximately two-thirds of students who scored “Unsatisfactory” are English Language Learners, on an Individualized Education Program (IEP), or both. That same designation also applies to roughly 39 percent of test-takers who scored “Limited Knowledge.”
Hofmeister’s words make me want to reiterate several important points that I’ve made at other times:
- Scores have improved (slightly, as the World indicates) from last year.
- This test is a poor measurement of reading ability.
- The RSA promotion committees have worked well around the state.
- Doubling the number of students in the promotion/retention committees dilutes the work needed for our most struggling students.
- Without the RSA committees, we will be retaining special education students and those just learning to speak English at highly disproportionate levels.
This is why we all need to be aware of ongoing legislative discussions. Senate bill 630 is out of conference committee. The Legislature’s bill tracking site shows the most recent version with a date of April 22. Here are the key changes:
- Keep the RSA Committees for promotion through the 2019-2020 school year (p. 4).
- Add an RSA Committee for students not meeting benchmarks on screening instruments in first and second grade (p. 5).
- Add students scoring Limited Knowledge into the retention discussion (p. 11).
The 2015 legislative session is almost over. Let your representative and senator know what you think about these changes.
The theme for tonight’s #oklaed chat on Twitter is, Why? Many of the chat questions come directly from the class discussions and writings of the grad students I’ve had at (shameless plug) Southern Nazarene University. Others may be just things that make me scratch my head. This won’t be a purely political chat, but we will wander down that path too. I hate to disappoint you.
For each question, the current state that exists may be the result of state/federal policy, tradition and school culture, or other outside factors. I’m not asking the questions to be difficult or to assign blame. That’s your job!
Seriously, for each of these questions, I look forward to a healthy, intellectual discussion on all sides.
Q1: Why do we require three years of math for all high school students?
Q2: Why do push most of our high school students towards college (or why don’t we do a better job of promoting CareerTech)?
Q3: Why do we use a half reading/half language arts test to evaluate third grade reading ability?
Q4: Why do we even need standards?
Q5: Why do we insist on using expensive, unreliable standardized tests to have students demonstrate proficiency in core subjects?
Q6: Why do we more or less forget about middle grades (4-8) when we focus on student remediation?
Q7: Why do some school districts have such a hard time generating parental involvement?
Q8: Why don’t we use more project-based learning (PBL) in teaching?
Q9: Why don’t we just let the students tell us what they need?
Today I’m loaning this space to #oklaed advocate and West Field Elementary (Edmond) parent Angela Little. She wrote a thank you to her sons’ teacher and asked me to share it with you. Enjoy!
Dear Mrs. Foster,
For an entire 8 months, I was extremely nervous about my little boys becoming 3rd graders. I worried, on the spectrum of worry mine was extreme, but every parent who was familiar with the RSA worried about sending their babies into a place where one test would define them. For many of us, third grade was the first time we felt like we couldn’t protect them. I had several sleepless nights and spent many hours of my life at the State Capitol fighting for my children and all children in this state. Finally we found resolve and this law was changed to allow my voice to matter in their education but I knew this wasn’t enough. I would still need the perfect teacher who would make this transitional year a positive one. Even if I had a voice in a retention decision, this test and this year would shape their self worth and their confidence for the rest of their lives. They needed growth and success not driven by fear but by a passion for learning. As the year comes to an end, I feel there are some things you should know.
You are the best kind of teacher.
You can tell my boys apart without hesitation.
You know the name of our dog and how much he means to us.
You know that Cannon loves yellow and Boston loves red.
You understood immediately that Boston only needed self confidence to bloom and that Cannon feels best about himself when he’s helping others.
You knew within weeks that my boys have sweet, sensitive hearts and are hardest on themselves if they feel like they have let you down.
You taught them that reading is done for enjoyment not for doing well on tests. At home, they will sneak flashlights into bed so they can finish just one more chapter.
You describe their compassion towards others as if you’ve known them for years.
You watch them laugh with their friends. Some days, they goof around during work time and you don’t punish them. It makes you smile to see them enjoying school and most importantly their childhood.
You radiate positive energy and I smile, because like the children in your class, I feel the warmth of your words. We all want to be one of your friends.
You have a little boy of your own, yet every day, you teach our children with seemingly endless patience.
You respond immediately to a text containing a question that I have asked you two times before and you are always kind. You understand that single working moms have very full minds and are pulled in a million different directions.
You have rock star status in our house.
“How did we get so lucky,” I say, “she’s exactly who we needed in such a volatile year.”
You are a dedicated third grade teacher. I know lots of teachers avoid third grade like the plague. You have to base their success and yours on a test that you don’t believe in.
You eased my worries.
Last year, I would have paid an exorbitant amount of money to buy the best third grade experience for my boys.
I hit the teacher jackpot. Every day, you give 26 kids exactly what they need to succeed.
I worried that my boys would feel defeated but they feel empowered daily.
Each day, I am at peace because I know you love and protect them like they are your own.
You help them feel unique despite them being identical.
You’ve made a difference in all of our lives.
In 2014, the Oklahoma Legislature did one of the smartest things I’ve seen from them in quite a while. They passed HB 2625, authored by Katie Henke. Then when Governor Fallin vetoed it, they quickly passed it again – overwhelmingly. This bill kept the heart of the third grade retention law – the Reading Sufficiency Act – in place, but correcting the fact that the retention decision was automatic and completely tied to the third grade reading test.
The handful of people opposed to the bill just couldn’t seem to understand that the six good cause exemptions were going to leave a lot of kids stuck in a holding pattern. The safety nets for English Language Learners and special education students just weren’t sturdy enough. They also, in typical form, expected the worst from educators. In their minds, if a committee that also included a parent were to meet to discuss promotion to the fourth grade, the teachers and principals would cave to pressure every time.
They didn’t. Committees met. Many students were promoted. Some were retained. For both groups of students, committees have continued meeting.
For my school district, this has meant the creation of 12 new forms. Keep in mind that our staff (collaborating with specialists from other districts) made these forms with no help from the Oklahoma State Department of Education. When we would ask questions, we would receive answers that were merely quotations of the law or administrative rules. Also keep in mind that large school districts such as Moore have the ability to employ curriculum specialists. This state has many districts that do not, in which case, the task of creating documentation would have fallen to principals and teachers.
These are the forms we use when our committees meet, when we make recommendations on our students who scored Unsatisfactory last year, and when we communicate with parents. If SB 630, which has passed both chambers with amendments and still needs to go to conference committee, were to pass as written, this process would become much more complicated. We would now have to go through these same steps with all of our students who score in the Limited Knowledge range as well.
My understanding is that adding the Limited Knowledge group in with the Unsatisfactory group is the price to extend the time of the parent/teacher committees. Last year, HB 2625 put this step in place for two years. This summer will be the second year. Passing SB 630 would extend that provision through the 2019-2020 school year.
Keeping parents involved in retention/promotion decisions is critical. The rest of the work is important too. My fear is that when we take the same number of teachers, principals, and reading specialists and double their paperwork and meeting time, we will dilute the impact we are seeing on our neediest students. How much extra time do we really need to spend on students who are one or two questions short of passing the test? The short answer is as much as it takes. With the students who are farther behind, this undefined amount is much, much more.
Only a few of the people I talk to want to do away with the RSA altogether. What most of the rest of us want to do is give the current configuration some time to work. We believe, other than the fact that it’s not fully funded, that we’re making it work. We believe, with recent changes at the SDE, that we’re even getting a little guidance finally to help us with the bureaucratic part of it. More paperwork and meetings aren’t the help our students need.