One Year Later: How Far We’ve Come
It’s hard to believe it’s already been a year, but it has. On June 24, 2014, Oklahoma voters not only elevated Joy Hofmeister over the incumbent state superintendent; they did so with a more decisive margin than any of us had imagined. Many of us went into the day worried that Hofmeister would fall just short of the 50% tally necessary to avoid an expensive run-off election. As the evening unfolded, Hofmeister not only won the primary, she comfortably surpassed 50. Furthermore, if she had faced a run-off election, it wouldn’t have been against the incumbent. Janet Barresi had finished in third.
Among the Democrats in the race, voters had narrowed the choices to two. John Cox would eventually defeat Freda Deskin in a late summer run-off. Then something amazing happened. Hofmeister and Cox went around Oklahoma debating one another. In public. Pretty much everywhere. It was one of the most civil things I had seen in politics in a long time. When I finally saw them at Westmoore High School in October, the general election was but a few weeks away. By then, they probably didn’t have many surprises left for one another. Most of the discussions were on point. A few barbs by each were political in nature, but very few. It was largely a substantive discussion.
SIDE NOTE: I had this picture in the back of my head of the two of them driving all over the state in an old VW van continuing their debates as they moved from stop to stop. Yes, I know that’s not how it all happened, but don’t ruin this for me.
Meanwhile, Barresi had more than six months remaining in her term. During that time, she continued the work of the previous 42 months. The only difference was that more of us were speaking out against her. She defended herself rather crassly at the Vision 2020 conference. She created a crony position for an in-house investigator who paraded around Oklahoma trying to intimidate leaders in various district. Board members called her out. She swore at one of them. Even on her last day in office, she fired people pretty much just because she could.
At noon on January 12, Hofmeister took office. She then had an open house at the SDE to greet people and set a new tone for her upcoming administration. The big WELCOME #OKLAED banner in front of the building did that. As I chatted with several old friends, we all expressed optimism.
For me, that feeling hasn’t faded.
Superintendent Hofmeister has had some early victories in her administration. She eliminated the field test for fifth and eighth grade writing and announced that the prompt would ask students to write in the narrative mode. A few months later, when the tests came back with the exact same problems as last year, she wasted no time in announcing that the scores wouldn’t count in the A-F Report Card calculations. Last year, if you’ll recall, it took an entire tortured summer for Barresi to finally make that decision.
To me, the most impressive thing she’s done, is gather her assessment team and get Measured Progress to change the practice of a student’s score range appearing on the screen after finishing each state test. She did it quickly. Most Oklahomans were appreciative.
She worked with legislators to try to curb testing. If it hadn’t been for a few in leadership positions, they would have been able to eliminate the writing tests.
This needs to happen, by the way. Nobody values writing instruction more than I do. Lousy prompts on lousy tests lead to dubious writing that is scored by temporary labor who are poorly trained and poorly compensated.
Hofmeister even came to the rally at the Capitol in March and has continued fighting to curb the teacher shortage. At times, it has seemed as if her ideas are left hanging in mid-air because we still have the same governor, representatives, and senators we had before. She hasn’t won every political fight for us, but it was only the first year.
She still has some critics on the fringe of each party. Many of them hold dearly to petty, perceived slights and are susceptible to every conspiracy theory they can imagine. It’s to be expected.
The Oklahoman also hasn’t warmed up to Hofmeister, but then again, they still have Barresi’s first campaign manager’s husband writing editorials. Similarly, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs continues pushing back against her and all things public education. Expecting something different would be like asking the sun not to shine.
In spite of this, I do still feel optimistic. More importantly, I feel respected. I feel that my profession and the children we are passionate to serve have a voice – and that her voice will only become more influential during the next several years.
Going back a year – actually, a year and two days – I hosted the Sunday night #oklaed chat and asked several questions about the primary election. I want to share a few responses to the second question, which was, “What should a new state superintendent do on day one in office.”
Yes, there were a few snarky, Paul Lynde “center-square” type answers in there, but most were along the lines of inviting parents and educators to the SDE (done) and helping remaining SDE staff understand their role as a true service agency (visible progress on that front).
A year has made a huge difference. I’m still excited. I owe that feeling to Joy Hofmeister and the people of this state who decided a year ago that they had seen enough.