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So much thanks

November 25, 2015 Comments off

I can pretty much assume that if we’re going to talk about our blessings this Thanksgiving, that there will be some common things 90 percent of us say. Our families and friends. The servicemen and women who protect this great country. Sunsets. Bacon.

Just a few days ago, I even wrote about how thankful I am that former students from more than a decade ago still reach out to me to let me know I’ve had some kind of impact on their lives.

I want to push myself farther this year and give 45 very specific reasons to give thanks – one for every birthday I’ve had. So we’ll take the ones from above as givens and shoot for a more personalized list.

  1. Jazz bands

  2. The #oklaed online community
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  3. Reruns of Thanksgiving episodes of Friends
  4. Coffee and donuts
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  5. Books
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  6. Free songs from the Foo Fighters
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  7. Taco Bueno after bad banquet food
  8. A leadership team that really gets me

  9. A former staff that did too
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  10. A great boss and mentor in Moore
  11. Really, a lot of great leaders and co-workers throughout my career
  12. Getting to meet Diane Ravitch
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  13. Bloggers, parents, and other rebels throughout Oklahoma who fight for children and their schools
  14. Superhero day at elementary schools
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  15. Speaking of superheroes, Baker Mayfield

  16. Speaking of superheroes, Russell Westbrook (featuring unicorns and rainbows)
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  17. The first day of school
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  18. Breaks
  19. High school classmates who are long-time Mid-Del teachers
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  20. Tom Petty

  21. Friends who can quote Hemingway
  22. Friends who can quote Shawshank, Princess Bride, and Seinfeld, on command
  23. Birthday wishes from Joe Dorman
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  24. Nerd humor
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  25. Humble beginnings
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  26. Independent thought
  27. Guilty pleasures
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  28. Austin being weird
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  29. A state superintendent who is the real deal
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  30. A school board and community that took a chance on me
  31. Students in leadership
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  32. Students in leadership volunteering to moderate chats
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  33. Running
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  34. Skiing
  35. Surprise reunions at holidays
  36. First-world problems
  37. Words
  38. Old movies
  39. Students who step outside their comfort zones
  40. Teachers who step outside their comfort zones
  41. The finales of Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, the Colbert Report, and Letterman
  42. A new Sarah Vowell book
  43. Reporters who give public schools a fair shake
  44. The opportunity to work with graduate students
  45. The future, whatever it holds

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. And if you get tired of leftovers, go get a taco or some Funyuns. And read a book or two.

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Sometimes, Knowing is Enough

November 22, 2015 2 comments

It’s that time of year when we all share things that make us thankful. As with most people, I have many blessings about which I can reflect this year. One of them is that I’ve had the opportunity to impact so many young lives throughout my career. Because of social media, many of my former students even let me know what they’re doing with their lives.

I started my career at West Middle School in Muskogee (which isn’t even a school anymore) in 1993. These were my eighth grade students, and my sixth grade academic team.

I was only there a year, but I had a great principal and great colleagues on our eighth grade team. I’ve occasionally seen names of students from this group on Facebook, but there are only a couple who I really know anything about. I would say this group probably shaped who I became more than I shaped them.

My years at Mustang High School, however, have given me many friends – both from among the colleagues I had, and the students I taught. Since I left the classroom in 2002, all the students I ever taught are in their 30s now. They have families and careers. Some are even teachers. Some have found happiness and success. Some have found hard times. I told them all that when they graduate from high school, they need to get used to calling me Rick, rather than Mr. Cobb, since it was my intent that they become my peer as adults.

Of all the groups I taught, I probably have the fondest memories of the students I had the good fortune to keep for two years. At the end of the 98-99 school year, I had been teaching freshman for four years. I had two sections of regular English and three sections of honors English. Because one of our teachers was moving into an assistant principal position, I had the opportunity to move up. On the first day of school, rather than covering the syllabus and the student handbook, I opened with, “so, when we left off in May…” and then we started learning.

This was before I had ever read anything about building relationships with students and how much that impacts their learning. It was just obvious to me. When I was coaching volleyball, and I had some of my players in class, it was easy to connect with them. The better you know your students, the better you can teach them. It’s not rocket surgery.

This is also the group of students I taught that has connected with me as adults in the greatest numbers. The two pictures below show my honors classes from that year. Of the students pictured, I’m friends with 25 of them on Facebook. I’ve actually seen most of them since they finished high school, which is even more notable since I left Mustang the year they graduated.

Some would come back to me when they were juniors and seniors and ask for advice with their AP papers. Even after I moved to Medford as a principal, I had students who reached out to me.

The last year I was in the classroom, I had a student named CM. He was funny and smarter than he knew. What he probably didn’t realize was that when we were discussing some story or a writing topic, I would give him a little latitude to circle around to the point. He didn’t always take the most direct line from the question to the answer. He made it there, but indirectly. And he’d stick the landing. It was worth the processing time to get to the result.

It was with CM’s class that I stopped in the middle of a class discussion one day in April and just stared blankly at my students. I had already accepted the Medford job and was in the process of selling a house and changing everything. I just had this clear moment of what I was leaving behind. After a few silent, awkward moments, one of the students asked me if I was ok. I said something along the lines of how I just had realized everything I was giving up. My job was to discuss books I love with some of the most interesting people in the world. It was like Oprah, but without her paycheck.

I still think that’s a pretty cool job.

Eight months later, as I was in my office getting ready for a much needed break, I got a phone call from Mustang. It was CM and two other students from that class. They just wanted to tell me Merry Christmas and ask me how I liked being a principal. We probably talked for five minutes or so, and that was that.

Until this August, I hadn’t heard from CM for nearly 13 years. Out of nowhere, I received this Facebook message:

Hey Mr. Cobb, this is CM… I had you for AP English II at Mustang.., I am doing my student teaching at Mustang this semester and I have sophomores in English II LOL… My mom said I needed to friend you on Facebook and I thought it was a good idea so I sent you a request and here is a message attached. Anyway, I just thought I would say hello and let you know what I was doing… Just FYI I wanted to let you know you are a big reason why I decided to go into teaching. You were a great teacher, awesome person, and a great influence so thank you for everything!

I love it when my former students become teachers. I quickly tried to hire him because, well, you know, there’s a teacher shortage. Mostly, I just love hearing stories about how the people I taught turned out. I know their parents influenced more than I did. I know they had other teachers. But when one of them takes the time to tell me that something I did shaped their life in a positive way, I feel like I’m watching a SportsCenter highlight of myself.

After leaving the classroom, I spent two years as a principal, four years as a state employee, and then seven in the central office before becoming a superintendent. For the last 11 years, I haven’t had the direct day-to-day contact with kids. I have made friends at each of those places. I have provided training for teachers all over the state and developed a professional network that I treasure. I know that my work has made a difference. And sometimes, knowing is enough.

But I have to take it on faith. I don’t see the students and watch them from May to August. Sure, principals can give me their data points, but I think we all know how I feel about data points. They’re not people.

I knew once I left the classroom, I would never have that kind of relationship with students again. If anything, that’s probably what motivates me to be in schools as much as I can be right now. I love opportunities to work with kids, but more than that, I get to see teachers building those relationships with students, and with families. I take selfies with classes because it reminds me why we do what we do.

Sometimes, though, I get messages that my nine years in the classroom mattered to someone else besides me. And for that, I’m thankful.

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on Obstruction and Serious Conversation

November 19, 2015 2 comments

If my math is correct, and it usually is, Oklahoma school districts have lost over $900 million in State Aid since the 2008-09 school year. Even if the Legislature could pull a minor miracle and keep funding for schools flat for the 2016-17 school year, the total revenue decline would be more than $1 billion in just eight years.

The funny thing about losing that much money is that you miss it. It hurts. The only thing that hurts worse is when you realize it isn’t coming back. That’s when you have to act boldly.

To me, that is what we’re seeing with Governor Senator OU President David Boren’s penny sales tax plan. Born of necessity – because frankly, nobody is proposing any other credible solution – it stands as the only option on the table. Sure, the Oklahoma’s Council for Pushing ALEC – or whatever OCPA stands for – came up with an alternative. It includes several one-time solutions – such as selling off art collections (that the state doesn’t technically own) for teacher raises.

Oklahoma's Council for Pushing ALEC.jpg

Here’s a fun fact for people who’ve never had to cobble together a school district budget and worry about paying thousands of teachers and support employees: you can’t use one-time funds for raises. What are you going to do the next year if nothing to match those funds is in place?

Then again, why would we expect a group that has invested decades trying to destroy public education to bring anything serious to the conversation? I only bring them up because they carry water for and to certain obstructionist legislators who share their voucher-centric agenda. They’re part of the conversation, whether they have any business being in it or not.

I haven’t yet written about the Boren proposal for a couple of reasons. First, I have a lot of friends and colleagues working in municipal government. I fear that a state penny sales tax will limit their ability to continue generating local revenue through their own initiatives. We need well-funded schools, but we need well-funded city governments as well. It’s not a trade-off for me. They’re both critical needs.

Second – and maybe this should be first – is the fact that over the last ten years, our state government has methodically reduced the tax base by passing income tax cuts (that really didn’t benefit the middle class or the working poor), increasing tax credits for corporations, and pushing nebulous amendments to the state constitution that limit growth in ad valorem collections.

As Oklahoma Watch points out, some who are critical of the Boren plan feel like the state is replacing income taxes that are progressive with  sales taxes which are, by definition, regressive. As Boren points out, however, “Our choice is to either do this, or nothing.” In other words, we can lament the fact that our elected leaders knew they were tying their own hands, or we can propose a solution.

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That billion dollar projected hole in next year’s state budget reflects the billion dollars in lost state aid that schools have seen over the last seven (going on eight) fiscal years. Reversing this trend through legislative means is a feat that is against all odds. While I’d welcome some teamwork and help from our elected leaders, until that happens, why not let the people decide if a penny sales tax is the best way to help public education.

Then again, one of the OCPA’s side ventures has filed suit – against the reigning State Teacher of the Year, among others – claiming the Boren plan violates the Oklahoma Constitution. In short, they claim the initiative constitutes a “textbook example of logrolling.” By logrolling, the plaintiffs mean that the proposal violates the state’s single issue rule. The fact of the matter is that the proposal is for one thing – a penny sales tax, and what should be done with the proceeds of that penny. The plaintiffs know this. Then again, as I said, they have a long, long history of trying to block all things that would benefit public education.

What they forget, however, is that public schools are responsible for teaching 90 percent of students in this state. What they forget is that parents and communities support their local schools and the people who work in them. What they conveniently try to forget is that those parents and communities are sick and tired of budget cuts and teacher shortages, and that voters increasingly realize that the school districts didn’t create these problems.

Oh, and 2016 is an election year. Every House seat and half the Senate seats are up for grabs. I recently read that more than 30 seats will be impacted by term limits. If incumbents have opponents, they all can be. If incumbents throw up their hands and say there is nothing they can do to prevent cuts to education funding, then we should see more challengers.

With all that said, one conservative Oklahoman I respect tremendously is Phyllis Hudecki. She has been – among other things – Governor Fallin’s first secretary of education. She has been involved with the Oklahoma Business Education Coalition for more than a decade. She recognizes the problems that shrinking education budgets and stagnant teacher pay have brought to our schools. She published a strong editorial in this Sunday’s Oklahoman saying as much:

Our teachers are leaving the state in droves. In fact, schools began this year with about 1,000 teacher vacancies and a record number of adults in classrooms without teacher preparation.

Teachers haven’t had a state-funded raise in nearly a decade, which is, in part, why the state ranks 48th in teacher pay. We have a moral and economic imperative to fix this now.

While money is not the only answer for all that ails our schools, it is certainly a large part.

The Oklahoma Business and Education Coalition recently commissioned a study of teacher attrition and pay in Oklahoma, Texas and comparable jobs in the private sector. The study showed that teacher salaries in Oklahoma are about 16 percent lower than teacher salaries in Texas and 28 percent lower than median salaries for similar workers in Oklahoma’s private sector.

Nibbling around the edges and tinkering with smaller changes may save a little, but it will not catapult funding to the levels needed now.

The only comprehensive funding plan on the table is the ballot initiative to add a penny sales tax.  The measure would provide approximately $426 million to increase teacher salaries.

Ideally, the upcoming legislative session would include serious movement towards rolling back tax credits that really haven’t proven to stimulate the economy. Failing that, we have the Boren plan. At the least, Oklahoma voters should have the right to decide its merits – and to do so without obstruction and misinformation from right-wing lobbyists.

A-F Breakdown: Let’s Define #ourschool Ourselves

November 8, 2015 2 comments

Each of the last two weeks the Journal Record has published columns by individuals affiliated with a certain right-wing non-partisan think tank in which the writer is critical of those of us who have been critical of the A-F Report Cards. I enjoy watching people defend the indefensible as much as anybody, but it’s probably good to run a scorecard of the responses we’ve seen so far.

First, it was Oklahoma City University professor Andrew Spiropoulos who wrote about being puzzled that Governor Fallin didn’t even defend her own reforms:

But when you don’t control the debate, you lose control of the government. Look at what has transpired this month concerning the issue of education reform. One of the most important and bitter fights of the Gov. Mary Fallin years was the establishment of the state A-F school and district grading system.

While managing the system is always a difficult work in progress, the system’s benefits are evident. Every month, it seems, you read an inspiring story about a school, usually in the inner city, that used a failing grade as a spur to transform itself and, because of these efforts, improved both student achievement and its state grade.

But the education establishment isn’t going to allow proof that a reform is working to temper their lust to repeal it. As you would expect, the bureaucrats took the certification of this year’s grades as an opportunity to once again criticize the system and call for its repeal. The state superintendent of public instruction, the education establishment’s hired hand, refused to promote or even defend her own department’s work.

Did he really just call us the education establishment? That’s so 2014 of him.

I also find the governor’s silence telling. Maybe she’s busy managing the boon to our economy that a decade of tax cuts has brought the state. As deeply moved as Spiropoulos is by anecdotal stories of schools making great gains, he fails to see that outliers prove nothing  when it comes to dispelling trends. For most of those schools, the gains have come with the infusion of federal school improvement funds and a narrowed academic focus. One of those is a good thing. The other is a narrowed academic focus.

As I’ve said in different ways countless times, a singular focus on testing sucks the passion out of both teaching and learning. Curiosity – not test prep packets and the loss of electives – is the root of learning.

Michael Carnuccio, the outgoing president of said think tank also expressed his disdain for our collective show of frustration with the A-F grades.

When Oklahoma’s new A-F report cards were released last month, many in the education community were quick to pronounce the grading system “flawed” and “unfair” and to insist that the grades don’t accurately reflect student performance.

Tulsa World columnist Jay Cronley noticed the defensiveness and remarked (sensibly, I thought) that “if people focused more on improving themselves and their families than complaining about everything from the headline in the newspaper to the testing procedure, maybe more schools would improve their grades.”

First, I’ll take issue with Jay Cronley. I can’t speak for the entire education establishment, but in the course of my typical 60 hour week, I maybe spend an hour or two complaining about public policy issues. I do some more on my own time, as if that’s a thing. The truth is that we’re too busy trying to teach kids and run schools to sit in our palaces and dwell on every bad idea. Yes, we have increased our advocacy against those who insist on repeating the false narrative that public education is failing. We do plenty more than that, though.

Carnuccio then lists every other report card known to man. For each, I could have a separate response. I’ll be brief, however. Oklahoma schools have more students in poverty than most other states. Oklahoma is outperformed by most other states. The US has more students in poverty than most of the comparison countries. The US educates ALL students; other countries don’t. So yes, there are statistical differences there too.

With Oklahoma’s A-F Report Cards, if we were to compare school sites’ poverty levels to the report card grades, we would see a strong correlation, just as we did in 2012, 2013, and 2014. Similarly, if we ranked states and countries by poverty levels, we’d see similar trends. Oh, wait, that’s already been done.

Thanks, Rob.

For what it’s worth, in case you missed it, Dr. Joe Siano (Norman) and I wrote a brief message expressing our thoughts on the A-F Report Cards. The Oklahoman was kind enough to run it. It wasn’t just two OKC metro-area superintendents, though. CCOSA sent the letter in advance to their members, and over 230 superintendents around the state signed off in agreement.

Are we dodging accountability? No, just mythology. Here’s how we ended the letter:

Fortunately, a task force is working with researchers to study options and solutions to address flaws that have been identified. Researchers from the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University have questioned the methodology and the usefulness of the A-F calculations. And, the creation of the task force, proposed by our own state leaders, clearly demonstrates that inaccurate and misleading information is being distributed to parents about Oklahoma’s schools.

As teachers and administrators, we should be held accountable for our work. However, any accountability system should be an accurate measure of the comprehensive work that contributes to the overall success of our students and schools. In spite of the millions of state dollars spent annually on the current system, it is not helpful in guiding districts. Instead, district and state officials spend countless hours tracking data errors for a product that has no instructive value.

Regardless of the accountability system used, we remain committed to student success and will continue to advocate on behalf of our state’s future leaders. We hope that ongoing research and commitment by state leaders and school district officials will lead to an improved measure that we can use in helping patrons understand all the indicators of school success.

Others who came out against the report cards include State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister and Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Deborah Gist. Hofmeister’s press release points out that even the USDE has problems with the system. In fact, few in the Legislature who still support it. That’s why they ordered a study about ways to reform it. That study includes researchers from the state’s flagship universities who have criticized the grades from the first year moving forward.

All this is to say that the scorecard stacks more heavily to the side of those of us who think these report cards are a slap in the face. Maybe it’s a breakdown in confidence that caused the governor’s silence.

(Did I say breakdown? Hold on for some gratuitous Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.)

I’ve always objected to the letter grades on a very basic level. If all you want to tell me about my school is that we are an A or an F or something in between, you’re missing the bigger picture. We do things that aren’t measured – always have, always will. Sometimes, that one thing that keeps a child in school is something that a test or a report card just can’t capture.

That’s why I floated the idea of a new hashtag to a couple of blogger friends the same day that Spiropoulos published in the Journal Record. None of us could come up with a good one that we could use to capture what’s right with our schools. They were either to clunky or too easy to mock if you’re a middle schooler.

That night, I was excited to read Seth Meier’s post on his blog, Excellence in Mediocrity. It was simply titled #OurSchool. He included several sources of pride for Jarman Middle School. It was something I could appreciate as both a blogger, and his superintendent. Here are some of the things Seth highlighted:

  • #ourschool examined referral data that focused on student demographics, which allows us to individualize positive behavior supports for students.
  • #ourschool provided a huge basket of goodness for a teacher that recently endured a heart attack.
  • #ourschool had school-wide team competitions to help build unity within our grade-level teams.
  • #ourschool gave food to families that do not have any.
  • #ourschool teaches with integrity, even when we feel that we aren’t appreciated.
  • #ourschool has worked with amazing parents.
  • #ourschool has been parents to those that need it.
  • #ourschool has helped homeless families.
  • #ourschool has challenged our kids in the best ways.
  • #ourschool has grown as a family.

This is what we should all be doing. We should be fighting back with the things that bring us pride. Instead of letting think tanks that want to destroy public education define us, we must do it ourselves.

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