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Life of Illusion 2020: Conference Wrap-up

Tonight on the way home from Vision 2020, I tried to wrap the conference up in my mind. I have so many thoughts about the week, the conference, and Oklahoma education in general, that I’m struggling to get them coalesced into something that fits. I wanted to stick with the vision puns I’ve so enjoyed this week, but there are too many out there.

Then the magic of my iTunes library came through in the clutch for me, in the form of Mr. Joe Walsh. The song is a great one, but the lyrics really fit how I feel about where we are right now.

Sometimes I can’t help the feeling that I’m
Living a life of illusion
And oh, why can’t we let it be
And see through the hole in this wall of confusion
I just can’t help the feeling I’m
Living a life of illusion

This morning, what really hit me while listening to Scott Barry Kaufman’s speech was that all three of the conference’s keynote speakers, in their own way, told us that we shouldn’t rely so much on standardization or testing. I wondered if I was the only one who had caught that, so I went to Storify to capture what seemed to be the relevant tweets from the last three days. Reading through all the #OKVision2020 comments, I confirmed not only that, but the fact that so much of the conference’s offerings could be tied back to testing. There were sessions over VAMs, SLOs, and SOOs; testing updates; A-F Report Card updates; and the ESEA waiver. Even many of the sessions aimed at improving instruction circled back to test scores.

The problem is that these tests don’t tell us what they claim to tell us. They are the bricks that build the wall of confusion. We hold them in place with public policy, polished accountability reports, testing pep rallies (one of the most sickening concepts ever), and even more tests designed to predict how we’re going to do on the actual tests.

Pow! Right between the eyes
Oh, how nature loves her little surprises
Wow! It all seems so logical now
It’s just one of her better disguises
And it comes with no warning
Nature loves her little surprises
Continual crisis

If you talked to any high-level SDE staff on the first day of the conference – Superintendent Barresi, the curriculum people, the federal programs office, the assessment crew – they didn’t know what would become of the HB 3399 lawsuit. They all had contingency plans for different scenarios based upon what the Supreme Court might rule, but there was a lack of clarity in some of the information they provided. Maybe the ruling (or the speed with which it came) wasn’t a little surprise, but it certainly feeds the cycle of continual crisis.

A realtor once explained to me when I was looking at a house that activity begets activity. There were parts of the home that would need immediate updating. In doing so, other rooms would become dated. The same concept is true for us in education. For every professional obligation that makes us work in a frenzy, we produce outcomes that generate more work. It never ends. When we re-write the standards, we have to re-write the tests. If we have benchmark tests in place, we’ll have to re-write those as well. The accountability measures will need to be re-worked as well. Of course, if we’re implementing standards (science) in 2014 that we won’t be testing until 2016, then we have to decide how much transition to pursue. What will we really be teaching this year? These are the things that keep many teachers and administrators awake at night. Even the SDE staff with public school experience have expressed similar restlessness.

Hey, don’t you know it’s a waste of your day
Caught up in endless solutions
That have no meaning, just another hunch
Based upon jumping conclusions
Caught up in endless solutions
Backed up against a wall of confusion
Living a life of illusion

That’s what we do. We walk aisle to aisle, talking to vendors, seeking endless solutions to our problems with test scores. Some of these people (companies, really) have great products, but they have had to alter them for reasons that really have nothing to do with teaching and treating kids well. At least the school bus vendors are just school bus vendors. And they’ll always give you a hat.

The over-arching problem is that we have created a school culture in which the test matters more than the kids who take it. What was it Barresi said in November?

If you don’t measure it, it doesn’t matter.

Sure, she’s on her way out, but that is only one part of fixing our profession. Most of her reform policies are still in place. Oklahoma will still hire a new testing company this fall to replace CTB/McGraw-Hill and spend many millions in the process. Even though HB 3399 overturned those unmentionable standards and took us back to PASS, the text of the law itself tells us that we need better standards and that we will be taking tests over them anyway. We’re paying a new company a ton of money to develop tests over standards that we think need to be replaced. We will spend every day teaching to help students do well on those tests. We will spend every professional development dollar we can find helping teachers do those things better. Then in 2016, we will start over.

On Day One, if you heard the compelling student from Tulakes Elementary say, “I matter. That’s why teachers matter,” she wasn’t talking about standards or tests. If you heard Day Two speaker Paul Tough say that we need to find a way to lower the stakes on standardized tests, then you had to wonder what conference you were attending. Today, during the keynote address, even the SDE Twitter account parroted the speaker, saying, “Engagement is an active, deep and personally meaningful connection between the student and the learning environment.” At least the PR firm running social media for them understands.

I should be happy because Barresi lost the election – and deep down, I am. Things are turning around. At times, I walked around the conference with that feeling. At others, I felt anxiety knowing there is so much more work to do. We must make school about the children again – not the tests or the reformers who value them. This is my life of illusion.

Too many of us work too hard to build relationships with our students and their families. We are over-tasked by the same SDE that promised us they would lighten the regulatory burden. We know what matters, but we spend most of our time on other things – because we have to. Still, we show up to help struggling students, coach their baseball teams, provide them with academic and personal guidance, and go to their art shows. We spot them money when our schools have a book fair. We go to their basketball games and high school graduations even if they were our students 10 years ago. Sometimes, if we’re fortunate, we teach alongside them a little later even. If you want to know when our students quit being our students, read Claudia Swisher’s post from yesterday. The answer is never.

I’m glad I had some drive time tonight. And I’m glad that Joe Walsh helped me organize my thoughts. Hopefully using the song tied my this together for you. If not, well, it could have been worse. The next song my iTunes played was by Chumbawamba.

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2014-15 State Teacher of the Year Finalists

July 16, 2014 Comments off

I wanted to write about this, but in a separate post from my musings on the conference, the SDE, and reform fatigue. Today, we learned who the state’s 12 Teacher of the Year Finalists are. These professionals should be congratulated and honored for their accomplishments. I wish each well in the state competition. They are:

  • Tonya Lynn Boyle, who teaches fifth grade at H. Cecil Rhoades Elementary School in Broken Arrow Public Schools.
  • Cynthia Brown, who teaches AP English Language and Composition and Humanities at Piedmont High School in Piedmont Public Schools.
  • Roger Clement, who teaches Physical Science, Biology, Chemistry and Chemistry II at Noble High School in Noble Public Schools.
  • Amber L. Elder, who teaches first and second grades at James L. Dennis Elementary School in Putnam City Schools.
  • Adam Forester, who teaches Chemistry, Pre-AP Chemistry, AP Chemistry and Earth Science at Bethany High School in Bethany Public Schools.
  • Monica Hodgden, who teaches Pre-Kindergarten at Woodward Early Childhood Center in Woodward Public Schools.
  • James LeGrand, who teaches AP U.S. History, America in the 1960s and Civil War and Reconstruction at Altus High School in Altus Public Schools.
  • Jennifer Luttmer, who teaches second grade at Liberty Elementary School in Sallisaw Public Schools.
  • Romney Nesbitt, who teaches art at Jenks West Intermediate School in Jenks Public Schools.
  • Jason Scott Proctor, who teaches Geometry, Algebra II, Pre-Calculus and AP Calculus at Tahlequah High School in Tahlequah Public Schools.
  • Diane Walker, who teaches All-Honors Oklahoma History, World History, Government and Geography at Muskogee High School in Muskogee Public Schools.
  • LeaAnn J. Wyrick, who teaches Geography at McCall Middle School in Atoka Public Schools.
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Conjunctivitis 2020: A Less Eventful Day

July 16, 2014 Comments off

No, not this.

Those are conjunctions – the things that hook up words, clauses, and phrases.

I was going with the clinical term for pink eye. Yesterday’s eye pun worked out so well, I thought I’d try another.

Honestly, today’s trip to Vision 2020 was less eventful than yesterday’s. That’s not a good statement if I’m trying to get page views, but it’s good if I’m trying to avoid going over 2,100 words again today.

Mostly, it seemed as if people had bloodshot eyes. Maybe it was the guests enjoying all of Oklahoma City’s amenities. Maybe it was the SDE employees staying up late making changes to their presentations after the Supreme Court upheld HB 3399. We have some direction on standards and testing at least. I guess I could have titled this Vision 2010 – since we’re going back to our old standards now.

Other than the revelation that Former First Lady Kim Henry is no longer a board member for the OPSRC, I can’t think of anything I learned today. Instead, I encourage you to read Rob Miller’s return to blogging. He presents a great argument for both the limits of standardization and the benefits of individualization. Here’s a preview:

So, even with the same academic standards, the suggestion that schools should all produce a standard “output” using widely disparate “inputs” makes little sense. Public schools work with the students who walk in their door, not just those hand-picked through a rigorous quality control process.

The idea for education standards comes to us from the business world. What the people Susan Ohanian refers to as “corporate standardistos” fail to realize is a simple, yet major difference between a classroom and a business office. In a business setting, if you have an employee that is slowing down production, lagging behind, refusing to do the work required, having problems working as a team player, and displaying a lack of concentration or focus, what do you think happens to that employee? The obvious answer is the reason a public school classroom is not like a business, has never been like a business, and will never be like a business. The moral here is we should STOP trying to “reform” schools like we would a business.

We saw the limitations of this approach with our rush to enact the former standards that I’m really not naming anymore. We see it with the third grade retention law. We see it with value-added measurements. We’re on the precipice of a revolt in public education. The public and educators don’t really see the point anymore. Reformers tried to do too much too quickly. They explained it poorly. They didn’t bother funding it properly. This goes back farther than Janet Barresi. Or Arne Duncan. Or even George W. Bush. Each of them have contributed to the problem, though.

We’ve lost the connection between what we do and what it’s supposed to mean. We teach children to improve their lives. How much of the testing we do really accomplishes that? We’ve narrowed our instruction because the stakes of testing continue to increase. I’m going to assume that’s the root cause behind the red eyes I saw today.

The people wearing sunglasses indoors, however, I can’t explain.

Of Standards and Rules

In case you missed it, Oklahoma’s Priority Academic Student Skills (PASS) have become the Oklahoma Academic Standards (OAS). Though this transition has gone largely unnoticed, evidence is everywhere at the Vision 2020 Conference.

The standards known as PASS have been codified in law and administrative rules for more than 20 years. After the standards were introduced in the early 1990s, they were revised multiple times, usually coinciding with the year ahead of the textbook adoption cycle. For example, if the state was going to adopt new textbooks in science, the previous year would see committees of state employees, school teachers, and college professors working in committees to update the standards. The process has always been organic and powered by the teachers in this state. Yes, the state drove the process, but it was always teachers providing the energy from their experiences in the classroom to make changes.

In 2010, by legislative action, Oklahoma adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). These standards would replace PASS, at least for reading/language arts and math. They hadn’t been written yet, but they were on the way. This decision, supported by a Democrat in the Governor’s Mansion and one at the SDE, has been supported time and again by their replacements, both Republicans. In fact, across the country, the drive to standardize the curriculum has been bi-partisan.

In 2011, after taking office, Superintendent Barresi quickly renamed all of Oklahoma’s standards the College, Career, and Citizenship (C3) readiness standards. This was the national trend…getting all three of these words into everything education. We’re not just preparing kids for college; we’re preparing them for careers and citizenship! Lately, all things trending national in education are being blamed on the President. Whether it be CCSS or C3, we can’t risk looking like we agree with Obama on anything! It might cost us the election ruin the children!

Earlier this year, the State Board of Education adopted rules that both eliminated PASS and all references to it from the administrative code. The rules also took the legislature out of the approval process. You see, under PASS, any changes to the state standards had to be ratified by the legislature. Accordingly, the SBE changes were rejected by the legislature. Or more accurately, the SDE pulled the changes before they could be rejected.

Then last week, when the SDE finally released the program for Vision 2020, just about every session somehow had the OAS worked into the description, in many cases, to the surprise of the presenters. We’re taking the CCSS and calling them the OAS without changing a word. There’s even a campaign for the re-brand. Check out their website: For the Road Ahead, which proclaims, “Oklahoma Academic Standards are custom-built for PreK-12 students in Oklahoma.”

Except they aren’t. Again, we’ve adopted the CCSS and relabeled them the OAS. There’s nothing custom about it.

We’re pulling out of PARCC testing, but remaining in the consortium – as a governing member – so we can take what we’re learning from the process and work with a testing company to make our own tests. You know, that company that screwed up all the tests this year? Yeah, that one.

(Oh, wait, there’s going to be a request for proposals. I forgot.)

Remember as you attend day two of the conference, in spite of the appearances, you’re not in a professional learning environment. You’re smack dab in the middle of a political infomercial. Reality is elusive.

When, Indeed?

July 8, 2013 Comments off

Heading into this week’s SDE conference (Vision 2020 2.0), most Oklahoma educators seem to be on the same page. While the SDE is excited that over 6,400 people are registered for the conference, I am excited that over 5,500 have visited this blog since I posted Broken Arrow Superintendent Jarod Mendenhall’s two-page letter to Janet Barresi on Friday.

(Maybe I should be concerned that the most popular post since I began this blog 15 months ago was written by somebody else. Maybe I should be, but I’m not.)

Many readers have been responsive to Dr. Mendenhall’s fifth question: When do we go back to doing what’s best for kids? As fortune would have it, many of the people drawn to this blog will be present at the conference the next three days. Staff from the SDE will be in several of the exhibitor booths and presenting sessions throughout the conference. Superintendent Barresi herself will host a couple of educator roundtables. There will be no shortage of opportunities to ask this key question.

Coming Soon: Vision 2020 II – The Sequel

The SDE’s big summer conference is approaching quickly. They’ve marketed it like crazy, and there are quite a few educators registered. In case you haven’t had a chance to look at what they’re offering, you should click here and see if it’s worth your time to attend any of the conference, scheduled for July 9-11 in Oklahoma City.

(Note: At this time, none of the workshops cover the relative advantages/disadvantages of the overuse of first person pronouns in letters sent to ravished [sic] school districts.)

Of note is the two hour “Parent Power” block the night of the ninth. Surely this will include opportunities to help parents understand why schools put no stock in the failed A-F Report Cards, how the so-called Parent Trigger is failing in other states, and what they can do to get on the SDE’s naughty list.

(I’m looking at you, Jenks.)

You can also read more about the three keynote speakers that the SDE has paid brought in with big money. Tuesday’s keynote speaker, Ryan Quinn, is a business professor at the University of Virginia. Wednesday, Ron Clark makes a return visit from last year. Finally, Thursday, Tony Wagner is a professor at Harvard and a prolific author of books and articles on education reform.

The conference website includes links to breakout sessions by topic, where you can see a title, a time, and a date. The workshops have no descriptions or presenter information, however. This makes it difficult to know anything about the quality or specific content of the sessions. If you’re within a comfortable drive of Oklahoma City, this probably matters less to you than if you’re coming from 100 miles away or more.

I’ve always been a believer that high-quality professional development can make us better at our jobs. And since our job is to improve the lives of our students, we should always be about self-improvement. Ask yourself, though: how much will three keynote speakers and a series of disconnected workshops change the way you do your job? On the other hand, it’s free.

Last year, I went to the conference and gave it a C. It’s time to clear the slate and see how this one turns out.

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Republican Angst over the Common Core

April 19, 2013 2 comments

The Republican National Committee has passed a resolution calling for the federal government to halt efforts to implement the Common Core State Standards. From the resolution:

RESOLVED, the Republican National Committee recognizes the CCSS for what it is — an inappropriate overreach to standardize and control the education of our children so they will conform to a preconceived “normal,” and, be it further

RESOLVED, That the Republican National Committee rejects the collection of personal student data for any non-educational purpose without the prior written consent of an adult student or a child student’s parent and that it rejects the sharing of such personal data, without the prior written consent of an adult student or a child student’s parent, with any person or entity other than schools or education agencies within the state, and be it finally

RESOLVED, the 2012 Republican Party Platform specifically states the need to repeal the numerous federal regulations which interfere with State and local control of public schools, (p36) (3.); and therefore, the Republican National Committee rejects this CCSS plan which creates and fits the country with a nationwide straitjacket on academic freedom and achievement.

This puts the states in quite a pickle. It was, after all, state efforts, namely through the National Governors’ Association and the Chief Council of State School Officers, to develop the Common Core. From the beginning, CCSS has been a bi-partisan venture.

So how are states responding? Alabama’s legislature is now rejecting the standards. Oklahoma may not be far behind. House Resolution 1011 would halt “further adoption of Common Core State Standards until further costs are ascertained.”

Here’s the problem with Rep. Blackwell’s resolution: we’ve already adopted them. We haven’t partially adopted them. We’ve fully adopted them. We’re gradually implementing them. For the last three years, school districts around Oklahoma have been working to change the teaching style and content in classrooms to meet the new standards. That this effort has been expensive is the root of the concern here.

Blackwell also wants a full rendering of costs already incurred. I think the amount would be staggering. You would have to calculate the costs of SDE travel  and training, prior to and since implementation; the cost to the SDE of REAC3H conferences; the cost to districts to attend these conferences; the cost for lead REAC3H districts to work within their networks; the cost of the REAC3H coaches; the cost of Vision 2020; all the labor hours of SDE employees related to each of these things, plus conferences; the cost to districts of increased infrastructure, teaching materials, and training; and the added impact of test development and test prep. In short, CCSS has already cost Oklahoma taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

The real question is whether or not this has been a good expense. I liked parts of the standards from the very beginning. I thought they were an improvement over what we had in place with PASS. I did not think that adopting CCSS would lead to the massive power grab by the State Board of Education last month (taking the standard adoption process away from the legislature). Unlike groups on the right, I don’t think CCSS is a massive conspiracy by the feds or the UN to undermine states and communities. And unlike groups on the left, I don’t feel like the standards themselves are the ruination of education.

It’s everything since the adoption of the standards that I’ve hated. The processes for training and implementation have been uneven, at best. The testing consortium to which Oklahoma belongs (PARCC) seems to have spun off into its own self-aware entity that no longer answers to those who built it. The testing, textbook, and training companies are making fortunes. Yes, I’ve seen examples of CCSS improving instruction in classrooms. I’ve also seen the adoption of the standards lead to a narrowing of the curriculum – both within classrooms, and within school schedules on the whole.

Common Core is not all good. It is not all bad. While I’m still not ready to just dump it (because if we do, the State Board of Education will just try to assert its autonomy over the standards process and adopt it anyway), my enthusiasm has waned. Ironically, CCSS was designed to teach students to be adept at problem-solving. Those who created it, and those charged with managing it, have failed to pass every test since.

So should State Superintendent Janet Barresi and Governor Fallin be worried? Absolutely. They’ve fallen in line with Jeb Bush and his Foundation in pushing the standards out. One of their subsidiaries, the Fordham Institute, has published a plea for Republicans to get back in line. If they don’t, it will be hard for Barresi to get anything done in the remainder of her term in office. And it will pretty much end all thought of a Jeb Bush presidency.

Let the chips fall.

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