BY JOHN THOMPSON
For five years, Karl Springer led the Oklahoma City Public School System with skill, sincerity, and integrity. Springer has demonstrated the same dignity when discussing his retirement.
Springer told Tim Willert of the Daily Oklahoman that he is most proud of bringing the “Great Expectations” curriculum to elementary schools and Teach for America to the OKCPS, and implementing a year long school schedule. All three policies are praiseworthy.
Springer acknowledged the district’s failure to “move the education bar.” The system failed to produce more than incremental improvements in student performance. He also praised OKCPS teachers as being as good as, or better than, their counterparts in the suburbs.
The same is true of Springer. Springer did a very good job of implementing the instruction-driven, curriculum-driven, and test-driven policies that have been imposed throughout the nation.
In 2008, when Springer became superintendent, he encouraged an open dialogue about the best ways to improve the 90% low-income school system. Then, as now, schools were caught in the middle of an educational civil war that divided liberals against liberals, conservatives against conservatives, and the civil rights communities against each other. He was open to the arguments of all sides.
Springer listened to administrators and politicians who endorsed the test-driven accountability of his ill-fated predecessor, a graduate of the Broad Academy, which is the ultimate training ground for corporate reform.
These accountability-driven “reformers” prescribed an unflinching focus on a curriculum aligned to high-stakes tests, principal leadership, data, and the dismissal of educators who did not believe that schools, alone, could overcome poverty.
Springer also listened to educators [like me] who cited the cognitive and social science which explained why those policies were inherently incapable of improving schools serving neighborhoods with intense concentrations of poverty and trauma.
The key to school improvement, we argued, was the socio-emotional. The building of trusting relationships was essential, and it would always be undercut by bubble-in accountability. We called for a return to the MAPS for KIDS recommendations for teaching and learning.
At that time, the same debate raged within the Obama transition team. The president-elect initially listened to advocates for full-service community schools who opposed the scapegoating of teachers.
President Obama ultimately sided with corporate reformers and doubled down on their market-driven, teach-to-the test policies.
The president, who had hoped to emulate Abraham Lincoln’s openness to all types of ideas, agreed that there could be “no team of rivals” in the Department of Education. The USDOE leadership positions were dominated by alumni of the Gates Foundation. It was agreed that “everyone” needed to “be on the same page” in deputizing teachers as the commandoes who would defeat poverty and firing those who failed to do so.
In other words, dissent was banned in an Education Department that was in too much of a hurry for evidence-driven debates.
Consequently, five years ago, Karl Springer had his options limited by federal and state governments, as well as the policies endorsed by the “Billionaires’ Boys Club.”
Regardless of where he personally came down on the education debate, Springer had no choice but to side with those who believed that improved teacher quality, leadership, and testing could turn around schools. He now says that the OKCPS should continue that approach and he hopes that his successor can use the same playbook to produce the academic gains that he did not produce. I take him on his word.
But we now need the debate that was cut short five years ago. We need the in-depth exchange of ideas that was nurtured during the MAPS for KIDS process. Those who believe we can stay the course and still meet the challenge of teaching to Common Core standards should make their case.
On the other hand, we who criticize the playbook, not the players, should have our evidence heard. We should make our case for integrating early education with elementary instruction so students can read for comprehension. We should present our proposals for aligning instruction with socio-emotional interventions. The case for full-service community schools must also be presented.
If the community and the OKCPS leadership determine that a new superintendent could accomplish what Springer could not, and find solutions within the four walls of each classroom, then, so be it. But, we who believe that schooling must be a team effort should also participate in a vigorous evidence-driven debate before any decision is made.
– Dr. John Thompson, an education writer whose essays appear regularly at The Huffington Post, currently is working on a book about his experiences teaching for two decades in the inner city of OKC. He has a doctorate from Rutgers University and is the author of Closing the Frontier: Radical Responses in Oklahoma Politics. For the record, he describes himself as an Obama supporter – though he remains opposed to the president’s education policies.