Editor’s Note: This essay first appeared in the July print edition of The Observer.
BY JOHN THOMPSON
Of course I’m celebrating the overwhelming defeat of Chief for Change Janet Barresi in the Republican primary. Oklahoma State Superintendent Barresi embodies the brass-knuckled, scorched earth corporate reform that has driven young children to cry and vomit, and older students to drop out of school.
Her opponent, Joy Hofmeister, condemned both the “toxic” environment created by high-stakes testing and the politics of destruction that Barresi exemplifies. Barresi lost by a margin of nearly 3-1.
As reported by the Tulsa World’s Andrea Eger, a video has been released showing Barresi’s tirade at a Department of Education “Summer Convening” event. Barresi told teachers:
Anybody that has any question what we’re doing, read Nehemiah. Open up your Bibles and read Nehemiah. I want you to put on your breast plate and I want you to fight off the enemy at the same time you’re rebuilding the wall. Because there’s a lot of people, a lot of enemies are going to try to creep up the back of your neck and say you can’t do it, it can’t be done. Do me a favor and tell ‘em to go to hell.
Honestly, though, I’m saddened that education policy disputes sank to this level. Fifteen years ago, I served with Barresi in a bipartisan reform coalition known as MAPS for Kids. Before it was derailed by NCLB, MAPS was significantly improving our city’s schools.
Barresi started an excellent charter school just a block from my house. It is not a high-challenge school like the school it replaced. But, by bringing in high-performing students from outlying areas, it sure raised property values in our neighborhood.
The worst of Oklahoma’s test and punish policies were adopted before Barresi took office. They were the result of an offer from Arne Duncan that we couldn’t refuse. When I first showed test data to some of Barresi’s people, they immediately realized that the value-added evaluations that the state accepted in order to compete for the Race to the Top were bound to create a train wreck.
My first real introduction to Common Core came during discussions with some of Barresi’s staff. She touted the standards as an alternative to teach-to-the-test bubble-in malpractice. Back then, it seemed impossible that any adult would contemplate the replacement of NCLB tests with high-stakes Common Core tests. Who would have seriously considered the idea that Common Core tests could be used as graduation tests or 3rd grade reading tests required for promotion to the 4th grade?
And everyone who I talked to in her administration seemed to understand that it was nutty to try to plug Common Core test results into value-added models used to evaluate teachers.
The A-F School Report Card, which Barresi borrowed from Jeb Bush, was another fiasco. Barresi held firm to the quest for a single number to serve as a single grade regardless of the type of school. A joint Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University research team wrote a withering appraisal of the report card, but made some simple practical suggestions for salvaging it. Sensible criticisms of the report card were rejected as efforts to evade accountability.
Then in a matter of a few months, the Barresi Administration collapsed. The turning point, it seemed to me, was the refusal to bend on the issue of retaining 3rd graders who did not pass the state’s error-riddled test. Barresi was one of the few who remained unbothered by stressed-out children being taught by the high-stakes tests to hate and fear school.
As pushback came from all corners, Barresi responded the way that other Chiefs for Change have. She was dismissive of anyone who questioned the righteousness of her theories. Those who brought up implementation problems were condemned for their “low expectations.”
And that is the lesson that should not be lost on other reformers.
Barresi seems convinced that her opponents are morally bankrupt. But is she any more self-righteous than many other Chiefs for Change? She is abrasive. But it was not Barresi, herself, who brought down her administration.
Barresi’s defeat was mostly the result of the national reform overreach of 2009, and the next few months. During the first part of the Obama Administration, Oklahoma and many other states adopted the full test-driven agenda. All at once, reformers got everything on their wish list.
Gleeful non-educators didn’t notice the mutually contradictory nature of so many parts of their grandiose schemes. It was one thing to turn their theories into law. Implementing their policies was another matter.
Even if Chiefs for Change had been diplomatic, modest, and willing to embrace the complexity of the democratic process, they still would be finding themselves in some tight situations as their ideals met reality.
But, given the arrogance that tends to accompany corporate reform, I expect a lot more Chiefs will be following Barresi to defeat.
– 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.
Thank you John for a very thoughtful analysis of the facts behind the fall of Superintendent Barresi’s leadership in Oklahoma education.
Thank you for sharing this perspective. The attitudes and actions you describe seem to be common among those involved in the current eduction reform push.
Mostly it seems to come down to this:
“She was dismissive of anyone who questioned the righteousness of her theories.”
Exactly. There seems to be an inability to process the fact that someone who opposes one reform or the other might be motivated by an intelligent, thoughtful reason for objecting. I believe part of this relates to the efforts to portray teachers and the education culture as the enemy. This was cleverly done in Waiting for Superman but this was not the start or the end of this effort.
Those that continue to support and push the Common Core standards (with the related testing) and the other reforms seem to believe with a religious fervor that allows for no real debate or discussion.
One can only hope that at some point a dialogue will open that will result in some positive changes.