BY CLAUDIA SWISHER
The last week in August – the 27th, to be precise – I sat down to reflect on the challenges facing Oklahoma education [#oklaed if you have a Twitter account]. I mused that we live in interesting times, just like the old Chinese curse. I identified some major themes facing our state, and I shared information about several citizens’ groups that have contributed to the conversation. I had my piece all ready to share … and then, three Thursday thuds happened that changed everything.
Early in the morning, we had an announcement from Oklahoma State Department of Education, OSDE. We usually expect those pronouncements to occur on Friday afternoon, trying to slip through our weekend planning.
OSDE explained that the flawed writing test would not be used to determine the flawed A-F scores. Schools had been screaming about the scores since they were released. High-achieving students scored lower than IEP students and ELL. Scores on subtests did not show any variations the way one would expect.
They were obviously a mess. But, in order to request rescoring, schools had to cough up more money to the out-of-state testing companies that had already victimized us once. Schools had complained bitterly and been ignored … but now that school grades are approaching, suddenly writing won’t be factored in … Hmmm.
Then later in the morning a judge ruled that the Lindsey Nicole Henry special education voucher program was unconstitutional, since it allows public school funds to flow into private, religious, schools. This law is straight from the American Legislative Exchange Council’s [ALEC] smorgasbord of bills. No need to slave over writing bills specific to Oklahoma. Our legislators are able to choose from the wide array presented at posh retreats.
I have seen the ramifications of this law, as dedicated special education teachers are forced to offer the LNH scholarships at every IEP meeting to parents who, for the most part, are happy with their student’s progress. I felt humiliated for these teachers.
The biggest thud was yet to come. Later, the U.S. Department of Education, USDOE, granted NCLB waiver extensions to some states, but they yanked Oklahoma’s waiver after the passage of HB 3399, which repealed Common Core State Standards in Oklahoma. Our law says no standard may resemble CCSS in any way, so we must write completely original ones that will pass that litmus test.
Our Priority Academic State Standards [PASS] objectives will be dusted off and used in the meantime, but our Regents had not certified them to be “college and career ready” before the federal deadline. No waiver. Now our Title I funds will be earmarked in ways over which we have no control. Now schools will be labeled “failing” since 100% of our children are not performing at level … that was the ridiculous requirement of NCLB: every child, every one, would be on level in math and reading.
Political reactions have ranged from mock outrage at federal overreach to a casual shrug of the shoulders.
Let me tell you, reactions in schools is frustration … now what?
I’ll tell you “what.” Teachers are at school today. They greeted their students at the door of their classrooms. They passed back graded papers with corrections. They began lessons. They taught. They responded. They asked and answered questions. They planned lessons based on student responses.
They showed up. That’s what teachers do. Bloody Thursday will deeply affect the work they do, in ways they can’t control. It may mean job losses for some. For sure it means more paperwork, more mandates. But teachers will teach. They will take care of their students.
We have two nominees for the office of State Superintendent. The eventual winner will face a daunting first day … The list of challenges should intimidate each of them with a healthy fear. They also have the opportunity to forge strong relationships with parent and citizen groups who have already shown themselves to be advocates for the public schools. Many of us are hopeful for a new climate in the OSDE that will invite collaboration.
Challenges? We have a few:
Funding – Oklahoma has the dubious distinction of having cut funding to state schools more than any other state – 22.8% cut since 2008. There have been rumors that schools may have more cuts in mid-year … possibly forcing layoffs. Under- and unfunded mandates continue to pile up, one on top of another. More is required of schools every year, with fewer dollars. Ramifications of SQ 766 will begin to make themselves known. Less money for schools will be the outcome.
Standardized, High Stakes Testing – CCSS may be gone, but perhaps we slew the wrong dragon. High-stakes testing is alive and well. We have had students refused a diploma because of high-stakes tests, and our third graders suffered as well. We remember the computer testing glitches. We remember the scoring glitches. These problems were not addressed adequately by the OSDE.
Third Grade Flunk Law – We postponed the odious practice of failing third graders based on one score of one test, but did not remove that threat to our children. HB 2625 was a start, giving parents and teachers some say in their students’ placement, but it expires with this year’s third graders. This year’s second graders, including my beloved granddaughter, will again be faced with flunk-the-test-flunk-the grade. Right now, negative testing consequences fall disproportionately on our IEP population and our ELL students. They need a champion in the OSDE.
Teacher shortage and overcrowded classrooms – Oklahoma schools are short 800 teachers. Eight hundred classrooms staffed by substitutes. I heard in one school, the principal was teaching a science class until a teacher could be found. Classes are packed, including testing classes and grades. These complex, interrelated problems must be addressed. Children deserve to be taught in the best of conditions, not the status quo.
Teacher Morale – U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has given states permission to delay teacher evaluations based on student test scores. This practice, to put it ungently, is junk science. To tie a teacher’s evaluation and employment to the scores of his or her students will not work. Our Teacher and Leader Effectiveness, TLE, program doesn’t seem to be losing speed, even though we could put the brakes on.
Our new superintendent must face the reality of teacher recruitment and retention, and teacher salary issues.
One program that does allow teachers to hold themselves up to the highest standards in the profession, and to be rewarded for achieving, is the National Board program in Oklahoma. Our program has produced over 3,000 National Board Certified Teachers who receive stipends from the state for staying in their public-school classrooms, and leading by example. Our new superintendent should work with NBCTs to restore this program, and to utilize those NBCTs as leaders from the classroom.
A-F School Grading – This was a provision of our original waiver. We must have a superintendent who actually listens to the preeminent researchers in the state, and create as evaluation system that actually assists schools and districts in making decisions and improving instruction for our students.
The Effects of Poverty in Our Schools – Researchers are clear … the A-F grades actually measure the level of poverty in our schools. Research shows teacher evaluations based on test scores does the same. Ignoring this connection and punishing schools will never improve the lives our students from struggling homes. Several schools in the state are working with communities to expand family services at the school site. More of these community schools are needed. So is serious, sincere attention to child poverty outside of our schools.
Charter schools, Vouchers – Expect the supporters of charters and vouchers to be back with their proposals. Even though we defeated their bills last legislative session, there’s too much money in schools to keep them at bay. The same for-profit folks will be trolling, looking for supporters in the Legislature. The fight over the LNH vouchers is not over, either.
That’s not an exhaustive list of concerns our new superintendent will face … consider:
Parent rights in schools
Privatization of schools
Re-establishing positive communication among stakeholders
School consolidation concerns
Influences from outside Oklahoma, including ALEC and Jeb Bush’s Foundation
Policy makers who micromanage education policy with no education experience
One candidate for office is actually under investigation at the moment. We deserve to have this issue resolved quickly.
Every one of these issues affects teachers and students. Teachers are charged with implementing mandates, whether they are good for students or not. Teachers take the mandates and do everything they can to make them work. They show up. They do the job.
Advocates? We have them too, and they have their own set of education issues to pursue:
Oklahoma has several groups around the state, Parent Legislative Action Committees [PLAC], that are active and committed to reaching out and being involved. These parents communicate regularly with policymakers and advocate for all students. Their issues are school funding and high-stakes testing. They were very active during the debate over HB 2625, and the eventual override of Gov. Mary Fallin’s veto.
PLACs have kept their focus deliberately narrowed to these issues, even though there are other education issues swirling around. I have met informed, focused parents in PLACs, ready and able to speak for the children of Oklahoma.
Voices Organized in Civic Engagement [VOICE] is a strong coalition of congregations, non-profits, schools, and unions. Education, along with immigration, health care, and prison justice, is a priority of this non-partisan organization. They worked together to identify their education issues, and hosted a candidate forum this summer that was widely attended. VOICE’s issues, created through statewide meeting, include funding, testing, curriculum, and school climate. Their candidate forum was well-attended and well-received.
A friend and I created Oklahoma Education Voters, a Facebook page connecting voters and education issues. We want voters to be informed and engaged. We asked members to identify their top issues, and wrote a candidate survey. Our members have shared the survey with candidates and we share their answers. We also share links to research on education issues. OEV’s top issues include school funding, high-stakes testing, legislative overreach in school policy, and lack of respect for education and educators.
These groups will not disappear with a new superintendent. They can become strong partners. They will not be ignored.
So, challenges are waiting for our new superintendent. Not one of these can be ignored or swept under the rug. Every challenge must be faced. Opportunities are there, also. Opportunities to forge working relationships with parents, citizens, and teachers. We have a stake in the success of our students and our schools. We are ready to work together. We have high expectations.
Today, in classrooms around the state, teachers and students are working, teaching, learning. They deserve our new superintendent’s very best efforts.
– Claudia Swisher, a National Board Certified Teacher and regional coordinator for Education Leadership Oklahoma, lives in Norman, OK and is a frequent contributor to The Oklahoma Observer.