Here’s What’s Really Scary

There are a couple of things that have been weighing on my mind. Since I don’t have to rush around to find last-minute Halloween costumes for my kids, I have more time to worry about things like the public school grades that were recently released by the Oklahoma State Department of Education. Our State Superintendent of Schools Janet Barresi deserves an “F” on this one.

I’ve been watching this unfold, as I’m sure many of you have. First, the State Board of Education decided not to release the grades because over 300 school superintendents around the state, including Dr. Ballard in Tulsa, objected to the calculation method. As Dr. Ballard said in a letter to parents,

“It is flawed, and I stand by my earlier comments that these grades are not an accurate representation of the work being done in our schools. There is too much positive activity going on at Tulsa Public Schools and too much work to do to become focused on an arbitrary and capricious grading system.” Then, a couple of day later, Barresi decided to release the grades anyway, using the original, “flawed” (according to the superintendents) method.

Dr. Ballard says that Superintendent Barresi “pushed these grades thorugh with no collaboration or input from the experts in our state.” Despite the objections of the superintendents and a brief delay by the state board, the grades were released by Janet Barresi as they were originally calculated. For someone who is supposed to be advocating for children, teachers and public school administrators in the state, Barresi seems set on undermining public schools.

The majority of teachers and administrators, I’m sure, are happy to be evaluated. But if the evaluation is flawed, unfair and punitive rather than helpful, then what’s the point? Did you look at the information on the state website about the evaluation and how it was done? I did. Honestly, I didn’t understand it. If the grades are all about transparency and are meant to be helpful to parents, then the method of measurement should be easily understood and useful.

These “grades” can feed in to the worst impulses of parents. Parents with kids in schools awarded an “A” grade can pat themselves on the back and talk about what a great school they have, while parents in schools with lower grades are left to wonder what happened. My kids went to Eisenhower. If Eisenhower hadn’t gotten an “A”, I would have been surprised. There is very little absenteeism, practically no student attrition and it has involved parents. If a school like that, which starts out with students who have had enriched early life experiences and keeps the same students K through 5, doesn’t make an “A” then something’s wrong. Of course it’s an “A” school. You might take a kid from that school and see barely any movement in a standardized test score, while a student at a struggling school may jump from 20 points to 80 points on a math test in a year. Not to knock Eisenhower, but I’m not really impressed that it has an A score. It’s not really a better school, but the majority of students there don’t start out struggling and, if they do, they have 6 years at the same school to get help. Many other elementary schools will have students who are in three or four different schools in a single year. That alone sets a school up for difficulties. And that’s just one of the struggles a “regular” public school might have.

The problem with any measurement tool is that it can be manipulated. For example, we often look to Florida as an example of a state that uses standardized test scores to measure the growth of their students in math, reading and writing. Teachers spend a large amount of classroom time on test prep. Things seemed to be going fine, until the standards were toughened (the cut-off for proficiency was pushed higher). Suddenly, the students weren’t doing so well. A simple arbitrary change the other way and suddenly the students were performing at a high rate of proficiency again. Here’s a story about it in the New York Times: Standardized tests are a small and not very effective measurement of performance, yet we put so much value in them. While public schools are pushing more and more standardized tests (and the companies who make them are making a killing), private schools are touting critical thinking, the arts, small class sizes, writing and teaching the whole student. hmmm. I found it interesting that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emannuel was pushing to tie teacher pay to student test scores, while he sends his own kids to private schools.

How do we end up with education reforms that don’t work? Part of the problem is that policy makers are not educators, and they very rarely ask educators what works. Maybe legislators feel a need to do something, so they pass school reforms on a regular basis, not giving any of them time to work. They can go back to their districts and say, “Look what we did. We really cracked down on these teachers so our kids can learn.” Meanwhile, the teachers keep plugging away; they keep teaching our kids, despite having more and more piled on for them to do. It defies common sense. The country with the best schools in the world — Finland — makes teaching an attractive, sought-after career, treats teachers with respect by giving them autonomy for curriculum and testing, cut standardized testing, and gives special, intensive help to children who need it. They created a 20-year plan to implement these changes and it worked. We have a new “reform” at least every two years.

I hope next week when you vote, you will consider the plight of public schools, especially in our state, and vote for those who will fund schools, not just those who give lip service to it. Of course no one is going to say they don’t support children! Vote for those who will put their money where their mouth is. Our future depends on it.

Categories: Editor’s Blog