Oklahoma Public Schools May Be in for More Hard Times

I have blogger’s block. It’s like writer’s block, only worse. If you can’t just let your thoughts stream unencumbered from your brain to write a blog, then you’re in trouble. Writer’s block implies that you’re putting a little thought into writing. My blogs tend to be more of what my brother calls “articulating mind chatter.”

Well, I have some mind chatter building up…and it’s about my favorite rant – public schools.

First, a huge shout out to Andrea Eger and other reporters at the Tulsa World for their excellent reporting on education. The article “Foundation Influences State School Policies, Laws” by Andrea Eger and Kim Archer in the Sun., Feb. 10 issue was especially enlightening. All of you parents should read it and ask yourselves this question: Why is Florida and Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education dictating what happens in schools in Oklahoma? What do we really know about these reforms and whether or not they are working? One thing we do know is that testing companies and other for-profit entities such as online schools are making money from these “reforms.

I am truly fearful about what is going to happen to our public schools. I know, I know. There are those of you who believe that the private sector can do anything better. I disagree, especially when it comes to schools. Either way, shouldn’t we parents know what’s going on? If I were to fall completely into cynicism (and I hate to say that I’m getting there), I would think that there are people, including our State Superintendent of Schools and many Oklahoma Legislators, who would like to see public schools fail. If that happens, then the schools can be privatized and money can flow to companies that stand to gain profit. Do we want schools with profit motive as the bottom line?

I want to say upfront that I am not opposed to public school reform. Reforms can be good. Oklahoma HB 1017 was reform that made sense, but it has gone by the wayside in the wake of more standardized testing, more support for charter schools and more privatization of public education. While policy makers say they want quantifiable, “best practices” (is anyone else sick of hearing this phrase?) methods to measure student and teacher performance, most of the “reforms” being implemented in Oklahoma’s public schools are untested mandates. Who says more standardized testing is effective at improving our students’ critical thinking ability and success in college and beyond? What kind of research has been done on the Common Core Curriculum? Will this just be narrowing the curriculum for pubic school students while their private school counterparts are given a wealth of enriching educational experiences? If you haven’t heard of Common Core and you have children in public school, here’s a great blog by Diane Ravitch, a historian of education and research professor of education at New York University about common core. Here’s an excerpt from Diane Ravitch’s blog:

The Common Core standards have been adopted in 46 states and the District of Columbia without any field test. They are being imposed on the children of this nation despite the fact that no one has any idea how they will affect students, teachers, or schools. We are a nation of guinea pigs, almost all trying an unknown new program at the same time.

Are we starting from an incorrect premise with reform? That one size fits all? It seems that we’re talking out of both sides of our mouths. At the same time that we’re standardizing curriculum, we’re saying that parents need more choices in schools, and that children need individualized instruction. Does this make sense to you?

The best school system in the world is in Finland. Their reform was a reasonable, encompassing plan that began 10 years ago. Teachers were recruited from the top third of college graduates because teaching is a respected profession in Finland. Teachers were given autonomy in their classrooms. There was less standardized testing, not more. Finland stayed on course with its reforms over the years and it has paid off for their students. I know we have unique problems in the United States that Finland does not have. Finland funds schools in a way that guarantees equal allocation of resources; all children in Finland have access to childcare, comprehensive health care and preschool, and every school has a welfare team to advance child happiness in school; education in Finland is a human right, so all education from preschool to university is free. Finland also doesn’t have our diverse population and poverty – but shouldn’t we be looking at ways to do things the right way for kids? Want more information about Finland’s schools? Go here.

So, back to Florida’s Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE). Oklahoma State Superintendent Janet Barresi is one of a handful of state superintendents in the U.S. who are Chiefs for Change. I know I’m giving you a lot of links, but if you care about the health of our public schools, this is important. Here’s a story on the Jeb Bush’s foundation that highlights email links between the FEE and its Chiefs of Change.

Here is an excerpt from that article:

The e-mails are between the Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE) and a group Bush set up called Chiefs for Change, whose members are current and former state education commissioners who support Bush’s agenda of school reform, which includes school choice, online education, retention of third-graders who can’t read and school accountability systems based on standardized tests. That includes evaluating teachers based on student test scores and grading schools A-F based on test scores. John White of Louisiana is a current member, as is Tony Bennett, the new commissioner of Florida who got the job after Indiana voters rejected his Bush-style reforms last November and tossed him out of office.

Donald Cohen, chair of the nonprofit In the Public Interest, a resource center on privatization and responsible for contracting in the public sector, said the e-mails show how education companies that have been known to contribute to the foundation are using the organization “to move an education agenda that may or not be in our interests but are in theirs.”

He said companies ask the foundation to help state officials pass laws and regulations that make it easier to expand charter schools, require students to take online education courses, and do other things that could result in business and profits for them. The e-mails show, Cohen said, that Bush’s foundation would often do this with the help of Chiefs for Change and other affiliated groups.

The e-mails were obtained by Cohen’s group through public record requests and are available here, complete with a search function. They reveal — conclusively, he said — that foundation staff members worked to promote the interests of some of their funders in Florida, New Mexico, Maine, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Louisiana.

Did you read that? “…companies ask the foundation to help state officials pass laws and regulations that make it easier to expand charter schools, require students to take online education courses, and do other things that could result in business and profits for them.” OK, even if you agree with a profit motive in education, we have no evidence that these mandates that our law makers are putting on public schools even work. Did you notice the similarities to Oklahoma’s “reforms” and the reforms supported by the FEE’s for-profit interests are the same? Here are the members of FEE’s Chiefs for Change: http://chiefsforchange.org/members-page/

And before you say, “But wait, Florida’s schools have improved,” read this.  Just the mere fact of saying that something is “good policy,” “best practices,” or “good reform” doesn’t mean that it is. I remember interviewing Dr. Sawyer when he first came to Tulsa from Florida to be Superintendent of TPS. I asked him why he took the job. He said, “Because Tulsa still believes in its public schools. Florida doesn’t.”

One of the problems with standardized tests or the A-F system of grading schools is that all you have to do is change the criteria or the cut scores for the tests and BOOM, you suddenly have a bunch of kids who were failing who are now succeeding. You could conceivably have a school building of kids whose parents are told they’re in the 90th percentile in reading when the reality may be that they have very low reading skills. It depends on what you’re testing and where the cut-off is for passing.

And before we all join the charter school movement, let’s think rationally about that as well. Here’s an excellent blog about a study that was done on New York City’s charter schools. You can find the link to the study there as well.

All of this reminds me of the former Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools Michelle Rhee, who is now CEO of StudentsFirst. If you aren’t familiar with her, there was an excellent documentary on her time with the D.C. schools on PBS a couple of months ago. She was supposed to turn around the Washington D.C. Public Schools in one year, and she was given basically carte blanche to do whatever she wanted to achieve that end. No matter that her only real experience in schools was doing a brief Teach for America stint in Baltimore. (Would you give someone with so little experience in education a job overseeing an entire school district? That’s crazy.) Supposedly she took her students in Baltimore from the 13th to the 90th percentile on state test scores in two years. Any teacher worth his or her salt – actually any person with common sense – would know that’s ridiculous. It was eventually revealed that Rhee had lied about the jump in scores. But, hey, she was still hired by the D.C. schools and she’s still out there blaming teachers and teachers unions for the problems in schools. That’s just too easy. Firing teachers and principals right and left didn’t work to improve the schools in D.C. and it isn’t the answer to reform anywhere. Rhee herself left her job as Chancellor under the cloud of a school cheating scandal, which Rhee shrugged off, never pursuing the allegations that under her watch, there was cheating going on, much like what is happening in Atlanta right now.

Here’s an interesting “real crime” type piece about Michelle Rhee.

It seems that public education reform is entangled in a giant web of money and deceit these days. I honestly don’t know what kind of person would want to go into the education profession today. If teachers are going to be relegated to becoming test proctors and scapegoats, then we could probably just use middle school students to run our classrooms rather than professionals.

Real reform requires understanding the complex problems that face public schools, especially those schools in low socio-economic areas. Some of these include lack of early learning experiences for children, lack of food and healthcare, lack of knowledge of parenting skills. Not every school has the same issues, so we must be dedicated and fearless in attacking them in specific ways to meet the specific needs of the students.

Look at Oklahoma’s unfunded “reforms.” The A-F grading of schools has been shown to be a farce, with the grades being based on confusing, incomplete and irrelevant data. The third grade reading initiative seems like a great idea on the surface, but our legislature underfunds the schools, so that class sizes are larger, so teachers have less time to spend with struggling students. And forget having specialized reading teachers or tutors in the schools. Oh, and those end-of-instruction tests for high school students? That has been a mess.

But, as I said earlier, setting public schools up for failure may be exactly what Oklahoma policy-makers are trying to do.

Categories: Editor’s Blog