The Hit and Miss of Education Reforms

Occasionally, I post pieces on my blog written by others. The blog I’m posting today was written by John Thompson, a retired Oklahoma City educator and writer. Thompson, who has a Ph.D. in American History from Rutgers University, has been honored with several teaching awards, is a Fulbright Scholar, and is a regular contributor to many of the nation’s most influential educational policy blogs, including pro-reform blogs, as well as the Huffington Post, the Washington Post and The Progressive Magazine.

Mr. Thompson’s observations offer historical context to many of the current reforms happening in public education in Tulsa.

The Hit and Miss of Education Reforms

Tulsans don’t need a retired Oklahoma City Public Schools teacher to remind them that since 2015 the Tulsa Public Schools have cut $22 million from its budget, even dipping into its reserve fund to balance the books. Now it must cut another $20 million. As the Tulsa World noted, the budget is due in February, but only 15% of the proposed cuts have been revealed.

Despite the assistance of the outcome-driven “Billionaires Boys Club,” the TPS has lost 5,000 students in recent years, especially to the suburbs and online charters. But urban educators need to engage in a dialogue about why Chief for Change Superintendent Deborah Gist and her staff of Broad Academy administrators have produced such awful outcomes.

I know from three decades of experience that when the underfunded Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS) is presented with contradictory “good cop, bad cop” mandates, district leaders say nice things about “win-win” pedagogies, but they actually concentrate on the “bad cops’” mandates. My hypothesis is that the same pattern likely occurred in Tulsa. Educators would have loved to build on the holistic, caring, and effective practices that philanthropists pushed for pre-k, but they understood the need to focus on the reward and punish mandates of corporate reformers, who the philanthropists also promoted.

When visiting as a tourist, an ACLU/OK board member, or a Planned Parenthood public affairs officer, I always envied Tulsans. Like so many people in Oklahoma City, I admired Tulsa’s leadership, especially its philanthropists, and sought to learn from them.

By 2008, however, educators understood the threats posed by teacher-bashers like District of Columbia Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and how her test-and-punish campaign was corrupting public education. Back then, however, we had no idea that D.C. Superintendent Deborah Gist already had known that Rhee’s test scores were likely inflated by cheating. (When the D.C office called for further investigation, it spun the evidence, “Reiterating that the wrong-to-right erasure statistics alone ‘provide no insight into the reason for excessive erasures.’ OSSE tells DCPS that a follow-up investigation is required ‘before final conclusions can be drawn and appropriate action taken.’”)

A USA Today investigation revealed that Rhee’s D.C. school system “did not investigate classrooms but instead said it beefed up its testing-security protocols, the documents show.” That was learned three years later, when it was fully revealed that Gist notified Rhee – but not the public – about two independent analyses of erasures on standardized tests.

By then, it was clear that Bill Gates’ and other billionaires’ hunch about using test scores in teacher evaluations was a terrible idea. It seemed obvious that reformers like Rhee and Gist must have seen those evaluations as a club to beat down teachers’ unions and due process rights. In 2010, Gist authorized the firing of the entire school staff at Central Falls High School, a historic urban high school in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She continued to be a “polarizing figure” in Rhode Island, pushing high-stakes testing and personalized learning. As speculation increased about the nonrenewal of her contract, Gist returned to Tulsa, her hometown.

However, I was slow to criticize Gates, and similar edu-philanthropists for handing the weapon, known as value-added evaluations (VAMS) to Rhee, Gist, et. al. I must admit to helping with Oklahoma City’s attempt to seek similar funding. Back then, I had numerous discussions with Gates scholars, and I believed they would understand why their methodology was fine for economic theory, but hopelessly inappropriate for education policy. (They didn’t even take into account the effects of peer pressure in schools full of teenagers!)

By 2010, however, when the Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) accepted a $1.5 million Gates grant, the inherent flaws of the Gates effort were obvious. Their algorithm was biased against teachers in high-challenge schools. Evaluating teachers using high-stakes testing and a statistical model which was unfair to them was unlikely to be a way to recruit and retain teaching talent in those schools.

Tulsa had previously produced better student performance than Oklahoma City, and we highly respected the science-based, humane work of Tulsa philanthropists. So, I would visit and learn about great work being done on early education and by Johns Hopkins’ experts advising TPS, and also to ask how it would be possible to reconcile investments in those evidence-based efforts and their opposite – the Gates shortcuts.

I still assumed that the funders would listen to educators and social scientists. But I became increasingly worried when asking civic leaders how they could endorse both holistic, humane, science-based policies such as early education and “2 Gen” anti-poverty programs, while at the same time endorsing the simplistic test-and–punish, competition-driven gambles on school improvement. Too many times, leaders who I long respected would reply, “Why not?”

I later had sadder experiences attending great early education conferences led by O.U. Tulsa and O.S.U. medical schools’ experts. When I asked about collaboration between early childhood educators and elementary school teachers (like the system which worked so well in Union City, N.J.), I heard groans and protests. They didn’t want their holistic and humane methods corrupted by the TPS’ premature academic push, and schools’ discouraging of enough play and conversations. Our kids need “laps, not apps,” was a common reply. I later heard the same complaints in Oklahoma City, but to a lesser extent than in Tulsa.

Perhaps confirming the early educators’ concerns, the Oklahoma Watch’s study of federal data showed that retentions were not evenly spread across the state. The TPS retained 823 students through kindergarten and second grade. And this year, the decline in the crucial TPS third-grade reading proficiency rates is continuing, dropping three points to 25 percent.

So, how did the Tulsa Gates experiment work out?

The best estimate of student test score growth is Stanford’s data from 2009 to 2015. From third to eighth grade, Tulsa students lost more ground than those in all but six of the nation’s school systems. TPS students gained only 3.8 years of learning over those five years; that was .6 of a year worse than the OKCPS.

Because Deborah Gist did not come to Tulsa until 2015, blame for those failures can’t be directed toward her Broad Academy approach. The likely suspect would be the “opportunity costs” of the Gates Foundation’s experiment. Were the energy and financial resources that could have been devoted to proven strategies sucked up by the rushed, dubious Gates experiment?

I was then saddened when the George Kaiser Family Foundation even joined with the Bloomberg and Walton foundations in funding “portfolio management” directors to “absorb the duties of the director of partnership and charter schools,” and “in the future, implement ‘new school models resulting from incubation efforts of the district.’” I was later stunned to learn that Stacy Schusterman donated almost $200,000 to California union-busting, teacher-bashing campaigns.

So, what have been the effects of Gist-era reform experiments on student performance?

Although it cannot be definitively proven that it is the corporate reformers’ policies that have reversed the gains produced by early education, the disappointing TPS results provide no evidence that their test-driven, competition-driven policies can be made to work. One would think that philanthropists would look at TPS outputs and ask whether it makes sense to continue to invest in two inherently incompatible approaches – one successful and the other failing – to education improvement.

Tulsa’s pre-k programs have been shown to produce outstanding benefits. But, the State Department of Education’s latest report card assigned an “F” grade to 28 of the TPS’s 85 schools. That is seven more Fs than 2018.

Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist responded with an implausible claim that the district’s own assessments are more meaningful, and show more progress. However, benchmarks tend to encourage shallow in-one-ear-ear-and-out the-other teaching and learning. Gist’s statement isn’t proof that this is happening, but it raises the type of question that report cards should lead to.

Gist then said students lose five to six months of progress during the summer. Yes, the “summer slide” is a huge problem which may cost between a month of learning or even 25% to 30% of a year’s learning, according to one estimate. If Tulsa students’ summer learning loss is so much greater than the norm, the district should ask why.

So, have the 13 Tulsa central office administrators who were trained in the teach-to-the-test-loving Broad Academy inadvertently pushed Tulsa educators into a discredited, 21st century version of “drill-and-kill?”

A similar question was raised by an NPR report on third-grade retention. It featured Rosa Parks Elementary School, a part of the Tulsa Union community school system, which so impressed David Kirp that his New York Times article that featured Rosa Parks was entitledWho Needs Charters When You Have Schools Like These?”  

Unfortunately Starr didn’t have time to dig into those plans the way that Oklahoma Watch’s Jennifer Palmer has done.

Finally, after investing so much effort and money in the Gates-funded effort to “build a better teacher,” has the TPS become a better place to teach? In fact, the state’s teacher shortage seems worse in Tulsa. It now has to rely on the trainer of uncertified teachers, the Teacher Corps, which “is one of many recent strategies for finding bodies to put in classrooms. This is necessary because about 30% of the district’s teaching force started working there in the past two years.”

Although Tulsa seems to suffer more than other districts from the worst of test-driven, competition-driven reform, its school partners also illustrate a better way to use the Report Cards. The Impact Tulsa 2018 Community Impact Report acknowledges, “Overall, Tulsa-area students are in a bottom tier of performance for eighth-grade math nationally.”

The report doesn’t hide the “broader, more troubling conclusion: For too many of our students, Tulsa is not a land of opportunity.” It documents “an opportunity crisis,” which requires “education, business, faith, nonprofit, civic and philanthropic communities to ‘own this reality and collectively work to eliminate systemic barriers that trap our students of color and low-income students.’”

And that is the lesson we should bring to a public discussion of school improvement policies. The reform effort to deputize individual educators as the agents for overcoming legacies of poverty and trauma was doomed to fail. Now we know that school improvement must be a team effort. It must be transparent and inclusive. The discussions must be based on accurate information, not power point presentations spinning the talking points of funders. Tulsa could even benefit from the lesson we learned in Oklahoma City when business, community leaders, patrons, and students engaged in evidence-based conversations; our de facto motto was, “None of us are as smart, alone, as we all are together.

Tulsa edu-philanthropists should listen to educators and researchers. The social and cognitive science which informed early education and trauma-informed instruction also explains why the No Excuses charters and the portfolio model can’t be reconciled with the need for trusting and loving relationships. I hope Tulsa will build on its successes by welcoming an evidence-based discussion of what it will take to offer equity and opportunity for the poorest children of color.


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