Pinching Pennies!

As a young boy, I recall my grandpa’s tradition of giving my brother and me a quarter whenever it was time for us to leave. This gift was typically followed by a witty comment–something like, “don’t say I never gave you anything” or “don’t spend it all in the same place.”

This seems to be the general mindset of our state legislature and Department of Education when it comes to funding education reforms. Even when the amount of money sent to schools is woefully inadequate, the attitude seems to be we should be thankful for whatever we get.

As the cartoon below illustrates, it is becoming increasingly difficult to juggle all of the many state mandates while the funding “rug” is slowly yet methodically pulled out from under our feet.

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For many years, Oklahoma public schools have been promised additional revenues to meet a variety of mandates passed by our state legislature. In most cases, the mandates were enacted into law yet the associated funding never seemed to materialize.

A classic example of this is the 2006 Achieving Classroom Excellence (ACE) legislation. As you know, the intent of this law was to increase the rigor of a Oklahoma high school education by requiring students to demonstrate mastery in specified subject areas by scoring proficient or advanced on the associated End-of-Instruction (EOI) exams.

To this day, in order to graduate from a public high school with a standard diploma, students MUST pass the Algebra I and English II EOI exams as well as two of the remaining five subject tests in Geometry, Algebra II, US History, English III, and Biology.

An important piece of the original ACE legislation is the requirement for schools to provide remediation for students scoring below proficient on 7th and 8th grade math and reading OCCTs and any of the seven high school EOIs.

According to the OSDE webpage:

Some examples of how districts might offer remediation include: extra classes during the day, tutoring before or after school, tutoring at lunch or during homeroom, online programs, computer software, summer school, and Saturday school. These opportunities are designed to help students pass the tests required so that they can graduate on time.

Districts will be provided with ACE Remediation Funds based on the number of students who qualify for remediation. Allocations are made on a per-student basis. Allocation and payment notices are sent to the respective school districts prior to September 1 of each year.

The amount per student for those scoring Unsatisfactory is up to a maximum of $240.

The amount per student for those scoring Limited Knowledge is up to a maximum of $180.

Several members of the original ACE task force warned that the investment of remediation dollars was critical to the long-term success of the legislation. Without additional funding to support district and school remediation programs, many students would simply not get the extra assistance they needed to make up their academic gaps. As a result, more students would fail the EOIs and our dropout rate would increase.

One early estimate was that is would cost about $77 million a year for remediation. Of course, the legislature has never appropriated even half this amount. However, in the early years of implementation (2009 and 2010), the remediation budget per student was significantly higher than it is today. Increases to cut scores over the past few years has caused thousands of additional students to qualify for remediation.

Are you curious how much the state believes districts need to remediate a student who could be one to several years below grade level academically?

For this year, the OSDE has provided a whopping $42.24 for every student scoring limited knowledge and $56.32 for an unsatisfactory score.

Oh, and don’t spend it all at the same place!

These figures represent a measly 23.46% of the maximum levels set forth in the original legislation shown above ($180 and $240 respectively). Yes, I recognize those are maximums, but we are nowhere close to funding the real costs associated with remediating tens of thousands of students across Oklahoma.

For my middle school, this represents about $14,000 in additional funding to provide required remediation for nearly 280 students.

This is not enough to hire additional staff, so our efforts will focus primarily on after school programs and some limited instructional materials. This amount is far from enough to adequately serve these students.

It’s like giving a dollar to a hungry man along with a menu to Red Lobster. There is nothing he can select that will adequately satiate his hunger. It would likely just make him angry.

I suppose the man could use our dollar to go to McDonalds and pick up a sausage biscuit, but this will not sustain him for very long. He will wake up hungry again tomorrow.

In reality, the ridiculously small amount of remediation funding does not allow schools to hire additional teachers, purchase technology, staff summer programs or implement research-based instructional programs that might actually make a dent in state remediation rates. We are being set up to fail and so are our students.

If we truly believe that ACE is a worthwhile initiative for our state, our legislature must commit the resources to enable schools to support our students. Holding students accountable for passing these tests while failing to provide adequate funding is unethical and wrong. If we are not going to fund ACE in accordance with the original legislative intent, the law should be repealed.

Schools cannot continue to improve while pinching pennies to the point of absurdity.

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We must do better than this because our children’s future depends on it.

Assume the Position!

Any day now, the Oklahoma Department of Education will ask schools to once again “assume the position” for our annual public flogging.

The upcoming release of school and district A-F report cards will serve as the instrument to spank our schools and communities out of our perceived complacency.  While the majority of Oklahomans view their schools in generally positive terms, the A-F report card will remind us just how lousy our schools really are.

With the loss of modified testing for students with special needs and the redefinition of full academic year (FAY), most schools will see lower grades this year than in 2013. This will be even more pronounced in our high-poverty urban districts-Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

First, a trip down memory lane.

Do you remember the headlines from last November when it was revealed that 36 schools in Tulsa earned an F on the “new and improved” A-F grading system? Tulsa Superintendent, Dr. Keith Ballard, responded in a November 6th Tulsa World article  by stating that the scores “did not match reality” and were “flawed and completely inconsequential.”

Dr. Ballard’s conclusion was likely based on the research of the OU/OSU study group which asserted that changes made to the existing A-F system “failed to address the flaws and, in all likelihood, made them worse.”

Here is a rather damning portion of their appraisal from October 2013:

“In summary, the data we have analyzed demonstrate quite dramatically that the letter grade system for school evaluation has very little meaning and certainly cannot be used legitimately to inform high-stakes decisions. The letter grades hide important differences between schools rather than reveal them. This obscurity is the result of two basic flaws that we discussed at length in our earlier paper: 1) It attempts to summarize unlike dimensions with a single indicator, and 2) it utilizes proficiency bands in a complicated formula that transforms raw scale scores into categories and back again, losing precision at every turn; then bonus points are added. The resulting grade has practically no meaning or utility.”

What turns out is the state’s A-F grading system is actually a very accurate measure of the poverty level of a community.

In two posts last November (HERE) and (HERE), our friend at Okeducationtruths did an excellent job of crunching the numbers to demonstrate the correlation between high rates of poverty and lower grades on the A-F report card.  As he concluded:

“…at the end of the day, we’re still just identifying which schools and districts teach high concentrations of poor kids. Congratulations, Oklahoma. Money well-spent.”

So, despite the fact that no changes were made to the flawed system from last year, we will be expected to take them seriously this year. Not only will the new grades reveal an even larger number of failing schools in Oklahoma, the report card will ostensibly reveal that our state’s teachers and school leaders are still not at all motivated to do anything about their poor performance and are just worried about earning career status and working their way to cushy pensions.

It cannot possibly be that teachers have committed their lives to a relatively low-paying, often thankless job because of some sort of devotion to children or the larger ideals of American public education. The state and national reformers know the truth, which is teachers are lazy slackers who don’t particularly like children and only took a teaching job because they were certain they’d never have to actually do it.

Accountability measures like A-F, which are based almost entirely on the results of high stakes testing, must be used–we are told–because schools have been lying to parents about how well students are doing, and because schools are all about being big lying liars. Oh, and this is because we will do anything to avoid accountability and protect the comfortable status quo.

Over the past few years, Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has made this abundantly clear with his comments relative to parent perceptions of their schools : “…white suburban moms are just upset that their children are not as bright as they thought they were” and “parents don’t realize how bad their schools are.”

And, regardless of our grades on this year’s state A-F report card, the added loss of the ESEA waiver will mandate that schools send letters to parents next year telling them we are failing. This is because of the absolutely ridiculous requirement of NCLB that 100% of students score at the proficient level. If 95% of our students pass the tests, it won’t matter. In most cases, we will still be a failing school.

Both of these accountability systems are all built around one simple premise– that teachers and schools will not do a decent job unless threatened and coerced and outed to the public through regular revealing of our scores.

As the thinking goes, without the threat of job loss, school closures, and public humiliation, teachers would just let students text on their cell phones while they sit at their desks doing the same. The reformers want us to conclude that teachers and school leaders are the most  incompetent, indolent, unmotivated, uncommitted people in our society and are personally culpable for our country’s decline.

I suppose we could all just take the attitude of Kevin Bacon in Animal House.

I refuse to grab my ankles anymore.

For this reason, I submit that the best response to this year’s A-F grades would be a loud collective YAWN. I have found that most parents place very little weight on these grades. We shouldn’t either.

The A-F grades are irrelevant and do nothing to help schools improve. Schools earning poor grades do not receive additional supports or resources; instead, just another reminder of what a terrible job they are doing. Teachers and students within those schools are also reminded of how much they stink.

The reality is the current system is flawed and inaccurate.

I am 6’4″ tall and weigh 200 pounds. If I step on a scale tomorrow that says I weight 250 pounds, I am not going to overreact, go on a cabbage soup diet and send in my application for “The Biggest Loser.”

Likewise, if the scale displayed my weight at 180 pounds, I am not going to run around and tout that I have lost twenty pounds or eat a box of donuts. For this reason, I will not be sharing my school’s grade with anyone in my school community. The grade is useless and means nothing!

Despite empirical evidence that the A-F system is inaccurate, statistically invalid, and unreliable, our state department will tell us these grades are meaningful indicators of school quality. They are not and we should not treat them like they are.

I am hopeful that whomever our new state superintendent turns out to be, he or she will work quickly with our legislature to trash the current A-F system, while committing to work with a broad cross-section of knowledgeable stakeholders to develop a useful, more comprehensive approach to assessing our state schools. We all deserve better.

In closing, I thought I would share the thoughts of one final authority on school accountability systems-Grumpy Cat.

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Does America Value its Workers?

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There have been many words thrown about over the past few years about this concept of “college- and career-ready”. In particular, what skills and knowledge does a student need upon graduation from high school to be successful in life and be a productive contributor to society?

In recent days, we have been discussing and debating the reasons why Arne Duncan’s Department of Education saw fit to deny Oklahoma’s ESEA flexibility waiver and throw us back on a NCLB train just as it plummets off the cliff. With the absurdly asinine requirement of having 100 percent of students reach proficiency, or face punitive action (the government prefers the term “corrective”), very few schools will come out of this unscathed.

To earn a reprieve and get our waiver extended, all that needs to happen is to have our Regents for Higher Education certify the current PASS standards as college- and career-ready. The standards were labeled as college- and career-ready by both the Fordham Institute in 2010 and two years earlier by Achieve, Inc.–the same organization that created the common core standards. That said, indications are that the regents are not going to do it.

I’m not sure what happened to the standards over the past few years to make them so awful.

Yes, I do. Politicians and non-educators got involved. They heard from colleges and universities that large numbers of students were coming to their schools deficient in math and reading skills. Instead of analyzing these reports to try to identify the many, varied explanations for this phenomenon, they simply turned to the standard rhetoric: Public schools are failing and teachers and school leaders don’t give a crap.

Therefore, we just need to “raise the bar” and hold educators and students more accountable. Make the standards harder (more rigorous) and make students pass even more difficult assessments. That ought to fix things, right?

So, the dilemma in front of our regents (and Barresi’s OKSDE) is how can they possibly now anoint the PASS standards as C&C-ready after spending the past few years wiping their rear ends with them?

In addition, the criteria that Duncan and the USDOE are using to evaluate the C&C-readiness of standards is these college remediation rates. Even if one ignores the fact that every state has a different method for determining these figures, there is also absolutely no evidence that any new set of standards will be any more C&C-ready.

What business is it of Secretary Duncan anyway?

Truly, no one (including the Fordham Institute or Bill Gates) has been able to effectively mount an argument supporting the stake the U.S. Department of Education has in Oklahoma’s education standards. Really, what does Arne Duncan care what standards Oklahoma uses to educate its children? What difference can it mean to Duncan?

Oklahoma — and the other 49 states — got along for hundreds of years without education via national standards offered as carrots for federal programming dollars. In fact, it wasn’t until 1970 — after the first real federal intervention into local public education (President Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act) — that America saw the beginning of the allegedly tremendous decline in public education we are scolded about today.

But, we are where we are and no longer control the rules to the game. So, even after we spend the next 18 months creating Oklahoma’s Incredible, Super Duper Rigorous, World Class, Grade A, best standards EVER, it will take several years of longitudinal data to evaluate if they were able to impact remediation rates. On what basis will the regents be able to certify these new standards C&C-ready? I suppose they will just default to the tried-and-true dictum of: “Because we say so.”

Here is the obvious question: Why is C&C-ready so predicated on this idea of college ready? What happened to the “career” part? And how can we possibly evaluate any set of standards based on this arbitrary target? A recent Business Week article stated that 65% of jobs that students starting school today will fill don’t even exist yet. So how can we create content standards for careers we are not aware of?

Most of all, why do we as a country no longer seem to value the work that made America great?

This was precisely the message of Mike Rowe, the creator and host of Dirty Jobs, when he testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation a few months ago.

You can read a summary of Mike’s remarks in a blog post written by Trent Gilliss, “The Work We Value, the Intelligence We Ignore: Is the Work that Made America Great Valued Anymore?

I encourage you to read his remarks. A key quote from Mike is this: “The skills gap is a reflection of what we value. To close the gap, we need to change the way the country feels about work.”

This leads us to a much bigger conversation about why we as a country–in our rush to push all students to college–have devalued occupations requiring vocational or technical training.

As quoted in American Thinker, Oklahoma City’s Bob Funk of Express Personnel says,

“There is a shortage of skilled labor technical jobs, and many young people who could fill those jobs are getting college degrees in areas where there are no jobs waiting for them when they graduate.”

If we continue down this foolish path we will exacerbate the already existing shortage of skilled workers. And, eventually, it will cost us more for an hour of a plumber’s or electrician’s time as a hour with an attorney or psychiatrist.

We may already be there.

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#Oklaed Has a Few Questions!

The Department of Education’s decision to deny Oklahoma’s request for an extension of our ESEA waiver has ignited the passions of many in the #Oklaed twittersphere and blogging community. I wrote on the topic a few days ago (“Playing the Waiver Game”) which was quickly followed by Okeducationtruths excellent 4,000 word missive on the same theme (“What a Week Today Was“). This morning, Claudia Swisher added her brilliant analysis through the use of Wordles (“Words, Words, Wordles”). Nice job, Claudia!

Of course, there has been a lot of political finger pointing from several of our state leaders, most of which directed towards the federal government—yet very little acknowledgment of the fact that this was essentially a self-inflicted wound.

Our state leaders knew that passage of House Bill 3399 would put our waiver request in jeopardy. Agree with it or not, the ESEA waiver policy is fairly straight-forward. The policy states that “states requesting ESEA flexibility must adopt standards common to a significant number of states, or demonstrate that their standards are college- and career-ready by working with their Institutes of Higher Education (IHE).”

Since HB3399 repealed CCSS in our state (“standards common to a significant number of states”), we knew that we would have to work quickly with our Higher Education Regents to certify the existing PASS standards as college-and career-ready.

The U.S. Department of Education responded proactively by sending a letter reiterating this requirement to Superintendent Barresi on June 13th. In the letter, Assistant Secretary of Education, Deborah Delisle, requested that “Oklahoma amend its ESEA flexibility extension request to reflect the newly enacted legislation and invited the state to provide evidence that (our) standards are certified by (our) state network of IHEs as college- and career-ready.” Secretary Delisle then gave the state a 60-day deadline (August 12th) to provide this evidence.

Our state leaders chose to ignore this deadline and essentially forced the federal government to play their cards. Whether this was done intentionally or simply the result of a lack of urgency is open to speculation. What is clear is that very little seems to have been done to satisfy the federal government’s request. Why not?

This very question became the topic of conversation on Twitter last night. At the center of the discussion was Representative Jason Nelson from Oklahoma City. As I have said before, Representative Nelson and I disagree on many issues related to education reform, but I respect his willingness to engage with voters on social media. It is critically important that we continue this type of dialogue, even when we don’t see eye-to-eye.

What follows below is a portion of the conversation involving Representative Nelson and several #oklaed tweeters:

@wfryer: Why do you think our #OklaEd Board of Regents failed 2 act & advocate that PASS standards are college ready? Or amend them?

@jasonnelsonok: Because I asked them, and they wanted, to actually review the standards as an academic document, not a political document.

@wfryer: Do you think the board understood the time sensitive nature of the review process for the NCLB waiver?

@jasonnelsonok: Higher ed understands that its job is to evaluate the standards – not rubber stamp them to meet an arbitrary political deadline.

@jasonnelsonok: Higher ed was not given a deadline in HB3399. They were asked to determine if PASS was college and career ready.

@jmsprincipal: Was the potential impact of losing the waiver even consid. by regents? PASS were ranked in top ten of states in 2010.

@jasonnelsonok: Yes, it was considered.

@jmsprincipal: What’s the harm in playing the political game to protect OK students and schools? We’re still writing new standards.

@jasonnelsonok: I think its a bad idea to sell your birthright for a bowl of stew.

@jmsprincipal: My big Q is what determines C&C ready? Remediation rates? Alignment to college Gen Ed rqmts? Won’t this always be subjective?

@jasonnelsonok: Well, there is the waiver definition: Students that satisfy the standards won’t need remediation in college.

@jasonnelsonok: Sec. Duncan’s waiver requirement for state developed standard.

@jasonnelsonok: The two problems w/ that definition: its only aspirational & each state higher ed system set its own remediation thresholds

@jmsprincipal:  I appreciate that. But why could CCSS be certified C&C ready w/o any evidence of better outcomes or incr. College readiness?

@drjohnthompson: Why would remediation rates be relevant? No reason to say they are linked to standards as opposed to money.

@jasonnelsonok: The state regents for higher education are tasked with the review.

@jasonnelsonok: They (regents) are identifying academic content experts from around the state to work on this.

@bridgestyler: That has been my major concern. CCR = most vague & touchy feely definition I’ve seen come through in awhile.

Here’s what I distill from this conversation: (1) The Oklahoma Regents for Higher Education are in no particular hurry to complete this review; (2) State leaders may have actually encouraged them to take their time; (3) there is a lot of confusion over what constitutes college- and career-ready standards; and (4) we would rather have schools and students suffer than “eat a bowl of stew.”

My review of the agendas of the monthly meetings of the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education for the past two months found absolutely no mention of the requirement to certify our state standards as college- and career-ready. Don’t you think this would have been worthy of mention in “new business?”

As reported by Andrea Eger in today’s Tulsa World, the regents seem to be working at their own pace.

Angela Caddell, the regents’ associate vice chancellor for communications, said the legislation that repealed Common Core and subsequently called for the state regents’ standards review, did not specify a particular timeline.

She said their report won’t be out until mid-October at the earliest.

“As the process continues to unfold, the findings and recommendations of the committees and consultants may also identify additional work that could require more time,” Caddell said. “Each step of this review will be executed as efficiently as possible without sacrificing the integrity of the process.”

Caddell said the state regents have assembled groups of campus subject-matter experts with experience in developing and reviewing English and math standards to complete a “thorough and efficient” review. As a part of this process, the regents are engaging consultants from the Southern Regional Education Board to provide additional expertise in the review and to validate the process and recommendations.

However, as Representative Nelson stated above, the regents were apparently aware of the deadline and the potential implications of our state losing the ESEA waiver. So, why were they not getting this process started in June so they might have a chance of meeting the federal deadline.

While HB3399 did not give them a timeline, did they not feel some level of obligation to help our state maintain our waiver? If not, did the Governor think it might be important to light a little fire under the regents to ensure this process was completed before the August 12th deadline?

This decision impacts hundreds of Oklahoma schools and may result in the loss of teaching positions and supports for struggling students at a time when we need them more than ever. Therefore, this decision represents negligent complacency on the part of our state leaders.

It seems like the prevailing attitude was that “we know what the feds want and we are in no hurry to give it to them.”

It also appears that we are now stuck in a quagmire of defining what exactly college- and career-ready standards really means.

Think about this. Hasn’t the role of schools ALWAYS been to prepare children for college and careers? It would be hard to find anyone who disagrees with the purpose of comprehensive K-12 education in our country. An educated populace is essential to the sustainability of a healthy democracy, a capitalist economy, and high functioning communities. A highly educated citizenry is also important to prevent the tendency of governments to become increasing tyrannical towards the people.

As Representative Nelson shares above, the standard for “college- and career-ready” seems to have been tied by the USDOE to college remediation rates.

You’ve likely heard the widely disseminated statistic that “40% of Oklahoma’s high school graduates are required to enroll in one or more remediation courses.” This is a complex topic that cannot be fully explained with simple talking points. Suffice it to say that a high number of these courses are taken by students in our community colleges and smaller universities. In some cases, these might represent students who had mediocre teachers or attended schools with low academic standards. In many more cases, however, these are students who are returning to school to start a degree after a lapse of time after high school graduation.

Some of the students are those who admittedly did not try very hard in school yet earned their diploma and went into the workforce. As some point, they realized that they didn’t want to spend the rest of their lives working in a low wage job and decided to return to school to get more education. If you don’t use algebra for several years, it is highly likely you will need some remediation to be able to handle college-level math courses. This is not a bad thing. We should celebrate the fact that these students have matured and have returned to school to better their lives.

Here’s the bottom line. The loss of our ESEA waiver helps no one.  .  . unless we are willing to go all the way and pass legislation repealing everything else we rushed into law to try to earn a RTTT grant four years ago; in particular the harmful value-added models for teacher evaluation which are wreaking havoc in other states.

If our intent is to maintain the waiver until Congress gets off their collective a!@*s and does something to fix No Child Left Behind, then we need to play the game. Since the term “college- and career-ready” is completely subjective and arbitrary, our regents can make this certification based solely on the fact that the 2010 Fordham report found our PASS standards not significantly better or worse than common core and ranked them in the top ten of state standards across the nation.

They could also cite Achieve Inc., the group that wrote the Common Core standards. In 2008, they issued a report declaring Oklahoma’s PASS standards “well-aligned with (Achieve’s) college- and career-ready expectations.”

Why are we playing games with Oklahoma’s children? Those of us who work in schools understand that it is NOT standards that make students college- and career-ready, it is teachers! Slow walking the process to certify our standards in order to avoid “sacrificing the integrity of the process” hurts our schools and students, not the federal government.

Governor Fallin, are you paying attention?  Please, we could use a little leadership!

 

Playing the Waiver Game!

Shortly after the legislature’s passage of House Bill 3399 in May 2014 which repealed common core state standards in Oklahoma, I posted a blog titled: “Arne Doesn’t Have to Do This” to explain that Secretary Duncan had choices when it came to the reauthorization of our state’s ESEA waiver.

As a somewhat morbid example of a similarly capricious decision-making process, I shared an example from the movie “No Country for Old Men.” In particular, the scene where the merciless killer Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem, tells the widow of the man he killed earlier that he now has to take her life because he “gave his word” to her husband. She tells Anton, “You don’t have to do this.” As a compromise, he flips a coin and tells her to call it. The underlying message is clear—call the coin correctly and she lives—call it wrong and she dies. If you have seen the movie, you know how this ends up for her. If not, here is the clip. (Click HERE if clip does not appear)

While the stakes relative to our ESEA waiver are clearly not as serious, one thing is common to these two situations. The person “in charge” gets to make the decision—not the coin and not the pieces of paper that constitute our waiver application. Just like it was Anton Chigurh’s choice in this scene, it was Arne Duncan’s choice relative to his department’s decision today to pull our state waiver. We apparently called the coin incorrectly.

I will get to the reasons stated by Duncan’s Department of Education to deny the waiver request in just a minute.

Before we go there, it is important to remind ourselves what the ESEA waiver request policy actually says and, just as importantly, what it DOES NOT say.

The policy requires that states requesting waivers: “…must submit a request that addresses each of the following four principles, consistent with the definitions and timelines described later in this document, to increase the quality of instruction for students and improve student academic achievement in the State and its [districts].”

Note the sleight of hand. The law expects states to explain how waivers would “increase the quality of instruction” and “improve academic achievement.” Yet, Mr. Duncan’s Department of Education requires adherence to its preferred “principles” as the only routes to such improvement.

Further, the Department forces states to pledge allegiance to ALL of the four principles—even when these are not applicable to the specific flexibility being requested.

What are the four principles?

1. College- and Career-Ready Expectations for All Students
2. State-Developed Differentiated Recognition, Accountability, and Support
3. Supporting Effective Instruction and Leadership (i.e., teacher and principal evaluation)
4. Reducing Duplication and Unnecessary Burden

It is difficult to argue against any of these specific principles. They all sound pretty reasonable. However, try to find the wording in the original ESEA legislation where the Congress declared that a state’s waiver would hinge on its embracing this particular set of subjective standards—and being able to satisfy the Secretary of Education that it will indeed implement them all. In short, nothing in current law gives Secretary Duncan the authority to delineate the specific requirements for a ESEA waiver. Rather, the waiver language seems to gives states autonomy to “increase the quality of instruction” and “improve academic achievement” by whatever means they feel is most effective.

So let’s take a minute to digest what happened today. Here is a copy of the letter that was sent to Superintendent Barresi this afternoon. Pay particular attention to the wording in the top paragraph of page two.

 

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Let’s be clear. Oklahoma did not lose our waiver because we repealed common core. Instead, the Assistant Secretary, Deborah Delisle, justifies her decision to deny the waiver based on the fact that our state was not able to secure a ruling from our regents of higher education that the 2010 PASS standards for English Language Arts and Math were “college- and career-ready.” The feds gave our state department 60 days to obtain such evidence. Our response back to them—it seems—was “we are not able to do that and cannot even give a timetable on when we can.”

So what happened?  I have read that the regents have begun a review process, but how long will this take. Was there any attempt on the part of Superintendent Barresi and the SDE to impress the importance of quick action on the part of the regents for this “college- and career-ready endorsement?”  If not, why not? If a review is ongoing, why was this not communicated to the Department of Education? In our rush to create an elaborate process for the development of “new Oklahoma standards,” did we not simultaneously call on Higher Ed to review the existing standards and give direction as to what we needed to improve?

I know many teachers and school leaders believe that the CCSS-based, Oklahoma Academic Standards (OAS) are superior to the previous PASS standards. But, at this time, there is absolutely NO EVIDENCE that they are more “college- and career-ready” than the standards we already had.  In fact, it would be absolutely erroneous to label any set of untested academic standards as being able to produce higher student achievement or better outcomes with no longitudinal levels or trends to substantiate the claim. The bottom line is that the CCSS may be superior to PASS and may be able to better prepare students for college-level rigor…or they may be worse…or make no difference at all.  At this point, any opinion one way or the other is simply that—an opinion, devoid of supporting evidence.

This has become silly! I am sure that the people who fill the Oklahoma Regents for Higher Education are all intelligent folks with higher degrees and special endorsements. But not one of them has the capacity to label anything as college- and career- ready. What does this even mean? Many of them graduated from high school and college long before our state had any set of real academic standards. Their colleges and universities are filled with students who graduated from Oklahoma high schools when PASS was the only game in town. Scores of former PASS-educated students are now filling high paying careers in a wide range of professions, from electricians to doctors to architects. So, what would be the “magic” language or words within the document that would make one set of standards “college- and career-ready” and another set fall short? There isn’t any!

This is a subjective decision with no basis in fact. There is absolutely no evidence that CCSS will improve outcomes or increase college-and career- readiness. These are all games being played by bureaucrats to push their individual agendas for school reform.

Again, it is critical to remember that in July 2010, an outside entity– the Fordham Institute– conducted a state-by-state review of academic standards and compared them to the common core standards. Their analysis resulted in Oklahoma PASS standards for math and language arts both earning a B+ and ranking in the top ten nationally!

You don’t believe me? Take a look at these charts below which show that the Oklahoma PASS standards, which many are saying are now saying are just horrible, were “too close to call” compared to the quality of the common core standards. Since the Fordham Institute reviewed our standards in context with every other state’s standards, their rankings are particularly noteworthy. So, why did we not ask our higher education regents to label the PASS standards as college- and career-ready, while simultaneously beginning a process for a thorough review and improvement process?

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Here was the “bottom line” that accompanied the Fordham Institute’s comparison of our PASS standards with the common core standards:

For English-Language Arts: “Oklahoma’s standards are better organized and more clearly presented than Common Core. The objectives are generally free of jargon, describe measurable expectations, and clearly illustrate the growth and progression of rigor expected through the grades. Oklahoma uses more standard-specific examples to help clarify expectations and treats literary genres and theircharacteristics in more detail. The Oklahoma standards also prioritize essential writing genres by grade spans, which Common Core does not. On the other hand, Oklahoma fails to include any expectations for Kindergarten, while those presented in the Common Core are generally strong. In addition, the Common Core addresses the analysis of informational text in more detail than the Oklahoma standards. Common Core also includes a list specifying the quality and complexity of student reading as well as sample student writing. Such enhancements would significantly improve Oklahoma’s standards.”

For Mathematics: “Oklahoma’s standards are generally clear and well presented. Standards are briefly stated and frequently include examples, making them easier to read and follow than Common Core. In addition, the high school content is organized so that standard addressing specific topics, such as quadratic functions, are grouped together in a mathematically coherent way. The organization of the Common Core is more difficult to navigate, in part because standards dealing with related topics sometimes appear separately rather than together. While Oklahoma’s standards provide well-organized high school courses, they are missing some of the advanced content for high school that is covered in Common Core. In addition, the coverage of arithmetic displays some serious weaknesses. Common Core explicitly requires standard methods and procedures, and the inclusion of these important details would enhance Oklahoma’s standards.

In other words, it does appear we have some work to do to improve our current standards to reflect best practices for teaching and learning. At the same time, the standards are not nearly as bad as some as saying.

In today’s press conference, Superintendent Barresi stated that we should use Massachusetts as a model for our new standards. Look at the charts again. Massachusetts’s ELA standards earned an A- to our B+ while their math standards earned the same grade as ours.

Why did Superintendent Barresi not use Washington D.C. (which earned A’s in both areas) as the model? Because their student achievement is much lower than Oklahoma’s. The lesson from both examples is that higher standards DO NOT necessarily equate to higher student achievement. Even in Massachusetts they have many students who score below basic level on the NAEP test, even with so-called “wonderful” standards. The same is true in reverse. Students in Vermont perform well above the national average on the NAEP math and reading tests, yet their standards are rated as an F and D respectively. How could this possibly be?  It is almost like some other factors, like poverty and home instability, are somehow skewing the results in other states. We ought to take a look at this!

Since the regents will have no empirical evidence to label any new set of state standards more “college- and career-ready” that the standards we currently have, I suggest we just play the game– call them whatever the feds want us to call them this week–and move on down the road.

If we are not going to do this, then let’s take the loss of our waiver in stride and double down. Let’s dump the value-added teacher evaluations that we were also forced to adopt with our original ESEA waiver. When fully implemented, VAM will be far more damaging to schools and teachers than any of the reforms which preceded it.

Let’s show Arne Duncan and the Department of Education that we also have choices. If enough states eventually follow suit, this adventure in federal overreach will collapse under its own weight. Then, maybe, Congress might be forced to do its job and revise and reauthorize NCLB, something they were statutorily required to do seven years ago!

Bravo to the Vermont BOE!

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There are several reasons why I’d like to pay a visit to Vermont this time of year. First, while we are baking in a 100 degree hotbox, the high temperature in the capital of Montpelier, Vermont today is projected to be a lovely 79 degrees. I also love maple syrup and hiking in the woods, both of which are in plentiful supply in Vermont. Most of all, I want to go to the next meeting of the Vermont State Board of Education, rise up in the middle of the meeting, and give them a rousing, raise the roof standing ovation!

What this group of Vermont education leaders did last week is worthy of widespread love and acknowledgment. After all the turmoil we have endured in our state relative to public education reform over the past few years, it is nice to see that some states can still stand up for their schools.

In case you missed it, on August 19th the Vermont State Board of Education adopted a statement and resolution on assessment and accountability. I encourage you to read the full document (HERE). You will likely be shouting “Amen” as you read through the Board’s eight guiding principles for the appropriate use of standardized tests. These folks actually get it. While I recognize that these are just words on paper at this point, they are beautiful words that sing to my heart!

The Board starts by recognizing that uniform standardized tests can be a useful tool for helping schools chart a path toward successful delivery of well-designed standards.

What standardized tests can do that teacher developed tests cannot do is give us reliable, comparative data. We can use test scores to tell whether we are doing better over time.

Of particular note, standardized tests help monitor how well we serve students with different life circumstances and challenges. When used appropriately, standardized tests are a sound and objective way to evaluate student progress.

I think most of us agree with this premise and support the use of appropriate summative assessments as one input for continuous school improvement. However, the Vermont BOE quickly pivots from this statement to say (emphasis mine):

Standardized tests like the NECAP (New England Common Assessment Program) and soon, the SBAC (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium), can tell us something about how students are doing in a limited set of narrowly defined subjects overall, as measured at a given time. However, they cannot tell us how to help students do even better. Nor can they adequately capture the strengths of all children, nor the growth that can be ascribed to individual teachers. And under high-stakes conditions, when schools feel extraordinary pressure to raise scores, even rising scores may not be a signal that students are actually learning more. At best, a standardized test is an incomplete picture of learning: without additional measures, a single test is inadequate to capture a years’ worth of learning and growth.

The Board uses this statement as the jumping off point for the eight principles that follow. I will summarize them below, but again, you should read the document yourself.

1) The proper role standardized testing. “The purpose of any large-scale assessment must be clearly stated and the assessments must be demonstrated as scientifically and empirically valid for that purpose(s) prior to their use. This includes research and verification as to whether a student’s performance on tests is actually predictive of performance on other indicators we care about, including post-secondary success, graduation rates and future employment.” In other words, they want to make sure that tests actually measure things that are important for success in the 21st century, and not rote recall of subjectively selected trivia and knowledge.

2) Public reporting requirement. Schools should absolutely be accountable to their citizens; however, these reports should include a “diverse and comprehensive set of school quality indicators in local school, faculty and community communications.” And they should look nothing like Oklahoma’s ridiculous A-F report cards (I added that part).

3) Judicious and proportionate testing. We should reduce the amount of time spent of summative, standardized testing and encourage the federal government to revise current testing requirements because “excessive testing diverts resources and time away from learning while providing little additional value for accountability purposes.”  Is Arne Duncan listening? Maybe, I will come back to this one.

4) Test development criteria. All standardized tests should be developed and properly vetted by reputable educational research organizations such as the American Educational Research Association, the National Council on Measurement in Education, and the American Psychological Association. What? I didn’t notice any mention of Pearson, ETS, or CTB/McGraw-Hill. Other people can write tests too?

5) Value-added scores. I LOVE this one! “As a strong body of recent research has found that there is no valid (or reliable) method of calculating value-added scores…we will not be using them in Vermont for any consequential purpose.” To paraphrase, “they suck and we’re not using them.” Uh-oh, wait until Arne finds out!

6) Mastery level or Cut-off scores.This one is so good, I have to just copy and paste this whole paragraph (emphasis mine):

While the federal government continues to require the use of subjectively determined cut-off score, employing such metrics lacks scientific foundation. The skills needed for success in society are rich and diverse. Consequently, there is no single point on a testing scale that has proven accurate in measuring the success of a school or in measuring the talents of an individual. Claims to the contrary are technically indefensible and their application would be unethical.

7) Use of cut scores and proficiency categories for reporting purposes. Again, me paraphrasing: “The federal government says we have to do this, but these metrics are invalid, misleading, and mostly crap. We will continue to follow the law, but wish the feds would pull their heads out and change this policy.”

8) The Federal, State and Local Obligation for Assuring Adequacy and Equality of Opportunity. The government cannot keep higher performance without providing adequate and equitable resources for schools. In short, the government needs to put its money where its mouth is!

The Board concludes by making several strongly worded resolutions, prefaced by this awesome statement:

“WHEREAS, the culture and structure of the systems in which students learn must change in order to foster engaging school experiences that provide joy in learning, depth of thought and breadth of knowledge for students.

The three Board resolutions are succinct and spot-on. First, they call on the Secretary of Education to develop a better school accountability system (and dump the current version). Secondly, they call on the Administration and Congress to “amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind Act) to reduce the testing mandates, promote multiple forms of evidence of student learning and school quality, eschew the use of student test scores in evaluating educators, and allow flexibility that reflects the unique circumstances of all states.” Finally, they ask us and other state and national groups to join them in this effort.

While there is much work to do, I do believe that the tide is turning.  Look at these comments from Secretary Duncan from Thursday’s press release and DOE blog post:

 “We also need to recognize that in many places, the sheer quantity of testing – and test prep – has become an issue. In some schools and districts, over time tests have simply been layered on top of one another, without a clear sense of strategy or direction. Where tests are redundant, or not sufficiently helpful for instruction, they cost precious time that teachers and kids can’t afford. Too much testing can rob school buildings of joy, and cause unnecessary stress. This issue is a priority for us, and we’ll continue to work throughout the fall on efforts to cut back on over-testing.”

“I believe testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools – oxygen that is needed for a healthy transition to higher standards, improved systems for data, better aligned assessments, teacher professional development, evaluation and support and more.”

“(There is) a recognized and growing concern that the quantity of required testing is troubling, in some cases repetitive or “not sufficiently helpful for instruction.” He said the department will work through the fall to reduce over-testing.”

“In too many places, it’s clear that the [testing] yardstick has become the focus.”

“No school or teacher should look bad because they took on kids with greater challenges. Growth is what matters. No teacher or school should be judged on any one test, or tests alone — always on a mix of measures.”

“No test will ever measure what a student is, or can be. It’s simply one measure of one kind of progress. Yet in too many places, testing itself has become a distraction from the work it is meant to support.”

After some of his previous comments relative to testing, it is difficult to believe that these words came from Mr. Duncan. Duncan’s remarks probably reflect two issues. One, he’s actually taken a few baby steps toward the realization that our obsession with testing is causing some negative consequences he and others didn’t foresee. Two, he is very concerned about losing teacher support for Common Core. Teachers were leaning in his direction in the early implementation of the standards, but their support has been eroding steadily. As revealed by the latest Gallop Poll/PDK poll, he has already lost the support of the general population with 60% of the public now opposed to CCSS and a snowball-like rollback occurring in legislatures across the nation.

So now Duncan is listening to teachers — you probably noticed he said that a bunch of times in his prepared remarks — and is trying to gain back their confidence and support by saying, Clinton-like, “I feel your pain” when it comes to standardized testing.

I will remain skeptical about whether or not Duncan has experienced a genuine change of heart on standardized testing. But these remarks, coupled with the Vermont BOE’s Resolution and other similar initiatives across our nation make me cautiously optimistic.

It is just a sliver of light, but after navigating the dark corridors of education reform for the past decade, it is something to build on.

Do you think our state legislators would support a similar resolution as Vermont’s in the next session? I am fairly certain we won’t get there yet with our current Board membership. What if our local superintendents, parent groups, and university researchers applied some pressure?  This IS doable. We must seize the initiative and continue to make things happen rather than waiting for things to happen to us

In the meantime, I’ll be pouring a little more maple syrup on my pancakes for a while!

It’s Mudslinging Time!

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Are you as troubled as I am by the increasing influx of so-called “dark money” into our state political races? Regardless of your political affiliation or personal views on important issues, the fact that wealthy out-of-state entities are targeting Oklahoma candidates with inaccurate and defamatory propaganda is unseemly.

A recent example of this intrusion is the smear campaign against Republican candidate for Oklahoma House District 69, Melissa Abdo. Melissa is pitted in a tight race against opponent Chuck Strohm for the Republican nomination. Since there is no Democrat opponent, the winner of next Tuesday’s runoff (August 26th) will take office in January.

With full disclosure, I am going to say up front that I am a big fan of Melissa Abdo. As the driving force behind the work of the Tulsa-area Parent Legislative Action Committee (PLAC), she has proven herself to be a fierce, unabashed advocate for public education.  She has worked with thousands of other parents across the state to lobby on behalf of students and schools on numerous occasions at the Oklahoma Capitol. She is intelligent, hard-working, dedicated, passionate, and solution-centered.

Melissa is also a conservative Republican who believes in high academic standards for students, school accountability, and fiscal responsibility.

For these reasons, the latest mudslinging on the part of the Federation for Children Action Fund simply goes too far. In this organization’s latest campaign slime, they accuse Abdo of “surrounding herself with liberal lobbyists and special interests” and “supporting higher taxes and more government spending.”

In particular, the organization claims:

…She (Abdo) stood with big spending liberals and unions to oppose tax cuts and support new, excessive government spending that Oklahoma families cannot afford (by):

  • Supporting higher property taxes
  • Pushing for $150 million spending increase
  • Encouraging people to attend a union rally in support of higher taxes and spending, and
  • Opposing the Republican legislature’s tax cuts

The “evidence” that the Federation for Children uses to substantiate this absurd rhetoric includes Melissa’s Facebook posts on behalf on the Tulsa-area PLAC advertising the March 31 Education rally; an article in which Abdo voices her support of a school bond issue; a news story where Abdo calls for increased funding of public education; and a Tulsa People article where Abdo argues against a tax cut until appropriate funding for public education is restored.

So, let me get this right. If a person is in favor of adequately funding public schools, paying teachers a competitive wage, and maintaining quality school facilities, they are now classified a liberal? How have we gotten ourselves to this point? As Republicans, can we no longer be supportive of our nation’s system of public schools? To “qualify” as a true Republican, do we all have to give unconditional allegiance to the failed paradigm of accountability based on high stakes testing as well as absolute school choice? What has happened to the middle ground in our country?

I am proud to say I am a pro-public education advocate who is also a lifelong Republican. So is Melissa Abdo. To steal Janet’s words, I’ll be damned if I allow anyone to question the integrity or veracity of my beliefs and try to label me as something I am not. I served this nation as a Marine officer and apologize to no one for my unequivocal support of our public schools. Our schools have created the greatest wave of innovation in the history of mankind. To attempt to label all schools as failures and all teachers as “union” sycophants focused on preservation of the status quo is blatantly false. I will not sit by and watch good people be disparaged by right-wing extremists hellbent on the destruction of public schools for personal profit and as a means to reestablish a segregated system of “separate but equal” education.

But that’s just me.

But, while there is mud in the air, allow me to throw a few buckets of slime back to the source of this garbage: the Federation for Children Action Fund.

According to the online site Sourcewatch (HERE):

The American Federation for Children (AFC) is a conservative 501(c)(4) advocacy group that promotes the school privatization agenda via the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other avenues. It is the 501(c)(4) arm of the 501(c)(3) non-profit group the Alliance for School Choice. Former Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, who was charged with multiple crimes stemming from abuse of his office, is on staff at ASC as Senior Advisor to its Government Affairs Team.

In the organization’s own words, ASC is “a leading national advocacy organization promoting school choice, with a specific focus on advocating for school vouchers and scholarship tax credit programs.”

AFC is an ALEC member and is represented by former Rep. Jensen on the ALEC Education Task Force. Jensen is the former Republican Wisconsin Assembly Speaker convicted in 2005 of three felonies for misuse of his office for political purposes, and banned from the state Capitol for five years (the charges were later reduced on appeal). Jensen is one of AFC’s registered lobbyists in Wisconsin.

Jensen has proposed bills to ALEC on behalf of AFC/ASC that were adopted as “model” legislation. For example, in March 2011, Jensen presented to the ALEC Education Task Force the “Education Savings Account Act,” which creates financial incentives for families to take their children out of the public school system and put them in for-profit primary and secondary schools.

AFC is chaired by Betsy DeVos, the billionaire wife of Amway heir Dick DeVos (son of Amway founder Richard DeVos) and former chair of the Michigan Republican Party. In recent years, she has funneled tens of millions of dollars into school privatization efforts and other right-wing initiatives.

In a brochure released after the 2012 elections, the AFC discussed how their campaign spending shaped electoral outcomes and consequent legislative support for school choice. The document reveals that Wisconsin campaigns received more money from AFC than those in any other state, reaching a total of $2,392,000 for the state out of the $7,165,150 national total spending.

In short, we have a group of wealthy Americans who seek to profit from the establishment of for-profit schools with selective enrollment policies and limited accountability. Schools that are focused on the bottom line rather than the needs of the students they are entrusted to support. Schools that will siphon off much-needed funding for Oklahoma public schools and result in further decay of our urban school systems and communities. We cannot allow this to happen.

I am glad to see that Melissa is not taking this latest political smear sitting down either. In a response published in today’s “The Okie” blog, Abdo fires back with her own response:

“Follow the money….sadly, this common phrase is all too often true. Washington D.C. funded special interest groups stand to make a lot of money by influencing state policy. They are spending tens of thousands of dollars lying about me, to sway support to the candidate who will represent their interests.” Abdo said.

“You can see from the groups’ ethics commission report that their organization is originally funded with one single $125,000 contribution.

Their charge that support for funding education reform for our students is the same as supporting a tax increase is absurd. I believe voters see through all of these outright lies and twisted truths that are thrown about in the final days of an election.

I am disappointed my opponent and the outside special interests supporting him have chosen the ‘politics as usual’ path instead of focusing directly on the many issues facing our state.

Just last week, Dr. Tom Coburn said ‘I believe how a person runs a campaign says a lot about how that person will govern in office.’ I agree with Dr. Coburn and think more people seeking office need to listen to his advice.”

Back on June 24th, state Republicans came together to remove a significant impediment to the improvement of our public school system. Our next state superintendent will need smart and courageous legislators who are willing and able to work with all stakeholders to initiate meaningful and effective school reform. We need people who are not chained to the ALEC or AFC playbook, but who will instead seek out the voice of their constituents. We need individuals who will work to adequately fund our public schools in order to provide all children with a high quality education, not just those born on the right side of the track.

In Oklahoma District 69 that person is Melissa Abdo. If we allow this kind of mud to stick this time, the outside interference in our state’s political process will only get worse. Remember to vote on August 26th.

Stop the Ride, We Want OFF!

Have you even taken a ride on one of these heinous, Satan-designed creations? I think it is called an Octopus.

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When I was eight years old, my older brother conned me into riding one of these when the carnival came to town one summer. I knew within seconds that this ride was not going to be nearly as much fun as Steve said it would be. As I yelled frantically, “stop the ride, I want to get off,” I remember seeing my brother standing beside the carnival worker at the bottom, looking up at me and laughing hysterically as I screamed…then vomited…then screamed some more.

“Karma” did allow some of that vomit to find its way to the ride operator’s shirt and hair. Nonetheless,  I was mad at my brother for weeks.

A modern version of this torturous cycle that makes me equally nauseous and irritated is the annual release of state test scores.  Every August, we get to read headlines like this one in today’s Tulsa World: “School Districts see reading, math proficiency rates decrease for 2013-2014“. Here is the chart showing the scores from the Tulsa area public schools:

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Turning back the hands of time, you might recall this headline from the Tulsa World on September 10, 2013: “EOI passage drops dramatically after state hikes test scores.” Similar headlines accompanied the release of test scores in 2012 due to the increase in state reading cut scores that year.

It all makes me want to scream: “Stop the ride, I want to get off!”

For the most part, the results of student testing from this spring are what many of us expected. The 2014 testing cycle is the first year to accompany the elimination of alternative tests for special education students, known as the OMAAP. As a result, the vast majority of special needs students were required to take the same exam as regular education students despite being in lab classes that provide extensive academic supports. Additionally, the state changed the definition of what constitutes a Full Academic Year (FAY) so that any student in our schools prior to October 1st counted in our scores. The chart compiled by the Tulsa World above actually includes ALL students (both FAY and NFAY) who were enrolled in our schools during testing. In some cases, new students enrolled for less than one week were required to take the state assessments and their scores are reflected in these totals. Finally, the cut scores were increased for several of the assessments in the state’s glorious pursuit of higher rigor.

These numbers also provide little context as to why certain scores declined. For example, many middle school students enrolled in high school math courses took only the appropriate end-of-instruction (EOI) test and were not required to take the grade-level assessments this year. If these scores are not combined, it gives the impression that passage rates decreased precipitously.

Likewise, a quick look at my own district’s US History EOI results reveal a 30-point drop. However, this is because Jenks High School changed the grade level at which students take U.S. History and World History courses. Last year, both 10th- and 11th-graders took World History, leaving only 57 students who had either just moved into the district or had failed U.S. History previously to take that test. Since World History is not tested, the sample size was significantly skewed.

Of course, these kind of headlines are exactly what the reformers like to see. They use the specter of lower test scores to perpetuate their narrative that public schools are failing; that teachers and school leaders are not sufficiently motivated to do anything about it; and that the only solution is the closing of public schools, the dismantling of teacher unions and the introduction of competition—typically in the form of charters or school vouchers.

I recognize that this will not come as a surprise, but I was also dismayed at several comments attributed to State Superintendent Barresi in yesterday’s Tulsa World regarding the state’s request for a one-year extension of its flexibility waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Let’s take a look.

From the state’s application, we find this gem from Barresi: “When I took office in 2011, Oklahoma had only just left the starting line in the race to more effective schools. Now in 2014, we are well around the track and rapidly advancing toward the finish line.”

What? I am not sure which set of data our superindentist is referring to, but seriously, we are “well around the track and rapidly advancing toward the finish line?” What is she talking about?

One of the ways Barresi said the state education department has been preparing local school districts for new “college- and career-ready” state tests is by “ramping up the rigor” of each of the state’s existing tests. “Ramping up the rigor?” I’m sorry, that phrase just makes me sick.

Barresi goes on to provide this explanation for the nearly five percent drop in student proficiency levels in most grades since 2011: “The state has seen dips in proficiency with each raise in rigor, but the scores have never ‘tanked’ because teachers have been raising the rigor of instruction as well.” Based on some of the scores in the chart above, I would like to hear Dr. Barresi’s definition of “tanked.”

This roller coaster ride to nowhere will continue in October with the release of A-F report cards for Oklahoma schools and districts. Since student tests scores make up the bulk of these calculations, we should all be ready to see school grades drop significantly this year. There will be many more failing schools and the reformers’ wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth will continue.

So, where does all this get us? We have been riding this not-so-amusing ride since the passage of NCLB in 2001. Fourteen years later, student test scores across the nation remain relatively stagnant; the achievement gap remains significant; and testing companies, corporate charters schools,  and program vendors have grown fat at the trough of public taxpayer dollars.

We are sick of it and it is time to put an end to this ridiculous ride. 

Washington Post education blogger Valerie Strauss also discusses this topic in her article today, “Seven Things Teachers are Sick of Hearing from School Reformers.” In this post, Georgia teacher Ian Altman explains what he and his colleagues are really sick of hearing from reformers. Altman is an award-winning high school English teacher in Athens, where he has lived since 1993, as well as an advocate for teachers and students. It is very well-written and I encourage you to read the entire article, but here is what Ian says about testing in item number three from his list: “Don’t tell us about test data!”

I do not believe that standardized tests (End of Course Tests, PARCC exams, Graduation Tests, Georgia Milestones, AP Exams, the SAT, the ACT, IQ tests, or any other) have any value whatsoever, for anybody except those who make money from them.  In fact, I believe the use of those tests is inherently and necessarily damaging to all of us, including to those students who do very well on them.

Educators talk about and analyze test score data, and supposedly let that data “drive instruction,” but the truth is that numbers and measurements gleaned from those tests are not data.

They are a flat, bleached replacement of data, because they replace the substance of learning with an abstraction, a false image of learning, much the way Descartes replaced the idea of physical things with the concept of graphable spatial extension.  The acts of thinking, learning, and knowing, are not objects that can be replaced with abstractions about thinking, learning, and knowing. In that specific but crucial sense, all school test data are fake.

As I have discussed before, what is the purpose of creating more rigorous standards and more difficult tests that the majority of students are not able to pass? And how does this zealous pursuit of higher test scores serve the purpose of creating 21st century learners who can think creatively, innovate, and survive in a competitive international environment.

Like the ride operators, the folks in our state department and various other agencies of government—both state and federal—control the speed and function of this “ride.” If they want test scores to go down, just “ramp up the rigor” by increasing the difficulty of the questions and/or the cut scores for each test. At the same time, remove supports for students with special needs and insist that English language learners meet the same level of proficiency as other students.  On the other hand, if they want to show the public that their reform initiatives are “working,” just reverse the process, lower cut scores, and eureka—test scores go up! It has become a game which is making many teachers and school leaders nauseous.

Chasing test scores has become an insidious, time-consuming impediment to the type of real reform that needs to be happening in our schools. How many more years do we waste riding this folly of test-based accountability?  We are now in our second generation of children exposed to this foolishness and there is little sign of abatement on the part of the reformers.

It is time for all of us to stand up and yell at the top of our lungs: “STOP the damn ride, we want OFF!” Oh, maybe next spring, we choose to not get back on the ride once and for all. 

Figuratively speaking, some vomit on the collective shirt of the reformers would be nice.

Alfie Kohn’s Guidelines for Educators

Most educators are familiar with the often provocative and contrarian views of author Alfie Kohn. Kohn is the author of 12 books about education and human behavior, including “The Schools Our Children Deserve,” “The Homework Myth,” and “The Myth of the Spoiled Child.”

I enjoy reading Alfie Kohn because he challenges my thinking. He is unapologetic when criticizing many of the current paradigms related to the education of America’s children. His passion for the welfare of kids blazes throughout his books and dozens of published articles and blog posts. Whether you agree with his positions or not, you have to respect his thoughtful reasoning, solid research, and pragmatic conclusions.

You can access most of his more popular articles on his website www.alfiekohn.com (HERE).

I want to share an article he originally published in 2013. In this post, Alfie Kohn argues against the current inclination to try to devise specific policies and practices to direct every aspect of education. Rather, Kohn asserts that learning is often messy. He then proposes a few core principles, from which we can build upon in creating the type of schools our students deserve.

Here is Kohn’s proposed list of such principles, which he hopes will start a conversation among educators, parents, and (let’s not forget) the students themselves:

  1. Learning should be organized around problems, projects, and (students’) questions – not around lists of facts or skills, or separate disciplines.
  2. Thinking is messy; deep thinking is really messy. Therefore beware prescriptive standards and outcomes that are too specific and orderly.
  3. The primary criterion for what we do in schools: How will this affect kids’ interest in the topic (and their excitement about learning more generally)?
  4. If students are “off task,” the problem may be with the task, not with the kids.
  5. In outstanding classrooms, teachers do more listening than talking, and students do more talking than listening. Terrific teachers often have teeth marks on their tongues.
  6. Children learn how to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.
  7. When we aren’t sure how to solve a problem relating to curriculum, pedagogy, or classroom conflict, the best response is often to ask the kids.
  8. The more focused we are on kids’ “behaviors,” the more we end up missing the kids themselves – along with the needs, motives, and reasons that underlie their actions.
  9. If students are rewarded or praised for doing something (e.g., reading, solving problems, being kind), they’ll likely lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.
  10. The more that students are led to focus on how well they’re doing in school, the less engaged they’ll tend to be with what they’re doing in school.
  11. All learning can be assessed, but the most important kinds of learning are very difficult to measure – and the quality of that learning may diminish if we try to reduce it to numbers.
  12. Standardized tests assess the proficiencies that matter least. Such tests serve mostly to make unimpressive forms of instruction appear successful.

My favorites are 2, 4, 11, and 12. How about you? Which ones caused you to reflect on your own practices? And how can we advance these ideas in the current setting of high stakes testing and hyper-accountability?

These are the types of conversations and philosophical discussions we need to have. The right dialogue can hopefully help to transform our classrooms and schools to better prepare our children for a world very different from our’s and that of previous generations.

Be a Better You!

With the opening day of school now just a few short weeks away, many teachers have begun planning in earnest. I have noticed quite a few around my building in the past week taking time to set up their classrooms, hang new posters or update bulletin boards, organize desks and learning stations, develop seating charts, refine classroom rules and procedures, copy classroom materials, and create “first day of school” ice-breakers and similar activities which will help them get to know their students….and help their students get to know them.

Whew! It makes me tired just thinking of all the stuff teachers do to prepare themselves for school. Yet, I have yet to meet a teacher who didn’t believe that being ready (if not over-ready) for the first days of school was not essential. We know that these days set the stage for what we all hope will be a positive and productive school year.

Most educators also recognize the critical role they play in student success. Not only do teachers help students learn content and skills associated with certain subjects, they also guide students to become self-directed learners, problem solvers, thinkers, and good citizens and human beings. We teach and model character traits such as responsibility, persistence, compassion, empathy, integrity, resilience, and work ethic—just to name just a few. In short, through a teacher’s daily interactions with the children in his or her classes, the teacher helps their students become a better version of themselves.

And, hopefully, through this process, the teacher also becomes better.

Most of you are familiar with this profound and insightful quote from Dr. Haim Ginott. It is one that we should all probably read to ourselves before each school day.

I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or de-humanized.

Dr. Ginott (1922-1973) was a school teacher, child psychologist, and parent educator. He pioneered techniques for conversing with children that are still taught today. His book, Between Parent and Child, is still popular today. According to the publisher, this book gives “specific advice derived from basic communication principles that will guide parents in living with children in mutual respect and dignity.”

The following serve to illustrate Dr. Ginott’s communications approach:

  • Never deny or ignore a child’s feelings.
  • Only behavior is treated as unacceptable, not the child.
  • Depersonalize negative interactions by mentioning only the problem. “I see a messy room.”Attach rules to things, e.g., “Little sisters are not for hitting.”
  • Dependence breeds hostility. Let children do for themselves what they can.
  • Children need to learn to choose, but within the safety of limits. “Would you like to wear this blue shirt or this red one?”
  • Limit criticism to a specific event—don’t say “never”, “always”, as in: “You never listen,” “You always manage to spill things”, etc.
  • Refrain from using words that you would not want the child to repeat.

I submit that these simple yet often violated “truths” would serve as strong tenets for any classroom management plan. Building a climate of mutual trust and respect is predicated on a teacher’s capacity for developing authentic and caring relationships with his or her students. As the saying goes, “students won’t always remember what you taught them, but they will always remember how you treated them.”

This is why my former chemistry and physics teacher, Alan Moguin, still maintains an invisible yet tangible influence on who I am and how I relate with students—30 years after I have forgotten most of the subject matter I “learned” in his classes. As my teacher, Alan demonstrated the absolute power of caring and believing in another human being.  As a result, he changed my life.

The next few weeks will be very busy and chaotic for many teachers. They always are—particularly for new teachers or teachers changing schools. There is simply too much to do and not enough time to get it done. Too many meetings and professional development sessions and not enough time to work in classrooms. I know from experience that I will have tasks left undone when the doors of Jenks Middle School open to students in two weeks. I have also learned that things will still go okay even if I am not as prepared as I might want.

With this as a backdrop, here is what I would share with those teachers who are overly stressed about getting it all done.

At the end of the day, it’s not about having the perfect classroom management plan or set of lesson plans. It’s not about having all your desks and classroom materials organized, fancy bulletin boards on the wall, or having all of our copy orders ready to go. No, that’s not really it. That’s not what matters most.

It is about being there for your kids, on day one and on day 180. When students go home after the first day of school, they likely won’t tell their parents how organized your room was, how straight and neat your desk rows were, or how pretty your bulletin boards were. Many will not even remember the amazing decor you spent hours creating and putting up on the walls.

But they will remember you. And that is what they will talk about with their parents everyday of the year and hopefully for years to come.

Students will remember your kindness. Your empathy. Your care and concern. They’ll remember that you took the time to listen. That you stopped to ask them how they were. How they really were. They’ll remember the personal stories you tell about your life: your home, your pets, your kids. They’ll remember your laugh. They’ll remember that you sat and talked with them while they ate their lunch.

Because at the end of the day, what really matters is YOU.

You are that difference in their lives.

We do it to ourselves. Good teachers are always trying hard to be their best. Much of our stress comes from our own expectation of ourselves. For we who truly care are often far harder on ourselves than our students are willing to be. Because we who truly care are often our own worst enemy. We mentally beat ourselves up for trivial failures. We tell ourselves we’re not good enough. We compare ourselves to others. We work ourselves to the bone in the hopes of achieving the perfect lesson plan. The most dynamic and engaging lecture. The most innovative use of technology. The most efficient and attractive classroom.

Because we want our students to think we’re the very best at what we do. We measure excellence by what we are doing rather than attaining excellence by being.

Being available.
Being kind.
Being compassionate.
Being transparent.
Being real.
Being thoughtful.
Being ourselves.

When I speak with students at my school about the teachers they respect and admire the most, they almost always reference teachers they say “were real” and seemed to genuinely care about students.

You see, kids can see through to the truth of the matter. And while the detailed lesson plans and well-structured classrooms will engage them for a while, it’s the steady constance of empathy that keeps them connected to us. It’s the relationships we build with them. It’s the time we invest. It’s going to the football game or band concert we don’t have to attend, but we go just to watch our students doing something they enjoy and are proud of. It’s all the little ways we stop and show concern. It’s the love we share with them. The love of learning, of life, and most importantly, of people.

And while we continually are measured, rated, and disparaged by some people based solely on student test scores and remediation rates, we need to keep our focus on ourselves and on our students. And, further while technology certainly has a role in today’s classrooms, it is the human factor that really matters.

It is you, their teacher, that really matters.

So go and get your classroom as ready as you possibly can. Realize that you will not get it all done. Appreciate the fact that you will make many mistakes in the first few days of school. That some things may just not be ready and that your plans may not work out perfectly. It is likely the kids won’t even notice.

Take the time to get you know your teacher ‘neighbors’ and form relationships. You will need them later in the year…and they will need you.

You are a teacher. You have the absolute privilege and power to impact lives. It is the chance of a lifetime and you won’t always know when you are making that impact. You may never know. But do it anyway.

Dr. Ginott was right. You are the decisive element in your classroom. So, be yourself. Relax. Laugh. Smile. Make mistakes. Learn. Connect. Love and nurture kids. Set high standards. Model good character and self-restraint. Teach every lesson as if it were the most important thing kids will ever learn. Enjoy what you do. Focus on getting better and help your students do the same.

Be YOU and always remember the impression YOU make on a child.

cement