Bravo to the Vermont BOE!


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!


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.


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:


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 (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.


But That’s Just Me!

Like many of you, I enjoy reading the work of Tulsa World columnist Jay Cronley. His light yet often insightful commentaries about life are published several times each week, typically on the front page of the Local news section.

In this morning’s column, titled “How to Keep an Audience Upright,” Jay begins with the simple premise that “speaking well is a lost art.” I agree. We have all sat through long, boring, and disjointed presentations from speakers who seem oblivious of the fact that there is an actual audience listening. Honestly, I am likely guilty of doing this myself. Giving a great speech or presentation is more than just having good facts. The speaker must also be able to build and maintain interest and engagement while adapting his or her presentation in response to both verbal and non-verbal audience feedback.  With this in mind, I found Jay’s advice for speakers today quite useful. Here is how Jay framed it:

Here’s an exercise I learned in speech class: Imagine yourself having to listen to what you’re about to say.

Just me: Here’s something that might work a little magic with what you have to say to a person or to a group: a tag line.

This comment at a recent speech got a better response than I had imagined.

I said that I thought the following: Any football coach who recruited a player who enacted violence on a woman should be fined $500,000 on the spot. But that’s just me.

The addition of “but that’s just me” seemed to add a touch of responsibility and even humor to a serious comment that could have closed down the joint.

Here’s another one: I wouldn’t be surprised if the Thunder won zero NBA titles under the current management. But that’s just me.

Hmmm, this got me thinking. Wouldn’t it would be fun to create some of our own “but that’s just me” sayings relative to public education? I submit if we were to enact these five simple proposals, some reformers might actually experience a change of heart. I am sure you have a few of your own to contribute to the discussion  so feel free to share those in the comments as well. Here is my short list for your consideration:

1. I believe that any legislator who supports the idea that ALL students should pass four of seven end-of-instruction (EOI) tests in order to earn a Oklahoma high school diploma should agree to take these same assessments and have his or her scores published in the local newspaper. But that’s just me!

2. Likewise, I contend that any legislator or policy maker who argues that children from families immigrating to the United States (especially older students or those with significant education gaps) should be able to pass a high-stakes reading test in English after only one year in America should be required to take the ACT exam in Mandarin Chinese after only one year of study. But that’s just me!

3. How about this one? I believe that any dentist (or doctor for that matter) who believes that the A-F grading system is a fair and accurate measure of the quality of a school—or that teachers should be evaluated based on the test scores of their students—should agree to have their own practice and staff evaluated based on the dental and/or medical health of their patients. Further, if their business happens to serve patients with higher health needs or poor dental habits, they should be required to develop an annual Dental Improvement Plan (DIP) for each patient with measurable goals for growth. If sufficient growth is not achieved, the state should have the authority to take over the practice, fire the dentist and staff, and replace them with “Teeth for America” dentists with five weeks of specialized training.  If this does not work, the practice should be closed and replaced with a charter dentist office that accepts only patients with good teeth. But that’s just me!

4. I think that any citizen who argues that teachers are overpaid, have it easy, and are averse to accountability should volunteer to substitute in a high needs public school classroom for one week. This assignment would include writing engaging and rigorous lesson plans—aligned to applicable standards of course—that meet the differentiated needs of 150 students with varied learning styles and significant academic gaps each day. This would also involve developing and grading hundreds of daily assignments and assessments and communicating effectively with parents who do not speak English or are otherwise disengaged. The folks can also enjoy trying to take care of “personal business” in the three or four minutes between classes and scarfing down a microwaved Lean Cuisine during their luxurious 25 minute lunch period. But that’s just me!

5. Finally, I believe that any person who believes that children today are lazy, pampered, and unchallenged should spend one day shadowing one of our academically talented students at Jenks Middle School or their own local school. Here is one such schedule for a 13-year-old eighth grade student: Pre-AP Algebra II, Pre-AP Biology, Pre-AP Language Arts, U.S. History, High School Chinese III, and Orchestra. After seven hours at school, many of these students spend several more hours in school-sponsored athletics/activities, then go home, eat a quick dinner, and spend another two to three hours doing homework, studying for tests, or practicing an instrument. I am likely leaving out family stuff like attending church activities, taking care of pets or younger siblings and completing other assigned chores. What a bunch of unmotivated slackers. But that’s just me!


Flip Flop Fallin

As I shared in my previous post, based on Governor Fallin’s remarks to the annual Oklahoma PTA conference last week, it appears that she may have softened her position on the use of one “high stakes test” to make decisions relative to retention of Oklahoma third graders.

This would be surprising particularly because—just two months ago—the Governor vetoed House Bill 2625 and was quite critical in saying that the legislation “returns us to a system that has failed Oklahoma children for decades.”

In her remarks to the PTA, the Governor went on to blame outgoing State Superintendent Janet Barresi for removing the option of modified testing for some students with special needs or English language learners. This was the first time she has publicly stated that her position on this issue differed from Barresi’s.

At the same time, this change of position should not be all that surprising to those who have followed Governor Fallin’s flip flopping tendencies over the years. She is a seasoned politician and very adroit at modifying positions to adjust to shifting political winds.

Remember this clip from 2009 when then U.S. Representative Fallin spoke out against President Obama and the federal government’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) for not creating jobs in Oklahoma, then eight days later reported that Oklahoma had been quick about “getting money out the door and creating jobs?”

Click HERE if video does not play.

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Fast forward two years and  Governor Fallin had her flip flops on once again, this time while addressing the issue of government subsidized health insurance exchanges in Oklahoma. This change of position was reported in the Edmond Sun on April 22 2011 (HERE):

Here is Governor Fallin on February 25, 2011 when accepting a $54 million federal grant to establish health insurance exchanges in Oklahoma:

After thoroughly reviewing the ‘early innovator’ grant, I am happy to say that the federal assistance we are being offered is consistent with our mission to design and implement an Oklahoma-based health insurance exchange. That exchange will empower consumers and help individuals and small businesses to shop for and enroll in affordable, quality health insurance plans. This is a step in the right direction for Oklahoma and its citizens.”

Then here is a Governor Fallin just fifty days later on April 14 rejecting the same $54 million federal grant to establish health insurance exchanges in Oklahoma:

We have addressed concerns expressed by implementing strict safeguards to prevent the implementation of the federal health care exchange while definitively laying out the framework for a free market-based network that will empower consumers by providing a place for individuals, families and small businesses to shop for affordable, quality health insurance plans.”

As chair of the National Governors’ Association (NGA), Governor Fallin had also been an outspoken advocate for the common core state standards, which the NGA had worked for years to establish. In December 2013, Governor Fallin issued an executive order supporting the education standards in Math and English. In essence, her order simply changed the name of common core standards in our state to the Oklahoma Academic Standards (OAS). With her order, Fallin had hoped that it would ease fears that the standards represented a federal takeover of public education. However, the Oklahoma public was not fooled.

Both Fallin and State Superintendent Janet Barresi continued to speak in favor of the standards in interviews and press releases throughout the spring legislative session in spite of strong grass-roots public opposition. That support disappeared in June with the passage of HB3399 repealing the standards in Oklahoma.

Fallin signed the bill, stating:

We are capable of developing our own Oklahoma academic standards that will be better than Common Core. Now is the time for Oklahomans – parents, citizens, educators, employers and elected officials – to unite behind the common goal of improving our schools. That begins with doing the hard work of building new, more rigorous Oklahoma standards.

As is the standard explanation, the Governor blamed President Obama and his Department of Education for their bureaucratic overreach, knowing full well that it was her own National Governor’s Association that was the primary mover for this national initiative. However, with it being an election year, the Governor realized that continued support of CCSS would cost her valuable votes in November.

The latest flip happened this week as the Governor continued to blame the federal government  for children from South and Central America being detained at Fort Sill. Yet, as reported by Joe Dorman, her Democratic gubernatorial challenger, the Governor helped to pass the immigration legislation that created this scenario as a U.S. Representative back in 2008. (Link HERE).

Mary Fallin continues to deny her responsibility on the vote she cast as a Congresswoman in 2008 that created the detention facility at Fort Sill,” said Dorman. “She believes if she says it enough times, somehow Oklahomans will accept her sleight of hand attempt to dodge her part in this issue.”

To be fair, the Governor’s actions are not that unusual when it comes to politics. It does seem to be the way things are done nowadays. There are also times when I will applaud a politician for changing their position based on his or her more thorough study of an issue or to support the position of their constituents.  There are other times when changing positions comes across as pure political pandering.

For this reason, I encourage us all to be educated voters. We must ask targeted questions and do our research. It is important to cast our votes based on the previous actions of our elected representatives, not merely their words. We need to analyze voting records and policy decisions when they exist and not rely solely on 30-second television and radio ads or slick campaign releases.

The November elections are critical because they will in large part determine the direction of public education in Oklahoma for the next four years. Will we continue the same failed policies of the current administration—reforms built on the foundation of excessive testing and flawed accountability measures?  Or will we take back control of our local schools and begin to implement the kind of reforms that will result in meaningful school improvement and student success?



Artwork by J.L Scott.

Bravo to the Oklahoma PTA!

As reported by the Tulsa World, Governor Mary Fallin seemed to soften her stance on the issue of third grade retention while addressing the annual PTA conference in Tulsa last weekend.

In her prepared remarks to the PTA delegates, Governor Fallin said, “If we can get to a system where we are measuring a student throughout the progress of their education versus one test — one high-stakes test — we are better serving the children.”

As you recall, just two months ago the Governor made waves with her controversial veto of House Bill 2625. This legislation allows districts to implement “probationary promotion” by incorporating a committee of school personnel and parents in making final determinations on student retention. Her veto came despite the fact that the bill was passed by large majorities in both the Oklahoma House and Senate. At the time, the Governor was adamant that the RSA law should remain unaltered, saying HB2625 “returns us to a system that has failed Oklahoma children for decades.” Despite her strong objectives, the House and Senate voted overwhelmingly to override Fallin’s veto.

The “thump thump” sound you may have heard later in the Governor’s remarks was the sound of Superintendent Janet Barresi being thrown under the bus.

This happened when Governor Fallin remarked that testing accommodations should be restored for children in special education or English language learners. This year, all students but the most severely disabled were required to take the same standardized tests as their peers despite their disabilities.

When asked to clarify her remarks on special education students, Fallin said she always felt they should be accommodated and attributed the current Education Department policy to State Superintendent Janet Barresi.

“That’s been her position. Now I’m telling you what my position is as governor. The superintendent is an independently elected official. She has her ideas. I have my ideas,” Fallin said.

Thump thump!

While I hope that the Governor is sincere with her remarks, she is also politically savvy enough to know that Superintendent Barresi is an albatross around her neck at this point. She reads the polls and knows that her race for reelection is much closer than she anticipated even a month ago. Her executive order “banning” the common core standards last December is another example of the Governor’s chameleonic talents to adapt quickly to changing environments. I expect she will continue to soften her rhetoric relative to school reform in the remaining months leading up to the election.

What was even more inspiring to me last weekend was the PTA’s bold resolutions relative to high stakes testing, school and teacher accountability, and the use of stand-alone field tests.

Take a quick read of the adopted resolutions from last week’s meeting below. These words provide an excellent framework for other Oklahoma parent and teacher advocacy groups who are also frustrated with the reformers’ failed status quo of “test and punish.”

Oklahoma PTA President, Jeffery Corbett summed it up well with this comment describing the effect of the overemphasis on state testing: “We’re losing children. We’re losing the love for learning in our youth.” Amen, Jeffery!

Here is the complete resolution as overwhelmingly approved by the PTA last Saturday:

Resolution on Assessment and Accountability

WHEREAS, all schools and school districts in Oklahoma have been spending growing amounts of time, money and energy on high-stakes standardized testing to comply with state and federal accountability systems, in which student performance on standardized tests is inappropriately used to measure individual student progress, school and district success, and teacher effectiveness, which undermines educational quality and equity in U.S. public schools by hampering educators’ efforts to focus on the broad range of learning experiences that promote the innovation, creativity, problem solving, collaboration, communication, critical thinking and deep subject- matter knowledge that will allow students to thrive in a democracy and an increasingly global society and economy; and

WHEREAS, an accountability system should include multiple indicators of educational quality; and

WHEREAS, assessments should not be used for high-stakes determinations such as grade promotion or graduation; therefore be it

RESOLVED, that the Oklahoma Parent Teacher Association calls for the State of Oklahoma to reexamine public school accountability systems in our state, and develop a system based on multiple forms of assessment and evaluation which does not require extensive standardized testing, more accurately reflects the broad range of student learning, and is used to support students and improve schools; and be it

RESOLVED, that the Oklahoma Parent Teacher Association calls for a moratorium on policies that force Oklahoma State public schools to rely on high-stakes testing due to the fact that there is no convincing evidence that the pressure associated with high-stakes testing leads to any important benefits to student achievement; and be it

RESOLVED, that the State of Oklahoma use inclusive practices of assessment design that includes teachers and administrators, and engages the college and university academic community, resulting in the development of tests that effectively measure each district’s progress in helping students meet state standards using their own locally developed curricula and will provide practitioners with data that can be used to improve teaching and learning; and be it

RESOLVED, that the Oklahoma Parent Teacher Association calls to eliminate any requirement that teacher evaluations be based on Oklahoma State Assessments and to develop a system of teacher evaluations which does not require extensive standardized testing, and requires districts to document that their teacher evaluation process assesses the progress of each teacher in meeting the Oklahoma State Teaching Standards using multiple measures of teaching performance.

Resolution on field tests/item Tryouts

WHEREAS, ‘Field Tests’, which are given during or outside of the same testing window as all other required standardized tests, do not benefit the academic progress of Oklahoma public school students as the data from the test is not given to the student, teacher, parents, school or school district and,

WHEREAS, Field Tests are used to develop further punitive high stakes exams that will be used to retain third grade children, keep eighth graders from obtaining future driving privileges, as well as withhold diplomas from high school seniors who have completed all other coursework required by the local school district, and

WHEREAS, whether Field Tests will be used to determine the evaluation of teacher and school leader performance as well as school and district A-F grades remains unknown due to the lack of effective and open communication between the Oklahoma State Department of Education and the parents of Oklahoma, and

WHEREAS, Field Tests will cause additional disruptions to computer based courses by requiring the exclusive use of the materials needed for learning, and

WHEREAS, These tests are being given at our expense, with public, taxpayer dollars, so that a private corporation can turn around and sell their test product back to us at a profit, and

WHEREAS, The Oklahoma State Department of Education has arbitrarily determined which districts will participate in the field tests, thereby skewing the results of overall testing outcomes and statistical validity by interfering in the random sampling.

RESOLVED, that Oklahoma PTA objects to the mass administration of field tests.

RESOLVED, that Oklahoma public school children should not be expected to conduct corporate research for CTB/McGraw Hill, Measured Progress, Pearson, or any other for profit testing company.

RESOLVED, that Oklahoma PTA wants all standardized tests given to students to provide actionable information in a timely manner to be used by students, parents, teachers, and administrators to further the education of students. If a test does not meet these criteria, the test should not be given.

As you would expect, I am fully supportive of the moratorium on stand-alone field tests. While my district was one of the two that was intentionally omitted by the state department from the testing sample this spring, hundreds of other districts were forced to have their students participate in one or more of these tests.

With the passage of HB 3399 eliminating common core, this year’s field tests turned out to be a complete waste of school time and resources, not to mention taxpayer money. If we insist on conducting field tests in the future, the testing vendors should be required to use representative sampling and compensate students and schools for their time. Either this or embed a small number of field test questions in the operational assessments so additional time and resources are not needed.

Anyhow, I am very proud of the stand that our state PTA has taken with these resolutions. They deserve our full support.

From their website:

The Oklahoma PTA® includes almost 60,000 parents, grandparents, family members, students, teachers, administrators, and business and community leaders devoted to the educational success of children and the promotion of parent involvement in schools.

Membership in PTA is open to anyone who wants to be involved and make a difference for the education, health, and welfare of children and youth.

Oklahoma PTA® is Oklahoma’s largest and oldest child advocacy association, founded in 1922. Our membership is our voice and with that we give voices to the thousands of children and families in Oklahoma. We are strong but we can be stronger with you!

The Oklahoma PTA is also actively involved in legislative efforts supporting Oklahoma’s children, juvenile protection projects, numerous child health and safety initiatives, a cultural arts programs, and the PTA scholarship program.

If you are interested in supporting the PTA on behalf of the children and schools of Oklahoma, you can find out more HERE.


A Summertime Flop!

If you have a few extra hours and want to enjoy a little mindless summer entertainment, I suppose you could go to your local movie theater and catch a showing of “Transformers 4,” “Hercules,” or “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”

On the other hand, if you like tense, often unscripted dialogue with limited direction, you cannot beat a Oklahoma State Board of Education Meeting. If today’s meeting is any indication, the State Department might consider selling tickets, serving popcorn, and simulcasting the meetings in IMAX 3D theaters across the state.  Might be a new source of state revenue.

Admittedly, most Board meetings move rather slowly, have very little action or character development, and tend to drag on well past most people’s attention spans.  But the last two meetings in particular have included some key moments of tragedy, melodrama, comedy, and farce.

As you recall in June, the Board voted to delay the adoption of Superintendent Barresi’s Oklahoma Standards Development Process. This decision was based on the fact that four members of the Board were petitioners in the lawsuit against HB3399 which repealed the common core standards in Oklahoma while simultaneously directing the creation of new academic standards for math and language arts. The lawsuit alleged that  lawmakers violated the state Board of Education’s constitutional authority over the “supervision of instruction in the public schools” when they repealed these standards and included legislative approval (or disapproval)  of new standards as part of the rewriting process.  

The Oklahoma Supreme Court heard oral arguments on July 15th, spent four whole hours thinking about it, and came back with an 8-1 decision upholding the Legislature’s action. As a result, Superintendent Barresi brought the plan back to the Board today for their consent and approval. Despite her best marketing pitch, the plan flopped like “The Lone Ranger.”

Tulsa World reporter, Andrea Eger reported the action via Twitter:

Like the movie “Momento,” I have given you the ending and now will work backwards to fill in the details.

The full video is archived HERE. It is all pretty entertaining, but in particular, you MUST watch Dr. Baressi’s Oscar-worthy monologue at the 1:13:00, which includes an emphatic slamming of her fist on the desk! I have also linked (HERE) to Andrea Eger’s story on the board meeting in today’s Tulsa World.

Below is how the OKSDE tweeted the conversation. I have summarized the plot in the interest of brevity. The characters include Dr. Barresi, SDE Chief of Staff Joel Robinson, and Board members Lee Baxter, Bill Price, Bill Shdeed, and Amy Ford. Here are a few key lines from the original screenplay as it was acted out.

The PASS standards must now be implemented until new standards are developed. Board approves.

Barresi is now presenting the Standards Adoption Plan and how it will move forward for transparency & maximum input from all Oklahomans.

Baxter: This is more comprehensive than the law suggests. Is that necessary?

Shdeed: It is so large and cumbersome… this is too laborious.

Robison: There is a balance; competing interests. Requirements vs. time.

Baxter: In starting this process, on day 1 we have full-borne opposition from 3 organizations. How will we work with that?

Baxter: Understanding that those three groups are in disagreement, have we done our part to reconcile? Baxter: Have we gotten formal concurrence from the other organizations that are required by law to participate?

Barresi: We have asked those three organizations for lists of people to serve on committees.

Baxter: If CCOSA wants on steering committee … put them on steering committee. What’s the damage from having those Orgs involved?

Ford: I’m going to call up each organization and have conversations about this bill in more depth.

Barresi: There is a fundamental misunderstanding of this process.

Price: The Board is entirely behind this. We will not be going back to past standards. Our students will be career-ready.

Barresi: I put in front of you the reality of this state. Can we please stand up and say, “The children of this state are worth it.”

Baxter moves to table this to the next meeting. Ford seconds this. Discussion has begun about the process between now and then.

Robison: It is the agency’s desire to move forward.

Ford: We’re all committed. We want to do it right. I just have to have time to take a breath on this.

Trust me, these tweets do not come close to capturing the real drama that was unfolding in the Board room yesterday. What is clear is that the Board is no longer just serving as a rubber stamp. Even with Dr. Barresi’s impassioned plea that we need to move forward (for the children of Oklahoma) the Board voted unanimously (minus Barresi) to table approval of the plan until at least August 28th. OUCH!

The three organizations referenced in the comments above opposing the Superintendent’s Standards Development Process are the Cooperative Council for Oklahoma School Administration (CCOSA), the Oklahoma State School Boards Association (OSSBA), and the United Suburban Schools Association (USSA). These organizations  sent the following letter to members of the State Board on Tuesday.

image image

If you have not had a chance to read through what Board member Bill Shdeed describes as the “large, cumbersome, and laborious” standards adoption plan, click HERE for another opportunity to waste some minutes of your life you will never get back.

While I am not aware of the details of the process by which the Oklahoma State Regents are analyzing the current PASS standards, it does seem to make sense to wait and see the results of their study. If there are significant portions of the PASS standards that can be used as a baseline for the new standards development committees, wouldn’t this expedite the entire process and save significant time and effort? It would also support the legislative intent of having these various agencies collaborate on the development of these new standards.  Further, as the letter states, it would be much more practical and expeditious to remedy any identified deficiencies of the PASS standards rather than start completely over with a blank slate. In short, the process “need not involve the reinvention of the wheel.”

Despite Barresi’s claims of this being a completely open and transparent process, she and key members of her department have ostensibly put this plan together in a vacuum. As has become the standard operating procedure during her leadership of the state department, Dr. Barresi has again neglected to reach out to  educational associations representing thousands of Oklahoma school administrators and school board members.  Has she ever thought about maybe inviting Steven Crawford, Shawn Hime, and Ryan Owens over for coffee and perhaps giving them the chance to share their thoughts and those of their constituents? Did she learn nothing from the last two years of A-F fiascos—not to mention the recent primary results.

One final note on this episode. If you watch the video or read the transcript, you will hear the statistic that 40% of Oklahoma students require remediation to attend college in our state. This number (40%) has been thrown out by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about Massachusetts as well, and seems to be the standard line of the reformers, especially the CCSS supporters. First, I don’t believe the number is nearly this high, and secondly, I (and many others) believe that this figure is routinely and intentionally distorted for political purpose.

In THIS article posted on Diane Ravitch’s blog, former New York Principal of the Year Carol Burris, helps to explain how and why this college remediation rate has been distorted. Here is how Diane introduces the story:

Carol Burris shows how the college remediation rate has been shamelessly inflated by corporate reformers intent on advancing their agenda of privatization. Chief among those who have overstated the remediation rate is Secretary of Education Duncan, who said in Massachusetts that the college remediation rate was 40% when it was about half that number. As she demonstrates, one “reform” think tank announces the “crisis” of a 40% college remediation rate, and others soon repeat it until it becomes conventional wisdom. But it is not true. Like almost all the data trotted out by the reform crowd, it is inflated to promote their political agenda of privatization. Or they use their doctored stats to promote the Common Core, even though there is no evidence whatever that Common Core will make every student “college and career ready.” The campaign for Common Core increasingly looks like an advertising gambit that promises that your clothes will be cleaner than ever, your teeth will be whiter than ever, your weight will drop in a matter of days, if only you use this product.

When will the reformers target the root causes of low academic performance: poverty, segregation, and inequitable allocation of resources? Ever.

The Board made the correct decision today in delaying the approval of this plan. Rushing full speed into a highly complex enterprise involving thousands of individuals from a wide variety of stakeholder groups does not seem wise or prudent. Let’s take our time and make sure we are not simply spinning our wheels reinventing a wheel when the one we already have may just need some new tread.

I am looking forward to the sequel on August 28!

The Miseducation of America’s Children

If you haven’t had a chance to read okeducationtruths final installment reporting on the SDE’s Vision2020 conference, you need to. His post (HERE) describes well the state of confusion and illusion that currently exists in public education, both in Oklahoma and across America.

This one quote sums up the sentiment of many of us who are privileged to work with young people every day:

The over-arching problem is that we have created a school culture in which the test matters more than the kids who take it.

In response to my previous post, reader Melonie Hau echoed a similar theme in her response:

The problem is not in referring to a set of standards, but the way the standards are applied. The forced standardization you write about is a result of the assessments, not the framework. We must work toward broadening our definition of assessment. Even your reference to standardization in the business world is falling out of favor with some companies. The common ground with business leaders and education leaders is that we must take care of people and relationships first. There are things we can learn from each other, but we must shift our focus from the worker and what he produces to the learner and what he creates.

Melonie, I could not agree more. I especially love the final sentence relative to shifting the focus from worker/producer to learner/creator.

Throughout this discussion, we are ultimately talking about how academic standards, instead of being applied as frameworks for the development of curriculum and instructional best practices, are now being used to drive a high-stakes assessment system that serves to rank, sort, and punish students, teachers, and schools. In essence, we are more focused on the metrics of test scores in the interest of accountability than the broader goals of creating well-adjusted, caring, and confident young people who can think, create, and work effectively with others.

I am not at all opposed to having a set of academic standards that help define what an algebra student should know and be able to do as a result of taking the course. However, I am very much opposed to insisting that 100% of students master these standards to earn a high school diploma.

Let me share another example to help clarify this thought.

Spud Webb is a 5’7″ former NBA player who played with the Atlanta Hawks in the 1980′s. He also won the slam dunk contest during the 1986 NBA All-Star weekend. Take a look at his winning dunk:

As you can see, Spud Webb is clearly NOT standard when it comes to five foot, seven-inch tall human beings. He is what statisticians would label an “outlier”—something or someone who is far away from the normal.

With nearly all standard distributions (bell curves), researchers will have data points that exist several standard deviations above the mean and similarly below the mean. Just as Spud Webb is an outlier by being able to dunk a basketball at 5’7″ there are also people who are 6’6″ who cannot dunk a basketball. In fact, there are many excellent NBA basketball players who cannot dunk—yet can dribble, pass, shoot, and play defense with the best of them.

What would happen to these players if the NBA mandated that all players must be able to dunk a basketball in order to be “NBA-ready?”

While this is not a perfect analogy, I use it to frame a discussion of what it means to be standard. The majority of NBA players can dunk, but not all of them. However, these other players possess other skills and talents that make them valuable to their teams.

Likewise, not all 18-year-olds can do algebra well. But, hopefully, their teachers and schools have assisted them in identifying and fostering the development of other skills and habits they are good at. In other words, we have helped show them how they are valuable to themselves and to society and provided them with the drive and direction to pursue their ambition.

Another person that I follow on Twitter is @Sisyphus38. His posts are often provocative and help me see things from a different perspective. I think it is important that we all remain open to having our ideas, opinions, and thinking challenged. Here is a recent tweet that ties in well to this discussion:

The honest answer to this question is “we cannot.” We are basing the creation of standards on academic knowledge and skills we believe students will need in order to be successful in college and the work force. Yet, the demands of the work force are evolving faster than even our colleges can keep up with.

Think for a minute how the discussion of standards might change if instead of trying to prepare our students to fill jobs, we developed standards that focused on preparing students to create jobs.

By continuing to cling to 20th century skills and knowledge as the basis for academic standards, are we failing to prepare our students for what they will face in a dynamic, rapidly changing international work force? In short, are we “miseducating” our children?

At least one prominent education scholar believes that we are. Dr. Yong Zhao is an internationally known scholar, author, and speaker who writes at length on this topic in his most recent book, World Class Learners: Educating Creative and Entrepreneurial Students. It is an outstanding book that challenges the status quo of American education yet also provides a road map of how to retool our schools to better serve the needs of students and society.

In one of Zhao’s recent blog posts, College Ready vs. Out-of-Basement Ready: Shifting the Education Paradigm, he describes where we are going wrong: (emphasis is mine)

Over 50% of recent college graduates in the US are unemployed or underemployed. The numbers are not much better in other parts of the world.

They are the “boomerang kids,” writes a New York Times magazine article last week. These were good students. They were ready for college. They paid for college (many with borrowed money). They completed all college requirements. They did not drop out. And they graduated from college. But they are back in their parents’ basement for there is no career for them, ready or not.

The reason is simpler than many would like to accept: education has been preparing our students for an economy that no longer exists. Technology and globalization have transformed our society. Machines and off-shoring have led to the disappearance of traditional middle class jobs—jobs our education have been making our children ready for.

The “boomerang kids” are not poorly educated, but miseducated. They were prepared to look for jobs, but not to create jobs. They were prepared to solve problems, but not to identify problems or ask questions. They were prepared to follow instructions, but machines can follow instructions more precisely and more important, with less cost.

Technological changes always disrupt the existing social and economic order, forcing us to redefine the value of talents, knowledge, and skills. What used to be valuable may become obsolete. What was undervalued may become more valuable. We know that in the “second machine age” and “flat world,” we need creative, entrepreneurial, and globally competent workers to compete with machines and less expensive workers who do not have access to the same resources as students in developed countries. But policy makers and other “reformers” today remain dedicated to instilling in our children the outdated knowledge and skills following an outdated education paradigm. As a result, the more successful these reform efforts become, the more “boomerang kids” we will have.

What we need is to shift the education paradigm from preparing job seekers to job creators, from imposing upon children what a small group people defines as valuable knowledge and skills to supporting children to follow their own passion, and from fixing our children “deficits” defined by standardized testing to enhance their strengths. But the dominant reform efforts keep fixing the obsolete paradigm instead of inventing a new one. Worse yet, they discourage and penalize attempts to create a new paradigm.

This focus on entrepreneurship and innovation is what is missing in much of the current discussion relative to academic standards. There is no more important attribute of entrepreneurship than a sense of self-confidence, the belief in oneself and one’s own ideas. I submit that trying to channel all students through the same narrow pipeline of academic skills and knowledge on a prescribed time schedule defeats this purpose.

Many of the activities in our school system today work against instilling of self-confidence in youth. Many young people come to believe that they do not measure up or have “what it takes.” High stakes testing reinforces this message and creates frustration and disillusionment in millions of young Americans.

Constantly testing students and telling them they are not good enough depletes their confidence, which is the fuel of innovation. So, by any account, what policy makers have put in place in American schools is precisely what is needed to cancel out their desire for creative and entrepreneurial talents.

To encourage American innovation starts with innovative and creative people. But a one-size-fits-all education approach, standardized and narrow curriculum, tests-driven teaching and learning, and fear-driven and demoralizing accountability measures are perhaps the most effective way to kill innovation and stifle creativity. This applies to not only students, but also to teachers and school leaders.

What America really needs is to capitalize on its traditional strengths—a broad definition of education, an education that respects individuality, tolerates deviation, and celebrates diversity. America also needs to restore faith in its public education, respect teacher autonomy, and trust local school leaders.

Spending the next two years developing new Oklahoma academic standards simply serves to keep us busy and diverts our attention from the real work we should be doing.

Here is how oktruths phrased it in his previous post:

A realtor once explained to me when I was looking at a house that activity begets activity. There were parts of the home that would need immediate updating. In doing so, other rooms would become dated. The same concept is true for us in education. For every professional obligation that makes us work in a frenzy, we produce outcomes that generate more work. It never ends. When we re-write the standards, we have to re-write the tests. If we have benchmark tests in place, we’ll have to re-write those as well. The accountability measures will need to be re-worked as well. 

As I stated before, before we start throwing words on paper, we need to spend time having serious discussions about what it means to be a 21st-century learner. If we truly want our new academic standards to be the envy of others, we need to shift the focus from preparing students to take tests and fill jobs to equipping students with the entrepreneurial “habits of the mind” and self-confidence to create their own place in life.