The Wrong Medicine

If you brought your coughing baby to your small town doctor a hundred years ago, it’s quite possible he would have sent you down to the local apothecary to purchase a bottle of One Night Cough Syrup.

The Doc’s advice: “Just give your baby a half teaspoon of this elixir and he’ll be sleeping like a rock.”

He would not be kidding.

Take a look at the list of ingredients in this special cough syrup. While a mixture of alcohol, cannabis, chloroform, and morphine might not do much to cure your child’s cough, I suspect it might help everyone in the house get a little sleep. I can’t help but wonder how many children didn’t wake up in the morning after taking a dose of this stuff.

One Night Cough Syrup was the subject of a 1934 legal case in which the FDA ruled the drug’s “claims of its therapeutic properties” were misleading — because, you know, most of its main ingredients are highly addictive, harmful substances.

Of course, a few decades earlier, the doctor might have given you something else to soothe your toddler’s cough.

Yup! That’s Bayer’s Children’s Heroin.

Between 1890 and 1910, heroin was sold as a non-addictive substitute for morphine. It was also used to treat children suffering with congestion. I had no idea.

To treat your child’s painful toothache a hundred years ago, you might let them suck on one of these tasty cocaine drops for a few minutes. As the manufacturer claims, the relief would be nearly “instantaneous.” I imagine these were probably popular with people of all ages.

Have a kid suffering with asthma? Back in the day, you could actually buy some special cigarettes to help relieve your child’s asthma attacks.

While not as awful as the earlier medicines, the whole concept of having your child breathe in smoke to help them breathe seems horribly misleading. My chest hurts just thinking about it.

Today, it is beyond comprehension we would prescribe any of these remedies to any child, for any reason.

We are aghast when someone allows their thirsty child to get a drink of water from an outdoor water hose, let alone swallow a spoonful of highly-addictive narcotics to soothe a sore throat.

It makes me wonder how Americans a century from now will view some of the “prescriptions” we administer to today’s children to remedy perceived ailments.

Will they be like us and think, “What the hell were those people back then thinking?”

Since this is an education blog, I am going to segue this discussion to our nation’s addiction to the prescription of test-based accountability as the remedy for what ails America’s schools.

In 2001, President George Bush declared the American system of public schools dangerously “unhealthy.” To treat our nation’s schools, Bush put an entire generation of children and their schools on an expensive and distasteful pill called “No Child Left Behind.”

After fifteen years of the same bitter medicine of test, sort, rank, and punish, shouldn’t we begin to see some evidence that our nation’s schools are getting “healthier” and that our children are graduating better prepared for college and for leading productive lives?

Like author Alfie Kohn, I believe the last 15 years of test-based reforms have been based on “an exaggeration of the problem, a misdiagnosis of the causes, and a prescription that has caused more harm than good.”

In an attempt to cure our so-called “sick schools,” we have spent billions of dollars and completely disrupted our entire educational system. The federal government has usurped authority from local school boards with top-down mandates and micromanagement.

Schools have been closed, teachers have been fired, unions have been busted, and charter schools have proliferated across our country. States have spent a small fortune developing more rigorous standards, implementing new curriculum and instruction, and pushing additional testing in our schools.

In Oklahoma, we went even further by implementing Achieving Classroom Excellence (ACE) in 2006. This legislation required students to pass four of seven End of Instruction (EOI) tests to earn a high school diploma. Since 2012, thousands of Oklahoma students were denied a diploma based on their failure to pass one or more exams, despite earning sufficient grades and credits to have graduated otherwise. This medicine failed badly and had numerous harmful side effects. The legislation was rightly repealed last year.

The central question is what have we gotten for making our children swallow this awful medicine of standardized testing for the past 15 years?

Are the graduates of Class of 2017 in appreciably better academic health than the Class of 2002? And, isn’t the answer to this question vitally important in deciding what we do next?

What does the data tell us?

One respected measure of academic performance and college readiness is the ACT assessment.

The ACT is typically administered to high school juniors each year and measures academic readiness in four core subjects: Reading, English, Math, and Science. Students receive a score in each tested area as well as a composite score using all four results.

Certainly, the results of the nationally normed ACT will give us some indication as whether all of this work and stress over the past decade is bearing any fruit, right?

Prepare to be thoroughly underwhelmed.

Here are the average ACT composite scores for Oklahoma and the United States for the past ten years:

2006: OK 20.6  US 21.1

2007: OK 20.7  US 21.2

2008: OK 20.7  US 21.1

2009: OK 20.7  US 21.1

2010: OK 20.7  US 21.0

2011: OK 20.7  US 21.1

2012: OK 20.7  US 21.1

2013: OK 20.7  US 20.9

2014: OK 20.8  US 21.0

2015: OK 20.7  US 21.0

2016: OK 20.4 US 20.8

If you would prefer a visual, here is what this data would basically look like in line graph form (providing for normal statistical variation):

2006 ________________________________________________________ 2016

Impressive, huh?

The slightly lower ACT average for Oklahoma last year is likely attributable to the fact that the Oklahoma Department of Education afforded all juniors the opportunity to take the test for free, thereby increasing the number of students taking the assessment.

Anyway you look at this, the ACT scores in our state and nationwide reek of utter and complete stagnation.

Back to my original question.

At what point do parents, teachers, and administrators stand up and say “Enough is enough?” When do we begin to refuse to allow the removal of even one more dollar from our classrooms to continue to support this enormous exercise in futility.

How about now? Today.

The right number of standardized tests that we should be forcing down the throats of our children is precisely zero. The tests do not help our children, our teachers, or our parents. They have not improved education in America one bit.

The adverse side effects of lower student engagement, reduced emphasis on arts and music, demoralization of teachers, loss of valuable instruction time, and the stagnation of innovation in many of our schools far outweighs any perceived benefits of annual standardized testing.

Isn’t it way past time to end the nation’s failed experiment with test-driven education and begin transforming our schools to prepare students for success in the 21st century?

Our nation does not need great test takers. It needs thinkers, creators, problem solvers, communicators, and entrepreneurs.

We need a new prescription for America’s schools. It begins with a full review of the social and cultural factors which affect student achievement, most notably poverty, the breakdown of families, and systemic inequalities. It also involves a real discussion of what it means to be an educated person in the 21st century and a re-imagining of our schools toward that aim.

The alternative is to have our children continue swimming in this stagnant pond of test-based slime. A pond that causes too many to drown and leaves many more unprepared for the challenges of adulthood.

Just as morphine, cannabis, and chloroform were not the right medicine for ill children last century, standardized testing is not the remedy for our academically unhealthy students today.

It’s simple the wrong medicine. We need to stop subjecting our children to its side effects.

Hugging A Porcupine

He is ours.

He was ours when he arrived in kindergarten thirteen years ago – precocious, curious, and bursting with spirit. His blue plaid shirt brought out the tint of his eyes and his bountiful smile brought joy to those around him. He was smart, impish, naturally clever, and full of promise. He was five.

He was ours when learning became more challenging in second grade. When his emerging struggles with dyslexia and distractibility started to manifest themselves in emotional outbursts and disruptive behaviors. He was ours when he began to indiscriminately hit and kick other kids on the playground. He was ours when he drew an intricate picture of a prairie landscape in art class, amazing us all with his innate artistic talent. He was seven.

He was ours when he began testing the limits of acceptable classroom behavior. When his self-esteem began to slowly die and his personality turned increasingly stormy. He was ours when he intentionally punched his teacher in the arm in third grade and threw a book at another child’s head. When he curled up in a corner of the room, hyperventilated, cried, and said he was sorry. He was nine.

He was ours in fifth grade when his parents divorced and when he witnessed his 54-year-old grandmother die after an excruciating battle with cancer. We were there when his dad remarried and moved to California, the last time he’s seen his father. He was ours when his mother lost another job after showing up drunk at work. He was ours when the home he’d lived in all his life went through foreclosure and when his mother and he moved into a local shelter. He was ours when he started stealing and tormenting smaller kids at the bus stop. He was 11.

He was ours when his beautiful, infectious smile retired and the darkness began to encircle him.

He was ours when we had to reassure the other children in his seventh-grade class they were safe, despite his nearly constant threats.

He was ours when he stopped doing homework, when he stopped caring about his grades and when he started skipping school to play violent video games. He was ours when he tried his first cigarette, drank his first beer, popped his first pills, smoked his first joint, and became sexually active.  He was 14.

He was ours when he got suspended for fighting, for chronic disruptive behavior, for cussing out a teacher, for breaking a computer. He was ours when we couldn’t find his mom to pick him up on the day he said he was going to hurt himself after “taking out a few others.” When he told his counselor he wished he’d never been born.

He was ours when the police handcuffed him and delivered him to the local adolescent care center. He was 15.

He was ours six months later when his mom died of an overdose in the back seat of a drug dealer’s car. He was ours when he returned to school as a hollow shell of his previous self, nearly catatonic from his prescribed regimen of daily depression medications.

He was ours when a caring teacher decided to take a chance and bring him into her family’s home. When the color came back to his eyes. He was ours when he won the grand prize in the Philbrook Museum’s Young Artist contest. He was ours when he found a counselor he trusted, who took the time to listen and who was patient enough to peel through the many layers of anger and angst surrounding his soul to discover the sad, insecure, yet lovable boy inside.

He was ours when he recovered his smile again. When he joined a local church youth group and found meaning in his life. He was ours when a beautiful girl with deep blue eyes and an angel’s heart gave him a reason to love himself again. He was 17.

He will be ours when he walks across the stage next month at graduation. When he hugs his adoptive mom and dad and says,  “I love you. Thank you for saving my life.” He will be ours when he leaves our school in May to become the best version of what he can be.

This child is ours. He is smart and bright and kind and troubled and hurt and angry. For 13 years, he has struggled mightily to overcome trauma, despair, learning challenges, and a self-defeating mentality. He wrestled for most of his young life to keep himself balanced, to calm his inner demons, to make friends, to trust adults, to show compassion, to love himself, and to learn with any consistency.

To simply be a kid.

You see, he was always ours. He belongs to us as much as the star quarterback, the future Ivy League scholar, the homecoming queen, and the valedictorian. For much of his schooling, he was tough to love. We didn’t want to own him.

If you have been in education very long, especially in a larger district, you have met “him” or “her,” likely more than once. These children frustrate us, make us angry, and cause us to cry. They cause us to question our effectiveness as educators and the meaning and value of our work.

It hurts to get close to children like “him.” It’s like hugging a porcupine. But they are ours, and hugging porcupines is occasionally the most important part of our job.

A core belief I hold tightly is this: When children are in our schools, they are our kids. All. Of. Them. If a kid walks through the doors of our public school, we should see them, listen to them, push them, care for them, support and believe in them as if they are our own.

When we help these children survive and thrive – academically, socially, and emotionally – we are reminded of the beliefs and passion that power our work as educators. All kids can learn. We know how to teach them. Together, we have what it takes.

All the kids at our schools are “ours.” For some, we have but a brief opportunity to do the one thing – the RIGHT thing – to change the course of their life in a positive way. What an awesome privilege and frightening burden that is.

This much is certain. This boy is ours.

And when you take the chance to hug a porcupine like him, the reward will be yours.

Photo credit:

The Need to Play On

“They kept it up to the very end. Only the engulfing ocean had the power to drown them into silence. The band was playing ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee.’ I could hear it distinctly. The end was very close.” —Charlotte Collyer, Titanic survivor

What made them play on?

That is the question people ask most frequently to Steve Turner, the author of “The Band That Played On: The Extraordinary Story of the 8 Musicians Who Went Down with the Titanic.”

Why did the Titanic’s musicians continue to play on the deck even as the ship was going down? Were they told to do so by the Captain? Was it part of their job description? Did they think they would be saved?

According to Turner, the answer lies more in the composition and moral character of the orchestra, in particular, the band’s leader, violinist Wallace Hartley.

hartleyBy all accounts, Hartley was a highly principled person and a devout Christian. He’d recently been engaged to a young Christian girl, Maria Robinson, and they planned to marry after he’d completed a few trips on the Titanic. He was personable, cheerful and would always attend church when he was back on land.

Turner’s research for his book revealed two interesting comments that Hartley made to colleagues that shed some light on why he behaved as he did.

In explaining why he believed Hartley called his men together and began playing, even as the ship was sinking, musician John Carr related that Hartley has once told him,  “Music was a bigger weapon for stopping disorder than anything on earth. He knew the value of the weapon he had, and I think he proved his point.”

Another musician who had served under Hartley, Ellwand Moody, told a British newspaper; “I remember one day I asked him what he would do if he were ever on a sinking ship and he replied ‘I don’t think I would do better than play ‘Oh God Our Help in Ages Past’ or ‘Nearer, My God, to Thee’.”

So, according to Steve Turner, it appears almost certain that Wallace Hartley had contemplated being on a sinking ship and had already decided how he would respond. He believed that music could prevent panic and create calm. He had also chosen his final piece of music.

Which brings me to a few questions, starting with, “Why do I (and others) keep advocating about educational issues in Oklahoma?”

Are we, too, simply “playing music” to a frantic and distracted group of passengers on a sinking ship?

And how much longer can our state’s public education system stay afloat while “taking on water” the way it has for the past decade?

There is reason for despair. Even as a natural optimist, I feel it.

After the passage of ESSA in 2015, I am now resigned to accept the reality that test-based accountability will remain the predominant driver of school reform for the rest of my education career. That saddens me.

Even worse, the education of yet another generation of children will be stifled by an output-based system that seeks to rank and sort them – a process which seeks to strip them of their uniqueness in order to develop standard “widgets” for corporations to replace their retiring widgets.

The Oklahoma budget remains in shambles. Per pupil funding for Oklahoma’s children has dropped 27% in nine years and the hole will be deeper after this year. There appears to be no end in sight.

Most teachers and school support staff have not had a meaningful pay raise in a decade. Health care costs are exploding, further eroding the wages of teachers who carry their spouses and families on insurance.

Our state is hemorrhaging teachers to surrounding states and to other occupations. For the second year in a row, the state has been forced to issue over a thousand emergency teaching certificates to meet the burgeoning need for new educators. High quality educators are getting harder and harder to find. This scenario will get worse as more baby boomers exit the classroom over the next five years.

The 2016 state elections witnessed an influx of educators or pro-public education candidates running for state office. While we made some modest gains, these new voices are often drowned out in the current House and Senate.

State Question 779 offered hope for beleaguered teachers that we might be able to bypass a listless legislature and capitalize on the direct support of Oklahomans to pass a long overdue pay raise. It failed miserably at the polls. That one hurt.

The voucher wolves are wounded, yet are also emboldened by the election of a President and his subsequent appointment of a Secretary of Education who together are an anathema to the idea of free and equitable public education for all children in America. The push for public funding of separate and unequal private school education for wealthy Americans will undoubtedly accelerate in coming years.

Over 50 years after our nation declared a “war on poverty,” too many children are growing up in homes of despair, dysfunction, and destitution. When hungry and deprived children from poverty fail to achieve at the same level as their wealthier peers, teachers and schools are blamed. This fact is not soon to change.

There is a danger in doing this kind of blog that one can get all wrapped up in anger, frustration, and disillusionment. From time to time Often, I wonder why I should keep playing music as I watch other passengers board the lifeboats to get off the sinking ship.

But, it’s worth reminding myself from time to time why I care.

This vessel we call public education in America is worth saving.

American public schools are everything that we have to say about the hopes and fears and aspirations for our future. Only in America do we bring people from any and all backgrounds into the same school buildings. Only in America do we let you pursue whatever dream of a future you can conjure up in your mind.

We strive to provide every child, regardless of background and home life, at least one unrelated adult in his/her life who can provide good direction and model a healthy adult life. We guarantee that every child will have access to a place where every person is put in place to honor the needs of that child first and foremost – not profits, productivity, or the good of the institution.

American public schools collect everything there is to love and hate about our culture. American public schools openly display everything that is beautiful and everything that is broken about us as a people. Our flowers and our warts are on clear display for all to see.

Given all that, American public schools capture all that is random and chaotic and unpredictable about life. American public schools is the incubator of American values, morality, character, and human decency. They are democracy in action – messy, tumultuous, acrimonious, pessimistic, idealistic, inefficient, hopeful, dogmatic, ugly, glorious, optimistic, joyous, striving, triumphant, advancing, spirited, exhausting, reborn again and again and again.

As teachers, we know that we will leave a mark on the future, but we rarely know how. The events and special moments for which we build and plan vanish into our students’ pasts like a fleeting puff of wind, even as we discover that a few simple words you spoke decades ago have become a treasured guidepost in someone’s journey.

I believe in public education. While it as an expression of best and worse of our national character, it also represents our collective hope for a brighter and more prosperous future for our state and nation. A better America.

I believe there is nothing so incredible and so powerful as watching unique young people from diverse backgrounds learning side-by-side, finding their way to a greater understanding of themselves and each other, finding their path in the world, learning to be an integral part of this collective we call America, while retaining their uniqueness and special value.

Nothing else compares. Nothing.  American public schools will never be good enough for some in our society. We will never be a neatly manicured, efficiently unified system because America will never be that kind of country. That’s okay. It’s not a flaw; it’s what makes our nation special and worthy of emulation.

So, yes, maybe those of us who advocate for public education are simply “playing on” while the ship of public education begins to list and take on water.  Maybe it is a futile exercise, akin to rearranging the chairs on the ship while it sinks.

There may be a time in the not-so-distant future when I bid you all adieu and tell you, “Gentlemen, it’s been a privilege playing with you tonight,” while scurrying to capture a  seat on the lifeboat.

Yet, tonight is not that night. I have not yet “been drowned into silence” and (God willing) I hope I have many more songs in me yet to play.

I hope you do, too. Because it your music and what you do to nurture the lives of children every day that keep me going.

So, together, let’s keep playing our music, even if it is sometimes drowned out by a cacophony of negative voices and naysayers. The hell with them. Let’s play louder and maybe add some cowbell!

April in America

The month of April marks a time of year with beautiful weather that yields blossoming gardens and springtime bliss. It’s a time of year for change and new beginnings. But, for too many children in America – to steal a phrase from T.S. Eliot – April can be also be “the cruelest month.”

(The following is a tale of three young boys growing up in a city near you.  While the names and situations are fictional, the scenarios reflect absolute reality.)

kids 1For nine-year-old Austin, a third-grade student at Star Prep Academy, April is the best month ever.

Austin loves the warmer weather and longer days to play outside. He enjoys the blooming flowers, the buzzing bees, the smell of freshly mown grass on the baseball field, and going fishing with his dad.

He also loves getting up with the sun each morning and going to school. Later in the month, Austin and his classmates will load their backpacks and put on their hiking shoes for a four-day outdoor retreat at Horizons Outdoor Learning Center. The retreat will be a culmination of a year-long experiential learning unit over ecology and environmental awareness at his school.

Like many young boys, Austin is naturally inquisitive, loves to be outdoors, and enjoys hands-on activities. He is looking forward to conducting experiments in the streams and small ponds at Horizons, cataloging various animals and plants, working in the gardens, and learning more about the ecosystems. He is also excited to participate in nature walks, canoe trips, archery, bird watching, cloud identification, and viewing the stars and constellations away from the bright lights of town.

Austin would like to be a scientist or park ranger when he grows up.

Over the course of the year, Austin has read numerous adventure novels about the outdoors from his school’s extensive library: “Robinson Crusoe,” “My Side of the Mountain,” Jack London’s “White Fang,” and “Hatchet” by Gary Paulson, to name a few.

Students at Austin’s school are encouraged to read for pleasure and are guided in the selection of reading choices by a full-time reading specialist who serves as the Academy’s media center director. The school also sets time aside every day for children to read. Weather permitting, Austin chooses to read under the large elm tree in the school’s outdoor classroom. Guest speakers and local authors also visit the school frequently to share their love of reading and writing with the students.

Star Prep Academy is sponsored by the local university and receives additional funding from philanthropic grants. Since they are privately funded, Austin and his friends do not have to participate in annual standardized testing. Despite the lack of test-based accountability, his school his highly regarded in the community.

The only thing Austin doesn’t like about April is that it means the school year is coming to an end. He loves his teachers and how they allow him to explore and create. Learning at Star Prep Academy is fun and engaging every day!

Across town at Eisenhower Elementary, Manny is also excited that April is finally here.

kid 5Manny is the only son of first generation immigrant parents. Manny’s dad came to America initially to learn a trade and work to make enough money for his family to join him in America. Through sacrifice and a tremendous amount of “sweat equity,” Manny’s dad now owns his own Heating and Air Company. This enabled Manny’s family to move from their city apartment to a nice home in the suburbs before he started kindergarten.

Eisenhower Elementary was built in 2008. The school serves mostly middle class students and only 20% of his classmates are economically disadvantaged. Eisehower was recently designation a Reward School by the State Department of Education and earned a school grade of A- last year. They have several STEM initiatives, a vibrant music and arts program, and are able to offer class sizes of 22 or less. 52% of Eisenhower’s teachers have a Master’s degree and annual teacher turnover is less than 10%.

Manny has always done well at school. He is in the gifted and talented program and reads well above grade level. As a third grader, this is the first year he will participate in state testing. Because he wants to make his parents proud, Manny has worked very hard to prepare for the upcoming math and reading state tests.

He is not nervous about the tests because he knows he is ready. Manny earned the highest scores in his class on the third quarter benchmark tests and he is confident of his ability to perform well. At the same time, Manny is nervous for some of his classmates who tell him they “are scared” about failing the test and being kept back in third grade. He wishes he could help them as he would not like to be separated from some of his best friends next year.

kids 2That said, Manny is anxious for testing to be over. He is tired of doing worksheets and test-prep exercises on the computer. He notices that his teacher seems to be stressed and class is “not as much fun” as earlier in the year. Manny also thought it was kind of silly when the school held a special testing pep rally but enjoyed the change of pace. He looks forward to getting back to spending more time in his music and art classes and doing more science experiments in class.

Manny parents have told him that “learning is more than a test score” and they will be proud of him no matter how he does. He hates that he will have to wait until August to find out his final scores.

Manny enjoys school but is looking forward to the end of the year. His parents, his younger sister and he will be traveling to Washington D.C. for vacation in early June. Manny is anxious to spend time in the Smithsonian Museum after reading a lot about the various museum archives online.

Manny would like to earn an MBA and join his father’s business as an adult. 

kid 6A few miles north of Manny’s neighborhood sits Franklin Arts Academy, a school attended by 9-year-old Jalyn Morris.

Franklin is an urban school originally built in 1952. Franklin is a Title I school with over 90% of students qualifying for free or reduced meals. 60% of Franklin’s teachers have been in education for three years or less. Ms. Marcus, the school’s administrator, is the fourth principal in the past five years.

Jalyn has attended Franklin since the start of this school year, however, this is his third school in as many years. He has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and a mild form of dyslexia. He is on an IEP and receives extra support from a Title I tutor at the school.

Jalyn has been dreading April all year. While he has struggled with school in the past, this year is the first time he will take high-stakes tests. With his persistent challenges in reading, Jalyn knows he will have a difficult time passing the third grade reading test.

He worries that he will still be in third grade next April.

Because Franklin Arts Academy was identified as a Priority School after being labeled a failing school for the past two years. Ms. Marcus was brought in by district administration to “turnaround the school.” Like her, over 40% of the teachers are new to the building this year.

kids 4The last two months have been nothing more than a steady diet of personalized test prep via Buckle Down books and computer math and reading programs.

Since Jalyn is scheduled for extra support in both subjects, he no longer attends his art, music, and PE specials. Science is scheduled for thirty minutes, twice a week, and is typically taught using workbooks, videos, and teacher-directed demonstrations. Students are allowed only ten minutes of recess a day after lunch. In most of his classes, students have limited opportunities to talk or interact with other students.

Jalyn is frequently bored and finds himself daydreaming or staring out the window at passing cars when he should be working. As a result, he typically brings home one to two hours of work he must finish at home. It is even more difficult for Jalyn to concentrate at home. His mother works until 7 pm and his 17-year-old sister has a one-year-old child of her own. The apartment they share is small and congested and loud music can be heard from neighboring apartments until late in the evening.

He has never read a book for pleasure.

Jalyn is reminded everyday that he is behind his peers. As he enters his classroom, he sees his name in BOLD letters on two red cards on the data wall in the back of the room. He was close to moving up to yellow earlier in the year but has fallen back after the most recent benchmark assessments. He wished he could rip all the cards off the wall, tear them up, and throw them in the trash, but knows he would get in big trouble for something like that.

Jalyn used to like school but is starting to feel defeated. He looks forward to summer to get a break from school and have time to sleep in, play video games, and hang around with his friends.

Because of his academic struggles, Jalyn in unsure of what his future holds. He’d like to go to college some day and maybe be a pro athlete.

He hates April and probably always will.

And tonight, as he lays down in bed, ten hours after taking his third grade reading test, Jalyn cries himself to sleep.

Welcome to April in America, at a school near you.

What Will You Buy With Your Framework?

While responding to questions about education funding during a meeting with reporters last week, Senate Pro Tem Mike Schulz, R-Altus said, “I am fully confident that we will leave this session with a framework of a teacher pay raise in place. And it will be a stepped-in pay raise as we go through the next couple of years. If we identify some funding sources this year, it could start as early as this year.”

Schulz immediately walked this statement back a few steps when he added, “But again, we have got a pretty big budget hole to fill before we start spending additional dollars.”

For some of you who have limited fluency with the more subtle tones and nuances of professional politicalese, I’m here to help.

Permit me to run the Senator’s words through my handy-dandy Politician-to-English translator to learn what he was really communicating:

translate 3

My translation may not be perfect, yet I suspect it is fairly close to the truth.

First of all, let’s address the notion of putting a “framework for teacher pay raises in place.” To save the legislature some time and as a public service, I am willing to share my original framework free of charge.

Here it is: Rob’s Super-Duper Simple, Two-Step Framework for Teacher Pay Raises:

  1. Gather up some more money.
  2. Give it to teachers.

You’re welcome.

Seriously, how complicated can we make this? Regardless of which current teacher pay raise plan is being debated at the Capitol, they all follow this same basic framework, right?

The challenge with every pay raise plan that’s still alive in the legislature this year is step one – finding the money. 

Senator Schulz is right when he says that we have a pretty big budget hole, more accurately – a nearly 900 million dollar cavern – to fill before we even think about gathering up more money for new initiatives like a permanent teacher raise.

What seems to be good news is, unlike other years, there does seem to be a genuine interest from many lawmakers to actually do something to address this critical issue (step two).

All snark aside, I do appreciate what Senator Schulz and Speaker McCall are trying to do and believe their intent is sincere.

At the same time, both gentlemen have been in the legislature long enough to own a portion of this problem. You cannot vote repeatedly over the years for income tax cuts and in support of tax incentives for corporations, oil companies, and the wind industry and then complain about the lack of revenues today. Well, I suppose you can if you don’t mind being disingenuous.

As the saying goes, both of these lawmakers helped make this lumpy bed. They need to sleep in it.

When the citizens of Oklahoma voted down SQ 779 last November and denied teachers a guaranteed pay raise, many people justified their NO vote by saying this was a problem the legislature needed to fix. Many opposed the idea of a regressive sales tax due to its disparate impact on poor Oklahomans. People recognized how we got into this mess and were not excited about doing the legislature’s job for them.

In short, many Oklahomans supported the need for a teacher pay raise but wanted lawmakers to find a better way to pay for it.

But, instead of a better way, it now appears we are going to be given a framework for a better way. Instead of a real pay raise, educators will likely have to be satisfied for another year with the promise of a pay raise.

Honestly, our legislators are in a very tough spot. It would be more than a little confounding to have to cut common education funding and impose draconian cuts to other state agencies like DHS and health care next year while generating a new revenue source for teacher raises at the same time.

For a few educators, a “guaranteed” framework for a future pay raise might induce a brief burst of higher morale, a feeling that will quickly dissipate when they return to higher class sizes and fewer resources in August.

They will also quickly conclude a framework doesn’t buy them anything.

A framework for “stepped in pay raises” won’t help a young family purchase a badly needed new home or car this year.

It won’t help pay the electric bill, the cost of braces for a 12-year-old, a new washing machine, or set of tires to replace the bald ones currently on their 15-year-old car.

The framework won’t pay for increased day care expenses, cover higher medical deductibles, help pay off your student loans, buy your kid a new pair of shoes, or pay for a modest summer vacation.

Frameworks for future raises aren’t accepted by banks as collateral, won’t help improve your credit rating, and cannot be deposited into your savings account.

More than anything else, a framework for a teacher pay raise won’t help our state make up the teacher pay gap between Oklahoma and its neighboring states. It won’t help persuade a young teacher in Ardmore or Westville or Miami to stay home rather than move across the border to work in Texas, Arkansas, or Missouri.

When a new 22-year-old educator with a bachelor’s degree from Durant can move 87 miles south to Garland, Texas (near Dallas) and immediately make the same salary ($51,500) as an educator with a doctorate and 23 years of experience back home, we have a real problem.

The teacher pay crisis is a problem that needs real money to fix, not promissory notes … or well-meaning pledges … or so-called frameworks for future pay raises contingent on “identifying new funding sources.”

The time for frameworks was five years ago. The time for real action is now.

Can We Please Stop Pretending …?

pretendingAbout two years ago, fellow blogger Scott McLeod posted a list of five things we have to stop pretending when it comes to education. He also encouraged others to add our ideas and suggestions. As of today, he has documented 127 responses from other bloggers and educators on his website, including my own.

For no other reason than I’ve grown weary of thinking and writing about the Oklahoma budget crisis, I decided to dust off my original list and add about 65 more items that literally poured forth from my brain. Sorry, but I get a little snarky towards the end.

I’d love to read your ideas as well. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments.

We need to stop pretending:

  1. That all 5-year-olds arrive at the schoolhouse ready to learn.
  2. That policy-makers who have never taught or earned an education degree know more than the practitioners who work with kids every day.
  3. That charter schools that accept the same students as public schools achieve better results.
  4. That class size doesn’t matter.
  5. That higher academic standards will automatically result in more kids being college and career ready.
  6. That reading magazine articles or online content is the same as reading a book.
  7. That all students need to take Algebra II to be successful in life.
  8. That any one test score can tell us how smart a child is.
  9. That students value their core classes more than their electives.
  10. That all teachers do a good job.
  11. That learning and knowing are the same thing.
  12. That a traditional classroom is the best place for teaching and learning.
  13. That a student with special needs being served with a modified curriculum all year should be able to magically pass a test on grade level in April.
  14. That an A-F school report card gives us meaningful information about the overall climate and quality of a school.
  15. That students should be grouped by chronological age.
  16. That students are still paying attention after 10 or 15 minutes of a lecture.
  17. That children learn from people they don’t like.
  18. That ALL students don’t need recess.
  19. That you can measure the value of a teacher by how well their students do on standardized tests.
  20. That children will continue to read books if the adults around them do not.
  21. That there is a “best practice” for ANYTHING. Context always matters!
  22. That school, for the most part, isn’t incredibly boring.
  23. That every student should go to college.
  24. That most high school classrooms are vastly different than they were thirty years ago.
  25. That we treat academic or artistic achievement equal to athletic achievement.
  26. That school mission statements are worth much more than the paper they’re written on.
  27. That most school administrators are well-qualified to evaluate teaching effectiveness.
  28. That grades are an accurate reflection of what a student has learned and is able to do in a class.
  29. That a curriculum developed in the 1890’s is still applicable for children born in the year 2000.
  30. That it is impossible to get rid of a mediocre teacher.
  31. That the best schools have the best test scores.
  32. That the best way to structure the school day is with 50 minutes subjects taught separately from each other.
  33. That many rich white people who promote vouchers do so because they care about poor minority children.
  34. That short-term memorization equals long-term learning.
  35. That all students know how to use technology.
  36. That most parents care less about their children’s grades than if they are learning anything of long-term value.
  37. That young children inherently know how to behave themselves in school.
  38. That retaining children because they cannot pass a reading test benefits the child.
  39. That kids who are tired, hungry, scared, traumatized, or abused give a damn about learning much of anything.
  40. That every child has someone at home to help them with their homework.
  41. That international test scores and comparisons to other countries tell us much about the quality of the American education system.
  42. That teachers only work seven hour day, 180 days a year.
  43. That most of the knowledge we teach kids cannot be easily accessed in less than 30 seconds on a device.
  44. That most superintendents don’t earn their money they are paid.
  45. That schools can be run like a business and students can be handled like products.
  46. That social media is not a HUGE part of most young people’s lives.
  47. That test-based accountability has improved the quality of teaching and learning in schools.
  48. That music and arts are not as important and core subjects.
  49. That all kids are motivated by the same things.
  50. That one-shot professional learning for teachers actually makes a difference.
  51. That we can continue to teach kids today the way we were taught yesterday.
  52. That poverty doesn’t matter.
  53. That all children come from loving and supportive families.
  54. That most anti-bullying campaigns do much to actually reduce bullying in schools.
  55. That cursive is more important to teach young children than coding.
  56. That only two years learning a world language other than English has much value to 99% of students.
  57. That practices that work well in Finland would work equally well in an urban US school district.
  58. That most citizens care very much about the quality of the schools outside of their neighborhood.
  59. That anything much is going to improve some people’s negative perceptions of public schools.
  60. That teaching is not the most important profession in the world.
  61. That teaching is easy and almost anyone can do it.
  62. That money doesn’t matter because teachers are intrinsically motivated by a sense of purpose and love for kids.
  63. That teachers don’t have any other options for careers.
  64. That Oklahoma will ever move out of the bottom in the nation in terms of teacher pay and funding for common education.
  65. That having over 1,000 emergency certified teachers in Oklahoma this year is okay.
  66. That teacher morale in Oklahoma isn’t at an all-time low.
  67. That the Oklahoma legislature will actually pass a meaningful teacher pay raise this year.
  68. That most of our teachers will suck it up and keep teaching anyway.
  69. That young teaching prospects from Oklahoma will stay home rather than earn $20K more in a neighboring state.
  70. That the vast majority of our legislators won’t be reelected anyway.

A Letter to Peter Jr.

Dear Peter Jr., 

On behalf of millions of Oklahomans, I just want to tell you, “We’re really sorry, kid.”

Seriously, we are.

You are only a child and should not have to worry about stuff like state budgets, taxes, and education funding. But there are things happening in our state this year that will, unfortunately, impact you now and in the future. You have a right to know.

Adults in charge of our government are making decisions about our state’s priorities and what we value most.

Sadly, the truth is we do not value education as much as many other states in America. While some states are greatly increasing funding for their schools to better prepare their children to compete in a fast-changing global economy, Oklahoma is trying to get by on the cheap. Our schools have cut funding for you and your fellow students by more than 27% in nine years and your teachers are among the lowest-paid in the nation.

Our state budget is a disaster and we’re not doing much to change that. It’s kinda like being really sick and not having anybody working to help you get better.

Despite our state’s problems, there doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency to get things fixed. To use a common expression, people in power seem to be kicking the can down the road. One day soon, you and your friends may be stubbing your toe on that same can.

The bottom line is we are having to steal from your future to pay for the mistakes adults are making today.

How bad is it? Here’s a big number for you: $868,000,000. That’s 868 MILLION dollars.

This is how much LESS money Oklahoma will have next year to run our state than we did this year.

LESS money to fund your schools and teachers. LESS money to invest in our colleges and universities to enable more Oklahomans to pursue degrees and increase their earning potential. LESS money to build and maintain safe roads and bridges. LESS money to provide health care for our citizens. LESS money to hire police and firemen to keep you and your families safe. LESS money for social services to help your friends and their families who need a helping hand. LESS money to provide a safety net for your elderly grandparents, individuals with severe disabilities, and others who need our compassion. LESS money to invest in state parks, museums, and recreational activities for you and other children to explore and learn.

LESS money to build the kind of state you will want to stay and raise your future family.

It wasn’t always this way. It just kinda happened.

Our state constitution says our government can only spend what it has and cannot go into debt. That is a good thing. It is important to be responsible with our money.

To balance previous budgets, our lawmakers have used a variety of budget tricks to make it appear we’re doing okay. But, this year, most of those tricks aren’t going to work anymore. Our state’s savings account has run dry and we have very few options available besides cutting services to Oklahomans, including you and other children in our state.

Our schools have worked hard to shield you from the impacts of funding cuts over the past few years. We’re not sure we can do that anymore.

As Oklahomans, we pride ourselves on being able to do more with less. That is becoming very difficult. As a result, we will simply be doing less.

We have robbed your dad, Peter, to pay Paul. Then we robbed Paul to pay more to corporations and wealthy Oklahomans.

Now it’s time to rob from you, Peter Jr. 

When it comes to picking winners and losers, our state has decided you will lose.

Instead of investing in state-of-the-art schools with modern technology, we have protected tax breaks for the people who build those big wind turbines you see from the highway when you travel out west.

Instead of increasing pay to help recruit the best teachers for OUR schools and motivate them to not leave our state, we gave wealthy Oklahomans an income tax reduction.

Instead of lowering class sizes so you and your fellow students can receive more individual attention and experience higher quality learning, we gave oil companies huge tax incentives.

Instead of expanding our academic and extracurricular programs in our schools, we have spent money on creating more standardized tests to be used to rank you and your friends, judge your teachers, and punish your schools.

Instead of developing a vision for a safe, healthy, vibrant, productive and happy future for the children of Oklahoma, we have sought to please the adults with power and money.

We have turned our back on you when you needed us the most.

My hope is that by the time it is your generation’s turn to lead this great state, things will be in better shape. I hope that our leaders will learn from our mistakes and begin to prioritize funding of education and other important services over excessive tax breaks for companies and wealthy Oklahomans. Instead of pushing our problems down the road, I hope we have the courage and conviction to fix things now.

Most Oklahomans love our state. Many of us were born and raised here, some of us left for various reasons but then we came home. Because Oklahoma is OUR home. 

For that reason, we yearn for a Oklahoma that is both fiscally sound and compassionate. We desire a state that honors its heritage and shared values but is also forward-thinking and progressive. We strive to foster a community of people which respects our individual differences and fights to help those less fortunate. We pray for peace and prosperity for all. We dream of a place where people of varied faiths and beliefs can come together to cherish the American dream and work to create a better future for you and the children of our state.

Above all else, we pray for children like you, that you are valued and loved and well cared for. And that you will be blessed with the Oklahoma spirit and a character that values hard work, charity, honor, resilience, integrity, optimism, and service to others. That’s what being a Oklahoman is all about.

We’re sorry we are not doing a better job, Peter Jr. We hope you will forgive us.

All the best,

Concerned Oklahomans for Children.

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