‘Howe’ the A-F did this happen?

In part one of my series on Howe Public Schools, you were introduced to the innovative, paradigm-shifting leadership of Superintendent Scott Parks. Over the past fifteen years, Scott and his leadership team have brought creative solutions for the integration of technology to a small, rural district in southeastern Oklahoma. Through their efforts, they have been successful in tearing down the walls of rural isolation and poverty to expose the children of Howe to possibilities previously unimaginable.

Speaking of things unimaginable, can you empathize with what Scott Parks must have felt while watching the state A-F roulette wheel spin through its ridiculous iterations last October, before finally plunking down as an “F”?

As my fellow blogger, okeducationtruths, commented on my previous post: Scott and his staff must have been yelling out, “What the A-F just happened?

Just eight months earlier, during the State School Board’s visit to Howe Public Schools, Superintendent Barresi held the district up as a model for other rural schools across Oklahoma. In her remarks, she shared this unusually cogent thought: “All schools in Oklahoma can achieve this same level of innovation, but it is going to take vision and the staying power to fund it.”  Janet likely had no idea how true this statement would become.

Scott and his staff should be justifiably proud of this recognition. There is no doubt that the level of success experienced by Howe Public Schools did not come easily. I suspect that there were times along this journey that the leadership questioned their support of the ambitious goals associated with Scott’s vision. There was certainly some staff push-back and public resistance to the significant expenditure of limited resources for these out-of-the-box initiatives.

Along these lines, don’t you agree that it is shameful that a school district in Oklahoma has to choose between constructing sidewalks to connect buildings separated by muddy pathways and constructing digital pathways to connect children separated by poverty and isolation to the outside world?

In addition to embracing new technologies to enhance teaching and learning, Superintendent Parks and his staff have introduced creativity, collaboration, literacy, problem-solving, and student teamwork to the learning process. The problem-based learning (PBL) initiatives have contributed to a culture of high student engagement and the development of 21st century attributes. Students are being taught skills to become live-long learners, critical thinkers, entrepreneurs, and discerning consumers of content. After all, isn’t this the whole intent of the common core standards–to take students beyond superficial learning to deeper levels of understanding and the application of knowledge?

But all of work came tumbling down to earth in October with the release of this document from the State Department of Education:

According to the 2102 School Report Card from the Oklahoma Education Office of Accountability, Howe has a free/reduced rate of 74%, thirteen percentage points higher than the state average. The district enjoys a low mobility rate of only three percent and has the following demographic profile: Caucasian-62%; Asian-1%; Hispanic-11%; and Native American-26%. Of particular note is the fact that only eight percent of Howe’s residents have a college degree, compared with 23 percent statewide.

As with many small, high-poverty districts, chasing test scores has unfortunately become part of the game. According to Parks, the district experienced relatively low Academic Performance Index (API) scores in the years after the implementation of NCLB in 2001. However, the combination of technology integration and powerful teaching strategies resulted in the district making significant gains throughout the decade, increasing from an API score of about 600 to well over 1000 in just a few years.

In the 2012 version of A-F, the district earned a C- and had hoped that continuation of their initiatives would improve their score. However, they did not anticipate that Senator Jolley and his colleagues in the legislature would rearrange the deck chairs on the A-F “Titanic” to make a seriously flawed A-F measurement even more inaccurate and absurd last spring.

If you recall, while drafting this legislation (SB635/HB1658), Senator Jolley and his colleagues in the House and Senate had in their hands the previous research from the OU-OSU Joint Policy Center–the one that concluded that the “A-F formula contained serious threats to validity and reliability and was not salvageable in its current form.”

Senator Jolley ignored the report.

In fact, Jolley proudly stated that the bills’ language was intentionally written with NO involvement from University researchers, superintendents or the Oklahoma State Department of Education “because we wanted to have ownership over it.” We have not forgotten that you own this, Senator.

Here is what the OU-OSU Policy Center had to say about Jolley’s latest creation last October:

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

Based on our empirical testing, we urge policy makers to abandon the single letter grade approach. The fix is quite simple. A school’s performance should be reported on multiple dimensions–a profile that includes scale scores for subject areas as well as other relevant school conditions (e.g. program coherence, social climate, and faculty and administrative stability). Scale scores are more easily understood and less susceptible to manipulation and distortion. A balance of process and contextual conditions helps portray a truer performance picture that provides clarity to parents and focuses the improvement efforts of school professionals. Decisions about intervention should take demographics such as poverty and neighborhood vitality into consideration. A bureaucratic evaluation system that produces nearly meaningless grades is no substitute for reasoned decision-making based on careful consideration of all credible evidence.”

How did our legislature and SDE handle the revelations from this new research study? The same way as the first time–they tossed it into the trash bin. There has been no attempt to correct any of the deficiencies highlighted in either research report.  This is sheer arrogance on parade.

I would like to pose this question to Senator Jolley and Superintendent Barresi. Which one of the following statements is true?

1) Howe Public Schools is a model district with innovative and visionary practices that should be emulated… OR
2) Howe Public Schools is a failing district in need of significant improvement.

If they believe that the current A-F grading system is an accurate representation of school performance, only one of these statements can be true. Which one is it?

In part three of this story, I will discuss the impact of this “F” grade on the psyche and morale of Howe Public Schools. What has happened to the district’s culture of innovation as a result of this grade? Will district leaders have the staying power to stick true to their vision or will they have to abandon their beliefs in the pursuit of higher test scores. Will the district be forced to sacrifice its approach to teaching and learning in the hopes of a better A-F grade? Will student computers gather dust while teachers drill their students with worksheets and Buckle Down test prep books? Will Howe’s project-based learning model be replaced with more textbooks and traditional teaching techniques? And how will teachers respond when their evaluation and their very livelihood becomes dependent on their students’ performance on state testing in two years?

These are critically important questions, not only for Howe Public Schools, but for the future of public schools in Oklahoma and across our nation.

Will Our Voice Be Heard?What Now for Howe?
Recent posts