By December 9, 2014 Uncategorized 4 Comments

In case you missed it, there was some exciting news out of the Oklahoma State Department of Education this afternoon. The Office of School Turnaround apparently threw a big party to celebrate their herculean efforts to turnaround a large number of sucky schools across our state last year.

HERE is the full press release adorned with pretty pie charts and lots of shiny rhetoric and propaganda.

Basically, the OSDE wants to tout the fact that “more than half of Oklahoma’s 175 Priority Schools have shown positive growth over the past two years.”

By definition, schools designated as Priority are in need of the most intensive help in raising student achievement. All school earning an “F” on the state’s A-F report card are automatically placed on the Priority school list. The Office of School Turnaround “partners” with Priority Schools to help develop a plan of improvement and to provide resources and other supports.

According to Richard Caram, assistant state superintendent of school turnaround: “This is about the hard work of helping turn around schools.” “This is about examining data to drive and change instruction down to singular students and specific sub-groups of students.”

Caram is absolutely right that 56% (“more than half”) of the schools listed as Priority in the 2012-2013 school year showed improvement in 2014. What the OSDE neglects to mention in their bulletin is that 42 percent of the schools on the state’s list actually got worse!

Reminds of me of what former President Ronald Reagan referred to as the most terrifying nine words in the English language: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

This is a great example of cherry-picking data to support a predetermined narrative. In this case, the OSDE wants people to believe that if schools will just listen to them, magical things will happen. Experts from the state department will ride in on good luck unicorns, trot through the halls and sprinkle magic dust in classrooms, causing even the most disadvantaged students to perform above expectations.

However, with many schools “helped” by the state moving from F’s to EVEN LOWER F’s, the magic dust apparently only works if educators truly believe.

As Caram says, it’s all about changing the culture. In fact, “schools that successfully transform their culture can overcome challenges such as poverty, speaking English as a second language and other issues.”

As we ALL know, students living in poverty, struggling with disabilities, or learning English just need higher standards, more rigorous instruction, and tougher tests. Adequate funding, social services, technology, textbooks, professional development, smaller class sizes, and enriching, arts-based curriculum are not all that important in the big scheme of things.

On the list of Priority schools, we also see turnaround schools like Howe Elementary in southeastern Oklahoma. I wrote about their incredible story several months ago (HERE), (HERE), and (HERE). As a result of the school’s failing grade in 2013, the district moved away from their students’ use of cutting edge technology and problem-based learning and back to a more traditional test prep curriculum last year. This approach worked in improving the school’s grade from an F to a C+ in one year. The OSDE says that teachers and leaders must be held accountable, yet Howe’s definition of student success did not match what the state said it should be.  As a result, they were punished. They learned their lesson and turned around. As a result, their students and educators suffered.

Of course, Superintendent Janet Barresi saw fit to share her wisdom relative to school improvement by saying, “Educators who explore specific data for a struggling student — including daily classroom work, test scores on the school and state level, attendance and the like — can pinpoint why that child is having trouble academically.”

What incredible insight, Janet!  Educators never thought to look at things like whether kids come to school, do homework, or study for tests (“and the like”) as a means to see why kids might be struggling.

In all seriousness, the A-F grading system is so fundamentally flawed to have any real value for comparing school performance from one year to the next. For instance, remember that this year the state department made the decision to omit the writing scores from 5th and 8th grade students from the A-F calculations. Less than 50% of students passed these tests statewide last year. Therefore, IF the OSDE had included these scores, it is safe to assume that the turnaround statistics touted by the state would have been much less rosy.

As I illustrated with the example of Howe Public Schools, it is important to remember that the OSDE defines school improvement based solely on student performance on selected tests in specific grades. As a result, we are merely turning children into data points.

The image of a data wall below has become all too familiar in faculty lounges and workrooms across Oklahoma.

What you see are pictures of children sorted, ranked, and color-coded based on their math and reading scores from state testing. How absolutely sad!

We have come to the place where we are now labeling many of these children as inferior compared to their peers because they do not do well on tests.

The hell with meaningless stuff like how kids do in science, social studies, art, music, athletics, teamwork, creativity, empathy, curiosity, responsibility, citizenship, or communication skills. When teachers observe these students in their classrooms, instead of seeing a beautiful child with unique strengths, they are reminded that he or she is a deficient child who is lowering the teacher’s VAM score and causing their school to earn a low grade.

I could go on but I am getting a little agitated. I think I will just leave you with an insightful quote written by education writer, Alfie Kohn, in 2002 about the value of raising test scores:

Of course, we can succeed in raising average test scores. You deprive kids of recess, eliminate music and the arts, cut back the class meetings and discussions of current events, offer less time to read books for pleasure, squeeze out the field trips and interdisciplinary projects and high-quality electives, spend enough time teaching test-taking tricks, and, you bet, it’s possible to raise the scores. But that result is meaningless at best. When a school or district reports better test results this year than last, knowledgeable parents and other observers respond by saying, “So what?” (because higher test scores do not necessarily reflect higher quality teaching and learning) – or even, “Uh oh” (because higher test scores may indicate lower quality teaching and learning).

So, the next time someone brags about turning around a school, ask yourself if that’s really a good cause to celebrate.

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