Thursday, September 26, 2019

Interim Curmudgeons

Yesterday I attended Interim Studies for the House Common Education Committee.

Today, I visited with a mother who lost her daughter, my former student.

Tomorrow, I will attend the funeral of that young woman I’ve loved for nearly half of her short life.

How are these all connected? They are.

One of the Interim Studies by Representative Chad Caldwell, (R, House District 40, Garfield County) looked at both the funding and the reforms of a landmark bill, HB1017, passed in 1990. The bill provided substantial raises for teachers, and required access to early childhood programs. It also created a mechanism for school consolidation, as well as requiring state standards for Oklahoma schools, reducing class sizes, K-12, and added more testing for accountability.

This bill was a bipartisan effort, signed by Henry Bellmon, R. Repeals were attempted, and failed. But the aftermath of HB1017 was a State Question that now requires a vote of ¾ of the House and Senate to raise any taxes. Since that time, our Legislature has repeatedly reduced taxes, but had not, since this bill, raised taxes for schools until 2018's Session’s funding (and Walk-Out) drama that resulted in raises and a small increase in our per-pupil expenditure. 

The first Study, hosted by member Caldwell, one of the few non-educators on the Common Education Committee, purported to investigate the reforms of 1017 – consolidation and class sizes among other issues. In a far-ranging Study, speakers touched on the reforms required by the bill. They talked about a provision of the bill that never were fully implemented that dealt with incentive payment to teachers for professional development and leadership.

We learned that the number of applications for emergency certified teachers continues to grow every year. This year’s data is only one month old, and right now, shows fewer applications than by the end of last school year. Rep. Caldwell suggested that showed the recent teacher pay raise was working, and that there will be fewer emergency certified teachers this year. Other members pointed out that today’s State School Board meeting had hundreds of requests for emergency teachers on the agenda. I have taught in two states under emergency certification; but in both states, I had to have a traditional teaching certificate. Since I couldn’t find a position in my certificate area, I took other jobs, and had to secure an emergency certificate in the meantime. In Oklahoma, though, emergency-certified teachers are required to have a college degree, but not a degree in the area they will be teaching. Alternatively certified teachers are required to have an undergraduate major that will complement their teaching assignments…a history major teaching history, for example.

Rep. Caldwell does not seem to be a fan of traditional teacher programs. He inspired others to drag out calculators to add the current number of emergencies to the number we had heard would be approved today by the Oklahoma State School Board. The argument ended in a draw. But he berated traditional teacher preparation with a story. He talked about a dinner he had recently attended with “7 or 8 teachers.” He asked how many of them felt their teacher preparation programs really prepared them to teach. He told us, with great solemnity, that not one said their training prepared them.

Which brings me to today and tomorrow. No, teacher preparation did not prepare me to hug a grieving mother, a stunned brother this morning. No, teacher preparation did not train me to attend funerals for young adult former students, gone too soon. You’re right, Rep. Caldwell. I wasn’t prepared.

Neither did teacher preparation really get me ready for being the sole responsibility, in 1967, of the health, welfare, and learning of 24 sixth-graders all day. Or how to learn from a principal who didn’t care about anything but his own reputation. Or how to teach geography out of books that highlighted countries that no longer existed the year I taught. Or how to respond when one of my farm-reared students brought a pet white rat to class. Or, later in the spring when someone else brought a snake in a Mason jar. On-the-job learning went into high gear that year, and every year since.

NO academic training could adequately prepare me. And I knew that. I knew the academics gave me the foundation. Academics gave me resources, and the basics of what to do. I learned strategies to use. I learned that I was expected that I would continue to learn and ask questions.

Does a doctor’s academic training adequately prepare them for every patient they will meet in a career? Every emergency? Does an architect’s academic training prepare them for every problem they will face in a long career? Why is it only teacher preparation is questioned?

So, Representative Caldwell used this anecdote to dismiss the necessity of a trained educator in each classroom…because he asked several teachers if their academic training totally prepared them. This story served his purpose.

Later in the same study, the focus shifted to class size, one of the jewels of HB1017. Before deregulations by subsequent legislatures, my high school classes were to be capped at 120 students a day. Not at all unreasonable for five sections a day. Limits were even more strict at early childhood and elementary levels. We were so proud of those limits. We saw them as acknowledgement of the professionalism and effectiveness of educators. When I retired in 2013, long after these deregulations had become the norm, I saw 160 students a day.

Representative Caldwell expressed his frustration with all the anecdotal stories about how smaller class sizes are beneficial to learning, and suggested that larger classes could lead to students learning more from each other. He dismissed the ‘one study’ ‘everyone’ quotes to support smaller class sizes, and waxed poetic about other studies that showed no benefits for smaller classes. Made me think of Bill Gates’ suggestion that ‘master teachers’ could teach huge classes because…they were masters.

So stories when they support his own opinions, and dismissal of stories and demands for studies (and dismissal of research that conflicts with his opinions) when that fits his point of view. The about-face was frustrating to watch and not have an opportunity to comment. While Rep. Caldwell appeared curmudgeonly at his own Study, I was feeling decidedly grumpy sitting and listening.

I find Interim Studies informative.  I learn what legislation might be coming, or what legislation might face strong opposition. I can predict, based on yesterday’s meeting, that Rep. Caldwell will fight any legislation that would require traditional teacher training and halt our state’s reliance on emergency certification. He will not be a fan of any incentivization of traditional teacher preparation (the subject of a later Interim Study). I can predict he will fight any legislation that would reinstate smaller class sizes. He wants longer school days. He appears happy with out Reading Sufficiency Act, which requires all third graders to read ‘at level’ to become fourth graders. All this information is good to know.  

Tomorrow I will attend the funeral of a former student and hope I can comfort her mother and her brothers, never having been trained in my traditional teacher preparation program to do that. Tomorrow my friends in classrooms will hear stories of neglect and abuse. They will deal with behavior stemming from adverse childhood experiences and trauma. They will find a way to connect Macbeth with their students’ lives. They will defuse violent outbursts by students who have no coping strategies. They will sponsor co-curricular clubs and activities. They will consult and collaborate. They will participate in meetings where they create relevant curriculum. All these were never covered in modules of our traditional teacher training. But that training taught us to be responsive, creative, collaborative. That training gave us tools and resources and allies in our work.

As frustrated as I was in that Study yesterday, I felt sorry for Rep Caldwell, showing his disdain and antipathy for educators and our world. He doesn’t get it. He could, if he opened himself to doing more than talk to teachers at dinner. If he combined empirical research with observations and insights. If he trusted educators as the professionals we are. If he spent a day, a week, shadowing a teacher in his district. Did cafeteria and recess duty, went with a teacher to a football game, attended an advisory meeting. Came with me to the funeral I’m attending tomorrow.

He could learn a lot…by watching us learn, day-by-day, to do this job. Always learning.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Privatization of America's Public Institutions...a hopping-mad review

I seem to be using #FFS a lot recently...Well, if you know me, I am screaming it, with my face crimson, smoke coming out of my ears. We are in deep...doodoo. Buy this book and give it to every policy maker you know. Stand over them while they read it. And demand a book report. 

Be afraid. Be very afraid. Our public life is being eroded by privatizers right under our noses.

Lawrence is a friend, a fierce advocate for public schools, their students and teachers. He can research a topic to get to the very essence of the issue. This book is organized around four insidious efforts to privatize American institutions…cornerstones of our democracy: the military, the corrections system, PreK-12 schools, and higher education. Each chapter is exhaustively researched, with over 100 citations for each chapter. Every statement in this book is backed up by research!

What are the dangers to a democracy when our institutions are privatized? Turned over to people with questionable motives beyond making as much money as possible? Turns out the dangers are real, and they are here…looking us in the eye.

A privatized military has no ultimate loyalty to our country, to our elected leaders. Military contractors owe allegiance to their bosses…the corporations taking over services in the military, to ‘free up’ our soldiers to do the dirty work…for less money than the contractors who are cooking and doing the laundry. These corporations raid the ranks of the military, hoping to buy not only the expertise of these trained military, but also their secrets. ROTC is now privatized. HALF of the military allocations our Congress sends off go to PRIVATE CONTRACTORS. These corporations are under no obligation to train their workers, to share intelligence, to offer the benefits available from the military (this is a common thread through the book…these privatizers do not offer job security, living wages, or benefits to their workers…that means more profits for the stockholders, and questionable service to the public).

Private prisons and juvenile facilities and facilities currently holding immigrants have been privatized for a while…on the cheap…with no effort to provide a safe workplace for employees or for the detainees. When a private prison contracts with a state to build a facility, part of the ‘deal’ is a occupancy guarantee. Usually 90% -- the state is obligated to pay for 90% occupancy, whether or not the number of inmates equals that. Sweet deal for contractors…Workers get less training, fewer benefits, and lower wages. Injuries and abuse of both workers and inmates is not unknown. Baines points out that crime rates are falling, but the number of private prisons and incarceration at these facilities is rising. He discusses the specific dangers to young people in these facilities…and says 21% of young inmates have committed no crime, but they find themselves in the system.

PreK-12 schools have been fighting the effects of privatization for a long time, and this was the chapter that I understood the best, since the information was not new, but the facts, the research, the figures, were astounding. Baines discusses various for-profit charters that have been all the rage, and points out the appeal for parents: less bureaucracy, self-segregation from ‘those kids (my words),’ and having the state help pay for their religious education…must be nice! He explains the difference between Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), which send state money as vouchers directly to parents, and Tax Credit Scholarships (TCSs) which send money to a partner institution that administers the funds…for a cut! The opportunities for fraud and abuse when for-profits try to teach our children is sickening.

I attended the Save Our Schools March and Rally in DC years ago, and met two teacher-prep professors from a nearby college…we all agreed that when reformers and privatizers where finished picking the bones of public education clean, they’d be coming after higher education. Privatizers didn’t wait. They are now outsourcing services at universities, and outsourcing DEGREES. All of this is made possible, as with public education, by the fact that state legislatures have systematically cut funding to state and land-grant institutions. My state is right there near the top of the culprits who cut funds, requiring colleges to raise fees and tuition…The use of adjuncts who receive no benefits (I know…I am one), reduction of major choices as departments are closed down, a de-emphasis on services, and a de-emphasis on the ‘community of learners” that on-campus college experience allows, all are results of the privatization of our public higher education institutions.

Most heartbreaking was the discussion of how teacher preparation is now outsourced…online classes that require NO field experience, no internship…NO face-to-face work with young people at all. Just ‘write us a check and click your mouse to your way to a teaching certificate.’ Texas, ABCTE, and now in OK, Tulsa Schools, can ‘credential their own.’ For $5K-$10K, you too, can become a teacher, sometimes without ever having to set eyes on a real child until you're hired. This will lead to more churn in our PreK-12 classes, more calls for charters and Tax Credits and Ed Savings Accounts. More privatization.

If we don’t wake up NOW, our children and grandchildren will be facing a world where soldiers-for-hire take orders from corporations, where our prisons create the overcrowding, recidivism, self-fulfilling prophesy of failure, where our children are taught by less-and-less qualified teachers coming out of poor-quality but profitable teacher preparation companies whose entire goal is profit.

We are selling not only our own souls…we are selling our children’s future.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

2018 -- My Top Ten --With Some Major Cheating

I read a lot. For most of my career, I read for a living. For the last ten years of that career, my bosses paid me to sit in a room, surrounded by teen, and READ. Books covered every wall, and many horizontal surfaces. Kids read. I read. It was grand. 

Now since I've retired, ironically, there is less time to read! I keep track of my books on a great website called My students called it 'FaceBook for book nerds," and it is. On Goodreads, I'm connected to some of my favorite authors, my favorite teacher friends and favorite former students. If you're a reader, join and find me.

Goodreads allows you to keep track of your reading, set annual goals, create bookshelves that are searchable. I can 'shelve' books as I'm reading, and when I finish. I write reviews (left over from my teaching days when I tried to model how to talk about books), and keep count. 

My 2018 goal  was 152 books. A strange number, I know...Just a tad down from the 155 from the previous year, when I didn't make my goal.

My first book of 2018 was The Alchemist, a reread of a favorite, and the last book of the year was Dear Martin, a gritty young adult.

My friend and I do a summer classics project, and this year we went for South American magic realism. We bailed on 100 Years of Solitude...might have actually been the edition of the book...print too tiny and mashed together. Paper too thin. I revisited Shadow of the Wind and Marina, and found a book, new for me, that made my list.

I try to do a Top Ten, but I always cheat. This year, I saw patterns in my favorite reads. I found international authors and books, I found amazing YAL from some of my favorite authors. I read great literary fiction, found new nonfiction, and read the entire Alphabet series by the late Sue Grafton. 

Inspired by my friend and long-distance reading buddy, Nancy Flanagan, who always gets her list out super early, here is my, in no particular order, favorite reads of 2018.

YAL -- I revisited two favorites, friends, and life-saving authors.

People Kill People by Ellen Hopkins -- the 'biography' of a handgun and the havoc it wreaks. Hopkins actually writes in prose and poetry here, in the multiple voices that make her work so rich. Yes, people kill people....but...

Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher -- a reread, companion piece in my mind to Crutcher's new book, Losers Bracket, which is just as good and could easily be in my top ten...but I've loved Sarah for years so she got the nod.


Fear by Bob Woodward -- that man can write and dig into a story. I'm beginning to amass a full book shelf of 'books about Trump by people who see through the bluff

Dear White Americans by Tim Wise -- subtitle: "Letter to a new minority." We can do better and must do better. This short book can help

Almost Everything by Ann Lamott -- I needed hope and she gave it to me. “Love and goodness and the world’s beauty and humanity are the reasons we have hope.”

Alphabet Mysteries

My mom and I started reading Sue Grafton's mysteries together in the 1980's. But along the way I stopped reading, maybe because Mom wasn't there to talk to. Grafton was not a fast writer, and I just moved on to other books and other series. She recently died, just having published Y is for Yesterday. In her will she made it clear, no one...NO ONE...would write Z. So, I knew I was going to be able to read (with my ears) all of the books and find a kind of closure. I believe Grafton knew Y would be her last. She dedicated the book to her grandchildren, one named Kinsey!! So. I read them all, and cried listening to the last one, knowing that smart-mouth Kinsey Milhone would never make me laugh again. I miss Mom and Grafton and Kinsey. And I'm counting these 25 books as one of my Top Ten. Try and stop me!

International authors new to me

Dona Barbara, by , a Venezulan politician and terrific novelist...This was the surprise of my summer reading. It was on the list of 100 best novels compiled by PBS. So glad I found it.magic, revenge, love, hate...and a beautiful, young country as the backdrop. I was dazzled.

Freshwater by  was breathtaking...and I couldn't begin to tell you much about the plot...the book was about letting a culture wash over me and simply experience. I read this with my ears, and Emezi narrated it. She read it to me individually. 

Literary Fiction -- both in Audible

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders blew me away. In the audible version, there were over 50 voices, each portraying one'd get a voice you recognized and you'd just settle in...I was so intrigued by the voices and the multi-genre elements of the narration that I bought the hardback, just to see the words on the pages. A tour de force. 

Circe by Madeline Miller -- I read this one and then immediately read Song of Achilles...but Circe claimed my mythology-loving heart.  I loved how Miller made Circe a witness to so many mythical events. And the ending? I did not know her story circled around to the characters in The Odyssey. If you twisted my arm behind my back and demanded I name my FAVORITE, I think this is the one I'd name.

So, that's ten...or ten plus 24, but who's counting?

So many great books also earned five stars (I have always been a generous grader) -- Neal Shusterman's new series Sythe...The Alchemist, Losers Bracket, Marina, Braving the Wilderness. The Tao of Pooh...

So many books. So little time. 

Dare I ask you to suggest your favorite from last year?

Friday, January 11, 2019

Time for the Hard Work

WE emailed. We wrote. We phoned. We visited.

We walked. We chanted. We visited. We emailed. We wrote. We phoned. We told our stories, and we advocated for our classrooms.

We voted.

AND NOW, if you haven't already, it's time for the hard part: building a lasting relationship with your legislators...whether you agree on every point or not.

A positive relationship. One built on a sliver of agreement, on common values, common goals.

Even if we fundamentally disagree with policymakers' stances on the issues we care about, we must FIRST create a space where we can smile, shake hands, and yes, even hug occasionally.

And lucky for us, we teachers are masters of building positive, cordial relationships with people. People we sometimes deeply disagree with. People over whom we have the power of the grade, people over whom we have no power.

Teachers are experts at creating positive, working relationships...with students (some of whom do not want to cooperate), with parents (some of whom are neglectful, disinterested, overwhelmed, defeated...some of whom are aggressive, interfering, meddling, pushy...some of whom are grateful, receptive, cooperative, helpful.), colleagues (some of whom...**see above), and administrators (some of whom are beaten down, fearful for their jobs, confused, overwhelmed, helpful, responsive, and just as confused as we often are). This is what we do. This is who we are.

Now, it's time to work to create that same cordial, working relationship with your State Representative and Senator.

To reach out. To introduce yourself. To share your issues, interests, goals.

Now, it's time to find the time to LISTEN to your lawmakers' concerns, issues, interests, goals. Find out what their legislative passions are...their expertise. Find ways to find the intersections between your passions and goals, and theirs.

But this is what we do every day, for a living. We use our skills to build community. We find ways to make misunderstandings and disagreements into opportunities for more talk, more listening. We find ways to ultimately put aside some of those disagreements for a time to find other common ground.

We use our skills to confront disagreements when that's important to confront with respect and assertiveness. We state our case with facts and, yes, stories. But we listen as well.

For some, the experience during the Walk Out was the first time we'd actively advocated. We found there was a lot we had to learn...but we're teachers! We are life-long learners. We learned to navigate the OK Legislature site...we learned about deadlines and how to get to the Gallery. We learned that the Sergeants at Arms are friendly but firm. We learned how to find legislator's offices. We learned about Legislative Assistants and their power. We learned where the bathrooms were. We learned where to park. We learned about the power of our votes.

We voted in the primary, and Platform Caucus members fell.

We voted in the run-offs, and Platform Caucus members fell.

We voted in the general election, and elected 57 new legislators.'s time to turn from campaigning to advocacy. To informing and learning. To sharing and listening. To informing...and learning and listening.

How to start?

Do you know the names of your State Rep and Senator? Do they know your name?

Have you ever met (outside the halls of the Capitol) face to face? Have you sat down in a coffee shop, or in their office in the district? Just to share and to learn?

Do you know their Legislative Assistant? Have you introduced yourself to these gatekeepers? Think, 'principal's secretary' and you see the power of these devoted public servants. They are loyal to their bosses, and they know and understand the issues as well as many of their bosses. If we're rude to their bosses, they remember. They take that personally.

Have you sent an email, congratulating your lawmakers on their election? Have you asked for a short meeting one weekend, or a Friday afternoon when they're not in session?

Have you called their office?

Have you sent a personal, snail-mail letter? 

If you haven't, could you find time between now and February when Session begins to make that first contact...low key, low-emotion. Just a friendly gesture.

Remind them you'll be paying attention during the'll be watching education bills. You'll be contacting them to advocate for or against certain legislation. Volunteer to be a contact for education policies and how they play out in the classroom...share your stories.

But do it now, before the Session revs up and there's little time for relationship-building. Think about the beginning of the year or semester...we invest time into creating the climate of our classroom, because we KNOW it will pay dividends in the future. We can count on those relationships when feelings are hurt, or misunderstandings arise. We've got that foundation of trust. This is what we do for a living.

All I'm suggesting to you now, is to turn your skills and talents and experience into the climate-building with your lawmakers.

Talk to them about what you care about...but listen. Listen to understand, not to refute or disagree, or to educate. Listen to start building the next conversation, and the next, and the next. Listen. Take notes.

Follow up.

And assure them you will be paying attention and you'll be in contact with them.

Aren't registered to vote? Shhh, don't tell me, and go to the OK Election Board and take care of that right now. Lawmakers have access to voters rolls...NOT HOW we vote, but if we're registered. will let them (and all of us) know IF we vote, NOT HOW we vote. Lawmakers check to see if constituents who contact them are registered voters, and if we're regular voters. That makes sense, and it hurts our credibility if we aren't registered, or if we don't vote. SO, take care of that! Right away!

Don't know your lawmakers? That's OK...for now. Shhh, don't tell me you don't know, and quick, check this site...type in your address and you'll find your Senator and Rep...right at the bottom of the page.

Click on their picture, and you'll go to their page. You'll find their office number, and a link to email. You'll see a link to their page...and on that page you'll find a biography and other information that will help you find those commonalities.

Call. Email.

Introduce yourself...ask for a quick meeting. Tell them your only agenda is to have the two of you get to know each other.

Then follow up with a quick note.

Check to see if they have a social media presence...FaceBook? Twitter? Follow them, like their pages. Some lawmakers are active on social media; some are not. But check.

Then, stay involved...Know you'll never agree on everything. But know your influence is more likely to matter if you've built that foundation first.

The work you've put in, to reaching out, to creating a relationship, to extending respect, to sharing your issues, will pay off.

Need an example? Here's a note my friend, Christie, is sending to her legislators...Quick, positive, sharing something she values highly.  Opening up the conversation...inviting participation.

We've got this.

We're teachers and we build relationships for a living.

Monday, September 24, 2018

What Schools Could Be – if politicians and reformers and profiteers didn’t get in the middle…schools could be student-driven, teacher-constructed.

What if colleges didn’t set high school curriculum and legislators didn’t set required classes? What if the experts were given free rein to reinvent schools?

This is the premise of Dintersmith’s book…all from the point-of-view of the outsider…someone who’s got more money and time than most of us, and the means to travel and learn. He traveled to every state in the nation, and visited exemplary schools. He saw innovations in action, and he watched…

He is enamored with tech and STEM, and occasionally STEAM. He loves him some cool whiz-bang stuff. I tried to find myself in some of his enthusiasm and I seldom did. He mentioned literacy once, and literature once, I think. One school in North Carolina organized itself into fields of study:
o   Biology, Health, Public Administration
o   Executive Leadership, Entrepreneurship
o   Technology, Advanced Manufacturing
o   Math, Engineering, Technology, Science
o   School of Arts and Technology.
I looked at his examples, and I could not find myself in this organization…And that made me sad.

I appreciated his disdain for tests and test scores…he reminded his readers that American schools teach that which is easy to test and to measure, not what’s important to learn. I was cheering him along in these sections of the book…He’s quick to point out that high school curriculum leads to admissions tests for colleges, not for any life-long passions for learning and doing, and we both mourn that. “College-ready content in our schools has grown like Kudzu, with AP courses leading the way.” He wonders why our K12 experience is only to get us ready for the tests to get into college…and he seriously questions the burdens many of us carry for our college experiences…he says 2.8 million adults aged 60 or older are still paying off their college loans. Does anyone need a college degree that badly? Truly?

So, it’s time for something new…something daring. Something counter-intuitive. Like trusting students with their own learning. Letting their passions lead learning. Trusting creativity. Finding internships and mentorships, apprenticeships, job-shadowing. Finding passion in learning, not just filling in the blanks.

As someone outside of education, he can be outrageous…he asks WHY we need calculus? Especially when our cell phones have the technology to solve calculus problems faster than we can.

As someone outside of education, he can rake leaders over the coals: Kansas’s Brownback, Wisconsin’s Scott Walker. Michelle Rhee…he is not impressed with drill-and-test, or cut your way to prosperity schemes. Not a fan of AP courses or tests. He wants real investments in education…but man, does he love him some fancy technology.

In his visit to OK, he visits what he calls, Creative Oklahoma,…a friend pointed out that’s the A+ Schools model that incorporates the arts into all disciplines…

The book is worth the price if you care about education and really DO want to help students learn to be passionate, confident adults. The examples of innovations from around the country should inspire some deep conversations about what schools could be…should be…can be. Are, in enlightened pockets.

My favorite quote came from his visit to a school in Hawaii, where the leaders constantly ask themselves, their faculty, and their students: “What does quality look like in your discipline?” What if that was the mission of every district, every school, every department in our country? What if that drove our work in the classroom? Our students’ work? What does quality look like?

BUT, I did not see myself in many of his cool schools with all their technology. It makes me sad to think that schools NOW are not reaching the needs and interests of our students, and I’m equally sad imagining a future where schools ignore other groups of students…

I bought copies of this book for my two state legislators. They’re more expensive than the legal limit to be considered as gifts. So, like works of art in local museums, they will be on permanent loan. Truly, policy makers could learn as much in this book as educators.

“Systems are hard to change. The model is entrenched.”
TFA “ recruit[s] people who excelled in conventional school and want the same for their students…unquestioned commitment to academic hoop-jumping.”
“If state legislators think test scores are so important, they should release their own.”
“Test scores tell us little, charter schools are a mixed bag, and college is a crap shoot. Doing obsolete things better will hardly carry us over the water.”
“Our education system locks in cycles of privilege and poverty/”
“Education should prepare children for life, but we have it backward. We prepare children’s lives for school.”
“NCLB took away teachers’ confidence.”

Saturday, September 15, 2018

"THEY WILL TELL US" Another Interim. More Questions

Thursday’s Interim Study was collecting information about the virtual charters in our state. This growth is interesting  development in #oklaed. We have a combination of charters sponsored by K12 virtual charters, sponsored by the state virtual charter board, and even at least one university in the state. All are ultimately run by a for-profit organization. 

I still remember the first time I was made aware of virtual schools, computer-driven…soon after her election to State Superintendent of Public (oh, how she hated that!) Schools, Janet Barresi visited a K12 school…she came back to Oklahoma and waxed poetic about how efficient they were – with their teacher student ratio of 1:300 (OK, maybe I’m exaggerating…slightly).

Now, OK has four Virtual Charters:

So, it appears that for-profit charter schools are alive and well in #oklaed…all our virtual charters are being run for profit. What could possibly go wrong?
While these schools are classified as public schools, like other charters in our state, they are driven for profit, for the bucks, and their growth shows there is a lucrative market in our state.  They are partially funded by state school money…receiving the state aid, but not the local money…and they are hungry for more. I’ll explain below.

Emily Wendler, reporter for KOSU, the local NPR station, has written two pieces about charters…good and not so good. I recommend them both.

My reporting here may have holes, because the speakers moved so fast through slides with lots of charts and graphs…just as I had my phone up to snap a shot, we were off to the next slide. Senators at the study got spiral-bound books with all the information. Old grannies in the audience were trying to listen and take notes, and sometimes that didn’t work.

There is a state virtual schools board, with members appointed by the Governor, Senate Pro Tem, and Speaker of the House…the purpose of the Board is to bring accountability to this industry. And make no mistake, it is an industry. I believe each school also has a local board, appointed in some way.
The Interim, called by Chair Stanislawski, was to look at performance data. And we got into the weeds almost immediately.

EPIC Charter, our largest virtual charter in the state, has information about why families leave the public school setting for virtuals…some reflect negatively on schools: bullying, overcrowding, limited resources, and ‘problems’ with schools. Safety is an issue. There are also positive reasons for the transfer: more parental involvement, the ability to accelerate instruction, or receive intensive remediation, and individual needs that were not addressed in the public schools.
Parents identified benefits: safety, engagement, quality of the academics. And they identified challenges: social interaction, academic struggles, lifestyle adjustments.

My heart will always be with public schools, so I look at that list through the lens of the recent strangulation of schools…resources…overcrowded classes…teacher shortage…individual attention that every child deserves. My question from the start was, “How much of this need for an ‘alternative setting’ have we manufactured by starving our schools, and what would happen if we were fully funded?”

Virtual charters in OK are public schools—run by for-profit corporations. But like other charters, they receive only a portion of the state allotment. They do not receive local funding, or ad valorem funds, and they are not able to bond, or piggy-back on public school bond elections.  Because of the high mobility of student enrollment, virtual charters typically get large ‘mid-term adjustments’ in state funding. Virtual charters also have no brick-and-mortar upkeep, transportation costs, or child nutrition costs.

Virtuals have a double management organization…a local board (not elected as public districts have), and a for-profit management organization. It was not said in the meeting, but I have heard others say the board’s work is transparent and subject to all the same accountability as public schools. The management organization is not as transparent, and it may be difficult to identify accountability issues.

Students at virtuals are tested, just like all other charters and public schools. They must bring students to regional centers to test with the same safeguards as other schools. And scores are reported to the state.

But here’s where it got sticky, and the meeting got testy.  All (or nearly all) students in a school must be tested by state law. But for evaluation purposes, only certain student scores are counted in this evaluation…students who are identified as Full Academic Year…enrolled within the first 20 days of the school year, and not absent for 10 consecutive days up to the testing window.

EPIC folks were sharing their test data, showing that for most grades their students outperform public students…Two Senators, Smalley and Pemberton, asked pointed questions about the number of FAY students at public and virtual. A spokesperson from EPIC said he didn’t have the exact number, but it was close to the public school rate.

OSDE folks in the back were able to access the information, and it told a drastically different story. In public schools, 93% of students are considered FAY, and their scores are combined for reporting purposes. Virtual charters? The number was nowhere near that…so the spokesperson was woefully misinformed. 31% of virtual charter students are considered FAY, and their scores ‘count’ in the total. I understand that the 31% of virtual students whose scores ‘count’ are not necessarily the highest-scoring, best students…but, a comparison of 93% of one population and 31% of another cannot be accepted as a fair measure.

The Senators present, all members of the Senate Education Committee, seemed ready with their questions.

We moved on to graduation rates…also a source of great differences. EPIC Charter’s graduation rate is computed at 36%. Again, that number does not tell the whole story because of the way that number is computed. To be counted in this number, a student must be a member of a four-year cohort…beginning high school with his peers, and graduating on time four years later. This number leaves little room for family catastrophes, health issues, developmental differences, discipline. The state must count the students who entered high school and graduated four years later.

This number would be lower for a population as mobile as virtual charters. And I wanted to ask how many students entered a virtual as a freshman, but went back to a brick-and-mortar sometime during those four years. Or transferred TO a virtual, or took a year off, or, or. Or.

We understand the variables are too many to count. But that is the bar we are all judged by. Speakers spun the data in so many different directions, I , frankly, lost the thread. And Senator Stanislawski was quick to jump in and tell the group that graduations numbers are meaningless to virtual charters. Throwing shade much?

Attendance for charters has always been a big question. In public high schools, students must attend all classes all day. They’re counted absent or present for every class. If they miss 10 consecutive days in any class, they automatically lose credit in that class, and if it’s a core course, they’ll have to take the semester over.

For charters, the requirements are different…I think it used to be a requirement that students ‘log on’ each day to be counted as present. One log-in any time during the day. Speakers shared that now students must complete 40 instructional activities in a nine-weeks to be considered ‘present’.  In Norman Schools, high school students would take 6 classes, and teachers were required to log two grades each week. 18 as a minimum for the quarter. Times 6 classes…

Another way virtual charter students can be considered present is to complete instructional activities (I assume that means at least one activity) for 90% of the school days.

There was an exchange between the CEO of EPIC and Senators over funding. No charter in #oklaed receives local money. I can see with virtuals it would be hard to apportion local property taxes to schools that serve students from all over the state. Didn’t stop them from pushing again.  Dr. Chaney is not happy that virtual charters do not receive the same amount of funding as brick-and-mortar public schools…his voice shook as he talked about ‘return on investment,’ with a chart and an emotional line: “Are virtual students worth less?” Since we have no view of his for-profit management, we must ask him, and no one did, “How much are you paying yourself, where is the accountability for public funds the state HAS given you to educate these students? Are funds being invested in students or in your for-profit management?”

This is when Chairman Stanislawski said “They (public schools) will tell us (virtual charters)…” I was highly troubled by his aligning himself with virtuals, against public schools…the public schools he’s responsible for overseeing and shepherding…crafting and advancing legislation to protect and strengthen. I know he’s deeply involved in the virtual charter world, but he seemed, in that one line, to make his loyalty clear.

At that point, I might have written a bad word in my notes….not sure.

Interims are previews of possible legislation…so, I’m predicting we’ll be seeing bills to change the funding formula for virtuals…and even loosen regulations. Last Session there was a bill to allow charters to share in public school bonding capacity, and I expect we’ll see that again. And judging from the informed questions from other Senators, I wouldn’t be surprised to see legislation requiring more accountability and transparency.

I have friends who work for virtual charters…they pay infinitely better, and offer bonuses. I do not blame them for choosing to make a living in the profession they love. I have friends who are using the flexibility of virtual charter to educate their children. I do not begrudge them that choice for their children.  For some students this is the best setting for them.  And there is funding available for families to help with extra-curricular activities. One cheer team advertised that they are now a vendor and accept those funds.

But there are issues with virtuals that must be addressed: lack of transparency, recruiting bonuses, mobility, attendance, graduation…

In a perfect world brick-and-mortar public schools would be fully funded, with an accomplished teacher certified in the subject in every classroom, with all the resources and texts and technology needed to educate our children.  There would be public school options – blended learning, emphasis on arts, music, humanities, STEM and STEAM. Flexible hours for students. When those conditions are not met, and other alternatives are offered, it’s no wonder we’ve set up this conflict. In a perfect world, face-to-face classes, virtual classes, would be available to all our students…and we’d make all our decisions based on what’s best for this child now?

We are not there yet.

And, Senator S, you tried to ‘razzle-dazzle’ us. Didn’t work.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Studying Bullying

Legislative Interim Studies are so very interesting to attend…the atmosphere is laid-back, everyone’s a bit more casual; and, in advocacy, you can sit and watch and listen. Then you can predict what possible legislation might come from the Studies…what the big ideas will be.

Today I attended my state Senator, Rob Standridge’s Interim Study on Bullying in the Classroom.  Speakers came from across the state, and represented private organizations, universities, virtual charters, private schools. Students spoke as their own best advocates. Steve Hahn, of the Parent Child Center in Tulsa began the presentations with specific questions and recommendations. He had worked with the legislature in the past on anti-bullying legislation, and curates the website

A representative of A New Leaf in Broken Arrow brought three clients, adults with disabilities, who told their stories of overcoming childhood bullying. Their sponsor spoke about the need for inclusion in schools, including in the lunchrooms. He also spoke about crowded classrooms making it harder for teachers to be aware of covert bullying. One client told the story of how Special Olympics gave her the confidence to become her own advocate. I’ve worked with high school students as we volunteered at Special Olympics Oklahoma, so I know first-hand how barriers and stereotypes can be smashed when disabled and non-disabled students work together.

 Trinity private school in OKC was represented. Trinity works specifically with students with disabilities, and typically these students have suffered some kind of bullying. As I browsed the site, I found their tuitions and fees, but no mention of vouchers that could be used. I’m certain the Lindsay Nicole Henry Scholarships are offered to families to offset the costs. The speaker extolled their social skills curriculum, Love and Logic, which is part of every class.

The superintendent from EPIC Charter School, students, parents and educators spoke eloquently about what drives some students out of the public schools into online charters. The stories were heartbreaking, and hard to hear. I don’t want to make excuses for us in the public schools…I want us to be more proactive about recognizing and stopping bullying of all kinds.

Trish Hughes, a professor from OSU shared her research as well. She was asked for her top recommendation for schools working to prevent bullying. She enthusiastically suggested character education for all students. She specifically spoke of Great Expectations, and told the story of visiting a Great Ex school and witnessing the positive, accepting climate. She made the point that an entire school needed to buy into the program for it to be successful. I have not gone through this training, but I work with National Board Certified Teachers, and candidates. They often tell me this training is the most profound work they’ve participated in, for making an immediate difference in the climate of their classrooms.

Parents and students told harrowing stories of systematic bullying in schools, and inadequate responses, or disrespectful responses, or NO responses from public school teachers and administrators. One high school student created a presentation as part of a 4-H project. Students and parents were clear…they did not feel supported by the public schools. That made me so ashamed. 40 years I worked. 40 years I tried. But these students and parents were not supported the way they deserved.

I’ve written about bullying and how I always felt recognizing and responding to bullying was my greatest failing in the classroom. I hosted an #oklaed chat, and compiled the resources we talked about.  I craved more information and read every book I could get my hands on. But…I never felt I protected my most vulnerable students the way I should have. To think they could have been talking about me, and that my response was not supportive breaks my heart.

So, I approach every discussion about bullying from that hollow space of, “did I do enough? Did I fail to notice? Did I communicate my expectations? Were kids bullied in my classroom under my nose?”

Listening to the parents and students share their stories of school responses reminded me there are some phrases that MUST MUST MUST be removed from teachers’ lexicon. When a student reports bullying, I want my teacher friends to never say:
  • ·         Just ignore them
  • ·         Tell them to stop
  • ·         Just walk away
  • ·         Play somewhere else
  • ·         Play with someone else
  • ·         We can’t do anything
  • ·         It’s his/her word against yours
  • ·         No one else witnessed it, so we can’t do anything
  • ·         Boys will be boys

Any time professional educators use phrases like this, they abdicate their professionalism, their authority. They reinforce the bully’s power and the bullied student’s helplessness. Can we just stop? Yesterday?

That brings me to a disturbing stat from this morning…when asked, 90% of school personnel said they responded to students’ reports of bullying. But, when students were asked, only 5% FIVE PERCENT, said their teachers were responsive. Is it because some teachers think they’ve done their job with, “Well, just walk away”?

Steve Hahn, from Family Child Center, showed a moving video of a dad who lost his 11-year old son to depression over being bullied beyond endurance. In response to his story, high school students created Stand for the Silent, an online community whose mission is to bring awareness to bullying and the devastation of families it causes. Perhaps it’s time to let the young people lead. I would hope schools would tap into this resource.

The Senators who attended heard from experts…both professionals who’ve studied, and families who have suffered. I’m going to report what I heard, and how I sifted through my own lens of classroom teacher and brought my own terminology to what I heard.

I heard the speakers recommend more inclusion of students who are different…disabled, on the autism spectrum, kids who learn differently. Inclusion, especially at the secondary level, could be a great project for a service club or student council. One speaker admitted this kind of project would need teacher supervision and sponsorship; but teachers are already under such stress and pressure during the school day, it would be one more responsibility. Maybe using the resources from Stand for the Silent would be useful.

One speaker talked about class sizes, and how larger classes in reality means less individual attention, and more bullying…A student said teachers needed to know her…but in large classes, it’s so much harder.

A teacher said that bullying does not start in the schools…it starts at home and is brought into the schools. EPIC has an emotional video sharing the hurtful things students were called by other students, and it’s clear that some of those words and attitudes were modeled by the adults in their lives and brought into the schools. True, but it affects the lives of our students in our classes, in our schools.

Speakers mentioned cyberbullying, but no concrete suggestions were given. I think this is a new area where schools, communities, parents, and maybe law enforcement could work in partnership…It’s the way much of the evilness is spread nowadays ,but I know it’s so hard to get a grip on solutions. We must…but how? Speakers had no ideas.

So, speakers did mention some steps schools and teachers could take: social inclusion of students, lowered class sizes, building trust so students feel safe reporting, social skills curriculum, even having a working definition of bullying…one we systematically teach to students and families.
What they did not mention, but I extrapolated from their reports: teacher shortage combined with larger class sizes are giving bullies the advantage. I wonder if the high number of alternative-and-emergency certified teachers without formal teacher-preparation training is making the issue worse. Building relationships is still the most important work in the classroom…it can break down the climate of fear, giving bullied students the strength to come to their teacher; it can tell everyone bullying does not happen in this classroom.

I think the issue of ACEs Adverse Childhood Experiences – was alluded to, but not by name. One mother told of her son being diagnosed with PTSD after years of being bullied at school. ACEs affect all our students, but I’m betting the bullies and the bullied experience more. I’m grateful that our state is acknowledging and addressing this issue with educators with trainings planned this fall on Trauma-Informed Instruction.

Would a community school, with wrap-around services, help students and families find new ways to interact? I think it’s worth a look. Edgemere Elementary School in OKC would be the perfect place to start. Such schools could have social services, extra counselors, family counselors, parent education classes, health care facilities, all as part of the physical school. When someone makes the mistake of asking me what school reform I would support, they get an earful about community, wrap-around schools.

School districts are hiring more counselors whose job description includes being student advocates, crisis managers. These counselors could work with teachers, students, and parents, to address all the issues that come along with bullying. Norman and Noble have done just this in response to the need for more student support.

All this takes money. All this takes commitment. All this takes the courage to stop doing what we’ve always done, and do something more.

I was heartened by my Senator saying that even though students and parents and administrators from EPIC Charter were allotted a large chunk of time, he was not saying he sees online charters as the only answer to bullying.

But, Chairman Stanislawski responded at the end in an emotional speech, talking about his own daughter’s struggles with bullies in public schools, and his family’s decision to enroll her in a private school, at personal expense for the family. He ended with his hope that all parents would have the ‘right to choose where to send their students with state support.’ He just upped the ante on the conversation to include more vouchers…for any parent. Not one of the speakers had suggested vouchers as a solution.

I left the Study with a strange mix of feelings…rage, and yes, guilt, that students were abused right under the noses of educators who should be protecting them. Pride, as young people bravely stood up and told their stories…and gave us ‘the rest of the story,’ overcoming adversity. Hope at some ideas that could help us become proactive. And, frankly, defeated, that it appeared the Chair’s idea is to take funding public schools desperately need and divert it to more choice, instead of addressing the needs of public schools.

I fear more voucher bills are in our future. But how does that help the vast majority of students in our public schools, many of whom are afraid to go to school? These students are OURS, ours to educate and protect. We need support and tools and resources, and that all costs money. Will new vouchers strip even more money from public schools in their efforts to address bullying?

Maybe the answer is to trust the then stand for the silent