Sunday, November 23, 2014

Dan Vincent Asks: "Who Benefits?"

I have watched with awed pride as Nikki Jones and Karen Hendren stood up to power and refused to administer a required survey to their little ones. I have watched as the pressure on them, and the pressure on their Superintendent ratcheted up to an almost unbearable level. Now I fear for Nikki and Karen...I don't want them to become martyrs to a cause. Yes, Joan of Arc is remembered, but who knows what more she could have accomplished in her life if she had survived. I want Nikki and Karen to continue working with little ones in the classroom, impacting their lives and their learning. 

I have not met Nikki in person, but we consulted back and forth last year as I encouraged my daughter to opt her girls out of the field testing at the middle school level. Nikki was knowledgeable and supportive. I am eager to meet these two women and hug them...let them know how proud I am of them.

Dan Vincent and I wonder if there are bridges to be built...The latest article gives me some hope...
I met Dan during last year's fight for HB2625. He made an equally courageous stand, opting his child out of third-grade testing. He also faced the scrutiny of the press and policy makers. He knows about building those bridges to benefit children. I absolutely believe his reflective piece here is informed by his own experience. Here is his reflection.

For those who may not know me or my story, let me provide a brief context for this post. I began teaching in Jenks Public Schools back in the 1990s, during which time I was able to obtain both a Master’s degree in Education and a Doctorate in Education from the University of Oklahoma (one of my classes was actually taught by Dr. Keith Ballard). In 2006, I moved to the University of Central Oklahoma to become a professor of education and have been at UCO since then.

Last school year, my son was in 3rd grade and was under the requirements of the Reading Sufficiency Act. I worked hard, both in my local district and at the state level, to try to shield my son from the damage being caused by testing (especially the RSA). I have read extensively on many of the reform policies and have the unique opportunity of viewing them both as a professional and as a parent. I have seen the impacts firsthand; I have heard countless stories from teachers and from my UCO students.

I feel I understand what is happening in schools across our state. I have been vocal in my opposition to many of the reforms, even to the point of refusing to allow my son to take the state/federally mandated tests (there is another story here completely, but suffice it to say, I had to compromise a little on this, as did my district, but in the end, I feel the district and I came to a mutually agreed upon solution).

This is why I approached Claudia to ask for an audience for my letter. And I am grateful that she accepted….

As a parent with 2 kids in elementary school, and as an educational professional, I have watched with great interest the events of the last week in Tulsa Public Schools. Although I am not currently living in the Tulsa area, I have admired the way in which educators from this area have been vocal in their views on the education reforms being thrust upon our profession and on our kids. They have led the way in pushing back against policies that are obviously not in line with professional knowledge and research.

When I first read the letter from Nikki Jones and Karen Hendren, I was honestly more than a little excited. Many, including myself, have felt the over-emphasis on testing has done damage to classrooms and to learning; I felt the passion of these teachers as I read their letter. I think most teachers, administrators and parents could understand their view. I personally wish more teachers, administrators and parents would resist the testing culture that has infiltrated our classrooms. It was not until I read Superintendent Ballard’s letter to district teachers that I began to rethink my original excitement.

I initially wanted to take sides on the issue and vilify one while glorifying the other. After some reflection, however, I now am seeing this issue from an entirely different perspective; it can be summed up by the phrase “Cui bono?”….To whose benefit? If I glorify one while demonizing the other, who will benefit? And to be clear, I don’t think either party will benefit if one wins and the other loses. In fact, if this issue comes to a point in which one party can be declared a victor, neither will have benefited in the long run. The “Reformers” will have won. I don’t know if Dr. Ballard, Ms. Jones or Ms. Hendren will read this post, but I hope those who do read it will rethink this entire situation and not take sides as I was tempted to do. Let me try to explain.

Over the past few years, Dr. Ballard and many teachers across the state (including some from TPS) have voiced strong concerns over the way in which state policies have negatively impacted classrooms. Specifically, Dr. Ballard has been a steady voice of educated dissent over the A-F grading system and the Reading Sufficiency Act, among other policies. Through all his frustration, he followed the law; he played the game, albeit in a vocal way. He stood up to those in power and empowered many of us to do the same. His voice, along with those across the state, was loud and clear and consistent. He was part a powerful chorus that was tough to be ignored. He was part of a powerful chorus that informed parents and enabled them to act. I am one of those parents who felt I was not alone in my frustration.

But now, as the tables have seemingly been turned, I am left to wonder whose side to take. I, like the teachers, am beyond frustrated with the testing climate of schools and want to resist. I, like most administrators, feel a desire to follow the laws of our state and keep the trust of constituents. So this issue has pit two of our strongest student advocates against each other—passionate, talented teachers versus a strong, respected leader. Who benefits if one loses while the other wins?

Nikki Jones has also been a vocal and educated voice on the impact of testing on kids. As a decorated and respected teacher, she has informed many on how reform policies play out in classrooms across our state, specifically those tied to high-stakes testing in early childhood settings. Personally, I have found Nikki to be a wonderful resource on how to advocate for my own kids. She clearly has a passion for helping children grow and learn; she clearly knows the field of early childhood education.

Although I admire her for her stand against the tests, I am left to wonder what parents across the state are to think? Why would two respected educators from the same district be caught in this dilemma? As a parent, which educators should I believe? How could we go from a unified, clear voice to now a biting, reactionary assault on each other? If we are to push back against reforms, we need clearer heads. We need a united voice for kids.

In short, I don’t think this issue is one in which we should take sides. I realize some will resist this notion and support one over the other. I have the same temptation but have come to see the damage that could be done by taking sides. We shouldn’t pit teacher versus administrator if we want to see meaningful change in educational policy in our state.

This controversy is not about teachers against administrators, Ballard versus 1st grade teachers; it a controversy that is a by-product of failed education policy—policies that we have railed against the last few years that now can be seen as the root behind this problem. It is the policies we need to fight, not each other.

Our frustration should be directed to the failed state and federal policies, not on professionals who have been leading the charge to make our laws right for kids. We need all three of these talented educators working for our kids. We shouldn’t fill social media with venom for educators who are probably more alike than what would seem from this current controversy. Personally, I can see both sides and would advocate strongly that those of us in the education community—both parents and educators—encourage Dr. Ballard, Ms. Jones and Ms. Hendren to find common ground. Maybe we even demand it.

Surely, we can all see the good that would come from a united front against the testing mania of our schools. The passion each has for kids is clear; I pray each will humbly offer an olive branch and start a genuine discussion on how best to help kids; this will likely mean giving some ground on the initial stance taken.

In the end, we all want the best for kids in our care; we all want classrooms to be places where all kids are nurtured and loved.

By working to resolve this issue, it will send a clear message to all— To whose benefit? The kids.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Teacher Hero -- Nikki Jones

Nikki Jones is a first grade teacher in Tulsa Public Schools. 

She recently won the National Association of Early Childhood Teacher Educator’s “Outstanding Practitioner” award. She’s also very involved in the national Opt-Out movement. As such, she and her colleague wrote an eloquent letter to their parents, talking about all the testing that even first graders are mandated to complete…before she wrote her letter, she wrote this:

“Teachers, turn your voice into actions. Don't just complain. It's past time for everyone to start taking back their profession.

I care about the children and parents that I serve. They deserve the right to know the types of questions being asked. They deserve the right to participate or refuse to participate in this biased, data-mining, invasive exercise.

As for evaluating me, I trust my administrators to do their job adequately. They frequently visit my classroom. They attend meetings specific to my grade level and classroom. They review my lesson plans. They meet with me on specific kids. They have even came in and taught little mini-lessons. My administrators know that I am an effective teacher.

I will not participate in this financially wasteful, classroom community killing, time wasting exercise. Excuse me while my classroom is busy learning.”

The letter went viral, and was picked up by Valerie Strauss. With context, here is the letter.

Now, every teacher in the Tulsa Schools has received this email. I fear for my friend Nikki. This attack hurts my heart. Nikki is using her professional judgment, her skills and talents and training, to make the best decisions she can, for her students – not her administrators, or the testing companies, or the reformers. For. Her. Students.

Please keep Nikki in your thoughts. I’m also sharing her response to her administration’s letter to all personnel:

”Today was a learning curve for me. I learned that in a time of need, you learn who your true friends are. I learned that when someone has no evidence, they turn to personal attacks, threats, and plagiarism. I learned that in advocating and taking a stance, you must stay true to yourself... no matter what.

Here is what's REAL: Character matters. Stand up for those who can't stand for themselves. Don't let immature tactics overpower the true message. David defeated Goliath. Good will prevail. If you are someone that cannot risk your job to stand up for children, then you don't deserve to work with children. Shame. On. You.

The system is not ok. Over-testing children is not ok. Standardized, computer based testing in early childhood years is NEVER developmentally appropriate.

Show me the research! Administration is COMPLETELY disconnected from the classroom and trapped in the echo-chamber of admin land. When your admin cannot dig down and pull the research, the REAL research, on testing in early childhood and take a stance... well, they don't deserve to make to decisions on the students in their building. They are a disgrace to our future. When they stay silent to keep their job and earn their pay, they are a disgrace to our future.

I was told to be quiet. I was told to wait this out and focus on the children. I seem to be one of the few that is focused on the CHILDREN. It is a sad day in education when we focus on saving face over saving children. Shame. On. You. Get some guts and do the work. When research is handed to you to promote, it is most likely biased.

We are paid in peanuts. You can work at QT for more money. If you are more concerned about our finances, then get AWAY from children. Shame. On. You.

Today... I learned, even more that I thought, that the system is warped. Education is about money and politics at the sake of our children... our future. I refuse to jolly in that nonsense. If you want to work in education, then stand up!

We joined education in the quest to inspire students to pursue knowledge. If you are being spoon fed by higher ups with padded pockets, then you forfeit your rights to have a say. You are the downfall of the system. Shame. On. You. I am angry. I am not going to pretend to be happy and innocent and ignorant in order to keep my job.

As stated in an email sent out to my entire district tonight by my main boss, I am "young". I am only in my third year of certified teaching with the district. So, what?! That says to me that I have not been beaten down by the broken system. I'm not a horse that needs to be broken. I am an educated person that strives to meet the needs of children.

I am thankful for the supporters and utterly disgusted by the silenced. This is about CHILDREN. So... sorry to the union, to the attorneys, to everyone trying to protect me (truly, I appreciate you and value your LOVE for children)... I cannot go to bed tonight thinking I did the right thing in being quiet. I am burdened by my "friends" and "leaders" that have chosen to take the stance of silence. I find myself in tears for hours...literally hours over them. My heart truly aches for them. However, I cannot join them because I want to protect my job.

 At the end of the day, I want to protect children. My hope and prayer is that they will rise up and be David. Until then, please advocate for these kids. They do NOT need any more tests.

Do the research. Ask the questions. Find out where the data is going. And, by all means, do NOT trust the administrators. They aren't prepared to tackle the giant. They have NOT done the research. They are plagiarizing Gates and his foundation. They are not intelligent enough to come up with their own wording. Do NOT trust the GIANT. Do your own research.

Shame on you, administration. You had the floor to do the right thing. You need to stand FOR children, not for the district.”

Update: the story has been picked up by Diane Ravitch, also. Very supportive comments! 

So, do we join the silenced or join Nikki? 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Hold Me Accountable--Please. Then Help Me Grow

Hold me accountable, please. Then help me grow.

Several recent news articles and blogs have stirred the pot again about teacher evaluations, particularly using Value Added Measures and student/parent surveys. #oklaed bloggers Rob Miller and Jason James have taken on these issues with style. Both of these initiatives are straight from Bill Gates’ MET teacher evaluation scheme. And MET is straight from his former practice at Microsoft of stacking employee evaluations in order to fire the bottom rung. Way to grow your workplace. Even Gates has stepped away from stacking, but we are in the middle of the mess right now.

That got me thinking…WHY do we evaluate? To help people improve, or to fire them? WHAT do we evaluate? Why do we choose those items? What does it show about our values?

Our NCLB waiver from the feds requires we use a teacher evaluation that includes test scores, VAM. States were required to sell their teachers out to get the funds from Race to the Top.  So, we have TLE, a cumbersome, awkward mess that will evaluate all teachers. Will TLE help teachers improve?  We’ll see.

Teachers are being criticized for not bringing ideas and solutions to the table. Kinda hard to do, when the only time you get close to the table is if you’re on the menu.  I asked and offered for close to four years to be a part of the conversation about schools in this state.  Wasn’t even offered to be the entrĂ©e. Just ignored.

I DO have some ideas about what a fair evaluation could look like…one that could lead to teacher improvement and learning, and one that evaluates that which a teacher directly controls. thirty-nine years of teaching gave me with lots of time to think about teacher evaluation.

In this world, I control my decisions, my words, and my actions. Nothing more. What I think, what I say and what I do. So, any fair evaluation system must evaluate me on MY words and MY actions. Not the words and actions of others.

So, hold me accountable for what I do outside my classroom that affects my job.

Hold me accountable for being in my classroom on time, and staying until contract time is over. Brownie points for being early and staying late would be appreciated, but I am not holding my breath.

Hold me accountable for good attendance, for doing my best to be there every day. I’m not suggesting we come to school sick and contagious, or abandon our little ones at home who need our nursing. I’m saying, “be there.” Be someone students and parents can count on to be teaching.

Hold me accountable for reporting to my duty station on time and doing my duty; for attending meetings – department, faculty, IEP, committee—on time and participating in a positive manner.  Hold me accountable for being a supportive team or department member.

Hold me accountable for serving on district-level committees, representing my school.

Hold me accountable for attending all school-required professional development, and for seeking out PD opportunities that will make me a better teacher. Hold me accountable for being a self-actualized learner.

Hold me responsible for representing my school with dignity in the community, and for maintaining a professional digital footprint online. 

Hold me responsible for inviting parents into meaningful conversations about their children, for building partnerships that focus on student success.


My work inside the classroom is why I was hired. Hold me accountable for my words and actions and decisions that directly impact students in my class.

Hold me accountable for planning meaningful lessons incorporating research-based ideas.  Hold me accountable for knowing my subject, for being prepared every day.

Hold me accountable for knowing my students and their needs, for knowing how to reach each student during my lessons. Hold me accountable for a working knowledge of learning theory and the developmental realities of my students.

Hold me accountable for teaching…for engaging my students, for monitoring my lesson and adjusting according to evidence of student understanding. Hold me accountable for making those hundred or so decisions an hour that most of us make, seamlessly, while keeping the attention of restless young people.

Hold me accountable for using appropriate technology in my lessons.  Hold me accountable for lesson design that optimizes teaching and learning.

Hold me accountable for teaching bell-to-bell.

Hold me accountable for differentiating my lessons so all my students can be successful, for responding in a supportive way, to each and every one of my students, every day.

Hold me accountable for my feedback to students and parents, for grading student work quickly and accurately, giving feedback that stretches students’ thinking, even after the assignment is over.

Hold me accountable for recording grades in a timely manner, and having an up-to-date grade book that reflects students’ achievement.

Hold me accountable for teaching and learning during a unit. Using a teacher-created pre-and post-test, hold me accountable for what I taught and what students learned. Hold me accountable for using the results of my assessment to guide my reteaching and enrichment. To guide my future teaching.

Hold me accountable, please, but only for those things I control: my words, my actions, my decisions.

Many of these point could be compiled in a quick-ish checklist that an observer could use. Not all of them would be observed in the classroom, but could be part of an ongoing informal observation during the year. When I would be given the observation, I would provide documentation and clarification of points not noticed directly. I could give evidence of un-observed points. After the evaluation, I could add my findings and elaborate.

After all this, and here is the crucial part of accountability, this evaluation system could help me grow!

Help me identify the areas of weakness. Help me see them clearly, and help me improve. Is that not the ultimate reason to evaluate? VAM scores don’t tell me how to be a better teacher, student and parent surveys may be so skewed that they are of no use. HOW do I get better in this profession I’ve dedicated myself? What steps can I make to be a more responsive, aware educator in my classroom and out?

So I come back to my questions…why do we evaluate teachers, and what do we evaluate?  For me to feel confident about an evaluation, I must have answers. If I am expected to grow and learn from an evaluation, it must be based on those things I can change: my decisions, my words, my actions.

I have ideas. We all do. My list is just the beginning. What else should we add?

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Wish List for Superintendent Hofmeister

This piece is an expanded version of an essay I wrote for OKLAHOMA OBSERVER, the state-wide publication that keeps me sane. Progressive ideas share with fierceness and pride. 

The state of Oklahoma will have a new State Superintendent of Public Instruction in January.  Joy Hofmeister has a just a couple of months to take a big deep breath, look around, decide what needs to be done first and reach out to create new alliances. This campaign has been a long and passionate one.  Talented folks who supported both candidates have so much to offer as we rebuild OSDE; it is my fervent wish that when we offer that help, it will be accepted.

Now the hard work begins. Our children need us to quickly put aside our differences and find common ground. To collaborate. For four years we have been frozen out of the education policies in this state, and it must change. Legislative leadership, executive leadership, OSDE leadership…all have the opportunity to learn from parents and students and educators and to create a new culture of cooperation.

Everyone has his wish lists of priorities. Here’s mine.

I hope Superintendent Hofmeister begins by replacing the portraits of our Oklahoma Educator Hall of Fame members in the hallway leading to the Board Room. They were summarily removed and replaced in less public spots around the building just a month ago. This symbolic gesture will honor our giants, and let them watch over us as we do this business.

Funding our schools is the top priority. We lead the nation in cutting money to schools: 23.6%, up from 22.8%. The Legislature invests $17 per day for each student in public schools. They will try to take credit for federal and local funding, but that is disingenuous at best, and manipulative at worst.The hemorrhaging must be staunched . We have cut education funding more than any other state in the nation; schools are suffering.  It must stop. Our new Superintendent must demand full funding of the OSDE.

Lack of funding affects classroom size, and our ability to recruit and retain good teachers. Quick fixes must be avoided. Our kids deserve career teachers in the classroom, not substitutes and not temporary teachers. Teachers deserve a substantial raise, not the gimmicky carrots offered by cynical legislators who blame high adminstrative costs for our troubles.I hope Superintendent Hofmeister will reach out to the educators of our state and listen to our stories. We have much to offer and we have been ignored. Morale is low, but professionals are hopeful.

High stakes testing is an issue. I attended several Legislative interim studies with this common theme: EOIs mean nothing to colleges, inappropriate testing of special education students, Oklahoma’s testing mandates exceed federal mandates.  Changes must be made. Our new Superintendent must invite parents and professionals to be part of this discussion.

The Third Grade testing still looms: the provisions of HB2625, which gives teams of educators and parents the right to recommend placement to students will expire with this year’s third graders. Next year’s third grade students will again be summarily retained if they fail the deeply-flawed reading-English Language Arts test.

 Revising or tossing (my choice) the A-F grades for schools and districts must be high on the agenda.  We have been told time and again these grades are useless to schools and parents. Ideology trumped good practice from the start.

The elephant in the room whenever we talk about high-stakes testing and school grades is poverty. Standardized tests carefully measure the economic status of students’ families, and carefully predict performance on the next test. I hope our new Superintendent will find ways to introduce systemic efforts to support families with adequate wages, health care, and community support. Looking at the community schools, like Edgemere Elementary in OKC, could give us a model.

We are waiting for news of our new waiver application. That will certainly affect policy.

We can expect new bills supporting voucher expansion and charter school expansion. Superintendent Hofmeister must protect the limited resources for our public schools and oppose all of these efforts.

Retired teachers' pensions will be under attack from corporate raiders. She must be our champion.

We are concerned about outside influences in our education policy. ALEC and Jeb Bush’s FEE Foundation have had too much power over our legislation and our OSDE policies. We must use the talents and wisdom of Oklahoma professionals to craft our own legislation and policies that address the needs of Oklahoma students.

I had the honor of speaking to Representative Joe Dorman’s interim study on school funding. There were heavy hitters explaining the global effects of funding cuts to our schools. My job was to bring the cuts back to the classroom reality.  I talked about two issues: the deregulation of funding to our school libraries (I am a certified school librarian), and the cuts to the National Board Certified Teacher program (I am a retired NBCT).

When the Legislature deregulated funding to school libraries, children suffered. If we truly believe it is our mission to prepare students for college and career, we won’t do that with sub-standard libraries that cannot support student research or reading. Strong school libraries actually contribute to high test scores. Funding must be restored.

One of the most positive teacher retention programs in our state has been the support for National Board Certification, and the generous stipends for NBCTs. It has been slowly chipped away until it is nearly unrecognizable. There is no better program to retain and reward accomplished career teachers in our state, because the stipend requires NBCTs be full-time classroom teachers.

What an overwhelming list of tasks…and this is only my wish list. I want our new Superintendent to know  there are educators and parents who have survived four years of reforms, and we stand ready to contribute to a new administration.

I have hope for the future. Superintendent-to-be Hofmeister has already reached out to OEA and started a conversation. Her plans involve reaching out to other organizations: CCOSA, OSSBA, POE, PTA, PLACs, ROPE, OCPA, Oklahoma Policy Institute, retired teachers...While I don't agree with the goals of all these groups, I appreciate her reaching out to stake holders. She has a transition team formed to assist. We all have stories and we all have much to offer a new Superintendent. Our realities must be honored. 

We have learned our lessons in these past years. We will not be complacent. We will be vigilant. We will be holding Superintendent Hofmeister accountable for her campaign promises. We will expect an open door at the OSDE. We will watch as alliances are formed. And we will speak up. #oklaed has created a formidable group of assertive voices that will not be silenced. 

Our students couldn't vote in this election; we did; now we and our elected officials must come together for our students.