Thursday, October 22, 2015

Rhonda Harlow Drops the Mic

I attended a Senate Interim Study on the teacher shortage in OK...Superintendent Hofmeister and Shawn Hime spoke and added to the conversation.

Senator Patrick Anderson introduced one of his constituents, Rhonda Harlow, to address the group, and Rhonda, a teacher and instructional coach in Enid, was magnificent. Here is what she said.

My name is Rhonda Harlow and I am a district-wide instructional coach at Enid Public Schools.  I have previously worked as a Title I Reading Specialist at the elementary and middle school levels and as a Literacy Coach.  I’d like to thank my legislator, Senator Patrick Anderson, for inviting me to speak at this interim study.  Decisions made here at our Capitol impact every classroom and every student across the state, and no discussion of our public schools is complete without the inclusion of an educator’s voice.  So thank you for providing me the opportunity to give a teacher’s perspective on the Oklahoma High5 plan.  
I am honored to share my time today with Oklahoma’s State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister.  As an Oklahoma teacher, I know that Superintendent Hofmeister values my voice, my perspective, and my experience.  The collaborative spirit of her administration is greatly appreciated by Oklahoma’s public school employees, and I believe it will translate into positive outcomes for our students, teachers, and schools.  I would also like to applaud former-Enid Superintendent Shawn Hime for his outstanding work as the Executive Director of the OSSBA.  Their For the People campaign is highlighting the positive things taking place in Oklahoma public education – and there are so many good things to highlight.  Oklahoma educators and administrators make incredible things happen on a daily basis despite our limited resources, dismal pay, and the crushing pressure of state and federal mandates.  While we are always thinking of ways we can improve education for our students, it’s important we take the time to recognize those things that are going on in our schools, too. 
As an instructional coach for Enid Public Schools, I work with teachers and administrators on implementing effective teaching practices in the classroom.  Along with the other coaches in our district, I also research, design, and deliver professional development to teachers and administrators covering a variety of topics such as effective instructional strategies, classroom management, lesson planning, curriculum design, differentiated instruction … well, the list goes on and on as does my job description!   This position affords me the opportunity to get to know, work with, and interact with nearly every teacher in our district each year, and I’ve heard from many of them regarding the various pay raise plans that have been promoted since the end of the legislative session. 
One of the first things Oklahoma educators would like you to consider and to appreciate in discussions about a pay increase is this –  additional pay for additional days worked does not equate to a pay increase.  That’s just pay.  To be considered an increase, educators need to see their daily pay rate actually go up.   If increasing instructional time is your priority, I urge you to consider the significant instructional time lost each year preparing and administering state and federally mandated testing.  If state mandated testing was eliminated or reduced, those days could be spent teaching rather than testing, and the state would save millions of dollars in the process.  Testing does not equate to teaching or learning.  Exchanging End of Instruction exams that provide no real-world value to our students, for the ACT- a test score that employers and colleges actually do look at- would be a tremendous step toward getting the most for our students out of those 180 days we currently have in the classroom. 
While the OKhigh5 plan would add instructional days to the calendar, I commend the plan for compensating teachers for those additional days worked as well as providing a desperately needed pay increase in the five years AFTER its passage.  But unfortunately for Oklahoma, surrounding states are offering better salaries and more classroom resources NOW – not over the next 5 years.  While Oklahoma has spent the years since 2008 making the largest cuts to per pupil expenditures in the country – over 22 percent- surrounding states have continued to invest in their classrooms and in their teachers. 
Some say the cost of living in Oklahoma is low, therefore Oklahoma teachers shouldn’t complain about receiving the worst pay in the country.   But Oklahoma’s pay lags behind – even when you account for a lower cost of living.  Whereas it costs about 90 cents on the dollar to live here compared with the national average cost of living, Oklahoma teachers are paid less than 80 cents on the dollar compared to the national average teacher pay.  The Oklahoma Policy Institute reports that to bring Oklahoma’s teacher pay and cost of living into balance, our average teacher would need a raise of $6,500 today.  The reality is … phasing in a pay increase of less than $5,000 over five years will not balance this cost of living discrepancy to begin with, and in the five years it takes to implement this plan that gap will continue to increase. 
Here’s what our state’s long-term education underfunding looks like in my hometown.  The shortage of teachers has led to the hiring of people who have never been in a classroom or who have never taken education classes to prepare them for the current realities.  As an instructional coach, I work with those teachers and together with their mentor teacher and their administrators, we strive to “grow our own” but growth takes time – expertise takes experience.  Oklahoma’s children deserve the best and they deserve it sooner rather than later.  One of those education realities is growing class sizes.  Each year they get bigger and bigger.  This makes it impossible to give students the one-on-one or small group instruction needed.  For example, one veteran middle school Science teacher in our district has a class of 35, and 16 of those students are special ed.  She is not able to pace her lessons to meet the needs of all her students.  It’s just not possible for her to offer that many students with their unique needs the individual instruction required for them to succeed in this subject. Also, this year, the district purchased Science curriculum for grades 3 and up.  Yet a classroom set is only 30 textbooks.  That means 5 students in her class of 35 must share textbooks.  And might I add this is a tested subject!  This is not what Oklahoma parents want for their students – and it’s not the education our students deserve. 
Then there is the Kindergarten teacher in a high-poverty school in our district with a high English language learner population.  Of her 24 students, 22 students are on Reading Sufficiency academic progress plans and 19 of those students are English Language Learners that require an additional language instruction educational plan.  All of those must be written and maintained by the teacher.  Because there are not enough teachers, Title I and Title III services – federal programs for high poverty and English Language Learners –  are not offered for Kindergarten in her building.  So interventions and small groups must take place within the classroom.  The district purchases little or no curriculum for Science or Social Studies at this level, so she supplements her class reading with resources and materials she purchases because she realizes a quality education for her students requires it.  This veteran teacher was offered a position outside of the field of education last year and struggled tremendously with her decision to stay.  She wants to teach, but so much of her time is spent inundated with bureaucratic requirements rather than helping her students, and the personal financial strain of providing them what they need on her salary is enormous.  Thankfully this excellent educator did decide to stay this time. Unfortunately, her situation isn’t unique.  Another veteran high school teacher told me, “I love my students, but I hate my job.  There is too much to be done, and not enough time, resources, or staff to do it effectively.” He went on to tell me how he is no longer teaching a love of learning but rather managing numbers and data.  And with the volume of students, his opportunity to design and implement creative, rigorous lessons is next to impossible.  After all, how can he incorporate technology into his classroom of 40 when he only has 25 working laptops, iPads, or Chromebooks?  And classroom space to get up and move around … well, it is next to impossible.  Unfortunately many excellent veteran teachers are leaving our profession for retirement or higher paying jobs. 
Large class sizes are not happening in just Kindergarten or middle school Science.  At the high school level, teachers who see over 180 students a day have difficulty providing meaningful commentary and feedback about student learning.  Grading becomes an after-hours job that takes up to four to five nights a week and too often, weekends become grading marathons to get work back to students in a timely fashion.  All grade levels deal with a variety of reports, meetings, paperwork, lack of resources, and lack of time. Teachers often do not have time during the day for the lesson planning and classroom preparation that are integral parts to a quality education for our students.  Drive by any Enid school parking lot after 5:00 p.m. on any given day and you will see teachers there – working well into the evening and on weekends.  This is unpaid overtime!  It drains our energy and robs us of time with our families.  We do it for our love of our students.  But our students deserve the best from their teachers, and right now Oklahoma is not providing its teachers with what they need to be their best.    
Oklahoma teachers work more than 10 months a year, well beyond 8 hours a day, and many still have to work 2nd jobs in order to make ends meet.  Those who devote their lives to teaching our children should not have to depend on food stamps or free and reduced lunches in order to feed their own children, but many do.  The education climate has become foggy and difficult to navigate for all involved.  Teacher morale is rapidly diminishing; they are losing their passion and feeling pressured to meet homogenous requirements after being told to differentiate their instruction.  This is exacerbating our teacher shortage and there is no silver bullet to fix the problem.  More than 840 emergency certificates have been granted so far this year.  Too many of Oklahoma’s children are being taught by those who no doubt want to help children, but are NOT quite ready for the classroom. They are doing their best but the stakes are too high – especially in tested subjects.  How does that impact a 3rd grade student shackled by RSA mandates?  How does this shortage impact a high school freshman facing high-stakes testing with an Algebra I and Biology I EOI?  What about our English Language Learners? 
Our teacher shortage includes every level of teaching.  Once upon a time, schools received stacks of resumes for elementary jobs, but now they are getting so few applicants principals are hiring people they would not have considered just five years ago.  Who would want to be an educator today in Oklahoma?  We are 48th in teacher pay, have not received a pay raise since 2007, are 49th in per pupil spending, and have cut education funding 23.6% since 2008 – almost 6 percentage points more than any other state. We MUST make the teaching profession more attractive by paying better salaries and by recognizing the worth and importance of teachers.
Schools cannot prepare students for informed productive futures without safe buildings, quality materials, AND well-prepared staff – all of which require the fiscal commitment of publicly elected officials.  The state of Oklahoma continues to practice corporate welfare at the expense of our children and the future of our democratic society.  We cannot continue to cut taxes and expect our state’s vital services to continue.  Do we want to attract more businesses and grow the economy?  Of course!  But let’s invest in vibrant, well-funded public schools that offer an educated work force for businesses. This problem did not happen overnight, so it will not be fixed overnight.  We absolutely must plan today for the future of our children. 
 I am glad that this interim study is taking place and that lawmakers are talking about ways to improve our schools and attract our best and brightest into this profession.  But the fact is, for two years Oklahoma teachers have rallied in record numbers asking our legislators to adopt a long-term funding solution to increase funding to our classrooms and increase our pay to the regional average, and for two years we’ve been answered with resounding silence when it comes to real solutions.  And because outlook for the upcoming fiscal year is even worse, there isn’t much for us in public education to be optimistic about these days.  We must look long-term and ask ourselves – What do we want Oklahoma education to look like?  What do we want for the future of our state – our teachers – our children?  I cannot fathom nor can I accept this is Oklahoma’s dream for its children.
It is obvious educators do their jobs regardless of the pay.  When comparing the state’s average ACT scores to those within our region, it is competitive to those states.  It is true that Oklahoma teachers do more with less each and every day as a result of their “Can Do” spirit.  However, that does not make it right.  I hope you will invite your own teachers to speak with you about this issue.  Please continue to invite your teaching professionals, administrators, education support professionals, and even students to the table so we can all work together to develop a long-term plan to properly fund our public schools.  
One of my favorite music groups is Mumford and Sons.  There is a line from their song, “Awake my Soul”, that states, “where you invest your love, you invest your life.”  Often, I reflect on that line in my own life.  I believe Oklahoma needs to reflect and to realize, it is time to show its love for public education and invest in its future.

Addition...Rob Miller, of  AView from the Edge fame, suggested a bat flip would be a good sports metaphor for Rhonda's performance.

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad someone has addressed the topic of a raise and additional days taught not adding up. Rhonda tells it like it is. I would add that experienced teachers have more duties by helping mentor the new people hired who have no education training.