Omission Troubles: Newspaper Copes With Defeat

Image of Janet Barresi

The Oklahoman editorial board can’t stop whining about the defeat of Schools Superintendent Janet Barresi in the recent Republican primary election.

An editorial published on NewsOK.com Monday essentially makes the argument that so-called conservative education “reformers,” such as Barresi, are courageous people battling an entrenched “status quo” that simply don’t want to improve student performance. Pointing to Oklahoma’s low test scores, the editorial tries to create this narrative:

Barresi and her reform counterparts nationwide have sought to improve such depressing statistics. They’ve stepped into the arena, showing courage and commitment that excuse-a-minute establishment critics will never match.

The word “simply” in the paragraph before the quote is key to understanding The Oklahoman lament. The editorial fails to address crucial counter arguments while presenting its narrow views and thus fails the argumentative test.

Here are points to consider:

(1) Low test scores in Oklahoma or elsewhere can’t be blamed on educators alone. There are deep, long-term social and health problems in Oklahoma, including underfunded child welfare programs and poor medical access. When children are hungry and sick, often changing schools because of unstable homes, we can’t expect them to perform well on tests. The schools with the poorest students will always have the worst test scores. It takes a holistic approach—sometimes dealing with issues outside the specific scope of pedagogy— to improve education. The Oklahoman, while often bemoaning the state’s social problems, never applies that same stance to education.

(2) The editorial doesn’t address the counter argument that recent “reform” efforts in education are based on privatizing our school systems as much as possible. While privatization is not necessarily some evil plot, it does raise alarming questions. Vested, commercial interests have a stake in any testing system or any act of assessment for that matter that will show failure in public schools. Virtually all the recent excessive testing and assessment rubrics, such as the A to F grading of schools, guarantee failed outcomes in places such as Oklahoma.

(3) It goes without saying that education here in Oklahoma has been dreadfully underfunded for decades. More teachers, better equipment, the best textbooks, nicer classrooms and full access to food can contribute to better outcomes. In particular, lowering the teacher to student ratio, along with flooding schools with teaching assistants, can help improve scores, but the conservative reformers in Oklahoma intentionally ignore this. The editorial never mentions the legendary underfunding of Oklahoma schools. How can you make any kind of argument about education in the state without acknowledging that obvious point?

(4) The editorial refers to the status quo or, more specifically, teacher unions and schools superintendents, but it omits crucial details. Teachers and school superintendents, for example, are not against appropriate assessment, which includes testing. It’s essential we have holistic assessment, but high-stakes testing, championed by Barresi and other conservative reformers, only proves the negative. It undermines the philosophical idea of individual needs of individual students, who can make progress on different time frames.

There’s a lot more to say on this issue, but the bottom line is that Barresi loaned $1.2 million to her campaign to get reelected under the conservative school reform philosophy, and she was trounced. In another recent editorial, The Oklahoman noted the supposed demise of the Democratic Party in the state. It should note, as well, the coming demise of the conservative school reform movement here.