Education

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.

Educational Darkness

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The contemporary avalanche of high-stakes testing and other assessment procedures in education is constructed upon faulty philosophical premises, which can be detrimental and harmful to students and teachers.

In medicine, the adage goes, “First, do no harm.” That should apply to education as well. What if, for example, a particular high-stakes test is poorly constructed and penalizes students for giving the right answer? What if a teacher must teach the “untruth” in order to keep her job? The implications of these errors for our society are enormous.

We must grant the possibility that this country’s obsessive efforts to quantify student achievement, along with the conservative attack on the education establishment in general, is the real crisis in education today.

Let me be clear that the deployment of high-stakes testing in our schools has been both a Democratic and Republican conquest, and I mean the word conquest as in a political attack upon and then the occupation of schools. For example, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, serving under President Barack Obama, has been a major battlefield general directing the current conquest.

I’m willing to concede there are political leaders that truly believe that high-stakes testing, which is testing in schools that can penalize teachers and students for low scores, is a method to boost achievement. Certainly, though, at this juncture anyone truly concerned with education would concede the high-stakes testing movement has created systems and procedures fraught with error.

The overall attack on the public education establishment, however, is ultimately a conservative ploy, which has used high-stakes testing in order to transfer public assets, primarily tax dollars, to private companies in order to respond to the fake crisis created by low test scores.

All this manifested itself recently in Oklahoma after some schools claimed that recent test scores for fifth- and eighth-graders were probably wrong in many cases. CTB/McGraw-Hill gave the tests. For example, the schools complained, according to a media report, that some students received lower scores for plagiarism, when, in fact they were merely citing sources.

Here’s the Tulsa World story about the issue. I won’t rehash all the complaints, all of which seem quite legitimate.

I have two points:

(1) As a longtime college professor here, I think students in our public schools should learn how to cite and document sources in papers and show evidence for their arguments. When students enter college, they should know these basic concepts and should be ready to learn and then apply different style and documentation guidelines in their research papers. If teachers must warn students as they approach a high-stakes test not to back up their arguments or interpretations with verifiable evidence, then there’s a real problem. It means the system is harming students, teaching them the wrong thing and implanting in them a basic untruthful idea.

(2) Why is a private company administering the test in the first place? It only makes sense that a for-profit company would align itself with those who want to use the crisis created by high-stakes testing as a way to transfer taxpayer money to the private sector. I’m not arguing that CTB/McGraw-Hill has an intentionally skewed test, but the overall conservative effort to privatize education is more likely in their financial interests than not.

Not many people are against basic standardized tests or measurements in public schools. But those tests and measurements should be created within the public school system itself and administered by the system itself. Any major action, such as holding a student back a grade or closing a school, should be done holistically and with the aim of really addressing problems, not as an excuse for more privatization, which can extend accessibility prejudices.

Education in this country and Oklahoma has become a political battleground that creates real casualties among students and teachers, and there has been a surge in misguided administrative oversight that defies logic and creates incompetence. Yet still teachers help students to learn in this new educational darkness.

A Test of Ideology

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State Schools Superintendent Janet Barresi has called the Oklahoma Legislature’s bill allowing more flexibility in dealing with third graders who perform low on a high-stakes reading test “an outrageous step backwards.”

In reality, the bill could be the start of a much-needed movement here in Oklahoma to stop the focus on high-stakes testing in general while refocusing curriculum outside the parameters of failed school reform efforts. Let’s hope that’s the case.

In recent testing, nearly 8,000 third grade Oklahoma students scored low enough to fall under a law that could have technically retained them. The legislature then passed a bill relaxing the retention requirement, allowing for parental input, which Gov. Mary Fallin vetoed. The Republican-dominated legislature responded by overriding Fallin’s veto.

Oklahoma has been increasingly held hostage to a dissipating reform movement that starves its schools of needed funding and resources and then punishes them using low test results as a cudgel. One focus of this movement has been to attack teachers and teacher unions instead of dealing holistically with students’ problems and needs. It also promotes charter schools, which can leave poor-performing students behind. It’s not happenstance that the schools with the lowest scores often have the highest number of impoverished and minority students.

Instead of dealing with the very real socio-economic issues of some children, the reformers want to punish and to show failure rather than to develop larger ways to deal with student performance. Both Barresi and Fallin, who supported the draconian retention law, use sanctimonious rhetoric about helping students, but their rigid stance implies that poverty or hunger or health problems don’t matter when it comes to testing.

Well-known public education advocate and author Diane Ravitch said in an interview last year:

Where there are low test scores, where there are higher dropout rates than the national average, is where there is concentrated poverty. Now, we cannot, obviously, wipe poverty out overnight, but there are many things we can do to make school a stronger equalizer than it is today.

Teachers and principals working in inner-city schools with high numbers of impoverished students are the people who know what’s really going on in our educational system. Administrators, such as Barresi, and politicians, such as Fallin, try to engineer the educational system from above with ideology, and it doesn’t work.

High-stakes testing is an error. There’s nothing wrong with testing itself or with appropriate assessment and measurement, but to stake the perceived quality of your entire state school system on one test seems like an act of unstated intentions. If students can’t read at grade level, then let’s go all out and help them. Let’s mobilize, act urgently. Most of us can agree on that. But that means more teachers, smaller class sizes, increased individual attention that may cross over into the realm of family life, health, nutrition and psychology.

The fact the GOP-dominated legislature stepped up to defy fellow Republicans Barresi and Fallin on this issue tells us that the high-stakes testing movement could be coming to an end here in Oklahoma. Could it also be an indicator that Barresi might face reelection problems?

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