Education Reform Failure

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I can’t recall a time in Oklahoma when the politics of education was such a mess.

Not all of it is the direct fault of state politicians, which obviously include Gov. Mary Fallin and outgoing, controversial Schools Superintendent Janet Barresi, but they are the main factor in the problem. The other factor is the nationwide movement pushing high-stakes testing, which is driven by misguided conservative dogma.

What all this means is that students are getting used as pawns by politicians extoling unproven educational theories based on conservative ideology not best classroom practices. Here’s how that conservative ideology works: Starve schools of taxpayer funding, implement high-stakes testing to show failure, make the claim that privatization and the commodification of the public school system will solve the problem.

But is this all starting to unravel for the so-called “reformers” of education? Two new developments show just how messy things have gotten in Oklahoma educational politics and that this might well be the case.

(1) The federal Education Department is taking away the state’s waiver for its No Child Left Behind program because the legislature and Fallin repealed Common Core standards this year without replacing them with new standards. The stated aim of the repeal was to prevent federal intrusion into Oklahoma’s educational system. Yet the repeal itself has brought that about far more directly than had the standards remained in place. Poetic justice or just plain dumb?

(2) Schools Superintendent Janet Barresi just announced that fifth and eighth grade writing scores will not be used this year to determine the draconian A-F school report cards because of problems with the test administered by the private vendor CTB-McGraw Hill. This is the second year in a row there were what have been called “disruptions” in the company’s online testing system, which has prompted an investigation by Attorney General Scott Pruitt to determine financial accountability.

The two events might seem unrelated, but a closer look reveals this main connection: Conservative school reformers, whether rejecting federal intrusion in schools or pushing for high-stakes testing by private companies, have failed to improve schools and only create quagmires and muddles. Their policies and procedures don’t work.

It’s just too bad we have to continue to play it all out in Oklahoma.

Teenage Pregnancy: Solutions No One Will Talk About In Oklahoma

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(Here are the obvious solutions to the teenage pregnancy problem in Oklahoma: (1) Establish more comprehensive and required sexual education courses in public schools starting in early grades that continue through high school. (2) Offer students at an appropriate age free contraception, including Plan B and condoms. (3) Ensure women here retain the right to have an abortion. (4) Stop electing right-wing politicians who oppose these sensible ideas.)

It should come at no surprise that Oklahoma continues to have one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the nation.

But a story in The Oklahoman about the issue omits this crucial factor: It’s the right-wing religious folks here who oppose appropriate and extensive sexual education that goes beyond abstinence-only dogma. Until public schools can offer more required courses that directly and explicitly address sex and its ramifications, and even offer birth control to students at an appropriate age, Oklahoma will continue to struggle with this problem, which obviously costs taxpayers.

Let’s be real. Oklahomans elect numerous right-wing Christian politicians who profess themselves to be deeply religious. These politicians, using their religious beliefs, prevent the state from realistically addressing the state’s numerous social problems, such as the state's high teenage pregnancy rate.

The Oklahoman, of course, endorses many of these right-wing politicians or supports their overall ideology on its editorial page.

The story in The Oklahoman was written by Jaclyn Cosgrove, described somewhat redundantly as a “Medical and Health Reporter” on She does a thorough job presenting the statistical information. Oklahoma had the second highest teenage pregnancy rate in the nation in 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It had the highest rate among women 18 and 19 years old. The story does, indeed, quote a couple of experts that argue for more sexual education. This is a long, tragic story in the state.

Here’s what’s so bad about teenage pregnancy, according to the site

More than half of all mothers on welfare had their first child as a teenager. In fact, two-thirds of families begun by a young, unmarried mother are poor.

Children who live apart from their fathers are 5 times more likely to be poor than children with both parents at home.

The daughters of young teen mothers are 3 times more likely to become teen mothers themselves.

The sons of teen mothers are twice as likely to end up in prison.

Cosgrove’s story doesn’t really delve into these issues, though it does quote the CDC report about how daughters of teenage mothers are more likely to become pregnant as teenagers themselves. The accompanying video for the story does a good job presenting basic facts.

But by omitting the crucial political and religious reasons for the teenage pregnancy problem in the state, the story is basically unhelpful and perhaps even untruthful on one level. We have a problem in this state with teenage pregnancy. There’s a reason why. It’s because the right-wing religious folks and the politicians they elect oppose comprehensive sexual education in our schools. The story doesn’t really address it. To be fair to Cosgrove, her editors undoubtedly wouldn’t allow such blunt realism.

The Oklahoman has always been a major part of the problem when it comes to the state’s numerous social problems, which along with a high teenage pregnancy rate include overall poor medical outcomes and access. On the one hand, it reports the dismal information in a grave, hectoring style. On the other hand, its editorial page supports politicians and ideology that ensure the state remains backwards.

Here’s some information from the news organization Oklahoma Watch that should simply astound and shock everyone:

Among the state’s five largest districts, the largest, Oklahoma City Public Schools, provides no sex-education classes to students at any grade level, although the district used to offer a comprehensive program two decades ago.

Here are the obvious solutions to the teenage pregnancy problem here: (1) Establish more comprehensive and required sexual education courses in public schools starting in early grades that continue through high school. (2) Offer students at an appropriate age free contraception, including Plan B and condoms. (3) Ensure women here retain the right to have an abortion. (4) Stop electing politicians who oppose these sensible ideas.

Omission Troubles: Newspaper Copes With Defeat

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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 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.

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