Education

Italicized Shaming

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The Oklahoman recently published a fatuous editorial about the state’s strict third-grade reading test law, arguing with heavy handed italicized emphasis that it and the ensuing fallout has shown thousands of state students can’t read.

Leave aside the editorial's overall sweeping generalization about “thousands” of students, which is hyperbolic. The editorial presents a red-herring argument that minimalizes and distorts the arguments of those people that oppose the law while effectively shaming elementary school students who struggle with reading for a variety of reasons, many of which are not related to instruction.

The law mandates that third-grade students be held back if they can’t pass a high-stakes test showing they read at a first-grade or higher level. State law allows some exemptions and alternative tests, but those other tests or the fallout from the law, according to the editorial, also show too many students can’t read.

Here are the two italicized sentences in the editorial that supposedly make the big point that so many of us have just been too stupid so far to understand: “Those students really can’t read! Thousands of Oklahoma students simply haven’t learned how to read.

Note the exclamation point after the first italicized sentence. It’s as if the editorial writer is reveling in the reading struggles of a group of third-grade students, some of whom undoubtedly have learning disabilities or problematic home lives. Some children live in poverty and go hungry on a regular basis!

The editorial also doesn’t fairly address those who oppose the law. I’m one of them. I definitely oppose the third-grade reading test and other high-stake tests in public schools. I know that some students struggle with reading. I know how important reading is as a foundational lifelong learning tool. I know that some students get to the third grade in Oklahoma and other states and can’t read well. But I also know the educational system—not newspaper editorial writers and politicians—should address the reading issue with individual students and parents, and educators do address the issue, which is a holistic one that involves more than just sitting down with a child and sounding out words and reading sentences aloud.

The third-grade reading law is really just a political weapon intentionally designed to show the failure of schools and to justify the push for the privatization of public education. The law is designed so editorial writers at conservative newspapers can gleefully write, “Thousands of Oklahoma students simply haven’t learned how to read.” Pop open the champagne. Why not also write, “Millions of elementary school students in the country live in poverty and dysfunctional homes!” Then open another bottle.

There’s no argument that some at-risk students struggle at school. Why would The Oklahoman and conservative politicians even need to make this point unless it wasn’t politically motivated? The issue is whether we nurture and help develop the students’ capabilities or if we shame them with italicized language and consequently help label and stigmatize them. The second approach, which The Oklahoman apparently endorses, is abusive and only creates more learning blocks for students.

As I’ve argued over and over, the conservative school “reform” movement is deliberately designed to show failure. First and foremost, the school reformers here starve public education of needed funding. Oklahoma, for example, has cut education by 23.6 percent since the 2008 recession, which is more than any other state in the nation.

The reformers then implement high-stakes testing and individual school evaluations that focus on punishment for individual students and educators. Public shaming of students that get held back and educators at schools with meaningless F grades are a major part of the process. This is followed by criticism of teachers’ unions and a push for charter schools and further privatization of our educational system. It’s a long-term effort to dismantle public education in this country, which, if it happened, would essentially lead to the dismantling of our democracy.

Let’s help the kids that can’t read. No one can argue against that. Give them more teachers, the best textbooks and encouragement. But, as a society, we also need to work to eliminate child poverty and provide kids with adequate health care. The problem of poor school performance of individual students is more often than not a holistic one and multi-layered. Tests and punishments only serve to further a conservative political agenda. It has nothing to do with helping students to read.

Education Funding Crisis Continues Unabated In Oklahoma

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A new study shows that Oklahoma continues to have a major education funding crisis and no amount of denial by Gov. Mary Fallin’s office is going to make it go away.

In its study, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that per student spending has dropped in Oklahoma by 23.6 percent since 2008. This means, adjusting for inflation, the state spends $857 less per student each year. The decline is the steepest in the nation.

The second steepest decline is in Alabama where per student funding has dropped by 17.8 percent, according to the study. The study shows that, in all, 35 states have cut per student funding since 2008.

The cut in education funding undermines the rosy picture of Oklahoma’s economy and quality of life often depicted by Fallin in her reelection campaign. What we have in Oklahoma is a full-fledged crisis in which our schools simply don’t have enough money to operate effectively.

A spokesperson for Fallin, a Republican, said the study “exaggerates” the cuts, according to a story on NewsOK.com, because the cuts came after all-time high funding for education before the 2008-2009 recession, which caused an immediate major budget shortfall. The spokesperson, according to the study, also said the study doesn’t account for other forms of school funding from the state. Even if these points are conceded, school funding here is remarkably dismal given the state’s economy and teacher salaries here are among the worst in the nation.

Fallin, who is facing an unexpectedly tight race for reelection from her Democratic opponent Joe Dorman, said she’s committed to increasing funding for schools and raising teacher salaries, according to the NewsOK.com story, yet in her tenure as governor she has consistently pushed for income tax cuts and approved of major tax breaks for oil and gas companies.

It’s impossible to reconcile the position of pushing to lower state revenue while adequately increasing funding for education. For that to happen, funding for some other aspect of state government, such as corrections or social services, would have to be drastically cut.

In addition, Fallin has also approved of high-stakes testing in our public schools at the same time state government is starving the educational system of funding. This is terribly unfair. I believe it’s also part of a deliberate conservative strategy to ensure schools “fail” by some nebulous measure. Overall, starving schools of money while pushing for senseless high-stakes testing can only be construed as a deliberate attack on public education.

Right now, we have a teacher shortage in our state and growing class sizes in many of our schools. It’s a crisis that could affect the quality of education for an entire generation of students as the years go by without a major correction in funding.

A Crisis Here, Too: Growing Student Loan Debt

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Just because the average amount of student loan debt in Oklahoma is lower than the national average doesn’t mean there isn’t a major crisis here related to college affordability.

Oklahoma’s higher education leaders have long backed college tuition and fee increases at least partially on the premise that the state’s overall costs for a college education are significantly lower than the national average. That lower rate, it follows, would naturally translate into lower student loan debt as well.

I don’t know how many times through the years I’ve read some quote in the media by a state higher education official that goes something like this: Quit whining. Even when we raise tuition and fees, our universities remain less expensive than in other states.

That doesn’t offer much solace to an Oklahoma college senior getting ready to graduate with $30,000 or more in debt. It probably doesn’t feel to that student it’s a good deal or bargain, which gets complicated even further when you consider a particular university’s reputation.

A recent article on NewsOK.com repeats the trope. It cites a recent analysis by Experian, which offers credit reports and tracking on its online site, that shows there was an 84 percent increase in student loan debt from 2008 to 2014. According to Experian, student loan debt in the country now stands at $1.2 trillion, a record high. The average student loan debt in Oklahoma of $23,636 is lower than the national average of $29,400, according to NewsOK.com, citing the Project on Student Debt.

So begins the age-old story here. Oklahoma Chancellor Glen Johnson claims the numbers prove success. According to the NewsOK.com story, here’s Johnson’s take on the situation: “One significant area of success has been our commitment to affordability. Oklahoma’s state system of higher education is recognized as the fifth most affordable system in the country.”

Later in the story, Johnson also points out that Oklahoma’s tuition and fee increases of 5.3 percent over the last five years are lower than in most states.

Let me be clear that this isn’t a criticism of Johnson, who is merely repeating historical fact as so many others do and have done when it comes to this argument. Our colleges are cheaper here. Who can argue that point?

But one fact that gets lost in the argument over college affordability is that Oklahoma has been consistently ranked among the nation’s bottom 25 states for decades in per capita income. Sometimes, the state has been ranked in the bottom ten. Here are the rankings since 1990.

What that means, of course, is that Oklahomans, along with their access to less expensive colleges compared to other states, also have less money to go to college. It also means that college graduates here if they stay in Oklahoma will overall make less money in the workforce than graduates in other states and consequently have less money to pay down their student loan debt.

Another companion issue omitted from the argument is that Oklahoma has long had a lower number of people with at least bachelor’s degrees than the national average. How many potential students or graduates here simply can’t afford our colleges even though they are less expensive because of our low per capita income rates?

Finally, the argument that a college education is cheaper here can enable people to ignore the fact that growing student loan debt here and elsewhere is a major humanitarian crisis. Banks feast on people simply trying to get an education by doling out loans guaranteed and even molded by the federal government. It’s a great deal for the lenders, but it means a new generation of educated people is now saddled with burdensome monthly payments for years. These people will have a difficult time buying homes or simply just surviving because of their debt.

It doesn’t matter if one gets their degree here or in California or if the debt is $40,000 or $45,000. Many Oklahoma college students, along with their counterparts across the nation, are mired in student loan debt, a development that doesn’t bode well for their financial future or the nation’s financial future.

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