reform wars

The 2016 Oklahoma legislative session was awful. The Republican-controlled House, Senate and executive branch ducked their responsibilities, but we can shout for joy about one thing: Oklahoma’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Joy Hofmeister, quietly led us to three great education policy victories. Moreover, in an age of irresponsible governance and venomous rhetoric, she exemplified the way to rebuild our schools.

Victory over vouchers

The first of the victories for public education was the defeat of vouchers. Despite the huge cuts that were coming to schools — or perhaps because of the way that funding reductions left schools vulnerable — influential legislators pushed two major voucher bills. Some, but not all, supporters of these “choice” bills saw vouchers as one more way to cripple public education so it could be strangled in the bathtub, but Hofmeister wisely questioned the timing of these bills in such a difficult budget year.

A broad coalition of educators undertook the seemingly impossible task of persuading believers in market-driven schools to back away from vouchers. The educators made policy and financial cases against the bills. A quiet but decisive turning point was an analysis by the state’s Department of Education that found HB 2949 would cost local districts $68.9 million if 3 percent of students participated. The analysis also found that SB 609 would cost local districts $44.5 million under a similar scenario. It was the professional provision of these facts, not grand debates, that carried the day.

New performance metrics approved

An even bigger and less-heralded victory was HB 2957, which eliminated the requirement to use student academic growth in Oklahoma’s teacher-evaluation system. It abolished what I strongly believe was the most destructive policy in a disastrous era of corporate school reform. It allowed districts to reject the federal micromanaging that took failed No Child Left Behind-styled tests, which amount to bubble-in malpractice, and put them on steroids.

Before the federal government coerced Oklahoma and more than 80 percent of states to use invalid algorithms for evaluating teachers, less than a quarter of educators were directly accountable to these primitive, high-stakes tests. After the mandated use of standardized test scores (and, even worse, faulty metrics) in teacher evaluations, unreliable test-driven accountability was imposed on virtually all of Oklahoma’s educators and their students.

EOI exams replaced

Once teachers and administrators were liberated from the worst of the standardized testing nightmare, it could have been tempting to put students on the back burner; however, the Hofmeister administration addressed that problem with end-of-instruction (EOI) tests, and HB 3218 was sent to Gov. Mary Fallin’s desk.

There used to be overwhelming support for requiring high school students to pass four of seven EOIs to graduate. Understanding my colleagues’ anger about being the only ones who were really held accountable for student performance and recognizing why teachers wanted students to share the responsibility for meeting accountability goals, I kept my doubts about graduation exams under wraps. My pragmatic priority was trying to prevent the EOIs from producing a worksheet-driven pedagogy, creating a culture of nonstop remediation in highly challenged schools.

While I praise the way that the OKCPS avoided a likely disaster by focusing unflinchingly on basic skills instruction, and even increased graduation rates in its high-poverty schools, two things became clear: First, the endless test preparation burned out educators. Second, the joys of teaching and learning were driven out of our schools.

The newly passed HB 3218 seems like a sensible alternative. It requires that a replacement test or tests be adopted in the future. There are reports that the ACT or SAT could fulfill that function. This would protect the benefits of EOIs while minimizing the downside of testing.

By adopting assessments that can’t be “taught to” while leading the profession toward a culture that promotes engaging instruction for mastery, the state can reduce the chances that future graduation assessments would undermine the quality of instruction. It would also allow for alternative tests, like WorkKeys, to ensure that low-performing students aren’t denied a high school diploma.

Funding remains critical for success

Viewed separately, all three of these wins were crucial. Seen as a whole, these victories are a means for repairing the disaster created by intertwined, top-down, technocratic mandates. Still, even the adoption of the best possible education policies will mean little if Oklahoma fails to restore our schools’ funding.

Testing provided the ammunition for the market-driven battle between traditional public schools and choice. Reformers nurtured a culture of extreme competition with the adoption of a host of constructive and destructive metrics to create schools that were mean, lean, edu-political fighting machines. But they also introduced so-called value-added teacher evaluations that threatened the careers of individual teachers and administrators in high-poverty schools with a biased statistical model. It’s no surprise that the proliferation of “school choice” and high-stakes testing for teachers and students created a perfect storm of soulless drill-and-kill policies.

The Hofmeister administration has laid the groundwork for new accountability systems that won’t be as likely to bring out the worst in schools. Of course, Oklahoma schools need much more money, but a clear message has been sent. The State Department of Education once again seeks to work with the full range of stakeholders to create better schools for all kids and not just the winners of these senseless and endless reform wars.