(Kathryn Zittel)

I’ve become increasingly worried that time is running out for the Oklahoma City Public School System. The district keeps focusing on shiny new objects, ignoring the people-side of schooling while chasing after one technocratic silver bullet after another.

Now, the Oklahoma State Chamber of Commerce has unveiled its “vision and action plan to put Oklahoma at the top of national rankings by 2030.” Known as OK2030, the initiative includes 11 proposals in its the Workforce and Talent Development section:

  • Increase teacher pay to the regional average, with additional pay for performance or need
  • Restructure teacher and school administrator licenses to build in separate paths toward advancement
  • Revolutionize education by bringing competency-based learning to all classrooms
  • Build a longitudinal database to drive evidence-based decisions across all levels of education
  • Create an independent commission to make data-based recommendations on school consolidation
  • Reform the state’s school funding formula
  • Create a statewide turnaround district for habitually underperforming schools
  • Increase college and CareerTech completion through a statewide reverse transfer system
  • Prioritize concurrent enrollment and AP funding for high school students in STEM courses
  • Incentivize students to pursue STEM degrees and certificates in Oklahoma’s Promise program
  • Streamline the administrative organization and structure of the state’s public higher education system

OK2030 sticks three more controversial education policy recommendations under its Quality of Life section:

  • Create a statewide public charter school authorizer
  • Expand open transfer policies for public schools
  • Create Education Savings Accounts for Oklahoma families

While many of the first 11 recommendations would help schools and students, the final three could be problematic for the state’s urban school districts. With the help of Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education and a conservative-controlled Oklahoma Legislature, there are numerous scenarios where underfunding and uncontrolled choice would push OKCPS over the edge.

The odds will stack in favor of charters

If corporate school reform wins, it will likely happen the way that both sides of our education civil war expected. It will be interconnected with the dynamics that de-industrialized America as a whole. The Reagan administration’s supply-side economics intentionally accelerated the destruction of blue-collar jobs. Reaganomics, like the corporate game plan now foisted on public schools, contributed to the collapse of Enron and Penn Square Bank. The same McKinsey Group model that nearly wrecked the banking system is the backbone of market-driven school reform. Then it was called “decentralization by market segment,” and now it is called “freedom to fail.”

The cornerstone of test-driven, competition-driven reform, which was once called “earned autonomy,” is being pushed for our underfunded traditional public schools, albeit with a kinder and gentler spin. The idea is to reward schools that exhibit high test scores with the freedom to offer holistic learning. Meanwhile, low-performing schools will continue teach-to-the-test, even scripted instruction. The approach is designed to stack the competition between choice and neighborhood schools in favor of charters.

Portfolio charters will further marginalize public schools

Today’s version of earned autonomy, which I’d call “earned dignity,” has been re-branded as the portfolio model embraced by the Broad Academy. Portfolios of charters are free to choose “no excuses” for poor families or offer STEM, project-based learning or high-quality versions of “personalized learning,” and/or invest in socio-emotional supports. Once portfolios serve 40 percent to 50 percent of OKCPS students, neighborhood schools are likely to become alternative schools for the charters, and choice schools won’t have to pretend to serve many of the highest-challenge students. That growth of portfolios is likely to be accompanied by increased numbers of “disconnected youth,” or school-aged kids who are out of school and out of a job.

I suspect that the single biggest reason why traditional public schools are losing students to choice schools is the failure of neighborhood schools to create safe and orderly environments. That would require an investment in full-service community schools and wraparound services.

OKCPS must reign in chaos, violence

Two months ago, however, a survey of OKCPS teachers revealed major complaints that the district is wasting resources on “benchmarks” and other top-down instructional mandates while failing to provide disciplinary backing. Now, a survey of Oklahoma virtual school patrons reveals that, “Forty-one percent of students who attend a virtual charter school in Oklahoma left their previous school because they were victims of bullying.” I also suspect that a large percentage of patrons choose charters to avoid chronic disorder and violence in neighborhood schools.

To survive, OKCPS must create safe and neighborly schools. The district must respond to a rapidly changing world. While OKCPS can’t stop the creative destruction of the market system, we don’t need to deliberately speed it up. Technology isn’t going away, but it needs to be balanced with the human touch. We need a cross-generational conversation on learning how to control digital technologies instead of being controlled by them. Rather than celebrate the fragmentation of society into winners and losers, we need to rebuild our sense of community.

Culture remains at the heart of reinvention

Many local leaders are giving up on the school system, and it’s getting harder to argue that they are wrong. At the same time, many business and community partners would like to join in a collaborative and innovative manner to reinvent the OKCPS for the 21st century.

Even though the State Chamber of Commerce advocates for a few dangerous policies — and includes a couple of recommendations that could be destructive or beneficial based on their details — its OK2030 plan also has some excellent ideas. Competency-based learning could easily deteriorate into the notorious failure known as outcomes-based education. Combined with the OKCPS’s hurried push for online learning, the effect of these technology-driven approaches would likely be “depersonalized learning” and the denial of a respectful education for our poorest children.

On the other hand, the State Chamber’s call for a state school turnaround office would be constructive as long as it is well-funded, non-ideological and informed by the lessons of previous turnarounds. Also, the Chamber’s recommendation that we “expand open, public school-transfer policies” could provide a stepping stone to socio-economic integration (as is being pioneered in Dallas.) And, we should welcome the Chamber’s support for a teacher pay raise, investments in STEM and college-readiness courses, and the reform of the state finance formula, which is biased against urban schools.

Regardless, I suspect that the vast majority of stakeholders would heartily agree that academic improvements must start with school cultures. If the OKCPS would invest in whatever it takes (other than punishment) to create trusting and respectful learning spaces, we could then deal with the multitude of unknowns that the 21st century will throw at us.

Read the full OK2030 plan

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