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COMMENTARY
interim studies
(Morguefile.com)
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Throughout September and early October, I attended several education-focused interim studies at the Oklahoma State Capitol. Although I saw plenty of noneducators still grasping at straws, seeking shortcuts for increased school funding through reforms, they faced evidence-based pushback from legislators. For example, Sen. Gary Stanislawski (R-Tulsa) ably led an evaluation of the funding formula as well as ways to reduce administrative costs through consolidation. Oklahoma has an excellent funding formula, but it could use updating. Similarly, there is plenty of evidence that Oklahoma has too many school systems, and it is likely that consolidation could save up to $27 million per year. At the same time, the difficulty of the politics largely hinders the potential benefits of such changes.

As of the Sept. 26 final meeting, the best ideas coming from the committee were to:

  • return funding for alternative education to the levels of the late 1990s,
  • simplify grade weights,
  • reduce or completely replace bilingual funding with increases in weights for English-language learners (ELLs),
  • increase weights for economically disadvantaged students
  • and cut funding for gifted and talented.

The proposed cut for gifted and talented in order to increase funding for poor students seemed to me to be a no-brainer, but it is likely to be dead on arrival.

The overarching problem with this updating of governance systems is that the Legislature faces a zero-sum game, and even the best adjustments for some will hurt others. As the Oklahoma State School Boards Association’s Shawn Hime explained about the formula, the political reality is that changing it would first require short-term investments to hold districts harmless before implementation. In 2007, it would have cost $14 million to hold systems harmless, and now it would require about $40 million up front to transition to a better system.

Understanding of charters seems to be increasing

The most worrisome aspect of the 2018 legislative interim studies was the pressure to divert resources from underfunded traditional public schools to charter schools. As previously explained, I had mixed feelings during the Sept. 25 study when local charter schools presented the case for additional money but, once again, I heard nothing but false and misleading spin from national charter-management organizations.

Even though Oklahoma has an oversupply of charters, many of them do excellent work, with Hupfeld Academy and Santa Fe South doing what few charters would attempt in terms of serving poor students. I would like to see a compromise where charters — and even private schools like Positive Tomorrows — could apply for more funding to serve more disadvantaged populations, but I just haven’t heard viable proposals for doing so.

When true believers in choice question whether charters hurt traditional public schools, I don’t expect unequivocal answers, but I wish a conversation could be started about a key fact of school improvement.

For instance, when charters claim they are serving the “same” students as neighborhood schools, sometimes they are just spouting the same false narrative that deep-pocketed national charter organizations spread. Other times, they honestly don’t know what they don’t know about truly high-poverty schools. The best charters often serve kids in situational poverty, with learning disabilities and ELL challenges, sometimes retaining some students with serious emotional disorders. Charters keep as many kids from extreme and generational poverty as they can handle, but traditional public schools have to serve everyone who walks through their doors, and that has become more difficult as charters have made segregation worse.

Still, in contrast to legislative interim hearings a decade ago, I heard less fanciful dreaming about cheap and easy silver bullet fixes for public schools and the hope that charters will retain their share of high-challenge schools. Perhaps legislators now understand that they were sold an untested agenda based on the opinions of corporate reformers with little or no knowledge of public education.

SDE, Hofmeister understand lessons of history

Although I disagree with some of the proposals and analyses of the State Department of Education, they are solid and balanced. I am most pleased by the way that its new report card encourages holistic solutions for chronic absenteeism. If districts would invest in a team effort — using home visits and well as timely data — and draw on the knowledge and contacts of social service providers, absenteeism could be addressed before it spins out of control.

The SDE certainly knows more about the politics at 23rd and Lincoln, but sometimes I wish it would offer a more precise message about urban schools. The SDE needs to better explain that the challenge is serving neighborhoods with extreme concentrations of students from generational poverty, with multiple adverse childhood experiences from neighborhoods with low social capital. Most schools, even low-income schools, can improve through better instruction and curriculum, leadership, data and accountability.

While SDE-favored programs like Robert Marzano’s “Nine Essential Elements” are helpful, they won’t work in the inner city until a socio-emotional foundation of student supports has been laid. His study, What Works in Oklahoma Schools, ignored the highest-challenged schools and surveyed more gifted and talented students than ELL and IEP students combined. It is irrelevant to turning around our-lowest performing schools, and it could give false hope about cheap shortcuts.

That being said, SDE reports offered a series of outstanding insights and recommendations. Also on Sept. 26, I was thrilled that State Superintendent of Education Joy Hofmeister and the SDE understand the lessons of history. They recognize that it takes three to five years to produce sustainable improvement, and the recent, rushed approach has failed. Holly Pettersson and Mavis Snelson, from Ed Direction, a Utah-based consulting firm, acknowledged that some federal school-improvement grant models, like the turnaround model, did more harm than good.

In terms of evidence-based planning, the SDE’s Maridyth McBee relayed intriguing information. She reported that per pupil expenditures to drive improvements in student achievement would be only the first step. She cited the work of the SDE’s Michael Tamborski, who estimated that a $2,500 investment in instructional supports would increase student performance by only 1 to 2 scale points. Legislators were likely surprised to hear the related finding, which is consistent with a large body of social science, that a smaller $1,000 increase in student supports could produce a larger performance increase of 3 points. Last, McBee’s report was consistent with an estimate by the Rutgers Education Law Center that it would require a $6,600 per student increase to raise the outcomes of Oklahoma’s poorest quintile of students to the national average.

Wallace Foundation exemplifies new mentality

On Oct. 3, one day after the State Department of Education’s It Starts Here: Trauma-Informed Instruction Summit, Rep. Rhonda Baker (R-Yukon), herself a former teacher, chaired a great interim hearing. It began with a presentation by Gigi Antoni from the Wallace Foundation. (I’m old enough to remember when Oklahomans made policy decisions based on the outstanding social science promoted by Wallace and other more traditional philanthropists as opposed to the ideology-driven venture philanthropists who have dominated for the last decade.)

Antoni showed how the gap between spending on supports outside of class for students in the top and bottom quartiles has increased from $2,700 in 1972 to $7,600 in 2016. Although she didn’t say this, one reason is that corporate school reformers have prioritized the implementation (usually forced) of their theories on how to close the achievement gap. Their mandates failed, promising programs withered, and the summer learning loss is two months for poor kids.

The annual summer slide in Tulsa is even greater: half a year. This raises the question whether Tulsa’s devotion to the Gates Foundation’s and Superintendent Deborah Gist’s untested Broad Foundation hypotheses have resulted in more in-one-ear-out-the-other teach-to-the-test malpractice. Since the TPS seems to be more open to the holistic methods of their city’s early educators, librarians and social service providers, I don’t want to push that point further.

And that leads to another point by the Wallace Foundation: After-school and summer learning, like classroom instruction, must be high quality. Low-quality programs can do more harm than good. After a generation of narrowing the curriculum, we seem ready to heed the foundation’s call for enrichment, not just remediation, and vital arts instruction. Children need exposure to new experiences. The Tulsa library system illustrates the great good that partners can do. They offer students learning in digital maker spaces, with flight simulators, coding instruction, digital literacy, an audio lab and podcast development.

We only get $12,766,550 in federal support to serve less than 20 percent of applications for the after-school programs that were described, and the waiting list is longer for summer school than the after-school list. Despite the lack of resources, there are a lot of good first steps being taken in our schools. The school-turnaround movement is being transformed and given a little new money. The Wallace Foundation, for example, invests $6 million in Oklahoma programs. They and partners like them are a part of the new mentality of “Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child.”

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