ANGRY storm clouds have hovered over public education much of the past three years. At times, calm seemed within reach. Then yet another storm would blow in, bringing chaos and the stench of partisan rhetoric.
Rather than look toward 2014 with hope and optimism, we fear that storms will continue to rage in education. Here's why: State schools Superintendent Janet Barresi will face her first re-election test, an election that could, for all practical purposes, be decided in a summer primary. The campaign for that race will launch in earnest during a legislative session that should feature extensive discussion on common education.
It doesn't take a weather expert or complex technology to see more severe storms on the horizon. That's why it's of paramount importance that administrators, teachers, parents and policymakers keep their eyes where they belong — on students.
Common Core: Stay the course
Controversy over Common Core was getting some traction at the state Capitol last year, just as the legislative session ended. It survived, but of course it's doubtful the fight is over. Legitimate concerns exist about some of the specific content in the reading/language arts and math standards. Is there too little focus on classic literature? Are some of the elementary school standards developmentally appropriate?
These sorts of questions will exist no matter the academic standards, but they shouldn't be viewed as deal-breakers. If we aren't as a state satisfied with the academic achievement of our kids — and no one in Oklahoma should be — the standards are a right area of focus. In fact, many school districts began transitioning to curriculum consistent with the Common Core standards well in advance of the mandate. Schools aren't kicking and screaming to back off the standards; neither should the Legislature.
The main concern of schools related to academic standards is testing. Critics have a valid point. Standardized testing isn't the once-a-year phenomenon many of us might remember from our youth. In many schools, it's all-consuming. Students hear about testing from the first day of school to the last. The pressure is enormous, as are the consequences.
This is an area that requires monitoring and ongoing discussion at all levels. Maybe it's OK that the focus in some schools has narrowed to improve student achievement in reading and math. But that's often come at the expense of art, music, science, social studies and other important areas that keep kids excited about learning. Test scores ought not be all that matters, but finding a balance isn't easy.
A-F system: Keep working
The implementation pains of the A-F accountability system likely are going to haunt this effort for years to come. That's unfortunate. We still believe this system has promise. The idea that parents should have easy access to information about whether their child's school is academically successful is a no-brainer. Parents want to know the answer to that question. Parents need to know the answer to that question.
The strength and the challenge of A-F is its focus on test scores. On a basic level, judging schools on results make sense. With time and continued tweaking of the formula, the state can produce a grade that will give parents and communities valuable information as a starting point for evaluating how their schools are doing.
Policymakers should stick with this system, even as they make necessary tweaks to improve its accuracy. Likewise, parents and community leaders must be savvy in their use of the letter grades. Test scores aren't the only criteria when looking at whether a school is serving children well. Different parents and communities reach different conclusions about the value of everything from fine arts offerings to the level of science instruction to the availability of after-school programming. The letter grade is one indicator among many, but it's an important one.
Third-grade reading: Reality check
No other education reform in recent years could have more impact on Oklahoma than the law requiring retention of third-graders with limited reading skills. That's why its efficient implementation is so crucial.
Under the law, students must pass tests showing they've achieved at least a second-grade reading level before advancing to the fourth grade. Sadly, too many students won't make that cut. Rather than continue social promotion, schools must instead be provided the resources to successfully implement this law and help lagging students catch up. We're not convinced those resources have been provided.
Lawmakers should carefully monitor implementation and address problem areas — whether that means adjusting strategies or increasing funding. When it comes to state spending decisions, teaching children to read should be a top priority. There are no do-overs for the young students the current system is failing; the negative consequences can be lifelong. Reading skills are vital in life, making smooth implementation of this law critical.
Teachers and funding: More support needed
The research on the importance of the classroom teacher is clear: No in-school factor is more critical. The impact of a good teacher can reap rewards for years. A bad teacher can quickly erase that impact.
The subject of teacher salaries is largely a political one. It shouldn't be. And it isn't the only solution for attracting and retaining more high-performing teachers to the classroom. Teachers need better preparation, particularly in urban settings. They also need more support once they're in the classroom. All of this costs money, both from new sources of funding and reprioritizing within existing budgets.
It's easy to look at how poorly Oklahoma fares on national rankings of school funding and be frustrated. Clearly, Oklahoma has plenty of room for improvement; students and teachers can't afford to do education reform on the cheap. Too much is at stake.
Perhaps it's also time to consider a governmental or at least a gubernatorial Cabinet structure that brings a more cohesive look at meeting all the needs of children. The educational success of children is profoundly affected by whether their other basic needs are met. Oklahoma ignores this reality at its own peril.
This state will overcome its severe education challenges only through painstaking teamwork at all levels. Academic success is the result of a partnership that reaches from homes to the state Capitol. Ongoing political posturing from all involved helps no one — certainly not students. Barresi and district superintendents must share the task of setting a new tone so the focus is on students and not on feuding adults.