FOR the past several years, state policymakers have made education a major focus. In Oklahoma City, officials have worked to improve the local district for far longer, including initiatives such as MAPS For Kids.
What are the results? Ed Allen, president of the Oklahoma City chapter of the American Federation for Teachers, is blunt: “Our entire city is changing before our very eyes with one glaring exception — our school district.”
Allen says it doesn't have to be that way. One major change he endorsed in a recent meeting with The Oklahoman's editorial board may surprise many: “Turn down some federal money.”
He notes the federal strings attached often require implementing new programs or initiatives that take teachers away from existing duties. In a district where 75 to 100 teaching positions are routinely vacant and staff are already stretched thin, that's a problem.
Allen believes greater accountability is needed for district administrators, whose policies can dramatically impede teacher effectiveness. One glaring example: AFT members have complained about an unofficial district policy that prevents giving students any grade lower than a 50.
To successfully implement major education reforms, Allen says Oklahoma City officials must first master basic administrative duties, such as providing bonus pay in a timely manner to teachers who attend specialized training. More importantly, Allen notes that teachers and administrators who are fired or resign for serious violations often get rehired at other schools in the district. Allen quipped that the system seems designed to “bring all the dysfunctional people back.”
Allen has suggested using private-sector managerial consultants to review district practices. He's also offered to open and review the Oklahoma City AFT's entire collective bargaining agreement to address “onerous or obsolete language,” something that hasn't occurred for 35 years. So far, he said neither suggestion has been embraced by district leaders.
Notably, Allen isn't among those blaming socioeconomic factors for Oklahoma City school failures. He says 95 percent of students from all backgrounds are capable of learning and suggests better school discipline policies are needed for the other 5 percent causing most problems.
No doubt Oklahoma City administrators and board members have a different take and explanations for the problems Allen cites. Still, the issues he raises are troubling.
If the choice is between federal money and efficient use of teachers, we agree with Allen's view that teachers' energies are better expended on core education functions rather than “busy work” created by federal grants. Reports of a 50 percent grade rule are truly dismaying. That practice would discourage students who actually do their course work and are graded accordingly. Workplace employees don't get half a paycheck regardless of hours worked. Why should school grades be different?
The issue of rehiring bad actors should upset all area parents and community leaders. That practice embeds institutional barriers to improvement in the school system while undermining educators who work diligently and ethically.
There's plenty of blame to go around, but as the saying goes, the fish rots from the head down. Ultimately, the success or failure of Oklahoma City schools starts at the top. As Oklahoma City district leaders work to right the ship, we hope they take seriously Allen's critique and consider his proposals for improvement.