Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Springer & Monson to Barresi: You Don’t Have the Right to Take Over Our Public Schools in Oklahoma

Karl Springer, the superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools, shared a passionate and clear message with Oklahoma State Superintendent Janet Barresi and Oklahoma City constituents today at a press conference: Local control of our Oklahoma public schools is a vital, important part of our democracy and the state department of education does NOT have the right to take over our schools. OKCPS published videos from the press conference today in eight different clips on their official district YouTube channel. Springer and OKCPS board chair Angela Monson were responding to the Oklahoma State Department of Education‘s plan (included in the approved NCLB waiver request for Oklahoma) to (according to NewsOK) “take over up to 24 different schools in the district.” In this initial clip, Springer stated:

Our school district is not willing to abdicate our responsibility for the students of our district to a state agency, to a state, or any other entity. Our school board has that very solemn kind of responsibility, and as a school superintendent I believe we have a responsibility to make sure what we do for the children of this school district is good for the children of Oklahoma City. Taking over a school in Oklahoma City, or Tulsa, or any other school district in the state of Oklahoma is against the very fundamental idea of local control. The local control of the school board [means] making decisions about who is going to lead the school, what kind of curriculum they are going to have, what kinds of issues they are going to see as important: That’s why we have school board elections. I believe at this time, changing the strategic direction of this district after we have spent the last several years working on our strategic plan, could be fatal for our district and not be good for the children of our district.

Angela Monson articulated the OKCPS board’s concerns that Janet Barresi and the current leadership in the Oklahoma State Department of Education are unwilling to work with, engage with, and collaborate with school districts to address tough challenges. She also emphasized the desire of OKCPS to be granted the same flexibility when it comes to testing and federal mandates which commercial, state-imposed private entries would enjoy under the proposed “takeover plan.” In the second video clip posted by OKCPS to YouTube of today’s press conference, Monson stated:

We still believe there is reason to be concerned about the sincerity of the State Department of Education and its real willingness to really collaborate with and work with local school districts to ensure that our students’ academic success is our top priority. We do recognize, as the [OKCPS] superintendent stated, that we have many schools in distress. We have recognized that for many years. We have undertaken actions that we believe will turn those schools around. Just a few months ago the Oklahoma City Public School Board established a much higher bar of success for all of our students’ academic achievement. Much higher for reading, math, and success in the classroom. We created with about 75 community partners last year a strategic plan with very specific interventions and activities to address those kinds of things. When the waiver was submitted, we were excited. But since we’ve seen that waiver, mind you the latest version was just posted a few weeks ago, we realized the flexibility we had hoped for would not be extended to local education agencies. We do want to work with the state department of education, but we as a local district want to be granted the same flexibility that they are giving through these waivers or that they would give to a private management company that could potentially take over one of our schools… We will resist any takeover by the state department of education of our schools. We do have a plan, and we do plan to execute that plan. We stand ready to work with the state department of education but we need the same flexibility that they would give to themselves or to a private firm.

One thing which Chairwoman Monson said during the press conference was incorrect and needs to be addressed. She said at the 32 second mark of the sixth press conference video posted by OKCPS:

There are no silver bullets for the academic success of our children.

While it is true educators, school officials, and school board members cannot control all the factors which contribute to a student’s level of academic success and achievement, I believe it’s a mistake to say “there are no silver bullets.” The silver bullet is a caring, passionate, smart and dedicated classroom teacher. Emphasizing the importance, value, and powerful impact of classroom teachers on student learning is one of the most important things we all need to keep in mind and keep at the forefront of these discussions about “school reform.” If you have not already, I encourage you to read all of Amber Teamann’s January 23rd post for Connected Principals, “The Silver Bullet.” Also see my February 12th post which references Amber’s identification of teachers as the silver bullet, “A Response to the Alleged Consensus on America’s Failing Schools.” Chairwoman Monson is right to identify a huge number of challenges facing our Oklahoma City Public Schools. I think, however, she missed mentioning the REAL silver bullets for public education: Awesome teachers in our classrooms. No, great classroom teachers can’t be “superman” or “Wonder Woman” and solve every problem. Academic research is clear on this issue, however: Great classroom teachers make the biggest positive difference for student achievement than any other factor.

I created a YouTube playlist with the eight video clips posted by OKCPS of today’s press conference, in case you’d like to view them all sequentially. I’ve embedded the playlist below.

Damon Gardenhire, official spokesman for the Oklahoma Department of Education, was quoted in an Oklahoma News 9 article this evening (“State Takeover Of Under performing OKC Schools Not Likely“) and said fears of a state school takeover in Oklahoma are ill-founded. According to the article he said:

We’re not talking about that, First of all, the state is not interested in taking over, [but] rather identifying ways to better work together, [to] get the politics out of the process. Let’s focus on what’s best for the students. What we’re encouraging is that everybody come to the table with solutions and look at those solutions, figure out best practices, and what’s working and let’s focus on that.

Time will tell if the concerns expressed by Springer and Monson at today’s press conference are well founded or not. Oh, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we truly could “get politics out of the process” when it comes to education and our schools? Realistically we won’t, because people who care will always speak up when the needs and interests of children are threatened as they are today. Our best hope is that those crafting policies which affect public education will be well informed and smart about intended as well as unintended consequences of legislation. We can also hope those leaders have the courage to address the roots of many problems which face our schools, teachers and communities: Poverty.

I will refrain from editorializing further on this situation right now except to note that last year, in 2010-2011, the federally mandated “slash and burn approach” to school change where half of the teaching faculty at a school identified as “low performing” are fired was implemented at U.S. Grant High School in Oklahoma City Public Schools. Guess what? Firing half the teachers and hiring new people didn’t “fix” the deep-seated problems faced by students, families and educators in that OKCPS community. In fact, many would argue hiring a new wave of 1st year teachers is often a setback rather than a step forward for schools serving large numbers of impoverished students when RELATIONSHIPS between teachers and students are so pivotal in the learning process. Many of the challenges faced by our urban schools today stem directly from POVERTY and the issues which go along with it. Those aren’t issues anyone in our Oklahoma State Department of Education are talking about currently.

Stay tuned. As a parent of three children enrolled in Oklahoma City Public Schools, I think we’re in for a bumpy ride. My hope and prayer is that our state and school leaders will work together to truly put the needs and interests of students, families, and educators first and find collaborative ways to improve both our schools and our communities. “It takes a village” to educate children well, and we all have important roles to play.

'DSC00924' photo (c) 2009, Wesley Fryer - license:
'Our Sandstones Cabin Group' photo (c) 2009, Wesley Fryer - license:

If you want some additional reading about ANSWERS to our educational reform challenges, see my March 2011 post, “High Stakes Testing Must End in the USA.” Unfortunately, no one in a position of political or educational leadership in Oklahoma is speaking this language. Yet.

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