Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

Why is Oklahoma Education Policy So Screwed Up?

Oklahoma science teacher Lisa Seay, who I met at EdCampTulsa several weeks ago, asked a great question in a poignant post today titled, “Tattered, Torn and Tired.” She wrote:

I have only been teaching 11 years. Maybe some of you can answer this: How did we get to this point? At what point in history did teachers stop becoming respected and revered and start being seen as leeches on our economy and failures of our children? I can’t understand….

The answer I want to share to this question is not only too long for Twitter, it’s too wordy for the commenting character limit on Lisa’s blog. So, I’m posting it here and linking to it on her original post.


You pose an excellent question that teachers, parents, administrators, and all community members / voters need to understand: “How we got here” with testing and high stakes accountability in schools. Most of this answer is not unique to Oklahoma, but some of it is.

My short explanation would be: Policymakers/politicians as well as testing companies have colluded for mutual benefit to impose a culture of high stakes accountability in public education. Politicians saw and see this as a “win” because they can make pronouncements about “having high standards for education” and emphasizing a “back to basics” approach focusing primarily on reading and math skills. This is a lot like saying “we are tough on crime.” It may make an attractive sound byte, but the underlying realities of what is going on are far more complex and are not served well by simplistic approaches. Not coincidentally, these pronouncements are tied to test scores which are the result of state level assessments that cost millions of dollars each year. Corporations are making these profits, and they do not want that gravy train to stop. So the marriage of educational testing companies and politicians pushing a corporate school reform agenda is alive and well today in our state and in our nation.

The proclivity of the public to believe these statements about failing schools and teachers, which are usually accompanied by references to graphs and charts of test scores, is also related to issues Neil Postman identified in his excellent book, “Technopoly,” regarding appeals to science and research which are frequently misrepresented. Many voters will (sadly) believe things politicians say with a graph and table of data, and not critically analyze the assertions they attach to them. As a result, many people today in the United States commonly believe “Our schools are failing.” This is not an accident or something that happened by chance, it is the result of policies pursued by different groups for many years which are continuing to bear a poisonous fruit that students, teachers, and families are forced to taste at this time of year.

Educational testing companies, like the military industrial complex, have seen millions of dollars in the coffers of public education as an attractive target. Similar to what Naomi Harm describes in “Shock Doctrine,” they have worked with policymakers to create a culture of fear and impending doom surrounding public education and the performance of students on international comparative tests. This hearkens back to “Nation at Risk” in 1983. Now we accept it as “normal” (a huge, immoral mistake, in my view) that we need to spend millions of dollars each year in EVERY state to administer high stakes tests which do very little to benefit students and their learning, but do LOTS to support the quarterly profits and bottom line of educational testing companies. The agenda of this educational reform movement is to discredit teachers and public schools as failures, pointing to low student test scores, so voters will accept increasingly radical laws which raise pressure and supposed rigor on students and teachers in the classroom. Pressure to change state laws to accept for-profit charter schools goes hand-in-hand with this agenda, again because corporations stand to make millions when public education dollars can be channeled into their organizations.

In Oklahoma, we added to this mix a situation where we had the same Democratic state superintendent for over two decades. Our long time state superintendent retired at a time when conservatives were taking over legislatures around the country, so it was relatively easy for a Republican candidate with minimal experiences in public schools to win the election for state superintendent. I think she was well-intentioned but clearly very inexperienced, and as a result was eager to find an education reform agenda and platform she could adopt. Unfortunately, the one she found and chose was the “Digital Learning Now” prescriptions advocated by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, as well as misleading educational reformers like Tom Vander Ark. These reforms brought us in Oklahoma the third grade retention law and Oklahoma teachers now being evaluated based on student test scores. These are destructive, ill-conceived policies which not only hurt children and families, but also harm the long-term educational and economic prospects of our state and nation. Even before we got a new state superintendent, however, corporate edu-reform had moved forward with charter school laws as well as laws written by for-profit online school groups. Federal “Race to the Top” grant requirements encouraged our legislators to change more laws following the corporate edu-reform prescriptions, and this path was followed more aggressively when a new state superintendent was elected.

These combined education policies are further eroding and even destroying the professional teacher cadre we have in public education in Oklahoma and elsewhere in our nation. A recent article about difficulties recruiting teachers in Muskogee is a case in point. Sadly, this situation is likely to only get worse before it gets better.

The Oklahoma Teacher Leader Effectiveness (TLE) program and changes to teacher evaluation are part of our state policymakers’ current agenda, but they come largely as a result of “The Widget Effect” Report and a sincere effort (I think) to both improve teacher evaluation and our profession by some reformers. Some corporate edu-reformers have pushed this agenda as part of their platform to destroy teacher unions and teacher tenure. I do not think all of those pushing for changes in teacher evaluation have ill intentions for schools and public education, however. You don’t need to look far in most schools to recognize the problems we have helping all teachers improve/get better or, if they refuse, to leave the profession. Unfortunately for corporate education reformers and our society as a whole, the prescription for doing this is not as simple as giving students high-stakes tests and then firing the teachers whose students score poorly.

High stakes accountability and testing is really our biggest enemy in educational policy currently, and this is something I have become more outspoken about opposing and encouraging others in Oklahoma to oppose on both sides of the political aisle. A lot of anger for the changes happening in public education now is directed at Common Core, and it is true testing companies have been primary proponents of these new standards and tests. It would be a big mistake for us to reject Common Core State Standards at this point, however, because we would have to spend millions of dollars writing new standards for our state. We need to reject high-stakes testing and accountability, but keep Common Core standards. I am hopeful some of our state legislators will step forward and advocate for this position, which is now not mainstream.

Like Eisenhower warned us in his closing Presidential speech about the dangers posed by the military industrial complex, this collusion of educational testing companies and politicians has borne poisonous fruit in schools and classrooms everywhere. It needs to stop, but cultures do not change quickly. It will take time. We need to be thoughtful, strategic, intentional, and persistent.

I have several more books I want to write at this point, and although I’m focusing currently on another in my “Mapping Media” series about digital literacy, I REALLY feel called and want to write a book that will be titled something like “A Legislator’s Handbook to Constructive Education Reform.” (I probably need a shorter and catchier title, but I haven’t figured that out yet.) We don’t seem to have a counter-vision to the high stakes testing / dismantle public schools / open the floodgates to charter school movement at this point, and we need it. I want to help articulate and amplify that vision. We had 30,000+ Oklahoma teachers and supporters of public schools protest at our state capitol a few weeks ago, but I doubt much is going to change as a result for either our school funding prospects or for educational policies. In addition to the dynamics I already mentioned, we have conservative leaders who seem to believe their elected role is to return as much tax revenue as possible to corporations and not only dismantle public education but also cripple all other public services like our prison system, DHS, etc. At at time when we need a coordinated, thoughtful, and community-based war on poverty, the only thing our government officials seem hell-bent on is giving more money to their funders through tax breaks. We need to mobilize middle and lower class voters, and move together toward a vision of change which includes constructive education reform which is a MAJOR shift away from the destructive status quo.

Here are a few books I have read recently that I recommend on these issues:
“The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education” by Diane Ravitch (her more recent book is “Reign of Error” but I haven’t read it yet)

“Republic Lost” by Larry Lessig (he focuses on Washington politics but I think many of the same dynamics are happening in our Oklahoma legislature, and we need similar campaign finance reforms to change it)

“Finnish Lessons” by Pasi Salberg (no Oklahoma is not Finland, but we still can learn a GREAT deal about the non-partisan coalition Finland built over years to support constructive education reform which empowers teachers, emphasizes authentic learning and assessment, etc)

Keep the faith and hang in there, we are making a positive difference every day in the lives of children as classroom teachers. We all must do our part, where we are, and you ARE both through your teaching and your communication via your blog.




, , ,




2 responses to “Why is Oklahoma Education Policy So Screwed Up?”

  1. John Kain Avatar
    John Kain

    Wes, thanks for speaking out. More people with a bully pulpit like you need to do the same.