John Thompson, widely published writer, historian and teacher, wrote this post for the blog.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan obviously knew what he was doing when he timed the USDOE revocation of Oklahoma’s NCLB Waiver on the proverbial “take out the trash day,” just before the long Labor Day weekend. One Duncan soundbite is that Common Core is not a top down corporate and/or federal mandate, but he doesn’t want to call national attention to his own repudiation of that claim. It is now impossible for anyone to believe Duncan’s spin after he punished Oklahoma for repealing its standards and tests.
Neither can Duncan deny anymore that his policies are about reward and punish. In its letter informing Oklahoma that it must return, this year, to the discredited NCLB accountability regime, the USDOE admits that it is imposing a policy that “is neither simple nor desirable.”
Technically, Duncan did not punish the teachers and students of Oklahoma because the state yielded to bipartisan grassroots pressure and rejected Common Core. It did not even throw our underfunded and overwhelmed schools into another mess, at the beginning of the school year, because Oklahoma rejected college-readiness standards. Oklahoma has long had such standards, known as PASS, and those widely praised standards are again in place. Despite the dubious nature of the legal authority that he claims, Duncan threw our schools into turmoil because Oklahoma did not meet his schedule for proving that our democratically enacted standards meet his standards.
The USDOE had given Oklahoma sixty days to prove that its standards are college ready. The Oklahoma State Regents was tasked with determining that a student who met those high school standards would not require remediation in college. The Regents apparently was on schedule to ratify or not ratify that status by October.
In other words, Secretary Duncan remains consistent in not only demanding that all states, schools, and teachers toe the line, but that they remain on his timetable when implementing everything on his corporate reform wish list.
Duncan tipped his hand when Oklahoma repealed Common Core, snidely commenting on the state’s high college remediation rate. Clearly Duncan believes the failure to produce college ready students was linked to our failure to see the wisdom of Common Core. It couldn’t be due to generations of poverty, an out-of-control incarceration rate (especially of mothers,) lack of access to health care for children and families, or our incredibly low per student spending (of about $8000 per student.) Our shortcomings were not due to education budget cuts of 22%, more than any other state.
Neither could our high remediation rate be attributable to what we are doing right. Oklahoma Promise funds college attendance for low-income students, meaning that our universities need to remediate the skills of students who otherwise would not have attempted to go to college. (But, perhaps I shouldn’t go there; Duncan might demand a repeal of that law or mandate NCLB-type accountability for the universities whose graduation rates are hurt by it.)
But, frankly, this week is a reminder of a misjudgment I made a couple of months ago. The transition to the current standards was slowed somewhat when Oklahoma Board of Education exercised its legal right to challenge the repeal of Common Core in court. I was in a room full of superintendents at the Vision 2020 annual conference when it was announced that the lawsuit was rejected and school systems were on a tight schedule for starting the year with the old PASS standards.
I could understand the pain of educators who had invested scarce resources and energy in preparing for Common Core, while meeting all of the new post-NCLB demands of the Duncan administration and our state Chief for Change. In a time of austerity, they had to implement high-stakes 3rd grade reading tests, and find resources for students who they had been required to retain. (Fortunately, a moratorium on mandated retention was also passed in the closing days of the legislature.) They had to deal with a dysfunctional A-F Report Card, as well as the second year of technical failures during testing. At a time of teacher shortages, Oklahoma schools had to implement the value-added teacher evaluation scheme that Duncan had pressured us to adopt.
I could appreciate the frustration of so much energy being wasted at a time when so many mandates remained on their plates. But, I sensed that the anxiety of that roomful of administrators – which I felt bordered on outright fear – was out of proportion. Now, I’m reminded of how wrong I was to judge.
Preliminary reports and my layperson’s reading of the Waiver revocation indicated that most of the rebudgeting would not have to be completed until 2015. But, the Tulsa World’s more detailed reporting indicates that an unknown number of schools and districts will be on the 2014 School Improvement List, and that most of these schools will have to set aside 10% of their federal Title I funds for professional development this year. I find it hard to believe that it will happen this year, but some schools on that list may have to conduct mass dismissal of teachers and/or become charters. So, it is not unlikely that the state’s two high-poverty urban districts will be thrown into confusion at this crucial time of the year.
The Oklahoma DOE correctly notes, overburdened administrators now face “a steep learning curve” as they figure out what is required of them this year under the reinstated NCLB regulations. Under the best case scenario, after administrators rush to learn the new rules, the USDOE will hear from the Oklahoma Regents and say, “never mind.” They will thus be reminded about the way that corporate reformers see educators’ labor as easily expendable.
Superintendents can’t assume a rational outcome. Plans must be made for rebudgeting in case the NCLB Waiver is not reinstated. Next year, up to 20% of Title I funds may have to be set aside for supplemental educational services and transportation for school choice, perhaps requiring the dismissal of teachers. As the OKDOE says, they must “plan for these additional funding restrictions and federal requirements to go into place next year.” So, educators must frantically adjust to Duncan’s new rules, hope that their efforts will soon be flushed down the toilet, and fear that they might actually have to act on the plans that they must now make.
The bottom line for educators across the nation, not just in Oklahoma, is “déjà vu all over again.” Once again, it is rule by soundbite. If students need remediating, it’s not due to poverty or the multiple, contradictory mandates placed on under-resourced schools; the soundbite is that teachers don’t fully embrace “High Expectations!”
The new Duncan cop is the same as the old NCLB cop – or worse. NCLB was designed to produce an endless list of failing schools, to produce an infinite string of headlines about failing schools. Some conservatives would celebrate the inevitable march towards 100% failure as proof that schools should be privatized. Pro-NCLB liberals somehow believed that showcasing the predetermined defeat of public schools would create a demand to end poverty and that schools could do so on the cheap.
By the time Duncan took office, even NCLB’s chief author acknowledged that it was the most discredited “brand” in politics. That title should now pass to Arne Duncan, and his test, sort, and punish policies. But, because he didn’t like the way that Oklahoma pushed back, he has punished us by creating a situation where:
Upward of 90 percent of Oklahoma schools are expected to be affected to some degree by the loss of the waiver. Under NCLB, schools must meet 100-percent proficiency on a number of benchmarks to avoid being designated as a school in need of improvement. The number of failing schools in need of improvement could now swell from its current 490 to more than 1,600, according to NCLB definitions of failing.
So much for the claim that corporate reformers put children’s interests over adult concerns. Equally absurd is the idea that Common Core is a state-driven effort, not a mandate from on high.