John Thompson, teacher and historian in Oklahoma, writes here about Deborah Gist, now superintendent in Tulsa, formerly State Superintendent in Rhode Island during the infamous mass firing of the staff at Central Falls High School in 2010.

He writes:

What’s the Matter with Deborah Gist’s Tulsa?

As explained previously, teacher walkouts started in Oklahoma and other “red” states are primarily caused by the rightwing agenda described in Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? And so far, the teachers’ rebellions are mostly coming from places where corporate school reform was imposed. But as Jeff Bryant notes, teacher resistance is growing in the “purple” state of Colorado and other regions. Bryant explains:

“The sad truth is financial austerity that has driven governments at all levels to skimp on education has had plenty of compliance, if not downright support, from centrist Democrats who’ve spent most of their political capital on pressing an agenda of “school reform” and “choice” rather than pressing for increased funding and support that schools and teachers need.”

Data-driven, charter-driven reforms incentivized by the Race to the Top and edu-philanthropy likely contributed to recent walkouts by weakening unions and the professional autonomy of educators. This undermined both the political power required to fight budget cuts, and the joy of teaching and learning.

And that brings us to the question of What’s the Matter with the Tulsa Public Schools?

Whether its Dana Goldstein writing in the New York Times, Mike Elk writing for the Guardian, or Oklahoma reporters, the coverage cites disproportionate numbers of Tulsa teachers. Their complaints start with budget cuts but often mention the ways that the TPS is robbing teachers and principals of their professional autonomy.

Goldstein notes that Deborah Gist is now allied with the Oklahoma Education Association in advocating for increased teacher salaries, even though she was “the hard-charging education commissioner in Rhode Island [who] tried to weaken teachers’ seniority protections and often clashed with their union.” I wonder, however, whether Gist’s policies have contributed to the anger and exhaustion that prompted the walkout. After all, Gist is a member of the corporate reform “Chiefs for Change,” and a Broad Academy graduate in a system with nine other Broadies, and who is now expanding charter and “partnership schools.”

Tulsa started down a dubious policy path of “exiting” teachers around the time when Gist was attacking Rhode Island teachers. It accepted a Gates Foundation “teacher quality” grant. A Tulsa World analysis of turnover data showed that the Gates effort was followed by “a significant uptick … when it suddenly went from about 200-250 exits in any given year and jumped in 2011 to about 360-400 per year. That’s when the district began using its then-new teacher evaluation for ‘forced exits’ of teachers for performance reasons.”

From 2012 through 2014, “some 260 ‘forced exits’ were reported by TPS leaders.”

The World reports that teacher turnover grew even more after Gist arrived. Over the last two years, there has been an “exodus of 1,057, or 35 percent, of all 3,000 school-based certified staff.” The district’s average turnover rate was 21% in 2016-17, with turnover reaching 47% in one school.

And what happened to student performance? Tulsa’s test score gains are now among the lowest in the nation, with 3rd graders growing only 3.8 years during their next 5 years of schooling.

The World’s data shows that the exodus is not merely due to low salaries. About 28% of former teachers “are not in higher-paying states but in other Oklahoma school districts with comparable pay.”

The World quotes a former Tulsa teacher criticizing the implementation of “personalized learning.” He could understand how standardized laptop technology “could help bad or inexperienced teachers, but for him, it made him feel like little more than a computer lab attendant.” The teacher said the TPS “standardized it so we’re all at the low-rung of the totem pole. … That’s like a huge slap in the face for a teacher. That’s the best part of teaching for most people is to be able to design and use your creativity.”

Earlier this year, Tulsa teacher resistance began in Edison Preparatory School, a high-performing school with a five-year teacher turnover rate of 62%. An Advanced Placement teacher, Larry Cagle, has been quoted extensively by the national press. Cagle recounted how “year after year, high-quality teachers retire early.” So, he and fellow teachers started to address both the deterioration of school climate and the increase in turnover.

Even though Cagle has sympathy for the administration which has to face serious budget challenges, he challenges its Broad-style, top-down policies. Despite the teacher shortage, the administration is incentivizing the retirements of older teachers. It is also using philanthropic donations to fund the Education Service Center (ESC), which sounds to me like a misnomer. Its highly-paid administrators have disempowered rather than served administrators and teachers.

Cagle says, “We would like the ESC to stop lobbying philanthropists,” and start lobbying legislators.

A detailed analysis by Tulsa Kids shows that the Tulsa micromanaging is consistent with that of other failed Broad-run districts. And its comments by TPS teachers is especially revealing. A teacher who worked with the Broad-laden administrative team wrote that they identified themselves as the “Super Team.”

And that helps explain why so many Tulsa teachers walked out of their classrooms before the statewide walkout. If the reign of Gist is not stopped, even the $6,100 pay increase will not be enough to start rebuilding its schools. What happens, however, if Oklahoma’s reenergized teachers fight back against the Billionaires Boys Club’s mandates? Maybe Colorado teachers will do the same with its corporate reforms that were choreographed by the Democrats for Education Reform, as Arizona teachers resist their state’s mass privatization, and Kentucky teachers challenge last year’s attacks on their state’s profession.