This is the first of a three-part series. Last spring, Oklahoma experiences a mass teacher walkout to protest underfunding of public schools.

John Thompson, historian and retired teacher, writes:

Oklahoma made national headlines in 2018 because of its teacher walkout; teachers running for the legislature; and a “Blue Wave” in Oklahoma City and the nation’s biggest congressional upset. But the election of a vocal Trump supporter as governor has emboldened privatizers. In some ways, the drama is more common in states, like Oklahoma, that have cut schools and public services in the most extreme manner. Mostly, however, the assault on the state’s schools and the teachers’ counter-attack is representative of national privatization campaign.

Test-driven, charter-driven reform failed, so now the Billionaires Boys Club is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in selling the “Portfolio Model.”

The Portfolio Model is new and different. Its strategy is the opposite: charter-driven, test-driven reform.

Seriously, the Oklahoma education crisis and teacher shortage has been extreme, but a large part of our ordeal was the predictable result of the corporate reform agenda. It was imposed on our schools just like it was across the nation. Oklahomans now need to ask what would have happened to our dramatically underfunded schools had a grassroots teachers’ revolt not rolled back the “reforms” of 2010 to 2014. We then need to ask what will happen to our still-weakened public education systems if we can’t fight off these new, supposedly kinder and gentler reforms, like the portfolio model.

Non-Oklahomans might not recognize the full, frightening message conveyed by the Oklahoman’s editorial entitled, “A Welcome Shift to Oklahoma Education Reform.” It was accompanied by a photograph of the conservative Speaker of the House Charles McCall, who now has a majority (if he doesn’t lose Republican legislators who were teachers) so large that it can’t be stalled by Democrats. McCall’s frightening glare previewed the message he conveyed to the extremely conservative newspaper editors: spending increases are needed but “We need to look at educational outcomes.” Sounding like he is oblivious to the fiasco which resulted from the accountability-driven, competition-driven experiments imposed at the beginning of the decade, the Speaker said we need to “look at both sides of the ledger.”

The editorial then quoted Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, who leads an even more daunting Republican majority, who said that the Oklahoma City (OKCPS) and Tulsa districts (TPS) will be targeted. The Oklahoman then editorialized for Treat’s call for reforms in the urban districts, “That echoed comments Treat previously made to The Oklahoman editorial board, when he warned that continued struggles in the state’s two largest districts are ‘detrimental’ to the state’s economic future.”

For that reason, Oklahomans, as well as educators and school patrons across the nation, should review the last decade of corporate reforms. I’ll admit to being naively hopeful when the Gates Foundation announced its district-charter collaboration grants and I understood why Tulsa accepted the Gates teacher quality grant. But I had no way of knowing that the Gates Teacher Effectiveness Model (TLE) value-added teacher evaluations would become the model for the state’s dysfunctional TLE law. As the TPS leaders said at the beginning, before they fired or “exited” 260 teachers and 26 school leaders, the TLE wouldn’t become a “gotcha” system; they claimed to understand that Tulsa faced a teacher shortage, so the system would focus on improving teacher quality.

Even before the Chiefs for Change’s Deborah Gist staffed the TPS administration with nine Broad Academy graduates, Gates grants for charter/district partners required value-added school reports across district and district-authorized charters, and opening more “high-performing” charter schools in high-needs areas. Another grant funded “innovative professional development systems to create personalized learning systems for teachers;” and an “experiment with innovative modes of delivery.” After Gist took over, edu-philanthropists funded the salaries of three central office administrators, including a “director of portfolio management” to “absorb the duties of the director of partnership and charter schools.”
So, did the millions of dollars of money from Gates and other edu-philanthropists improve teaching and learning?
Because of Tulsa’s previous commitment to early education, students enter 3rd grade ahead of their peers in the OKCPS but TPS students’ progress from 3rd to 8th grade is the nation’s 7th slowest according to data from Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis. Its student growth advances only 3.8 years over the next five. By contrast, OKCPS students progress 4.4 years from third to eighth grade. Despite – or because of – the district’s reforms, Tulsa has about 75 percent more inexperienced teachers than the even more challenged Oklahoma City schools.

A recent Tulsa World article praised the TPS Teacher Corp led by Quentin Liggins, the Broad-trained director of talent initiatives, calling it a success because it helped 74 emergency certified teachers secure jobs.

But, that sidesteps the key question that the legislature and the governor should ask: Given all the money and effort invested in the Gates TLE, why the TPS can’t retain experienced teachers, resulting in 34 percent of TPS’s teachers being hired in the past two years?
The World enthusiastically praised the system where applicants spend “about 15 to 20 hours completing online coursework during the spring” and attend “the six-week program in June with in-classroom training.” It then quoted a Teacher Corp teacher who praised its classroom management training which “went a long way in helping Martin [the teacher] instill some order in her class of kindergartners.”

And that leads to the question that legislators should ask that will be explored in a subsequent post. Given the importance of teaching reading for comprehension, hopefully by 3rd grade, why are we dumping that responsibility on rookie, emergency certified teachers?

Could that help explain why Oklahoma is #2 in the nation in retaining k through 2nd graders?