John Thompson, historian and recently retired teacher in Oklahoma, assays the damage that corporate reformers and their patrons have inflicted on the public schools of Tulsa. The district is overflowing with Broadies and has Gates money. What could possibly go wrong?

 

The Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) offers an excellent case study in data-driven, market-driven school reform.  Before No Child Left Behind, we in the Oklahoma City Public School System (OKCPS) studied Tulsa’s successes, and it quickly became clear that children entering TPS had advantages that their OKCPS counterparts didn’t have. They had lower poverty rates and, due to enlightened philanthropic leadership, they had higher reading skills. Moreover, philanthropists continued to invest in holistic social services, as well as early education.

By 2010, however, when the Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) accepted a $1.5 million Gates grant, the inherent flaws of the Gates effort were obvious. Back then, I would visit and learn about great work being done on early education and by Johns Hopkins’ experts advising the TPS. I also asked how it would be possible to reconcile investments in those evidence-based efforts and their opposite – the Gates shortcuts.

https://www.gatesfoundation.org/How-We-Work/Quick-Links/Grants-Database/Grants/2010/02/OPP1005881

When I showed a scholar a scattergram on the Tulsa website documenting the extreme gap between the “value-added” of its high and low performing high schools, the Big Data expert responded in a scholarly way.  Understanding that it would be impossible to control for those huge differences, the consultant replied, “Oh, sh__!”

http://static.battelleforkids.org/images/tulsa/vascatterplots_1_and_3_year_avg_final_2-10-12.pdf

So, how well did the Gates grant work in raising teacher quality?

The TPS now has to rely on the trainer of uncertified teachers, the Teacher Corps, which “is one of many recent strategies for finding bodies to put in classrooms.” According to the Tulsa World, “This is necessary because about 30% of the district’s teaching force started working there in the past two years.” That includes 388 emergency certified teachers.

https://www.tulsaworld.com/news/local/education/in-only-its-second-year-tulsa-public-schools-teacher-corps/article_cd295874-08df-5c0d-8398-cc1f382b6e23.html

As it turned out, the Gates experiment was just one of a series of corporate reform gambles. In addition to promoting charter expansion, the George Kaiser Family Foundation has joined with the Bloomberg and Walton foundations in funding “portfolio management” directors to “absorb the duties of the director of partnership and charter schools,” and “in the future, implement ‘new school models resulting from incubation efforts of the district.’” Worse, in 2015, one of the Chiefs for Change’s most notorious members, Deborah Gist, became the TPS’ superintendent. Before long, Tulsa had 13 central office administrators who were trained in the teach-to-the-test-loving Broad Academy.

https://www.gkff.org/what-we-do/parent-engagement-early-education/prek-12-education/

https://dianeravitch.net/2019/02/26/tulsa-broadie-swarm-alert/

And, how did the Broad-trained administrators do in raising student performance?

In 2017, Sean Reardon’s Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis provided the best estimate of student test score growth from 2009 to 2015. It revealed that Tulsa students entered 3rd grade ahead of their counterparts in Oklahoma City. That is likely due to the great early education efforts led by philanthropists.

From 3rd to 8th grade, however, Tulsa students lost more ground than those in all but six of the nation’s school systems. TPS students gained only 3.8 years of learning over those five years; that was .6 of a year worse than the OKCPS. Neither did 2016 outcomes reflect progress. The updated report shows that TPS scores were .81 grade levels lower than districts with similar socioeconomic status. Its racial and economic achievement gaps were worse, and poor students declined further in comparison to similar districts.

https://cepa.stanford.edu/

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/12/05/upshot/a-better-way-to-compare-public-schools.html?action=click&contentCollection=The%20Upshot&region=Footer&module=WhatsNext&version=WhatsNext&contentID=WhatsNext&moduleDetail=undefined&pgtype=Multimedia

https://nondoc.com/2019/10/19/school-effectiveness-linked-to-diversity/

And the bad news just kept coming.  The State Department of Education’s latest report card assigned an “F” grade to 25 percent more TPS schools than to the more-challenged OKCPS.

https://nondoc.com/2019/03/07/new-school-report-cards-sad-outcomes/

Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist responded with an implausible claim that the district’s own assessments are more meaningful, and show more progress. However, benchmarks tend to encourage shallow in-one-ear-ear-and-out the-other teaching and learning. Gist’s statement isn’t proof that this is happening, but it raises the type of question that report cards should lead to.

https://www.tulsaworld.com/news/local/education/no-perfect-system-revamped-grade-cards-are-better-but-don/article_272ad2b5-4525-52ca-aa7f-e81462473c24.html

Part of the answer lies in another reform investment on reading instruction. Tulsa adopted the Common Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) curriculum. Betty Casey, the publisher of Tulsa Kids magazine, began her thoroughly investigated report on the CKLA in Tulsa with an example of the 3rd grade questions that Gist trusts: “Do you think primogeniture is fair? Justify your answer with three supporting reasons.”

Casey quoted a first-grade teacher’s description of a reading lesson:

“You say, ‘I’m going to say one of the vocabulary words, and I’m going to use it in a sentence. If I use it correctly in a sentence, I want you to circle a happy face. If I use it incorrectly, I want you to circle a sad face. The sentence is Personification is when animals act like a person.’”

That lesson is given 10 days after the start of school. “I had kids who wouldn’t circle either one,” the teacher said. “Some cried. I have sped (special education) kids in my room, and they had no idea. That’s wrong. Good grief! These are 6-year-olds!”

https://www.tulsakids.com/is-ckla-the-best-way-to-teach-children-to-read/

So, how is the reading experiment working?

Oklahoma Watch studied federal data and learned that the TPS retained relatively few 3rd graders. But it retained 823 students through kindergarten and second grade!
Education Watch then reported, “Benchmarking itself is not an exact science. … Some kids score poorly because they are having a bad day or they don’t know how to use a computer mouse, which is common with kindergarteners.”

https://oklahomawatch.org/2018/12/14/oklahoma-nearly-tops-nation-in-holding-back-early-grade-students/

Tulsa’s expensive love affair with data may explain its latest crisis.  Tulsa has had a net loss of 5,000 students over the last decade. That means it must cut $20 million next year.

Ms. Casey and  many others suggest that another reason why Tulsa loses teachers and students is that it’s No Nonsense Nurturer classroom management system is a top-down mandate that hurts school cultures.

https://ktul.com/news/local/teachers-speak-on-controversial-no-nonsense-nurturer-program

The TPS held a series of community meetings, but it may not like the message it heard from the community. Two of the top recommendations from the community were: 44% survey-takers “chose to reduce teacher leadership roles …. Reducing the central office was the fourth most popular choice at 43%.”

Gist expressed a different opinion, however. And, in fairness I must add that a massive school closure effort preceded Gist; it was widely praised but as a subsequent post on Oklahoma City reforms will address, it may have contributed to loss of student population. But, Gist’s take of the closures is nothing less than weird. She said that the TPS might be losing students to the suburbs because they have larger schools!

https://www.tulsaworld.com/tps-report-on-community-feedback/pdf_61104782-617b-5b75-876c-cc52dc9fa1a2.html

It sounds to me like Superintendent Gist is grasping at straws. Maybe she is asking the same question that I am: How long will output-driven funders support her expensive and failed policies?