Archives for category: Tulsa

John Thompson, historian and retired teachers, sees signs of disaster in the policies adopted by Oklahoma’s two biggest cities: Tulsaand Oklahoma City. “reform” (aka Disruption) means closing schools. This is a good time to remind readers that SLAYING GOLIATH, to whic he refers, does not say that Go,oath is says that Goliath (federal policy, billionaires, Wall Street and other agents of disruption) are brain-dead. They continue to advocate for policies that have failed again and again. They have no expectation of making schools better or improving the lives of children. They exercise power and impose failed ideas because they can. Another point to be drawn from this and other accounts: Wherever there is a Broadie Superintendent, anticipate the hiring of other Broadies and a wave of school closings.

Thompson writes:

What’s up with Oklahoma schools? Whether we’re talking about arming teachers or sextupling funding for Education Savings Accounts (vouchers) for private schools, or the latest charter school malfeasance, the controversies surrounding today’s scandals are grounded in pretty predictable, rightwing politics, as well as the Billionaires Boys Club’s technocracy. But the crises in Tulsa and Oklahoma school system are rooted in education policy and they get less attention.

So, I’ll quickly cover the Oklahoma-grown messes, and then address the most serious threats to public education in our state’s biggest cities. I’ll start, however, by hinting at the common cause of our urban school debacles by citing Diane Ravitch’s Slaying Goliath, and her account of how corporate reformers “admire disruptive innovation, because high-tech businesses do it, so it must be good.”

The online, for-profit Epic charter chain got its fair share of 2019 headlines after an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation affidavit alleged that Epic Charter Schools’ co-founders, David Chaney and Ben Harris, split at least $10 million in profits from 2013 to 2018. They were accused of aggressively recruiting “ghost students” in order to collect $800 per student from a state learning fund for homeschool students.

Epic recently made news when its lawsuit against State Sen. Ron Sharp, for allegedly making false statements against it, was dismissed.

But there was no need to worry about Epic dropping out of the limelight. In January, 2020, the State Education Department (SDE) fined Epic One-on-One virtual charter school $530,000 for excessive administrative spending.

And Epic just provided another nail in the coffin for the claim that charters don’t advance privatization. The Tulsa World explains, “On top of a 10% cut of every dollar of revenue, Epic Charter Schools is paying its for-profit management company millions more in taxpayer dollars every year for school expenditures that are never audited and which Epic claims are shielded from public scrutiny.” So, the World made another open records request.

Epic’s attorney responded, “Once the funds are paid to the management company, the dollars are no longer public funds and, therefore, the records of the expenditures of the learning fund dollars are not subject to the open records statute.”

Despite Epic’s refusal, the World obtained “other records that show the constant shifting of public dollars for the Learning Fund to Epic Youth Services, the private management company that law enforcement investigators say has made millionaires out of school co-founders David Chaney and Ben Harris.” It reports, “These transfers began at a rate of about $120,000 each, 10 to 13 times per year,” and they grew to “$20.3 million for the 2018-19 academic year.”

Not to be outdone, Dove Academy, which is associated with the Gulen charter chain, returned to the headlines. A 2016 audit by the state found that the foundation which manages Dove Charter School collected around $3.182 million more in lease payments for the Dove Science Academy-OKC school site than original purchase cost. Now, the Dove virtual school is being investigated by the OSBI after the SDE accused it of wrongfully obtaining records of 107,000 children who have never enrolled in Dove schools.

In The Know: The ‘Medicaid expansion showdown,’ Epic charter schools fined, and more

Moving from the eye-catching headlines to the policy role of “Goliath,” the decline of the Tulsa public schools has been more gradual. A decade ago, the TPS accepted a Gates Foundation “teacher quality” grant, which was followed by donations from local and national edu-philanthropists. Soon afterwards, Tulsa’s Project Schoolhouse was praised for its community meetings and “creative problem-solving” when closing 14 schools in order to save $7 to 10 million per year.

Back then, the TPS was a better school system than the OKCPS. Last year, however, Oklahoma City borrowed from Tulsa’s methods and language in order to close and consolidate schools to fund “trade-ups” or ways to expand equity.

Tulsa had lost 5,000 students and faced a shortfall of over $40 million. The latest headlines have focused on this year’s $20 million in cuts. Schools were closed, janitors lost their jobs, class sizes in elementary schools are to be increased, and the administration reorganized. Since the TPS central office has had 13 Broad Academy graduates, and since patrons have recommended cuts the district’s teacher leadership and central office staff, that plan received more attention than before.

The Hit and Miss of Education Reforms

Ever since NCLB used school closures as an accountability tool, some reformers have been devoted to that disruptive policy. Mass closures are often seen as praiseworthy examples of running schools in a businesslike manner. And they provide opportunities for major administrative reorganizations. So, it should be no surprise that Superintendent Deborah Gist chose to save $5 million by cutting 90 jobs, but not in a straightforward manner. One would ordinarily think that budget cuts, closures, and staff reductions would be enough of an “extraordinarily difficult” challenge. However, Gist described her plan as a path to “dramatic progress” and “transforming outcomes.”

National readers don’t need to dwell on Gist’s details but they should note the way she summarized a large part of her plan:

Delete 55 district office positions and 124 school support positions; and … create 51 district office, 136 school support and 20 school-embedded positions. The potential changes, if approved by our board, would impact our Information Technology, Innovation and Design, Finance, Bond, Campus Police, Talent Management and Teaching and Learning teams, and, most particularly, our Exceptional Student Support Services team.

A couple of years ago, as the OKCPS rid itself of a Broad-trained superintendent, our district leaders praised Project Schoolhouse’s community conversations, while noting that Tulsa faced a worse mess than we did. Newly elected OKC board members seemed to understand that they had inherited a crisis created by reformers’ commitment to “transformational change.” They focused on building partnerships to provide trauma-informed and holistic instruction; restore counselors, science, music, and art, while moving away from teach-to-the-test; and started towards wraparound student services.

The OKCPS had been saved by immigration, but as it slowed and charters grew, the district lost 700 students per year. It was widely agreed that some schools needed to be closed.

But in a dramatic surprise, the goal of disruptive transformational change took over. The OKCPS used a school closure process, known as Pathways to Greatness (P2G), to “reinvent” schools. It closed 15 buildings and reorganized most of the rest. Again, national readers will be less interested in the details than the impossible length of the “to do” list that the district adopted.

It was supposed to be a virtue of P2G that it will:

Will impact every student, staff member and family in OKCPS … Our plans would likely include big changes such as new school boundaries, school consolidations or closures, the way grades are structured for Elementary, Middle and High School, as well as school buildings being repurposed to meet other needs in the community.

It also required structural changes in reconfigured buildings, the transfer of teachers to staff-reorganized schools, the reorganization of bus routes and hiring additional drivers by the first week of school. The third task proved impossible and resulted in students waiting for hours at bus stops. The district also chose to add to its list by changing application procedures for magnet schools, and reorganizing administrative services for “creating strategic systems and processes that will bring stronger support and accountability at the school level.”

Responding to the widespread backlash that P2G prompted, Superintendent Sean McDaniel said, “This was radical change that upset the apple cart for thousands of people, so we know that there was and still is heartburn and anxiety, and people are upset,”

McDaniel also summarized the additional changes:

We’re invested in this new ILD structure to allow for that additional instructional support. Our new consistent grade bands will provide support, collaboration opportunities. New feeder patterns will allow our students to stay together longer and feel more connected as they move through high school.

OKCPS acting superintendent: ‘We need to talk about feelings’

This year’s OKCPS to-do list has at least 30 big items

This year’s OKCPS to-do list has at least 30 big items

So, how did P2G turn out?

The disruption almost certainly contributed to an increase in fights and suspensions. The rate of student population decline has doubled. If the district is correct, after P2G, the rate of student loss increased to an average of 1,000 per year over seven years. But the decline could become much worse. A district spokesperson cited research indicating that P2G could follow the pattern in other districts’ reorganizations, possibly resulting in a 10 to 15% drop in student enrollment.

According to the numbers the spokesperson provided, the price tag for such a decline could be about $20 to $30 million in state funding, not including lost federal funds. It would be unclear how much of those costs would be attributable to P2G. But, they would add to $32 million of transition costs which the district acknowledged near the end of P2G FAQ Update in February, 2019.

In other words, the OKCPS followed Tulsa down the path of transformational and disruptive change. Both exemplify the destructive feature which Ravitch documents in Slaying Goliath. My sense is that Goliath chose that path for Tulsa, while the OKCPS is inadvertently stumbling towards that outcome.

In her two previous, ground-breaking books, Ravitch changed the terms of debate over public education. She previously reframed the battle over the “Billionaires Boys Club” which drove “corporate reform,” and “privatization.”

Ravitch once said that her favorite line in my book manuscript was, “Inner-city schools need more disruption like they need another gang war.” (But that was years before editors could have read her full indictment of corporate disruption, and I couldn’t keep the phrase from being deleted.)

Ravitch now characterizes data-driven, choice-driven reformers as “Disrupters.” Across the nation, as well as in Oklahoma, “The most important lesson of the past few decades is that “Reform doesn’t mean reform. It means mass demoralization, chaos, and turmoil. Disruption does not produce better education.”

The second most important lesson for Oklahomans, who had seemed to have beaten back the worst of Goliath, is that we’re like the guy who killed a rattlesnake, but nearly died after being bitten by the decapitated head. In Oklahoma, the future looks much better for most public schools, but the TPS and the OKCPS could become the last casualties of our reform wars.

The complexity of seeking safe and orderly schools

Oklahoma City Public School District announces drop in enrollment

Nancy Bailey features a post about an absurdly inappropriate reading program, citing work by Betty Casey in Tulsa. 

Casey interviewed experienced reading teachers, who gave her examples of age-inappropriate questions in the Core Knowledge Amplify scripted program.

Casey writes:

Do you think primogeniture is fair? Justify your answer with three supporting reasons.

You may think this is from a high school test, but it’s a question from a Common Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) workbook for third-graders.

Why is the War of 1812 often referred to as America’s second war for independence? In your response, describe what caused the war and Great Britain’s three-part plan for defeating the United States. This is a writing task for second-grade students.

A first-grade Tulsa Public Schools teacher described this 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!”

John Thompson is a historian and a retired teacher, who blogs often, here and on other blogs. He has keen insight into what’s happening in Oklahoma.

He writes:

Since 2015, the Tulsa Public Schools have cut $22 million from its budget, even dipping into its reserve fund to balance the books. Now it must cut another $20 million.

Given the huge support for the TPS by local and national edu-philanthropists, patrons should ask why it faces such a crisis, even after the state has started to restore funding. Despite the assistance of the outcome-driven Billionaires Boys Club, the TPS has lost 5,000 students, especially to the suburbs and online charters. But that raises the question of why Chief for Change Superintendent Deborah Gist and her staff of Broad Academy administrators have produced such awful outcomes.

After a series of community meeting, Gist recommended school closures designed to save $2 to 3 million. Gist also seeks $3 million in saving by increasing class sizes. Then, Gist proposed $13 to 14 million in cuts to district office administrators.

It’s great that most of the burden will be carried by the central office. But that raises the question why the district has such a well-funded administration.

Even though the Oklahoma press wouldn’t dare ask what the corporate reform-subsidized administration has accomplished, Tulsans should ask why the district in near the nation’s bottom in student performance from 3rd to 8th grades. Why does it have more emergency certified and inexperienced teachers than other districts after being awarded Gates Foundation “teacher quality” grants?

Participants in the recent community engagement process “were most willing to make budget reductions related to student transportation and bell times, teacher leadership opportunities, building utilization and district office services.” Perhaps as a repudiation of the Gates Foundation’s experiment, cutting teacher coaches was the recommendation that received the most votes. Tulsans were most protective of teacher pay, class sizes, and social-emotional learning and behavioral supports.

The fear is that closures and increased class sizes will result in more patrons leaving the district. Community participants also expressed concerns that closures will lead to more charter schools. The Tulsa World’s report on community meetings noted the worries of a parent, Wanda Coggburn:

Many shared Coggburn’s suspicion of a charter school taking over Jones or the other targeted elementary school buildings. But Gist said the needs of the six TPS-sponsored charter schools did not factor into the recommendation to close the schools.

The World also reported the fears of parents with disabilities. The parents of a child who has cerebral palsy and a developmental delay that causes behavioral issues say he was moved from a special education to a general education class against their wishes, and “they worry that adding more students would hinder his progress even further.”

Betty Casey of TulsaKids also describes the protests of parents whose deaf children attend Wright Elementary, which the superintendent wants to close. She talked with a mom who said of Wright:

She fears that it will be given to Collegiate Hall Academy, a charter school which currently shares space with Marshall Elementary. She wants her child to continue at Wright, not a charter school. She pointed out that Marshall has two gyms and a swimming pool currently not being used that could be put to use by public school students. Why not close College Bound Academy and put those students in Wright and Marshall? Closing a small charter school without a building would be much less disruptive.

Why would patrons have such fears? Maybe it’s because Gist responded to a question about a closed building saying “she’s confident the growing TPS-sponsored charter schools are interested in the potential space and are closely watching this process.”

I previously said that the traditional press hasn’t dared to investigate the results of corporate reform in Tulsa. However, Ms. Casey’s TulsaKids is a parents’ magazine that asks the questions that journalists have ducked. She recently wrote:

Why is it that when public schools are starved, and resources are stretched to the breaking point, that TPS is supporting a parallel school system of charters that drain more resources from the public schools? … The savings in closing schools is a drop in the bucket, but once the school is closed, it’s very difficult to go backward. Didn’t the superintendent say she was going to try to draw families back to TPS? Where will those returning families put their children? If Wright becomes a College Bound Charter, the families who wish to remain at a neighborhood school will have only one “choice” of a charter school.

Casey further explains:

I’m glad that Superintendent Gist has vowed to interview all the families leaving TPS. But, it seems a little late to wonder why people are leaving as they walk out the door. Why not work to create public schools that families love right now? …

Maybe it’s time to look at the “reforms” being implemented by the superintendent, and prior to that, Dr. Ballard’s acceptance of Gate’s Foundation money (MAP testing), and admit that those changes aren’t working for our kids, and families are leaving as a result.

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.

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__!”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!”

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.”

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.

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!

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?

John Thompson, historian and retired teacher in Oklahoma, writes here about the philanthrocaptalist makeover of Tulsa University. A tale of our times.

Surely we can agree with The Tulsa World’s Randy Krehbiel, who says that the faculty and administration “disagree bitterly … about whether that transformation will be good or bad for the university.

Krehbiel provides plenty of space for the case made by T.U. President Gerry Clancy and the city’s philanthropists. Its supporters cite economic challenges, as well an opportunity for new revenue from courses that include cyber and health sciences. They claim that the plan is “not etched in stone,” and that it can evolve as the faculty weighs in.

Even so, Kreibiel reports, “a large number of students and alumni are furious about not only the plan itself but the manner in which it was developed … The Arts and Sciences faculty voted 89-4 not to implement True Commitment.” He also cites the participation of EAB, an education consulting firm. EAB’s role is unknown, but such secrecy is likely to be one reason why Krehbiel closed with a faculty member’s words, “I don’t think anyone is really optimistic.”

To get really pessimistic, read Jacob Howland’ articles in the Nation and City Journal magazines. He acknowledges the role of local philanthropies, especially the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF), in “early-childhood education, delivering health care to indigent families, and making Tulsa more vibrant and economically robust.”

Howland writes:

GKFF spent $350 million on Tulsa’s new Gathering Place, the largest private gift to a public park in US history. The foundation has invested more than $100 million in the Tulsa Arts District since 2009. It is the major funder of early-childhood education in the state, and has spent more than $20 million in Tulsa alone on Educare early-childhood education centers.

But Howland suggests that the GKFF has overreached:

It has also pursued a strategy of populating city boards and commissions. In 2017, GKFF staff members headed the Tulsa school board and the Tulsa Airports Improvement Trust, and had seats on the Economic Development Commission, the Tulsa Performing Arts Center Trust, and the Tulsa City Council. For the past two years, a Bank of Oklahoma executive has chaired the board of directors of the Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Howland concludes, “the True Commitment restructuring were all part of Kaiser’s plan to gain control of the university.” And he argues that “TU’s administration has employed smashmouth tactics in dealing with faculty opposition to True Commitment.”

I’ve long admired the great job Tulsa edu-philanthropists have done in early education, “two generation” family supports, and criminal justice reform, and I’ve often asked GFKK leaders why they have also supported their opposite – the data-driven, competition-driven corporate school reforms that have failed so badly in the Tulsa Public Schools (TPS). I’ve repeatedly urged an open and balanced, evidence-driven public discussion of the TPS, which is led by the notorious teacher- and union-basher, Deborah Gist.

I was then saddened when the GKFF even 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.’” I was later stunned to learn that Stacy Schusterman donated almost $200,000 to California union-busting, teacher-bashing campaigns.


I would now urge Tulsa philanthropists to follow the links cited by journalists and educators and see if the EAB consultants have evidence to support the policies they promote, and then ask whether the values EAB proclaims are worthy of universities in our democracy.

Nowhere on the EAB website, is there any evidence that it’s approach is beneficial to students or society. EAB’s sales pitch certainly doesn’t sound like it has an appropriate role to play in higher education. On the contrary, its claim to fame is being the “brand police.” But how would its “integrated brand strategy” be able to coexist with the founding principles of universities, and their commitment to the clash of ideas? How could a commitment to academic freedom coexist with EAB brand “that all departments, schools, and colleges were onboard with.”

Its blog proclaims:

At EAB we have an ongoing fascination with organizational charts. (Really, we do.) Org charts can tell a story about a university’s strategy, its priorities, and how it gets things done. And when positions start moving on an org chart, we take notice. The latest example: The rise of the strategic marketing and communications (marcom) leader.

The most advanced marcom departments are strategic marketing partners and get involved in everything from institutional branding to admissions to fundraising. And to make sure that there’s a single source of marketing and advertising truth, they function like an in-house ad agency—their clients are departments, colleges, and offices around campus.

But universities aren’t a corporation where everyone is supposed to be on the same page in the search for a single “marketing and advertising truth.” To take one example, tenure protects the clash of ideas. But, EAB’s approach to “‘what you measure matters’” is a “mentality” that “sparks some ambivalence in academia to put it lightly.” So, how do you reconcile the scholarly and the business advertising mentalities? EAB’s response to tenure is:

One solution is to adopt academic metrics that also capture research effort. These metrics can include:
• The number of proposals or papers submitted
• The dollar amount of proposals
• Proportion of funding from different sources
• Benchmarks for the success rates of proposals and papers

Finally, I have enjoyed many conversations with Tulsa philanthropy leaders at events where they assembled talented professors from the O.U. and O.S.U. medical schools. Even though we disagreed on corporate school reform, I’m sure we would share our respect for those medical professionals who are battling the opioid epidemic. We would likely agree that privatization was a major contributor to the deaths of thousands of people in Oklahoma and across the nation.

I hope that philanthropists, who I am confident will contribute to the battle against opioid addiction, will ask a basic question. How many Oklahomans would still be alive and well if it was university medical professors who educated doctors about painkillers, as opposed to the drug companies’ sales reps who would misrepresent medical science in the name of “so-called unbranded promotion?” In times like these, should we not rally behind the principles which drive our universities’ search for knowledge, as opposed to something called “brand equity,” “integrated brand strategy” or whatever profit-seeking consultants spin?


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.


Mike Klonsky remembers Deborah Gist. I do too.

Gist is currently Superintendent in Tulsa. She was quoted sympathetically in the Washington Post yesterday, expressing solidarity with the teachers of Oklahoma.

In 2010, Gist was Commissioner of Education in Rhode Island. She backed the superintendent of tiny and impoverished Central Falls, who wanted to fire the entire staff of the high school because of low scores. Arne Duncan saluted Gist for her courage in pushing the massfiring of every adult in the school. President Obama echoed Duncan. TIME magazine hailed Hist as one of the nation’s leading educators, all because of her desire to clean out the staff at Central Falls.

I had my own run-in with her. Gist wanted to bring charter schools to Rhode Island. The then-Governor said he wanted to meet with me before making a decision. I came to Providence to lecture at one of the local universities and had an hour on the Governor’s calendar for a private conversation. Gist insisted on sitting in on the meeting. We never had a private conversation.

The teachers in Rhode Island were outraged by the treatment of their colleagues at Central Falls. She was no friend of teachers then.

Has she had a change of heart?



Betty Casey is an award-winning journalist and blogger in Tulsa.

In this post, she summarizes the multiple failures of the Billionaire reformers, who do not include a single educator in their ranks. The GatesFoundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation are seeking to transform America’s public schools, yet every one of their big ideas has failed. People line up to take their money because they have so much money.

Casey details the numerous failed Superintendents endorsed by the Btoad Superintendents Academy, and she only scratches the surface. Many communities know by now that hiring a Broadie spells trouble and strife.

She gives a valuable overview of the Lies That Reformers Tell to gain control of entire districts. She warns her fellow Tulsans against taking Gates money.


Tulsa has trouble finding and retaining teachers. It may be due to the fact that Oklahoma has low teacher pay, perhaps the lowest in the country.

The district is responding to the teacher shortage by creating its own TFA-style teacher-training program, with five weeks of preparation for people with a bachelor’s degree. In only five weeks, candidates will be able to step in as teachers of elementary and secondary schools, as well as special education classes.

The program has applied for but not yet been approved by the state. 

It is a nail in the coffin of the teaching profession, as is TFA. If people can become full-fledged teachers in five weeks, then teaching is not a profession. How would the people of Oklahoma feel about qualifying their doctors, lawyers, and accountants with a five-week training program?

The superintendent of the Tulsa city public schools is Deborah Gist, who previously achieved a level of national notoriety when she was State Commissioner of Education in Rhode Island. In 2010, Gist backed up the local superintendent in impoverished Central Falls when she threatened to fire every member of the staff of Central Falls High School because of low test scores (including the lunch room staff and the custodians). That event coincided with the release of “Waiting for Superman” and the Gates-driven movement to blame all the ills of urban education on “bad teachers.” Gist, like Rhee, enjoyed a measure of fame for her “get Tough” attitude toward teachers.