John Thompson: Demoralization in the Schools of Oklahoma and the Nation

John Thompson, historian and teacher, submitted this article:

The Oklahoma City Public Schools is being clobbered by state budget cuts that could approach $50 million over two years. Anyone who doubts that money matters should take note of the collapse in morale as exhausted educators flee even faster from the school system and, often, the profession.

I remain a loyal supporter of President Obama, but we can’t forget that when his administration gave the OKCPS around $50 million, most of it had punitive strings attached. The regulations that accompanied Obama’s School Improvement Grants (SIG) made it virtually inevitable that its $5 million per school grants, and the energies of educators, would mostly be wasted. The predictable result was an increase in teacher turnover, educators who are even more inexperienced and beaten down, and legislators who are even less likely to fund urban schools.

I understand why President Obama felt obligated to promote teacher-bashing policies as a part of a “carrot and stick” approach to school improvement. It hurts to ask but, gosh, what if we could have spent the additional $50 million in ways that made sense?

Oklahoma City’s SIG efforts failed, but they did so across the nation. Even the corporate reform true believer Matt Barnum acknowledges, “Past research on federal turnaround programs have shown positive effects in California and Massachusetts, mixed or no effects in North Carolina, Tennessee and Michigan, and negative results in Texas.” But, he grasps at straws citing the 3rd year of California SIG, which seems to be an exception because its “gains in student learning likely stemmed from improvements in the professional opportunities for teachers.” Barnum then claims, illogically, that a study of the Ohio SIG gives evidence that the federal program “produced notable gains.”

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Actually, the authors, Deven Carlson, Stéphane Lavertu, Jill Lindsey, and Sunny L. Munn conclude:

Overall, the study provides convincing evidence that interventions such as the SIG turnaround
models have the potential to improve school quality very quickly, which is consistent with the
theory underlying school turnaround reforms as well as research in other contexts. We also find,
however, that initial positive impacts dissipated after the first 2-3 years of implementation.

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Curiously, student achievement gains occurred during the chaotic years of the school turnarounds and transformations, but not afterwards. How could that be possible?

When announcing the SIG experiment, President Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan claimed that The Turnaround Challenge was his “bible.” But, that study and a large body of social science and cognitive science explained that “aligning curricula to higher standards, improving instruction, using data effectively, [and] providing targeted extra help to students … is not enough to meet the challenges that educators – and students – face in high-poverty schools.” But, that shortcut was encourageded by SIG regulations.

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Carlson et. al also conducted qualitative research which yielded three “Three key takeaways” from the state’s SIG effort, Ohio Improvement Process (OIP):

Additional funding for improvement personnel was the largest contributor to successes. OIP was hindered by culture challenges, most notably being a perception of compliance being more important than student improvement and stakeholder fatigue from too much change. Lastly, schools that experienced high levels of principal turnover or low principal effectiveness saw more challenges implementing OIP. Even in a school with strong principal leadership and relatively high fidelity of OIP implementation, student academic performance has not improved on state tests.

A generation of well-funded, output-driven school reforms has shown that old-fashioned, input-driven efforts like hiring counselors and mentors can increase graduation rates, and teacher supports are more likely to raise math scores, especially for younger students. But as was reported in the qualitative portion of the new SIG study, the key issue is whether low-skilled students can be taught to read for comprehension, and accountability-driven reform has failed at that task. We have long known that students must “learn to read,” in order to then “read to learn.” Test-driven reform has often demonstrated a capacity to raise test scores by teaching kids to decode, but it has been an utter failure in improving the reading skills necessary for meaningful learning.

Sure enough, an Ohio SIG leader explained:

We are working extremely hard trying a number of different things. We have … (a) phenomenal curriculum and instruction department; we have a scope and sequence, teachers receive a pacing guide; we offer extensive PD, we buy new resources – students are really resource rich. But (we’re) not really able to answer the question of why no growth, except that that we just haven’t hit the mark in how to help students who are not reading on grade level.”

In other words, the driving force of the SIG was a rebranding of the simplistic, and doomed, instruction-driven, curriculum-driven shortcut for improving the highest-challenge schools. As one leader explained, “The Ohio Improvement Process is teaching and learning. That’s the bottom line.”

But what were they teaching? First, they focused on math and reading test scores. More fundamentally, as one district leader explained the goal, “We decided on using that as a formative assessment to guide our work throughout the district, throughout the school year to better prepare our students to take the summative assessment, for them to be successful in the summative assessment.”

What teacher wouldn’t be thrilled to learn that they are no longer required to teach-to-the-test? To teach in high-pressure SIG schools, they must only teach to high-stakes summative assessments!

Not surprisingly, Carlson et. al learned that, “There is lots of push back from staff on testing because kids are tested a lot here.” Given the long history of the latest, half-baked “silver bullets” being repeatedly imposed on schools, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear, “During the first two years of OIP implementation, teachers felt the focus was on compliance.” The rushed turnarounds and transformations, especially in the first 2/3rds of the program, resulted in teachers “in the compliance mode going through the motions.”

But here’s the kicker. The seeds of so-called student performance gains were nurtured during this time of the “perception of compliance being more important that student improvement.” And there are only two explanations for that counter-intuitive pattern. Perhaps, more money works. Or perhaps the culture of compliance “works.” Under-the-gun educators will find a way to jack up test metrics even when they are meaningless.

To really improve high-challenge schools, we must first lay a foundation of student supports. Teacher supports using aligned and paced instruction can’t work until aligned and coordinated socio-emotional supports are in place. School improvement requires administrators to break out of their cultures of compliance and invest in the team effort to create trusting and loving school cultures.

As in Ohio, the SIG was driven by “a lack of understanding on the state’s part regarding what actually happens during the course of a day in some schools. … It’s like triage all day. Teachers are spent at the end of the day or they can’t really take the time to focus on this OIP because you know ‘Johnny’s mom got shot yesterday, they witnessed the murder,’ or …”

It’s not enough to do what one district did and purchase “fidget boxes” and “wiggle seats” to settle down students who are acting out their distress. As Johns Hopkins’ research shows, a system must establish Early Warning Systems to address chronic absenteeism before it spins out of control, and train and organize a “second team” of caring adults to make home visits and provide remediation.

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In theory, schools could have used SIG to invest in wraparound services so that its teacher supports could then produce better instruction, but I expect that Ohio’s (and Oklahoma City’s) experiences were typical. There are only so many hours in a day, and so many days in a three-year grant. When SIG demanded “transformative” gains in bubble-in scores in such a short time, systems did what they do best. They complied, hoping that “this too will pass.”

In my experience, teachers have been more successful in finding new careers than finding ways to teach for mastery in SIG-driven, test-driven schools. Fortunately, SIG is dead. Unfortunately, mandates for its failed approach to instruction are not. But, this post-reform hangover shouldn’t persist much longer than the so-called student performance gains that were produced by its turnarounds and transformations.

I just hope that the demand that educators give up a pound of flesh before legislators will adequately fund our schools might also fade away.

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