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Thompson: The Scandal At Douglass High School (& Beyond)

The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr famously asked how it is possible to be “a moral man in an immoral society.”  Oklahoma City is enduring a scandal that encapsulates the paradoxes of being a moral educator in our education system.  When using the word, “system,” I do not mean the OKCPS.  I mean our national system of data-driven “reform.” 

ScreenHunter_05 Nov. 04 09.01A respected principal, Dr. Brian Staples, was removed from his post at a SIG Transformation School, Douglass High School, and he was referred to the district attorney for irregularities in grade and attendance data. I have always found Staples to be an honorable man.   I also have experienced the normative, non-stop pressure to inflate accountability numbers. So, I doubt he was doing much (or anything) different than what he was previously praised for

In my experience, the individuals who pressured us to play games with statistics have always believed that they were morally correct and they have done so while implementing “research-based” best practices peddled by consultants and politicians.  And, while attendance soared to unbelievable levels under Staples, all of our district’s 90% low income, 90% minority high schools claimed identical miracles

I have remained silent on the controversy, but then I saw this video by drama teacher, Tinasha LaRaye’ Williams in support of Staples.  She and I are on opposite sides of the reform wars, but we agree that Staples was brought down while implementing the methods that he was taught at “countless” hours of professional development training and policy workshops.

Ms. Williams acknowledges that teaching at Douglass is not easy. She describes the "crime, violence, and death" that distracts students.  She does not deny that the trauma associated with intense concentrations of generational poverty prompts defiance, disrespect, and truancy.  Her video shows “class-cutters” hiding and running away from educators.   Williams admits that paperwork is a burden. She frets over the correct balance between holding students accountable and granting mercy. She shows graffiti in the predictable places, as well as on the posters that exhort students and adults to reach for higher standards.

Ms. Williams video is full of Douglass’ word walls, data walls, and affirmations of “Excuse Limit 0,” and “Reteaching the Wounded Student.” I have no doubt that many teachers deserve her criticism for refusing to give up their word puzzles and basic skills instruction for standards-based teaching, although I question whether 75% of them deserved to be “exited.” 

The Douglass scandal has everything – mass dismissals, litigation, racial conflict, and a principal being clubbed in the school parking lot.  Ms. Williams concludes that it is a part of a larger school reform movement.  She denies that demography would remain destiny if everyone was “on the same page” in teaching as a “life assignment” requiring 18 hour days (like those worked by Staples.)  But, she does not seem to realize that it was a total commitment to those sorts of utopian policies that is destroying educators. It is one thing for principals to say (as they are required to do) that teachers who won’t raise expectations should find another line of work.  It is another thing, however, to actually believe that dismissing teachers, professional development, and "quick fix" gimmicks will actually work.

To overcome generations of society’s sins, we need a team effort to build a more moral society.  We cannot outsource the job to a few supercharged moral individuals.  We cannot merely hope that educators, when faced with impossible quantitative targets, will not subordinate the welfare of students to “juking the stats.” Instead, we must end this systemic blame game. And, to turnaround schools like Douglass, we need full-service community schools and, especially, early education.

The good news is that Staples is being replaced by two of the best principals that I have ever seen.  On the other hand, the elementary school that feeds my old high school has just been shut down for a day.  The disorder, fights, and suspensions have spun out of control.  The solution, it was announced, was more professional development for its inexperienced new faculty.- JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in This Week In Education are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.