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Thompson: Oklahoma City Vs. NCLB

NclbbushLast week, I was so proud of Oklahoma City as a ten-year Report Card on our school reform efforts was issued. 

One reading of the Report Card was that the Oklahoma City Public Schools, until recently, has remained clueless, but that would be unfair. Yes, it took the business community to demand high-quality early education, community schools, "Rolls Royce quality" alternative schools, and middle school reforms that respected the humanity of students. These conservatives had rejected top down management, teach-to-the-test, and the narrowing of the curriculum.

But then came NCLB. Torn between two contradictory directives, the school system complied with NCLB and if you accept the law’s definitions they did so in an effective manner. Now, the Report Card gives us an opportunity to say the things that educators cannot, and  address the challenge of a 40,000 student district where 91% are on free or reduced lunch, and where 20,000 children in the service area are raised by their grandparents or other relatives.

The last time I felt this proud was during bipartisan MAPS for KIDS process where we proposed a collaborative reform agenda funded by a tax increase. Our coalition had transcended a bitter "Right to Work" battle. Our AFT president, who had been leading a field trip at a downtown hospital when the casualties arrived from the Murrah Building terrorism, had pledged to never push away from the bargaining table. A conservative responded "In education there is no Left nor Right - just clued in and clueless."

I am reminded of a great elementary principal tasked with turning around the middle school in his feeder group. "I’m good," he laughed and if I recall correctly he added, "but they (the central office) don’t know how good. In May, our 5th graders blew the top off of the test scores. In September the 6th graders are at the bottom of the barrel. If I can ruin that many students in one month, I’m really good."

The Report Card explained how that sort of thing happens. Our elementary schools are representative of their neighborhoods, but few people who have other options will send their children to our toughest neighborhood middle schools. So, in one year we lose more than 1/4th of our 5th grade population as the number of students requiring special education and ELL services increase.

Anticipating "the 100-students-per-grade formula" of KIPP and others, MAPS sought to reduce the numbers of middle school students in one building and thus break up the extreme concentrations of poor middle school students. This required redesigned buildings that physically separate older and younger students. When the economic boom in China drove up the price of steel, however, we ended up in the worst case scenario, mixing 6th  graders with high school students in the toughest schools.

MAPS had promised an increase in proven systems such as Core Knowledge, Great Expectations (a local version of Comer Schools), and arts education (known as Oklahoma A+) for all, as well as full-day kindergarten, extended time for learning, mentoring programs, and collaboration with community partners, but the Report Card rated efforts to fulfill those pledges as "unsatisfactory" or "needing improvement." It celebrated the one high school with an ethnic racial diversity that reflects that of the community, and voiced alarm at the number of schools that remain 90% or so non-White. Noting that the Black and White student population had dropped by 14% and 25% respectively in a decade as immigration kept the schools from emptying.  Businessmen urged the system to actively prepare for serving Hispanics who will soon be a majority. Though pleased that the one feeder system of the single no-majority school and six charter schools was enjoying great success with Core Knowledge and the Oklahoma A+ arts program, a desire to spread these holistic programs to the poorest schools was expressed.

During MAPs, like many others in the schools who were too close to the problems to see the single best solution, I had been taken aback when conservatives demanded a "warranty" so that elementary children would receive intensive instruction to insure that they would be reading at grade level within three years. But obviously, they were prescient. Now, it is these business leaders who listen to dropouts and their message that "the answer is often ‘knowing there was one adult that cared if I stayed in school.’"

The Report Card recounts "needless to say" NCLB has resulted in "extensive high stakes testing," but the "needless to say" part of that sentence is not accurate. The district has been led by good, caring, and competent people who recoiled at the concept of high-stakes testing and who must be hurt by the assessment (that I believe is unassailable) that high stakes testing has become extensive under their watch. I’m reminded of one of the few administrators brought in by Tom Pazant in the 1970s who remains in the OKCPS. When I argued that it was the professional educators, who mostly shared my liberal beliefs, who capitulated to extensive test prep and curriculum narrowing, I recall this intelligent person replying, "I can see your point if you look at the last five years or so. But I look at the last 35 years and those pressures would have come down sooner or later. We have to protect the district."

Again, this is not meant as a criticism of administrators who did a good job implementing the normative policies encouraged by NCLB. It is criticism of a law that undercut a once in a lifetime opportunity for transformational change.

But now, with President Obama and conservatives singing the praises of Secretary Duncan we have a second chance of the lifetime. This new opportunity will be realized only if we also repudiate the blame game of NCLB. 

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As someone who used to work with a lot of business/education coalitions, I can attest to the fact that business people who get involved in education are very difficult to characterize. Even in 2002, they were not uniformly fans of NCLB. Many were worried about the long-term impact of the nation's devotion to lousy bubble tests. Others were clear about their commitment to a liberal arts education for every child. Business people I've worked with have generally been an ideologically diverse group, even though some of the policy coalitions have seemed more monolithic.

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