About this blog Subscribe to this blog

Thompson: Another "Chief for Change" Is Dumped


Of course I’m celebrating the overwhelming defeat of Chief for Change Janet Barresi in the Republican primary. Oklahoma State Superintendent Barresi embodies the brass-knuckled, scorched earth corporate reform that has driven young children to cry and vomit, and older students to drop out of school.

Her opponent, Joy Hofmeister, condemned both the “toxic” environment created by high-stakes testing and the politics of destruction that Barresi exemplifies. Barresi  lost by a margin of nearly three to one.

As reported by the Tulsa World's Andrea Eger, a video has now been released showing Barresi's tirade at a Department of Education “Summer Convening” event. Barresi told teachers: 

Anybody that has any question what we’re doing, read Nehemiah. Open up your Bibles and read Nehemiah. I want you to put on your breast plate and I want you to fight off the enemy at the same time you’re rebuilding the wall. Because there’s a lot of people, a lot of enemies are going to try to creep up the back of your neck and say you can’t do it, it can’t be done. Do me a favor and tell ‘em to go to hell.

Honestly, though, I’m saddened that education policy disputes sank to this level. Fifteen years ago, I served with Barresi in a bipartisan reform coalition, known as MAPS for Kids. Before it was derailed by NCLB, MAPS was significantly improving our city's schools. 

Barresi started an excellent charter school just a block from my house. It is NOT a high-challenge school like the school it replaced. But, by bringing in high-performing students from outlying areas, it sure raised property values in our neighborhood.

The worst of Oklahoma’s test and punish policies were adopted before Barresi took office. They were the result of an offer from Arne Duncan that we couldn’t refuse. When I first showed test data to some of Barresi’s people, they immediately realized that the value-added evaluations that the state accepted in order to compete for the RttT were bound to create a trainwreck.

My first real introduction to Common Core came during discussions with some of Barresi’s staff. She touted the standards as an alternative to teach-to-the-test bubble-in malpractice. Back then, it seemed impossible that any adult would contemplate the replacement of NCLB tests with high-stakes Common Core tests. Who would have seriously considered the idea that Common Core tests could be used as graduation tests or 3rd grade reading tests required for promotion to the 4th grade? And everyone who I talked to in her administration seemed to understand that it was nutty to try to plug Common Core test results into value-added models used to evaluate teachers.

The A to F School Report Card, which Barresi borrowed from Jeb Bush, was another fiasco. Barresi held firm to the quest for a single number to serve as a single grade regardless of the type of school. A joint Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University research team wrote a withering appraisal of the report card, but made some simple practical suggestions for salvaging it. Sensible criticisms of the report card were rejected as efforts to evade accountability.

Then in a matter of a few months, the Barresi administration collapsed. The turning point, it seemed to me, was the refusal to bend on the issue of retaining 3rd graders who did not pass the state's error-riddled test. Barresi was one of the few who remained unbothered by stressed-out children being taught by the high-stakes tests to hate and fear school.

As pushback came from all corners, Barresi responded the way that other Chiefs for Change have. She was dismissive of anyone who questioned the righteousness of her theories. Those who brought up implementation problems were condemned for their “low expectations.”

And, that is the lesson that should not be lost on other reformers. Barresi seems convinced that her opponents are morally bankrupt. But, is she any more self-righteous than many other Chiefs for Change? She is abrasive. But, it was not Barresi, herself, who brought down her administration.

Barresi's defeat was mostly the result of the national reform overreach of 2009, and the next few months. During the first part of the Obama administration, Oklahoma and many other states adopted the full test-driven agenda. All at once, reformers got everything on their wish list.

Gleeful non-educators didn't notice the mutually contradictory nature of so many parts of their grandiose schemes. It was one thing to turn their theories into law. Implementing their policies was another matter. Even if Chiefs for Change had been diplomatic, modest, and willing to embrace the complexity of the democratic process, they still would be finding themselves in some tight situations as their ideals met reality. But, given the arrogance that tends to accompany corporate reform, I expect a lot more Chiefs will be following Barresi to defeat. JT(@drjohnthompson) Image via.   


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

The comments to this entry are closed.

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.