EDUCATION OVERSIGHT BOARD RELEASES STATE REPORT -
AGENDA FOR CHANGE: THE FUTURE OF COMMMON EDUCATION IN OKLAHOMA
By Office of Accountability
March 7, 2005
Related Link: Letter to the State Legislature
|OKLAHOMA CITY - The Oklahoma Education Oversight Board has broad statutory responsibilities to oversee public education services in Oklahoma. Pursuant to that responsibility we have engaged in a process of evaluating the current state of education in the state. We can take some pride in the progress that has been made in education in Oklahoma over the past decade. The passage of House Bill 1017, the establishment of the Oklahoma Commission for Teacher Preparation, the development of the Office of Accountability and the oversight process administered by the Board has all resulted in significant positive improvements in the state of education in Oklahoma.
The Board feels, however, that there are significant warning signs that demand our immediate revived attention to education reform in Oklahoma. Over 30% per cent of Oklahoma students passed the Algebra I test in 2004, while only 51% passed the Biology I test in the same year. Sadly, Oklahoma is also on the list of the top twelve states with the highest childhood obesity prevalence in a late 2004 study conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. These are only three of many examples of critical system failures.
Clearly, the time has come to re-engage the debate on education reform in the state. Dramatic improvements can be made to the education system in Oklahoma which would, we believe, result in significant additional improvements to the quality of education services available to our children and result, consequently, in significant improvements in the performance and achievements of all Oklahoma students. The following recommendations are made by the board to set a framework for a new agenda for education in Oklahoma:
- Accountability: The quality of education for Oklahoma students is critically important to our state's future and to the future of is children. We need to dramatically improve our system of accountability to insure that result. At the same time, our current tool set for providing accountability is inadequate and problematic. Standardized tests are subject to much legitimate criticism while providing us some limited but useful information. Although we have produced significant and positive results for the few school districts that have participated in performance reviews, our current program is not adequate in providing the feedback needed at the state, local, and school level, for real improvement in education performance. An integrated system of accountability is clearly needed.
The debate over standardized testing of students has continued and intensified. Advocates of accountability for schools often see it as the singular solution needed to measure and insure quality. Opponents, including a sizable majority of our national board certified teachers see it as seriously problematic in a variety of ways: (a) inaccuracy in truly assessing student abilities, (b) results in a reduction in emphasis on depth and creativity in learning, (c) gives a false sense of satisfaction to those who may score well, but actually have a poor understanding of subject matter, and (d) tends to exacerbate biased results.
This debate is to say the least, challenging to those of us who are charged with providing "accountability" to education services. We must frankly recognize and acknowledge the legitimate concerns of teachers and other critics about the misuse and abuse of testing. At the same time, we cannot abandon the legitimate objective of establishing an accountable system of education in which its constituent students, parents, and taxpayers can reasonably ascertain whether they are getting the education services they are paying for.
We see this situation as somewhat analogous to medical testing. The fact that a child has a high temperature does not mean the child is terminally ill, but it does reasonably raise a flag of warning that additional diagnosis is called for. A thermometer may be crude, but it is not useless. Education testing at its current stage is a fairly crude instrument, an instrument that needs to be supplemented with additional means of diagnosis that do not substantially interfere in the learning process. Adding more tests can, if we are not careful, be like taking one's temperature every minute and buying more and more expensive and accurate thermometers. We can spend too much time testing and too little time learning, just as we can spend too much time in crude diagnosis, and too little time in refined diagnosis coupled with meaningful intervention.
We believe that the integration of a refined system of performance auditing into our system of accountability will be the means of enhancing accountability while addressing the legitimate concerns of testing critics.
RECOMMENDED ACTIONS: (1) Current tools for accountability and intervention in schools, such as performance reviews conducted by the Office of Accountability, need to be refined, improved, and enhanced. The maintenance and enhancement of an independent "arms length "system of accountability is at the core of improving education. Right now, performance reviews are conducted when requested by a school district or when a school district's administrative expenses exceed a percentage of their budget. Although the performance reviews conducted pursuant to these programs have produced positive results, we believe a more elastic and targeted approach to performance reviews will produce more significant positive results for Oklahoma's children, parents, and school districts. We suggest the following changes in the performance review: (a) Continue to provide district-wide performance reviews upon request, (b) Initiate a targeted individual school performance review program to address the improvement of individual schools, (c) Initiate a "program performance review" to provide performance reviews of specific targeted programs within a school or district (this would utilize specialists to help schools develop or revise particular program areas - examples: math, science, arts, fitness and health programs, etc.), (d) Remove mandated performance reviews based on "administrative expenses". Mandates should be based on actual performance issues, not expense categories, (e) random performance review should be conducted, which would include random audits of some schools where test performance is high. This would help us in not only identifying successful strategies, but also in identifying weaknesses in some of the test instruments (where perhaps there are high scores, but lack of meaningful competence). (2) Test instruments themselves need to be rigorously and openly critiqued to insure legitimacy and usefulness. Assessment efforts should be designed to specifically encourage the development of lasting in-depth knowledge and assessment efforts. Evaluations should be designed to be useful in improving the instruction of individual students. (3) The Oklahoma Education Oversight Board should issue a report, at least annually setting forth critical information derived from performance reviews including best practices, serious problems and significant issues.
- The state of Oklahoma needs to dramatically enhance its commitment to the Professional Development of its teachers. First Class professional development opportunities only reach a limited number of Oklahoma teachers. The need here is urgent. We cannot hope to significantly improve classroom performance without a dramatic commitment to enhanced skill development of in-service classroom teachers.
Our ability to successfully improve classroom performance depends not only on the continued improvement of pre-service teacher education programs, but also on the improvement of in-service professional development programs for teachers already in active service. Improvement of professional development programs involves several actions: (a) a significantly increased overall investment in professional development, (b) the development and implementation of a process to review and evaluate the value and effectiveness of these programs, (c) the review and development of a new set of standards setting forth ongoing expectations of professional development for teachers.
RECOMMENDED ACTIONS: (1) In instances where top quality professional development offerings have been developed, they should be funded at a level sufficient to reach all teachers in that area in the near term. Priority should be given to schools identified with low performance. (2) In critical study areas where first class offerings are not now clearly available, efforts should immediately be made to develop such offerings. (3) The Oklahoma Commission for Teacher Preparation should be charged with the development and implementation of a process to review and evaluate the effectiveness of professional development programs. (4) Standards setting forth expectations for professional development of teachers should be rigorously reviewed and amended to improve and enhance ongoing professional development of teachers.
- The State of Oklahoma needs to make a serious commitment to the training, development, and support of Education Leaders throughout the education system.
We are continually impressed by the evidence that improvement in performance at all levels is made possible by the presence of skilled and committed leaders. Talented and committed principals have transformed schools through leadership. Passionate and skillful superintendents have turned whole school districts around. Passionate, imaginative, and skillful leadership is in short supply, but where it exists, it makes an astonishing difference. There are many national examples of efforts to support the development of education leaders (such as the "New Leaders for New Schools" initiative). If our state desires to set the standard for educational excellence, it cannot hope to do so without the development and support of a larger core of educational leaders at each level of leadership from local school principal and up. To address this, the state needs to invest in the development of an education leadership program. Although there is currently no national board certification for administrators, the state can learn from its experience in supporting the development of National Board Certified Teachers. Currently the state has a core of over 800 national board certified teachers. That core group not only has an impact on their own classroom, but also on their colleagues and surrounding classes and schools. Absent such a national program, the state should explore the establishment of a leadership development program, which could become a national model. It is clear from the available evidence that leadership does make a significant difference and that leadership skills are largely learnable skills.
RECOMMENDED ACTIONS: The state should take immediate action to establish an intensive Education Leadership Development Program. We recommend that the Oklahoma Commission for Teacher Preparation be charged with the development of an intensive program for leadership development including a Summer Leadership Institute, a Leader Mentoring Program, and ongoing leadership professional development institutes. The program should be focused on the role of individuals as education leaders and not on their regulatory or bureaucratic responsibilities. Programs developed by the OCTP should be subject to review and approval of the Oklahoma Education Oversight Board prior to implementation.
- We are deeply concerned about the physical health of Oklahoma's public school students.
By national standards, our students are significantly less healthy and suffer more from obesity and other fitness and health related problems than most other states. We should be committed to reversing this trend and making Oklahoma a national leader in student health and fitness. Lifelong habits and lifestyles are often established at an early age. The unfortunate result for Oklahoma is considerably higher health care costs for decades to come. The state of Oklahoma needs to develop and implement a student fitness program with the goal of helping all Oklahoma students achieve a healthy level of fitness. This goal is not only achievable; it is in some ways even more subject to testing and measurement than intellectual achievement.
RECOMMENDED ACTIONS: (1) To jump start the rapid development of innovative programs for health and fitness, we recommend that the state establish a competitive process to award schools one time grants for outstanding achievement in establishing the best integrated nutritional, health and fitness programs in the state. For example, an award committee could be appointed. All schools in the state would be urged to compete in the process to be named as the school with the "Best Health and Fitness Program" in the state. We would recommend that an award of $50,000 for each school named as the best in their category (high school, middle school, or elementary school). This should be a powerful enough incentive to encourage innovation from schools across the state. Lessons learned from the top schools can inform the ongoing reform process. Policy makers can evaluate the successful programs to determine which initiatives can be transformed into statewide policies and which initiatives can, at a minimum, provide examples for other schools to emulate. The review process should include an appropriate element of measurement of the effectiveness of the program in actually improving student health. (2) The poor general health and fitness of Oklahoma students would clearly indicate the need for the assignment of responsibility for development of public policy on this issue at the state and district level. Each state agency, including the state health department and the state department of education should be individually responsible for the development and adoption of policies designed to improve the health and fitness of Oklahoma children. (3) Each school district in the state should be required to review its health and fitness policies and through local board action, approve a local "health and fitness" policy for their district, which addresses an integrated approach to nutrition, fitness, and health. Policies at all levels should make appropriate provisions for measurement of results. (4) At the state level, the responsibility for the development of protocols to measure results should be assigned to the Office of Accountability and the Oklahoma Education Oversight Board.
- Oklahoma Education Oversight Board is impressed by data which indicates improved performance, reduced dropout rates, etc. with small schools.
Several national initiatives are currently underway to reduce the size of especially large schools. It is clear from those efforts that reducing institutional size of excessively large schools can produce significant and positive results. Clearly more personalized education is more effective. The depersonalized and bureaucratic environment of excessively large schools can lead to increased dropout rates, more discipline problems, and an overall decline in performance.
RECOMMENDED ACTIONS: The state should develop a program to encourage the reduction in size of schools that are excessively large. Local School Districts, which have large individual schools, should explore downsizing strategies.
- There is a serious need to improve the synchronization of programs and standards between common education and higher education.
Currently our common education and higher education systems are far from seamless. Some of the inconsistencies are statutory. The statutorily mandated criteria for teacher evaluation is inconsistent with the more sophisticated and developed skill evaluation system used in Oklahoma Colleges of Education. There is too often a lack of alignment between common education course programming and those provided subsequently in institutions of higher education.
RECOMMENDED ACTION: A special task force should be created and empowered to identify and correct each area of discontinuity.
- Counseling. Effective personal and vocational counseling is a critical part of successful schools. The current demand on counselors to provide personal, process, and career counseling often results in a deficit in one area or another.
RECOMMENDED ACTION: The Board recommends that a special task force be created by the Oklahoma Legislature to examine school counseling responsibilities, training and professional development with the goal of significantly improving the quality of both career and personal counseling.
- Areas of concern. There are several other areas that the board has identified as areas of significant concern. These are areas in which we are continuing to explore and develop recommendations. We recognize them now to stress their importance while we continue the process of evaluating them. They are of great importance and we thus encourage others to investigate them with us to attempt to develop meaningful initiatives which will move Oklahoma into a leadership position in these areas:
- The arts. Substantial evidence supports the position that education in the arts is a critical part of enhancing the mental skills and abilities of students. Emphasis on other areas in the recent past has, in many cases, led to a decline of support for arts education. Over 80% of our national board certified teachers identified the arts as a critical component of education. Strategies need to be developed to strengthen arts education and integrate the arts into the broader curriculum.
- Customer sensitivity in education system. Education has historically been a "supply driven" system with too little attention paid to the demand, or customer, side of the equation. Oklahoma should take steps to shift the equation to greater customer sensitivity. We are often astonished by the enthusiasm and thirst demonstrated by school age children in their response to video games and other child oriented products. We often decry the lack of interest in school and "serious subjects." Yet we pay little attention to children as our customers. We should encourage initiatives, which ask children key relevant questions about their attitudes toward the education services, which they receive (which they are required to receive as essentially compulsory customers). For instance, are those students more or less interested in the subjects studied after completing a course (this would help inform us as to whether we are succeeding in helping them develop into lifelong learners with a thirst for knowledge)? We should also study the approaches used by commercial enterprises that are successful at engaging school age children as voluntary customers. We could learn a lot about how to more effectively engage them in intellectual and academic pursuits.
- Civics education. Civics education is a critical component of public education in a democracy. The low level of participation of young people in the electoral process is ample evidence of the current weakness of civics education in public schools. Strategies need to be developed to dramatically enhance civics education and its connections with real community life.
- Innovations. New innovations in education surface constantly. Progress in education depends on our enthusiastic engagement in the continuing pursuit of new ideas that can have a positive impact on the quality of education. Example: Recently CBS News aired a story on a school in Utah that is making use of a new audio system. This wireless amplifier technology sends the teachers voice in a "surround sound" fashion to every student in the class. A wireless microphone gives each student a voice that every other student can hear and understand. The Utah school reports increased test scores and great enthusiasm as a consequence of this new technology. Utah has mandated statewide implementation of this system.
- The goal of common education in Oklahoma should be to enable successful performance of each student in all critical areas. All systems should be designed to be responsive and helpful to individual students.
We are used to a system of "IEPs"(Individual Education Plans) for students with disabilities. In essence each student deserves a non bureaucratic "IEP" - that is everything from student information tracking to curriculum planning should be focused on taking each student where he or she is to a targeted achievement level - a highly personalized approach. As the Coalition for Essential Schools states in their fourth "Common Principle": "Teaching and learning should be personalized to the maximum feasible extent . . ." It is critical that each student develop mastery of a limited number of essential skills. Ultimately it is not just important for students to gain economically marketable skills, but also to develop citizenship skills reasonably expected of the voters of the most powerful nation on earth.