Oklahoma Education Standards … A Recipe for Chaos

The testing really isn’t the worst of it. I know I compared standardized testing in the last section to a system that literally murders children who fail, but in all honesty, it isn’t the worst part of being an Oklahoma teacher. There is a reason that the tests are so impossible to navigate beyond just the weight applied to them. It isn’t even the test themselves, but that the state standards they are based upon are always changing.

In Oklahoma, the tests are aligned to what is called the OAS or Oklahoma Academic Standards. Rather, they are the revised OAS. I say “revised” because this post will probably be out of date in a few months because the powers that be in Oklahoma have changed the standards numerous times in the last 5 years. Two years ago it was unironically called the PASS skills, and before that, we were on Common Core. You see, the standards on which teachers are expected to teach are revised nearly every single year.

In practice, this means that a teacher who has her written lesson plan, one which she built and designed over a period of years and which she has evolved to be a solid tool for guiding her students’ educational progression throughout the year, now must be completely rewritten because it doesn’t align to the new methods prescribed by Oklahoma legislatures. The standards are killer because it effectively limits what you can teach, as almost nothing in the way of books, assignments, and classroom materials aligns with them. This forces teachers to throw out everything they used the year before and start from scratch. Remember what I said about the difficulty printing companies had to keep up with our changing standards? And something so sad it’s funny… if you actually work in a school that can afford books you have to throw them out too. If it doesn’t align with Oklahoma Education Standards, it’s gone because they absolutely won’t align to whatever new standards were cooked up in Oklahoma City by non-educators at the behest of numerous and conflicting political interest groups.

I liken it to a something my mother, a career nurse of over 30 years, says of others in the profession. “You see some nurses who have been nursing for 30 years, and you see some that have been 1st-year nurses 30 times.” She was speaking to the individual ability of some nurses to never surpass their basic capabilities and act upon raw education they’ve been given. They aren’t able to apply experience, pioneer new methods, to act on their own initiative, to solve problems, or become a resource to new members because their mentalities are trapped at that point of a first year. Nearly every industry mirrors this process, but ask yourself what your industry would be like if nearly every single year, the entire best practices manual for how things that work are done is thrown out. That’s Oklahoma, and what it leaves us with an entire culture with nothing but first-year teachers. This includes excellent master level educators who personify that picture of a 30-year teacher, but who have had to abandon tried and true methods of instruction because they do not align to whatever new state standard they’ve been forced to uphold.

I want you to imagine yourself as a teacher. You go to work every day, but then you work hours every night to prepare for next week too. This isn’t to mention the grading and other thankless necessities of the job, but we will just focus on the lesson plans. It would be nice if you could use that time you invested, hours out of every week, into next year, right? If that were the case, you would have a difficult time of it that first year, but it would be better the next year. Where last year you stayed afloat, this year you could be improving the lessons that flopped, and the next year, even more. Even better, a first-year teacher could be given a simple folder from their master level teacher on a thumb drive that has the entire year’s worth of lesson plans, complete with additional resources, links, activities, and everything else that they have been refining for decades. She smiles and says, “You can use this, and trust me, it will save your life.” In either case, even if you live in a district that can’t buy books on their own, that process will be refined to finally give teachers the time to improve their course of studies. In time, you could you spend extra time and energy (yes, teachers used to have that) to take on a mastery, such as investing in your own understanding topics such as how poverty affects education or neurological development in the brains of children. The free time of our teachers is where they become masters of the craft. It’s where new methods and mastery is made. It’s why the wisdom and experience of a 30-year teacher are more valuable than the energy and idealism of a 1st-year. But is that how things work in Oklahoma?

No.

Instead, you start over every time there is a major set of reforms. In my wife’s five years as an elementary school teacher, they have reformed the standards three times. Remember, we’re asking a 22-year-old new teacher currently building a textbook from scratch from activities she found on Pinterest or paid for herself online, to throw it all away next year! All the nights she’s put into making her own curriculum… gone. If you don’t work in education, you don’t have that at your job. You get to refine your processes year to year and develop best practices that make sailing the ship a breeze. At some companies that refined process is itself a strategic advantage so valuable it’s even patented. Not for Oklahoma teachers. Here, everyone is a first-year teacher, even if they have been teaching for decades.

This creates a chaotic work environment. Hell, it creates a terrible life. Look, I know a lot of teachers who would be happy to work for the salary we get. Expenses in Oklahoma are low. It’s possible to have a higher quality of life here with less pay. But it isn’t worth it to have low pay and a chaotic life. Most new teachers wash out, which is criminal as most are fine teachers, but can’t handle the overwhelming nature of bureaucratic mess they have to deal with and an endless cycling workload. So they either become refugees in Texas or Arkansas or do like a friend of mine… who sells coffee.

But why does this keep happening?

Because Oklahoma voters are pissed that kids are failing. They are the parents. They have a right to be. But the voters don’t understand the problem from the teacher’s perspective. They only see the examples of the really terrible teachers who have been milking the system for decades while failing to education juxtaposed with the low scores and they think nothing is being done. To appease the voters, the most politically expedient thing to do is issue some set of new standards. Apparently, people assume the old standards aren’t working, when really the teachers haven’t had the time needed to adapt to them. Lawmakers usually understand this, but telling the teachers to do better by “raising the bar” justifies their paycheck and their power they’ve been given. Nevermind that they’ve raised nothing, but simply placed a new bar painted different and told the teachers that to successfully jump it, they must do so with bound feet and while running backward.

It isn’t that we don’t have a need for some standards, but that lawmakers don’t respect the pain standard reforms cause, and that too much of it does far more harm than leaving teachers alone to solve problems themselves. You can’t change the way they fundamentally do their job every year and expect things to get better. Given the problems teachers have, they would need at least five years to create and share new modes of doing their job, maybe a minimum of three, but pulling the rug out from under out teachers year after year is a recipe for chaos in the lives of our teachers that explains far more of their failure than that no one in Oklahoma City held them to any standards at all.


This is part of a series on Education in Oklahoma:


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Teaching to the Test

Every educator know the temptation to “teach to the test”. It refers to the annual standardized tests which the state mandates almost all children must take to know which of their teachers are to be thrown in the chokie. By this, I mean that depending on the tests, teachers could lose their jobs, and if there is a particularly egregious screw up with the way the testing was administered, lose their license. Teachers are terrified during Testing Season not just for themselves, but for their kids and their schools. For students, failure can mean being held back or labeled “the stupid one”.

One has to question the rationality in all of this. One area principal made a very good point that it is insane that we judge a year’s worth of collective work of both a child and his teacher based on the performance on a single day, a day when they may be in near panic, when their dog could have been hit by a bus, their grandmother may have died, they could be sick, or maybe they just don’t do well on tests. This is not to mention that Testing Season itself amounts to a huge block of educational time including reviews and regular benchmark testing… time where they aren’t being taught actual classroom material, but practicing to look good for the state.

There’s a reason for this, of course, as the schools face real consequences for failure. Every year there is a school A-F report card and testing is a huge part of it. If too many kids fail, and if it becomes a pattern, the school can face punitive budget cuts or be shut down. That being the case, it needs to be said that it’s impossible to find two identical schools with the same balance of needs, same population, same wealth distribution, same ethnic diversity dynamic, or the same anything. But it’s okay to stack the test scores of one school against the others as if that determines the value of their teachers? This matters in vastly recessed parts of the state where the local tax base does little to supplement state funds. Then throw in the places with high percentages of kids needing ESL or ELL services, which often, unfortunately, stack on poorer communities. Given all this disparity, you think you are going to get scores on par with the rest of the state. But if a school is graded as an F on the school report card it should be shut down? That would be like killing off all the kids who don’t pass, an idea so terrifying, Hollywood literally made a movie about it called The Thinning.

Logan Paul Shares Trailer for YouTube Red Thriller 'The ...

That’s what it feels like for many poor schools. You have it hard? Tough. Pass or get closed and any poor teacher associated with you is marked as untouchable for the rest of her career.

For this reason, the schools have adapted by trying to make the single most stressful week of a kid’s year, as well as their own, into a circus with all sorts of asinine behavior from dressing up, decorating the halls, and matching T-shirts reading some silly affirmation like “Rock the Test”. Why engage in this utter nonsense and a complete waste of time? Because literally so much is riding on it, and while everyone is trying to pretend like they are having fun and to be relaxed, everyone is scared out of their minds.

It should surprise no one teachers do that ugly thing no one is allowed to admit to.

Teachers teach to the test.

It’s a fact. Let’s just own it, accept it, and deal with this horrible truth. Teachers teach to the test and screw anyone for judging them.

What does this mean?

It means that teachers don’t have the liberty to teach so that your kids understand the material. They teach so that they don’t get fired for having lost test scores.

Fine, okay. We have to somehow ensure that some standards are met. Obviously, we can’t have teachers telling kids that magical crystals govern the universe in accordance with the amount of positive energy you channel into them, right? But at what point did we cross a line from productive assessment to damaging our students? I’m not sure, but I will venture a guess that schools being so insecure in their teachers that they interrupt actual classroom time with endless benchmarks is probably counterproductive to education. Secondly, whoever allowed a system to evolve where school counselor dresses like a flipping taco so that the kids can relax to take a stupid test is someone who needs to be duct taped to a wall, and have the collected volume of the state tests thrown at them like a Bronze-Aged stoning. Test day Taco Teacher is where we know we crossed the line.

So how do teachers handle this? One of a few ways:

First, they can place insane amounts of stress on children to perform, not that there is anything in it for the kids because rewarding positive outcomes is strictly forbidden. I’m not being facetious, you’re literally not allowed to reward kids for doing well on the tests because rich schools can incentivize more. It’s fairer, but all that is left for kids is the negative consequences of failure. Not a good motivator.  Then make all this happen on a day when you get kids ripped from their classrooms into totally foreign environments where the teachers walk around like prison guards trying to telepathically relay the answers to their children. Couple this with telling them to relax and that everything will be okay, while teachers subconsciously communicate to them that if they fail the teacher’s life will be over, their lives will be over, the school’s life will be over, and the fall of the American Republic will soon be neigh, and no matter what you do, kids will be stressed to the point of breaking.

Hence Taco Teacher.

Some kids aren’t bothered, but then there are the others. The others are the kids who will freak out, have a panic attack, or who simply don’t care and are willing to fail to see the world burn. Yeah, there are monsters, but the problem is that there enough of these second two groups to completely break the average. Awesome.

Then there is the second option: Cheat. Look, you make the stakes high enough and the situation desperate enough, people are going to cheat.  You tell someone that their job and the food in their kid’s bellies comes down to the performance of 60 kids they have only had access to for about 1 hour a day for about 100 days before the testing season starts… Teachers are human and some will take the low road.

Or you have what most educators actually do. They learn about the test. Over the years, they stop teaching what is best to create well-educated students ready to tackle life’s challenges, and they teach to a test so that they can look like superstars and know they will be invited back next year.

I’ll leave it at this. If teachers, students, and schools got to write an A-F test for the Oklahoma State Board of Education, the “F” wouldn’t just stand for “failed.”


Frustrated Teacher


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