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 I say “revised” because this post will probably be out of date in a few months because the powers that be in Oklahoma have changed the standards numerous times in the last 5 years.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?
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.