It’s Impossible to Teach Without Books

My wife has been a teacher in Oklahoma for five years and has never had the benefit of working with a new textbook. If she had been working in education longer, then that number would be higher. This is a major problem for Oklahoma teachers that sadly, needs to be spelled out. Textbooks are necessary as they give teachers a guided framework to teach students, useful resource material, a means of assessment, and a shared source all in one holistic package.

At least, they used to. Now teachers don’t get even that much. I’ll get to the reasons why, but first you need to realize what life is like for a teacher without classroom books for her kids.

If you’re lucky, you at least get consumables. Consumables are classroom materials that usually include a book, as well as a workbook with tearaway assessment materials (worksheets) that the kids use as their practice and to take grades. While these are better than nothing, they don’t meet the rigor and quality of real textbooks where the assessments are made from ruled paper. The big problem with them, however, isn’t that they don’t provide as much as the texts. It’s that they are very expensive solutions to only this year’s problem. Because they are consumed every year, there is little to nothing to use again next year. While we can complain that we have textbooks in classrooms for ten to 15 years… they’ve done the job for 15 years. Imagine ripping out all the portions of the text that provided activities for the kids to practice what they learned or for the teacher to know if they are getting it. That’s what a consumable solution looks like year two. Of course, this is usually how it works — with a giant pile of garbage created every year and a new set of consumables being purchased each and every year. Did I also mention that the sets are rarely the same requiring the teacher to completely redo her program to accommodate this new solution?

While this isn’t ideal, it makes the job of teaching at least possible. Without at least this solution, your life looks very similar to my wife’s for a few years, which was an abject nightmare.

Imagine that you’ve worked all day, from 7:30 AM to around 5PM herding 80 lbs malcontented chickens. Then you finally get home. Ah, the glories of rest and the comforts of family. But no, now work starts.

If you don’t have a system of integrated resources that align to your lesson plan then you have the happy duty of making one… from scratch… every week. You learn to respect the writers of textbooks when you get to do it yourself. That means all the lessons, the assessments, the testing, the lecture material, and it has to be colorful and entertaining or else it won’t compare to Call of Zombies VI. I’m a professional writer now, so trust me when I say books don’t write themselves. To do that on top of being a full-time teacher… with a family? You must be joking. Obviously, no teacher has the ability to literally write a textbook for her class every year. So for four years, my wife spent hours, upon hours, upon hours searching the internet either on Pinterest or TeachersPayTeachers (like Etsy but teachers sharing assignments they created) for assignments and modules to allow her to teach her required subjects. Note that this means she has to spend her own money for assignments that aren’t integrated into the state-mandated curriculum in any way. But this is what happens when the state doesn’t provide your school with the resources to buy materials for you.

Maybe you’re thinking that this is a good thing, that if they create the curriculum then they are better able to do their jobs — teach kids. You’d be incorrect, as this robs them of how they teach. Think about when I went to Iraq with the Marines. That job is hard enough, right? We can agree there. Now imagine if I had to also buy my own gun and equipment. Worse, how well do you think our warfighters would be if they also had to build their own equipment? The job is designed to push people to their limits already in challenging and dynamic environments. Adding, “gunsmith” to the billet shouldn’t be necessary too. The same is true for teachers, yet we are basically sending them to war without weapons, armor, or a strategy, and telling to make do with what they personally buy from the internet.

But wait, there’s more! No matter what option she takes, she is still going to have no books to work from other than what she prints out herself. Did I mention paper rationing? Yes, on top of having no books, no consumables, and basically making the teachers invent their own curriculum this year, and when all teachers are doing what my wife is doing… that means they have literally nothing to teach their kids with! Frankly, that paper rationing started a minor revolt this year and the superintendent buckled.

But you want to know what is even crazier? It isn’t even a matter of not having the money to buy textbooks. The textbook companies are literally not even printing them. This is due to the chaotic nature of Oklahoma education standards placed on schools by the state. The standards determine what is and isn’t taught by Oklahoma teachers (You thought it was teachers, huh? Yeah right.) What happens when something doesn’t align with the current standards? It’s no good. It has to be thrown out. A brand new classroom set literally has no place in the classroom because of all the things it doesn’t teach decided upon by some committee in Oklahoma city because parents and activists threatened to say mean things on Facebook. Yeah, that’s how the system works. So textbook companies can’t do that. It takes years to create a new edition and they can’t keep up with states as fickle with their standards as ours. That’s why they threw up their hands and said “fooey with the Okies!” and stopped printing books we could use.

I’ll talk about the problems with Oklahoma’s standards later, but next, I want to illuminate you on something you’ve probably been asking yourself ever since this started, “Why not just use updated technology?”

Why not indeed…


 Next Article: The Myth of Classroom Tablets or Start at the Beginning

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It’s Not a Teacher Crisis – It’s a Tax Crisis

Oklahoma isn’t facing a teacher crisis, but a tax crisis. Simply, Oklahoma can’t give what it doesn’t have. You can see this in by looking at our Highway Patrol and Prisons are dangerously underfunded. This is not to mention other government organizations like the Department of Human Services, or often overlooked state jobs like court reporters, who have gone for more than a decade without a pay raise.

Could some reshuffling be done, cannibalize other state programs to support the monolithic budgetary needs of public education? Sure, but which parks do you want to close? What infrastructure do you want to cancel? What welfare do you want to cut? Who do you want to lay-off? We could do that, in some places we should, but this is not just a teacher crisis. Oklahoma just doesn’t have money.

So the other option, raise taxes.

Many of the current demands on Oklahoma legislatures are to raise the oil excise taxes, the tax on a good once it is drawn out of its original source, back to 7% from its current around 3% with other subsidies paid out to oil and energy companies. That’s certainly one option. I’m not discounting it. But like cutting programs, that will come with consequences too. While increasing the excise tax will relieve current pressures a few things need to be understood about the oil industry. First off, most of the oil which comes from a new well is drilled in the first three years. After that, it trickles for the next twenty. Many of the new wells are already beyond their three-year mark, but many other wells remain yet to be dug. We still have to account for international tampering in the oil industry, but eventually, that will end too. If Oklahoma makes reactionary decisions today to solve near problems, they miss the greatest industry boom in world history when foreign states can no longer artificially hold the price per barrel of oil so low.

So while I agree with many that raising the excise tax today could relieve many of  Oklahoma’s numerous hardships, we do so at the cost of many future opportunities. I’m not going pretend it’s an easy decision for lawmakers because they are literally choosing between our children’s education today, or risking those same children’s future employment tomorrow.

That said, taxes don’t just come from energy. The state is already taxed with high property, income, and even a grocery tax, but we also have on the table so-called vice taxes, such as raising sales taxes on alcohol, tobacco, as well as lottery and casino winnings. We also need to talk about a referendum which took place for a 1% sales tax increase that would have translated to a $5,000 pay raise directly to Oklahoma teachers. The voters in Oklahoma have spoken with directly with that one.

They voted “No.”

You can say that this reflects the culture of Oklahoma, which it may, but Oklahoma teachers need to accept it also says something about a state that no longer has faith in the industry. Yes, we aren’t paid well, but few in the state are. But even if Oklahoma teachers are paid better, can educators honestly say that there aren’t still massive roadblocks in the system preventing them from being the best teachers they could be? Here, I’m talking about the endless parade of benchmark testing to ensure that schools pass the test, technology grants with no quality training for its usage and implementation, the high cost of administrative oversight, students missing 10% of their school days for activity absences, and the lavish amounts of money spent on sports facilities when other teachers don’t have classroom book sets. Oklahoma education needs to grapple the reality that major changes are needed within the education system and not just at the state level.

I want to be fair, teaching in Oklahoma has challenges other industries don’t. The hours are murder and the conditions are impossible, especially for new teachers. I’m saying that as someone who has worked in Oklahoma education for three years, and who was deployed twice to Iraq with the US Marines. The resources aren’t there, and the struggle is mostly invisible to parents and the community. But the reason that it is called a teacher crisis and not a statewide budget crisis is because teachers are the largest and most organized publicly paid collective in the state. So it’s much easier for them to make demands upon the state than others. 

But Oklahoma isn’t hearing them anymore. As evidenced by the failure of Oklahoma voters to fund their own education system, they aren’t moved by arguments centered around, “for the kids”. This isn’t because they don’t love their kids. It’s because they don’t have faith in Oklahoma schools. They view that whatever funds raised through new taxes levied or programs cut are simply not going to make it to their children, but instead be absorbed by an inefficient education system unwilling to adapt to current needs. And I know the teachers. I was one. My wife is one. Many of the best people I know are still in the industry. But teachers need to deal with the fact that there exists a trust issue between educators and people of the state. Teachers are mobilizing and will probably be making many demands over the next few months; many they will get. However, if some hard conversations don’t begin at the state and local level which demand hard reforms to Oklahoma education, I fear the gap between Oklahoma and her teachers is only going to widen.


Next Article: The Problem with Shale or Start at the Beginning

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Oklahoma’s Big Oil Problem

Oklahoma education is tied to an overall funding crisis. You can’t talk about Oklahoma finances without talking about the oil industry and specifically, shale oil.

Shale oil production is a process of accessing oil that has previously been locked away within the rock deep underground. Not long ago, the only profitable way to drill for oil involved horizontal wells that dug into large pockets. Eventually, those pockets became difficult to find and the old “bobbing donkey” wells stopped pumping. In the last decade, however, new technologies like horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracking have opened up new avenues for the black stuff.

How does this affect Oklahoma’s economy? It’s much more than just selling the oil. Images such as the one above are misleading, namely because there is never just one pipe. In reality, there would be dozens of pipes jutting in all directions. This was beautiful for the Oklahoma economy because someone had to build all that. Manufacturers built the pipes, the pumps, and the thousands of other support jobs created to support the drilling. People also had to truck all that, and local communities also began investing in infrastructure. The wells were only a part of it. The process was extremely labor intensive, which meant jobs and enough taxes in 2013 that Oklahoma’s problems included figuring out how to spend the surplus.

This economic boom didn’t happen by accident. Oklahoma used to have a high excise tax on oil. Excise taxes are taxes paid when a resource is exited from the soil. Oklahoma excise taxes were around 7% prior to the oil boom. But Oklahoma legislatures knew enough about the oil industry to know a horizontal well at the time cost around 5 times as much to build than vertical wells, though they had much more potential. They also knew that Oklahoma wasn’t the only place in the nation this technology could be used. So Oklahoma made the choice to lower excise taxes and offer other subsidies to oil companies to choose Oklahoma over other states. It paid off. Because of that choice, Oklahoma experienced an oil boom, and the US is currently experiencing the products of that wealth today.

In fact, the success of shale oil was so monumental that it had worldwide effects and put the United States to be a net oil exporter by 2020. Some people weren’t happy about that, like Saudi Arabia, who have long enjoyed the wealth gained from a profitable relationship with the United States and exporting its vast oil wealth around the world. In an attempt to kill the burgeoning American shale oil industry, Saudi Arabia did what only they can do: they slashed prices. They could afford this because the Saudis have enough oil that they could live off a loss in oil production for some 30 years without feeling the effects of their own luxurious lifestyle. The rest of the world, however, shuttered and stumbled, few places as much as Oklahoma and its still infant shale oil industry.

So shale responded by getting smarter by drilling down to one central location, which served as a hub for all the pipes that would be built, and also greatly improved the life of a well.

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By becoming far more efficient two things happened: the United States is currently experiencing an energy boom, but… the market for all industries supporting the actual drilling up the oil collapsed. The jobs Oklahoma expected to still be there have withered as we’re seeing those jobs disappear due to simple better business practices and the still artificially low cost of Saudi oil. Then consider the natural process of oil drilling. Once the ground is mapped, the pipes are drilled, the infrastructure built, and the pumping started, there isn’t much left to do from a manufacturing perspective. If it isn’t profitable to drill more platforms, then the jobs aren’t going to be replaced elsewhere. Once the work is done, the drilling starts and there is no new job creation anywhere. Fewer jobs being created by the shale industry shook up the Oklahoma economy. As Oklahoma’s strategy hinged on the continued growth of the industry, and to live off taxes from incomes on all the industries that supported the oil, international maneuvering and the necessary response from local business left Oklahoma in a hard place. This is where Oklahoma has been for a few years. As the nation benefits from massive volumes of cheap and readily available energy, Oklahoma is in a recession.

I say this a former Oklahoma teacher. Speaking rationally, I can’t blame my principal or the school board for problems that are happening a mile under our feet and all over the state. I also can’t blame Oklahoma City for decisions that weren’t even made in the Western Hemisphere specifically targetting our way of life. I want to be angry, but there is just no one to blame on this one and realities we have which we need to accept and understand. Blaming won’t solve this one. Well, maybe there is someone to blame – Scientists and Saudis.


Next Article: It’s Impossible to Teach Without Books or Start at the Beginning


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What’s With the Oklahoma Teacher Crisis?

Educators in Oklahoma are preparing to strike. This is following years of worsening work conditions and the recent news that Oklahoma is now the lowest ranked state in the country in teacher pay.

So how did we get to this point?

Teachers are asking for explanations from Oklahoma leaders why the state seems to have failed so deeply with education, and many are looking for partisan answers. Some blame conservative tax policies while many others advocate that the structure of Oklahoma schools is too rigid and fails to adapt. Others acknowledge most issues aren’t partisan at all. Most of the real problems for Oklahoma have little to nothing to do with politics, but the economy.

I’m a former Oklahoma school teacher married to a current Oklahoma school teacher. I’ve seen the debates from several angles, both as an educator, and now as a researcher. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be working to unpack all the problems of Oklahoma education, by diving into causes of teacher burnout and the politics of Oklahoma education. Make sure to follow The War Elephant on Facebook to get more daily updates.


Next Article: It’s Not a Teacher Crisis – It’s a Tax Crisis or Start at the Beginning

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