Don't Worry - I Have A Plan #OklaEd

#oklaed

In an #OklaEd chat a week or so ago, we were challenged by @Coach57 to not merely complain about state legislation and legislatures, but to suggest specific solutions.

Fair enough.

I confess my cynicism does tend to get me stuck attacking nonsense rather than offering alternatives. History teaches many lessons, but few are more clear or consistent than this: it’s almost always much, MUCH easier to get people united AGAINST something than it is to reach consensus over what to be FOR. 

The thing is, I’m not convinced a majority of state legislatures actually want solutions to improve public education. Some seem quite determined to destroy it altogether – presumably in service to whatever private corruption they wish to install in its place. The rest merely pander to an ill-informed constituency with destructive platitudes and bad ideas marinated in shoddy rhetoric. 

None of which negates Coach’s point. So here’s my plan for Oklahoma Public Education. 

Districts decide what courses they’ll offer, how they’ll teach, and what’s required to graduate. They’re free to offer different types of diplomas, use traditional grading or not, or reinvent the idea of school altogether. 

I can hear the heads exploding already. Stay with me – it’s not as anarchic as it sounds.  

Each district would be part of a collective, a team of mutually accountable districts not necessarily scattered equally across the state, but also not packed together by region. We’d need a pretentious name for these – something that’s not entirely accurate but makes an offensively cheesy acronym. 

Each collective would be composed of 12 – 20 districts, a mix of large and small, urban and rural. Representatives from these districts would meet periodically – at least several times a year – to share ideas, successes, and failures (also known as ‘learning experiences’), AND to hold one another mutually accountable. 

Each district must secure the approval of its collective for its proposed curriculum and standards, however traditional or non-traditional they may be. The collective can grant ‘pilot’ status to ideas outside the norm, and set a period of time during which these ideas can be tried and assessed – probably a few years. They may also serve in an advisory/supportive capacity – fresh eyes from outside, as it were. 

Travel expenses and time investment would be offset by the elimination of most state compliance requirements. I can’t remember half of the bureaucratic crap districts have to crank out every month, but @OKEducation used to do lists from time to time – he could probably fill in some specifics. 

The representatives from each district should be at or near superintendent level, perhaps with a curriculum person as cohort. We don’t want this to be a symbolic exercise in cranking out the same old magniloquence – we want to actually change the substance of how school works. 

Doctor Frankenreform

Membership in each collective would be juggled from time to time to promote cross-pollination and reduce any tendency to fall into mutual back-scratching. Collectives would be overseen in a general way by the SDE using resources it wastes now on testing, compliance, and other bureaucracy not of its own design, but most of the decisions and actions of the collectives would be self-reported. The SDE or state legislature would only step in if a collective fails in some dramatic way to perform its functions. 

What madness would this unleash? Not much, I fear. The expense of real change is a natural retardant on progress, for better or worse. Keep in mind that most districts are already filled with teachers trained in core subjects, in classrooms set up and stocked for the same old same old, and led by graduates from the traditional system. 

If anything, I think it will be difficult to shake ourselves OUT of current ruts. I don’t expect much SO wildly outside-the-box that we make the funny pages up North. Change - and I do expect substantial, positive change - is likely to be evolutionary more than revolutionary. 

Hopefully it's a LITTLE revolutionary, though?

Districts in sufficient proximity to one another could choose to work together in order to offer a greater array of options to their students. One might focus on STEM subjects and their real-world application in cooperation with local businesses or other institutions, while another combines arts programs from several schools to benefit from economies of scale. 

Bokachita High might offer a wider variety of AP courses than they could on their own, while Patumba Academy focuses on mechanical skills and FFA. These are just examples from my less-than-imaginative, old-schooled brain. I’m sure that districts given a little freedom would do much, much better. 

As to the potential for error, malice, or incompetence when granted such freedom, yes – stuff might happen. On the whole, however, I’ll trust a bunch of career educators who’ve stayed with their profession despite state abuse to make decisions about what’s best for kids over a bunch of career politicians who’ve done little to demonstrate similar priorities. 

The leadership of one district might be tempted to follow the path of least resistance, or place other priorities over the long-term good of students, but not five districts meeting together. Certainly not a dozen. 

I’m not saying we’re saints or martyrs, but we don’t get paid to bestow favors and we don’t get reelected based on our public posturing – given the choice, I’ll risk placing my faith in the educators. 

Irresponsibility

How do we judge the success or failure of a district or a collective? The resources currently devoted to standardized testing and those horrible companies would be redirected to a new branch of the State Department of Education in charge of communication with and feedback from universities, technical schools, and employers, both within and beyond state boundaries. 

They’d gather statistical and anecdotal feedback regarding how prepared students were for post-secondary education, employment, training, etc. They’d also do both short and long-term follow-up with randomly selected students to gage their perceptions of how prepared they were for college, career, life, etc. 

This is an imperfect process, made less so by limited resources, but as far as I know we don’t do anything at all like this under the current system. We just give this one multiple choice test in March, and... that's it. That's the summary of your entire educational experience, boiled down to a number. 

OK - that's not fair. We give seven mutiple choice tests in March. THOSE are the summary of your entire educational experience, boiled down to seven numbers.

None of this is about tying this or that school district to one kid’s success or failure, but over a period of years we could accumulate some very useful feedback regarding the effectiveness of different things tried in various districts. All information would be made available to all districts for consideration in their collectives. I suppose the existing state tests could be available to districts as well, should they find internal value in administering them under whatever conditions they find appropriate. 

The more conservative elements of our state leadership are fond of talking about choice and competition in regards to public schools. If they mean it, they should be quite fond of a system giving so much choice to local districts. And while it’s not strictly ‘competition’, I’m not sure we want ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in our education system. We just need more flexibility figuring out what ‘winning’ looks like from place to place. 

We hear ‘accountability’ thrown around like a double-edged trump card every time talk of eliminating testing is broached. This setup includes plenty of accountability – the sort of professional oversight we like to think is common in medical or legal fields, as well as state-gathered feedback from universities and employers. 

You know all those times you’ve heard politicians talk about deregulating this or that industry so they’re free to create jobs and grow the economy and such? We need to tap into some of that libertarian fervor when it comes to state schools and tell the folks at the capitol to get out of the kitchen for a bit and let us cook. We promise, we’re taste-testing as we go. 

Fixing Education

The full potential of such a system is, like everything else, limited by funding. It’s more or less revenue-neutral, however, and if there are inherent flaws based on lack of resources, they can’t be much different or worse than those we face currently. In my unicorns and rainbows idealism, such a setup might encourage more participation on the part of state industries or those folks already dumping cash into #edreform – assuming they lack a specific agenda of their own in so doing. 

So turn us loose to really try to reach and teach our kids. We’ll hold one another’s feet to the fire, challenge and encourage and suggest and share. It’s not like the current system is working, and in almost every school in the state you’ll find teachers and administrators already bending and stretching and violating the rules as best they can to accommodate those in their care. Let us do it without having to pretend we’re not, and without so much resistance from people who’ve never met our kids. 

And if, in a decade, the industries and institutions to which you pay such deference are unhappy, then you’ll have your license to have your way with us – charters and virtuals, border to border, Pearson proudly stamped on every faux-ploma. 

Or… it might work. We might start finding better ways to help a wider variety of students not only graduate but go forth and prosper – in whatever way that might mean for them. The top can be toppier, the academic middle can be fished out of those cracks they’ve perpetually fallen into, and many, many more of those we’re currently losing altogether can find some reason and some pathway to make themselves useful economically and personally – contributing to the good of all instead of further draining what we have now. 

What, exactly, do we have to lose?

Comments

This not only 'sounds' like a plan, it is a plan! It disturbs me to know that this is a combination of crazy talk and heresy to a whole lot of folks who probably don't read much of this nature anyway. But for those of us who actually do teach, and care about doing right by kids, creating structures which are actually designed with kids' needs in mind - this makes so much sense. And there's that nagging pessimism that says, "we'll never get to have it like that." And this is where we have to do better: by following your example and mapping it out, sharing the ideas widely, stirring the pot however we can. Thanks for role modeling. We need this. Over and over again.

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