College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

John Thompson: Oklahoma’s Chief for Change Barresi in Trouble With Voters

By Anthony Cody — July 22, 2014 7 min read
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Guest post by John Thompson.

When I attended last year’s Oklahoma Department of Education Vision 2020 annual conference, I put on a brave face, suggesting we were enduring the darkness before the dawn. We had just started enforcing the graduation law requiring high school students to pass four End of Instruction (EOI) tests, and the 2013 dropout rate in Oklahoma City had immediately doubled. This upcoming year (2014) we would start requiring 3rd graders to pass a reading test, meaning that thousands of young children would be retained. The new A-F Report Card would soon declare 2/3rds of urban schools as “D” or “F” schools.

The political domination of State Superintendent “Chief for Change” Janet Barresi and the Republicans who controlled the legislative and executive branches was unassailable.

I honestly believed that Oklahoma’s decision to withdraw from the Common Core PARCC testing consortium was a big deal, but there was no denying that it was the Tea Party, not educators who drove that victory. A year ago, there was no way of knowing that coalitions of teachers, superintendents, liberal faith organizations, bloggers, and unions would join the battle.

PARCC’s replacement, “Common Core-type” tests could be just as destructive. For instance, because the college readiness version of the Biology EOI was not yet ready, and because blood-in-their-eyes reformers demanded more rigor, the advice of experts was ignored. An artificially high passing score was set, arbitrarily increasing the failure rate, sending the message that the Barresi administration was chomping at the bit and willing to take its pounds of flesh out of students when implementing its test and punish regime.

This month, after the national NEA and AFT conventions, I also saw the glass as half full. In fact, I saw it as 2/3rds or 3/4ths full. Both produced significant and incremental victories, challenging Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Common Core, and testing. I knew that President Obama wouldn’t fire Duncan. I knew that the testing moratorium supported by the Gates Foundation would be used by them to reorganize and continue to fight for corporate reform. But, the same applies to us - the teachers known as “the Resistance.” We should proclaim our recent victories as we gird for a battle to the end against high stakes testing, competition-driven reform, and the elites who profit from market-driven reform.

I certainly claim no omniscience, especially in terms of national political strategy. I know that we teachers who oppose corporate reform must remain united. However, my experience this week helps explain why I believe we must take more time to celebrate our victories. If we can win in Oklahoma, victory is achievable anywhere and everywhere. My postage stamp of edu-politics illustrates how a string of modest victories can add up.

That being said, the mood at the 2014 Vision 2020 conference was not any more celebratory than it had been in 2013; if anything it was more subdued. The astute OkEducationTruths dubbed it Astigmatism 2020. Although educators seem united in rejecting 3rd grade and Common Core high stakes tests, many or most were dismayed with the way the victories were achieved. We merely gained a two-year moratorium, not a permanent end to the mandatory retention of 3rd graders. Many teachers remain supportive of Common Core. Most conference attendees seem afraid of starting the school year without a clear understanding of the standards and the tests that will be faced.

It seems to me, however, that it should be the bureaucrats -- those who want to ignore the confusion and still stay on their schedule for punishing students and schools and firing teachers, who should be terrified. I would not want to have their job and have to argue in court that, despite the chaotic implementation of unplanned experiments, punitive actions based on these make-shift systems are not irrational.

All of the candidates for Oklahoma State Superintendent are on the record opposing the testing mania, often condemning it as “child abuse.” Regardless of who is elected, I anticipate that elected officials will find a way to at least hit the “Pause” button on testing. Neither do I see the political will developing for hitting the “Restart” button in a few years.

And, it is not just the politicians who are saying the right things. This week, the Oklahoma Parent Teachers Association condemned “the overuse of standardized tests in the classroom [which] has taken away the ability of teachers to teach properly.” It called for a moratorium for high-stakes and field tests.

PTA President Jeffrey Corbett explained the votes saying that “testing companies are making millions of dollars off the backs of Oklahoma students.” The big cost, however, is that “‘We’re losing children. We’re losing the love for learning in our youth.’”

I’m also heartened by the flailing of corporate reformers, as well as their inability to remain gracious after setbacks. Vision 2020 began as the State Supreme Court heard a legal challenge by four State Board of Education members, asking them to reverse the legislature’s action.

Chief for Change Barresi contributed combative talking points. Even if the Supreme Court expedites its ruling, she said, confusion about standards will reign as the new school year begins. The implication was that educators should blame the supposed Know Nothings who rejected Common Core. (In an election year, she thus ratcheted up the anger separating the Business Republicans, who have controlled their party, and its populist rank-in-file majority.)

It only took a few hours after hearing oral arguments for the Supreme Court to rule, 8-1, that the repeal of Common Core is constitutional.

(I question whether Barresi’s new spin will be effective either. She now predicts that it might take two years to redraft standards for math and reading. Parents want investments in the classroom, not endless bureaucratic infighting.)

Even better, I was then surprised when a tech-savvy young teacher checked her phone and exclaimed that we should all read this blog! A rumor was rapidly spreading that Fallin was considering Barresi as a replacement for Sommers as Secretary of Education! This is the account of the implications of that story in Life at the Intersections, a blog by a reliable, veteran teacher, and an example of the way social media is used to inform teachers in a timely matter.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Joe Dorman jumped on the issue, saying “This is an absolutely bone-chilling idea for Oklahoma’s education system -- but, given how Fallin and Barresi share the same regressive education policies, what’s most scary is how plausible it might be.”

Dorman, who had gained political momentum after condemning Common Core testing as an “unfunded nightmare,” continued,"Sommers’ retirement gives Fallin a prime opportunity to reverse the June primary results and to continue the ‘Fal-esi’ plan.

Dorman added “This means more one-size-fits-all high-stakes tests, more flawed A-F grading for schools and continued overall lack of respect for public education. The voters last month soundly repudiated this agenda, but I fear Fallin didn’t get the message.”

The Tulsa World reinforced the message with a headline proclaiming, Fallin’s Office Says Barresi Not Being Considered for Secretary.

None of these little victories were earth-shattering, but they are coming together in a way that may be huge. Gov. Fallin concluded her week by backtracking from her previous education agenda, as well as the Chief for Change’s. She told the state conference that she is now opposed to retaining 3rd graders, including students on IEPs, for failing their reading test. In other words, the moratorium on that test will undoubtedly become permanent. Fallin then said of her ally, Barresi, “Now I’m telling you what my position is as governor. The superintendent is an independently elected official. She has her ideas. I have my ideas.”

Why did Fallin reverse herself so completely, so quickly? Although she was once seen as unbeatable, a Rasmussen pollshows that she is in a freefall. Her negatives are greater than her positives and she is being repudiated by her own Republican Party. Even though her opponent, Joe Dorman, is unknown by 35% of the voters, he is only 5 points behind the incumbent.

And that is why a string of little victories can become a game-changer. I also suspect Chiefs for Change John White and Kevin Huffman will be following Barresi out the door. More than 3/4ths of the Chiefs will then be gone. Next, when governors start losing their jobs, the political calculus will be further adjusted. In a couple of years, I find it hard to believe that many political leaders will want to accept the billionaires’ testing dollars in return for antagonizing teachers and students’ families.

What do you think? Have we already endured the darkest moments? Is the future now? In a few years, will corporate funders be able to find the elected officials they need to end a testing moratorium? And, without punitive tests, will investors reap the profits they seek from Common Core and other top-down reforms?

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.