OKC schools need real change

After more than 35 years in the education realm, retiring Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Karl Springer said that he is most proud of three policies he helped implement. He brought the “Great Expectations” curriculum to elementary schools and Teach for America to the district and put into place a year-long school schedule that allowed for remediation of students who fall behind.

Springer acknowledged the district’s failure to “move the education bar.” The system only produced incremental improvements in student performance. He commended the community for doing “little things” like providing incentives to encourage better attendance and praised OKCPS teachers as being as good as their suburban counterparts.

The same is true of Springer. He did a good job of executing instruction-driven, curriculum-driven and test driven policies that have been imposed throughout the nation.

When Springer became superintendent, he listened to administrators and politicians who endorsed the test-driven accountability of his ill-fated predecessor. They prescribed an unflinching focus on a curriculum aligned to high-stakes tests, principal leadership, data and removing educators who did not believe that schools alone could overcome poverty.

Springer also listened to educators who cited the cognitive and social sciences that explained why those policies were incapable of improving schools serving neighborhoods steeped in poverty and trauma. The key to school improvement, we argued, was the socio-emotional. The building of trusting relationships was essential. We called for a return to the MAPS for Kids student achievement recommendations.

Instead, OKCPS invested most of its discretionary money on a new curriculum. Springer selected an excellent program (America’s Choice), but he was not able to heed the curriculum designer’s warning that it could not yield results in high-poverty schools without establishing expensive socio-emotional supports.

That is where OKCPS went wrong.

Rather than creating safe and orderly schools where it is possible to teach and learn for mastery, the district took the cheaper path of remediation. Rather than creating environments where freshmen and sophomores could learn for mastery, the district’s schools created test prep “boot camps” for seniors who had failed their graduation exams.

Springer inadvertently alluded to a second problem when he said that little things like rewards for attendance can go a long way in improving schools.

No. We must teach kids to be students, and that cannot be done with quick fixes.

The OKCPS cannot keep the same quick-and-easy game plan and seek a leader who will implement it better. School improvement must be a team effort. Seeking a charismatic superintendent who can do it on the cheap is like the illusion that answers can be found within the four walls of each classroom.

Thompson blogs regularly on national education issues at The Huffington Post, This Week in Education, School Matters and Living in Dialogue.

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John Thompson

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