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Commentary: An open letter to David Boren

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To University of Oklahoma president and former Gov. and U.S. Sen. David Boren:

Teaching is an act of love. Teacher’s salaries are secondary to student needs. Their working conditions are our kids’ learning conditions. The best incentive for educators is providing us the opportunity to teach well.

Until now, I’ve deferred to leaders like you in terms of education funding, limiting myself to what I know, which is inner-city schools and policy. I focused on the failure of test-driven, competition-driven “reform” and why we must shift gears and restore teachers’ autonomy so we can once again provide engaging and holistic instruction that respects our students.

I was wrong. It’s bad enough that corporate school reform undermines teaching and learning. Now, underfunding education is creating a perfect storm that could overwhelm our schools.

So, Mr. Boren, thank you for leading the campaign for a $608 million tax increase to dig Oklahoma out of our budget crisis. We also can use the initiative to start a conversation about science-based school policy.

We can’t merely ignore the understandable but misguided claim that “money doesn’t matter.” Since No Child Left Behind, tens of billions of dollars have been wasted on “output-driven” micromanagement. As Oklahoma schools endured years of bare-bone budgets, many also received federal School Improvement Grants (SIG) and other risky experiments. At a cost of $5 million per school, SIG largely failed, just like the alphabet soup of policies incentivizing test, sort, reward and punish. Locally and nationally, they failed in precisely the same way that educators and social scientists predicted.

Mr. Boren, I assume you know the work of Jack Jennings, author of the definitive analysis of education policy. He debunks the claim that accountability-free, progressive educators failed. He shows that the old-fashioned (Title I) approach of funding student supports improved student performance more than post-2002 test-driven mandates.

“From the 1970s to the early 2000s, achievement generally rose and achievement gaps generally narrowed, which would seem to refute the Title I evaluation results used to support the shift to test-driven reform,” he said.

Moreover, since 2008, the much more expensive use of incentives and disincentives has almost completely killed America’s long-term increase in student performance.

Teachers are exhausted by reforms that deputized them as the agents for overcoming the legacies of poverty on the cheap. Oklahoma teachers are doubly tired of wrestling with higher levels of poverty despite funding cuts in excess of 20 percent. This state ranks fourth from the bottom in teacher pay, and our school-to-prison pipeline flows almost unabated.

Rather than worry about the cost of a sales tax increase, let’s consider what it will cost if our public education systems collapse (especially in urban areas).

To save our schools, we must unite and commit ourselves to the process you are leading. We must also engage in evidence-based planning so that increased money is soundly invested. We must lay the groundwork for high-quality early education and full-service community schools. We must be tough-minded in aligning and coordinating student support services. Oklahoma can’t continue to separate classroom instruction, public health and mental health, nutrition and physical fitness and higher education into silos.

Mr. Boren, if we pull this off, it will create a pipeline to the University of Oklahoma, which you have ably led, and to other universities and a state that can compete in the global marketplace.

Dr. John Thompson’s A Teacher’s Tale, chronicling 20 years in Oklahoma City schools, will be published this fall.

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