Edmondson Education Tour Report
“Let the teachers teach”
Throughout July and August 2018 Drew Edmondson held education listening meetings across the state to hear directly from those involved in Oklahoma’s public school system. He met with teachers, retired teachers, early-childhood educators, parents, and administrators from numerous different school districts across the state. While teacher pay became a dominant issue in the latest legislative session, these meetings were meant to find out what needs to be improved in Oklahoma’s public education system besides increased teacher pay and funding. Drew asked teachers what needs to be improved, what is working well at their schools, where are savings possible, and what is the biggest issue affecting educational outcomes. The answers are detailed below.
The most common issue across all schools and districts was the need for reduced class sizes. Oklahoma’s public schools have been forced to exceed the industry-standard of twenty students for one teacher. The Student-Teacher ratio directly impacts the quality of education. Too many students in a classroom leaves too little time for each student, hindering a teacher’s ability to spend one-on-one time with a student and making it harder for a teacher to identify potential problems. In one meeting, all the teachers present had taught classes of thirty or more.
Teachers need more resources in their classrooms to provide a better educational experience for their children. We heard from several teachers from schools with a 1:1 computer initiative, a program that allows every student to have an electronic device that is theirs to use. As we heard from teachers, this program breaks down when students do not have reliable high-speed internet access at home. Homework or textbooks that require the internet disadvantage students without high-speed internet. For this reason, teachers need the resources to purchase textbooks for every student in their class that can be taken home.
More Focused Guidance Counselor Responsibilities
Several teachers called for a refocusing of the role of school counselors. Besides a general need for a higher number of school counselors, the consensus among the teachers and counselors present was that school counselors spend very little of their time actually counseling. Counselors are the ones that most often pick up the slack in administrative duties. Counselors, in the schools that have them, have taken over the task of scheduling and administering testing. This, combined with the low number of counselors, means that they are stretched thin. School counselors only have enough time to discipline children, which prevents them from building the kind of positive relationship they need to do their job. In higher grades, this means that counselors are not available to steer students towards career paths. Aptitude testing and career counseling are no longer done consistently or predictably, which further reinforces the “school to prison pipeline”. The guidance that students do receive cannot keep up with the changing economy.
- “We do everything but spend time with children.” – An Elementary School Counselor in Lawton
While teachers were concerned about increasing teacher salaries, they were more concerned with addressing some of the indirect effects of low pay. Underpaying teachers leads to a teacher shortage. To make up for a shortage in certified teachers, school districts are forced to hire emergency certified teachers that don’t necessarily have the same passion and motivations as traditionally certified teachers. Teachers expressed frustration with the inadequacy of the recent teacher pay raise, because without an increase in general funding many districts had to choose between honoring the pay raise and buying textbooks. Teachers did comment on how their low pay affects them personally by pointing out that their salaries have not kept up with inflation and that increases in insurance premiums further reduce their take-home-pay.
- “I love my job and I don’t want to leave the state for better pay. I love the kids I serve.” – Elizabeth Perry, Learning Tree Academy, Lawton Public Schools
Generally, teachers discussed Teaching Assistants (TAs) as a thing of the past. Previously, TAs had increased the teaching capacity of a teacher. One group of teachers discussed the fact that their High School had no Teaching Assistants, and in one school, there was a single Teaching Assistant for five Kindergarten classes. Special Education teachers especially noted a decrease in the number of Teaching Assistants, which drastically reduces the effectiveness of their teaching. Special Education teachers described how without Teaching Assistants, their classes essentially become Day Care facilities.
Another issue teachers raised, though less commonly, was the need for professional development. There is little if any support for professional development from the state or the district. One teacher described how teachers in her district had come to rely upon presentations from other teachers within the district for professional development. The teachers felt that just as we had failed to invest in the students with funding, we had failed to invest in them with professional development. Professional development was also seen as a way to improve the performance of alternatively and emergency certified teachers.
Social Workers for Students
Teachers and administrators, in two districts especially, told us of the need for more social workers in Oklahoma’s public schools. Separate crises in other areas of state government have adverse effects on the lives of Oklahoma’s children. Issues like the Opioid epidemic, a lack of mental health treatment, an unreformed criminal justice system, lack of healthcare, and economic insecurity all work to destabilize the lives of students. Until these crises are addressed, their effects will show up in the hallways and classrooms of our schools. Many factors that shape a student’s life can negatively affect their educational outcomes and hinder future opportunities. Every meeting where social workers were brought up, all teachers present were in agreement on the need for them in schools. Students need access to the resources to help them deal with their lives outside of school starting in the early grades. Untreated problems only grower harder to deal with as the student grows older. As one administrator put it, the ripple effect from parents that are addicts or incarcerated fuels the “school to prison pipeline”.
The most common source of a possible savings to be found in our educational system is that of mandatory testing. Generally, teachers felt that mandatory testing was a waste of their time, their students’ time, and the school district’s money. Some testing is federally mandated, and a number of teachers felt that the testing burden had improved, however many still were unhappy with the current testing requirements. School counselors have picked up the task of conducting and proctoring mandatory tests, which reduces their time addressing the counseling needs of their students as previously discussed. One teacher in Okmulgee referred to school counselors as “testing facilitators”. Several teachers mentioned other inefficiencies with the way the tests were administered, including the fact that all students are required to take the same test. Special Education students and students learning English as a second language take the same standardized tests as all other students. Receiving poor scores on standardized tests discourages these students and puts them further behind academically. One teacher in Lawton claimed that an unfunded mandate of online testing requirements forced the school district to use textbook funds for IT needs. The issue of testing requirements is further complicated by the fact that many teachers at several meetings felt that while the teacher shortage was ongoing, that testing was needed. With emergency certified teachers, there was a feeling that tests were necessary to evaluate the work the teachers were doing. The largest possible savings to be found, according to the teachers present, was the amount paid to companies to create, administer, and grade standardized tests. There was a feeling that the product delivered by these companies was not worth the millions of dollars they received from school districts. One teacher in Tulsa referred to testing companies as the “Education Industrial Complex”.
- “Teachers are the experts in the field. Trust us. We know what we are doing.” – Shawna Mott-Wright, Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association Vice President
Cultural and Community Issues
Respect For Teachers
The most prominent concern among all teachers that was not directly policy related was a feeling that teachers and the teaching profession had lost the respect of the general public. This feeling was seen as a reflection of the lack of respect shown to teachers by state leaders through funding cuts. Teachers mentioned students being talked out of pursuing a career in education not only by parents, but even by teachers. Another reason for this lack of respect identified by the teachers was a lack of community involvement in schools. While some teachers felt supported by their communities, others felt a disconnect that made their jobs more difficult. Several teachers expressed a need for the community to have a better understanding of the everyday work of public education, and to have a closer connection to their local schools.
- “Teachers love what we do. We just want to be respected.” – A special education teacher in Stillwater.