There is a crisis in Oklahoma education. Here’s the view from the ground.
I teach at one of the finest high schools in Oklahoma – Booker T. Washington in Tulsa – and I have long been concerned about the effects of budget cuts on our programs. Since 2008 we have cut our staff approximately 20 percent, while adding 6-7 percent to the student population.
For me, this has meant larger class sizes. Prior to 2008, class loads were capped at 140 students per teacher. Typically, I had about 110 in my classes, which are generally upper-level history courses. Today, after six years of cuts, I have 147 students. To give you a sense of what that means, consider this: if I give an essay question to each student (something I believe is a critical part of an upper-level course) and spend five minutes on each essay, it takes over 13 hours to grade them. That’s about how much planning time I have in three weeks of school. It has also meant eliminating my elective classes to teach more survey courses. And, of course, 147 students means 147 names to memorize, and 147 sets of individual circumstances to respond to. You see the dilemma. How can we deliver quality instruction to every student, under increasingly stressed conditions? How can we make bricks without straw?
This semester, Booker T. was asked to “trim” a teacher – remove a teacher, who would then serve at another school or serve as a sub. The request came a week after the date Tulsa Public Schools was supposed to make such notifications, and seemed a bit irregular. We decided to fight it, and parents and faculty effectively mobilized to push back against what we saw as the last straw. We persuaded TPS to rescind the trim order.
This raised some eyebrows at other schools, which argued that Booker T. was being favored in the trim process. I don’t see it that way – we fought the trim because we felt TPS failed to follow its own procedures. But the ire raised by this incident pointed out how bad things have gotten here in Tulsa. At Bell Elementary, teachers are being asked to perform double-duty to cover staff vacancies, and classroom sizes average 36 per class (my average is 25). East Central High School, after years of cutting, is eliminating whole programs, such as French, Softball, Baseball, Swimming and Golf. It has lost critical positions in special education and ELL (English-Language Learners).
Note the juxtapositions in the above paragraph: schools are fighting each other over which school takes the trim; schools are having to take trims, and yet they still can’t replace all the vacancies. In education terms that’s the equivalent of inflation and high unemployment – the two are not supposed to happen simultaneously.
The system is breaking down. Booker T. has been hard hit, but it has strong parent support and good media connections, and has done better than some. Where we have been stripped to the bone, other schools are suffering amputations. And the current climate is making it hard to fill the positions we have because fewer people are entering the profession. We are short hundreds of teachers this year. It would be much worse if the problem were not masked by short-term Teach For America recruits. After six years of budget cuts to pay for tax cuts, we are fast reaching a point where we cannot deliver the quality of education our children deserve and need for the challenges of the twenty-first century.
I thought I had it bad. Looking beyond my classroom and my school, I see it’s worse than that. How long can this go on?
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