Guest Blog (John Thompson): Ready or not, the educational revolution is now

From time to time, we use the OK Policy blog to post contributions that offer interesting perspectives on important policy issues for the state. This is the second of two posts from John Thompson,  an Oklahoma City teacher with 18 years of urban high school experience and an education blogger at He has a doctorate from Rutgers University, and is the author of Closing the Frontier:  Radical Responses in Oklahoma Politics. His first post looked at the national debate over education reform.

The law that could radically change Oklahoma’s school systems for good or for ill was  completely ignored in the latest debates between candidates for Governor and Secretary of Public Instruction on educational policy.   SB 2033, which passed in the final days of this past legislative  session in conjunction with the Oklahoma Race to the Top (RttT) grant application, has received almost no attention.  So maybe Oklahomans would like an overview of the federal education policy that prompted it.

I should first acknowledge my bias as a teacher in the lowest performing high school in Oklahoma, and as a believer that schools must respect students as whole social, emotional, and moral beings and not just a test score.  I served on the executive committee of Oklahoma City’s MAPS for KIDS, the product of a bipartisan coalition of business, labor, and the community, and which sought a humane learning culture for all.  Frankly I am embarrassed that the Chamber of Commerce tends to be more mindful of the dignity of my poor students of color than the educational bureaucracy.

In order to win a $175 million RttT competitive grant,  teachers now will be evaluated on test score growth. Teachers in high-poverty schools who do not meet their growth targets, that will be set by an experimental statistical model, are supposed to be fired. Pay for performance has been authorized; seniority rights have been largely abolished; standardized testing will be doubled; charter schools will be released from their prime method of regulation; and the closing of schools and the mass replacement of teachers have been mandated.

The key to these “reforms” is the Value Added Model (VAM) or algorithms that establish standardized test growth targets for teachers.  The National Academy of Science condemns the use of these theoretical models for high-stakes decisions as scientifically invalid. Two studies found there is a 10 – 15% chance PER YEAR that a teacher who is ranked in the top 20% in raising student performance one year will be ranked in the bottom 20% the next year. Worse, VAMs are even more inaccurate for high-poverty schools and when students are not assigned randomly.

The RttT, however, has not been a complete victory for the teach-to-the-test crowd. Originally, the input of social scientists and teachers was not welcomed by the authors of the RttT.  Because they were creating a brand new world, why worry about educational research?  Grant awards were to be based on the Department’s determination of whether RttT reforms were “transformative” enough. Under pressure from unions and scholars, however, RttT proposals were subjected to a peer review process. Since then, data-driven “reformers” have been exceptionally vocal in their complaints that these objective judges placed too much value on collaboration and achieving union buy-in, and they have invested in a huge public relations campaign against RttT proposals that they see as compromises.

At first glance, Oklahoma would seem to be a complete victory for data-driven “reform.”  SB 2033 and Oklahoma’s Race to the Top proposal allow for the firing of educators based exclusively on test score data, but they do not require it.  We could be heading towards an even more extreme regime of nonstop test prep and a legal Battle of Verdun as districts purge their veteran teachers, or we could collaboratively build on experiments that work, and reject the innovations that do not.

Our RttT also authorized “peer review” evaluations of teachers, modeled on a system developed by the American Federation of Teachers where mentor teachers assist struggling teachers and recommend the dismissal of teachers who do not improve.  Typically, peer review results in the efficient dismissal of the bottom 10% of teacher every year.  And the union has been open to The Grand Bargain where peer review committees including teachers and principals use test score data for teacher evaluation. While teachers cannot accept evaluations solely by management that use primitive test score data to drive the evaluations, we can support the use of that data by committees that have been trained in its strenghts and weaknesses.  And the AFT has called upon Ken Feinberg who led the victims compensation process for the World Trade Center and who is now doing the same for the Gulf oil spill, to analyze valid means of evaluating teachers.

But here’s the kicker.  The flipside of “the Grand Bargain” is that administrators must share control, and that runs contrary to education’s “culture of compliance.”  But the bipartisan collaboration of MAPs, as well as the RttT planning process, has created goodwill between business and teachers unions, along with the understanding of why we can no longer ignore the wisdom of teachers as we enter this risky new era

The opinions stated above are not necessarily the opinions of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

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