Guest Blog (John Thompson): Visions 2020 brings hope

John Thompson is a former Oklahoma historian and inner city teacher who is now an education writer focusing on inner city schools.

In June, the Oklahoma Department of Education hosted the Vision 2020 conference to preview the dramatic changes that are roiling school systems. I was not surprised that many educators came to the conference with feelings of dread. Yet, I left the conference with new hope.  The following are the highlights from the perspective of an inner city teacher.

Early education and early warning systems.  Data-driven reformers once dismissed complaints about lack of high-quality pre-school as an “excuse” used by teachers to defend their failure to close the achievement gap. Billions of dollars were invested in computer systems for holding educators accountable, while we had not invested the relative pennies it would take to create early warning systems so truancy and other problems at school and home do not metastasize. However, Oklahoma now has a state-of-the art early warning system based on the research from the John Hopkins Everyone Graduates Center.

Common Core.  Oklahoma only has two years to prepare for the rigorous learning standards and assessments known as Common Core. Common Core promises to restore art, music, history, literature, and science to the curriculum narrowed by NCLB-type accountability.  It seeks to teach teachers how to ask better questions, challenging students to analyze, synthesize, and problem-solve.  It promotes multidisciplinary learning and the engaging instruction that has been driven out by “teacher-proof” test prep designed to jack up test scores.

Common Core has allowed for a refreshing level of honesty.  Before, educators had to stick to the sound bite that standardized testing did not necessarily mean that primitive teach-to-the-test was inevitable.  Now, all stakeholders can say what most thought – that bubble-in testing produced a counter-productive focus on basic skills and rote instruction.

In workshop after workshop, educators were encouraged to start now in preparing for the sea change that Common Core will bring.  At the same time, I witnessed an openness regarding the dilemma that teachers and principals will face this fall.  Teachers will be receiving professional development on the types of engaging instruction necessary to meet Common Core Standards. However, they and their students will still be held accountable for the same old bubble-in tests.  Will teachers be allowed to use the marvelous new techniques that they will be taught in professional development, or will districts require them to put those new methods on hold until Common Core assessments are adopted?

In the short run, as college-prep and career readiness assessments are implemented, Oklahoma student performance scores, undoubtedly, will collapse as in Florida and Los Angeles. That leads to my biggest concern.

Teacher Evaluations. Oklahoma’s tough new teacher evaluation law calls for rigorous observations of teaching practice, as well as using test score growth to estimate the “value” that each teacher adds to student performance. Fortunately, the qualitative side of teacher evaluations is being pursued in a thoughtful and fair manner.  Moreover, the professional development being offered in conjunction with teacher observations fits nicely with that of the Common Core.

Unfortunately, the law required districts to use experimental algorithms, known as value-added models, that use primitive standardized test scores for teacher evaluation.  Since the passage of that law, the social science has become even more persuasive in explaining why those statistical models cannot be made valid for high stakes purposes. They are particularly unfair for teachers and schools with high populations of English Language Learners (ELL) and special education students, as well as those with high-performing students. In Washington D.C. and Houston, teachers with records of excellence have been fired, over the protests of their principals, because of those statistical models.

Oklahoma will almost certainly need to choose between high-quality teacher evaluations by humans and the failing experiment of using test scores to fire teachers.  The incompatibility between Common Core and test-driven accountability is even starker.  My sense is that a consensus is emerging that one or the other will have to go.  My strong hope is that we will choose Common Core and rigorous evaluations by trained evaluators.

Implementing Common Core and the other promising reforms will not be easy.  Oklahoma will not have nearly enough funding to provide the student supports necessary for low-performing students to meet the higher standards.  We will have to recruit more talent and retain and reinvigorate more teachers and principals who are being burned out by high-stakes testing. My experience at the Vision 2020 conference has left me optimistic that these complex challenges can be tackled.

The opinions stated above are not necessarily those 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.

One thought on “Guest Blog (John Thompson): Visions 2020 brings hope

  1. You know I love ya, John Thompson, but I don’t get it. … What are you optimistic about?
    (1) “Early warning system” is just John Kaman’s spin on the Student Information System that was already operational in 2010; training had been provided to school staff since 2008-09 or so. … DDS Barresi’s crew unbranded The Wave, and gave it to the Office of State Finance, which couldn’t do any better apparently, based on the link you provided, and I guess it’s back.
    (2) Development of, approval for and training related to the Common Core has also been under way for a couple of years. I agree with all of the problems and possibilities you outline here.
    (3) >”Oklahoma will almost certainly need to choose between high-quality teacher evaluations by humans and the failing experiment of using test scores to fire teachers.”< I'm glad you're hopeful that Okla will make the correct choice here but given the fact that DDS Barresi's team has strayed so far from the law and reality on the TLE (e.g., I seriously doubt it.
    However, I'm optimistic b/c I know Oklahoma teachers and other school leaders will continue to do the best they can with what they have to work with – no matter who is calling the shots.
    And, here I agree with you most: "Oklahoma will not have nearly enough funding to provide the student supports necessary for low-performing students to meet the higher standards."
    No, I don't see their vision as being anywhere near 2020.

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