John Thompson: Opportunities and dangers for public schools in 2011

John Thompson is an Oklahoma City teacher with 18 years of urban high school experience and an education blogger at He contributes regularly to our blog on education issues.

The Oklahoma City Public Schools faced breathtaking educational changes in 2010.  The OKCPS adopted a year-round calender, as it lengthened the school day for several middle schools.  It was required by federal regulations to restructure three schools, while state law forced it to revamp teacher and administrator evaluations.  The district experimented with performance pay, peer review and mentoring of new teachers, incentives for middle school students, and contracting with Teach for America.  It finally committed to the expansion of all-day prekindergarten.

Implementing this slew of policy initiatives would be more than enough of a challenge for 2011.  The previous year’s best ideas – especially peer review, expanding the school day, and implementing early education – have been shown to be effective in increasing student performance, but only with high-quality implementation.  The district’s turnaround efforts, and incorporating test score growth into teacher and principal evaluations, could be beneficial or they could be disastrous.  The prudent policy would be to place a moratorium on new reforms, and concentrate on making these experiments work.

Meanwhile, the OKCPS faces an even greater challenge in the next fifteen months.  Next year’s seniors will need to pass four End of Instruction (EOI) tests in order to graduate. In 2007, about 2,250 freshmen entered OKCPS high schools, and 85 percent of them were non-white. Three years later, only about 331 black students remained in the district’s seven neighborhood high schools to take their junior year EOIs, and less than 55 percent of them passed their English III test.  Without an unflinching focus on this immediate challenge, our children of color will graduate at rates comparable to their counterparts in Detroit.

Incoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi has announced plans for increasing rigor. Done properly, increasing academic rigor need not reduce the graduation rate. A large body of research explains, however, why urban schools can not increase rigor without first laying a proper foundation. The types of efforts that the OKCPS started last year must be properly implemented before low-skill students can tackle a college prep curriculum. A rush to higher standards could create an even more disastrous dropout rate in Oklahoma City and perhaps Tulsa.

Barresi, and other Oklahoma conservatives, also praised the advice they have received from former Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education. If, or when, the rush to raise standards reveals more failure in urban schools, a second scenario is likely. Jeb Bush has launched a national campaign to increase charters, vouchers, standardized testing and online education.  If Oklahomans do not have the patience for the hard work of improving our entire educational systems, the backup plan is likely to be niche solutions, such as increased choice and “virtual education” programs, that serve our easier-to-educate students.

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.

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