The public education crunch goes from bad to worse (Guest Post: John Waldron)

john waldronJohn Waldron is a high school history teacher at Booker T. Washington High School

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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The opinions stated in guest articles are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.

10 thoughts on “The public education crunch goes from bad to worse (Guest Post: John Waldron)

  1. If one essay takes that much time to grade, imagine the burden of ELA teachers, whose every lesson requires in-depth higher level essay questions and all forms of writing along with research papers. On top of all the other ways we must document every single thing we do it is almost impossible to accomplish. I average 10-12 hour days at school and still bring work home. I have not been ‘caught-up” once this year.

  2. The politicians sold everyone on the idea that proceeds from the lottery would go to schools but…think again!

    In the article Rolland quoted Oklahoma City Public Schools superintendent Karl Springer. She wrote:

    But the money was never tracked properly, Springer said. The lottery law stipulates that the money is not supposed to supplant current education funding but is supposed to be in addition to education funding. The contribution is split with 45 percent going to prekindergarten through 12th-grade education, 45 percent going to support capitol projects for higher education, 5 percent going to the state’s school consolidation fund and the final 5 percent going to the teacher retirement system. For higher education, the money is easily tracked and there is a list of capitol improvement projects that the lottery has funded at colleges and universities across the state. But for common education the money goes directly into the state formula that distributes funding equally between school districts based on a student enrollment equation.

    These statements by Springer ARE accurate.

  3. I teach at Edison. I Have six classes and have to deal with 170 students each day – while my average is around 29 students per class I have one class of 33, and two other classes at 30 or more. All of this in a “science” classroom with no working water or gas outlets.
    Do I feel BTW gets favored treatment? Yes! Everyone talks about BTW’s high rankings. However, no one explains that these rankings are due, at least in part, to BTW’s being listed as a “regular” school. From what I understand, BTW gets to select every student that goes to that school. It is a complete “magnet” school, and unlike every other high school in TPS. However, according to U. S. News and World Report, BTW is not categorized as a magnet school for rankings. TPS submitted BTW as a regular school for rankings. Edison High School had more success with AP scores and other indicators that BTW did this past year. You don’t hear much from TPS about tha, do you?
    I do not know about other programs at East Central; however, there has not been a competitive swim team there for several years, so complaining about cutting that program seems to be a moot point. A better question would be to ask why the pool at Edison, which has won two recent conference championships and had been 8th in the state, was allowed to get in such bad condition that the pool had to be closed due to a lack of structural integrity. The parents at Edison tried to get this corrected to no avail.

  4. I am guessing you read my letter since Bell is mentioned. This is a great commentary and I think we all just have to band together to stop the insanity. I am posting my letter here in hopes that it will add emphasis to what you said.

    Dear Person of Interest,

    I am writing to you on behalf of myself and what may well be the thoughts of other Tulsa Public Schools teachers. I am the fine arts instructor at Bell Elementary and this is my 22nd year of teaching. I have taught at 5 different schools in my career, been under the leadership of a dozen different principals and several superintendents.

    I am writing this letter because I feel Tulsa is in a crisis situation. Everyone talks about supporting classroom teachers, but talk is just words. Actions speak louder than words. I am not asking for more salary, I did not enter education for the money; I entered teaching because I love children and love to teach. In short, I love the process of education.
    Increasing problems are keeping many teachers from doing what they love. Students arrive every day with every single problem you can imagine; neglect, abuse, homelessness, incarcerated parents, poverty, hunger, the list goes on and on. You can imagine that a large school district like Tulsa has more than their fair share of these problems. The beautiful part of our love of children is that we can deal with a lot of those problems, IF we are allowed to do so. You cannot help AND effectively teach a classroom with more than 30 students. You cannot help children if you are required to do menial tasks to please the district like disseminate data on a daily basis. You cannot help children if your curriculum is rote and uninspired.

    I love art, and I love my job and because I teach art, I am allowed the freedom to be passionate and teach different things every year depending on where I find my inspiration. My students learn and retain that knowledge. I love it when I run into a former student who is now a productive citizen and they excitedly share memories from out time together 5, 10 or 15 years ago. But teaching 30 + students…

    In Tulsa as well as Oklahoma we had teacher shortages this year. At Bell we started the year with 3 vacant positions. Who would want their child to arrive on the first day of school with a substitute, no decorations, no enthusiasm, no celebration? My new principal (the 4th principal in 5 years here) seems dedicated but she has inherited a difficult situation. Two of those positions have been filled. And after teaching 34 students in all three of our 2nd grade classrooms, a fourth 2nd grade teacher was hired. Sadly because my principal was unable to fill the last vacancy, the three classes of 24 fifth grade students has been consolidated into two classes with 36 students each. There are numerous behavior problems and personality issues and with that number of children I am fearful that our teachers won’t last the year.

    Tulsa Public Schools received a grant that allowed a number of highly qualified teachers to become job coaches and travel from school to school, doing what, I am not sure. Where those highly qualified teachers need to be in this crisis are back in the classroom. I am not the only one who feels this way. A close teaching colleague who had one of those “consulting” positions last year is now back in the classroom. She confided in me that she felt guilty every time she walked into a building where teachers were struggling. And if we are going to employ ‘consultants’ please leave the seasoned teachers who know what they are doing alone, let them focus on their job. The new inexperienced teachers who are drowning from the pressure are who need help. I serve as a district representative for the art department and we are working together to help struggling art teachers.
    We say (as a district, as a city, as a state, as a nation) that we value our children. Bill Gates and other important entrepreneurs want to help. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The reward of a thing well done is to have done it.” Only individuals with classroom experience should be decision makers. Only effective administrators should be promoted to consulting positions. At the start of the year convocation I heard over and over how everyone supports classroom teachers; we are on the front line. Where is the proof of that support? These children belong to all of us, we need help.
    Support us in the form of more classroom teachers so we can have manageable class sizes.

    Support us by getting troubled children the help they need and deserve.
    Support us before all the qualified teachers leave the field or retire and new teachers burn out.
    Support our passion to do what is right for all of our children.

    Thank you for listening to my thoughts. This is my opinion, but if you want to hear more I suggest you ask a teacher, any teacher.

    JoAnn Brigham Caldwell
    Fine Art Instructor
    Bell Elementary

  5. One of the points I wanted to make with this article is that our current system encourages unproductive school rivalries. When the watering hole gets smaller, the gazelles fight each other for access. The current ranking system masks the diversity of programs in our schools and diminishes them by means of a one-size-fits-all score. Edison, I understand, has a large number of deaf students. Memorial a large number of students with autism, They are both compared to Booker T. directly. That’s not appropriate. Incidentally, Booker T. is not listed as a magnet school because TPS received a grant for new magnet school programs – from which Booker T. was excluded.

    Booker T. does use a selection process. That is because of our twin missions: to promote appreciation for diversity, cutting across the old Jim Crow era segregation lines, and to promote excellence, creating specialized programs for gifted students. Both are important needs. But all too often our ranking system, by insisting on direct comparisons, creates bad feelings among the schools. And then when you add in six years of budget cuts, the animosity grows. It’s too bad – teachers and students could benefit if we could appreciate the accomplishments of other schools and learn from their examples.

    Our public schools do many great things – assimilate immigrants, teach special education students, provide food and a stable environment for those who lack these things at home, prepare students for college, and lay down a foundation for economic innovation. They are a great American success story. But the narrative these days is all about failure – and the need to divert money from public schools to support untested private programs. Why can’t we just continue to support vital public institutions that hold our society together? That is the larger political question, and I wish educators would speak up more frequently on this point. If we did, we might find that we have more power than we think.

  6. The education of our children is a power and responsibility of the state, derived of the authority of its citizen parents. When, however, these children are seen by elected officials as “products” – akin to widgets that can be more efficiently formed and programmed as components of a standardize system – then the machinations of government-sponsored education become the expectation that schools meet the bottom line in business – profit. There is this idea and its effect, therefore, that competition will create more proficient managers of the raw materials and of the processes involved in this widget-building craft. There is also, then, this market made available for those with slick textbooks, test packets, and training programs promising “on time” delivery of the goods. There is one problem: Our children are not widgets. We need our citizen parents to make that clear to any elected official who views our government-funded schools through the following lens:
    “We made government run more like a business – efficient, effective and customer friendly.” Governor Mary Fallin, 2014 State of the State Address.

  7. Already a high school education just proves someone attended. I get “high school high achievers” who can’t write legibly, don’t know how to punctuate, and can’t spell simple words and think attendance rates a passing grade. I teach at a community college. They make lots of money doing remedial classes for high school graduates. English, math, and reading. Do you think they’ll support change and hurt their income streams? Not likely.

  8. I’ll add a thought about social workers in schools. If the teachers had manageable class sizes and work loads, the social workers (or counselors) could do what they are best suited to do: identify kids at risk who need extra support, create programming to help prevent problems like bullying or dating violence, support children who have survived trauma, or provide intensive resources and case management for the families in poverty who face tremendous barriers to accessing education.

    But with teachers spread as thin as they are with more and more students, the social workers are helping manage classroom behavior problems, meeting with kids after they are already having problems in the school and are at risk of suspension, and having to work on a ‘putting out fires’ basis of reacting to problems instead of trying to prevent them.

    A teacher should not be expected to manage all behavior problems in a class of 30 with all of the added responsibilities of this budget crisis. They are then called upon to complete complex evaluation forms for children needing assessment, but with so many children to teach, it is terribly challenging to share meaningful observations or find time to complete additional evaluation instruments. But with a reasonable class size and work load, the teacher could lean in and give that child the extra time and attention that might resolve the problems. Social work easily turns into patching up behavior enough to maintain in class, instead of concentrating on true, individualized treatment goals that would help create long term change.

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