If Oklahoma is to have any chance of improving our students’ educational performance, we need to support excellence in our teachers and administrators. In recent years, Oklahoma has made such a commitment by investing in research-based professional development programs for teachers and school leaders. Unfortunately, three such successful programs – Literacy First, Great Expectations, and A+ Schools – have fallen victim to the budget axe and are set to lose all state funding in the upcoming budget year.
The decision to eliminate funding for these programs must be viewed within the state Department of Education’s budget context. This year the Legislature cut appropriations to the Department of Education by $108 million, or 4.5 percent, compared to FY ’11. Within the total Common Education budget, the Legislature allocates a set amount for “the support of public school activities”, which encompasses the costs of the flexible benefit allowance for teachers and support staff, the teachers retirement credit, and all the educational programs that are funded outside the state aid formula. The FY ’12 allocation of $401.2 million is $18.7 million less than that of FY ’11 and $57.4 million, or 12.5 percent, less than FY ’10. For the second straight year, the Legislature chose not to provide line-item allocations within the Activities Budget, leaving it in the hands of Superintendent Janet Barresi and the Board of Education to manage the shortfall.
To help bring the Activities Budget into balance, Superintendent Barresi made the controversial decision to fund employees’ flexible benefits allowance only through the end of the upcoming fiscal year (June 30th), rather than through the end of the upcoming contract year (August 30th), as has traditionally been done. Even with this move, which freed up $33.7 million, the Department could not maintain funding for all its existing programs and activities. As a result, it trimmed funding for some activities and eliminated funding entirely for several others, including annual stipends for National Board Certified Teachers, at-risk school programs and evaluation, and adult education (see this breakdown of funding decisions for FY ’10 – FY ’12).
Among the programs worst hit in the FY ’12 budget are those that provide training and resources to teachers and schools. The Department zeroed out six programs that had been funded in FY ’11 for a total amount of $7.7 million. Among these are three programs that provide intensive instruction and support to school staff and leadership of schools based on nationally-tested and proven models:
- Literacy First, also known as the Professional Development Institute (PDI), is a comprehensive three-year program aimed at improving reading achievement by training teachers in the Literacy First reading instruction process and developing schoolwide leadership teams. Participating schools go through a multi-stage process that begins with teachers participating in eight days of reading professional development and culminates in Phase IV schools having access to an on-site reading consultant. Evaluations of the program have shown Literacy First Grant schools outperform the state average on reading API scores by a considerable margin. For the principal of a Tulsa elementary school that went from being the district’s worst performing school to the 2010-11 National Title I Distinguished School, Literacy First “was the core of improvement for us”. The program, administered by the Oklahoma Commission for Teacher Preparation, received $3.0 million in state funding in FY ’11.
- Great Expectations is a professional development program that provides teachers and administrators the skills and knowledge needed to improve academic achievement, school climate, attendance, and parent involvement. The program begins with a week-long summer training institute for some 3,000 teachers focused on the program’s eight core tenets and 17 classroom practices, with follow-up training over the year. At later stages, selected schools receive three-year scholarships that bring master teachers to the school to serve as mentors over the course of a week. Evaluation of the program has found that students in Great Expectations classrooms perform better across a wide range of academic, behavioral, and attitudinal benchmarks. GE, which is run by a non-profit organization, received $1.1 million in state funding in FY ’11.
- A+ Schools is a statewide network of 68 schools that provides intensive and ongoing training guided by a mission of “nurturing creativity in every learner.” Each summer the staff of ten or so selected schools participate in a week-long training in the eight core principles of the A+ model; key staff from each school then participate in mini-institutes during the year and the schools receive on-site professional development visits during the year. The program’s five-year research report found “higher student achievement, better attendance of students and teachers, decreased discipline problems, stronger parent and community involvement, and a more creative and joyful school climate.” The program, operated out of the University of Central Oklahoma, received annual state funding of $663,000.
Common to all three programs is a commitment to getting a school’s teachers and administrators working together to improve teacher skills, student achievement, and school effectiveness. The programs are all research-based with proven results. They all provide intensive front-end training with opportunities for ongoing assistance and mentorship. In short, they are precisely the kinds of programs we should be supporting if we are serious about improving our education system.
The future of the staff development programs is uncertain. Leaders of Great Expectations and A+ Schools who I spoke with indicated they would scale back their programs this year while seeking greater financial support from philanthropies and private donors and working to get the Legislature to restore funding next year. For Literacy First, the Oklahoma Commission for Teacher Preparation (OCTP) indicated that no new Phase IV schools would be added this year; the Commission will request that funding be restored in FY ’13 and and be appropriated directly to OCTP.
In the professional development budget, the Department was able to restore $6.3 million for Reading Sufficiency, the summer reading academies for third grade students determined not to be reading at grade level. With a new state law ending social promotion for third graders not at grade level in reading, this program assumes special urgency. Ironically, or sadly, one of the qualifications to teach in a summer reading academy is completion of Literacy First training – the program that has now been defunded.