Education Reform: Part 1 — Reflections and Analysis – Bart Binning, Ed.D.
The weekly Thursday Morning Club 29 Breakfast meeting has had, over the past 5 months, about ½ of their topics involving education reform. The impetus for some of the discussion was from an earlier series on economic development with a conclusion that the primary change needed to encourage economic development is education reform. Access article here
This analysis of the education reform discussions is presented in two parts. This first part is my personal reflections based on the educational presentations and the brainstorming session by the Breakfast group. Part II contains several recommendations to the Legislature.
We have known for a time of financial exigency. At the beginning of the legislative term we assumed that this was a time for reform. We soon discovered that many legislators had the mindset: “I am term-limited; I am going to let the next legislature tackle that problem.” At the conclusion of the groups education brainstorming session, one participant said “we have identified a lot of problems, but not many solutions;” an indication that we need to reevaluate our goals for education in Oklahoma.
The education problems we see today are the same that the 1990 landmark HB 1017 was supposed to address. Which suggests: 1) HB 1017 addressed only symptoms and not problems, and 2) systemic change, starting with problem identification, is needed. The first step in systemic change is one of visioning – what is it we seek to have Oklahoma’s system of education accomplish. In examining this vision, I would suggest that there are two separate and distinct populations to consider, each having significantly different educational needs: children and adults. Since the typical brain does not stop developing until the mid 20’s, the purpose of education should be different for each group. I suggest the purposes of education:
• for children: to create independent, self-reliant adults that have the knowledge and skills to sustain themselves and their families in a democratic society.
• for adults: to aid in the adult’s personal growth and development as well as their occupational and career preparedness, with the knowledge and skills to challenge and improve society’s social structure.
• for society: the purpose of graduate higher education is to “expand the body of knowledge.” Faculty are expected to do “research” as one mechanism for professional growth that seeks to ensure that faculty knows the “leading edge of knowledge” in their field. While several Oklahoma universities offer professional terminal degrees, there are only three universities with a research mission to expand knowledge (Public: OU and OSU, Private: Tulsa University) which are components of their Ph.D. academic programs.
Based on the groups brainstorming discussions, I conclude that Funding, Accountability, and Politics are the three root causes of problems in the Oklahoma system of education.
Funding: Historically, education was the last item funded by the legislature – because education was bipartisan, there would always be an education budget. Personally, in the 1990’s, there were times that I began the fall semester, teaching without a contract because the legislature had not passed a budget, assuming I would have a job and eventually get paid. Currently there is a gentleman’s agreement to fund education first. Funding is the way the legislature historically attempts to receive accountability. However, since Common and Career Tech Boards are elected by the local community, and since only a portion of school funding is from state appropriated funds, accountability to the legislature is minimal, except when additional funds are needed.
Accountability – or lack thereof – is assumed to be a reason for legislative education micro-management, especially in curriculum. Another issue is that monopolies are not good at self-accountability and our public education system seems to resemble a “monopoly run by a monopoly.” For years businesses have been complaining that high school and college graduates do not have sufficient reading, writing, and mathematics skills. That up to 40% of students entering Oklahoma’s universities are in need of remediation is evidence that common education college prep programs have issues. Accreditation standards are one way of independently addressing accountability. There are several national accreditation agencies for all types of schools. In Oklahoma we use:
• Common Education: AdvanceED, a division of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (www.advance-ed.org) Of the 550 school districts, only 6 districts are fully accredited, with an additional 38 districts having at least one school in the district accredited.
• Higher Education: Higher Learning Commission (www.hlcommission.org) Almost all higher education institutions in Oklahoma are accredited. Academic programs have additional accreditation.
Politics – Oklahoma is, by nature, a populist state – which is why we have a weak governor and a plethora of independent boards and commissions. From the territorial days until 1941, politics was rampant in the system of Higher Education, when the Oklahoma Legislature proposed Article XIII-A of the Oklahoma Constitution, creating the State System and the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education. Today, politics is rampant in the common education system, as exhibited by the evolution of “common core” as an evaluation tool – a mess that has not been resolved. The standards proposed by educators have been deemed as being below national standards by national experts, and a replacement standard has not been approved by the legislature.
In Oklahoma, we have three separate systems of education, each constitutionally mandated with different funding sources:
• Common (focusing on educating children): an elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction, an appointed State Board of Education and 550 dependent and independent school districts, each with their own elected board of education
• Career Tech (focusing on children and adults): an appointed State Board of Career and Technology Education with 29 Career Centers with elected boards of education
• Higher Education (focusing on adults): an appointed Chancellor of Higher Education, appointed State Regents for Higher Education, and a plethora of institutional boards of Regents for colleges and universities.
With about 600 boards, most elected and some appointed, no one is in charge of education in the state. Part II will examine and suggest potential legislative solutions to these issues.