Janet Barresi's “State of Education” speech
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Published: 08-Jul-2011

Editor's Note: An edited version of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi’s speech at “Innovation 2011” (delivered Thursday, July 8) appears below.

Whenever this state has faced a challenge, it has risen to it. We don’t need to wait for more money or more time. This is our time. We’re definitely in a time that is both challenging and exciting. I want to describe a vision for embracing challenges and opportunities. Every Oklahoman can be a part of an “all hands on deck” approach to education.

We face hard fiscal realities in our state. We saw a $500 million shortfall in state government. Oklahoma has weathered “The Great Recession,” and we’re certainly not in the same shape as New Jersey, with the nation’s highest taxes and a $10 billion deficit.

In Oklahoma, we’re more like a family dealing with a household budget, and if we know we’re going to have less money coming in, then we cut back, defer purchases and make due.

That doesn’t mean the economic downturn hasn’t affected us. Oklahoma has enormous pension obligations and portions of state government that are larger than they need to be. As a member of the equalization board, I know that Oklahoma’s fiscal situation continues to improve, and we have reason to be cautiously optimistic. But even so, some hard realities have finally started to collide with expectations about the way things used to be.

The Board of Education had to make difficult decisions about the school activities fund -- that $401 million budget for everything from flex benefits to funding for advanced placement programs. When I say “difficult decisions,” I’m not understating it. We have to deal with real numbers and real dollars, in this case nearly $100 million less real dollars for education.

“The new normal” … is not just a catch phrase. It’s the way things are going to be for a time. .. We can sit on our hands and just hope things go back to the way they were, or we can take control of our future and the future of our children. While there are great teachers, great administrators and great schools -- we can and must do better. When I share this information, it’s not to point fingers or to make excuses. Everyone can always do better.

We know that our math and science scores are far below where they should be. The NAEP results are a clear indication. Seventy-two percent of fourth graders taking the test in 2009, and 75 percent of eighth graders, fell below proficient. … Look at the research of Stanford economist Eric Hanushek, whose work has shown that states like Oklahoma are falling behind when it comes to producing top-performing math students.

These results matter because it is only through preparing our students with proficiencies in areas like statistics, data analysis, technical reading and so on that they’ll actually be ready to compete for jobs in the new knowledge economy. Far too many of our students aren’t ready when they graduate. Far too many aren’t ready for college. A study presented to the State Regents showed that 43 percent of first time freshman entering Oklahoma colleges and universities from high schools in 2009 were not ready for college, and had to be remediated.

Even as we have to adjust to the hard fiscal realities, and even as we must face up to how our students are doing compared to rest of the world, we have so much potential. … I’ve traveled all over Oklahoma. This has been a great opportunity for me to learn from you, to listen to you.

I attended a regional superintendents’ meeting in Western Oklahoma earlier this year. A superintendent there discussed the many hats he wore … as groundskeeper, as a principal, as a teacher. He was even responsible for changing the oil on the bus fleet. He told me that it was the first time he’d felt like he’d had a chance just to share his views and to be listened to. He told me he’d never had someone travel from Oklahoma City to just listen to him.

I’ve seen great things happening. I’ve watched dedicated teachers in the classroom and I’ve visited with principals busy transforming schools. I talked not long ago with a second grade teacher named Lauren Bird in Putnam City who has arranged to be at her school to help kids with summer reading. She’s not receiving any funds for the program. She’s making it happen.

There’s a great opportunity to hear from the principal of Sequoyah Elementary and the Superintendent of Cottonwood schools about the literacy strategies they are employing to help children peak in their performance.

Educators in Tulsa are taking the lead, engaged in a groundbreaking teacher and leader effectiveness initiative, with the goal of having an effective teacher in every classroom and an effective principal leading every school. New Rogers High School principal Stacey Vernon is one of those shining examples of an effective leader.

I read to students at Edwards Elementary, participating in the “Reading Explorers” camp, administered through the nonprofit Its My Community Initiative involving Public Strategies and Sandridge Energy. I read a book about Philo Farnsworth, the inventor of television. It was a joy to see the children’s faces light up as they listened.

These are the things that inspired me to unveil a roadmap for policy for the rest of my term. I launched the 3R Agenda in March to rethink, restructure and reform education, so that we can embrace what is happening within pockets of excellence and expand those practices.

The 3R Agenda is straightforward – rethink how we are delivering education, restructure the State Department of Education to better achieve those goals and offer reforms for greater accountability, rewards for great schools and great teachers, and more choices for parents.

RETHINK - That’s ongoing, that’s what this year's Innovation 2011 conference was all about. It’s one of the reasons we changed the name and focus of the conference.

RESTRUCTURE - The main focus of the second R is the reorganization and refocus what is going on at the state Education Department. This isn’t to criticize what happened in the past, but the department is like many state agencies that haven’t quite caught up with the technology of 2011.

Our information technology restructuring plan at the department of Education is projected to save about $4 million over the next six years. A report offered by Oklahoma’s new chief information officer found that state government state uses 76 separate redundant financial tracking systems, 22 unique time and attendance systems, 17 imaging systems, 48 reporting and analytics applications, 30,000 desktop computers (of which 2,000 are not in use) 25 different desktop operating systems, and 133 email systems.

As Governor Mary Fallin put it, “much of our state government operates on eight-track technology in an iPod world.”

REFORMS - Certainly this past legislative session was historic. …We passed legislation that will end social promotion after the third grade for kids who aren’t reading proficiently. This isn’t about hitting the panic button; it’s about ensuring that those students identified early on in pre-K and kindergarten so that by the time they reach the 3rd grade they’re not frustrated and struggling.

We passed legislation to require a straightforward A through F report card for schools so that parents don’t have to interpret the metrics and numbers that often present a barrier of understanding to the community at large.

We ended “trial de novo” so that local superintendents and school boards now can make informed decisions with due process on terminating bad teachers, without having to worry about costly litigation.

A new law offers tuition scholarships funded through donations from individuals and businesses to low-income families or for parents whose kids are in failing schools. This same new law will also offer grants for rural public schools to apply for dollars to help fund a variety of programs. ...

Not everyone agrees with these reforms. I would urge that those who disagree: Give these reforms a chance. Give them time to work. My pledge is to continue to engage in a respectful dialogue. My pledge is to find common ground so we can overcome the challenges.

Where are we going? We’re shifting to the implementation of these reforms and we’re focusing on the reorganization of the state Department of Education around a core mission and a well-defined organizational identity.

I made reading a top priority in the fiscal year 2012 budget by restoring and dedicating more than $6 million to the reading sufficiency program. Those are dollars the school districts will be able to use on a variety of programs. We are not enforcing some one-size-fits-all top-down solution. Instead this is about professional development opportunities to help teachers get students reading at grade level.

Districts will decide on what fits best for their students. Bristow and Bristow parents know best how to educate Bristow’s kids. This is about increasing flexibility for school districts.

Our implementation of reforms will also break down specific goals for specific districts. We’ll help districts identify particular problems and identify the solutions at the student level.

With the fiscal realities we face in education this year, it’s also more important than ever to intensify the focus of the mission of the State department around three key areas … literacy for reading and numeracy, career ready/college ready, and STEM.

LITERACY - Reading and numeracy. We must have our children on grade level and excelling in order to be successful.

CAREER READY/COLLEGE READY - These must mean the same thing. That doesn’t mean everyone will want to go to college. It simply means that a student graduating with a high school diploma in Oklahoma should be ready to either enter the work force successfully, or enter college without requiring remediation.

STEM - science, technology, engineering and math is now beginning to pervade every single profession in our knowledge economy. As I’ve talked with aerospace industry leaders, for example, they’ve told me they’re ready to hire for new positions but too often they are finding people who aren’t prepared with the basic skills.

Why these three core functions? In the past, the department had drifted into an organization that was divided into a structure of silos. Many times, people in those silos weren’t talking to each other. Superintendents or principals would sometimes find themselves repeating the same information or having to duplicate tasks with different divisions.

This happens to organizations from time to time, and we’re beginning to change it. The solution is to break down those silos and reorient everyone around a core mission.

It’s our responsibility as a service organization to do everything we can to help districts. To help in the transition involved from the reforms passed in reading and social promotion legislation. To help as we transition as a state to the Common Core so that teachers can go deeper into subject matter and help students develop cognitive skills necessary to their success in this new century. And, to help as we transition to common assessments. ...

I spoke about the need for an all-hands-on-deck attitude. And I have pledged during this challenging economic time to look at ways to engage every citizen, every parent, chambers of commerce, local businesses, corporate and civic leaders.

It’s about everyone. And that includes parents, perhaps the most important element of all. Parents can help by simply reading to their children every night. What a wonderful thing if every parent were to take this simple step.

All of us care about the students. All of us want to see them succeed. One of my mottoes is that every child can learn, regardless of socioeconomic conditions. And every child deserves a chance to learn. Not until every child receives a great education in this state, not until every great teacher can reach their full potential, and not until every family has access to full array of educational options they deserve, will we have achieved our calling.

We have the solutions right here in Oklahoma. Let’s get to work.

NOTE: The complete text of Superintendent Barresi's speech is available here.

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