How Testing Is Driving More Oklahoma Teachers, and Other Educators Across the Nation, Out of the Classroom

KOSU's Emily Wendler reports that Robyn Venable taught for 31 years. She is one of the wave of Oklahoma teachers who are reluctantly leaving the profession. Ms. Venable loved teaching, but she is retiring because "[t]he testing is just ridiculous, the paper work is growing by leaps and bounds. The stuff that you're expected to do just gets added on and added on and added on...."

Wendler cites State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, who says that the state began the school year with a shortage of 1,000 teachers, and despite those efforts, it still ended with 1,000 openings. Hofmeister describes the resulting harm of using substitutes, and she also says that 800 classes were canceled because teachers weren't available.

NPR reports that "school administrators have scrambled throughout the year to fill the gaps by utilizing emergency certifications. ... The State Board of Education issued 500 of them this year. Five times more than normal." Moreover, Oklahoma City Public Schools has hired hundreds of Teach for America teachers, which is one reason that 36 percent of the district's teachers are inexperienced, with less than three years under their belts. OKCPS has also been "recruiting around the nation, in Puerto Rico and Spain because they are having trouble finding teachers here."

Wendler then cites Sand Springs Superintendent Lloyd Snow, who links the problem to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. NCLB "dumped too much testing on students and has irked many teachers for years," he says. The problems grew worse with the Achieving Classroom Excellence (ACE) law, which "spread on even more layers testing and a teacher evaluation system (TLE) that leaves educators feeling unappreciated." Snow concludes, "Now we sit 10-15 years later and where do we find ourselves? Very little progress. A lot of discouraged teachers. A teacher shortage of which I have never seen in my career."

Wendler's NPR report follows the release of the "Listening Tour" report by the reform group Stand for Children. As Nora Habib explained in the Tulsa World, Stand learned that "testing was the issue of greatest concern for teachers." The report's section on testing began with representative teachers' statements, such as "So much time has been consumed with testing, over testing, to the point kids have lost all motivation for the test that really matters." It closed with the protest "The whole focus is on testing and not learning... there's no passion for learning."

Stand's findings follow an analysis by the Oklahoma Policy Institute of the testing portion of the new teacher evaluation law (TLE), which the state adopted in order to compete for Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan's Race to the Top. The OPI's Gene Perry concluded that the test-driven portion of the TLE could be Oklahoma's next big education crisis:

As Oklahoma already struggles with a dire teacher shortage, we can't afford to reduce teachers' morale even more by evaluating their work using an arbitrary and unreliable formula. Test scores may be one piece of evidence used to evaluate educators, but over-reliance on the formula could drive even some of our best teachers away from the profession.

Oklahoma teachers echo the veteran teachers interviewed by the Teachers College Record on why they left the classroom. It reported:

The teachers in this study, who taught prior to and following the enactment of No Child Left Behind, argued that teaching had changed for the worse. The far-reaching accountability measures, which in high-poverty schools often take the form of scripted curricula, lock-step scope and sequence of units, and mandated test preparation that narrows the curriculum, squeezed out all protected institutional space.

Our state's teachers are repulsed by the same dynamics reported by 30,000 teachers polled by the American Federation of Teachers. The survey discovered that "89 percent said they were strongly enthusiastic about teaching when they began their careers but just 15 percent felt the same way today. Most said that drop in enthusiasm has happened in the past two or three years."

This is consistent with my experience. NCLB was awful, but it imposed high-stakes testing on only about one fifth of teachers. The worst harm was inflicted as Duncan's RTTT and NCLB waivers extended bubble-in accountability to every educator.

On the other hand, we should heed the wisdom of veteran superintendent Lloyd Snow. He told the NPR reporter, "My rant is over. Let me tell you I see some good things. I do see some good things." Snow, like so many educators who are fighting back, sees that the resistance to test-driven reform is growing.

To paraphrase Diane Ravitch, there is another (albeit bittersweet) reason for hope. As more veteran teachers decide that they cannot in good conscience remain in the classroom, that increases the numbers of educators and former educators with nothing to lose. More and more of us are now redoubling our efforts to defend students from the test-sort-and-punish school of reform.