We often hear that public education suffers from a "culture of compliance." I often add that the refusal of education leaders to speak obvious truths is due to the "blame game," which has created a culture of powerlessness. What I mean, but don't dare articulate, is that education across much or most of the nation is paralyzed by a culture of fear that gags even the best school leaders.
So, I was stunned by Oklahoma City Superintendent Rob Neu who proclaimed on the front page of the Daily Oklahoman that "We must face our current reality with brutal honesty." The constant criticism of the OKCPS has "stifled risk-taking and created an atmosphere of fear." Administrative turnover has created "a real-life game of Survivor."
Neu said that district's overall student performance is "bleak" and African-American students are "simply dying on the vine."
Then, the new superintendent addressed the "Great Conversation," which brings together students, civil rights and civil liberties organizations, religious coalitions, the Chamber of Commerce, the AFT/OK, conservatives, and liberals. He continued to express truths that I have never heard articulated in public (even though they are often expressed privately, off the record.) After a half dozen accurate, but daring statements, Neu punctuated his candid appraisal with the words, "You just heard it!"
We first heard the revelation that "African-American students are being passed on" while "Hispanic students are being exited." Superintendent Neu told stakeholders in our nearly 90% low-income district, "poverty is not a disability."
Neu said that the "blame game" could no longer be an option. Then, he tackled the issue which has inflicted the most pain on teachers. He began with the common statement that there is "no such thing as student failure." At that point, teachers across the nation tend to flinch reflectively, expecting to be blamed for each of our students' failure. But, the superintendent then asserted that a student's failure is "the system's failure!"
When he tackled sensitive issues, Mr. Neu was refreshingly explicit. He described complaints against the district by the United States Office of Civil Rights. Moreover, even if 46 percent of OKCPS students were not Hispanic, we would still need the dual language school initiative that is being introduced.
Mr. Neu was just warming up his honesty campaign. He described the problems created by the top-down management that too often accompanied grants by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. He condemned the loss of 45 days of schooling, in part or in full, to standardized testing. Mr. Neu said that he believes in accountability and valid metrics but he tells his people he will not punish them for their test scores.
He then affirmed that educators should never prepare students for a standardized test!
Our conservative city has lagged behind the Oklahoma Parent Teacher Organization, Tulsa, the suburbs, and small towns in speaking truth to the top-down powers who mandate test, sort, and punish. But, Mr. Neu criticized Oklahoma's flawed A-F School Report Card and the retention of 3rd graders who failed their reading test. As have grassroots and philanthropic organizations across the state, he endorsed high-quality pre-kindergarten and wraparound services in full-service community schools.
The superintendent was joined by Shawn Hime of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association and Bob Ross of the Inasmuch Foundation, which promotes high-quality early education. Later, the incoming State Superintendent, Joy Hofmeister, made it clear that we would be working together to devise a meaningful accountability system, and collaboratively implement humane school improvement policies.
Superintendent Neu then suggested that we should "blow up" the traditional grading levels from pre-kindergarten to 5th grade. While I think he is right on this, I won't deny my feelings of trepidation when contemplating such a challenge.
At one point, Mr. Neu outright scared me. He will soon be announcing a major technology initiative. But, teaching has made me much more risk adverse. I was taken aback by his enthusiastic commitment to "blended learning," and his questioning of bricks and mortar high schools.
I then heard Mr. Neu's confident words, "You just heard that!"
I was embarrassed that I have become so risk-adverse. Before entering the classroom as a 39-year-old rookie, I would have never believed that I would become so cautious. Perhaps it is time for all of us in our embattled education system to aim higher than incrementalism.
Yes! I am ready to follow the truth teller, even when he pushes me out of my comfort zone. If Mr. Neu is willing to be so honest in laying out our challenges, and prescribing the major changes that are necessary to produce meaningful gains, I will stifle my own fears. In community and in truth-telling, there is strength! Or, as our state's PTA says, "everychild.onevoice.cadanino.unavoz!"