Wednesday, December 30, 2015

My New Years Wish List

We all have New Year's resolutions and things we wish to accomplish with our lives; and most of us stick with them for at least an entire month. What I would like to lay out for you are some of the 'wish list' items I have for the upcoming year in #oklaed. This is going to be an extremely interesting year with impending budgetary issues, school choice advocates gearing up, and school consolidation talks gaining momentum, so I am very intrigued as to where 2016 will take us. 

One of my resolutions is to blog more, so according to research, expect several to come out in the first month at least. If I'm semi-successful at creating a habit then I'll continue on, if I have anything worthwhile to say in any length. I'm usually better at 140 characters or less.

I digress. On to the Wish List.

Teacher Certification Reform
The re-authorization of NCLB/ESEA, now referred to as ESSA, puts the term 'Highly Qualified' back to the states to determine what their opinion of that topic entails. My hope is that the Oklahoma Legislature and State Board of Education will swiftly take some of the more common sense Teacher Shortage Task Force recommendations and put them to wise use. One of the most important things to immediately impact will be to continue to increase reciprocity of teachers coming into our state from other states where they are already certified.

We should not be restricting teachers from coming into our state due to certification, as if our teacher pay wasn't already enough to do that all on its own.

Quality Teacher Evaluations
The current TLE system and value-added measures (VAM) have been thoroughly intertwined from the beginning. Proponents of say VAM is the easiest and best way to determine student learning, actual science says here, and here, and a Google search away, that it doesn't. The qualitative portion of our current system contains some very good components for improving instruction and having great conversations around that topic. I would like to see us continue on the track of improving our current model and finding creative and innovative ways to create a well-rounded teacher evaluation system, especially if the quantitative component must remain. 

The main thing is to remember that no system will be perfect for every teacher. That being said, we must as a group professionally work through what will help us to grow as educators for the betterment of our students. We must also work to develop and grow what is oftentimes the most important component to effectively evaluating an educator; that is an effective administrator. Leadership can work through hardship, develop talent, communicate messages and place personnel in the best situation for success. I wish for our state to do more to build up our education leaders with development programs and opportunities. As we are moving more rapidly into very complex matters, I firmly believe that leadership development will be vital to the future success of our states education system.

Penny Sales Tax
My child is worth a penny. I will gladly pay another $2.00 for my groceries at Wal-Mart. Another $.03 on a Braums gallon of milk is worth it for our state's education system. Whatever anecdote you attach it to, I am okay with it. Although, I am not okay with it being necessary and I make a distinction between those two things. That however is for another blog on another day.

The idea has been found to be 70% favorable among both parties when polled and it will provide over $600M dedicated revenue to education. That last part is particularly important as we have taken a 24% cut since 2008, leading the nation yet again. It will provide a $5,000 pay raise for teachers that have not had a pay raise since 2007. If you throw the $31,600 starting salary for Oklahoma teachers into an inflation calculator at 2007 dollars, it comes out to $36,171. As you can see after adjusted for inflation, adding $5,000 would be virtual non-raise. It could be more accurately categorized as a cost of living adjustment (COLA). Either way you split it, it needs to happen.

We cannot afford to push any more teachers over state lines or back into the ranks of bank tellers and insurance salesman.

Reforming Our Overall Tax Structure
We need to eliminate as many tax breaks as possible, especially for our smaller industries and producers, and go to a tax rebate system based on production and growth. Asking business to produce and then be rewarded is a more productive way. This will help stop the bleeding while still allowing for pro-business incentives. This is important because Oklahoma's tax breaks have more than doubled since 2010 and now cost nearly $760M. Here is a full breakdown.

Also, our growing and virtually unaltered sales tax exemptions total billions in lost revenue every year and we must do something to curb the damage. Our economy has changed and it is time that our tax structure reflect the change while still allowing for our core services to be at least decently funded.

Overall Health and Mental Health Reform
Oklahoma is among the worst in the nation at submitting mental health records, which is great for gun-buyer background checks. I am not okay with that, as you can already basically buy a tank with your lunch ID card in our state. I'm a gun guy and have been all my life, so I don't want to start the rants, but I do care about the safety of my family and my children. That is also why I hope that we can find a way to improve our mental health services.

Currently, less than half of adult Oklahomans who need mental health services get them, and Oklahoma spends among the least in the nation on its mental health system, despite having the second highest rate of adults with serious mental illness in the United States.

Out of respect for one another in light of several recent incidents, including one involving an elected official, I would hope that we can finally make some progress in this area instead of ignoring it away because you can't refine it and make gas out of it. We ranked in the low 30's in 1990 and have slowly fallen to the bottom of the national rankings in both mental health and overall health, maybe we can inch back up sometime soon. As I pointed out in a 2014 blog, our health rankings are some of the worst in every single category and it is time to do something about it. 

School Choice
My wish is for our elected officials, 'think tanks' and uninformed DOK readers to understand that we currently have a multitude of school choice in Oklahoma. There are currently over 45,000 transfer students statewide that are approved by a 'sending' public school to attend another public school of their choosing. There are 34 charter schools serving over 20,000 students in Oklahoma, 229 private schools serving over 36,500 students, and 5 growing virtual school options for families and students to choose from. We have all of these things already.

We must get past the rhetoric of students and families being 'locked into a school based on geography.' For one, anyone can argue that the years of public school underfunding has led to some our more poor performing schools. You can also effectively argue that our growing child poverty rate is the result of our lack of investment into our citizenry, while instead our focus has been in the virtue of being business-friendly. To place blame on the public school system and draw even more funding out of the already woefully underfunded system is not the answer.

All things being what they are for my personal wish list, I wish everyone a happy, healthy and thoroughly blessed New Year. Pay attention, follow #oklaed, vote and make yourself a better you this year. Our kids need us all to be cooperative and at our best each and every day.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015


A conversation over lunch this week reminded me of the very reason that I have chosen the field that I have chosen in life and inspired me to participate in the #oklaed challenge thrown down by @MrsDsings. Many of us could have picked much different paths in our careers and probably be making more money in another market, but I’m convinced that we are truly making a living at what we do as educators. I could give you inspirational quotes and sayings about how much of a difference we make each and every day in the lives of our students. Instead, I am going to tell you two stories, unlike many of you have hundreds, that stick out as prime examples as to answer the question of #whyteach. I think stories can bring forth the real-life examples we have lived and be powerful messages to others. Plus, I just like to tell stories.

My second year of teaching I was charged with instructing six sections of Freshman English in small-town central Oklahoma. If you have ever attempted to edify the nuances of Shakespeare to a bunch of 14 year-old's, you understand the plight of my existence as a “literature” teacher. However, I will say that those days were some of the most rewarding of my career and stick with me to this very day. Teaching young minds to be more aware of the world around them through different lenses and discussing what they see was always enjoyable and enlightening to me. One particular story that comes to mind that I often tell to colleagues about the power of relationships is the story of Neil.

I will admit that names are not really my thing. I often joke with my wife that if I ever greet you and say “hey, big guy” or “what’s up man”, I admittedly do not remember your name. For that, I will simply apologize to some of you now. I have gotten better over the years out of sheer willpower and demand, but names were always something that I tried to get down before the first week or two after the start of each school year. I felt it was important and a powerful gesture for my students to be “somebody” in my classroom.

The first few days of school, as Harry Wong taught us all, I went over procedures and expectations and made sure to get introduced to my new students and let them know some things about me. Stuck in the proverbial crowd that year was Neil, an admittedly forgettable young man that was a little awkward and was most assuredly matched by his lack of popularity with the other kids. He was always a great young man and was zero trouble to have in class, but he wasn’t one of those that out of human tendency we naturally gravitate toward.

I’ll never forget the second class period of the second day of school that year. Neil was the first to enter my room, as he was throughout most of that school year. Whether that was because he liked to be prompt or he didn’t have anyone to hang out with, I’ll never really know and I don’t know that it matters. When he entered the room that day I simply said “Hey Neil, you doing alright today?” He stopped dead in his tracks like he had just spotted a live Copperhead in the Oklahoma grass. He turned to me and merely replied, “You know my name?”

Of course I knew his name. To me, it was part of my ‘job’. But for Neil, it was much bigger than that. To him, I had taken so much interest in him that I knew his name on the second day of school, and that was huge. To him, I was someone that he could immediately trust; someone that he knew cared for him as a person, not just a student.

From that day forward, Neil might as well have been attached to my hip during passing time or outside of the classroom. He opened up and would tell me stories about what he did over the summer or over the weekend. He would participate in discussions and didn’t shy away from being an active part of the class. Neil was truly an enjoyable young man to have as a student.

Now, I’m not certain whether or not that story would even register with him today. What I do know though, is that brief 20-second exchange has stuck with me for years and is a powerful example of what even the tiniest gesture can do for our most needy of students. 

This particular story hearkens back to my very first teaching and coaching job of my career that was in a 5A school district. We had nearly 1000 students in grades 6-8 and that was a shock for me as a small-town kid growing up. The assignment I landed my first year out of college was teaching 8th grade English and coaching nearly every sport known to man. The life of the first year guy with no kids, got to love it.

One of the sports I was fortunate enough to get to coach was high school basketball, of which I have always loved. We had a fledgling program under the guidance of a new head coach and I will acknowledge that we were not very good at the time. Being the new guy, I got the privilege of taking the JV guys during regular practice hours. They were, you know, the JV guys and weren’t very good. They were a rag-tag group of kids that were either playing because they simply loved to or were trying to find a place to fit.  They were sometimes hard to handle to say the least.

One of the young men I had was quite a mouth around the other guys. His name was Jermaine. He was older than most of them and sometimes unrealistic about his basketball abilities. Coaches of any sport will understand what I mean by that. He was also normally one of the last guys out of the gym each evening, for whatever reason. Jermaine and I used to sit and talk with the other coaches as he waited for his ride or waited to simply walk several miles to his home. We talked about his plans after high school or the big dreams he had for his life.

Jermaine was one of those kids that you sometimes just listened to and thought that he was having pipe-dreams about his future. He didn’t come from the most glowing part of town, as I know from the many times I gave him a ride home from practice or games when it got late. A year later I moved onto another district and somewhat forgot about Jermaine. Until we had a chance meeting two years ago.

One hot May afternoon I attended an all-city youth track meet to watch my students participate in various events. As I was making my way through the crowd after watching one of our students run a race someone grabbed me by the arm and said, “hey Coach Bridges.” It was Jermaine. He had his fiancĂ© with him and immediately began to go on and on about all of the things he was doing with his life. He had gone to barber school and had his own chair in a shop. The money he was earning helped him buy an engagement ring and was also going toward his tuition at one of the small colleges down the road. He was glowing about what all he was doing, and he was truly proud. As was I.

We had a great chat and reminisced a little about what we had experienced together nearly 10 years prior. After about 15 minutes Jermaine and I said our goodbyes and 'good to see you’s' and I began to walk away. He yelled my name and I stopped and turned around in the middle of the crowd of people around us. Although, in that moment it seemed like no one else was around. Jermaine looked me straight in the eye and said “Coach, you may not even remember, but I’ll never forget what you did for me.”

Wow. Chills to this day to even think about it. And honestly, tears in my eyes.

I just thought I was showing interest and giving a ride to a kid after basketball practice. I thought I was being the kind of coach that I had growing up that positively impacted my life. He thought I cared for him as a human being, and he was right. Just the gesture of spending a few extra minutes to talk about him and not at him, and listen to his interests, may have changed the trajectory of his life forever. I know that it changed mine.

That folks, is why I teach. Need I say more?

Friday, May 1, 2015

Part 1: Teacher Shortage is........

I'll begin with saying this: some people (including some educators) are looking at the issue of teacher shortage in the wrong context and it may be hurting our movement. Recent critics are looking at the issue in so simplistic a manner that it severely detracts from a movement to solve a real issue. People within positions of influence that realize this is a real issue are being distracted by such superficial debate.

We live in a world in which 15-second sound bytes are King, and this is seen most-often from the organizations and cynics throughout our state and country that will ignore an incredible story to sensationalize a smearing one. All of these are in efforts to further pursue their agenda of privatization, school choice, statistically invalid school report cards, punishing schools and teachers, etc.... It is a sad, but evident truth within our society today. All we can do to that point is to simply continue to shout our greatest accomplishments and stories to the rooftops of our state. I truly believe that #oklaed has helped to stem some of the changing tide within our state and I applaud you all for that. However, we cannot let up.

Now, we all know that one of the biggest issues facing education in Oklahoma today is teacher shortage and we have all discussed the various things that we feel will "solve" this issue outright. One of the fundamental, and most disagreed upon notions is that it is ALL about teacher pay. It is not, however it is close. Teacher pay is merely one of the many aspects of our educational structure that we must address thoroughly and honestly in order to begin to rectify our issues of finding highly qualified and effective teachers to place in every classroom in Oklahoma. I will address some real strategies in Part 2 of this series on teacher shortage.

In Oklahoma, and nationwide for that matter, shortage is actually lesser of a problem than retention. Retention is really the major issue. We have unfortunately reached what I would consider to be a 'tipping point' in Oklahoma. We are at a point in time in which we have a huge retention issue that is now, more than ever, coupled with a recruitment issue as well. Education has long had a turnover rate that is staggering (upwards of 40% in the first 5 years according to some studies), but we have always had the pipeline to continue to fill those vacancies. Even though we have always had the certificates to fill the positions, studies also overwhelmingly show that more and better results are garnered from teachers with veteran status, and common sense would tell us so as well. Oklahoma is now entering a time however, that teachers are leaving and not enough are filing in behind them. I believe that is the true definition of what a teacher shortage is, but I guess I could be wrong. But I'm not.

Essentially, we have compensated so poorly for so long now that we have created a class of professionals that are avoided by many of our best and brightest. Don't twist my words on this one. In no way are we not getting quality candidates, we simply are not getting enough. We see an atmosphere of distrust and disdain, coupled with poor and uncompetitive professional pay, and this has created an environment teaming with vacancies. This is a serious issue that must be resolved through various avenues related to recruitment AND retention.

However, to simply say we don't have enough teachers because there are a small percentage of all jobs resulting in unfilled positions is boiling the teacher shortage issue so far down that it becomes irrelevant. We find that simplistic argument from that above mentioned article published on the topic. The better questions to ask when properly and fully examining the teacher shortage issue are the following: 
  • How many class sizes do we have with 30+ students? 
  • How many emergency certifications have been granted in Oklahoma in the last 3 years? 
  • How many 'co-teachers' do we have listed in Oklahoma? 
  • How many jobs were never there to even be filled because candidates couldn't be found at all?
  • How many classes are not offered statewide due to the fact that a teacher cannot be found?
  • How many student teachers do we have that were forced to be full-time teachers due to vacancies? 
  • How many teachers have left due to higher pay or better opportunities in other states? 
  • How many adjunct teachers do we have on record? 
  • What about Teach for America?
  • Long-term substitutes?
When you examine the full scope of the real issue, as opposed to skimming the surface, you see how it is much more mufti-faceted than what is presented by some. The problem is much more than saying we have 40,000 teachers and "only" 800 vacancies. That is the easy and misleading way out. Remember when I referenced those 15-second sound bytes? Yeah, that would be a prime example.
The problem is solved only by systematically improving various aspects of the profession, from beginning to end. It will not be solved by raising teacher pay alone, as we are in need of more structures to be thoughtfully placed in order to change the course of our academia. Now that the air has been cleared on what teacher shortage actually means to those within the profession, we can move on to strategies to fix it.

Those will be the ideas addressed in Part 2. Stay tuned.

Friday, April 3, 2015

King for a Day in 562 Words

In no particular order these shall be my declarations as #OKlaed king for the day.

Develop a feasible and aggressive technology vision for our states education system in its entirety. Oklahoma is becoming increasingly behind the nation yet again, this time in the area of providing avenues to which all schools can garner an equal opportunity to provide an environment that accommodates students’ technology needs. We continually hear that we are not producing workers that are prepared for the 21st Century workforce, yet there has been little to no discussion on the basis of how we can provide an infrastructure, as well as actual devices, to our students PK-12. Our students will be working within environments that are saturated with technology and need the skills to produce in these surroundings. This has simply fallen under the umbrella of what a school is expected to and needs to provide to students to offer a high-quality education, along with the bevy of other things that are now necessitated over and above even just 15 years ago.

Competitive starting pay for our teachers, and better pay for our best teachers. I don't know a single industry that does not benefit from a good salary attracting the best candidates, or from paying their best the best. (I have another blog coming soon about this topic only) Education is no different, and I cannot fathom as to why some will say that education is an anomaly in that regard. It's not 'whining', its backed up by actual research, of which this is simply one example. Stop redirecting and dancing around the issue whilst talking about administrative salaries, consolidation and ‘propping up unions’. Get to real problems and real solutions. Get to factual information in those areas, as well as do them in the name of transparency and efficiency, but can’t we do them all? We are 49th. We’ve tried the cheap approach. It’s not working.

Restructure schedules, both daily and yearly. We are operating under a standardized calendar simply out of 19th Century compromise and convenience, and not even agrarian principles, as most would be led to believe. If we are to get serious about true education reform, and we know there are many that get excited just at the utterance of those two words, then we cannot do so without tackling our inefficient and outdated school schedule. In regards to the calendar, most outside of education probably do not even realize the issues that come along with the feast and famine school schedule as it currently stands throughout most of our state. The ‘summer slide’ is very real and can be minimized by the creation of a more efficient school calendar. With regards to daily scheduling, we must embrace research that strongly suggests that the school day should start later. We could also look into staggering start times, especially for Middle School and High School, allowing for parents and students to choose the best fit. We like choice right? This approach would also save money by allowing for doubling the usage of buses and therefore requiring less buses. However you slice it up, our school schedule is archaic and harming the educational attainment of our students.

There are more things that I would obviously address if I were ‘King for a Day’, but I only have 600 words and “wish for more wishes” was already taken.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

My Top 10 Unanswered #schoolchoice Questions.

For those of you that know me very well, I love a spirited debate on any topic related to public education and politics in our state and our country. I can play both sides and be a devils advocate on any topic, but can also be staunch in my beliefs at times. I also feel like I can be reasoned with and leave a debate with a handshake and a better understanding of another persons belief system or station in life. 

The following are several questions I have asked during the school choice discussions I have had with several individuals that have never really been answered and nearly always get avoided. 

Read and see if you agree or have answers. I always love a good commentary.
1. Will private schools be mandated to accept all students if said school so chooses to accept vouchers at their respective site?

2. Are students that bounce back-and-forth going to be monitored? By whom? How often?

3. Are vouchers prorated in their ESA if a student stays one month and then transfers back to their original public school?

4. Would the private school refund tuition to the state if they did so choose to return to public school?

5. Could a student enroll at a public school after coming from a private school, get the voucher and then transfer back out? Is there a timetable in place to not allow this to happen?

6. If someone chooses to simply start up a private school, what regulations do they have, if any?

7. Can someone choose to start a private school, accept public dollars for a few years and then when business is bad simply close the doors?

8. Must a private school be owned or sponsored by a local organization to accept vouchers? Facility and staffing requirements?

9. Will all accountability measures (Audit requirements, RSA, A-F, TLE, testing, etc) currently asked of public schools be transferred to private institutions if/when they choose to accept public funds?

10. Will private schools accepting public funds be visited by Regional Accreditation Officers from the SDE to ensure compliance?

Bonus Round! (suggested by a well-informed colleague) Will public schools be allowed to require parents to pay for days taught or services not fully funded by the state (ACE, RSA, etc) due to not being serviced at a private institution?