Oklahoma Schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said she knows of no school grading system in the nation that she likes and believes Oklahoma can develop its own pioneering system to measure school performance.
However, she said revising the controversial A through F grading system is not an immediate priority. She is focused now on a “crisis” with keeping and hiring teachers and trying to add more days to the school year.
Hofmeister’s comments came during an “Oklahoma Watch-Out” public forum Tuesday night sponsored by nonprofit media organization Oklahoma Watch. About 75 people attended the event, held at the Will Rogers Theatre in Oklahoma City.
Hofmeister, who is in her eighth week as Oklahoma’s superintendent of public instruction, took questions from the audience and spoke about topics ranging from teacher pay and testing to college programs for teachers and Advanced Placement courses.
Hofmeister said the state needs to be transparent and accountable for student results in the classroom, but called the current A-F report card used to grade schools a “unreliable” measure for that.
The current system fails to measure the different factors that combine to create a successful school, she added.
“Children are given a report card that measures many different topics,” she said. “That’s basically what I would be calling for.”
Under federal law, states must report data that show whether at-risk student populations, including minorities and those in special education, are growing academically.
Like many states, Oklahoma is struggling to close its achievement gap between white and minority students, special-education and other students, and low-income and higher-income students.
Hofmeister said Oklahoma’s current A-F system can mask improved performance of students in those subcategories.
When asked if there is any state with a school grading system she likes or that works well, Hofmeister replied, “No.”
“This is an opportunity for us to actually lead,” she said. “To have a system that actually informs, but is not misleading.”
Regardless of what the state does, Hofmeister said, lawmakers need to keep in mind how their policies and education initiatives will impact teachers.
“Frankly, every mandate we pass at the legislative level will land on the desk of a teacher,” she said. “Let them teach.”
Teacher pay, professional development and student achievement were key issues Hofmeister brought up when talking about improving Oklahoma’s schools.
With the third-lowest teacher salaries in the nation, ahead of only South Dakota and Mississippi, a teacher with a Ph.D. and 25 years of experience can earn more in Oklahoma after working for three years at a Chipotle restaurant, she said.
“It’s not just Texas that we are competing with,” Hofmeister said. “Now it’s Chipotle.”
With social struggles facing many Oklahoma students, Hofmeister said, it’s important to get the best teachers in the classroom.
Hofmeister pointed to studies showing a correlation between the size of a child’s vocabulary and how well they do upon entering school.
“There is a cost associated with a strong and successful education when children don’t arrive to the classroom ready to learn,” Hofmeister said. “There are a lot of reasons for that. We can’t control all of that. What we can control is what we do when we have them.”
At the high school level, Hofmeister said, more needs to be done to ensure students are college- and career-ready.
“Our graduation rate is too low, our (college) remediation rate is too high,” Hofmeister said. “We must have solutions that are going to accomplish change. It’s about results for kids. We can’t keep doing things the same way and expect a different outcome.”
Hofmeister pointed to Advanced Placement courses as a way to ensure students are prepared for college-level course work.
A bill proposed this legislative session by Rep. Dan Fisher, R-Yukon, would have prevented the state from funding AP U.S. history courses.
Some critics say AP courses are too closely aligned to Common Core standards, which Oklahoma adopted then revoked, and that the AP U.S. history test focuses only on the bad things about America.
After Fisher’s bill became a national controversy, he said he would rewrite the measure.
“I absolutely support it (AP),” Hofmeister said. “We need to expand the opportunities for children to be ready for college.”
At the forum, Hofmeister promoted her five-year plan to increase teacher pay by $5,000 and add five instructional days to the school calendar.
The pay increase, she said, will help attract and retain teachers. The additional school days, along with reduced testing, will help ensure students are getting enough classroom time.
Hofmeister has called for the state’s seven end-of-instruction tests needed for graduation to be replaced with ACT tests. Additions to the test would need to be added for topics such as physics and biology.
Hofmeister cautioned, however, that if the state shifts to ACT-like testing, scores will initially drop, before rising, because more students will be taking the test. About 25 percent of Oklahoma students are not taking the ACT.
Hofmeister said making the switch also could save $2.5 million.
“That is, again, millions of dollars if you multiply that over the years,” she said. “And we have tremendous precious dollars that we could spend to get our children ready earlier.”
While the state focuses on getting students ready for college or the workforce, higher education needs to ensure new teachers are ready for the classroom, she said, agreeing with an audience member.
Using a teaching hospital concept similar to what’s used in medical school would help ensure graduating teachers are ready when they enter the classroom, Hofmeister said.
Reach Nate Robson at firstname.lastname@example.org.