THE BLOG

Why Rescue the Latest Failed 'Chief for Change'?

02/01/2015 12:19 pm ET | Updated Apr 02, 2015

Why would Tulsa even think of hiring embattled Chief for Change Deborah Gist as superintendent? Oklahoma voters recently rejected Chief for Change Janet Barresi and her devotion to test, sort and punish. Students, parents, teachers, and administrators have risen up in a grassroots rebellion against the bubble-in mania of Gist and Baressi, and the voters overwhelmingly elected a State Superintendent, Joy Hofmeister, who is making good on her promise to bring civility and collaboration back to our schools. So, why would Tulsa hire a charter member of an organization dedicated to destroying local school governance and the professional autonomy of teachers, as well as our unions?

This is a national issue, not just a threat to Oklahoma schools. Why would Tulsa hire an ideologue who pioneered the mass dismissal of teachers in order to stifle dissent?

As in other states at the depths of the Great Recession, Oklahoma was given an offer it could not refuse. We could forfeit millions of federal dollars and remain under the micromanaging of the discredited No Child Left Behind regime, or we could agree to the Gates Foundation's risky, experiment for using test scores to fire teachers. To be eligible for federal grants, we had to embrace Arne Duncan's School Improvement Grant (SIG) system of removing at least ½ of the teachers in high-challenge schools and/or labeling teachers who oppose teach-to-the-test as "culture killers," and "exiting" them.

But, now, why would Tulsa hire Gist, who made her name as a blood-in-the-eye "reformer" by rushing to the head of the line, and helping to fire all teachers in Rhode Island's Central Falls High School? Why would Tulsa hire a Chief for Change who is being run out of her own state?

Six years ago, it made sense for Tulsa to apply for a pilot project grant to test some of Bill Gates' pet theories. Even then, scholars and practitioners who sought to use high-stakes tests and a not-ready-for-prime-time statistical model to evaluate teachers were few and far between, but only in retrospect did we learn that Gates would demand such complete fidelity to those hypotheses. Back then, we did not know that Arne Duncan would fill his Department of Education with Gates Foundation staff, and that Bill Gates' untested preferences would soon become the law in almost all of the nation.

The Gates/Duncan value-added models, which were promoted by Gist, have now been proven to be biased against teachers in high-poverty schools. Now, we understand that the full implementation of Gates' theory would prompt an exodus of its top teachers away from schools where it is harder to meet their growth targets. So, why would an 80 percent low-income district hire Gist, a last true believer in punishing schools and individuals for not meeting quantitative goals (even though they have proven to be impossible in neighborhood schools that serve everyone who walks in their doors?)

The Gates/Duncan/Gist value-added evaluations are collective punishment of teachers who commit to high-challenge schools. It is now clear that they always were a club to beat down teachers and unions who opposed test-driven accountability. So, why wouldn't Tulsa follow the rest of Oklahoma and find a way to liberate itself from the test-driven portion of individual educator's evaluations? Oklahoma parents are already livid at the way that excessive standardized testing and test prep have undermined their children's opportunities for holistic and engaging instruction. What happens if (or when) Gist puts the value-added, teach-to-the-test system on steroids?

Has the Tulsa leadership looked at a map of their community and asked what happens if Gist is hired, if Tulsa stays the testing course, and each educator's job depends upon test scores? What happens to Tulsa schools when other districts in their metro area liberate themselves from Bill Gates' grand scheme (that the federal government pressured us into adopting?) Won't teachers who are committed to authentic instruction and trusting relationships, and the families who have a choice, vote with their feet and find nearby schools that are rejecting corporate reform?

Tulsa's choice is doubly perplexing at a time when the new chair of the Senate Education Committee, Lamar Alexander, is crafting compromises that will undo the policies that coerced states into adopting value-added evaluations, and pulling the plug on the failed SIG that Gist promoted. Now is the time to put aside the bitterness that accompanied the teacher-bashing, anti-union vendettas of Chiefs for Change in Rhode Island and Oklahoma. Gist may not be as abrasive as Chief for Change Baressi, but their policies are interchangeable, and equally inappropriate for a new day that seeks a collaborative culture.

Some Tulsa leaders say that Gist is a nice and sincere person. But, many or most of the other states' failed Chiefs for Changes have been good people, and even Michelle Rhee is sincere in her faith that the education system as we know it must be destroyed. Most, if not all, of the discredited Chiefs (as well as the Gates Foundation) embraced destructive means because they honestly believed that their noble ends justified scorched-earth edu-politics. Some say Gist has learned from the mistakes of the last six years. Perhaps I'm a sucker, but I would be open to that argument -- if she apologized for her excesses.

Gist reportedly has been amiable and approachable in the closed-door hiring process. Why doesn't the Tulsa leadership ask whether Gist will show equal respect to rank-in-file teachers who have differing professional opinions? Will she collaborate with students, educators, and parents who are opposed to high-stakes testing? Does Gist still believe that the mass dismissal of teachers is necessary to create educational monocultures, schools where everyone is "on the same page" in a one-size-fits-all standardized system?

Tulsa has done a lot of great things, and its outgoing superintendent has sought an admirable balance. Tulsa has taken the lead in early education, full-service community schools, and the qualitative portion of Oklahoma's rigorous teacher evaluation law. Why would it risk all of those promising policies, as well as the momentum achieved by our state's bipartisan grassroots resistance to bubble-in accountability?

Why would they throw away a chance to bring all stakeholders together for building a learning community?

Surely, Gist and Gates are saddened by their failure to engineer a system of incentives and disincentives which would pave a single, technocratic path to school improvement. Both have joined with Duncan and other corporate reformers in acknowledging some of the failures of their test-driven crusade. But, they largely blame others -- the states that supposedly set low standards, the administrators who gave into mandating drill and kill, and all of the other assessments that have combined with their tests, "sucking the oxygen" out of too many schools. And, it is hard to see their current campaign for better test-driven accountability as a means for improving schools, as opposed to an effort to salve the egos of the "Billionaires Boys Club."

The hiring of Deborah Gist would make sense only if the #1 priority of the Tulsa schools is pleasing the Gates Foundation. If we could do so without undermining the trusting relationships necessary for school improvement, that would be one thing. Hiring a person with her record, however, would be as risky of a gamble as value-added teacher evaluations and the mass dismissals of educators.