Supt. Baressi Wants to Make SDE More Efficient
A question-and-answer session with new State Superintendent of Instruction Dr. Janet Baressi
It is an obvious understatement to say Oklahoma’s education system is about to change, for a number of reasons. Republicans have not only taken control of both houses of state government, but also every major state office. The demands to improve public education is a national conversation, with groups from all sides weighing in.
Of all the changes coming, one of the most important to Oklahoma is the office of State Superintendent. After 20 years of leading the State Department of Education, Sandy Garrett did not run for re-election and Janet Baressi, a former dentist and education reformer, was swept into office.
Dr. Baressi started her professional career in education as a speech pathologist in Norman and Harrah. She completely flipped careers in 1984 when she earned a DDS and started a 24-year career as a dentist. But when her twin sons were about to reach middle school, she returned to education in an historic way. In 1996, she established Oklahoma’s first charter school in the Oklahoma City public school district, Independence Charter Middle School.
She would later found Harding Charter Preparatory High School, which Newsweek this year ranked 68th among the best high schools in the country.
Her reputation in education earned her appointments to high-level task forces, including Gov. Henry’s Achieving Classroom Excellence as chairwoman of the ACE II Task Force, Speaker Chris Benge’s Teacher Performance Pay Initiative and on the Education Funding Reform Task Force.
With just three days as State Superintendent as her title, Baressi spent a few minutes with the Education Focus to answer a few questions on her plans for education, including restructuring the State Department.
Education Focus: What made you decide to run for state superintendent?
Janet Baressi: “I can tell you that with 15 years of experience of working in education reform, and that includes not only opening two successful charter schools, but it also means working with legislators, working on boards, task forces, things like that, it became clear to me that (for) Oklahoma children, we need to focus on improving education, reforming education, to meet the demands of the needs of the 21st Century. So I didn’t get in this job to be state superintendent, I got in this job to change children’s lives.”
EF: Have you set specific goals as you enter office?
JB: “We have a very aggressive agenda as we go forward. We have to rethink how we’re delivering education to the children of Oklahoma. What that means is we have to look at best practices that are showing very positive results for children. In terms of our teaching, we have to get away from the very monolithic tradition of a teacher lecturing to students. I understand that’s already being done in some schools throughout the state. But in others, they need to take a look at the results (that method) yields. Students being able to do group learning, project-based learning; students being able to take advantage of the technology that is available in their area. Teachers being able to focus on students and focus on kids with different learning styles, kids that sometimes may learn differently than the average child, and helping teachers increase their capacity so they can be much more effective in the classroom.
"If we’re rethinking education, then the next thing we have to do is restructure. The State Department of Education has to be restructured to meet the needs of the district. Every district has different needs and this department needs to be run as efficiently and effectively as possible and we need to set the example for the districts. If we’re going to be going through a challenging budget year, then we need to be able to run as effectively as we can. We’re going to be transforming the State Department of Education from less of a regulatory agency to one that is more of a service agency to districts. So we’re going to be focused on what we need to do to get the efficiencies (at the SDE) so we can serve districts.
“And then reform. We have to focus on those things that will help children be prepared for the 21st Century.”
EF: Can you give us some examples of how you will be a service rather than a regulatory agency?
JB: “First of all, one of the things we need to do is visit with every district and find how we can allow them to become more flexible, but the entire focus has to be about getting more money in the classroom for all of us.
“I need to run more efficient here so we can be sure we get more money into the classroom. We also need to help districts do that. This year, if there are rules or regs that the districts need to be relieved from – with the focus of getting more money into their classrooms – then, certainly, we’re going to be looking at those (issues) and making sure they, first of all, will benefit students and then allow that district to achieve that goal of getting more money into the classroom.
“We’re going to be doing things to help reduce paper work in districts. What we’re finding out is that districts are filling out duplicating reports. Those are things we can be doing here through better communication within the Department. That will reduce the amount a personnel (districts) have to hire to do that, getting more money into the classroom.
“We will help districts write for better grants, more grants. Some districts don’t do it at all; some do it quite a bit. We want to increase their capacity by training them to write for these grants. We want to provide them information on grants that are available to them.
“Finally, I will, later in the year, be convening a group of superintendents and directors of transportation for the districts and we’re going to be taking a fresh look at transportation in this state. How can we pare down those costs? In some districts, they’ll need to possibly share buses to be more effecting rather than spending the money to buy new buses. How can we more effectively buy fuel, can we do that through partnerships with municipalities? Maintenance of those buses – if they outsource that can they do it with their municipalities, with their counties?
“It’ll be a different answer for every part of the state because the state is so varied. Western Oklahoma, their districts are so far apart, but in eastern Oklahoma their districts are so close together. In eastern Oklahoma County, there is an intersection where buses from three different districts cross each other’s path. So it’s different for all of the state.”
EF: Oklahoma is in the top 10 in Nationally Board Certified Teachers. And every teacher who has gone through the process says he or she is a better teacher for just going through the process. Will this be a program you will fight for and keep funding for?
JB: “Anything we can do – anything we can do – to help encourage teachers to pursue their professional development to help them be more effective in front of the children, certainly that is something I will support completely going forward. We’re going to be increasing the amount of professional development from here that is actually meaningful and usable within their classrooms, sometimes going into their classrooms to assist them. But anything we can do.”
EF: The latest figures from the SDE show more than 5,000 more students enrolled this year compared to last and an increase of more than 25,000 students in the last five years. At the same time, schools are struggling with budget cuts. What plans to do you have to help schools meet their mounting financial responsibilities?
JB: “Certainly, the rest of this year will be challenging, and going forward into next year it will be even more so. The state is still facing a considerable deficit. That’s the reality of the situation. First of all, I want to pledge that I will be doing everything I can to communicate with (superintendents) as much as possible, as soon as I hear (budget information), to let them know what the process is going forward so they can plan with their boards as soon as possible. We’re going to work with superintendents and their boards to see what we can do on a case-by-case basis for every district to remove or relax regulations on them – rules, mandates – that are causing them to perhaps not be as efficient as they can be. We have to increase their flexibility moving forward.”
EF: At the SDE’s December board meeting, the board voted to fund half of the Teachers’ Retirement offset and asked the legislature for a supplemental appropriation to cover the other half. Do you have plans for how you will fund the other half if the legislature doesn’t give a supplemental appropriation?
JB: “We’re certainly investigating all possibilities. Whatever we come up with, we will look for the least impact on the students within the classroom. We are currently investigating every single possible option and we’ll be able to come out with some more specific information as we go along.”
EF: Teachers are increasingly becoming more frustrated at the number of required tests and the regimentation of instruction in their classrooms. Do you see this as a wave of the future, or is there a way to do this without test, test, test?
JB: “As you know, there are a certain (number) of tests that are required by the state of Oklahoma and the remainder of tests that teachers are required to administer are required by their districts. Having said that, let me address tests by the state of Oklahoma. In our grades three, five and eight, we have end-of-the-year tests. First of all, I’m very concerned they’re written only to compare Oklahoma’s kids against Oklahoma’s kids. And these tests are largely memory tests, which then drives the teacher in instruction to do drilling work with their students during a period of time and it’s a mad rush until the end of the year.
“The results only come back in the summertime. So what we’ve got is I wonder how much planning can come from that. We need tests that tell teachers what children know and where the gaps are in learning and they have to have that information as quickly as possible. I would like to move more towards a framework that provides formative tests during the year. This is going to serve a lot of goals I have. First of all, it’s a test that’s going to tell a teacher in a timely manner what a child knows and where the gaps are. So as that teacher goes through a year with these short, formative tests, they’ll know how to fill in those learning gaps and be able to remediate that child. So instead of waiting all the way to the end of the year to find out, and then it being almost too late to remediate that, we need these tests during the year.
“Also, what that will do is allow in our new teacher evaluation system that is being developed is allow that growth component to show. We have an objective and subjective component of it. I think teachers should be able to show not just one score, they shouldn’t have to hang their hat on just one test score. We need to be able to have teachers show growth through the year and how their students have improved. I’d like teachers to also get extra credit for how much they were able to improve the performance of children in the lowest quartile within their classes.
“In terms of end-of-instruction examinations that are coming along: Currently, we have four out of seven tests that need to be passed, the high stakes tests that the ACE legislation mandated. These are great. What’s supposed to happen is that this is supposed to show that a high school diploma means something. These children have acquired a body of knowledge. However, with the installation of the common core standards which the legislature voted to approve last year, along with those common core standards come common assessments. As you know, there are two groups that receive large federal grants to develop those common assessments. One is a group called Smarter Balance and the other is called PARCC – The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, sponsored by achieve.org.
“Currently, the state is a member of both of those organizations. That does not allow us to join the governing board of either of those groups. We just have to sit at the back of the room and get what we get. It is my plan to end our membership in the Smarter Balance group and go with PARCC because we have been asked to join the governing board of that organization and therefore we’ll have a direct say-so in how those exams are designed. Those tests are expected to be field tested in 2012 and to become operational by 2014. That may seem like an ambitious goal, but they have been working on these tests for several years. It seems to me they are on schedule.
“So, we will be transitioning from the ACE tests into these common assessment types of tests. These tests will be focused on assessing not only on what a child knows in terms of facts but also what is so critical to help them be successful in the 21st century. They will assess (students’) cognitive skills, their abstract reasoning, their analysis, synthesis of information, those critical-thinking skills that are so important for these kids to have to be successful in the 21st Century.”
EF: Is PARCC developing these types of tests for elementary standardized tests?
JB: “PARCC is focused on high school testing (currently), but they will be getting into the lower grades. That’s what I’m being told. They are starting with the end in mind and building down from there. I’m going to begin early work to see what we can do to go more toward those formative tests (in the elementary grades). Teachers have asked for it. Teachers are responding positively to it. It may sound like those will be extra tests, but perhaps we can get districts to withdraw some of their required tests. Also, these tests are being developed by a consortium, so we’re going to be able to drive down costs, and put more money back in the classroom.”
EF: When these formative tests become available, could they be substituted for the state standardized tests in the elementary grades without having to go back to the U.S. Department of Education and getting a new testing plan approved?
JB: “Since (PARCC) has received a grant from the federal government and the U.S. Department of Education, (the test development) would seem to be in line with (replacing our current tests). Having said that, my focus is, ‘What is best for the children of the state?’ and whatever we need to do we will go about doing that in an effort to be successful.”
EF: A teacher’s working conditions are a student’s learning condition. What ideas do you have to create the best classroom working conditions?
JB: “Certainly, that is, first and foremost, a local-control type of issue. That is districts working with their teachers. And, may I say, another area we’re going to be focusing on is building leader effectiveness in the schools. We can work on teacher effectiveness, but just as critical, we have to build leader effectiveness within the schools. We have to help principals understand how to use data within the classroom. We’re going to be training teachers how to do that, but principals as well so they can build their academic team. We’re going to be working with superintendents to help them become better at using data so they can best use resources within their districts. Also to put some emphasis on building our teacher effectiveness is to help teachers focus on different learning styles: children that learn in different ways, and be able to manage their classrooms to meet (those conditions). So what I’m saying by that is a teacher may have a couple of students over here on a computer doing research on something. That teacher is also then over here working with a small group of children and at then another small group is working a project together.
“What I like about the common core and the new standards that are coming in, is they are not quite as broad – they might be a little bit, still, too broad – but they go deeper into subject areas and when that happens teachers then have more flexibility in teaching (the topic). You can get a better level of knowledge, but then also you can build in development of those cognitive skills.”
EF: Oklahoma City Schools recently voted to move all of their schools to a year-round calendar. Is that a viable model for all schools?
JB: “It is being done in different schools across the country with varied results. First of all, it’s a local control issue, but it gets down to this: if there is complete buy-in by the personnel within the district, everyone from administration down to classroom teachers and all those that are involved with the children, it will be successful if there is an appropriate amount of planning, and useful use of that down time.
“One of the things that I understood Oklahoma City will be focusing on is using that time out period to provide opportunity for students that do have those gaps in learning to be able to remediate during that down time. I think that’s interesting. Instead of spending money on summer school, which has had varied results, perhaps that money – and I don’t know if they’re going to do this –could be better applied to tutoring during this time gap while the kids are out. If you couple that with the formative test, imagine how powerful (year-round school) could be. Certainly that is an issue for each district. For some districts, it just may not be practical for them.”
EF: So year-round school isn’t something you feel the state should require of all districts?
JB: “No. I don’t like mandates. I’m a local control type of fan and advocate. I’m sure Oklahoma City would be happy to share their best practices in this area and results from this. My bottom line is this: I want to see the numbers. I want to see the academic outcomes as a result of this process, after they’ve had it in for a couple, three years. I want to see how it facilitates outcomes, how it facilitates learning.”