Woodward, Okla. —
State School Superintendent Janet Barresi spent a busy day in Woodward on Wednesday.
Barresi had several meetings with different groups during her visit, in which she attempted to address concerns and answer questions about a variety of issues facing education.
MEETING WITH AREA SUPERINTENDENTS
Barresi's day began with a conference with district superintendents from schools all over Northwest Oklahoma stretching from Clinton to the Panhandle.
Woodward Superintendent Tim Merchant described the session as "an open and honest question and answer discussion."
He said topics discussed during the morning session included testing, teacher shortages, teacher evaluations, professional development for teachers, and the state's education budget, "which in turn affects our budget on a district level."
"From a personal perspective for our district (Woodward), 2 of the big things that were discussed were teacher shortages and budget," Merchant said. "We're really needing the State Department of Education to step in on a statewide level and help with recruitment and retention. We need something, whether that's through additional money to increase salaries or more training to provide our teachers with more confidence, which again comes back to financing because professional development is not cheap."
Merchant said another idea suggested by the area superintendents is to "form a statewide task force committee."
"We need to get the experts together and just figure out what can we do to get more teachers. That includes involving universities because there are fewer students going into teacher training programs; we need to change that," he said.
Barresi said she appreciated the "frank discussion" generated during the meeting with the area school superintendents.
"Any time I have the opportunity to get out to an area and visit with and listen to superintendents, it's always valuable," Barresi said, noting that it helps her do a better job of policy and program development.
"To be in their environment and to hear about their concerns helps me to bring those back to my department and the legislature and to include in my communications with Governor Fallin," she said.
GUEST AT WOODWARD INDUSTRIAL FOUNDATION
After meeting with the heads from the area school districts, Barresi took a quick tour of Woodward's Early Childhood Center (ECC).
Having visited the center while it was still under construction a few years ago, Barresi said she was excited to come back and see the completed project.
During the tour, she briefly met with a couple of pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teachers as she viewed some of the classrooms and learned more about operations at the school.
Following her ECC tour, Barresi attended the monthly Woodward Industrial Foundation (WIF) meeting, where she was a guest speaker.
Barresi said a main focus of her department is "the welfare of students and what do they need to know and do to be a success in this century."
A big part of helping students to be successful, she said, is "to bring up their skills in science, mathematics and technology," because that is where the jobs are.
"Aerospace is coming heavily into Oklahoma and those aerospace companies need engineers," Barresi said.
However, employers are looking for more than just knowledge in certain subject areas, she said. They are also looking for students who can "think, problem solve, work in groups."
"That's why our new rigorous standards focus not just on content, but on development of critical thinking skills," she said.
And according to the state superintendent, the key to improving students' thinking skills is to have effective teachers.
Because of that, she said, "over 90 percent of the work we do in the state department (of education) is to help make sure we have an effective teacher in every classroom and an effective principal in every building."
This includes the Education Department's program of "job imbedded coaches," who tour schools throughout the state to work with teachers on alternative teaching methods to help address the different ways that children learn. She said these coaches currently have a focus on literacy education, but soon will be expanding into mathematics since English, Language Arts and Math are the 3 core curriculum areas that will be the focus of new standardized tests.
Barresi also fielded a few questions during the lunch meeting. Question topics ranged from how to improve district grades to concerns over school security and safety.
In addressing how to improve a particular school or district grade, Barresi said the key is to improve students' reading skills so they have increased literacy and understanding across all subject matter.
As for addressing school security, she said it is a "very serious matter" with no easy answer. But she did applaud the Woodward Public School District for conducting safety drills.
Q&A WITH LEADERSHIP TEAMS FROM WOODWARD SCHOOLS
Barresi ended her visit to Woodward with a lengthy meeting with leadership teams from each of the 6 schools in the district. These teams were comprised of teachers, school administrators, support staff, parents and a few students.
The state superintendent began the meeting by saying how she is "always looking for more ways to get feedback from and communicate with" those in the educational community. She said this includes Education Department newsletters, a Facebook page, a weekly blog and online chat sessions.
She also discussed some of the resources her office offers to teachers including online training opportunities through an iTunes U portal.
Barresi then provided a quick timeline for the transition to the new standardized testing, known as PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers). She said the PARCC exams, which are being developed as part of a 32-state consortium, will be field tested next year prior to going live in the spring of 2015.
The state superintendent then opened the floor to questions, saying "everything is on the table."
Many of the questions focused on the new PARCC testing as well as the transition to common core curriculum, with a lot of teachers frustrated with not knowing what to prepare for and not having the right materials to prepare.
Several teachers wanted to know what content would be covered in the new tests so that they would be able to plan their curriculum accordingly to prepare their students for the tests, especially since their students' success as well as their own assessment as teachers depends heavily on the outcomes of those tests.
However, Barresi wasn't able to answer their questions, but rather implied that the new tests will be more about covering certain concepts rather than specific subject matter.
"I had a 2nd grade teacher at another workshop ask me, 'so when do I teach money?' I said you teach it whenever, just do it within the standard of addition and subtraction," Barresi said, noting that from pre-kindergarten through 3rd grade the standard for mathematics education is to develop a complete understanding of addition and subtraction.
Another main topic of discussion was the ongoing teacher shortage and all the factors that play into that. For example, Woodward School Board member Roxy Merklin said, "we need a stronger teacher pay scale" in order to be able to better compete with private sector jobs, which are taking away teachers who are looking for more money.
Woodward Middle School literature teacher Sonya Covalt said there needs to be "some relief from all the demands placed on us."
Covalt said all the mandates placed on teachers, such as for data collection and test preparation, means that "teaching is now such a small piece of our jobs."
In addition, she said that "there is not enough time to meet so many demands" and that she is so busy herself, "I barely have enough time to enter grades in my grade book."
"If you don't start making this a job that we can accomplish, you're not going to be able to bring more people in to a career of teaching," Covalt said.