Woodward, Okla. —
Local educators and community members had the opportunity to voice some of their concerns about the common education system in Oklahoma while meeting with a State Superintendent candidate on Monday.
Joy Hofmeister, a former member of the State Board of Education, held a campaign "meet and greet" event at Woodward High School.
Hofmeister resigned from the State Board of Education in April, citing her intentions to campaign for state superintendent and challenge incumbent Janet Barresi. She said Monday that she plans to run against Barresi in the Republican primary in June 2014.
Before discussing her goals for the future of education in Oklahoma should she be elected State Superintendent, Hofmeister talked a little bit about her background and experience in education. This included time as a classroom teacher in Texas right after she was first married and for the last 13 years she has owned and operated a Kumon Math & Reading Center in Tulsa, serving 745 students from 80 different schools to help them build skills in these essential learning areas.
She then served on the State Board of Education for 15 months.
During that time on the state school board, she said she observed "many missed opportunities," which led her to decide to try for a bid for the State Superintendent position.
She said these missed opportunities included everything from a rush to write rules before considering the impact on those who must follow them to not being able to answer educators' questions about those rules with consistency.
"Sometimes you see a problem and have the opportunity to do something about it, so you answer that call," Hofmeister said.
Hofmeister said she is running for State Superintendent with a 4-part vision for the state's common education system.
"We need students who are prepared, teachers who are appreciated, schools that are supported, and parents who are engaged," she said.
When it comes to preparing students, Hofmeister said sometimes "the politics need to be set aside and we need to put students first."
She said a good example of this is the requirement that students must past 4 of 7 End of Instruction (EOI) exams before they may earn their high school diploma.
While in general she agrees that "diplomas need to be meaningful to ensure our students are prepared," Hofmeister said there are some times you need to "put the focus on the student and not the policy."
For example, she discussed one student who was denied his diploma because he didn't pass the English II EOI. But as an English language learner who had only recently moved to the United States, and who had earned good grades and had been accepted to college, she felt the student should've been allowed to graduate with his peers. She felt that was what would've been best for that student even though it didn't follow policy.
APPRECIATING TEACHERS AND SUPPORTING SCHOOLS
But students aren't the only ones affected by the policies enacted by the State Department of Education.
"Everything we do lands on the desk of the teacher," Hofmeister said. "We pass it and they feel it."
That's why she feels it is important for the State Board of Education to consider the impact of policies on teachers and school administrators before approving them.
In addition, if the state wants to be able to attract more highly qualified, skilled and dedicated teachers, Hofmeister said the education system needs to start showing them more appreciation. It's already difficult enough to find teachers, the State Board of Education doesn't need to make it more difficult by creating more challenges for them.
For example, she said "to get people to do what is mandated, you need to communicate that in an effective way and not with rules that just lead to more questions."
She said this appreciation for teachers also needs to go one step further to also provide support for them and their school districts.
For Hofmeister, this includes supporting schools in being more autonomous.
"We need to unleash people to do what they need to do," she said, noting "I think it's important to have local control, because I believe the people in Woodward, or the people in Altus, or even the people in Tulsa know what's best for their students."
ENGAGING PARENTS AND THE COMMUNITY
However, educators can only do so much, and when it comes to learning students also need guidance from their parents.
"As a mother, I think it's important to lead by example," Hofmeister said, noting that parental involvement, or lack thereof, can play a big role in a student's education.
So being able to engage parents and have them participate in the education system will be an important piece of the puzzle in creating a cohesive educational environment for Oklahoma's youth.
Hofmeister also seeks to engage community members, which is why she asked audience members on Monday to share some of their questions and concerns.
The major issues expressed were concerns over the citizenship readiness of students after they graduate and too much focus on testing over actual learning.
Local businessman Max Benbrook expressed dismay on the number of recent graduates who come looking for work but have no real sense of work ethic.
While he agrees that this is something that should be taught at home, he understands that in many cases it isn't and feels that schools provide the "only place where that need can be filled" to help prepare students for the workforce.
"The curriculum needs to support the things that actually make our society function on a day to day basis," Benbrook said.
Barclay Holt, assistant superintendent for High Plains Technology Center, seemed to agree that there should be more focus on helping students develop useful skills.
"It's not going to be a science or math fix," Holt said, noting "the state continues to buy in that we need more science and math classes, yet they cut funding for vocational schools that actually teach students what the difference between a fourth and a half of a cup is or make them learn responsibility through caring for animals."
While educators agree that the goal of education should be to prepare students for life after school, they say the problem is that current and upcoming mandates place too much emphasis on getting high test scores.
"There's pressure to build good test takers," Woodward Superintendent Tim Merchant said, noting since tests will determine whether students move on to the next grade and graduate "it's all about making sure they do well on a test and not whether they have appropriate skills. And until that pressure is lightened or taken off, there's going to be a discount on building citizenship skills."
JoLynn Love, an English teacher at Woodward High School, and Bob Beatley, an art teacher in Mooreland Public Schools, both discussed how soon 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation will be based strictly on how well their students perform on certain tests. That means whether or not a teacher keeps his or her job will depend highly on how well students perform on the tests.
"If you think I'm going to teach character skills, I don't have the time, not when my job depends on me teaching for a test," Love said.
She said the problem is that the accountability is placed entirely on the teacher and not on the students themselves, because there are some students who just don't want to put forth the effort.
She compared it to as if society judged dentists based on how many cavities their patients had.
"A dentist can tell her patients over and over again not to eat sweets. She can give them toothpaste and floss, but there's nothing she can do once that patient leaves her office," Love said.
This is like a teacher giving a student homework and then blaming the teacher when the student refuses to do that homework, she said.
Hofmeister didn't respond directly to all these concerns, but did thank the audience members for their comments.
"I want to hear your frustrations," she said.
Because, she said, she views the State Superintendent position as one of "public service" where she would be an "advocate" those she serves, including both students and educators.
And in order to serve them properly, she feels she must communicate with those involved to identify problems and then collaborate with them to resolve those problems.
If things are going to change for Oklahoma's education system, Hofmeister said, "we need to develop an overall culture of trust and respect so that we foster collaboration and communication."