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Report details barriers Oklahoma teachers face

Teachers & Principals | 05/04/2015

Amber England
Executive Director

Amber England is Executive Director of Stand for Children Oklahoma.

Low morale, overcrowded classrooms, ever-changing reforms with unrealistic implementation expectations, decreased classroom autonomy and a lack of teacher representation in policy discussions were top concerns cited by Oklahoma public school teachers about their field, according to a report we released today.  The report, “Oklahoma Teachers Matter: Listening Tour,” was based on a series of focus groups designed to identify barriers teachers face in the classroom, find possible solutions and discuss the impact of recent education reforms.  

In recent years, Oklahoma lawmakers have enacted a steady stream of new education reforms, and we wanted to better understand how these reforms have impacted Oklahoma teachers since they, as the front lines of our educational system, have been tasked with implementation. Our hope is this report gives a voice to state teachers and leads to greater understanding of the challenges they face, so that we can work together to address these issues.

We currently have a critical teacher shortage of about 1,000 unfilled positions. As a result, more than 800 classes have been eliminated.  After talking with teachers, it is clear that low morale is a key factor to the growing shortage of teachers.  We feel the focus groups results are a means to better understand the problem of low morale and combatting teacher attrition.

When putting together the focus groups, we made a conscious effort to include a diverse group of teachers with a wide range of experiences. We heard from very experienced teachers and recent graduates, those from small rural schools and large urban districts, and those with high levels of community support and low parental involvement.  While our report is reflective of the many different experiences and opinions of Oklahoma teachers, several overarching themes emerged during our discussions.

Common themes expressed by teachers included:  

Low teacher morale – Oklahoma teachers feel underappreciated and over-scrutinized.  Morale has been damaged by having to conform to state and federal mandates while dealing with increasing class sizes, constantly changing standards, inadequate staffing and professional development and low parental involvement.  “Morale is so low that we’re on the brink of losing a lot of great teachers,” explained one teacher.

Teacher pay – Teachers stated they chose the profession out of a love and passion for teaching, not the promise of a large paycheck.  As one focus group participant put it, “I got into education not for the incomes, but for the outcomes.”  However, teachers overwhelmingly agreed that higher pay would have an immediate positive impact on morale and could help elevate the teaching profession as an honorable and respected career choice. 

Teacher exclusion from policy making – Oklahoma teachers do not feel they have a voice in formulating education policy. Since many policies lack teacher input, implementation can be problematic.  “Everybody platforms on education with grand thoughts and ideas, but they haven’t been or spent any substantive time in the classroom,” commented one participant.  Teachers also expressed frustration at the one-size-fits-all approach to the current assessment structure. 

Inflexible classroom environment – Teachers are frustrated that increasing federal and state mandates have resulted in decreased autonomy in the classroom and less flexibility to adapt teaching methods to best meet the needs of students, resulting in lowered morale and an emphasis on test scores over learning. “The whole focus is on testing and not learning…there’s no passion for learning.”

Unreasonable political expectations – Teachers stated that it was nearly impossible to teach effectively and meet the political expectations of constantly changing education reforms in the current inflexible classroom environment. One teacher explained it this way:  “Kids cannot learn effectively in an environment where the standards change so rapidly.  Children need continuity, designed by teachers for students, not politicians.”

As a result of these themes, we are calling on leaders to tackle this issue head on by immediately convening a working group of teachers, education advocates, budget experts, policymakers, and concerned Oklahomans to study and release findings with an actionable roadmap that includes both long-term policy and funding solutions that will lead to greater student achievement and focus on accountability. We ask the group address the following:

1. A comprehensive review of K-12 education funding, including detailed appropriation levels for common education from enactment of HB 1017 to the present.

2. A review of the state funding formula to determine if it is in need of reform to better serve students and drive more funding to classrooms.

3. A thorough analysis of the HB 1017 Fund to determine whether dedicated funding from 1017 was applied to common education or if it was diverted to fund other state government funding needs.

4. A forecast of teacher shortage numbers based on the attrition rate of current teachers and analysis of the number of students enrolled in teacher training programs at Oklahoma’s higher-learning institutions.

5. A review of the education reforms passed since 1990 and the level of funding attached for implementation of those reforms to determine whether the reforms are actually reaching classrooms and helping students.

6. An analysis of professional development methods and funding levels directed to help teachers implement education policy mandates in their classrooms.

7. An analysis of classroom size requirements enacted by HB 1017, particularly class size waivers for districts that meet their bond indebtedness levels.

For more information, the full report can be found at http://stand.org/oklahoma/action/teachers-matter

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