Mike Brake | April 7, 2020

How much instruction are Oklahoma school districts providing?

Mike Brake

A survey of the online learning dashboards implemented on Monday, April 6, by a number of Oklahoma school districts for the remainder of the virus-canceled 2019-20 school year showed that many are providing little to no student instruction.

Most are focusing on, as Oklahoma City Public Schools (OKCPS) spokesperson Beth Harrison said, the core knowledge students had already studied during the first three-quarters of the school year.

Most will apparently not try to present much, if any, new academic material. Instead, a sampling of lessons indicates that the majority of time “school at home” students will be expected to invest will include games, puzzles, light quizzes, and in some cases reading and writing exercises that will not be graded.

In short, most Oklahoma schools are presenting curriculum material designed to flex existing mental muscles rather than teach new content.

“It’s better than nothing, though it is the lowest bar on what districts can do. It is really a disservice to students since they are not extending their learning.” —Georgia Hayward, Center on Reinventing Public Education

For example, the Norman Public Schools dashboard asks third graders to read for 20 minutes each day, practice addition and multiplication, and study a map of Oklahoma. Norman parents are asked to “do your best to create a structured consistent schedule that works for your family.”

As with many other districts, Norman students will be given opportunities to improve their grades “through makeup work, re-doing assignments, and completing extra credit,” but “no grades will be taken on activities assigned during distance learning.”

Oklahoma City Public Schools is following the same policy. Superintendent Sean McDaniel was quoted as saying that schools will only grade assignments with an eye toward raising student averages. Those students passing at the three-quarters mark of the school year when classes were canceled will automatically receive that grade for the full school year, and any extra or makeup assignments will only apply if they raise the student’s average.

In addition, OKCPS will allow seniors to graduate with just 23 credits, the state minimum.

Harrison said some content will obviously have to be presented to students in a catch-up format next year. For example, state law mandates that all high school students complete a one-semester Oklahoma History course. Most students enrolled in that class for the spring semester probably had not even reached statehood in their studies when classes were canceled.

Oklahoma City students can access lessons on the online dashboard or pick up paper copies at schools distributing free lunches, Harrison noted          

“Our teachers have reached out to 90 percent of the families already,” she said. Teachers are also required to set aside at least one hour per day for student contact by phone or email.

The Oklahoma City dashboard asks fourth graders to spend 20 minutes each on reading and writing, math and science, and social studies. They are also urged to do “30-60 minutes of outside play” as well as 10-20 minutes reading with their families and playing a board or card game.

They can also do a book report, write a letter to a friend, write a news story, author a speech, and do other writing projects, although none will apparently be graded.

In mathematics the fourth graders are urged to “play Math War, Tic-tac-Math” and other games.

High school seniors in Oklahoma City studying English are instructed to read some sample college admission essays, read several poems and, after watching a video interview with a poet, write their own poem. They are also asked how well they know a list of 100 words high school graduates should understand, but again there are no indications that work will be graded.

So in most schools any graded assignments can only raise student grades and not lower them. Harrison said teachers will work to challenge students who may have been failing at the three-quarter mark. They will have the option of submitting do-over assignments that will only count if they improve their grade average.

The abrupt closure of all state schools—and most of those nationwide—as the coronavirus pandemic took hold caught most districts by surprise. Most schools deal with an occasional snow day, or at most a week-long interruption due to a weather disaster, and had no emergency plan in place to account for the loss of a full quarter of a school year.

In a recent story at U.S. News & World Report (“Many schools are not providing any instruction amid closures”), Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, is quoted as saying that as of late March only about 10 percent of schools nationwide were providing “any kind of real curriculum and instruction program,” although she noted that “this is not the time to pass judgment—it’s a time to be learning from each other.”

Georgia Hayward, a research analyst at the Center, said “we’re seeing about half of the districts we have surveyed are moving toward some kind of directed curriculum—meaning specific guidelines. What that doesn’t tell you is how much is optional and how much is required.”

Most school districts facing closure until the end of the year are, like Oklahoma City, “focusing on review material or supplementary material” rather than core academics, she said.

The Oklahoma norms as exemplified by Oklahoma City are among the optional learning mandates, since no grades or accountability are involved, Hayward said.

“It’s better than nothing,” she said, “though it is the lowest bar on what districts can do. It is really a disservice to students since they are not extending their learning.”

Hayward said districts surveyed that were requiring a solid academic path for students for the remainder of the year were those that had strong distance learning infrastructures in place before the virus struck.

The OKCPS board of education voted on March 27 to pay teachers, administrators, support staff, and other employees through the end of the year.

A few Oklahoma districts are diverging from the no-grade practice. The website for Geary Public Schools in Blaine County notes that “academic expectations and integrity remain in force” and asks that high school students go to teacher web pages for weekly graded assignments. Parents are asked to forward photos of at least two completed assignments per week.

Duncan Public Schools has posted a long list of online learning platforms. In Guymon, elementary students are asked to only review pre-taught material, while secondary students are directed to Google Classroom and given teacher emails. Overall, though, most state schools seem to be following the Oklahoma City example.

Tulsa Public Schools is using the Canvas online learning system for grades 6 to 12, where students view instructional videos at their own pace and complete assignments. However, the school website notes that teachers will give feedback but no grades on that work.

Mike Brake

Independent Journalist

Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. A former reporter at The Oklahoman (his coverage of the moon landing earned a front-page byline on July 21, 1969), he served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin. He has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC, and currently serves as public information officer for Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan.

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