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Wednesday, December 1, 2021
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Feeding the Smartphone Pig

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A few years ago, miniature pigs were all the rage.  Unfortunately, many people couldn’t tell the difference between a normal and a miniature pig, and many entrepreneurial farm kids took advantage of the market.  It didn’t take people long to realize they had been swine-dled, however, for pigs can exceed 250 pounds in six months.  Just imagine your surprise when your little Piglet turns out to be a full-grown Pooh Bear.  Oh, bother!

During the pandemic, we unwittingly invited a similar beast into our homes: the 24/7 Digital Pig.  What started as a convenient smartphone has since grown into a 500-pound feral boar.  Zoom pigs, email pigs, and social media pigs already devoured our lives before the pandemic, but I am not sure we can feed these monsters anymore.  With COVID hopefully waning, maybe it’s time to send this digital piggy to the market.

Remember when computers were supposed to simplify our lives?  Enhanced communications would enrich our relationships.  Technology would declutter our schedules, so we could focus on the people and activities that mattered.  Less stress, less worry, more sleep.  We would even use less paper.  Smartphones were supposed to tie it all up into one cuddly package. Those crafty country kids on the side of the road lied to us! 

We now navigate giant piles of digital clutter (the piglet and Pooh jokes write themselves!).  We even use more paper than ever before. I measure cash register receipts by the foot now, which simply adds insult to injury after self-checking and self-paying.  I missed the training, so I have discovered that not all apples are coded equally. I complained to customer service, but it is self-service, too. Now it’s just a giant mirror and a frustrated bald guy holding a bag of ridiculously expensive honey-crisp apples. 

Unfortunately, all these so-called technological conveniences have crept into education, too.  After the pandemic, we learned that 24/7 instruction, feedback, parent-teacher conferences, and tutoring were all possible and necessary. Online learning has its place, but for most educators, parents, and students, learning is as social as cerebral.  More collaborative than computerized.  Some students and teachers thrive in a virtual world, but most of us hated it, especially when given an option.  

We are now starting to reclaim some normalcy, and virtual school at 2 AM and weeks of quarantines are less necessary, so why are we still feeding this smartphone hog?  Between social media, texts, emails, and midnight snacks, I don’t know how anyone gets any sleep. Families are more exhausted than ever, and I believe it is partly due to the cute little piglet that turned into a 24/7 digital nightmare.  

Families need downtime.  We need to reclaim our nights and weekends (or whenever you can catch a moment of rest). The 24/7 digital pig has gobbled up every spare minute, and what once helped us cope with the pandemic has become our tusked overlord. Life is already hectic enough; we don’t need work and school dominating our homes and family times any more than it already does. 

Unfortunately, this 24/7 digital pig will never go away.  We cannot butcher it, but we can put it in a pen where it belongs.  Social media, texts, and emails will still be there in the morning, and somewhere among those apps is an actual phone, so someone can call you if it’s important. Parents, students, and educators need a break from the digital monster we have created over the last two years.  Let’s unplug, log-off, and disconnect more.  Trust me, no matter how much that 24/7 digital pig squeals the world won’t end if we ignore it occasionally.  And if anyone is thinking of buying a cute little mini pig, consider a layaway plan.  If the little guy adds 40 pounds in a month, you don’t have a pet; you have a pork dinner, and it’s really hard to find a sparkly phone case for one of those.   

Tom Deighan is currently the superintendent of Duncan Public Schools. Email: deighantom@gmail.com  Past articles: www.mostlyeducational.com

Toby Dawn’s Flaming Pennies

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“Flaming pennies are ruining our country, Tommy Boy!”  My lifelong friend and childhood hero, Toby Dawn McIntyre cornered me recently to bloviate on the ills of society. “Flaming pennies,” he explained, “are the less than 1% of people who have completely lost the ability to discuss or conversate civilly, so they set the whole world on fire to get their way.”  (Conversate is also Toby’s terminology.)  He continued, “Most people can engage in rational discourse, even when they vehemently disagree, but not these flaming pennies. There aren’t many of them, but they are destroying this nation.”  

As Toby talked, I remembered the story of Sampson lighting foxes’ tails on fire and sending them into the fields. Those angry and terrified foxes wrought havoc as they recklessly destroyed everything around them.  But instead of foxes, I now pictured little copper Abraham Lincoln heads rolling through communities.  Pennies are small, but if they were on fire or red hot, no one would be safe because it only takes a tiny spark to start a wildfire.  Toby Dawn then warned me to check between my couch cushions before pantomiming an explosion with his hands.  He said “Poof!” as he walked away.  I was disappointed he didn’t have a little smoke bomb for dramatic effect. 

My friend Toby might just be on to something. I interact with a lot of people every day, and a lot more interact about me on social media.  The flaming pennies sure get a lot of attention, but they really are the exception. In fact, I have not encountered very many flaming pennies in my lifetime, even including the COVID age. I see them on television, in my news feed, and on social media, but I have met very few real-live flaming pennies focused on destroying everything and everyone to make a point.   

To be clear, I interact regularly with a lot of very passionate people with very sincere beliefs that they will never compromise.  I also encounter a lot of really upset people on a regular basis.   People who are willing to hurt others or their community to make a point, however?  Honestly, not very many, and I once had a guy named Vern chase me with a machete.  Even Vern calmed down . . . eventually, so despite it all, I believe that most people are still capable of having a civil, rational, and adult conversation.

A good example of this is our recent board meeting when they engaged the community on the most difficult of issues: face masks.  We are all aware of such meetings spiraling into chaos, but we never hear about the thousands of school boards and city councils across the nation who have held meetings on the issue without incident.  Yes, we had very passionate people with opposite views provide input.  Community members also spoke at the board meeting, and every single person was respectful, rational, and tolerant of differing opinions.  Not a single flaming penny in the group!  No one was willing to set the board meeting on fire or to insult anyone else to prove a point.  Just a group of rational adults having civil discourse about a very complex issue.  What a radical idea. Where were the cable channels when we needed them?

As often happens after such complex discussions, no decision was made, but the meeting turned into something more meaningful than even masks.  As one attendee explained, the rest of the world is losing its capacity for tolerance. Our community, however, once again modeled the tolerance we hope to see in our children. People treated each other with dignity and respect, despite conflicting views.  I couldn’t be prouder as a superintendent. 

I am struggling with Toby Dawn’s theory about flaming pennies, however, because on social media, it sure seems like more than 1%.  Maybe flaming quarters?  Nevertheless, a keyboard can often make people seem bigger and more threatening, so again, Toby Dawn might just be on to something with his crazy flaming pennies. (Disclaimer: no foxes or Verns were harmed during production.)

Tom Deighan is currently the superintendent of Duncan Public Schools. He may be reached at deighantom@gmail.com  You may read past articles at www.mostlyeducational.com

A Simple Academic Vision

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Through the years, I have read volumes of academic visions containing indecipherable educational jargon that seems to create more questions than answers.  (Unfortunately, I have also produced my fair share as well!)  Yet, I have rarely seen any succinct academic visions for Pk-12 education through the elementary, middle, and high school levels.  Education is an infinitely complex journey, but the challenge of a long journey has never stopped anyone from starting with a simplistic road map. Likewise, I think we need more clarity in education about progression from elementary to high school.  Like a long road trip across the country, we need to know our destination, and we need to know which way to turn at Albuquerque.  Below is a simple academic vision for PK-12 education:        

At the elementary level, each grade will foster high character, healthy relationships, and strong morals as evidenced through personal accountability.  Mastery of essential academic skills and facts necessary to succeed at the next grade level will be the primary focus for all students, with reading and math literacy always taking precedence.   Mastery of reading and math skills will be further evidenced in their application through writing and speaking about science, history, civics, and other academic subjects. Graphic and performing arts will enrich and support academic growth.  Physical education and unstructured play will be incorporated as essential components of childhood and necessary to learning. 

At the middle level (middle schools and junior highs), mastery of elementary skills will be expected upon entry, and if necessary, students will be rigorously remediated until mastery of essential academic skills necessary for middle level coursework can be evidenced.  High moral character and behavior are expectations as students grow and mature socially. Middle level coursework will provide deeper exploration of distinct academic subjects. Students will support results and conclusions with evidence, facts, and logical discourse through written and oral communication.  Graphic and performing arts will support deeper understanding of history and culture through artistic expression.  Health/physical education, athletic competition, and extra-curricular participation will be promoted for all students.   Pre-college and pre-career diagnostics will provide students and parents with insight regarding possible career paths as they prepare for high school.

Finally, high schools will be structured as college and career preparation centers that foster strong social connections.  All academics, programs, and discipline will prepare students to enter the workforce, to further their education, and to be productive community members.  College and career readiness assessments will guide all academic instruction.  Whenever possible, students will be challenged to address real-world academic, civic, and business issues within a given field and model professional behavior.  Highest evidence of proficiency will be demonstrated through written and oral communication, artistic expression, professional experiences (internships/mentorships), and concurrent enrollment.  Participation in extra-curricular activities is affirmed as an essential component of students’ growth. Every student will graduate, and every student will graduate with college or career experience.

As a career educator, I wonder if we have unnecessarily complicated the educational process.  Oversimplification is certainly not the answer, but in an increasingly complex and divisive world, parents, students, and educators need to identify their common ground and shared expectations regarding education.  In my experience, when they are given that chance, they will agree much more than they disagree, and when they disagree, they will do so with tolerance and dignity. Perhaps my little academic vision is imperfect, but that’s ok if it will begin crucial conversations to rediscover the role and nature of schools.  

Tom Deighan is currently the superintendent of Duncan Public Schools. He may be reached at deighantom@gmail.com  You may read past articles at www.mostlyeducational.com

Oklahoma Schools Cannot Manage a Pandemic

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When state or federal entities create impossible situations due to unfunded mandates, unpredictability, or conflicting laws, public schools have always managed to figure things out. Inevitably, the central-planned solutions become politically impossible messes that school boards, parents, and educators are expected to unravel. As we have seen since this pandemic started, local control is a very convenient scapegoat when one-size-fits-all solutions hurt more than they help, but we may have finally tied ourselves up in a knot that local schools cannot untangle.

Beginning with the state-wide closures in the spring of 2019 and continuing through the 2020-21 school year, school districts were expected to either carry heavier and heavier loads managing COVID or just give up and close. We figured them out, however, navigating state and federal contradictions at the local level. Districts like Duncan swam upstream to keep schools open despite quarantining 2,500 students and staff. We made tough decisions locally to keep our schools open, despite our hands being tied. 

Last year, schools like Duncan assisted in duly authorized quarantining, contact tracing, isolation orders, and close contact notifications based on very explicit communications that schools must follow these orders.  We were either directly notified or confirmed regarding every COVID case in our schools. Then, under the direction of duly authorized experts, we provided information to assist in their final determinations.  Public school staff did most of the legwork and delivered most of the orders, but we never acted unilaterally, for we do not have the expertise or authority to do any of those things. We truly appreciated the partnership with local health authorities as we worked together to keep schools open safely. It was exhausting, but at the end of the year, we felt like we fought the good fight together.

But this year, schools are being “expected” to issue quarantining, contact tracing, and isolation orders unilaterally, based solely on personal, self-reported, and unverifiable health information. We are no longer officially notified of confirmed COVID-positive people in our buildings. Authorities no longer identify specific individuals or groups for quarantine, contact tracing, or isolation. They no longer prescribe the terms or duration of those quarantines. This year, schools have been told that we are on our own. Schools are now expected to do those things that have traditionally been beyond our authority, and we understand that we may lose funding if we do not. So, which laws do we break? 

If schools follow current recommendations, we will be violating SB658, but this is not about masks anymore. We are expected to quarantine, which requires our knowing a person’s vaccination status, but SB658 apparently forbids our requiring documentation that an individual has been vaccinated against COVID-19. Expecting schools to act as public health experts during a pandemic seems to contradict existing laws and virtually everything we have been told since this pandemic started. In the past, schools have always wriggled free enough to find a solution when asked to, but for me the answer is finally “No.”  

No, my schools should not be compelled to violate any provisions of SB658, for it is the law. And, no, educators should not be asked to act as public or private healthcare authorities during a pandemic. These are impossible choices that schools should not be forced to make. Schools can legally send sick people home and close to protect our staff and students, but educators cannot manage a pandemic. If things have changed, we need clarity and certainty before moving forward.  

No one knew if COVID would return the way it has, and no one wanted it, but we all knew that SB658 would create impossible choices if COVID did surge again. That impossible choice was not created by parents, educators, or children, but once again, they are expected to unravel this impossible problem. This time, I respectfully say, no. Schools cannot carry this burden. 

Tom Deighan is currently the superintendent of Duncan Public Schools. He may be reached at deighantom@gmail.com  You may read past articles at www.mostlyeducational.com

Drowning Ducks and First Day Jitters

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Earlier this week, I thoroughly confused DPS staff with this story about drowning ducks. As young newlyweds, my wife and I visited a lake for the afternoon, and I saw a couple of ducks badgering another duck. The poor little guy could barely hold its head out of the water, so in my most manly voice I squealed, “Renee!  They’re drowning him. Save him!”  Renee immediately sprang into action, but on the way to save that duck, she slipped in the mud, ruining her brand-new white Reeboks. Of course, the duck was fine, but I shared this story to illustrate two important principles:

First principle: When someone relies on you to be calm, and you panic, they will abandon all reason and run into a lake to save a drowning duck. 

Second principle: Ducks don’t drown easily, so don’t be too quick to run into the lake and ruin your Reeboks, even when your crazy husband is screaming. (On the other hand, when ducks really do start drowning, it’s serious!)  

We hoped for a normal school year, but like clockwork, COVID once again reared its ugly head, and this year may be more uncertain than ever. The urge to panic is real, but I want to be sure the ducks are drowning this time before I send her into the lake to ruin another pair of Reeboks.

Yes, we face uncertainty again, but we have been on this road for some 500 days. I cannot make sense of dueling narratives on the news channels, but I know we kept schools safely open last year, and we did this without a vaccine. We also saw relatively little spread last year in the schools, like the studies we reviewed last summer. The State quarantined a lot of healthy people, but we rarely ever had 50 or more confirmed positive cases in our schools at any given time, even at the peak. Despite quarantining over 2,500 students and staff last year, we managed to keep school open safely. So far, quarantines have not resumed.

If last year is our guide, and we do not send healthy people home to quarantine, this is more manageable than last year. If last year is our guide, we will see very limited spread in schools. If last year is our guide, without vaccines, then we are better prepared to face this year. If last year is our guide, we are some hard-to-drown ducks!  Nevertheless, we do not have the same options we had last year. We also have more people in our buildings. This year certainly could be worse, much worse, so we should be ready. 

We will not panic, however, because ducks rarely drown. We will do what is necessary to keep DPS staff and students safe. If necessary, we will close schools. If necessary, we will go virtual. If necessary, we will limit visitors and events. And if necessary, we might even go rogue because when ducks everywhere are drowning, all options must be on the table. But let’s not ruin our white Reeboks just yet, for we are nowhere near the COVID peak we saw last year. The most important thing we can do right now is to stay home if sick. That is our first and most important line of defense. 

Our students rely on us parents and educators for reassurance and certainty. COVID is real, and it is deadly, but we have 500 days of past COVID perspective. We know more and have more tools than we did last year. Yes, the Delta and the other dozen variants may truly upend everything, and if so, we will respond accordingly. We cannot panic, however, for if we panic, our students have no hope of a normal school year. Trust me, when ducks start drowning, I will be the first one screaming, but until then, let’s keep our Reeboks dry. Above all, please stay home when sick, and please continue to pray for the safety of our schools this second Sunday of the month.  

Tom Deighan is currently the superintendent of Duncan Public Schools. He may be reached at deighantom@gmail.com You may read past articles at www.mostlyeducational.com

Toby Dawn’s Empty Backpack

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Nothing makes my lifelong friend and childhood hero, Toby Dawn McIntyre, happier than the start of school, so happy that I always thought he would make a great teacher, but he insists that the summer vacations are too short. Each year he brings me a backpack full of zany school supplies. I never know when or where he will show up, I just know he will somehow interrupt my peace and quiet when I least expect it. This year, he appeared in my backyard as I relaxed on my back porch. “School starts next week, Tommy Boy!” I rolled my eyes as he approached.   

After the last two years, anything normal is welcomed, even Toby Dawn, so I was happy to see my friend. Last year, it was full of Batman masks and hand-sanitizer, so I never really know what to expect. He has brought me everything from an Alf lunchbox to a giant crayon, and one year, he dumped out an entire backpack full of paper clips. Every single one was interlocked with another, which illustrates not only his excitement for school but also his endless joy in aggravating me. I would never admit it to Toby, but I was excited to see what he brought. This year’s backpack was empty, however. 

“I have been thinking,” he said, which are dangerous words for Toby, “that all we needed back in the day were a few Big Chief Tablets, some fat pencils, and crayons.”  I carefully inspected the backpack, for Toby is known for surprises, but it really was empty. “Nowadays, schools already have too much to handle, but on top of it all, you have the COVID . . . again!”  I sighed, a little uncertain about where Toby was headed. “So this year, I knew there was nothing I could bring you. There are no answers. No magic bullets.”  

Toby was right. Once upon a time, back-to-school was simple, and after the last two years, everyone hoped that this year would be normal. Unfortunately, people are now afraid that this year may be even more chaotic than ever. Almost on cue, COVID has reared its ugly head just in time to revive all the anxiety, pressure, and uncertainty. It can be overwhelming for anxious staff and parents, and it is downright disheartening for students. They just want a normal year. 

Before we worry or give up, however, let’s remember that most schools in Oklahoma managed to stay open last year. The studies that many of us relied upon last summer when we decided to open also proved true here: there was very little spread in schools. We went into the year uncertain, but we took those first tentative steps in hope. We decided locally that in-person learning was best, and we would take it day-by-day, keeping school open until it was no longer safe or possible to do so. We had no vaccine and very few treatments last year, but somehow, by the Grace of God, we made it. God willing, we will do so again this year. 

“This backpack is empty this year so you can fill it up, Tom.” I cannot remember Toby ever calling me anything but Tommy Boy. “And at the end of this school year, I expect it to be packed with joyous memories after a full year of school. Because one way or another, I know your schools will once again unite, and once again you will decide together how to serve our children and this community.”  With those words, my tall red-headed friend quietly walked out of my backyard. And somehow, that empty backpack filled my heart. Yes, we are once again facing an uncertain school year, but we are facing it together, and whatever comes our way, we will face it for our kids. And just like Toby Dawn, I am confident that the fear and uncertainty bubbling up this week cannot be compared to the joy set before us this school year. We will figure this out, again, Oklahoma!

Tom Deighan is currently the superintendent of Duncan Public Schools. He may be reached at deighantom@gmail.com You may read past articles at www.mostlyeducational.com

In Oklahoma, The School is the Community

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This is the final in a series of ten summertime articles that stubbornly insist that 80% of parents and 80% of educators actually agree on 80% of all issues (my 80/80/80 rule). Unfortunately, schools have become ground-zero for the culture wars, and national leaders from both sides seem to be strategically pitting parents against educators. Please remember that these talking heads know nothing about your local community, and in Oklahoma, your local public school is the community. 

Visit any local school basketball game, bingo night, or band concert and you will know that community. Want to know your neighbors or fellow worshippers? Visit the school cafeteria during lunch, and for a truly deep dive, substitute!  Because in Oklahoma, the local school is not only a perfect reflection of the local community, it is the community. This is just as true for inner city neighborhoods as it is for rural schools miles away from any town. Unfortunately, we are being inundated with stories about extreme agendas (from both sides) that terrify many parents, educators, and communities in Oklahoma. 

One extreme seems to think all parents are incompetent, so parents should sit down and shut up when radical ideologues attempt to usurp or undermine parental rights. Educators with such radical views exist, but they do not represent most Oklahoma educators. Radical agendas are nothing new to public schools, so many of us educators are thankful that people are engaging. Please don’t assume that a few national leaders represent the views of your neighbor or pew partner who works in your public school.   

The other extreme seems to think that all educators are incompetent (or evil), so public schools should be entirely dismantled and the funds funneled to for-profit companies. I have never met a parent who thinks their local school is perfect, but I also cannot remember ever meeting one who wants their local school closed or managed by a corporation. Most Oklahomans scratch their heads about those districts on the news because they know their local school staff so well. 

Remember, your local school is not only a mirror of your local children but also local adults who work there. The 80/80/80 applies to communities, too, but the media focuses relentlessly on the 10% of extreme issues on the left and the right. They dismiss sensible people who keep things running and interact without demonizing each other as part of the problem, but I do not believe Oklahomans must choose between Marxism or crony capitalism. Most Oklahomans widely agree on issues such as the preeminence of the parent, adult-ready graduates, safety and security, social engineering, equal rights and equal opportunity, public money/public rules, and local control. This summer’s articles on those topics are archived at www.mostlyeducational.com if you wish to read them. 

I am not naïve. Some of this nationwide craziness is certainly happening in Oklahoma, but most Oklahoma school districts welcome parents and community members with questions, so just talk to your superintendent, principal, or teacher if you have any doubts. Virtually everything in Oklahoma schools are open records (except student and personnel records), and most are already online, so there are too many eyes on schools to hide anything for long. Besides, in my experience, neither kids nor staff can keep secrets very well. 

School starts soon in Oklahoma, and we face some weighty issues, but I pray that communities can use their dwindling local control to run the gauntlet together, as neighbors, relatives, friends, and fellow worshippers . . . with the civility that characterizes Oklahomans. Yours is likely the typical Oklahoma community and the typical Oklahoma school, so please watch battling news outlets with a critical eye. And if you have any doubts about your local school, go to a ballgame or a school board meeting. I also bet they need substitutes, if you’re interested. 

Tom Deighan is the current Superintendent of Duncan Public Schools. He may be reached at deighantom@gmail.com

Kiteboarding and Remote-Controlled Public Schools

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This is the ninth in a series of ten summertime articles mapping the common ground upon which parents, educators, and communities can unite regarding one of the most divisive topics in America: public education.

A friend of mine recently used his drone to record me kiteboarding. From 400 feet up, my local lake looked like a tropical paradise, and I looked like an expert kiteboarder, but closer inspection would have revealed a 50-year-old risking a broken hip in muddy water!  Clearly, remote-control can look impressive, but it’s not always accurate or evidence of sound judgement. 

Historically, we have accepted that local school boards, parents, and educators have a clearer view of their students’ needs than any far-away politician, bureaucrat, or teacher-union bosses. In recent decades, however, remote-control planning has become the norm for both political parties, starting with No Child Left Behind, surging with Common Core State Standards, and continuing with the Every Student Succeeds Act. All three initiatives received widespread bi-partisan support at inception and cancellation. (ESSA will eventually be cancelled, too.) Remote-control policy, however, reached its apex during our recent pandemic, and I would hope that we learned that educational central planning in a state as diverse as Oklahoma simply does not work. Once again, I think most parents and educators agree on the issue of local control in their district.

Last year is a good example of remote-controlled chaos. Schools were stuck between certain entities that seemed to incentivize school closures and other entities that seemingly demanded schools ignore those with authority to close schools. Well-intentioned leaders increasingly feel compelled to remote control schools, so local control is largely ignored until central planning fails, and districts are told to figure things out on their own. Constantly running this gauntlet leaves local communities frustrated and confused. We need this chaos to end. 

Little attention was given to districts like Duncan who stayed open last year and even less attention to the fact that most Oklahoma school districts stayed open during the pandemic. Despite remote-controlled, central planning, most Oklahoma school districts successfully ran the gauntlet to serve their kids and parents. We did it on the local level, despite far-away warring factions. Schools did this as communities of parents and educators making tough decisions, not by remote-control.

I hope and pray that everyone looks at the data we now have after a year. Of course, we knew a year ago that COVID spread in schools is negligible, and those studies from other countries encouraged many districts to stay open. In our district, only about 1% of 1,500 quarantined students developed COVID while in quarantine, so it seems the quarantines overreached. Other districts who stayed open reported similar results. We may have had reason to fear last year, but this year, the evidence is clear: schools should be open, masked or not. And may we please stop quarantining healthy children.

Unfortunately, the gauntlet is already forming for the upcoming year, and I hope schools will not be stuck. A slew of new legislation seemingly targeted schools that closed last year, ignoring the schools who successfully served kids in-person. Other legislation micromanaging COVID mitigation may place schools at odds with health departments if last year’s COVID rules are implemented. I cannot see any practical way for schools to stay open with any consistency if that happens.  We may have unwittingly tied school districts’ hands so much that those fighting to keep schools closed with unrealistic demands may inadvertently win, doing further irreparable harm to a generation of students. Extremists on both sides win if schools close again this year, for both can loudly proclaim, I told you so!    

I sincerely believe that the issue of in-person schooling is settled for most educators and parents. Remote controllers win if they can keep us divided, confused, and inconsistent. We must remember that critical issues look very different close-up, in your neighborhoods, which is why local parents, educators, and school boards can be trusted to protect the safety and health of their own children. We cannot always trust remote-control views of education or old men kiteboarding, but we can trust local control.

Tom Deighan is the current Superintendent of Duncan Public Schools. He may be reached at deighantom@gmail.com

Public Money, Public Rules for Vouchers

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This is the eighth in a series of ten summertime articles mapping the common ground upon which parents, educators, and communities can unite regarding one of the most divisive topics in America: public education.

Many Oklahoma leaders appear to be taking progressive steps toward implementation of a voucher system, citing the need for increased competition between public and private schoolsMany wonder just how that would look, and I think we could learn something from our student athletes, for most public high schools already compete against private schools on the field, on the court, and on the stageThey follow the same rules, supported by common-sense parents and educatorsThis supports my belief that 80% of parents and 80% of educators agree on 80% of educational issues, and I believe that this even applies to the controversial topic of school choice. My position on this issue has always been captured in a simple phrase: Public Money, Public Rules. To prove, however, that my position is not shaped by current politics, here is an excerpt from my article in an April 2015 edition of the Lawton Constitution:

It will undoubtedly surprise some people, but as a superintendent of a public school district in Oklahoma, I do not oppose vouchers – as long as anyone receiving public funds has to follow the same rules a public school follows. They should provide transportation, therapists, special education, lunches, and fully certified teachers. They should take the same tests and meet the same accountability measures in place for public schools. They should have the same oversight and financial reporting requirements. 

This sort of logic seems to apply in virtually every other area that shifts public funds to private entitiesPublic and private universities follow the same rulesPrivate and public hospitals follow the same rules. Quasi-public systems like turnpikes even follow the same rules of the roadHeck, even private prisons must follow the same rules as public prisons, so if the rule applies to criminals, we might consider it for kids Public Money, Public Rules works everywhere else, so it should work for public school fundsTaxpayers like to know how and where their money is spent.

Public Money, Public Rules first implies transparency, which was the concern with a high-profile Oklahoma charter school last yearThe public expects to know where its money goes, and that district’s private vendor left many unanswered questions. Public Money, Public Rules also relates to accountability, which is a question mark for private schools in Oklahoma that currently receive public fundsMany private schools in Oklahoma receive checks directly from your local schools, through programs such as the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship and some federal programs, but I do not know which (if any) of the public rules follow that public money 

Must these schools or the proposed voucher schools report graduation rates or utilize the state-mandated evaluation systems, testing systems, or climb the other mountains of mandates expected of your neighborhood school?  Must they block off 90-minutes for uninterrupted reading?  Are their schools rated with A’s or F’s?  Can they expel students? (Public schools cannot.)  Can they deny students entry?  (Public schools cannot.)  Are they required to transport special education students or serve their needs, no matter how astronomically expensive, just like public schools?   As Oklahoma continues to take steady, progressive steps toward vouchers, the Public Money, Public Rules issue should be front-and-centerAny school receiving local, state, or federal tax dollars should follow all the same rules, be it private, public, or charter

We do not accept separate rules in soccerPrivate schools and public schools must follow the exact same rules on a level fieldLikewise, any discussion of a voucher system must begin and end with Public Money, Public Rules – not just most rules but all rules – full adherence to every onerous, ridiculous rule that has been imposed on kids, parents, and educators in public schoolsThis principle works for soccer and tennis as well as prisons and hospitals. Public Money, Public Rules just seems like another issue upon which most parents and most educators could agree.

Tom Deighan is the current Superintendent of Duncan Public Schools. He may be reached at deighantom@gmail.com

Pull-ups and Equal Opportunity in Public Schools

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This is the seventh in a series of ten summertime articles mapping the common ground upon which parents, educators, and communities can unite regarding one of the most divisive topics in America: public education.

When I was in elementary school, we took The Presidential Physical Fitness Award test each year, but I could not do a pull-up to save my life. My friend Stefan, however, could do about twenty of them. As much as I wanted the award, I wanted the pull-up more. That pull-up bar provided us all with equal opportunity, but it certainly did not guarantee equal outcomes, for few of us could do a pull-up. I certainly hated that bar, but not near as much as I wanted to cut down the stupid climbing rope!

That test no longer exists, but it certainly highlights another area of common ground for parents and educators: equal opportunity for all students. Virtually everything in a public school has some sort of measurement – from the arts to attendance to math tests – providing students opportunities to shine. They also provide students with a chance to fail, which is just as important a life lesson. In elementary school, I also learned that I was a terrible clarinetist, and I am thankful that I did not waste any more of my life splitting reeds. 

Parents and educators want their children to succeed more than anything else, but they also understand that no child shines in every area. They may succeed or fail, but no one can be guaranteed an outcome. We cannot fix everything outside the school, but once inside the school, every child must be afforded equal opportunity. I believe that parents and educators agree on most issues, and I believe that equal opportunity is one of them.  It is a bedrock principle that binds parents and educators together. 

Unfortunately, our national discourse seems to be driven by extreme views on this issue. Some seem to insist on secret or hidden pull-up bars, as if they are afraid some people might succeed. Others seem to demand entirely adjustable pull-up bars to ensure everyone can do a pull-up. Neither extreme is compatible with the ideal of equal opportunity. Denying equal opportunity for all children is wrong, and demanding equal outcomes is just as unfair. 

The funny thing about pull-ups is that no matter how high the bar, a pull-up is still a pull-up. Lower that bar enough, and the pull-up becomes the stand-up. Lower it even further, and it becomes a limbo bar or a tripping hazard. The only way to guarantee equal outcome is not by lowering expectations but by eliminating them altogether. We cannot ensure success for everyone, but we can certainly restrict children’s chances to excel. This is true for pull-ups and for clarinetists who sound like cats caught under rocking chairs (my signature style). We all want our children to succeed in everything, but they cannot. Childhood is the opportunity to take risks within the safety nets of loving families, protective schools, and supporting communities. Abundant chances to both succeed and fail, that is how we raise adult-ready graduates.

I don’t know where Stefan is right now, but I bet he can still out pull-up me. I don’t know where my band teacher is, either, but I am sure he is somewhere in a corner rocking back-and-forth. I am confident, however, that parents and educators almost universally agree about equal opportunity, for they make it work every day in most schools. As a humble product of common-sense public schools, I appreciate so many opportunities to fail and to succeed. Most of all, God Bless you parents and educators who continue to find common ground every day on this and other issues so critical to our state and nation. 

Tom Deighan is the current superintendent of Duncan Public Schools. He may be reached at deighantom@gmail.com