Tulsa students can achieve reading success, but experienced teachers are critical, experts say

Investing in training and supporting literacy teachers will pay dividends

By: - September 1, 2023 5:30 am
Four women stand behind a lectern, listening.

Tulsa school board members, from left, E'Lena Ashley, Jennettie Marshall, Susan Lamkin and Stacey Woolley answer questions at a State Board of Education meeting. Woolley said Oklahoma's superintendent made demands but offered few metrics for academic improvement. (Brent Fuchs/For Oklahoma Voice)

OKLAHOMA CITY – Tulsa Public Schools has only months to achieve considerable growth in student reading scores. Experts say student outcomes can be accelerated, but it will require having qualified, experienced teachers in Tulsa classrooms at a time when there’s a substantial shortage of those educators statewide.

The Oklahoma State Board of Education agreed to accredit Tulsa this year, but Superintendent Ryan Walters warned that the threat of a state takeover looms if the district can’t achieve better reading outcomes over the coming months. Walters, the board’s chair, said he wants to see the school district quickly reach the state average in reading proficiency. 

“I want everyone listening to me to hear me loud and clear: This district will be a successful district by the end of this year,” Walters said. “… If that does not happen, I leave every option on the table to force this district to serve these kids.”

The most recent state test scores available show 12% of Tulsa students scored at their grade level in English language arts while 27% did so statewide. 

Walters and Tulsa administrators met last week to discuss strategies to accelerate learning and the “challenges of significantly increasing literacy proficiency rates in under a year,” the school district reported.

Tulsa Board of Education President Stacey Woolley said Thursday that she’s not heard of any specifics from Walters about the new academic goals or how to achieve the expected literacy outcomes. 

Woolley, though, said she wasn’t present during the meeting between Walters and the district’s administration.

“I think that is a challenge, to say the least, to feel as though there’s an expectation, but that you don’t know what that expectation is,” Woolley said. “It’s complicated. It’s not straightforward. In my opinion, it’s not helpful.” 

The state agency is playing a supporting role, but the path forward is Tulsa’s “show to run,” said Dan Isett, spokesperson for the department.

“We are developing new resources that are specific to Tulsa, and those conversations are ongoing,” Isett said. “Some of that stuff is still being developed, and we are in near-constant contact to work on getting things implemented.”

Literacy experts say it’s a challenge to make significant gains districtwide, but individual learners can make rapid progress in a matter of months. 

The key ingredient, they say, is highly effective reading teachers, who can recognize and adjust to an individual student’s strengths and weaknesses.

“It does take time for change, and the biggest factor of change is teacher knowledge,” said Donita Shaw, professor of literacy education at Oklahoma State University. “Teacher knowledge is something that takes a lot of time. It’s not like buying a certain curriculum or having a certain resource that’s going to make the difference.”

Reading is both highly complex and foundational to learning other school subjects. Investing in training and supporting literacy teachers will pay dividends, Shaw said.

A first or second grader showing signs of falling behind could catch up to their grade level in 12 to 20 weeks with an effective reading instructor, she said. That process could take older students up to 18 months.

A single classroom could contain students at various reading levels. That’s why instruction should be tailored to each child and reinforced in small groups, said Sheri Vasinda, an OSU associate professor of teaching, learning and educational sciences.

Every student is unique and learns at a different pace, she said. Some have heightened challenges that can hamper progress, like having dyslexia or learning English as a second language.

“Because there’s so much to go into reading, there’s no miracle,” Vasinda said. “There’s no shortcuts. There’s no silver bullet. I wish there were. That’s what I’ve looked for my entire career, but what I’ve found is we have to use really good assessments to see where our students are and what our needs are and then target the instruction to that need.”

As a condition of Tulsa’s accreditation, the state Board of Education required the district to train its teachers in the science of reading. Research has shown that the science of reading, which focuses on phonics, has been an effective teaching method.

Walters and Tulsa administrators discussed “opportunities for educator training and micro-credentialing, underwritten by the Oklahoma State Department of Education,” the school district said.

Teachers will need more than a single training course in the science of reading, Vasinda said. They should have a menu of professional development options that cover the various skills that make a successful reader, including comprehension, language acquisition and word recognition.

Training is especially important for new educators, she said.

And in Tulsa, there are many new teachers. Across all schools, the district employs about 300 teachers who are emergency certified, meaning they have no traditional training in the grade level or subject they teach.

Finding qualified educators is a challenge amid Oklahoma’s yearslong teacher shortage.

Between 8 and 11% of Oklahoma’s teacher workforce has left the profession each year for the past 10 years, state data shows. About 14% of Tulsa’s teachers left after last school year, according to the district.

Over the past decade, the state had the biggest enrollment decline in the nation in teacher preparation programs, a signal of a weakening pipeline of future educators.

As a result, school districts have hired an increasing number of teachers without traditional training and college degrees in education. 

The 4,574 emergency teaching certifications issued in the 2022-23 school year was the highest amount ever for Oklahoma. The state also expanded the number of instructional hours allotted to adjunct teachers, allowing them to teach full time with no form of certification.

Large, urban districts like Tulsa feel the shortage acutely, said Ken Stern, a retired professor of school administration.

Three people wearing red shirts that read, "I am, yo soy, Tulsa Public Schools" hold protest signs stating "Stop the state takeover" and "Local control" and "Not out of control."
Supporters of Tulsa Public Schools line up outside the Oklahoma State Department of Education building in Oklahoma City on Aug. 24. (Photo by Brent Fuchs/For Oklahoma Voice)

Rates of teacher turnover are greatest in high-poverty schools, many of which are found in Oklahoma’s largest cities, according to a 2021 report on the state’s teacher workforce.

That leaves many inexperienced educators in Tulsa facing “the most difficult teaching situations that you could have,” Stern said.

“You have a revolving door of young, smart, enthusiastic teachers, and it’s hard to get continuity in a building or in a district where you have constant turnover,” he said. “That’s not a problem that’s going to be settled overnight.”

But it is an issue a state superintendent should focus on, said Stern, who wrote a book chronicling the history of the men and women who held the superintendent’s office since 1890.

Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist echoed that argument, calling the teacher shortage “catastrophic” and Oklahoma’s school funding too little to ensure academic success.

State lawmakers budgeted $3.97 billion for public schools this year, the highest level in state history.

The latest state budget includes a three-year, $10 million program to hire more reading instructors across the state.

The state Department of Education has 15 of these specialists on staff and will deploy them across five regions, Isett said. It remains unclear how many of these reading instructors, if any, will work with Tulsa Public Schools specifically.

Many Tulsa students need extra support to overcome language and poverty barriers, Gist said. The district set “aspirational but realistic” academic goals, which members of the State Board of Education suggested should be even more ambitious.

“All of these young people can achieve at high levels, but the needs they have, and the supports they need are different,” Gist said in an Aug. 8 news conference. “So, I think what is both irresponsible and lazy is to make a declaration like, ‘Here’s where they should be,’ without being realistic about what it means to be at the (state) average.”


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Nuria Martinez-Keel
Nuria Martinez-Keel

Nuria Martinez-Keel covers education for Oklahoma Voice. She worked in newspapers for six years, more than four of which she spent at The Oklahoman covering education and courts. Nuria is an Oklahoma State University graduate.