Gist’s Pattern of TPS’s Failure

Editor’s Note: This and several following stories on public education in Tulsa curate material from and City Sentinel Tulsa, the conservative print publication of the city.

State Board of Ed to Vote on TPS Accreditation: Numbers Don’t Lie and They Don’t Look Good For Gist

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters and the State Board of Education are no longer ignoring the underperformance and mismanagement of Tulsa Public Schools (TPS). Unlike the previous administrations, it appears that standards under the law will be more equitably enforced over all school districts. Emotional arguments and political affiliations are out, data is in, and children appear to be this administration’s first priority.

The numbers presented by the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE) are difficult for TPS to defend:

TPS’s accreditation currently stands at “accredited with a warning” and the State Board of Education is slated to vote on lowering that level again on August 24th. Another demotion would put the district on probation, the last level before a district becomes unaccredited, but State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters has indicated that other options, including a state takeover of the district, are being considered.

The OSDE laid out a list of required reforms within the district’s improvement plan that focus on the following:

  • re-orient finances to serve students,
  • increase reading proficiency scores to the state average, and
  • get TPS schools off the F-List

Despite expected pushback from TPS’s administration, the three goals outlined by the OSDE reflect a low bar for a district that spends significantly more per pupil than the state average without counting the massive amount of funds flowing into TPS schools through its non-profit partnerships. There is so much outside grant and philanthropic money entering TPS sites through outside providers and non-profits that an intermediary organization called The Opportunity Project was formed to organize services. TPS is flowing with funding and a number of community partners that other Oklahoma districts can only dream of.

TPS is a Well-Funded, Academic Failure: How Bad Is It Really?

Academic achievement was an index added within the Joy Hofmeister years at the OSDE and was supposed to be a new way to show the more subtle improvements in learning within a district or school as students were better prepared for the next grade or step within their education. Despite this new opportunity to shine for educators, the latest numbers (2020-2021) for TPS are looking dismal.

Tulsa Public Schools district academic achievement data (2020-2021 year). Walters reports TPS as currently having 24 failing schools (overall F on school report card) based on the most recent data (2021-2022). This publication found 25 F schools for TPS within OSDE’s online school report cards. 

In addition, TPS has 45 Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI) school sites, a designation of ranked underperformance which provides the lowest performing school sites across Oklahoma with significant federal funds for improvement that are not available to higher performing sites. This structure could provide a disincentive for struggling schools. Think of it as the NFL or NBA draft. If you’re going to have a bad season, shoot for the bottom so you get a first-round pick, or in this case, a bag of federal money.

  1. The Oklahoma Every Student Succeed Act (ESSA) plan provides for Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI) schools to receive support from the Oklahoma State Department of Education. CSI schools work on a Continuous Improvement Cycle, receive federal funds to implement Continuous Improvement Plans, and are assigned a School Support Specialist. Please see our Main Page for additional resources for continuous improvement.

From the OSDE site on CSI schools and budgets for improvement: 

Most shocking within the currently performance data is that ten TPS sites have an academic achievement score of 0%. No one is prepared to move to the next educational level. Thousands of children are strapped to a school where it is statistically guaranteed they will not be academically successful despite intelligence, potential or capability.

TPS is proof that more money without administrative and instructional change will never fix public education.

OSDE Recommends Change of Leadership for TPS

In response to the state agency’s improvement plan, Deborah Gist called the process “completely un-transparent” at a press conference in July, further labeling it “a process that is being politicized for a very specific personal agenda.” TPS recently brought out the children in a “student led” forum to showcase benefits of the softer side of district services over Gist’s eight-year reign, but the numbers reflecting learning failures, embezzled funds and exorbitant administration costs (salaries) at the expense of classrooms are now impossible to ignore.

The OSDE has recommended a change in leadership for the district and the TPS school board is being forced to consider whether it is in the best interest of TPS families and children for Gist to continue as superintendent. Gist is inarguably progressive, which is all the vast non-profitocracy and political apparatus in Tulsa needs to know to support her, but what do parents of Tulsa students really know about the woman in charge of their children’s education?

State’s Highest Paid Supt Brought Experience from Progressive Educational Systems: DC and Rhode Island

Tulsa PS superintendent Deborah Gist was a policy analyst for the U.S. Department of Education, the first Superintendent of Education in Washington, D.C., and former Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education in Rhode Island. Her experience comes from the federal government and two highly progressive public education systems. Despite measurable, academic performance failures, Gist is the highest paid superintendent in Oklahoma. In an example of reverse-merit-based pay, she collects an annual salary of $286,699 (includes stipends for car and expenses).

Where Gist Goes, Grad Rates Go Up Yet Proficiency Does Not Follow

It’s not just Tulsa. Where Gist and her ideology go, a predictable pattern repeats itself. Four-year high school graduation rates go up but there is little proof of greater learning to support the increase.

An article from WPRI in Rhode Island, around the time of Gist’s departure after six years as Commissioner of Education, questioned the Rhode Island Department of Education’s claim of the highest HS graduation rate ever in their history (2016 data). The article makes several points that cast doubt on whether the new graduation rate could be trusted, noting:

  • Students of color, kids from low-income families and high schoolers with limited language proficiency still lagged behind their peers.
  • A lot of students were dropping out.
  • The student pool (number of incoming 9th graders) had shrunk.
  • Schools can lower their standards just to make sure more students earn their diploma.

The article brought proof that many Rhode Island HS grads were not academically prepared as they collected their diplomas:

“This isn’t easy to prove, but we know public officials have raised concerns about social promotion and we know there is real pressure on schools to improve completion rates. One way to analyze the value of a high school diploma is to track how students fare in college. For Rhode Island, those results are mixed. The new U.S. News & World Report ranking of the 50 states places Rhode Island at No. 49 when it comes to two-year college graduation rates, which means it’s taking longer than it should for students to earn their associate degree. While Governor Raimondo’s office would say the cost of school is the primary reason students don’t complete college, it’s also worth noting that hundreds of community college students have to register for remedial courses each year.”

TPS has received ample media coverage of its increased graduation rate during Gist’s tenure, particularly by The Tulsa World. With 25 failing schools and cratering academic achievement scores, can parents trust that their TPS graduates will find success or even self-sufficiency after crossing that stage?

Gist’s Insubordination Concerning the Law and the State School Board are Nothing New

During 2022, Substack publication The V1SUT Vantage covered the fallout after TPS chose to ignore the requirements of the new law (HB 1775) which prohibited the teaching of the tenants of critical race theory within Oklahoma’s public schools:

In June, the Oklahoma State Department of Education (OSDE), which is (was) still under Superintendent Hofmeister’s direction, found that Tulsa Public Schools had violated HB 1775 by offering a training for educators by the National Equity Project titled “Changing the Discourse”. Despite OSDE General Council Brad Clark’s conclusion that the event violated the law based on his review of documents from the training, Hofmeister was one of only two votes against taking action against Tulsa PS on the matter during a 4-2 vote of the board.

State Superintendent Hofmeister and Tulsa Superintendent Deborah Gist at 2021 luncheon.

Hofmeister called the prospect of taking punitive action against Tulsa PS for continuing to train staff in defiance of the law “an escalation that feels rather emotional”, forgetting how emotional it is for parents when schools take ideological liberties with their children.

Predictably, the OEA (teacher’s union) was up in arms about both Tulsa PS and Mustang PS being held to account with a disciplinary action of “accreditation with warning” for stepping outside the law. Unlike Tulsa PS, whose violation of HB 1775 was systemic in the form of an educator training revealed by a whistleblower, Mustang PS self-reported the actions of a single teacher as being in violation, showing that at least Mustang understands and intends to follow the law.

Gist’s Big Conflict of Interest Continues to Cast a Shadow Over TPS

Concerns over a major conflict of interest, Gist and her husband’s involvement in the management of bonds for TPS have continued to follow the district with no public resolution.

Also previously reported by The V1SUT Vantage:

Education decisions in Tulsa do not appear to be made based on robust, open discussions and the best interests of Tulsa’s children. Gist’s professional step down from more prestigious positions in D.C. and Rhode Island was explained as a homecoming, but perhaps her conflict of interest related to George Kaiser’s BOK should be more fully examined.

Ronnie Jobe (BOK Financial) and Deborah Gist (Tulsa PS Superintendent) As of 2019, Gist is married to BOK Financial Senior Vice President Ronnie Jobe. To no avail, constituents have questioned BOKF’s longstanding involvement with TPS bond management in light of Gist’s marriage (credit OCPA).

Some contracts for the district’s bond management work were reportedly found to have skipped the required competitive bidding process, going directly to Jobe’s employer (BOK Financial). And now Gist claims the $1 million found by the OSDE to have been embezzled from the district is an inaccurate and inflated number, but how would she know?

With an upcoming vote concerning the fate of TPS’s accreditation looming and the announcement of Superintendent Gist’s resignation,leadership is under intense scrutiny. In her announcement, Gist talked about maintaining local control and the excellence ofher team. Both of those points are highly contested by the facts detailed in this story.

The hysterical presentations by Gist supporters, mostly involved parents, teachers, and teacher union membersdemanding local control and local leadership are inane. The numbers don’t lie.

There will be much more to report in the coming weeks.

Editor David Arnett contributed to this report.

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