Oklahoma has taken a historic step in improving public education. The decision to grade schools on an A-F scale, much like the grades students earn, will have a profound impact in classrooms across the state.
Florida blazed a trail for the A-F grading system in 1999 and discovered that an A grade is a powerful motivator. Since everyone knows the difference between an A and an F, the education system became more transparent. Schools worked hard to earn an A or a B. Those that succeeded worked even harder to keep their good grades.
Under the A-F system, A-rated schools become a source of pride for communities. Not only do they provide bragging rights for students, educators and parents, but they're a coveted amenity for real estate agents selling homes in those districts. Everyone becomes a stakeholder in education.
Schools that earn a D or an F are given the assistance they desperately need. And, ultimately, students learn more with the same investment of taxpayer dollars — at a time when states can scarcely afford to waste dwindling revenues.
There was concern in Florida that failing grades would demoralize students and faculty. Instead, the schools rallied and worked harder and smarter. Many soon celebrated the A grades that came as a result.
In the end, students are the true winners. The biggest winners in Florida have been low-income, minority students. Schools that had long failed these students were exposed. Parents were given options to move their children to other schools. And when that happened, poorly performing schools could no longer be ignored or tolerated.
A 2007 study by several university researchers and the Urban Institute concluded that “student achievement significantly increased in elementary schools that received an F grade” in the first year, and found that the impacts persisted three years later.
Education reform is a long journey that never ends. States become laboratories for change and learn from each other's successes. We're seeing this in action today.
Our students' futures depend on whether their K-12 schools prepare them for postsecondary education and the workforce. The traditional American education system is failing in this regard, making reforms based on standards and accountability all the more urgent. Congratulations to Gov. Mary Fallin, the Oklahoma Legislature, state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi and the State Board of Education for placing the success of students at the forefront of education in Oklahoma.
Smith is a former Florida education commissioner and emeritus member of Chiefs for Change, a coalition of state school superintendents committed to education reform. Release of Oklahoma's inaugural A-F grading system results has been delayed until at least late October.