JENKS schools Superintendent Kirby Lehman recently said Oklahoma schools' academic performance doesn't rank nationally in the 40s, saying it was actually “in the 20s.” Only school funding ranks so poorly, he said.
Lehman's academic performance claim is startling. A report from Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance undercuts Lehman's boast and also rebuts the idea that money alone is to blame.
“Achievement Growth: International and U.S. State Trends in Student Performance” ranked the United States 25th out of 49 countries in student test-score gains. It found that found Oklahoma student gains from 1992 to 2011 in math, reading and science were the third lowest among 41 states where students took National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests during that period.
Typically, poor student results are blamed on insufficient taxpayer funding. But the Harvard report notes that “variation in state increases in per-pupil expenditure is not significantly correlated with the variation in learning gains.” In fact, some states that committed substantial additional financial resources to public schools — such as New York, Wyoming, and West Virginia — generated “only marginal test-score gains to show for all that additional expenditure.”
Oklahoma did boost school funding during the period covered by the report. Between fiscal years 1992 and 2011, Oklahoma state appropriations for public schools rose from around $1.1 billion to more than $2.3 billion, an inflation-adjusted increase of 25 percent. Yet our student gains lag most other states.
While the Harvard report highlights a depressing lack of education progress in Oklahoma, it also points out a path for improvement — one Oklahoma schools are now embarked on.
The report states, “There is some hint that those parts of the United States that took school reform the most seriously — Florida and North Carolina, for example — have shown stronger rates of improvement, while states that have steadfastly resisted many school reforms (Iowa and Wisconsin, for instance) are among the nation's test-score laggards.”
Through the years, Oklahoma has enacted some important education reforms, but those mandating greater measurement and accountability have mostly been implemented in just the past few years, thanks in part to state schools Superintendent Janet Barresi.
Oklahoma now requires testing to prove high school seniors have at least a minimal level of competency before they can receive a diploma. The state now issues A-F report cards for each school site based substantially on student performance. Next year, third-graders will be required to be proficient in reading in order to advance.
Those reforms focus education policy on output (results) instead of solely on input (dollars). Many of these reforms were first implemented in Florida beginning in the late 1990s and have since generated impressive results.
The Harvard report notes that Florida had the second-steepest “overall growth trend” of the 41 states measured and was one of a group of four states where average student gains from 1992 to 2011 amounted to “better than two years of additional learning.” Florida was among the six states making “the most achievement gains for every incremental dollar spent over the past two decades.”
The Harvard report shows Oklahoma has much ground to make up in education. Thankfully, it also indicates we're on course for significant improvement that closes troubling achievement gaps.