Policymakers should stick with this system, even as they make necessary tweaks to improve its accuracy. Likewise, parents and community leaders must be savvy in their use of the letter grades. Test scores aren't the only criteria when looking at whether a school is serving children well. Different parents and communities reach different conclusions about the value of everything from fine arts offerings to the level of science instruction to the availability of after-school programming. The letter grade is one indicator among many, but it's an important one.
Third-grade reading: Reality check
No other education reform in recent years could have more impact on Oklahoma than the law requiring retention of third-graders with limited reading skills. That's why its efficient implementation is so crucial.
Under the law, students must pass tests showing they've achieved at least a second-grade reading level before advancing to the fourth grade. Sadly, too many students won't make that cut. Rather than continue social promotion, schools must instead be provided the resources to successfully implement this law and help lagging students catch up. We're not convinced those resources have been provided.
Lawmakers should carefully monitor implementation and address problem areas — whether that means adjusting strategies or increasing funding. When it comes to state spending decisions, teaching children to read should be a top priority. There are no do-overs for the young students the current system is failing; the negative consequences can be lifelong. Reading skills are vital in life, making smooth implementation of this law critical.
Teachers and funding: More support needed
The research on the importance of the classroom teacher is clear: No in-school factor is more critical. The impact of a good teacher can reap rewards for years. A bad teacher can quickly erase that impact.
The subject of teacher salaries is largely a political one. It shouldn't be. And it isn't the only solution for attracting and retaining more high-performing teachers to the classroom. Teachers need better preparation, particularly in urban settings. They also need more support once they're in the classroom. All of this costs money, both from new sources of funding and reprioritizing within existing budgets.
It's easy to look at how poorly Oklahoma fares on national rankings of school funding and be frustrated. Clearly, Oklahoma has plenty of room for improvement; students and teachers can't afford to do education reform on the cheap. Too much is at stake.
Perhaps it's also time to consider a governmental or at least a gubernatorial Cabinet structure that brings a more cohesive look at meeting all the needs of children. The educational success of children is profoundly affected by whether their other basic needs are met. Oklahoma ignores this reality at its own peril.
This state will overcome its severe education challenges only through painstaking teamwork at all levels. Academic success is the result of a partnership that reaches from homes to the state Capitol. Ongoing political posturing from all involved helps no one — certainly not students. Barresi and district superintendents must share the task of setting a new tone so the focus is on students and not on feuding adults.