LAST week's Greater Oklahoma City Chamber “State of the Schools” luncheon highlighted the vast gap between Oklahoma's education aspirations and current academic reality.
Glen Johnson, chancellor of the Oklahoma State System of Higher Education, noted college completion correlates with significantly higher income and opportunity. The unemployment rate for high school graduates is 9.7 percent, but just 4.9 percent for those with bachelor's degrees. Oklahoma is struggling in the college-degree race. Nationwide, 28.5 percent of adults have a college degree, but in Oklahoma, only 23.8 percent.
State officials want to increase the number of degree-bearing Oklahomans by 67 percent over a 12-year period. That's a worthy goal, but a daunting one.
The recently released ACT 2013 Condition of College and Career Readiness report found that just 23 percent of Oklahoma's graduating high school seniors demonstrated college and career readiness in four core subjects. Nationally, 26 percent met all four benchmarks.
This actually is a cause for celebration. Why? In 2008, just 17 percent of Oklahoma graduates were college ready. Increased student preparedness has coincided with education reforms, particularly implementation of state graduation standards and testing. It's hard to believe that this is only a coincidence.
Still, the ACT data shows boosting college completion rates ultimately requires improving Oklahoma's K-12 school system. That's especially true in Oklahoma City schools. The district has about 45,000 students, 90 percent of whom live near the poverty line. Nearly 17,000 don't speak English as their native language. In 2011, just 57 percent of district third-graders scored proficient on state reading exams.
Lynne Hardin, chairwoman of the Oklahoma City Board of Education, says the district can and will do better. She says the district's goal will be for every graduating senior to score a 22 on the ACT, noting studies show that 90 percent of those earning a living wage achieve that score or better.
Hardin says the goal requires setting high expectations and using data to drive spending decisions — no more throwing tax dollars at a “flavor of the week approach.” The district is increasing its focus on teacher quality and expanding student learning opportunities. Hardin said Oklahoma City schools will partner with Teach for America to provide free summer school to nearly 2,000 students.
“We're focusing on implementing initiatives that are measurable, effective and proven with outcomes,” she said. “And the ones that don't do that, we're going to eliminate them.”
Hardin is blunt in her assessment of long-standing education orthodoxies.
“We cannot continue to do what we've been doing and expect a different result,” she said. “This system was set up at the turn of not this past century, but the 1900s, not to educate anyone, but to take children out of the fields and go into an industrial revolution. Why are we cramming them into this same system that does not work?”
Hardin is correct: There should be no sacred cows. The goal of public education isn't to simply maintain schools and employ teachers, but to educate children and prepare them for productive adult life. Fortunately, Oklahoma City and state officials seem to recognize this fact; they appear committed to fostering improvement even in the face of often unreasonable opposition.
ACT scores prove Oklahoma's student performance is slowly but surely headed the right direction. It's up to voters and civic leaders to keep up the momentum. Our long-term prosperity depends upon it.