Wednesday, November 6, 2013
By Robert Sommers
The Oklahoma Legislature established a school-by-school A-F grading system in 2011. The system is designed to provide parents and communities with a clear understanding of how well their schools are doing.
A group of researchers at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University have decided to oppose the A-F school grading system because they consider it unfair.
Unfortunately, their sense of what is fair is based on flawed thinking about educational quality and gives little credit to great educators.
Particularly troubling is their claim that schools have little influence over student performance. The study criticizes the grading system — designed to give parents an easily understood measurement of school quality — arguing that it is unfair to hold schools accountable for student performance.
In fact, the authors argue that the effect of public schools on student test results is only "between 20 and 30 percent." In other words, schools are not, by and large, responsible for good student performance; nor are they responsible for bad performance.
By arguing that schools have little effect on student performance, the report's authors undermine the advocates of public education. The report marginalizes the many great teachers and administrators who defy challenging circumstances like poverty to work successfully with children to deliver high-quality results.
Take, for example, Will Rogers High School in Tulsa. Seventy-eight percent of the students at Will Rogers receive free or reduced-price lunches, a benefit available to families who earn less than 185 percent of the national poverty level. The opponents of the A-F grading system argue that students in a school like this are doomed to failure.
Good teaching and a supportive community, however, have proven just the opposite: 90 percent of Will Rogers students test proficient in math and over 87 percent are proficient in reading, well above the state average. If good teachers and teaching strategies have as small an effect on student results as the OU/OSU report argues, high-end results like these should be impossible.
The report has also done harm to the argument that financially investing in public schools will result in better education for Oklahoma students.
Last year, Gov. Mary Fallin worked with the state Legislature to appropriate $90 million of new money to K-12 education. Those funds are being used to support reform efforts, support teachers, and put more resources in the classroom.
That funding increase was supported by Fallin and the Legislature because they believe more resources, when properly used, lead to better schools and, in turn, better student performance.
The OU/OSU report rejects that notion. It argues for the irrelevancy of public schools in general. It reports on the current condition of education, not on its potential. It encourages educators to give up on students who lead challenged lives. It ignores the incredible power of teachers, administrators, and schools who believe all students can learn.
This study's arguments could negatively impact public school advocates during the upcoming state budget process. Resources are limited and competition is fierce.
To be clear, Gov. Fallin will continue to advocate for more public education funding — as additional money becomes available — that focuses on boosting student performance. Her cause, however, is being actively undermined by the OU/OSU report that argues that public education is not responsible — indeed, not even capable — of delivering better results for students.
Luckily, most Oklahomans don't agree with this report. Great educators don't either.
In all of our schools, regardless of income level or demographics, great teachers are making a difference in the lives of their students. The governor and I believe good teachers and good schools deliver good results.
We also believe parents deserve to know exactly what kind of education their children are receiving. And we think that if a school is failing, we need to know so it can be improved.
That's why we support the A-F grading system. It is a tool that will improve — not undermine — Oklahoma's public schools. Educators, lawmakers and parents should work together to ensure it succeeds.
Robert Sommers is Oklahoma secretary of education and workforce development and director of the Oklahoma Department of Career and Technology Education.