By Frank Keating and Scott Meacham
Copyright © 2014, The Oklahoma Publishing Company
This Republican and Democrat agree wholeheartedly on at least one thing: The quality of education in Oklahoma must improve dramatically. As the old saying goes, “the numbers don’t lie.”
Currently, 45.1 percent of Oklahoma’s students require some form of remediation before they’re ready to take regular college classes. According to ACT, only 35 percent of Oklahoma students who take the ACT are ready for college math and science coursework. This means two-thirds of students are unprepared. Embarrassingly, their high schools failed them.
This lack of preparedness isn’t just among college-bound students. According to NAEP statistics, only a fourth of Oklahoma’s eighth-graders are considered proficient in math versus one-third nationally. Twenty-nine percent are proficient in reading, which means that more than 70 percent don’t read adequately.
This year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave Oklahoma an “F” for academic achievement. Another failing grade was awarded the schools for the poor outcomes for low-income and minority students. Only 9 percent of African-American eighth-graders score at or above the proficient level in math.
It’s no small wonder that business leaders are shaking their heads at this state of affairs. Business depends on the state’s education system to supply a steady stream of adequately prepared workers with high school diplomas and college degrees. Yet we hear repeatedly from business leaders that high school graduates are woefully ill-prepared for the requirements of their jobs and that there just aren’t enough college graduates.
It appears policymakers, the education establishment and even a vocal minority of parents in Oklahoma are in a state of denial when it comes to what’s happening.
Policymakers took a few tepid steps at improving quality over the past few years by increasing course requirements, implementing high-stakes testing and adopting a grading system for individual schools. However, at the first sign of resistance, they began scrapping reforms and retreated to business as usual. Common Core: repealed. An end to social promotion: repealed.
Instead of studying and adopting best practices from around the country, the education establishment chose to attack the methodology used in grading their schools. They argue that too many schools are rated poorly, but it’s clear from the above statistics that there are a whole lot of “D” and “F” schools in Oklahoma.
What can be done? First, we must recognize that we have a serious problem and commit ourselves to correcting it. Next, we must stop the practice of lowering the bar so that no one fails. It’s OK for students who aren’t ready for promotion to the next level to be held back.
From a practical standpoint, we can build compensation systems to attract and retain outstanding teachers and principals while providing efficient systems to eliminate those that are substandard. Our current compensation system awards those who stick around the longest — without regard to merit. We also need to provide professional managerial training for administrators. Finally, we need to embrace higher curriculum standards. We will never be the best if we don’t aim for the top.
Once these structural problems are addressed, only then should we have a serious discussion about increasing funding. Oklahoma remains near the bottom in the nation on per-pupil expenditures for education. Clearly, we can’t underfund our way to excellence. But throwing money at a system that’s not working won’t change anything.
Education is too important for this state not to get it right.
Keating, a Republican, served as Oklahoma’s 25th governor. Meacham, a Democrat, was state treasurer under Keating’s successor, Brad Henry.