Dr. Jonathan Willner

Dr. Jonathan Willner is Professor and Chair of the Department of Economics and Finance at Oklahoma City University.

After considerable controversy and delay, the State Department of Education released its A-F report cards for all Oklahoma public schools in late October. According to the Department, “Oklahoma’s A-F School Grading System is based on the concept that parents and community members should be able to quickly and easily determine how schools are performing .”

Now that the grades are out, we need to ask: what it is that is being graded?  Teachers? Administrators? Not really. Careful analysis of the report cards reveals that a good part of what is being graded is the parents. It’s convenient to blame the schools, but a significant part of the grade of each school is driven by the socio-economic condition of the parents of the children in the school.

For years economic research and research in other fields has indicated, quite clearly, that the educational achievement of children is correlated with parental conditions (click here for a partial bibliography).  Basically, if a child comes from a well-educated, high income, stable, two-parent household, that child does well in school. A child with a single, poor parent with little education is likely to fair poorly in school. Economic research also indicates, quite clearly, that education and income increase together. 

With few exceptions, schools do not get to choose the parents of their students. Rather, the children simply appear and the task is to try to move them forward intellectually. Thus the tasks before any given teacher is likely to vary based on the socio-economic status of parents of the children.

When the school report cards were released, I decided to see if I could predict the grades based on some simple demographics associated with parents. That is, can I deduce a schools grade without reference to anything that might actually occur in the school? The answer is pretty much, “yes”. In fact I can accurately predict more than 50 percent of all schools’ grades without reference to anything under the control of a school.

How?

A commonly used statistical process called multivariate regression analysis was used. Multivariate regression looks for patterns in data and quantifies those patterns. For example, we assume that shoe size is related to age in children. Though there is variation in shoe size by age, if we want to see how much the shoe size is dependent upon age we might use regression to see what portion of shoe size is related to the age of the child and what is related to other factors. Once we have that numerical relationship we can use it to forecast any child’s shoe size. The technique is commonly used in many business and research activities. Though it’s never possible to perfectly predict a relationship, as we include more possible explanations we hope to get better predictions. By “better” we mean that we are right and closer to right with each effort .

In our analysis, a number of parental factors were used to predict a school’s grade: the number of single-parents in the district; students on free and reduced lunch at the school; school mobility (proportion of new students each year); educational attainment in the district, and the median household income in the district. None of these have anything to do with the actions of teachers and administers. Using this information, and only this information, it is possible to accurately predict 962 of 1,676 school grades – or 57 percent –  for which I had complete data. I correctly forecasted 574 of 824 (70 percent) of schools with a grade of “B” and 377 of 571 (66 percent) of schools with a grade of “C” (click here for school-level results on my analysis).

It turns out that it is quite possible to determine much of a school’s grade simply by knowing some basics characteristics of the parents of the children who attend it. Lots of single parents? Lower the grade. Lots of poor parents? Lower the grade. Lots of parents moving in and out of the district? Lower the grade. Lots of parents who didn’t finish high school? Lower the grade. The stated concept of  Oklahoma’s A-F School Grading System is that parents and community members should be able to quickly and easily determine how schools are performing . Yet the reality is that a good portion of the grade has nothing to do with the school and everything to do with the parents.

Now if we can just get our teachers to increase their students’ parent’s income, convince the parents to get and stay married, not move around, and make sure the parents are educated, then the schools will improve. But that’s not the teachers’ job. Their job is to do the best they can with what is before them and the resources they are provided.

So the State Department of Education in Oklahoma has represented schools and, by insinuation, teachers as failures in many places. The reality is that much of the perceived failure has nothing at all to do with the schools and teachers. It has to do with the socio-economic make-up of the students in the schools.

Rating or grading a school based on results that it can control makes a great deal of sense. Unfortunately, what the State Department of Education in Oklahoma has done is grade schools largely on what sort of parents are in the school district. This is laying the credit or blame for school performance in the wrong place.

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