Guest Blog (John Thompson): Why Oklahoma cannot afford to put children in silos

John Thompson is an education writer currently working on a book about his experience teaching for 18 years in the inner city of OKC. He has a doctorate from Rutgers University and is the author of  Closing the Frontier:  Radical Responses in Oklahoma Politics.

The last generation has seen the rise of education reform. This movement brought a profound sense of urgency to improving our schools, arguing that it is essential for the United States’ survival in the global marketplace. Consequently, reformers argue that data-driven accountablity, as well as an unflinching focus on classroom instruction, are more than a tough-love program for schools. They are the key to prosperity in the 21st century.

Counter-arguments by teachers and social scientists that “schools alone” can not overcome the deficits that many children bring to the classroom were seen as “excuses.” Attitudes hardened, and it became an article of faith that increasing student performance must be based on measurable improvements in teaching and learning within the four walls of the classroom.

The motives of this new generation of school reformers are righteous, but they have it backwards. America can no longer afford to separate education, health, and social services into separate silos. Since NCLB, our schools have focused on the narrow portions of children’s brains that are used for standardized test-taking. Tens of billions of dollars have been gambled on data-driven “reform,” and they have produced minimal gains in student performance.

But those costs could threaten our economic future. For instance, a recent discussion of obesity rates during NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show provided a glimpse at the “opportunity costs” of our ill-fated experiment with test-driven accountability. Similarly, it is hard to read the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s “F as in Fat” report without wishing the effort devoted during the last two decades to raise test scores had been directed towards teaching healthy lifestyles.

More than a third of our children are overweight, and less than a third engage in vigorous daily activity. But the trends are even more frightening. Fifteen years ago, no state had an obesity rate in excess of 19.4 percent. Now, the state with the least obesity has a rate of 19.8 percent. America’s obesity rate is projected to reach 50 percent by 2030.

Obesity kills more than 110,000 Americans every year. Our annual bill for obesity-related health costs is $150 billion per year. We will be paying $450 billion in additional Medicare costs in the next decade due to obesity. But only 10 percent of elementary school children have daily physical education.

The trends in Oklahoma are even worse. In 2010, 31 percent of adult Oklahomans were obese, and 67 percent were obese and overweight. Only 31 percent of Oklahomans engaged in exercise off the job. Our diabetes rate was rate 11 percent, and 41 percent of Oklahoman adults had hypertension. Oklahoma was #1 in the lowest percentage of adults who consume fruits and vegetables daily, and second from the bottom in the percentage of mothers who breast feed exclusively.

The most frightening thing about the trends is that Oklahoma has declined at such fast rates in so many crucial areas. Fifteen years ago, we were 40th in the rate of adult obesity, but now we are #7, meaning that we have gotten fatter faster than any other state in the nation. In 1995, Oklahoma was #49 in diabetes rates but now we are #6, meaning that we have had the nation’s second highest rate of increase. Fifteen years ago, Oklahoma was #30 in hypertension, but now we are #6, meaning we have had the fourth highest increase in the nation.

Unfortunately, prospects for Oklahoma’s students are no brighter. The Annie E. Casey Foundation “Kids Count” data book compiles a list of ten key indicators of healthy children. In 2000, Oklahoma ranked 40th in the nation in terms of those indicators. By 2008, we had dropped to 44th. Our state was in the middle of the pack in regard to a few of risk factors, and the economic challenges faced by our adults were not nearly as formidable as those in other states with similar challenges. But Oklahoma was 45th in Infant Mortality, 45th in Child Mortality, 47th in Child Deaths, 40th in Teen Deaths, and 43rd in Child Poverty.

I could go on. Some parts of the nation, it might be argued, are rich enough to leave no child untested and still have time and money for children’s health. In Oklahoma, however, we have no such luxury. We must hold the accountability hawks accountable. We need a tough-minded cost benefit analysis of teaching to a narrow part of the brain, neglecting the whole child, and then calling upon the separate parts of our fragmented and tattered social safety net to clean up afterwards.

Then we must reconsider the energy, time, and money devoted to aligning data systems, tests, and punitive evaluation systems. Those resources must be directed to the alignment of our human capital. To do that, we must unite all of our community resources into a team effort, without regard to whether providers call themselves educators, health care professionals, or social workers.

The opinions stated above are not necessarily those of OK Policy, its staff, or its board. This blog is a venue to help promote the discussion of ideas from various points of view and we invite your comments and contributions. To see our guidelines for blog submissions, click here.


Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

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