Do schools matter?

516694_70475120In a report released last month (and summarized on our blog here), researchers at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University found major flaws in Oklahoma’s A-F grading system for schools. The Fallin administration recently jumped to the defense of the A-F grades by zeroing in on a single claim by the report. The researchers wrote:

Should school performance be based solely on student standardized test results? To some, it sounds reasonable that it should. However, multiple examinations of the sources of variation in student test performance reveal that more than 70 percent is due to non-school causes.

Gov. Fallin’s spokesperson Alex Weintz argued that this claim “undermines the advocates of public education who believe it is worth investing in and improving.” Governor Fallin’s Education Secretary Robert Sommers wrote an op-ed devoted entirely to this point.

In some ways this is a straw man argument. Gov. Fallin has not responded to the many other findings in the report, which raised serious questions about the A-F grades’ methodology and their usefulness for determining school quality. The discussion about whether schools matter is an attempt to change the subject rather than meaningfully engage with A-F critics.

Even so, the question of whether schools can overcome the effects of poverty is important. In Oklahoma, nearly 1 in 4 children live in poverty, and almost two-thirds (61 percent) of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches because they come from low-income families.  Low-income students are the majority in our state, and they are falling far behind the other 39 percent of Oklahoma kids. 

In 2013, Oklahoma 4th graders received an average score of 217 on the NAEP Reading Test; this was 5 points below the national average of 222. But the achievement gap within the state was far larger. Low-income students earned an average score of 208, which was 22 points below the 230 average for wealthier kids. That gap is mirrored nationwide. Across the US, low-income 4th graders scored an average of 207 on NAEP reading tests, as wealthier kids made an average score 236. Math scores show a similar divide.


The reasons for the gap are numerous. Kids from poor families often have less educated parents who may not be able to help as much with learning at home. They don’t have as much access to tutors or educational experiences like trips to a museum. They may struggle with food insecurity; it’s much harder to concentrate in class while hungry. Kids in poor neighborhoods are also more likely to be exposed to dangerous pollutants like lead, which can severely harm a growing brain.

Faced with this reality, the research consensus still finds that great teachers make a difference. Non-school causes may control 70 percent of test results, but being responsible for 30 percent of student performance is a big deal! As education writer Dana Goldstein summed it up:

High-performing teachers are consistently able to raise the test scores of even the poorest children … Five years of great teachers in a row, therefore, could raise a student’s test scores by ten to twenty points. Whether this potential growth is incidental or transformative depends on where a student starts out: if he began at the twentieth percentile in reading, he’d still be failing; a jump from the seventieth percentile to the ninetieth could make him a candidate for selective colleges.

What’s more, educational improvements that help low-income kids are not likely to be denied to wealthier students, so schools face a moving target. As the chart shows above, test scores for Oklahoma’s low-income students have steadily increased over the past decade. It just hasn’t been enough to significantly reduce the achievement gap. This year many schools saw their grades fall even as their students’ performance increased. Superintendent Barresi justified this with rhetoric about “higher standards”, but the effect in schools is to demoralize hard-working educators who are making a difference.

Certainly we should work to develop reliable measures of school quality and invest in what works. But since the achievement gap is the biggest problem facing Oklahoma schools, we should be very concerned about a finding of the A-F study that has gotten much less attention. According to the researchers: “Letter grades hide low test performance of poor and minority children. Consistently across the three subject areas (reading, math, and science), minority and poor children tested highest in ‘D’ and ‘F’ schools and lowest in ‘A’ and ‘B’ schools.”

An effective A-F grading system would focus our attention on the achievement gap, not hide it. By going to political war against the research, Governor Fallin and Superintendent Barresi are missing a chance to make schools work better for everyone.

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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.

2 thoughts on “Do schools matter?

  1. I am disappointed that you perpetuate the myth of ‘three good teachers.’ This has been spread by economists, not educators or education researchers. And it is the core of the ‘fire the bad teachers’ mantra of ‘reformers’.

    The lastest study was discussed in Diane Ravitch’s new book; her conclusion? “…the authors may have confused correlation with causation.”

    Quoting Bruce Baker: “What this boils down to is that a student can get a lifetime boost of $5 a week if we now spend billions of dollars on value-added rating systems. Maybe. Maybe not.”

    Even Goldstein admits the ‘effect’ of a teacher is somewhere between 5% and 25%…and yet teachers are given 100% of the burden.

  2. I teach college students who cannot, after six weeks of review, correctly identify the subject of verb. These are the people our schools are graduating. They have been very poorly served by teachers who are trained that grammar is not important and by a system that believes language learning is too expensive. Grades are trivial; what are we teaching? What content? What are the standards, and how will we measure them? These are the issues. Instead, Fallin has chosen to argue over a sentence in a report.

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