Kathy McKean is the director of the Oklahoma Technical Assistance Center, which provides evaluation and professional development to Oklahoma schools.
The drive to improve education that began with the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983 has continued for three decades. Education in Oklahoma schools in 2013 is far different than it was thirty years ago. Broad changes have been instituted in curriculum, assessment, teacher credentialing, school administration, and funding. The degree of local control of schools has changed dramatically as the Oklahoma Legislature instituted state standards for what is taught, by whom, and the ways in which effectiveness is measured.
A new report conducted by the Oklahoma Technical Assistance Center for Oklahoma Policy Institute describes Oklahoma’s educational reform efforts since 1980 and the impact of those reforms. The key event in generating significant reform was House Bill 1017, passed in 1990. Most references to this law in the popular press and government reports refer to it as “Oklahoma’s landmark education reform legislation.” However, other reform legislation predated HB1017; these included House Bill 1706 in 1980 which addressed teacher education, certification, and professional development and House Bill 1816 in 1982, which was a “back-to-basics” bill that also increased high school graduation requirements.
The first part of the report lists and briefly describes all reform legislation since 1980. The Oklahoma Legislature makes a lot of changes each year; just listing and briefly describing these laws required 15 pages. Reforms have touched every area of education – finance, administration, the qualifications of teachers and administrators, curriculum, early childhood, alternative learning environments, assessments, class sizes, parent involvement, and counseling. Some of the reforms have been major, involving the restructuring of state agencies or votes of the people on funding issues; some have been small, initiating pilot programs or forming task forces to study problems. Some have been lasting; others have been abandoned the year after they were initiated. Reform efforts often addressed the same topics; recurring themes include school consolidation, early-grade reading, teacher quality, academic rigor, and utilizing assessment data for school improvement. All of these reform efforts were initiated with the hope of improving education for Oklahoma’s young people.
There have been so many reforms that it is impossible to state with certainty which ones have worked and which have not. It is easier to assess the impact of programs for programs with evaluation reports (Oklahoma’s Promise, Oklahoma Parents As Teachers, alternative education, early childhood education). The first three of these programs have ample evidence of positive impact, as reviewing their effectiveness was built into the design of the programs. Although evaluation studies were not built into the early childhood education program, studies have shown that it has a positive effect on the school readiness of young children.
For comprehensive programs such as implementing a state curriculum, the effects are so diffuse that they are difficult to sort out. To our knowledge, no studies have been conducted of most of the reforms instituted over the past three decades. No specific cause and effect studies have been conducted. To determine the effectiveness of these broad reform efforts, we reviewed Oklahoma’s overall standing and its progress over time in comparison with its own past and the progress of the rest of the nation.
The problem with this approach is that it assumes that all reforms are productive, that each one adds value. It may well be, however, that positive effects of one group of reforms are masked by counterproductive effects of a separate set of reforms. There is simply no way to know. The statewide student information system will, no doubt, make it easier to evaluate the effectiveness of specific reforms in the future. Having the data that makes it easy to conduct statistical analyses is one thing; actually conducting those analyses is another. If we are to competently judge the effectiveness of reforms, conducting evaluation studies should be built into the system.
So, where are we now, after three decades of education reform? Oklahoma ranks near the bottom in per-student education funding, yet our rankings in other areas are much higher. Rankings on policy inputs tend to be high (1st in public pre-K programs, 13th in teacher quality, 9th in the quality of curriculum standards). Despite our lower per-student funding and higher proportions of low-income students, Oklahoma tends to rank in the middle of the pack on student outcome measures (22nd in dropout rate, 26th in graduation rate, and slightly below the national means on the ACT and NAEP assessments). In 2008, Education Week ranked the states on 150 indicators of education reform and achievement; Oklahoma was in the middle of the pack with a grade of “C.”
One could conclude that Oklahoma “gets a lot of bang for its buck” or that Oklahoma has a very long way to go if its children are to be among the best-educated in the country. Both conclusions are valid. The question is, where do we go from here? We can continue adding reform after reform, but a lesson from our own history may be instructive. In 1989-90, a broad-based coalition of state leaders took the time to create a long-term plan for improving Oklahoma’s schools; those plans eventually made their way into House Bill 1017. Twenty years later, it may be time to step back and create a long-term, comprehensive plan for education in Oklahoma.
Click here for the full report and executive summary.