Oklahoma education
(Kathryn Zittel)

With a teachers’ strike now looming and a state Legislature that appears incapable of figuring out how to fund a teacher pay raise, perhaps it’s time to have a serious conversation about education in Oklahoma. This needs to be a conversation regarding the type of education system that will best meet the needs of Oklahoma students, how much money such a system would cost, and how we can be sure that such a system will produce better outcomes for students and teachers than they currently receive.

Designing the system

As I have written elsewhere, Oklahoma’s public education system must focus on providing the skills needed for students to succeed in the 21st century. To do this, the system must meet three criteria:

First, it must provide individualized learning experiences to students. Moving students through curriculum and grades as though they are basically clones of one another is no longer sufficient. We know that individuals do not all learn information the same way, nor do they process it at the same pace. If we want each child to receive a “first-class” education, then we need to quit acting like that can happen with a one-size-fits-all approach. It can’t. To pretend it can is absurd.

Second, to provide such individualization, this system will have to provide more options to parents and students. Not only do students learn the same things at a different pace, they don’t learn as well in just one type of environment. Making a commitment to using tax dollars to provide our young people with a basic education should not mean that we have to limit the options available to one specific design.

Finally, it means having a system that rewards creativity, innovation and achievement. It has been well-documented that American education has become plagued with measurement. Standardized testing, outcomes measurements, college entrance-exam scores and more are constantly used to tell us how well our schools are performing. The reality is, however, we’ve created what economic historian Jerry Mueller calls a “tyranny of metrics.” This tyranny has taken our focus away from what is truly important. We’re forcing teachers to spend more time proving they are conforming to various measures than they spend actually teaching, and that’s no way to educate students.

Determining the cost

One of the most challenging aspects of designing an education system is determining what that system should cost. Both sides avoid this question if at all possible. Advocates of increased spending can tell you that Oklahoma is at the bottom of the list in spending on education, but they won’t tell you what the appropriate level of spending is.

Having said that, those who push back against significant increases in spending fail to offer any recommendation on spending levels, either. They point to instances of wasteful spending and make the case that greater efficiency is the answer without ever attempting to put a cost to the type of education they believe students should receive.

Until we get serious about determining the real cost of the education system we want to provide, we’ll continue to have political battles over funding.

Get the Legislature out of the education business

The more decisions made by the Legislature, the greater the political fights over education. The members of the Oklahoma Legislature are the last people who should determine graduation requirements, approve textbooks or curriculum, or set teacher salaries.

Not only would removing the Legislature’s authority over such matters reduce the number of political fights schools and students are caught between, it would also free schools to innovate in a variety of areas they are currently prevented from exploring. This freedom would allow schools to be more responsive to the needs of their student population as well as changing trends in demographics, technology and the economy.

Getting education out of the clutches of Republicans and Democrats at the State Capitol will only improve our education system. In turn, empowering school administrators and teachers to make the fundamental decisions regarding education will improve student outcomes as well as provide an environment in which teachers and administrators can be free to achieve their best.

This isn’t a short-term solution

The problem with education, like many issues, is that there isn’t a short-term fix. To accomplish real reform and measure success will take years, but the return on investment will be significant.

Creating a system in which teachers are compensated appropriately and freed to be the innovative professionals they can be, a system in which the resources to provide education are funded at appropriate levels, and a system that is focused in empowering students to achieve their potential will require patience and diligence. It will also require protecting it from political fights between politicians who think they know what kind of education your child needs.

Michael Porter, the director of Harvard Business School’s Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness once commented, “Good leaders need a positive agenda, not just an agenda of dealing with crisis.” Perhaps, in this current crisis over teacher compensation, leadership will emerge that can move us past this issue and develop a real agenda for education in Oklahoma. Our students, parents and teachers deserve it.