Greg Forster, Ph.D. | July 2, 2014

Oklahoma Public Schools: Worse than You Think

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

Yet another new study shows that Oklahoma public schools are worse than you think.

It’s not just schools in big cities that are behind. No matter how good a neighborhood you live in, your schools are almost certainly failing to keep up with the high educational standards being set in other leading nations. This shouldn’t be news; other data have been showing the same for years. But few things are as stubborn as the public’s insistence that it’s always somebody else’s public schools that are awful.

A newly released Harvard study hammers this home with a report bearing the provocative title, “Not Just the Problems of Other People’s Children.” The study compares the math scores of students in the 34 highly developed countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)—basically North America and Europe plus a few other countries like Japan and Australia. The study breaks out results by U.S. state, so we can see how Oklahoma is doing.

The bad news is that the U.S. is doing quite poorly compared to other developed nations. The U.S. ranks 27th out of 34 countries, with only 35 percent of students in the class of 2015 proficient in math. That’s compared to 65 percent in Japan, 59 percent in Korea, and 57 percent in Switzerland—the top three countries.

Disadvantaged students don’t explain the difference. For one thing, disadvantaged students in the U.S. overwhelmingly drop out of school; our national graduation rate fluctates from year to year but is always below 80 percent. So the students included in this study are already the more advantaged students. For another thing, among students who do remain in school, the same study finds that the U.S. does a worse job than most developed nations at educating the disadvantaged. Those in the class of 2015 whose parents had lower educational outcomes rank 20th among the 34 OECD nations. So don’t let anyone tell you disadvantaged students are dragging down our scores.

That’s the bad news. The worse news is that Oklahoma performs below even most U.S. states. Only 27 percent of the Oklahoma class of 2015 is proficient in math, ranking the state 43rd in the U.S. If Oklahoma were a country, it would rank 31st out of the 34 OECD nations. Its educational neighbors are Hungary (33 percent), Greece (24 percent) and Turkey (23 percent). Among students whose parents had low educational attainment, 10 percent of the Oklahoma class of 2015 were proficient; that’s 42nd in the U.S. and the equivalent of 29th in the OECD.

If this were just one study, it would be disturbing enough. But other studies like the Global Report Card (GRC) have been saying the same thing for years. Comparing U.S. school districts to 25 developed countries, the GRC found that Oklahoma City students scored at the 25th percentile in math and the 32nd percentile in reading. That means the average student in Oklahoma City performs more poorly than 75 percent of students in the typical developed nation in math, and below 68 percent of students in reading.

Think that’s bad? It gets worse. If you picked up Oklahoma City, airlifted it north and dropped it in Canada, it would be at the 17th percentile in math and the 23rd percentile in reading in that country.

Even Oklahoma’s most advantaged and presumably highest performing public school districts are actually close to average on the world stage. For example, consider Edmond (51st percentile in math, 58th in reading) and Norman (53rd in math, 59th in reading). Pick up these swanky school districts and airlift them to Canada, and they get even worse: Edmond would be 43rd in math, 49th in reading; Norman would be 46th in math and 50th in reading.

It’s an old problem: we’re all biased in favor of our own neighborhood schools. It’s partly local pride. Like all human beings, I want to feel good about the community I live in. There’s nothing wrong with that impulse, but a century of government monopoly schooling has taught us to equate “good neighborhood” with “good schools.” When children are assigned to schools by ZIP code rather than by parental choice, the distinction between neighborhood and school is blurred. Local pride creates an irrational bias to think that “our” schools must be good.

Even more, it’s because parents would feel guilty admitting they’re sending their kids to schools that aren’t as good as they ought to be. Logically, there’s no reason it should shame parents to say that the government monopoly has trapped them in a broken system. But emotionally, no one wants to be the first to stand up and say, “I’m sending my kid to a school that’s shortchanging her, and it’s long past time the politicians in Oklahoma City did something about that!” It feels irresponsible. This problem is itself one reason it’s horribly perverse to give government a school monopoly. It makes us feel like we can’t admit the system is failing without being failures ourselves.

These problems may be exacerbated in Oklahoma because it’s a relatively white and rural state. Our cultural image of “failing schools” seems to have been set in stone way back in the 1980s with movies like “Lean on Me.” It’s only the poor, black, inner-city schools that fail. White schools don’t fail. Suburban and rural schools don’t fail. So Oklahoma schools can’t be falling way behind the world curve, consigning our kids to second-class citizenship in the global economy. That kind of thing only happens to dark people.

Education reformers, unfortunately, have spent decades reinforcing this prejudice. We’ve typically used only one measurement of what counts as success in education reform: reducing the “achievement gap” between white, suburban schools and minority, urban schools. The unconscious assumption is that if a school is white and suburban, it must be succeeding. That kind of school must represent the best that American education is capable of. But why? Because it’s white and suburban?

It’s past time we quit turning a blind eye to the failures of our own public schools just because they’re our own. And it’s long, long past time we quit turning a blind eye to the failures of predominantly white schools just because they’re predominantly white. Oklahoma, your public schools are worse than you think—like those of every other state in the nation. If you don’t embrace real reforms with a proven track record, like school choice, your children will not achieve the potential that the global economy opens for them.

Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a senior fellow with the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. His research has appeared in the peer-reviewed publications Teachers College Record and Education Working Paper Archive, and his articles on education policy have appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and numerous other publications.


How Does Your School District Stack Up Internationally?

The Global Report Card (GRC), which Greg Forster discusses in the nearby article, allows parents and taxpayers to see how their local school district stacks up internationally.

As GRC authors Jay P. Greene and Josh B. McGee explain, the GRC “enables users to compare academic achievement in math and reading for virtually every public school district in the United States with the average achievement in a set of 25 other countries with developed economies that might be considered our economic peers and sometime competitors.”

The math achievement of the average student in the Jenks school district, for example, is at the 45th percentile relative to the international comparison group. In other words, one of Oklahoma’s better districts produces students with math performance below that of the typical student in the average developed country. This despite the fact that “the comparison is to all students in the other countries, some of which have a per-capita gross domestic product that is almost half that of the United States,” Greene and McGee say.

Here’s another way to look at it. If you picked up the Jenks school district and dropped it into Canada, the average Jenks student would be at the 37th percentile in math. If you dropped it into Singapore, the average Jenks student would be at the 27th percentile in math.

Here’s how some other Oklahoma school districts stack up. To see how your school district performs, visit

–Brandon Dutcher

Greg Forster, Ph.D.


Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He has conducted numerous empirical studies on education issues, including school choice, accountability testing, graduation rates, student demographics, and special education. The author of nine books and the co-editor of six books, Dr. Forster has also written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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