Greg Forster, Ph.D. | December 8, 2017

Oklahoma’s ESSA plan

Greg Forster, Ph.D.

By Greg Forster

Oklahoma has submitted its mandatory education plan to the federal government. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the federal government must approve the state’s plan as a condition of federal funding. More than anything else, Oklahoma’s plan illustrates the bankruptcy of both the moribund Old Guard of educational special interests and the New Guard of education reformers who focus on the federal government.

If you want to see a stark visual representation of everything that’s gone wrong with education policy, go to the state’s website and download the full 218-page, eight-year strategic plan. Throughout the document, the bright, photogenic images and superficial, focus-group-tested buzzwords favored by the professional education reformers who run the ESSA regime collide over and over again with dense, esoteric clouds of opaque legalese, emitted—like ink from an octopus—by education special interests protecting their budgetary turf from scrutiny.

The document even has two title pages. The first is slick and professionally designed: a gorgeous, full-page image of a little girl with her hand over her heart is juxtaposed with the title under which the plan is being marketed—Oklahoma EDGE—in the form of a branded logo, like Pepsi or Google. The second title page is plain white with nothing on it but a little bit of text and the state education department’s logo. This page delivers the plan’s legal (i.e., actual) title, which is: “Revised State Template for the Consolidated State Plan: The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act.” Try making a branded logo out of that.

This visual bifurcation reflects the substantive bifurcation of the plan itself. The document begins with four Pillars, then presents six Goals, then six Initiatives. The comprehensive train wreck of education policy in our time can be mapped out by understanding how these pieces relate to one another.

The Pillars are broad principles or aspirations for improving education, such as “Achieve Academic Success” and “Build Exceptional Educators and Schools.” Each of these Pillars is composed of several Strategies (e.g., “Strategy 1.6: Enable Oklahoma’s students to benefit fully from digital-age teaching and learning”). Like horoscopes and fortune cookies, these Pillars and Strategies are designed to sound grand while remaining so vague that they can be interpreted in almost any way that happens to fit your particular preferences.

The purpose of this vagueness becomes clear when we compare the six Goals with the six Initiatives. The Goals, most of which are highly specific and relate at least somewhat to real educational outcomes, were written to satisfy the professional reformers who run the federal ESSA regime. The Initiatives, which describe the things Oklahoma will do to achieve the Goals, were written to satisfy the state’s education bureaucracy.

The Goals and the Initiatives have, so far as I can tell, absolutely nothing to do with one another. This fact is an indictment of both the Old Guard and the New.

Let’s start with what’s wrong with the Old Guard. The state’s six Goals are mostly (we’ll come back to that later) laudable stuff as far as they go. Oklahoma wants to be in the top 20 states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a good indicator of basic achievement; be in the top 10 states for high school graduation rates; reduce English and math remediation after high school by 50 percent; and so on.

However, the Initiatives are mostly geared toward feeding the bureaucracy additional money. They focus on the kind of programs that have never produced evidence of improving academic outcomes. The principle guiding the initiatives seems to be not “what will accomplish the Goals?” but “what are the most politically feasible ways of increasing our budgets?”

Some state media have focused, for example, on the plan’s hearty appetite for expanding free meal programs. As the plan states: “Oklahoma’s goal is to increase participation of eligible schools providing free meal access to all students from 34% to 75% by 2025 … In 2016, the OSDE [i.e., the state education department] served more than 35 million breakfasts in Oklahoma and, through alternative methods, seeks to increase participation 20% by 2025 … In 2016, the number of meals served in the summer was 1,438,852. Oklahoma’s goal is to increase this number by 30% by 2025.”

Just for a moment, set aside that this is an increasing encroachment of state bureaucracy upon the family in one of its most intimate functions—providing our daily bread. And never mind that taxpayers are not exactly awash in spare funds for this sort of thing.

Consider instead that public schools in the U.S. have been offering more and more meals for students for two generations, and there is not even a hint of a demonstrated link between increasing meal coverage in schools and educational outcomes. Despite the plan’s assertions (in which an ill-defined concept of “food insecurity” is conflated with actual hunger) the track record has produced no reason to think that there is any link between this kind of program and the outcomes (test scores, graduation rates) the state purports to care about.

If families in Oklahoma are so broken down that they’re not feeding their kids, by all means let’s have a robust public examination of that problem and discuss constructive approaches to it. But let’s not just allow the state to build a bigger and bigger empire of unaccountable school spending on the backs of those families by waving around transparently bogus suggestions that serving breakfast raises test scores.

It’s noteworthy that the state has set such specific targets for increased meal-related largesse. Clearly, the people who wrote the plan want to make sure that these are not just vague sentiments. They want to make sure spending is actually increased by large amounts.

Even those few aspects of the state system that are germane to its alleged Goals are sometimes moved in the wrong direction by the ESSA plan. The statewide A-F school-grading system remains, but is no longer closely tied to test scores. Instead, state bureaucrats will invent a complex formula to grade schools based on many factors. That’s not a recipe for a strong grading system; it’s an invitation to grade manipulation and watered-down standards.

Ironically, just as school grades are being decoupled from test scores, the state’s testing system has been greatly improved. Students are now taking fewer and better tests, both of which represent an improvement. The new tests are based on independent “norm-referenced” standards that can’t be manipulated or watered down by politicians, and can be used to compare Oklahoma students directly to the rest of the nation. Requiring all high school students to take the SAT or ACT, in lieu of the seven—yes, seven—annual state tests they used to take, is a vast improvement.

This total disconnect between the plan’s Goals and Initiatives demonstrates a deep contempt for the ESSA reformers in Washington. It shows that the people who wrote the Oklahoma plan know that they will never be held responsible for meeting the Goals. And they don’t care who knows they know.

All this indictment of the Old Guard, for putting their own voracious desire for money and power ahead of real educational reform, is also an indictment of the New Guard. The professional education reformers, frustrated by decades of limited results from state activism, got impatient and decided to take a shortcut to power through Washington, D.C. But the Constitution’s federalist system, and the striking Left/Right political coalition suspicious of federal meddling in schools, really will not allow Washington to exercise the level of control the reformers want.

The end result is this ridiculous dance where Oklahoma has to submit a 218-page “eight-year strategic plan” for change and reform … under which it will continue to do the same thing it has done for decades: dump truckloads of money into expensive programs with no proven or even probable relationship to education outcomes. Which is exactly what the professional reformers have spent decades trying to stop the system from doing. Welcome to Wonderland.

I say these things repentantly. In 2002, I was among those who hoped for good things from ESSA’s forerunner, the No Child Left Behind Act. I said at the time: as long as the federal government throws huge amounts of money at schools anyway, why not get something in return? While that law did include some constructive elements (increased transparency in state reporting of data, for example), it was on the whole a failure, for reasons that have been clear for years now. ESSA is an attempt to avoid learning the obvious lessons.

Personally, I think the New Guard also fails in deeper ways that are visible in the Goals. An excessive focus on quantitative outcomes (test scores, graduation rates) has displaced the wider set of goals that parents generally favor for their children—wisdom, character formation, good citizenship. Faddish notions like an individual career plan for every student reveal the federal reformers’ superficial and materialistic ideas of what education is for. Widespread opposition to accountability reforms arises not only from anger over Washington interference but also from a sense that children are being reduced to interchangeable widgets by small-minded people to whom schools are essentially factories, manufacturing docile workers for big corporations.

One thing is clear, though—whatever goals we set for education, there should be a clear connection between our goals and our actions. For two generations, the Old Guard has pledged allegiance to academic outcomes while diverting more and more spending to programs that have no visible effect on those outcomes. The New Guard, far from pulling the school system’s actions back into alignment with its professed goals, has created a system in Washington that only drives schools’ goals and actions further apart.

Greg Forster (Ph.D., Yale University) is a Friedman Fellow with EdChoice. He is the author of six books, including John Locke’s Politics of Moral Consensus (Cambridge University Press, 2005), and the co-editor of four books, including John Rawls and Christian Social Engagement: Justice as Unfairness. He has written numerous articles in peer-reviewed academic journals as well as in popular publications such as The Washington Post and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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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