| April 1, 2010

Charting Oklahoma's Education Productivity Collapse

I was asked recently by OCPA's Brandon Dutcher to investigate the relationship between spending and student achievement in Oklahoma, and to chart the results as I've done for U.S. school spending and student achievement. The chart appeared last month in these pages, and is reprinted here.

For reasons I've never understood, the National Assessment of Educational Progress test results for students at the end of high school have never been broken down by state-they're only reported nationwide-so for the achievement measure I used the ACT. Oklahoma's participation rate in the ACT is high (between the mid 60s and low 70s), hasn't fluctuated wildly over time, and is not significantly correlated with its actual scores (I ran a regression to find out), so it's a reasonable measure. I've only carried it back to 1990 because the ACT was redesigned in that year, making the scores discontinuous.

Mr. Dutcher wrote a commentary on the matter which appeared last month in The Oklahoman, along with the chart. Some folks didn't like what the chart reveals, and so offered a variety of excuses for it in letters to the editor.

It is an unfailing characteristic of human nature that, when faced with evidence undermining their accomplishments or beliefs, people look first to excuses in the hope of deflecting the blow. So it was no surprise that one letter discounted Oklahoma's relatively flat ACT scores despite rising spending on the grounds that the ACT "was never meant" "as a tool for evaluating the success of the common education system." The only problem with this claim is that it's absolutely false. According to the official ACT publication The Sensitivity of the ACT to Instruction: "Consistent with [its co-founder's] intent, the ACT is an educational achievement test that measures the typical content and skills learned from college preparatory curricula. Consequently, the ACT can ... provide direct feedback to high school teachers about the effectiveness of their teaching."

Another excuse offered for Oklahoma's education productivity collapse is that student achievement is limited while "the amount of money that can be potentially spent on education has no limit." Oklahoma taxpayers will be pleased to learn they have limitless financial resources, but this is no defense of the status quo. If it was foolish to think in 1990 that spending 40 percent more on a state monopoly school system would substantially improve student learning, then the same is presumably true today.

While everybody likes to be right all the time, the strategies for approximating that desired state vary considerably in their effectiveness. The best is the one most famously touted (though not necessarily followed) by John Maynard Keynes: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" The sooner we adopt an education system that is actually effective and efficient, the sooner people can stop being wrong defending the current profligate monopoly.

Andrew J. Coulson is the director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute. He is the author of Market Education: The Unknown History.

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