| November 7, 2011

Oklahoma's 'Best' School Districts Are Mediocre

The problems of Oklahoma City and Tulsa Public Schools are well known. What is much less understood is that many of Oklahoma’s affluent suburban districts are also badly in need of improvement.

Suburban school districts may be performing much better than their urban neighbors, but they are barely keeping pace with student achievement in other developed countries.

This surprising discovery of subpar outcomes in many affluent suburbs came to light as part of a large project we recently completed, called The Global Report Card. We compared student achievement in virtually every one of the nearly 14,000 U.S. public school districts against the performance of students in a group of 25 developed countries. All of the results are available at, so people can look up their own and other school districts to see how they are doing relative to students overseas.

If they looked up Oklahoma City, for example, they would confirm their suspicion that student achievement there is dreadfully low. In Oklahoma City, the average student is performing at the 22nd percentile in math relative to students in other developed countries. That means 78 percent of students in a typical developed country would be doing better than the average student in Oklahoma City.

But if they also looked up Edmond or Norman, they might be surprised to see that those districts, despite being among our most advantaged and presumably best public school districts, are struggling to do better than the average student in other developed countries.

In Edmond, the average student is only at the 47th percentile in math compared with students in our group of 25 developed countries. In Norman, the average student is at the 50th percentile.

These results are better than in Oklahoma City, but they are probably below what people might expect.

If students from those suburbs want to compete with students from all over the world for top-paying jobs

in our increasingly globalized economy, they need to be near the top of these international comparisons, not near the middle.

It is true that some affluent districts, such as Deer Creek at the 68th percentile, have strong math achievement relative to students in other developed countries.

But these pockets of excellence are hard to find and difficult to access.

The scarcity of excellent public school districts is not unique to Oklahoma. Out of the nearly 14,000 public school districts in the United States, only 6 percent have average student math achievement that would place them in the upper third of global performance.

Suburban parents need to awake from their complacency. Education reform is not only needed for large urban school districts. Most suburban school districts also need to improve. And who knows? If we get buy-in for serious reform among suburban elites, perhaps it will not only help suburban districts get better, but may also finally produce the improvement urban districts have long sought.

Jay P. Greene (Ph.D., Harvard University) is the 21st Century Professor of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas and a fellow at the George W. Bush Institute. His article “Oklahoma’s Education Myths” appeared in the August 2007 issue of Perspective.

Josh B. McGee (Ph.D., University of Arkansas) is vice president for public accountability initiatives at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

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