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‘Report Card on American Education’ a mixed bag for Oregon

Last month, ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, published its 19th annual Report Card on American Education.  Its focus was on education for low-income children–defined as children on subsidized or free school lunches.  These students have few school choice options and little hope of escaping a life of poverty. In America today, 88 percent of prison inmates are unable to read at third grade levels.

The report card was mixed.

Although the left and the unions are committed to the notion that school outcomes are a function of public expenditures on traditional public schools, ALEC analysts claim there is little evidence of that in the research literature.  The left and the unions are also committed to the position that teacher college training is essential to good teaching. But again, there is little evidence that degrees in teaching can consistently be mapped to better teaching outcomes.

On the other hand, there is increasing evidence that training in the fields the teachers are teaching does contribute to better educational outcomes.  ALEC recommends that retired professionals in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields who would like to teach part time in public schools should be encouraged to do so.

Twenty years ago, most people across the political spectrum were convinced that the failure of lower-income students to learn basic reading and math was due to the problems associated with single parent families and poverty. There is now enough data from successful school choice programs to show that poor children can be taught and can perform at the levels of other higher income children.  The problems with weaker families do not need to be solved before we can solve the educational problems.  Stronger education will, in and of itself, build stronger families.

Both public charters and private school options were an important factor in all states which showed significant improvement, including Indiana, Florida, Louisiana, and the District of Columbia.  Even within states like Massachusetts and Maryland, which rank very high for student achievement, a higher percentage of children attend private schools because their parents can afford to send them.  The rich always have school choice. Even middle class public school teachers are three times as likely as other people to send their own children to private schools.

What is so impressive is that Washington, D.C.—perhaps the lowest income “state” in the survey—has become a success story.  Forty-three percent of D.C. students are now in public charter schools, and the number of low-income D.C. public charter school students showing basic or better math skills in the eighth grade has increased from 33 percent to 68 percent since 2005.  These charters have not undermined the traditional district schools. D.C. district schools have increased the number of students demonstrating basic or better math skills from 28 percent to 47 percent.

What of Oregon?

In 2009, Oregon’s overall ALEC rating was 32nd among the 50 states. By 2011, we had dropped to 40th.   Our graduation rate is 76.3 percent, and despite the fact that there is one full-time employee for every seven students in Oregon, average class size is 20.6.

Still, Oregon is showing encouraging signs of success. Thanks to the pressure from No Child Left Behind, standardized NAEP tests in reading and mathematics are given to all public school fourth graders and eighth graders. ALEC shows that Oregon children in “large urban districts” have improved their test results by 12 months, i.e. from fourth month third grade to fourth month 4th grade—the largest gain of its kind in the nation.

According to ALEC, “‘large urban districts’ in Oregon translates to Portland, so bully for them.” This is real progress.  Unfortunately, the percentage of math proficiency for all Oregon fourth graders is 35 percent, and so the state as a whole is still in the bottom quintile of the nation.  And thus far, the gains in fourth grade testing among low-income students seem to be lost by the eighth grade.

Oregon is one of a handful of states not to have made significant progress between 2003-2013 in eighth grade math skills for all students.  Still, among the free and reduced lunch students, 23 percent of Oregon students were ranked proficient.  That is better than the 20 percent national level.

According to the ALEC report, Oregon needs far more school choice and more openness to pedagogical innovation. These are unsurprising recommendations for a state in which the teachers unions seem to control so much of the political process.

What Oregon does not need are more administrators or more state regulations restricting the ability of teachers to teach and principals to experiment with the many new ways to run schools.

An earlier version of this story was originally published in the U-Choose Education Bulletin.

Featured image from Shutterstock 

Chana Cox, Ph.D.

Chana Cox Ph.D. is a Lewis and Clark Senior Lecturer Emerita. She has a Ph.D. from Columbia University in philosophy and a B.A. from Reed in mathematics. At Lewis and Clark she taught courses in philosophy, history, business, political science and the core. Her published works include Liberty: God's Gift to Humanity, Reflections on the Logic of the Good, and A River Went out of Eden.

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