Saturday, October 05, 2019

OCPA column: Getting exactly what we paid for?


Getting exactly what we paid for?
By Jonathan Small

In politics, policymakers often appear baffled that spending increases alone don’t usually change outcomes. Few seem to understand that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.

The latest example of this reality comes in Oklahoma’s school system, where massive spending increases are now being used to fund a long-used form of instruction that experts say is doomed to failure. Yet our public schools plow full steam ahead with the discredited method, regardless of results or taxpayer costs.

Oklahoma Watch recently reported that in classrooms across the state “students are taught to read using a theory that has been discredited by decades of research by brain scientists”—the “three-cueing theory” that formed the basis for “whole language” learning. Instead of being taught phonics-based reading instruction, children are encouraged to guess words based on surrounding cues, including pictures or other words.

The difference between phonics-based instruction and “three cueing” has been compared to the difference between knowing how to read and knowing how to pretend to read.

Test scores show that too many children in Oklahoma are not learning to read. In the 2018-2019 school year, 61 percent of the 53,472 third-grade students tested in Oklahoma public schools were found to be performing below grade level in English on state tests.

Over time, such results compound and turn into bigger problems. In the worst cases, the end result is a school-to-prison pipeline, as can be seen from the very high rate of illiterate people now behind bars in Oklahoma prisons.

Sadly, Oklahoma’s struggles with teaching children to read are nothing new. In 2008, former Sen. Earl Garrison, a Muskogee Democrat who had been a school administrator, wrote, “More than 20 percent of our state’s population, or nearly 400,000 people, can’t read.”

Subsequently, a third-grade reading law generated notable improvement in a short amount of time, but then lawmakers watered down that law to allow children to be socially promoted again even if they cannot read. That took the pressure off schools, and results have since plummeted again.

Then in 2018, policymakers told us that spending increases were needed to improve academic results, and that tax increases were required to boost spending. So they increased taxes and school spending at a historic clip, yet the most recent academic results on state tests showed either decline or stagnation.

Faced with that reality, status-quo education forces now simply respond: Increase our spending even more.

But if additional spending pays only to maintain a system of reading instruction that doesn’t teach children to read, then Oklahoma taxpayers will be left in a strange position. They’ll be hoping they don’t get what they paid for.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.

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