COMMENTARY: School Spending Up, Student Achievement Flat

OKLAHOMA CITY — Every year in the local Gridiron show — a charity roast of local, state, and national politicians — one of the most popular routines is a knock-off of the old “Carnac the Magnificent” skits Johnny Carson did on The Tonight Show.

“Gridnac” is given an envelope, then guesses the question hidden inside before opening it to see if he is right (which he always is). Every single year, for a long spell now, one magical answer is this: “Boy, the Dallas Cowboys really suck this year.” Inside the envelope, there is … no question. 

Changing the subject now to public policy … 

Answer: Higher spending in real terms, and classroom mediocrity, in every objective measurement.

Question: What have taxpayers, parents, and students — nationwide and in Oklahoma — received in return for almost five decades of an open checkbook for school expenditures?  

In last winter’s Oklahoma City school board elections, the most effective  paid advertisements were those that emphasized low scores, for many city schools, on the much-maligned A-F school grading system

Having heard many arguments against those grades, citizens who cared enough to vote decided the assessments were pretty much on target. They swept out a two-term board president and replaced her with a passionate critic of the way things are. 

Recent news stories have called attention to slight drops in taxpayer funding for America’s government-run schools over the last couple of years. Defenders of the status quo tout this as the reason student achievement remains lackluster in U.S. public schools. But there is no question: For at least five decades, too many schools have been failing taxpayers, parents, students, communities, and the nation. 

In May, The Wall Street Journal reported, “Education officials say decreased spending will make it more difficult to prepare U.S. students for an increasingly competitive global marketplace. Some critics argue that public education costs are skyrocketing while academic achievement has not kept pace. They want the system overhauled before more money is spent.”  

The exception (a slight decline in education spending recently) by no means disproves the rule (public education spending has grown significantly over the last half century of American history). 

The Cato Institute’s Andrew Coulson has sketched the increased number of school employees (a 100 percent hike since 1970) and total enrollment (declines for 20 years after 1970, before slowly climbing over three decades). And, … flat-lined achievement scores for reading, math, and science on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), i.e.  “the nation’s report card.” And, spending has jumped 160 percent. 

Even if the venerable NAEP is somehow deficient as a measure of aggregate achievement, it echoes what every objective measure of student achievement tells us.

Despite spending hikes and personnel increases over time, U.S. student performance has declined, flattened, or infrequently blipped up temporarily, only to fall back again.

Average scores on the SAT, one of the two most prominent measures of college preparedness, declined in 2012. ACT scores stayed flat in 2011 and 2012. 

Even critics of standardized testing say that, in the aggregate and over the course of years, the two college preparatory tests are, like the NAEP itself, a reliable way of looking at overall achievement (if not necessarily individual student potential).

A Washington Post education writer recently reported that one of those critics — Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing — concludes “aggregate SAT and ACT scores trends are one tool for evaluating overall education quality — and they point to the conclusion that U.S. K-12 education is headed in the wrong direction.” 

In Oklahoma, about three-quarters of our students take the ACT before high school graduation. We are in the handful of states that have the equivalent of an exit examination that, over time, provides a consistent measure of what most kids get from 12 to 14 years of schooling. 

And? Since 1990, less than a five percent improvement (despite a 40 percent-plus spending increase) in ACT scores for graduating seniors. Since 2007, Oklahoma has been stuck at or around an average score of 20.7. 

Mike Antonucci of the Education Intelligence Agency is a man the National Education Association loves to hate. 

Same story in Oklahoma City: In 2001, voters approved a massive tax increase to finance infrastructure improvements for all 21 public school districts in or touching the city. Despite this, achievement in local public schools has flattened and in some cases declined.

Voters, parents, and school patrons know that despite the nice new or fully refurbished buildings, the actual results in most students’ lives are unimpressive.

What’s beyond dispute is this: Whether achievement is measured by NAEP, SAT, ACT, the Iowa test or Oklahoma’s End-Of-Instruction tests for high school seniors, our schools are failing our students, taxpayers, community, state, and country.

NO question: Whatever else they’re missing, most Americans know the system is failing. When will those who get paid to run that system know it?

This essay is adapted from McGuigan’s commentary in the August edition of Perspective Magazine, the monthly publication of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. 

You may contact Patrick B. McGuigan, Oklahoma City bureau chief for the network, at