Oklahoma has great teachers and great schools. No one deserves more respect or thanks than our teachers, who are doing difficult and important jobs for modest salaries. Many teachers make a profound difference in the lives of their students, instilling them with academic passions that lead to successful careers and fulfilling lives.
These successes should be applauded and celebrated. But just as we should not ignore our many successes, nor should we turn a blind eye to our system's shortcomings. Those shortcomings are real: data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for instance, shows that 73 percent of Oklahoma fourth graders are below proficient in reading and 66 percent are below proficient in Math. Furthermore, when our high school graduates reach college, they are often doing so without the skill-sets needed to succeed in college courses. More than two in every five Oklahoma college students must take remedial courses, adding time and expense to their education, and making it more likely they will dropout without acquiring a degree.
These are problems that can only be addressed by improving K-12 education. Shedding light on school performance - lifting up the hood and seeing what is working and what is not - is absolutely essential to achieving that improvement. We cannot boost student performance if we do not first have a method of identifying schools that are exceeding expectations and those that are falling behind.
The A-F public school grading system delivers that tool of measurement. It gives parents, administrators and teachers an easily understood way of evaluating school success.
The letter grades assigned to schools are based on student performance. Fifty percent of the grade is based on the average score students receive on standardized tests in subjects like English and Math. The other half of the grade is based on student improvement on these tests -- meaning a school with relatively low scores can still receive a decent grade if student performance is moving in the right direction.
The roll-out of this new system has been difficult. There have been glitches and setbacks. But the system as it stands today is simple to understand and fair. There should be little doubt in anyone's mind that a school scored as an "A" is outstanding; an "F" school is failing and in need of immediate help.
This is an accountability and transparency measure the education community can and should support. As a state, we should recognize and reward success. We should also find and correct problem spots.
Identifying problem areas is not about blaming teachers. No one has ever argued that a school with an "F" or a "D" is plagued by bad teachers. A grade of "F" is not a punishment; it is a call to action. Schools that receive poor grades need help, attention and a change in strategy so that they can get back on track.
This week, the State Department of Education will release the final letter grades assigned for all Oklahoma schools.
As these results come in, there will be some educators and school districts that are justifiably thrilled with a recognition of their success. To them, I offer my congratulations.
There will also be educators that are disappointed, even angry, at a grade which they feel is too low.
Here is my message to these individuals: Work with me, with each other, with parents and with students to improve our schools.
The A-F grading system is not going away. It was authored and passed by democratically elected legislators, signed by me, and is now being implemented by an elected superintendent of public instruction.
It is not a new or untested idea. It is being adopted in more than a dozen states, where it is supported by Democrat and Republican lawmakers.
The full-fledged effort by some to sabotage the goals of the A-F system has created the kind of distasteful and unproductive atmosphere of obstruction and gridlock we are used to seeing in Washington, D.C. It has turned a conversation about improving our schools into a partisan spectacle that is not becoming of Oklahoma.
Worst of all, it has taken the focus off our children and what we can do to help them.
Let's put a stop to that.
This week, we will finally be given a system that allows us to accurately evaluate the quality of our schools. We know the results will be mixed. Oklahoma has good schools. Like all states, it has schools that are desperately in need of help.
Let's work together -- as educators, lawmakers, parents and citizens -- to deliver that help, to improve education and to take care of our kids.