Reflecting on one semester in Oklahoma’s traditional public school system, with two kids in the same grade but different teachers, I can definitively say it’s been a mixed bag. Our experience has been tolerable for one child and completely unacceptable for the other. The experience has reinforced my view that Oklahoma needs to dramatically expand school choice and parent empowerment.

When I first moved to Oklahoma from Arizona, Arizona having the most robust school choice in the nation, I was concerned with the lack of choice available to my children. I know my children and their needs. Going into this school year, I suspected that one child would perform well in the current system while the other would likely need something completely different than what a traditional public education would offer.

Cognizant of my children’s different needs, in Arizona I could have chosen from hundreds of charter and private schools offering diverse approaches to education, based on anything from classical education to agriculture and equine studies. Even traditional public schools were getting in on the action.

For example, Phoenix Union High School District offered a diverse, innovative portfolio of schools that varied in size and emphasis. Similarly, Kyrene School District created a next-generation, student-led, project-based, personalized learning model. Its SPARK School uses innovative staffing, technology, and learning spaces to prepare students for college and an evolving labor market. Both of these school districts embraced diverse options to meet student needs.

Within a one-mile radius from where my family once lived, we had access to five elementary schools: a traditional public school, a public Montessori charter school, and three private schools. Across the state, there were more than 550 public charter schools and 460 private schools from which to tailor our children’s education.

As I tried to help my child who was struggling in Oklahoma’s mostly one-size-fits-all education system, I’ve made some observations that I hope will help demonstrate the need for legislators to make significant changes in public education.

  1. The quality of a child’s public education is a crapshoot – you have to win the teacher lottery.

From the first moment we met our children’s kindergarten teachers, there were indications that one child had won the teacher lottery and the other had not. The two teachers’ energy levels and interest in our children were opposites. While we were visiting with one teacher, a few former students rushed into the classroom, greeted her with a hug, and excitedly talked about the new school year. As a parent, this inspired great confidence in her ability to inspire a joy for learning. In contrast, meeting the other gave us the impression she wanted to be somewhere else, instilling some concern. Just a couple months into the semester, we observed a stark difference in our children’s academic progress.

Researchers have found that the teacher is the most important in-school factor in students’ academic growth. Yet, securing a high-quality teacher is a crapshoot. Worse, we learned that if you lose the teacher lottery, parents have little recourse to remedy the situation. Principals have little incentive to alter a child’s administratively established trajectory.

  1. The traditional public education system is about administrative simplicity and maintaining the status quo – not kids.

Once, in a meeting with the school principal, my wife and I expressed concern about our child’s declining academic performance. We suggested that, given the circumstances (such as being a very young kindergartener), perhaps Pre-K would be a better placement. The principal’s immediate response was completely dismissive of our concerns. It was apparent she was more concerned with the administrative burden of moving a student around than a child’s academic success.

Later, after we made the decision to disenroll our child who was falling behind and becoming increasingly more frustrated, the principal caught my wife off guard while she was filling out the formal withdrawal. The principal feigned concern, spewing ignorant rubbish like, “He’s doing fine,” “I wasn’t aware of any problems” “He is legally required to be in school,” “If you take him out of school he will fall behind,” and “You will have to transfer him somewhere so we can send over the records.” Finally, she got to her genuine concern, “I’ll have to fill out a bunch of paperwork with the state.”  

Administrators are no one’s friend. When convenient, they’ll back the teacher against the parent and, at other times, the parent against the teacher – all for a copacetic day. Don’t create additional work. Don’t expect creative problem-solving. Leave things as they are. Don’t stir the pot. Hopefully, all issues will resolve themselves in time.

  1. Even if you win the teacher lottery, that teacher must be exceptional within a homogenous, obsolete system governed by politicians.

Despite the extent to which bureaucrats, politicians, interest groups, and unions have burdened and complicated the teaching profession, some outstanding teachers still manage to inspire student growth and learning. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to overemphasize standardization to the point of stifling differentiation.

Over the semester, despite having different teachers, we’ve seen our children come home with the exact same assignments, on roughly the same timeline. They have the same parties on the same days. There is an excess of sameness. The only apparent differences are the teachers’ energy and the level of content mastery expected for a passing grade. I have frequently wondered what would happen if an outstanding teacher were granted the power to freely practice her profession – perhaps even open an educational practice of her own. What would she be able to accomplish?

  1. Generally, the current system is not well-designed for boys.

Data support the allegation that the system isn’t serving boys well. Girls graduate from high school and enroll in college at higher rates than boys. While some of the differences are connected to the family and home environment, the way schools respond to boys’ behavior can have a long-term impact on their educational outcomes. One study found that “gender differences in both students’ behavior and educators’ responses to behavior problems explained more than half [59 percent] of the gender gap in schooling completed among adults.”

We’ve experienced poor disciplinary responses firsthand. In response to “bad” behavior, our son was denied recess time, his snack, and class dance parties. He even spent a whole afternoon sitting in the principal’s office. I don’t know anyone who behaves well when forced to sit for long periods, denied food, and prohibited from physical activity. That is especially true for an active little boy, even one who, before starting school, others called thoughtful and sweet. Even though we attempted to work with the teacher and expressed support for natural consequences, when voicing our concern that taking away food and physical activity would exacerbate the problem, she responded, “sometimes harsher consequences are necessary.” Fine, provide a harsher consequence, but denying nutrition and exercise is not it.

Bottom line, misappropriated deference to the education establishment and politicians over active, concerned, prudent parents has resulted in a system that neglects the diverse needs of our children. The legislature needs to take quick and decisive action. Open the law to meaningful school choice. Let parents direct 100 percent of per-pupil funding to a school that best serves their students’ needs. Our education system needs to be about educating individual human beings, not feeding a bloated, obsolete system.

Brad Galbraith is Land Use Fellow at 1889 Institute. He can be reached at [email protected].

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.