“What Do You Do, Sir?”

Brandon Dutcher of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs recently wrote a commentary for The Oklahoman featuring (in the print edition) a chart I created of percent change in the state’s ACT scores and per pupil revenues over time. (Hint: one line’s pretty flat, the other goes up lots.)

Some folks didn’t like what this chart reveals, and so offered a variety of excuses for it in today’s letters to the editor. I’ve just responded with a letter to the editor of my own, reproduced here:

It is an unfailing characteristic of human nature that, when faced with evidence undermining their accomplishments or beliefs, people look first to excuses in the hope of deflecting the blow. So it’s no surprise to see a letter to the editor discounting Oklahoma’s relatively flat ACT scores despite rising spending on the grounds that the ACT “was never meant” “as a tool for evaluating the success of the common education system.” The only problem with this claim is that it’s absolutely false. According to the official ACT publication ”The Sensitivity of the ACT to Instruction”:

Consistent with [its co-founder’s] intent, the ACT is an educational achievement test that measures the typical content and skills learned from college preparatory curricula. Consequently, the ACT can … provide direct feedback to high school teachers about the effectiveness of their teaching.

Another excuse offered for Oklahoma’s education productivity collapse is that student achievement is limited while “the amount of money that can be potentially spent on education has no limit.” Oklahoma taxpayers will be pleased to learn they have limitless financial resources, but this is no defense of the status quo. If it was foolish to think in 1990 that spending 40% more on a state monopoly school system would substantially improve student learning, then the same is presumably true today. That, it seems to me, was the point of Mr. Dutcher’s op-ed.

To answer that same letter-writer’s question about the initial year of comparison for the chart’s percent change calculations, it is 1990 (as could have been surmised from the fact that the reported changes for 1990 are both zero). 

That’s the end of my letter, but I can’t help adding an observation that would have exceeded the word count. While everybody likes to be right all the time, the strategies for approximating that desired state vary considerably in their effectiveness. The best is the one most famously touted (though not necessarily followed) by John Maynard Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” The sooner we adopt an education system that is actually effective and efficient, the sooner people can stop being wrong defending the current profligate monopoly.