John Thompson, historian and teacher, lives in Oklahoma.

The Oklahoma press is focusing on the state’s low level of college readiness as measured by the ACT test, 16 percent, in comparison to the national rate of 27 percent. The state known for dramatic cuts in education funding is ranked 19th in the nation with an average composite score of 19.3. But it is missing the big picture.

The average ACT composite for my old school, Centennial, is 14.8, which is above average for the high-poverty neighborhood schools in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Even when we were ranked last in the state, our ACT scores were significantly higher. Since I retired, Centennial received a $5 million School Improvement Grant. I believe that its ACT decline is just one example of evidence explaining how and why tens of billions of dollars of corporate school reform drove meaningful learning out of many inner city schools.

The important question is what caused the national decline. Retired PBS education reporter John Merrow argues these ACT-takers “have had 12 or 13 years of test-centric education, and the kids coming up behind them have also endured what the ‘school reformers’ designed.” He also asks, “How much more evidence do we need of the folly of ‘No Child Left Behind’ and Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s ‘Race to the Top’ before we take back our schools?”

As Ye Sow, So Shall Ye Reap…..

Since reformers sought to improve low-performing schools, it is significant that Merrow cites the ACT report on recent outcomes:

A higher percentage of students this year than in recent years fell to the bottom of the preparedness scale, showing little or no readiness for college coursework. Thirty-five percent of 2018 graduates met none of the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks, up from 31% in 2014 and from 33% last year.

Click to access National-CCCR-2018.pdf

All types of researchers are contributing to the autopsies being performed on data-driven, competition-driven reform. And many of us are especially intrigued by the analyses of corporate school reformers on why test-driven accountability, the expansion of charter schools, and the quest to “build a better teacher” failed. The latest, by the Gates Foundation’s Tom Kane, is very illustrative. Kane acknowledges that media coverage has declared his “teacher quality” effort a failure, but he mostly blamed educators.

Kane is typical of many reformers who say the big mistake was rapidly scaling up their teacher evaluation and test-driven accountability models. Kane forgets, however, that he, Bill Gates, other venture philanthropists, and Arne Duncan were the ones who imposed the rapid scaling up of their untested hypotheses.

This leads to my hypothesis about the Tulsa Public Schools, which is led by corporate reformer Deborah Gist and a team of Broad Academy-trained administrators. It may offer a case study in the causes of the reform debacle. The TPS has the nation’s 7th lowest rate of student performance growth from 3rd to 8th grade.

Tulsa has a lot of advantages due to the Kaiser Foundation’s science-based early education efforts, and it used to have better student outcomes than the OKCPS. Tulsa has received millions of dollars in funding for it value-added teacher evaluations, “personalized” learning, and other corporate reforms. The cornerstone of their approach was the termination and “counseling out” of experienced educators, and demanding compliance to their new model.

Of course, no single piece of data can prove that Tulsa’s experiments failed for any single reason, but a new database created by ProPublica and Chalkbeat provides valuable new information. Their research shows that many of the biggest experiments, costing hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars and that were once proclaimed as successes, actually increased the achievement gap. Despite false claims to the contrary, many districts that committed to corporate reforms, and often claimed that they improved student performance, actually practiced mass suspensions of poor, black students. And there seems to be an unmistakable correlation between their commitment to teacher quality experiments and the increase of inexperienced teachers.

So, how much of the decline in Oklahoma ACT scores is attributable to the top-down reforms funded by the federal government, Bill Gates, and other edu-philanthropists?

It doesn’t rise to the level of “proof,” but it is noteworthy that black TPS students are 2.2 years behind their white peers. That is .5 a year worse than the OKCPS gap. (And only 18 percent of TPS students took those college readiness tests, in contrast to the OKCPS where 29 percent took the ACT or SAT.)

Nearly a quarter of OKCPS teachers are categorized as inexperienced. The same percentage applies to Centennial, and whenever I visit my old school I hear more concerns about the ways that teacher turnover undermines school improvement.

Nearly 1/3rd of Tulsa teachers are inexperienced.

As more data arrives, we will be able to evaluate whether the multi-million Tulsa/Gates Foundation teacher quality initiative drove down the quality of teaching and learning. But this much is obvious. It is easier for competition-driven reformers to suspend poor students than it is for them to increase student learning.

And the “exiting” of large numbers of veteran educators was seen as a feature, as opposed to a flaw in their model. Now we know it is much easier to drive teachers out of the profession than it is to social-engineer better teachers.