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Published in Print: March 7, 2007, as U.S. Chamber Adds Business Viewpoint On Schools’ Quality

U.S. Chamber Adds Business Viewpoint on Schools’ Quality

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With a new and highly critical report card offering a business perspective on the effectiveness of state education systems, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is pushing what it sees as a prescription for more innovative, efficient, and better-performing schools.

“Leaders and Laggards,” released last week, gives letter grades to states on indicators related to student achievement, teacher quality, and school management. A “return on investment” grade rates states on students’ performance for dollars spent to educate them, controlled for poverty.

For the chamber, the grades and policy platform further a concerted new effort to shape education policy. Last year, the Washington-based federation of more than 3 million businesses launched an Institute for a Competitive Workforce in part to study the issue. In September, it joined other national business groups in advocating renewal of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. ("Big Business Going to Bat for NCLB," Oct. 18, 2006.)

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While business organizations have long been part of the national discussion on improving public schools, the chamber’s reach is particularly extensive, given its active local and state affiliates. That reach has proved effective in changing state policy in other areas, such as tort reform.

“When it comes to education, the states aren’t making the grade,” Thomas J. Donohue, the president and chief executive officer of the chamber, said at the report’s release in Washington.

Many of the grades are given on a curve. Massachusetts, Utah, and Virginia got A’s for their returns on investment, while F’s went to Rhode Island, West Virginia, and New Mexico. California rated well on teacher-quality policies, and Arizona for flexibility in school management.

Based on existing data from multiple sources, the grades favor states where principals say they have greater control over hiring and finances, where systems exist to track the achievement of individual students over time, and where nontraditional schools, such as charters, are thriving.

Education groups had mixed reactions to the findings. While conceding the need for dramatic gains in achievement, some state education leaders said the report failed to recognize recent investments in education that could pay off in the long run. The two national teachers’ unions all but shrugged the report off.

Along with the report card, the chamber last week unveiled a set of policy recommendations for states. Among them: judge education schools based on their graduates’ ability to improve student results; expand student learning time; and improve the collection and use of student data.

Prescriptions for Better Grades

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Center for American Progress last week jointly released a policy platform on improving K-12 state education systems. Among their recommendations:

Teacher Quality
Evaluate schools of education on the success of their graduates in raising student performance.
Boost teacher recruitment by raising starting salaries, and base pay systems on student performance gains.

Innovative Practices
Encourage nontraditional learning opportunities such as charter schools, small learning communities, and early enrollment in college courses.
Expand the amount of time students spend learning through tutoring, after-school programs, and other efforts.

Data Use
Create systems that allow for tracking the performance of individual students over time.
Adopt a common way of calculating high school graduation rates.

School Management
Hold state and local education leaders accountable not just for student results, but also for what they spend to produce those results.
Give school leaders more authority over personnel and finance.

Joining the chamber in preparing the report card and the platform was the Washington-based Center for American Progress, a self-described progressive think tank led by John D. Podesta, a former chief of staff to President Clinton.

The partnership marks an unusual alliance, given the two groups’ opposition on other issues—such as increasing the minimum wage, which the chamber opposes. But leaders of the two organizations said they share similar views on both the state of American education and on what’s needed to fix it.

“Years of well-intentioned, but ultimately insufficient, reforms have been unable to improve overall academic performance in our nation’s schools,” Mr. Podesta said at the press event to release the report. He added: “It’s clear that we need fundamental, structural reforms if we are to change this pattern.”

A Business Lens

The chamber isn’t the first to grade state education systems. Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week, has done so since 1997 with its annual Quality Counts report. The Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington think tank, recently published its own such ratings.

Mr. Donohue said his group’s assessment is unusual in its use of a business lens to judge state performance. Rather than rate states based on per-pupil spending, it attempts to show which states get the most bang for the buck. The focus, he said, is on outputs instead of inputs.

“What’s unique about our study is its recognition that what has long made the American private sector an engine of global prosperity—its dynamism, its creativity, and its relentless focus on efficiency and results—is essential to tapping the potential of our educators and our schools,” he said.

For its return-on-investment grades, the chamber divided each state’s education expenditures into the results of its 4th and 8th graders on the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading and mathematics. It also controlled for poverty, numbers of students with special needs, and cost of living.

Some states with higher performance overall were shown as netting less for their education dollars. For example, New Jersey got an A for academic achievement, but a D for its return on investment. Conversely, Florida received an A for return on investment, but a D for student performance.

'Return on Investment'

The report calculated this grade by comparing students’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress with a state’s education spending, controlling for student poverty, the percentage of students with special needs, and cost of living.

*Click image to see the full chart.

The report also grades states on the achievement of low-income and minority students, also using NAEP scores. But while ratings by other groups have focused on gaps in achievement between such students and their more-advantaged peers, the chamber looked only at overall proficiency rates for the groups deemed at risk.

Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute and a key adviser to the chamber’s report-card project, said the analysis raised as many questions as it answered. There’s a general dearth of good data on the effectiveness of state-policy efforts, he said.

“Frankly, we don’t know in any great detail why it is some states are doing a much better job with the most vulnerable populations than others,” said Mr. Hess, whose institute is considered politically conservative. “In some sense, this map, this kind of analysis, can help us know where to look.”

Not a Full Picture?

One obvious place is Massachusetts, which received seven A’s, one B, and one C on the chamber’s report card. David P. Driscoll, the state education commissioner, said last week he attributed the scores to a 14-year-long policy push to hold schools and students accountable for meeting academic standards.

“The bottom line here in Massachusetts is the 10th grade graduation requirements; that’s driven everything,” he said.

But some education leaders cautioned that the chamber’s focus doesn’t present a full picture. Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers, noted that a state’s spending on early-childhood education wouldn’t produce results for years.

“Some of these states are doing things that are based on research and good practice, and the return on those investments might not be immediate,” Mr. Wilhoit said, “particularly where you have a long history of neglect.”

Asked about the report cards, a spokeswoman for the National Education Association deferred to the group’s state affiliates. Janet Bass, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers, wrote in a short statement that “there’s nothing in this report that hasn’t been said before.”

Arthur J. Rothkopf, a senior vice president at the chamber and a leader of its education initiatives, said his organization plans to use its network to advance the policies in its new platform.

“We’re in a lot of places,” he said in an interview. “And now, we’re going to energize those places.”

Vol. 26, Issue 26, Pages 1,15

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