My Dearest Gadfly,
My colleagues and I here at Editorial Projects in Education were starting to wonder whether the reception to the latest edition of our Quality Counts report and its Chance-for-Success Index had been a bit too positive. Fortunately, your recent column calling to attention the error of our ways snapped us out of our happy reverie (see here). So we were grateful for the opportunity to pen a response in your highly influential publication (For those who do not partake of the inside-the-Beltway habit of handicapping clout and prestige, a recent study by our research center identified the Education Gadfly newsletter as one of the most influential information sources in the education policy field. See here and here.)
But on a more serious note, I would like to answer a couple questions that I believe the Gadfly’s recent editorial posed and then went on to answer incorrectly. Those being: The Chance for Success Index is really just saying that demography is destiny, isn’t it? And, Why, oh why, did you abandon your way from the path of standards-based reform?
First things first. I should emphatically state that we do not now, nor have we ever believed that demography is destiny. To suggest such was certainly not the intent behind the report as a whole or the Index in particular. Nor do we feel that a more-than-cursory perusal of Quality Counts will leave readers with that impression.
The goal of this year’s report, in very general terms, was to think about education within a much broader perspective than is often the case. We do this by examining the ways in which education plays out through a person’s lifetime. That’s the “From Cradle to Career” part of the report’s title. In more concrete terms, we also wanted to illustrate how a person’s life opportunities could differ across the nation owing to state-by-state disparities in the foundations for learning that are laid during childhood, the performance of education systems during the formal school years, and opportunities to make good on a good education in a state’s labor market during adulthood. If you combine those goals, a whole lotta data, and some non-trivial statistical gyrations, then you get our Chance-for-Success Index.
Among the 13 indicators that make up the Index, we examine several social and economic conditions in the household during the childhood years – parental education, income, employment, and English fluency. Does this mean that a child will necessarily start school behind the curve if his or her parents are poorly educated, work sporadically or in a low-paying job, or don’t speak English very well? Absolutely not. But is there a solid research base linking these factors with readiness to learn when children enter school? Absolutely. That’s why we focused on these issues.
Now, a critic (like, say, the Gadfly) might suggest that it’s not fair to evaluate a state based on factors (like, say, demographics) over which education systems and policymakers have no control. My response would be that, sure, state policymakers may not be able to wave a magic wand to get more “favorable” demographics. But state policy leadership should be all about looking for solutions that mitigate the known impacts that disadvantages like poverty have on their children.
Well, that critic might say, schools can’t fix poverty on their own. And that really is the whole point of our report. Of course they can’t. But public schools are responsible for educating all children who enter through their doors and for providing them with the kinds of skills they need to successfully continue on to further education, work, and citizenship. Much of our report, in fact, is devoted to the proposition that states can strengthen K-12 schooling through policies that link it more closely with early childhood education, postsecondary systems, and the workforce.
And as a final response to the demography-is-destiny accusation, I offer an empirical example. Those who read the report carefully will find that Chance-for-Success doesn’t tell one single story. It tells 51 unique stories, for the states plus the District of Columbia. One can find instances where two states – like California and New Mexico – start off in very similar demographic positions. However, they diverge when it comes to performance during the schooling years and opportunities for adults to reap the rewards of a good education in the labor market. California fares considerably better in the end. Had demography really predestined the outcome, the ends of both state stories would have been one and the same.
Now, to briefly address Gadfly’s second question – Why aren’t we looking at standards-based reform any more? The response to this one is pretty simple. We are. The report still tracks over 70 indicators in the areas of standards, assessments, and accountability. And, although we aren’t providing letter grades this year, we do rank states on a set of core standards policies in our online state highlights reports. So for standards-lovers, Quality Counts still has plenty of red meat to dig in to. (Oh, and for those who would argue that the real issue is how schools perform, we have a K-12 State Achievement Index for that too.)
Of course, capturing state-level policy efforts around standards in a meaningful way is a much different task in 2007 than it was in 1997 when Quality Counts first hit the newsstands. To quote a very quotable someone, “Times, they are a changin’.” Quality Counts has stayed relevant by evolving alongside the standards movement and it will continue to do so.
In last year’s 10th anniversary report, we found that standards, assessment, and accountability policies were linked to stronger state achievement gains. This was not true, however, for policies related to teacher quality or to indicators of financial resources and equity. We believe that it’s generally a good idea to learn from findings like these. So this time around Quality Counts took a hiatus from the teacher and finance categories. But in the coming year we will be engaging the education research and policy community to figure out how to best approach these two areas when we reintroduce them to the report. Those interested can find more information about this online (see here).
So I guess, in the end, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Christopher B. Swanson
Editorial Projects in Education Research Center