Keeping Tabs on Quality
America's public school systems are riddled with excellence but rife with mediocrity.
For more than a decade, Americans have been deluged with negative reports about their schools. And politicians have responded with promises: U.S. students will be first in the world in mathematics and science achievement by 2000. Every student will master challenging academic content. All children will start school ready to learn.
These are admirable goals. But they are far from being fulfilled. And today most Americans remain frustrated and confused about the quality of the public school systems. Polls suggest that taxpayers increasingly are disenchanted with public education. There has been modest progress, but a tremendous variation in school quality persists. Our public school systems are riddled with excellence but rife with mediocrity.
It is the classic good news/bad news scenario:
- Student test scores have inched up, with some real improvements in math and science. But, overall, student achievement is about the same or only slightly better than it was in the early 1970s. Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress-which tests a representative sample of students nationwide- indicate that fewer than half the students tested can do challenging work at their grade levels.
- African-American, Hispanic, and American Indian students score much lower than white students in every subject in every grade. During the 1970s and early 1980s, minority students made dramatic gains in achievement. But since the late 1980s, progress has stalled. And in some subjects and some grades the gap is widening once again. (See related story, page 10.)
- Contrary to popular belief, U.S. students generally outperform students from other large countries on international assessments of basic literacy. Our 8th graders score above average on international assessments in science but below average in mathematics.
- Meanwhile, millions of students attend school each day in crumbling facilities, to learn from teachers who have not majored in the subject areas they teach, in schools that are too big for them to be known well.
- Many children in our poorest urban and rural areas attend schools that lack even the barest necessities, from up-to-date textbooks to functioning toilets. Some of these school systems spend thousands of dollars less per child than those in the more affluent suburbs.
The question is not whether public schools are better or worse than they used to be. The question is whether public schools are good enough to prepare all children for the next century.
It is an issue that should concern every American. A mediocre education will act as a ball and chain in the high-tech, information-oriented society in which we now live. Today, people who know more earn more. And they are less likely to be unemployed. A college graduate today earns twice as much as a high school graduate and nearly three times as much as a high school dropout.
But education is not just an individual concern. No nation can rise above the level of its people’s abilities for very long. To solve the formidable problems the United States faces and to capitalize on the incredible opportunities the future holds, we will need all the brainpower, talent, and energy we can muster.
To help Americans address the question of whether our schools are preparing all children adequately, Quality Counts examines the actions states have taken to raise student achievement.
The first of what will be an annual Education Week/Pew Charitable Trusts report on the condition of education in the 50 states, Quality Counts compiles statistics on more than 75 specific indicators. It evaluates state policies and practices based on this information. And it assigns grades to states in the same way that teachers routinely assign grades to young people. It also includes a narrative on each state, based on surveys and interviews with educators, policymakers, citizens, and business leaders. The primary aim is not to rank states against each other, but to establish a baseline against which future state progress can be measured.
The report cards are not the kind that students would rush home to their parents.
In the four categories that the report examines--adopting challenging academic standards and measures of student progress, improving the quality of teaching, spending enough dollars and distributing them equitably and wisely, and creating a school climate that supports teaching and learning-most states rated at best a C. Their performance was generally mediocre, and many turned in barely passable grades. This translates into student achievement well below a level that can sustain this nation economically and politically.
- Standards and Assessments. Most states are setting standards for what students should learn and how well they should learn it. They also are developing tests that measure how well students meet the standards. It is in this category that states earned the best grades--22 Ns and 13 B's. But these grades may be misleading because there is no measure of how rigorous state standards are. And many state systems are still being developed.
- Teaching Quality. Despite increased attention to teaching quality, there was not a single A and only 8 B's. Nationally, almost one in four secondary teachers do not have a degree in the subject that they teach. Only a handful of states now require teachers to major in a subject other than education to earn a teaching license.
- Financing. States are spending more money for education than they did 10 years ago, and the increases have generally outpaced inflation. But too few of the additional dollars have reached regular classrooms to support teaching and learning. Inequities in spending across school districts plague most states. And resources for education are expected to be universally tight in the next decade. The prognosis: Educators are going to have to produce more with less. Only five states received A’s for the adequacy of their education spending, five received A’s for the equitable distribution of resources, and none received A’s for how money is spent.
- School Climate. States earned their lowest grades in this all-important category. School climate includes measures of safety and discipline. But it also looks at class and school size, the autonomy that schools have to make decisions, and whether schools support learning and have a clear sense of mission. Only four states received B's. Large schools and classes make it particularly difficult to create a climate conducive to learning. In 15 states, more than half of elementary school classes exceed 24 students. In 36 states, the majority of secondary school English teacher' routinely face 80 or more students a day. Nearly half the student in most states attend elementary or high schools that are bigger than research suggests is optimal to promote learning.
Why Is Progress So Difficult?
The nation's low progress when it comes to education cannot be blamed on a lack of effort. States have passed a dizzying array of education laws in the past dozen years. But few state policies have succeeded in producing better schools. Why?
The problems outside of schools have gotten worse. School over the past several decades have had to cope with extraordinary challenges. More and more students are poor, do not speak English, and come from single- or no-parent homes. Teachers have to compete with a popular culture that glorifies entertainment and materialism and undermines traditional values. In the face of such problems, schools have done well just to keep from sliding backward.
Given these conditions, too many teachers, administrators, and school boards think the problem is in the children--not in the schools. They refuse to believe that fundamental change is needed and are unwilling-- or unable --to change the way schools are organized and run. "Just send us better children, and we'll do a better job" is their message.
Politicians too often are unwilling to do the hard work needed to understand the issues and craft workable solutions. They fail to take the long view to make the unpopular decisions and expensive investments today that will bear fruit well after they have left office.
Too often, the participants in the power structure--unions, school boards, politicians, and advocacy group--are more concerned about protecting turf and their vested interests than they are about the welfare of children.
Despite the frequent warnings of school failure, the public has not demanded better schools. Often, parents and other residents in local communities have reacted negatively to school change. And the public seems increasingly unwilling to tax itself to support public education. Those who pay the highest price for school failure are those with the least power to do anything about it--the poor, immigrant, and minorities. Many poor and minority students have the deck stacked against them when it comes to education. Across the country, such students are less likely to have access to qualified teachers, up-to-date textbooks and materials, and challenging curriculum.
Our vast, complex, and disjointed system of education also makes real change extraordinarily difficult.
The United States does not have a national system of education, although we often talk as if we did. We have 50 state systems and over 14,000 school districts. There are more than 80,000 public schools, 2.5 million teachers, and 44 million public school students. Within this universe, there are incredible extremes. New York City--with more than a million schoolchildren--is so populous that it would rank 13th nationally in student enrollment if it were a state. In contrast, the entire state of Nebraska has about 1.6 million residents—but 662 school districts. More than half of those districts consist of a single elementary school. Given this diversity, a one-size-fits-all solution is out of the question.
Our tradition of strong local control of school also makes it hard to move forward as a nation. In Nebraska, for example, small rural communities routinely battle school consolidation efforts. Connie Spellman, the education chairwoman at the Omaha Chamber of Commerce, says the state lacks the leverage to mandate that school adopt higher academic standards. "Local control can be a wonderful strength, and it can be an incredible weakness," she says.
Large and unwieldy state bureaucracies further undercut progress. Often, the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing. At a meeting on college-admissions standards last summer, Californians listed no fewer than a dozen efforts to raise the expectations for student achievement. "There are an enormous number of competing center of power," noted one participant. "Is this a Tower of Babel or can we pull it all together?"
Skirmishes among the branches of government can be fierce. Last October, Democratic Gov. Zell Miller of Georgia asked the entire state school board to resign, hoping to end months of bickering between the group and state Superintendent Linda C. Schrenko. "The only way to correct this state of affairs, I have concluded, is simply to start over," he wrote. The rift between the elected Republican schools chief and the gubernatorially appointed board had become so severe that the board had voted to hire its own lobbyist and public relations firm, separate from the education department.
The on-again, off-again nature of state reform efforts further stymies results. As the political leadership change, so does the agenda. John Dornan, the director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, directed a study of barriers to school reform in the Southeast. "After the first year, we all were just struck by how many initiatives had stopped and started since 1983," he says. "Last year’s panacea is this year’s throwaway. It would be laughable if the impact of it wasn't s0 tragic. When we did focus group and case studies, the degree of cynicism and anger and frustration at the school-building level was, for anyone concerned about school reform, really frightening."
The job of fixing school would be difficult even if policymakers, politicians, and the public agreed on goals and solutions, but they don't. Today, nearly all states are pursuing reforms based on high standards for student achievement, tests that measure whether students have met those standards, and new ways to hold schools and districts accountable for results.
But a vocal and determined group of reformers believes that a better way to improve the schools is through competition. If parents and students could choose among public, private, and religious school, they argue, good schools would get better. And bad ones would improve or go out of business. Since Republican Gov. Tom Ridge took office in Pennsylvania in 1995, for example, he has championed private school choice. Two attempts to pass voucher bills that included private and religious schools have failed since 1994. But the issue is sure to resurface in a future legislative session. In Connecticut, Republican Gov. John G. Rowland al 0 vigorously advocates vouchers and other forms of private school choice.
Finally, a major obstacle to school improvement is money. Some politician argue that increasing education budgets means throwing good money after bad. But educators in virtually every state report financial pressures. Many are struggling to hold their ground in the wake of booming student enrollments, rampant child poverty, and rising rates of violence and drug abuse in the neighborhood surrounding their schools. School-finance lawsuits that challenge the equitable distribution of education pending are currently pending in a dozen states.
Yet despite all these obstacles, there is enough research and anecdotal evidence about successful school to tell us what is most likely to improve schooling and student performance. The problem is creating public awareness and support for the solutions, so that policymakers and educators will apply them and have the patience to tick with them.
Even if states make substantial, sustained, and focused efforts now to improve the school and raise student achievement, it will take time for state policies to filter down to the classroom. That is particularly true in a large, highly decentralized system such as ours.
But it's time to make the reality match the rhetoric.
Student Achievement: Progress and Pause
The Education Week/Pew report does not give states a letter grade for student achievement and academic course-taking. Instead, it ranks states by how well their students perform on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. NAEP is the single best source of national data on student performance.
In both math and science, student performance has improved since the early 1980s. In reading, there have been minimal changes. And in writing, the results are mixed. No state has more than half its students performing at the "proficient" level on NAEP, which indicates they can do challenging work at their grade levels and are ready to move on.
In math, for example, only 21% of 4th graders in 1992 could solve this problem correctly: "George buys two calculators that cost $3.29 each. If there is no tax, how much change will he receive from a $10 bill?" Some of the progress we have made as a nation can be ascribed directly to state efforts to increase academic rigor. Forty-two states have raised the course requirements for students to graduate from high school since 1983, when A Nation at Risk first warned of a "rising tide of mediocrity" in our schools.
Today, half of all public high school graduates have completed the core academic curriculum recommended in the report: four years of English and three years each of math, science, and social studies. That figure is up from only 13% in 1982.
Nationally, students also are taking more upper-level math and science courses, including geometry, Algebra 2, chemistry, and physics. Students also are enrolled in more Advanced Placement courses, which teach college-level material in high school. This may be one reason why the test scores of 17-year-olds in science and math have rebounded after declining in the 1970s.
Nonetheless, of the 39 states responding to a survey by the Council of Chief State School Officers in 1994, none had half of their students enrolled in both upper-level science and math courses that year.
Only two states--Maryland and Utah--currently have as many as one-third of their 8th graders enrolled in algebra. Yet studies show that taking algebra in 8th grade can add up to greater math achievement in high school.
According to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, which scrutinized the curriculum and teaching in 41 nations, the content taught in U.S. 8th grade math classrooms is at a 7th grade level in comparison to other countries.
In Japan and Germany, for example, 13-year-olds study algebra and geometry intensively. In the United States, 13-year-olds take a less-challenging curriculum of arithmetic, fractions, and a little algebra.
Utah provides a good example of what states can accomplish when they focus on academic course-taking. The state provides cash rewards to schools to offer more Advanced Placement courses. Today, three out of four schools in the state offer AP classes and 59% of high school students are enrolled in upper-level mathematics. South Carolina has required all school districts to offer AP exams since 1984. In the past decade, the number of AP exams taken in the state has more than doubled, to 13,124.
Standards, Assessments: Where's the Rigor?
When it comes to standards and assessments, state averaged a B for effort, and 22 states earned an A. But we do not know much about whether state standards and assessments are sufficiently rigorous. One of the weaknesses of American education is that we lack clear goals for what students should learn and how well they should learn it.
By the late 1980s, it had become clear to most educators and policymakers that simply raising course requirements was not enough. States also began to set standards for what students should know and be able to do in the core academic subjects and how well they should be able to demonstrate their knowledge and skills.
In the 1990s, standards-based reform has emerged as the principal strategy at the state level for improving the schools. Today, all but three states--Iowa, Montana, and Wyoming--have made the commitment to develop state standards in the academic disciplines. In addition, in 1995, 43 states conducted some form of statewide testing of students.
At last year's National Education Summit in Palisades, N.Y., the governors and key business leaders reiterated their support for states and school districts to set clear and common standards for student learning.
One reason standards-based reform has so much appeal is that it is a wedge issue. It necessitates all kinds of other desirable changes. Once states raise the standards for what children should know and be able to do, textbooks and tests must be revised to reflect the standards, and teachers must learn how to teach them.
Evidence from one school district in Colorado shows how clear standards and better tests can raise student achievement. Beginning in 1988, Weld County School District 6 set clear standards for students in the core academic subjects. It defined how well students should be able to perform to meet its standards. And it measured progress both in the classroom and through districtwide tests. The tests did not just ask students to fill in the blanks. Students also had to justify and explain their reasoning in writing.
For a K-4 standard on data, probability, and statistics, for example, the standards state that students, among other things, should be able to "construct, read, and interpret displays of data, including tables, charts, pictographs, and bar graphs" and "interpret data using the concepts of largest, smallest, most often, and middle."
In one exercise to measure 4th graders' knowledge and skills, students are shown five "mystery graphs" and asked to select which of the five shows the heights of 4th graders in inches. Then they justify their selections in writing.
By 1994-95, the district's test scores in math, reading, and writing had risen across the board. And performance had improved for poor and Hispanic students, as well as for middle-class and white students. Scores on college-admissions tests also improved.
"We have learned that if you are clear on what you want students to know and be able to do, and if you can provide baseline data and monitor progress, teachers can and will focus on strategies in the classroom that will create significant gains in student achievement," explains Superintendent John Pacheco in a report released by the state.
Despite such success stories, we don't know much about the quality or rigor of state standards and assessments. No group in the country currently evaluates the rigor of standards-setting across the 50 states and informs the public of its conclusions. The American Federation of Teachers looks at whether state standards are "clear and specific enough" to write a curriculum or to be of use to classroom teachers. But it does not evaluate how rigorous the standards are.
One indication that states differ widely in how much they expect students to know was provided last year by the Southern Regional Education Board. It found that only 13% of Delaware's 8th graders met the standard for acceptable math performance in their state. In contrast, 83% of Georgia's 8th graders met the state math standard. Yet when 8th graders from both states took the 1992 NAEP math test, Delaware's students scored higher than students in Georgia.
"State standards for student achievement are so dramatically different that they simply don't make sense," concludes Mark D. Musick, the president of the SREB. "We need conversations among state leaders to understand exactly what it is that states with high standards expect students to learn and how this is different from what states with low standards expect."
Some people have suggested that what we really need is a national curriculum and a system of national examinations, similar to those in European countries. They argue that students in Georgia need to learn the same amount of mathematics as students in Delaware or anywhere else in the United States.
Education historian Diane Ravitch made precisely that point in an Op-Ed piece in The Washington Post last April. She questioned why anyone would want such a thing as "Oregon math, New York science, and Nebraska English."
"It's simply naive to believe that each state should have different standards in science, mathematics, English, and other important subjects," Ms. Ravitch wrote. "Students in my neighborhood need to know exactly the same math and science that are taught in the best schools in other cities, states, and nations." But the politics of state and local control in the United States make a national curriculum highly unlikely. Controversy over the early drafts of voluntary national standards in U.S. history and English convinced many people that achieving national standards was impossible.
The governors have made it clear that while they want to raise academic standards, they also want to retain the authority to do so on their own terms. They don't want anyone looking over their shoulders to tell them if their standards are rigorous enough, unless they specifically ask for the advice. And many local school districts don't want states looking over their shoulders either.
In many states, standards- setting efforts have run aground on the shoals of political controversy. Minnesota has been trying to set standards for what students should know and be able to do to graduate from high school since the late 1980s. But in a state with strong local control, one observer describes the process as "tortuous" at best.
In Idaho, Anne Fox, the conservative Republican superintendent of education--elected on a back-to-basics slate--and a more moderate education community agree on what the standards should be.
Iowa abandoned its effort to set statewide goals for student learning in 1993. A state steering committee had proposed "outcomes" in nine areas, including lifelong learning, problem-solving, diversity, group membership, and environmental responsibility. Opponents, many of them associated with conservative Christian groups, criticized the goals as vague, too far removed from the basics, and an attempt to impose "politically correct" values on the curriculum.
"I just don't have enough support in the state to move it forward," admitted then-State Director of Education William L. Lepley, who said he wished he had focused more on academic content. Mr. Lepley resigned shortly after the defeat, and the state opted instead to hold districts accountable for whether they had defined their own goals. It is widely agreed that the issue is dead for now--"clobbered," as one observer put it.
Fights over statewide testing programs can be just as fierce as fights over the standards themselves. California abandoned its statewide testing program in 1995, after parents alleged that it was too value-laden and subjective. Gov. Pete Wilson also complained that it could not provide test scores for individual students.
At least one state seems to have found a good middle ground between raising standards at the state level and maintaining local control. Michigan has adopted standards at the state level for what students should know and be able to do in the various subjects. Districts can opt to use them. But the state testing program is based on the standards, as is state accreditation of schools.
"You could probably make the argument that we have a de facto state core curriculum because of our testing programs and school accreditation program that relies heavily on test results," says Mike Addonizio, an associate professor of educational administration at Wayne State University in Detroit. He argues that the Michigan solution meets the concerns both of advocates of local control and those who want strong state oversight of education.
Colorado's assessment system is still under development. But it also has finessed the balance between state and local control. The state has adopted well-regarded model standards for what students should learn in six academic subjects. Local school districts must meet or exceed the model state standards. And they must revise their curricula, instruction, tests, and continuing education for teachers to reflect the standards. William J. Randall, a former Colorado state superintendent of education, describes this compromise between state oversight and strong local control as a "stroke of common sense." And strong state leadership from Mr. Randall and Gov. Roy Romer has kept the standards-setting effort moving forward.
Given how politically difficult it is to raise standards, some states might be tempted to give up. The New York state reading test, for example, includes this simple passage:
"Bears are big. They need a lot of food. Bears eat meat. They eat bugs. They eat berries. They eat honey. They eat fish, too. Bears feed in the spring. They feed in the summer. They feed in the fall. Bears look for food then. They fish."
Thousands of 3rd graders cannot read that passage. But New York is raising its standards rather than lowering them. "Students who are reading at low levels in the elementary grades will have no chance in high school," says Richard P. Mills, the state commissioner of education.
Once states have standards and aligned assessments in place, students' performance should have consequences for them and their schools.
A few states have ventured fearlessly into this area, making schools and districts more accountable for how well their students achieve. Texas is a prime example. The state tracks student test scores, dropout figures, and attendance rates. The data are used to rate schools and accredit school districts. Sanctions for low-performing sites range from public hearings to a state takeover, in which the principal and all of the school staff can be removed. In a new twist, the state will replace cash bonuses previously given to top-performing schools with up to $5,000 in cash rewards for principals.
"Accountability, coupled with aligning authority and responsibility to local levels, is the best systemic change we can possibly make to achieve excellence for every child," Gov. George W. Bush told reporters at an education conference last summer.
More than half the states now say they provide rewards or sanctions for schools or school districts based on test performance. But a far smaller number of states provide clear incentives for students to achieve more. Only 14 states plan to promote or graduate students based on whether they have met state standards. Most states are still struggling to find the right balance between rewards and consequences, state control and local freedom.
Susan H. Fuhrman, the co-director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, explains why such accountability measures remain so controversial. "Most states are doing it. But it's technically difficult. It's politically difficult. And it's costly, if you're going to put money into the rewards, or make the sanctions meaningful, or provide meaningful assistance and remedies," she says. "For all those reasons, it's very, very hard. It starts with how to measure performance, but it doesn't end there."
States are even more leery about imposing high stakes for students--like withholding a diploma--until the standards and assessments have been in place for a reasonable time. Many argue that there should be no real consequences for young people until all students have access to the resources and teaching needed to achieve the standards. When Texas and Ohio required their high school students to pass a test to earn a diploma, they ended up in court--even though the tests were geared to the 8th or 9th grade level.
Teaching Quality: A Top Priority?
Another area in which states have begun to focus their policymaking is the quality of teaching. But they clearly have a long way to go. States averaged a C in this category.
"A caring, competent, and qualified teacher for every child is the most important ingredient in education reform," argued the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future last fall. "Access to competent teaching must become a new student right."
During the 1970s and 1980s, many states raised teacher salaries, took some initial steps to strengthen how teachers are educated, and required that teachers pass a test to be licensed.
States have continued to work to upgrade the status and quality of teaching during the 1990s. They have done so by adopting three approaches common to most other professions: strengthening the institutions that prepare teachers, raising requirements for who can enter the profession, and providing experienced teachers with incentives to seek national certification.
- In 28 states, more than 90% of new teacher candidates now graduate from schools of education that meet national standards for the quality of their programs. The standards have been developed by the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, which represents both teacher training institutions and subject-matter organizations. In states such as Arkansas and Nevada, all schools of education must meet NCATE standards. South Carolina's state institutions must meet the standards by 1999.
- More than half the states now belong to a group that is working to strengthen how new teacher are tested and licensed, known as the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium.
- Twenty states provide financial or other incentives for veteran teacher to eek certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The private organization was created in 1987 to certify individuals who have met its criteria for expert, accomplished teaching.
Many people think that improving teacher testing, licensure, and accreditation will strengthen teaching and make it a true profession, like law or medicine. But only time will tell whether this approach really leads to greater learning in the classroom.
Despite the push to improve teaching, most states are still a long way from that goal. Large percentages of teachers in every state still are teaching out of their areas of expertise. In 14 states-Arizona, Arkansas, California, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia-- 40% or more of secondary school teachers do not hold a degree in the subject they teach.
A dozen states require a college major other than education for both elementary and secondary teachers to earn a teaching license.
Large numbers of teachers are allowed into the classroom each year with emergency, temporary, or no licenses. The percentage of inadequately licensed teacher ranges from a high of 12% in Hawaii and 11 % in California to a low of 1% in Kansas, Michigan, Vermont, and Wyoming.
States have been much slower to fund continued on-the-job training for existing teachers, so that they can learn to do their job better. There are some exceptions. Vermont and Kentucky stand out for their effort to pay for ongoing education for the existing teaching force.
Before 1990, Kentucky did not provide any state dollar for continuing education for teachers. But after the state raised it standard for what students should know and be able to do, it stepped up to the plate to help teachers hone their skills. For the 1996-97 school year, the state appropriated $14.5 million to support continuing education for about 42,000 teachers and administrators. State law requires that 6591 of that money go to individual schools to support their plan' for how to improve student learning. This amounts to about $23 per student per year.
John Northrop, an associate commissioner of education in Kentucky, says, "We remain concerned about a minority of teachers, principals, and superintendents who say in surveys that they doubt it is realistic to set significantly higher expectations for all children. The challenge is to provide the incentives and support necessary to change their attitude and practice."
Minnesota al 0 earns good grade for its attention to teacher quality. The state has created a board with a teacher majority to license new teachers. In the future, individuals will have to demonstrate what they know and can do to earn a teaching license, not just complete a required set of courses.
Funding: Adequacy, Equity, and Allocation
Not far in the background of most state discussions about how to improve schools lurks the question of money. State averaged a C+ for the adequacy of their spending on education. They averaged a C for how education dollars are spent. And they averaged a B- for the equitable distribution of funds. Six states--Alaska, California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Texas--got a D for wide disparities in educational spending.
Nationally, we spend about $244 billion each year on public education at the precollegiate level. This is usually the largest cost item in state budgets. Yet many researchers predict that educators are going to have to do more with less. Booming student enrollments, modest income growth, and an aging population all bode ill for large increases in school budgets. Cutbacks in federal aid for other social services will put additional pressure on state and localities to shift monies outside of education.
Huge differences remain in the spending on education across states, stemming, in part, from differences in wealth. New Jersey, for example, can tax its residents less for education than Maine and still outspend the New England state simply because New Jersey is more affluent.
But there are also relatively wealthy states, such as Massachusetts, that simply have chosen not to invest as much in education as they could. According to a study prepared for the Finance Project in Washington, Massachusetts increased its effort by nearly 30% in the 1970s, but decreased it by about 25% during the 1980s and early 1990s. A regional recession, combined with a tax-limitation measure approved by voters, sharply reduced state coffers. A revived economy and a 1993 school-reform law that provided some new revenue for education have improved the situation somewhat. Even so, Edward Moscovitch, one of the architects of the new law's finance provisions, says, "Statewide school spending is rising no faster than enrollment growth and inflation."
Vast inequities in student spending also exist within states. Although many states are trying to address these issues, few have resolved them. For 25 years, New Jersey has been wrangling in the courts and state legislature over how to resolve glaring discrepancies in per-pupil spending across school districts. It ranks near the bottom on an analysis of equity conducted by the U.S. General Accounting Office. But New Jersey is hardly alone. State systems for financing education have been declared unconstitutional in 13 states. And 12 other states have litigation pending.
Ronald F. Ferguson, a professor of education at Harvard University, suggests why money matters. He analyzed student test scores and other district-level data in Texas to see why some districts perform better than others. Districts with lower estimated spending had lower test scores after all else was held constant. The reason, he suggested: Wealthier districts appeared to spend more on smaller class sizes. They also hired more-educated and better-prepared teachers.
West Virginia stands out for its efforts to adequately finance all its schools. About 64% of the state's population resides in rural areas, and three out of 10 children live in poverty--a rate surpassed only by Mississippi and Louisiana. Yet West Virginia ranks at the top of all the states on equity and second from the top for its efforts to fund education. This positive performance can be traced back to a state supreme court decision in 1982 that forced West Virginia to revise its public education system. West Virginia also performs far better on national assessments of student learning than would be predicted based on its demographics.
Of course, money by itself is not the answer to poor student achievement. "For years, the public has observed that increasing the money spent on education has not increased student test scores," says the Consortium on Productivity in the Schools. "The problem is with identifying a wise use of money."
The panel was launched in 1992 by the Institute on Education and the Economy at Teacher College, Columbia University, to identify ways to make the public schools more productive. It observes that the United States spends far more on nonteaching staff (administrators and support personnel) and far less on teachers than other industrialized countries. It estimated that teachers account for 58% of staff in the United States, compared with about 80% in Belgium. In addition, the consortium notes, few incentives are built into the public education system in the United States to encourage schools to use their money well.
Many taxpayers think the schools do not spend their existing money wisely. And this perception has plagued efforts to raise taxes to support education. Only nine states spend less per pupil than Alabama, for example, after factoring in regional co t differences. In a recent survey, 63% of Alabamians rated public education in the state as "not s0 good" or "poor." But about 65% said the major problem was that tax dollars are not being spent properly. Less than half that figure cited too little money as the problem. "Nobody hears a clock ticking because, historically, we've never given a damn," James G. Speake, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs in a school-finance lawsuit, told Education Week in 1995. "The legislature has never cared about public education. We sacrifice our children-our greatest asset. And to say otherwise is a big lie."
Nevada exemplifies a state where taxpayers have refused to make a real commitment to education. It ranks sixth from the bottom nationally in the percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds with a high school credential; finishes behind every state but Alaska in sending high school graduates on to college; and has a booming student population. Nevada also ranks near the bottom for its development of standards and assessments, its commitment to raising teacher quality, and its school climate.
In adjusted per-pupil spending, Nevada pends only $4,842 -- less than 38 other states. And when spending is calculated as a percentage of personal income, Nevada ranks above only Hawaii. "Nevada doesn't lack for wealth," says Eugene Paslov, the tate's immediate past superintendent of public instruction. But, he adds, it has not made "the deep commitment to public education over time it needs to."
Fiscal problems loom particularly large when it comes to the cost of fixing the nation's aging school buildings. This may be the sleeper crisis of the next decade. Last year, the GAO estimated that America' investment in its schools needed to increase by about $112 billion to repair or upgrade facilities to good overall condition and to comply with federal mandates. About one-third of the schools, serving about 14 million pupils nationwide, needed extensive repair or replacement of one or more buildings; 60~ reported at least one major building feature, such as plumbing, in disrepair.
School districts throughout the country operate with buildings that are often unsafe, inadequate for their student enrollments, inaccessible to student with physical disabilities, and unable to handle current technology.
"For almost 12 or 15 years, we have been doing research on the condition of school facilities in the United States," says David S. Honeyman, a professor of education at the University of Florida at Gainesville and the director of the Center for the Study of Education Finance for Florida. "We've reported the findings to politicians at the state and national level, we've reported them parents, and to school board members. And in the 15 years, the situation has simply gotten worse. And until some child gets hurt, no one is going to take the problem ceriou.ly."
Climate: Knowing What To Do and Doing It
Ultimately, the place where changes occur is in individual classrooms and schools. States averaged a C- on Quality Counts' measure of school climate. Only a handful of states--Vermont, Maine, Montana, and Oklahoma--received a B.
At the most basic level, schools should be safe and orderly place to learn. But schools are not sheltered from the violence and drug abuse that pervade our society. Nationally, the percentage of teachers who report that physical conflicts and weapons possession are a moderate or serious problem in their schools has been increasing dramatically.
At the high school level, 40% of teachers now report physical conflicts as a problem, up from 26% in 1987-88. The percentage of teachers who report that weapons possession is a moderate or serious problem almost doubled in the first four years of this decade, from 11% to 20%. The percentage of 10th graders who report that someone offered to sell or give them an illegal drug at school also has increased significantly during the 1990s.
On the plus side, we know far more now than we did at the start of the 1980s about the kind of school climate that promotes learning. These characteristics include:
- High academic expectations and a core academic curriculum for all students.
- Smaller class sizes and lower student-teacher ratios, particularly in the early primary grades.
- Smaller schools, with 350 students or fewer at the elementary level and no more than 900 to 1,000 students at the high school level.
- Schools characterized by clear goals and priorities, teachers who share similar beliefs about the school's mission, and collaboration among faculty.
- Positive relationships between students and staff, parental support for learning, high teacher morale, positive student attitudes toward achievement, and low absenteeism.
At the policy level, there also is a growing consensus that schools need more autonomy about how to organize themselves for learning. This includes providing waivers from state rules and regulations, creating site-based decisionmaking bodies that include teachers, and providing students and teachers with the option to choose among public schools.
The challenge now is how to translate this research into state policy that would increase the capacity of schools and teachers to do their jobs. So far, this remains the area where states have made the least progress.
Only a handful of states have more than half their students enrolled in elementary schools and high schools that research suggests are small enough for optimal student learning.
Only four states--Vermont, Maine, Oklahoma, and Texas--have most elementary teachers responsible for fewer than 25 students. Nationally, more than half of high school English teachers are responsible for 80 or more students.
The substantial costs involved in reducing class size and building smaller school explain why so many states fare poorly on the e measures. Many states that do well are Northern rural states that have smaller schools and classes partly out of happenstance rather than planning.
North Dakota routinely ranks at or near the top on measures of student achievement and on measures of school climate. But some of that may be sheer good fortune rather than a result of state policy. "There are great things going on in the schools," observes Wayne G. Sanstead, North Dakota's superintendent of public instruction. "But out-of-school factors have a lot to do with our success. We've got a good work ethic and a culture that sets high expectations and insists that no one gets away without a good education."
Although there are four medium-sized cities in the state--Fargo, Bismarck, Grand Forks, and Minot--there are no "inner cities" and few of the problems such as drug abuse and violence--associated with urban poverty. John Backes, the chairman of the University of North Dakota's college of education, says, "The majority of children are from middle-class, two-parent families. And solid academic preparation is believed to be a key to success. Children come to school ready to learn."
Nonetheless, states can make policy choices that Nonetheless, states can make policy choices that improve school climate. In California, until recently, 93% of elementary teachers had classes of 25 or more students. Abysmal scores on national reading assessments finally led the state to take notice. Last year, school districts embarked on a massive teacher-hiring spree sparked by a nearly $1 billion state initiative to reduce class sizes in the primary grades.
Sometimes, however, equally laudable goals may be in conflict. Efforts to boost student achievement by reducing class size require states to hire more teachers. Efforts to improve teacher quality require states to hire better teachers. In California, experts question whether hiring large number of novice teachers will raise reading cores. State officials also are worried about finding enough money to construct new classrooms.
Texas, with similar demographics, has made a sustained commitment to reducing class sizes. About 90% of its elementary teachers now teach fewer than 25 children. Texas also has been a leader in providing greater autonomy to local schools and pushing decisionmaking closer to students and teachers. In 1995, the state legislature reduced the Texas education code by half, dramatically limiting state authority. In addition, more schools in the Lone Star state than in any other state in the nation--80%--have a decisionmaking body that includes teachers.
The state also has a statewide open-enrollment plan that allows students to choose among school districts.
Even so, most states will have to make far more substantial and focused efforts for their reforms to reach the classroom. And they will have to exert far more staying power than they have in the past, which may be the toughest trick of all. Many state reform laws are designed to be phased in over a five- to 10-year period, even though key state leaders may not stay in office that long.
Notes one Missouri educator about the reforms in his state: "Maintaining the political and public will to see this development to its full implementation is counter to business as usual and counter to expectations for immediate results. It will test the resolve of policymakers."
He could have been speaking for every state in the country.
Vol. 16, Issue 17S, Page 7-11, 14-17Published in Print: January 22, 1997, as Keeping Tabs on Quality