The State of the States

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Public education systems in the 50 states are riddled with excellence but rife with mediocrity. Despite 15 years of earnest efforts to improve public schools and rai e student achievement, states haven't made much progress.

As the new millennium approaches, there is growing concern that if public education doesn't soon improve, one of two outcomes is almost inevitable:

  • Our democratic system and our economic strength, both of which depend on an educated citizenry, will steadily erode; or,
  • Alternative forms of education will emerge to replace public schools as we have known them.

This will not happen next year or perhaps even in the next 10 years. But in time, if our education systems remain mediocre, we will see one of those two results. Either would be a sad loss for America.

The nation's governor realize this. Last March, they met at the National Education Summit to reaffirm their commitment to school reform. They invited the voters to hold them accountable and called for "an external, independent, nongovernmental effort to measure and report each state's annual progress."

We agree that Americans should hold their representatives--and themselves--accountable for the quality of their public schools. To help them do that, Education Week, with support from the Pew Charitable Trusts, is publishing this report.

Education Week's editors spent the better part of the past year studying the condition of public education in the states. We reviewed thousands of pages of data from a variety of government and private sources, surveyed policymakers and business leaders in every state, and polled educators.

We then compiled statistics on more than 75 specific indicator and graded states on their policies and performance in four major categories--academic standards, quality of teaching, school climate, and funding. We also ranked the states on their students' scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. (See story, page 27.)

We relied on research and experience in choosing the most useful indicators to evaluate public education in the states. Our goal was to focus on policies that really matter, that research tells us are most likely to result in better schools and more learning. In addition, staff writer have summarized the progress and problems in each state. They searched 15 years of Education Week's archives, pored over numerous state reports, and interviewed hundreds of experts. Their summaries, beginning on page 63, make up the bulk of this report.

In a nutshell, here is what we found:

1. Standards and assessments. What do we expect students to know and be able to do and how do we judge their performance? That question goes straight to the purpose and nature of public schooling. It is being discussed in every state, and it is one that every parent and taxpayer should be involved in.

High standards for student performance lay the foundation for the significant changes that must follow. And the work in this area appear to be paying off. This is where the states earned their highest overall grade--a solid B. Encouraging as that is, we must note that the B, at this point, is more for effort than results. In most states, the standards haven't found their way into classrooms. Teachers, by and large, are not prepared to teach to them. We don't know how rigorous they are. The tests aren't yet in place to measure student progress. And few states are ready to hold either schools or students accountable for meeting the new standards.

✓ Overall grade for the states: B.

✓ 22 states earn A's.

✓ 13 get B's.

✓ 2 states get F's, mainly because they have decided not to develop statewide standards and assessments.

2. Quality of teaching. How are teacher prepared and supported? The system can only be as good as its teachers. Research shows that a good teacher in every classroom is the most effective way of improving student performance. Great strides have been made at the policy level to turn teaching into a real profession with higher standards for training and more rigorous licensing requirements. At the national level, the crucial pieces of a system are falling into place, but there is much work to be done. On average, four out of 10 secondary teachers do not have a degree in the subject they teach. Too many unlicensed teachers are in classroom '. Not enough prospective teacher receive the high-quality education they need. On-the-job education for teachers is still more of a goal than a reality.

✓ Overall grade for the states: C.

✓ 8 states get B's.

✓ 3 get D's.

✓ The rest receive C's.

3. School climate. How should a school be organized and run to be effective?

We know a lot about what make good schools. They should be small enough for teacher to know their students and work effectively with their colleagues. They should have a clear, shared sense of mission and be focused on student learning. They should capitalize on what we now know about how children learn. And they should be safe and orderly. That is the goal. The reality is that nearly half of our elementary teachers have classes of 25 or more pupil; more than half of high school English teachers teach 80 or more students a day. There is not enough parent and community involvement.

Strong tradition of local control dilute the effectiveness of state policy in changing the way school are organized and operated. And ultimately, it is in the school and the classroom where we win or lose. In school climate, states get their lowest scores.

✓ Overall, the states earn a C-.

✓ No states get A's.

✓ 4 states receive B's.

✓ 19 get D's, and the rest get C's.

4. Resources.

  • Are states allocating enough money to do the job? Most states are spending more money for education than they did 10 years ago, and the increases generally have outpaced inflation. But too few of the additional dollars have reached classroom. Most of the increased funding has been spent on the approximately 12% of students in special education, on trying to keep up with enrollment growth, and on rising salaries for an aging teaching force.

    ✓ Overall, states get a C+ on whether they spend enough.

    ✓ 5 states get A's, and 20 get B's.

    ✓ 17 states get C's, and 7 states get D's.

    ✓ 1 state gets an F.

  • Do states make sure that everyone gets a fair share? After more than three decades of lawsuits and legislative haggling, the system has become somewhat more equitable. But progress notwithstanding, intolerable disparities persist between rich schools and poor schools within states and across states, and the extent of that inequity is not revealed in the letter grades. The fact is that the quality of a child's education depends greatly on skin color, family income, and where he or she lives. The problem is most severe in inner cities and poor rural areas.

    ✓ Overall, the state get a low B- on equity.

    ✓ 5 states get A's.

    ✓ 6 states get D's.

    ✓ The rest earn B's and C's.

  • Do states spend their money on the right things? How money is spent is as important as how much is spent. States do not concentrate enough funding in the classroom--on teaching and learning. Technology has great potential to increase productivity in a labor-intensive endeavor. Schools have made remarkable gains in acquiring computer equipment, but there is little evidence that it is being effectively used to help all children. Finally, states have failed to make sure that school buildings are sound and safe. Districts have deferred maintenance to the point where millions of children attend schools that need to be replaced or substantially repaired.

    ✓ States get a C- in the allocation of dollars.

    ✓ 6 states get B's.

    ✓ 28 states get C's.

    ✓ 16 states either barely passed or failed.

5. Student achievement. This is the bottom line. The question of student achievement can't be answered as fully and accurately as it should be because the states don't collect the necessary information to permit comparisons--data such as course-taking, dropout rates, and attendance rates. The only comparable measure of student performance are the NAEP scores, and they are discouraging.

✓ Maine has the best core in the nation on the 1994 NAEP 4th grade reading test, and 59% of its 4th graders could not read at a proficient level.

✓ Iowa led the nation on the 1992 NAEP math exam, and 69% of its 8th graders were below the proficient level.

✓ 85% of Louisiana's 4th graders read below the proficient level.

✓ 94% of Mississippi's 8th graders score below proficient in math.

The public education systems in the 50 states have been a century or more in the making. They cannot be transformed quickly, but they can be significantly improved. In every state, there are examples of successful, effective schools. Their success does not permit us to tolerate mediocrity any longer or anywhere.

Vol. 16, Issue 17S, Page 3

Published in Print: January 22, 1997, as The State of the States
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