What Can the Nation Do to Shift Schools Out of Neutral?

A water-filled balloon is used to demonstrate blood pressure to 4th graders at Washington Elementary School in Valley City, N.D. The school has been recognized for maintaining funding for programs such as arts instruction, personalized technology, physical education, and nutrition.
A water-filled balloon is used to demonstrate blood pressure to 4th graders at Washington Elementary School in Valley City, N.D. The school has been recognized for maintaining funding for programs such as arts instruction, personalized technology, physical education, and nutrition.
—Dan Koeck for Education Week
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Last year, state officials nationwide got a startling reality check about attitudes toward school policy when they held public meetings about how to reset their K-12 agendas under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Trust in state accountability system had eroded. Teachers were exhausted from haphazard, underfunded, and short-lasting reform efforts. And in many places, concentrated poverty had constricted more than ever schools' day-to-day operations.

But while there was large consensus about the problems among those who participated in last year's ESSA feedback, there was little agreement on solutions.

That's been the case nationally for a long time.

America's schools made large academic gains between 1960 and 1980 as schools across the country racially integrated, colleges opened their doors to more students, and states overhauled their school spending habits.

But those gains have since stalled. Since its inception in 1997, Quality Counts has given the nation as a whole a grade of C most years, with high-performing states and improvements in the middle of the pack still unable to budge the nation's overall score upward to any significant degree. (This year, the nation kept its C grade, while creeping up a fraction of a point numerically from last year. Twenty-one states fell below a C average.)

What's to Blame?

State leaders have in recent years blamed this lack of progress on the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which went into effect in 2002 and was superceded by ESSA's passage in 2015. The law's expectations were unrealistic, they said. It relied too heavily on math and reading tests. And its solutions for states' most-troubled schools were too prescriptive.

With the passage of ESSA, the nation moves into an era where state and local politicians will have plenty more power to set their own academic goals and design pathways to reaching those goals.

Their plans, most of which are currently being evaluated by the U.S. Department of Education, go into effect this fall. To provide context for this year's Quality Counts scores, Education Week interviewed researchers, advocates, and practitioners about what state leaders must do to create a more conducive climate for school improvement. Among the steps they say states should take:

  • Be more honest and transparent with the public about the academic state of their schools.
  • Provide parents of poor and disenfranchised students political vehicles to demand change.
  • Organize their school-governance systems so that it's more apparent to the public who's in charge.
  • More appropriately fund and organize state education agencies so that they're equipped to design and implement statewide school improvement initiatives.

And even with ESSA's new flexibility, they warn, progress in the coming years will be spotty between rich and poor states.

"There will become a state-by-state gap in quality where the already successful states will get more successful, and the non-successful states will become even more non-successful," said Gary Hoover, a professor of economics at the University Oklahoma who has studied the impact of state and district education policy. With less funding and federal oversight, he said, states' problem areas typically compound and accelerate.

Engaging Parents

With states more in charge of policy now, parents will be in a better political position to organize and put more pressure on elected leaders, many experts say. But there's no telling if parents will even demand much change.

While just a third of America's students meet basic state reading and math standards, 90 percent of parents think their child is doing perfectly fine, according to a survey conducted by Learning Heroes, a nonprofit that consults with states to develop more parent-friendly school report cards.

Further, America's rapidly growing poor and minority communities, whose segregated and isolated schools struggle the most, still hold relatively little political capital in states.

Fourth grader Sameern Malcom bends a vinegar-soaked turkey bone in a health class demonstrating the value of bone calcium at Washington Elementary School in Valley City, N.D. The school earns kudos for sticking with programs such as nutrition,
physical education, and the arts that sometimes lose out to budget pressures.
Fourth grader Sameern Malcom bends a vinegar-soaked turkey bone in a health class demonstrating the value of bone calcium at Washington Elementary School in Valley City, N.D. The school earns kudos for sticking with programs such as nutrition, physical education, and the arts that sometimes lose out to budget pressures.
—Dan Koeck for Education Week


ESSA requires states to report much more detailed information about their schools, including teacher quality, discipline data, and school spending habits.

While that's a step in the right direction, said Sandra Vergari, a professor at the State University of New York at Albany who studies educational policy and leadership, it'll matter greatly how this data is collected and presented to the public.

She pointed out that even when it's clear to the public that their schools need help, parents and their advocates often have a hard time navigating states' political systems, a tangled web of technocrats and elected leaders with duplicative roles and authorities.

"The public needs to have good accessibility to quality data," Vergari said. "They need to know where to get it and how to make sense of it and then equipped, civically, to know how they can act on it."

Capacity Issues

Experts also raised concerns about the capacity of state departments of education, which will have an increased responsibility in the coming years to implement governors' and legislatures' agendas and come up with solutions on their own.

Because of mass layoffs in recent years, there are fewer people left in state departments to carry out ever-more ambitious tasks.

State chiefs, who have been under political fire in recent years for testing, accountability systems, and standards, have been resigning at an alarming rate. While it takes more than five years to craft, implement and judge the merits of school improvement policies, the average state chief today lasts a little more than two years.

"I would hope that the political waters would calm down a bit," said Michael Martirano, the former chief of West Virginia schools and the current district superintendent of Howard County schools in Maryland. "Every time there's a new appointment, it creates a level of policy incoherence for school districts, and that's not healthy."

Kristen Amundson, the president and CEO of the National Association of State Boards of Education, said it'll take some years for departments to shed their culture of compliance where they mostly just assured that districts were abiding by federal law.

"It's important to remember that we have an entire generation of policymakers and administrators who came up in a compliance-driven system," Amundson said. "There are still people who ask, 'What can we do?' "

As technology and globalization shift employers' expectations of K-12 graduates, solutions to some of schools' most vexing problems remain opaque.

School funding, which, depending on the state, has historically been heavily tied to revenues from natural resources and income and property taxes, has still not reached pre-Great Recession levels, finance experts point out. For states that struggle and where student poverty is concentrated and far-reaching, they say, it'll be more and more difficult to build up special education services, keep class sizes effectively small, retain quality teachers, and build in-school wraparound services to support students.

"It's very hard to close opportunity gaps with inequitable funding," said Amundson.

Related Blog

It will become more necessary for states and foundations to invest in research, said Hoover, of the University of Oklahoma. He pointed out that research pilots require lots of money, patience and political capital, resources many struggling states don't have. Once potential solutions are found, he said, state departments must then figure out ways to promote and duplicate that success.

"From what I saw, well-funded states have better opportunities to document successes," Hoover said. "Documenting successes leads to stability."

Vergari said state collaboration will become more important in the future. The failure to do so was illustrated painfully as states stumbled over implementation of the controversial Common Core State Standards. "Knowledge will be a key resource," she said, pointing out that mass layoffs at state education departments led to a loss of expertise. "A key opportunity is going to be for states to work with each other and share knowledge and ideas and cull resources. You don't have to reinvent the wheel 50 times."

Vol. 37, Issue 17, Pages 19, 21

Published in Print: January 17, 2018, as What Will It Take to Turn Marginal Gains Into True Momentum on School Quality?
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