Special Report
Budget & Finance

Holding Steady in a Stiff Wind

By The Editors — January 05, 2011 4 min read
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Quality Counts 2011, the 15th edition of this annual report produced through the joint efforts of the Education Week newsroom and the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, arrives at a time of continued fiscal anxiety and education policy ferment in the wake of what has been widely described as the “Great Recession” of 2007-09. Economists have officially declared the national downturn to be over. But concerns persist about the recovery’s pace and stability even as states and school districts seek to rebuild ravaged budgets—and as they cope with an end to massive one-time federal aid to education under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic-stimulus measure passed two years ago.

In keeping with the long-standing dual mission of Quality Counts, the report leverages the EPE Research Center’s detailed, state-level data collection and analysis to inform this year’s special theme: education and the economy. The research and the accompanying journalism probe the impact of the recession on the nation’s schools in policy, personnel, and programs, and outline the challenges—and opportunities for innovation—in store for state and local officials as they move forward.

Research Highlights

As with previous reports, this year’s publication draws deeply on the EPE Research Center’s 50-state policy survey and original data analysis to provide a comprehensive, state-by-state evaluation that encompasses dozens of key education policy and achievement indicators. This information is the backbone of Quality Counts’ report card on policy and performance. In addition, the center conducted a special survey to assess the state of public education finances, and explore some of the state-level responses to the recession in such crucial areas as personnel and operational flexibility for districts. This data-driven analysis, complemented by the reporting of Education Week staff writers, offers a detailed portrait of how states and districts are navigating the postrecession environment while seeking to maintain the momentum of standards-based school reform.

Among the highlights from the research center’s special, 50-state inquiry into the recession’s impact: While states overall launched few large-scale education policy changes as a result of the economic crisis, many have initiated modest policy changes offering local school systems greater flexibility to meet those economic challenges. Changes include loosening the reins on the eligible uses of education aid previously reserved for specific programs or student populations, an approach taken by 21 states since the recession began; and, in the case of 10 states, allowing greater flexibility on the length of the school year, week, or day.

State-by-State Grading

As in previous years, Quality Counts provides fresh results for crucial policy-and-performance areas that constitute the annual State of the States review.

This year’s report includes updated letter grades for the states and the nation overall in four specific categories: the Chance-for-Success Index, devised by the EPE Research Center to give perspective on the link between education and beneficial outcomes from early childhood to adulthood; the K-12 Achievement Index, which weighs how well a state’s students perform on 18 different criteria; school finance, capturing spending patterns and how equitably those dollars are distributed; and policies to facilitate transitions and alignment across various segments of the educational pipeline.

In addition, the states and the nation each receive an overall, summative grade that reflects the most recently available information from the six categories that make up the full Quality Counts policy-and-performance framework. They include the four updated categories, as well as results for the teaching profession and the standards, assessments, and accountability sections that are drawn from last year’s report.

Maryland—for the third year in a row—ranks first when all categories are taken into account, earning the nation’s highest grade, a B-plus. It is followed by Massachusetts and New York, each of which received a B. In contrast, the District of Columbia, Nebraska, and South Dakota received grades of D-plus, with a majority of states earning a C or C-plus. The nation as a whole earned a C, the same grade as last year.

Room for Improvement

In the two categories that provide the broadest perspective on both the performance of Americas schools and the state of education more generally, this years results offer a less-than-sanguine national portrait. On the K-12 Achievement Index, the average state earned a D-plus, little changed since grades for that category were last issued in 2008. On the Chance-for-Success Index, the nation as a whole earned a C-plus. The latter category, in particular, may offer some clues for policymakers: As in previous years, the results show that the states rankings on Chance-for-Success strongly correlate with factors associated with participation and performance in formal schooling among their residents.

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