Equity & Diversity

Public Schools in the South Need More Investments, Poll of Region’s Voters Finds

By Denisa R. Superville — January 30, 2018 5 min read
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Southern states must be more aggressive in closing achievement gaps, increasing post-secondary readiness, improving teacher-quality and providing non-academic supports for an increasingly diverse student body, a new report from education advocacy groups argues.

And those recommendations are strongly backed by a new poll that shows that most voters in the South believe the quality of the public schools in their states is too uneven and think that state officials need to take action to make up differences.

The report, “Accelerating the Pace: The Future of Education in the American South,”notes that while southern states have made great strides and has narrowed some achievement gaps, others have widened. And even within the same state, students’ educational experiences can vary vastly. The report was released today by the Columbia Group, an informal group of education organizations in seven southern states.

The group also released results from the new poll of voters in 12 Southern states that show broad support—across political affiliations, gender, and race—for investing more resources into improving public schools for all students in the region.

In their report, the authors argue that the economic future of the region hinges on legislators making policy that brings deliberate, dramatic changes to the education system.

Employers have conveyed having difficulty finding graduates with the skills necessary to fill current jobs, and students are also reporting that schools often fall short of meeting all of their needs, according to Diane Hopkins, vice president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, one of the seven organizations that make up the Columbia Group.

“There is definitely an urgency now for us to pay attention to this, “Hopkins said. “We see what the needs are for the workforce. We hear many of our business leaders talk about that talent gap—that kids are coming out of school not having the types of skills needed in order to go directly into the workforce now, or they may not have the quality of education they need in order to go into post-secondary education.”

The report comes as many states are beginning to put into practice their new education plans under the federal Every Student Success Act, which will address some of the challenges that the report highlighted, including tackling persistent achievement gaps and educator quality. Education is also expected to remain at the forefront of political debate in several Southern states during upcoming gubernatorial races. Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida are among the states where voters will elect governors in November.

While pointing to stark data showing where some Southern states are lagging, the report also highlighted several initiatives in the states to address challenges, including a program at the University of Alabama that allows STEM majors to simultaneously earn teaching certification; Tennessee’s Drive to 55 program, which aims to have 55 percent of the state’s adults obtain a post-secondary degree or certificate by 2025, and North Carolina’s early college program, which allows high school students to take college courses while in high school.

The poll is a first of its kind, according to Hopkins. It captured responses from some 2,200 registered voters in 12 states (10 states plus northern Florida and Southern Virginia) and was conducted last October.

According to the poll, 18 percent of respondents said their schools were getting better while 39 percent of respondents said their schools were about the same. Thirty-four percent said their schools were getting worse.

And 84 percent of respondents said they supported adjusting state funding system to ensure greater fairness in funding between wealthier and poorer communities.

Hopkins said the poll’s results—and focus groups that were conducted before the report—were encouraging in that they showed that voters understood “how important improving quality education is for ourselves and our economy.”

“In our focus groups and in our polls, [voters] are willing to invest more resources and support those things that will improve education for our kids—as long as they know where it’s going and that it’s going to make a difference,” she said.

In addition to the poll, the report was also informed by focus groups with parents, educators, and students. Some students said that they did not always feel that their communities or teachers had the highest expectations for all students, and that they needed not just academic support, but assistance with family issues.

“I don’t think we give enough credit to our students for really knowing what they need,” Hopkins said.

The report proposed four major focus areas to improve education in the South:

  • Prepare, support and keep high-quality teachers. This includes recruiting stronger candidates, including teachers of color; reviewing teacher-preparation programs; increasing pay; and ensuring that qualified teachers are evenly distributed in poor schools as well as wealthier ones.
  • Increase supports for students. This includes expanding high-quality pre-K programs; more-rigorous classes for students; whole child initiatives to support students and families; revamping school climate and discipline policies; and directing attention to the needs of students of color, students in poverty, and English language learners.
  • Improve post-secondary readiness. This includes ensuring that students have access to rigorous courses to prepare them for college or a career; creating pathways to allow students to earn an associate’s degree or certification while in high school; and building better transitions for students after they complete high school.
  • Equitable distribution of resources. This is not just about rethinking school funding formulas, but also ensuring that schools have the resources they need to meet higher expectations.

The Columbia Group includes A+ Education Partnership in Alabama; the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education; the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence in Kentucky; Education’s Next Horizon in Louisiana; Mississippi First; Public School Forum of North Carolina; and the (State Collaborative on Reforming Education) in Tennessee. The group also consulted with other education improvement organizations, including the Southern Regional Education Board.

The report was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (Education Week currently receives financial support from the Gates Foundation for coverage of continuous improvement strategies in education.)

You can read the entire report here.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.