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School & District Management

Two Decades Later, a Look at Quality Counts' Birth

By Mark Walsh — January 06, 2016 8 min read
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Twenty years ago, corporate leaders, 40 state governors, and President Bill Clinton gathered at an IBM conference center in Palisades, N.Y., and came up with a statement designed to advance more-rigorous academic standards and testing in the nation’s schools.

One idea that emerged out of that Clinton-era National Education Summit in March 1996 was for someone to publish an annual report on the progress of states in improving their education policies.

The result, less than a year later, was Education Week’s Quality Counts, now marking its 20th edition. But it wasn’t immediately clear at the time who would take on such a project.

Robert B. Schwartz, then a program officer at the Pew Charitable Trusts, recalled in a recent interview that some of the corporate executives and their education aides who were closely involved with the summit gravitated toward the idea of enlisting U.S. News & World Report to produce a 50-state progress report. Foremost among them was Louis V. Gerstner Jr., then the chief executive of IBM and an active force in K-12 education reform.

The news magazine’s annual ranking of colleges and universities, though controversial, had been around for more than a dozen years and had earned a following.

Schwartz, who would soon go on to become the first president of Achieve, a corporate-supported nonprofit that grew out of the 1996 summit to support the standards and accountability movement, thought another publication might be a better fit for the state progress reports.

“I thought maybe I could convince Education Week to do it,” said Schwartz, now an emeritus professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a consultant.

He phoned Ronald A. Wolk, then the president and publisher of Education Week, to ask if he would consider the idea. Wolk had been at the education summit.

“He laughed and said that not only would he consider it, it was something he had been considering doing in some form,” Schwartz said.

Playing Hardball

Wolk, the founding editor of Education Week and now the chair emeritus of its nonprofit parent corporation, Editorial Projects in Education, said in an interview that he jumped at the idea and rushed to put together a proposal for the annual progress report.

But Gerstner still favored U.S. News to lead the project. Wolk set up a meeting with an old journalistic friend, Mel Elfin, who as education editor at U.S. News had launched the magazine’s college rankings in 1983.

“I went down to have lunch with him, and he was kind of playing hardball,” said Wolk. “He kind of said it’s not much of a contest between U.S. News and Education Week.” Elfin meant that he was confident his magazine would be chosen.

A couple of days later, Elfin called Wolk to say that he and his colleagues at U.S. News had decided not to bid for the project, Wolk said. Pew awarded a grant for the project to Education Week.

Meanwhile, Wolk had started moving forward with the project even before the decision was made, since there was much work to do to come up with a report evaluating the education systems of all 50 states and the District of Columbia in less than eight months. (The goal was to publish the report in January 1997, just as most state legislatures were opening.)

Wolk asked Virginia B. Edwards, then, as now, the editor of Education Week, whether she had heard from any promising job applicants lately. “She handed me six letters of rejection she had just sent out,” he said.

One was to Craig D. Jerald, a young Teach For America alumnus who was working at the U.S. Department of Education. Jerald realized he didn’t enjoy working in a large bureaucracy, and he had taken a shot at becoming an education journalist by applying to Education Week.

Jerald said he met with Wolk and was offered a job on the spot as project director of what would become Quality Counts.

“We were very simpatico,” Jerald recalled. “The first couple of years of Quality Counts were a real intellectual adventure. A lot of people told us that it was going to be impossible. That’s the best kind of job to have.”

Wolk and Jerald set off to meet with education experts and gather data.

“Ron didn’t have a 100 percent clear vision of what the report would look like,” Jerald said. “But he was good at bringing in top experts.”

Jerald remembers a meeting with Emerson Elliott, who had recently retired as the head of the National Center for Education Statistics.

Elliott “smiled and shook his head and said, ‘You know, this was tried with the infamous “wall chart,” and it was a disaster,’” Jerald said. The wall chart was an accountability report launched in the mid-1980s by then-U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett. Critics said it was based on unreliable data and measures not suitable for comparisons among the states.

Jerald added: “We had folks telling us that, at the very least, we had bitten off more than we could chew, and that what we were trying to do might be impossible.”

Both Wolk and Jerald recalled that their background research took them to California to meet with education experts at some of the leading West Coast universities. One day, when they were in La Jolla, Calif., Wolk rose early and phoned Jerald in his hotel room to tell him he was heading over to the beach. When you get up and moving, you should come join me, Wolk told his young colleague.

A little while later, “I look up and here comes a guy in a business suit and oxfords,” said Wolk, who was wearing casual beach attire.

“Craig clearly had the brains, energy, commitment, and passion for the position,” Wolk added. “He taught himself some higher-order math and statistics and became the engine of the project.”

Jerald laughed at the beach recollection and said, “I didn’t know. He was my boss, and I was used to the formality of D.C.”

Jerald left Education Week in 2000, and has worked for the Education Trust, the College Board, and as an independent consultant.

A Debate on the ‘NewsHour’

The first edition of Quality Counts, released Jan. 16, 1997 (with a cover date of Jan. 22), offered 238 pages of data and reporting on the state of K-12 education in the United States.

“We developed categories of state policy, like finance, student achievement, teachers, school climate, and, of course, standards and assessment,” Wolk said. “Within the categories, we came up with 76 indicators on which we would gather data.”

Still, there was much information that simply wasn’t available. Education Week worked with what it could find for that first report before refining its own surveys and data in subsequent reports.

“America’s public school systems are riddled with excellence but rife with mediocrity,” the first Quality Counts concluded.

States were graded in four categories: standards and assessments, quality of teaching, school climate, and resources (with separate grades in that last category for funding adequacy, equity, and allocation).

The report also had lengthy stories about each state’s experience with standards and accountability, prepared by Education Week reporters.

When the first Quality Counts report was unveiled, Jerald remembers being so nervous at a press conference at the National Press Club that he knocked over an easel holding posterboard highlights.

That evening, Wolk went on “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” on PBS to talk about the report. Another guest was Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who was invited to represent the Education Commission of the States; Branstad criticized the report at his first opportunity. Iowa had received an F for standards and assessment because it was one of only three states not developing statewide standards.

“I think there’s too much focus on process and not enough focus on results or achievement,” Branstad told segment host Margaret Warner. “In Iowa, we’ve taken a different approach. We’re a local-control state.”

Later in the segment, Wolk said: “I think you have to start worrying about a nation in which fewer than half of its students can read proficiently, and fewer than that can do math proficiently. These kids are going into a high-tech information society. ... And if we can’t get a higher percentage of our students achieving, I suspect that this nation is in for real trouble.”

Weathering Changes

Edwards, who besides being editor-in-chief of Education Week is president of its parent, EPE, noted that Quality Counts, both in its first rendition and in subsequent years, was repeatedly cited by governors in their annual state-of-the-state addresses.

“It quickly became a highly anticipated report,” Edwards said.

Wolk, who now lives in Warwick, R.I., and remains a keen observer of education as a writer and nonprofit-board member, confesses to some misgivings about Quality Counts. Even when he was first presenting the idea to the Editorial Projects in Education board, there was a concern about “whether this was a project for a newspaper that claimed to be objective,” he said, and whether Education Week would be “providing direct support for the dominant strategy to improve schools: standards-based assessment.”

“It gave me real pause,” Wolk said. In the following 10 years, meeting four times a year with the Pew Forum on Standards-Based Reform, “I became pretty much convinced that the strategy of standards-based accountability would fail and do more harm than good,” he said.

Quality Counts focused a whole lot of attention on standards and testing,” Wolk added. “I suppose that’s both good and bad.”

Anthony Cody, a popular education blogger and the co-founder of the Network for Public Education, a Tucson, Ariz.-based group advocating for the traditional public school system, said he agreed that Quality Counts lent momentum to the standards and testing movement.

“There has been this tremendous effort over the last two decades to drive educational outcomes by data,” said Cody, a former opinion blogger for Education Week Teacher. “To the extent that Quality Counts does that, it reinforces that mindset. It is part of the groupthink that has led us to this obsession with testing.”

Cody also said: “The problem with something like Quality Counts is, you have all these supposedly objective indicators to justify your rankings of quality. But just as we are discovering with teacher evaluation, there are factors that go into school quality that aren’t measured by state accountability systems.”

Schwartz said he is convinced that Pew made the right choice with its original grant. And with more education decisionmaking headed back to the states under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new federal K-12 law, having good data to compare states will be more important than ever, he said.

“My own sense is that Quality Counts has done quite well,” Schwartz said, “and it has weathered the changes over the years quite nicely.”

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