Special Report

Equipping U.S. Schools for the Global Fast Lane

By The Editors — January 09, 2012 7 min read
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Quality Counts 2012, the 16th edition of Education Week‘s annual examination of issues and challenges facing America’s public schools, takes aim at topics high on the policy agenda, from the White House and Congress down to the level of local school boards and chambers of commerce: the nation’s international standing in education, and lessons to be drawn from high-performing countries.

Few events in education have as galvanizing an effect on public discourse in the United States as the release of international test scores, which, with some exceptions, show mediocre results for American students when compared with their peers in various developed—and developing—nations. Over the past decade, in particular, nation-by-nation results on such tests as the Program for International Student Assessment and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study have taken on a grand meaning among elected officials and others because of what they may, or may not, say about the American education system as a whole, and about the country’s economic prospects.

Much of the debate centers on whether the U.S. education system has slipped from a position of dominance, or is holding steady, in areas deemed crucial to economic security, particularly the STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—and so-called 21st-century learning and communications skills. Now, more than ever, policymakers are interested what they can learn from high-performing countries in areas such as teacher quality and effectiveness; curriculum and academic standards; school funding and fiscal equity; governance; and the role and responsibilities of civic institutions in shaping the educational infrastructure.

This year’s Quality Counts report takes a critical look at the nation’s place among the world’s public education systems. Veteran Education Week journalists with deep expertise in such areas as teaching, assessment, curriculum, and state and federal policymaking put to the test popular assumptions about the country’s competitive status in education. Working with colleagues from the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, they illuminate innovations in high-performing nations that have taken root in the United States, lessons to be drawn from the experience of other countries, and the promise and risks such strategies hold for U.S. policymakers. The aim is to provide fresh perspectives on the political, social, and cultural challenges the nation faces in preparing its public school students for the workforce demands of an interconnected world economy.

Looking Abroad

In keeping with this year’s theme, the EPE Research Center used its annual survey of state education agency officials to ask if they are drawing on international comparisons in crafting specific measures for improving education. Of those responding, agencies in 29 states affirmed using such information, while 21 states and the District of Columbia said they are not currently using international data as a resource in guiding public policy.

The ways in which international comparisons are put to use vary widely among the 29 states drawing on them as a policy tool, the EPE Research Center’s policy survey found. A majority of those responding in the affirmative, 18 overall, use them to compare student achievement, and 12 states are looking to other nations in coming up with academic-content standards. A handful look abroad for ideas in setting performance standards for state assessments.

States that cited international comparisons as a factor in informing their academic-content standards most often looked to them in the areas of mathematics and science, rather than in social studies or English/language arts. Seven jurisdictions turned up on the list of those most mentioned in the area of math and science: Canada, England, Finland, Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand, and Singapore. Cited most often in this area was Singapore, with 18 states naming it as a model for current standards in math or science. Officials responding to the survey often indicated the need to ensure that their states were preparing to keep up with the demands of a competitive world economy, and cited the importance of looking at “best practices” from high-achieving nations.

State-by-State Grades

In addition to the in-depth package of articles on this year’s theme, Quality Counts 2012 offers fresh data and analysis from the EPE Research Center on key education policy indicators, including scores and letter grades for individual states and for the nation overall in five of six areas tracked by the annual report.

This year’s updated categories include the Chance-for-Success Index, introduced in Quality Counts 2007 to offer a handle on the role that education plays in enhancing positive outcomes at various stages over the course of a person’s life; the K-12 Achievement Index, which offers a yardstick on student performance by state on 18 crucial indicators; and school finance, graded on eight factors, including how education resources are spread within a state, as well as overall spending patterns. Also updated are categories tracking policies that involve the teaching profession, and those that focus on standards, assessments, and accountability.

The sixth category captured in the report’s annual “State of the States” roundup involves policies relating to transitions and alignment among different sections of the educational continuum, from early childhood to postsecondary education and the world of work. It was updated in Quality Counts 2011.

Together, these six categories form the basis of the summative letter grades given to the nation overall and to the individual states. Maryland, for the fourth consecutive year, ranks at the top of the national list with a grade of B-plus. Tightly clustered behind it with a B are Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia, all of which consistently performed strongly in past Quality Counts reports.

Ranked at the bottom was South Dakota, which receives a grade of D-plus, while 11 states rank in the lowest tier, with grades of C-minus. The nation overall receives a grade of C, the same as last year; overall, 41 states receive grades ranging from C-minus to C-plus.

Bright Spots

Although the nation as a whole posted no overall increase on the summative grade reflecting all six categories tracked annually in the report, notable changes took place in some specific areas.

Chief among these is the category of standards, assessments, and accountability, a long-standing feature of Quality Counts. Since 2010, when this category was last updated, 20 states have posted improvements, with 12 states—led by Indiana—earning an A, and nine an A-minus. Illinois increased its score by nearly 18 points, and Kentucky by 15. Academic-content standards were the strongest single indicator; 19 states earned a perfect score in this subcategory.

In the realm of K-12 student achievement, Quality Counts evaluates 18 separate criteria looking at how states are performing now, how they have improved over time, and poverty-based achievement gaps. The nation overall posted a 1 point increase over last year. Thirty states’ scores improved between 2011 and 2012, and five notched improvements of 4 points or more. Massachusetts and New Jersey were the only two states to earn a B-minus or better across all three categories included in the K-12 Achievement Index.


In the area of the teaching profession, by contrast, the nation as a whole remained stagnant, earning a C, while a majority of states posted lower scores than in Quality Counts 2010, the last time these policies were examined.

Overall, states showed a drop in eight of 10 indicators connected to state funding. This decline may well reflect the difficult fiscal climate that states continue to face. The drop was particularly evident in the area of support for beginning teachers. For example, just 16 states—seven fewer than in 2010—require new teachers to participate in state-funded mentoring programs. In addition, the number of states willing to finance incentives for teachers to earn certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards dropped to 24 in this year’s report, from 31 in 2010.

On the earnings side, however, an original analysis by the EPE Research Center shows that the salaries of public school teachers have improved relative to workers in comparable jobs in the past two years. Nationally, teachers earn 94 cents to the dollar as measured against a basket of 16 occupations, including counselors, nurses, and physical therapists. In 13 states, teacher salaries were at least equal to pay in those other professions, an increase of four from 2010.


Finally, in the area of school finance, an analysis of school funding disparities among districts once again finds large differences in many states. For example, the funding spread between high- and low-spending districts in Alaska, the greatest gap in the nation, was $13,730; in Florida, where the gap was the narrowest, it amounted to $2,175. The analysis also shows that six states fund property-poor school districts at equal or higher levels than wealthier systems.

Learn More

As in previous years, detailed state-by-state scores and grades for all subcategories reflected in Quality Counts 2012 can be found online through the “State Highlights Reports” produced by the EPE Research Center.

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