Southern States See Progress Toward Goals

By Alan Richard — August 11, 2004 7 min read
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The quality of education in the South may be rising, but most states aren’t yet reaching the ambitious goals that leaders set for the region two years ago.

“I’m not here to suggest we’re where we want to be or where we ought to be,” Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas told the Southern Regional Education Board at its conference here in July. But, added Mr. Huckabee, a Republican and the group’s outgoing chairman, the South should be “recommitted to the process of making that happen.”

View the “2004 Annual Report: For SREB States - Information and Actions to Lead the Nation in Educational Progress,” from the Southern Regional Education Board. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

Southern leaders have praised their states’ progress toward the 12 goals for school improvement set by the SREB in June 2002. As they gathered here last month, many also warned, however, that the region’s recent economic rise will not continue without significantly more work on its K-12 schools, community colleges, and universities.

Several of the 16 SREB states show improved student achievement, though test scores for black and Hispanic students still lag behind those of their white and Asian-American counterparts. And despite the hopes of the state leaders who adopted the regional goals, many states are making little headway on targets for curbing dropout rates, improving teacher training, and installing excellent teachers in all schools.

“The South cannot lead from the bottom,” said Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, the Democrat who took over as the SREB’s chairwoman at the July conference.

The nonpartisan, Atlanta-based SREB has set regional education goals periodically since the 1960s. Its 1988 goals helped guide the Southern states into leading roles in the national movement to raise academic standards. (“Southern States Poised to Set Lofty New Education Goals,” June 19, 2002.)

“Better than we were the day before, and leading the nation in educational progress—there’s where we want to be,” said Mark Musick, the president of the SREB, speaking at the conference.

Strong Gains, Major Gaps

While some states are showing impressive academic progress, others have much ground to cover to meet the two SREB goals that call for every student to exceed national averages in elementary- and middle-grades achievement, and for test-score gaps between racial or ethnic groups to be eliminated.

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View the accompanying table, “Progress Report.”

The South’s ability to assess how each state is doing is clouded by vast differences between states’ academic-rating systems and scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Mr. Musick said.

For example, 80 percent of Georgia schools are meeting state standards on reading tests, but only 59 percent of the state’s students score at the “basic” level on NAEP, he said. The federally sponsored NAEP tests sample groups of students in reading and other core subjects.

“Standards matter, and standards are different,” Mr. Musick said. He added that such wide differences between results on state tests and NAEP reflect standards and testing systems in many states that are “being revised—or need to be revised.”

North Carolina and Texas were singled out for generally having the region’s highest NAEP scores in reading and math in 2003. “That is right at the top in the country,” Mr. Musick said.

No states are approaching the goal of having 100 percent of elementary- and middle-grades students reach the basic level on NAEP.

Even as NAEP scores have risen in many states, black and Hispanic students still score way behind their white and Asian peers. For example, 86 percent of North Carolina’s white 8th graders scored at basic or above in math on the NAEP in 2003, compared with 54 percent of Hispanics and 49 percent of African-Americans in the same grade."Some of these numbers, folks, are hard to accept, and they’re hard to understand,” Mr. Musick said at the conference.

Officials here showed that NAEP scores also are consistently lower for rural children in the South than for their urban and suburban counterparts regionally and nationally. Lynn Cornett, a senior vice president for the SREB said: “Our rural students do not compare well with rural students nationally.”

Finding Good Teachers

On teacher quality, the SREB states are making only limited progress in providing high-quality teachers in all classrooms—at least in the ways the regional goals and the federal No Child Left Behind Act require.

The 10th SREB goal says that every student should be taught by a well- qualified teacher. But many Southern states have been slow to implement strategies to boost teacher quality, such as pay incentives to draw teachers into hard-to-staff schools and subjects.

Gail Gaines, the SREB’s director of legislative services, said most teacher-pay incentives in the 16 states remain linked to measures of expertise, such as certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Although the Carolinas and Florida lead the nation in their numbers of nationally certified teachers, many of those teachers do not teach students in hard-to-staff schools, she noted. (“Nationally Certified Teachers Thrive in South,” March 24, 2004.)

“Twenty years ago, we didn’t have enough math and science teachers,” and the same is true today, Ms. Cornett told participants. “What are we going to do about it?”

She suggested using technology to help rural schoolchildren tap good teachers online. “Why not put the best physics teacher in the state in front of every student in every one of your districts?” she said.

Only five SREB states—Arkansas, Delaware, Kentucky, South Carolina, and West Virginia—require beginning teachers to pass on-the-job induction programs to renew their licenses, although nine states require districts to provide some sort of induction, Ms. Cornett said. “Some of you,” she said, “are really supporting your beginning teachers; some of you are not.”

High dropout numbers and low adult education rates still plague many parts of the South. Chancellor Thomas C. Meredith of the University System of Georgia said his state plans to unveil a partnership of state agencies, colleges, and other organizations to reduce dropouts in the state and advance more young people into college or careers.

“We realized we were losing almost half our 9th graders before they graduated from high school,” he said.

Despite the goal of having all adults who did not earn diplomas enroll in General Educational Development programs, the regional average enrollment is only 4 percent of those eligible. “We still have a very long way to go in getting young adults in GED programs,” said Joan Lord, the SREB’s director of educational policies.

Building Better Leaders

On school leadership, SREB Senior Vice President Gene Bottoms said that about half the region’s states are showing some progress toward improving training for school leaders, but added that “we still have miles to go to turn that corner and change the preparation process.”

He praised states such as Louisiana for offering future school leaders more internship experiences to groom their skills—which he argued could help more schools in the South meet the SREB goal of providing every school with a leader who can improve student learning.

Mississippi also requires future school administrators to spend significant time working in schools during their graduate-level training. (“At Delta State U., Principals Find Focus,” June 13, 2001.)

But Mr. Bottoms warned that in many states, future administrators “simply never have a chance to lead” before they enter the field. Twelve states, though, have made limited progress in reshaping administrator training to focus on candidates’ demonstrated skills rather than on coursework, he said.

Only four states have opened more career pathways for nontraditional school leaders in the past couple of years, with Florida taking the lead by allowing virtually any college graduate to become a principal with the approval of the local school board. (“Fla.'s New Code Drops Requirement for Principal Licenses,” May 15, 2002.)

Elsewhere, Sally Clausen, the president of the University of Louisiana System, said she has required all eight of her state’s colleges that train school leaders to rebuild their training programs around instructional leadership and on-site school improvement.

In other SREB news, Mr. Musick announced that Gov. Huckabee had appointed a committee to look toward the long-term leadership of the organization. Mr. Musick, who has been the group’s president for 15 years and an employee for more than 25 years, suggested that he would retire or scale back his role next year.


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