States

State Ed. Systems Aren’t Equipped to Address Schools’ Big Challenges

By Libby Stanford — December 07, 2022 4 min read
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Clarification: A previous version of this article referred to state education systems as state education agencies. The story has been updated to clarify that the NCSL report was referring to state education systems.

State education systems need an overhaul and it’s incumbent on state legislators to make it happen, a group of 20 bipartisan state lawmakers and legislative staff concludes in a new report.

The National Conference of State Legislatures report, “The Time is Now: Reimagining World-Class State Education Systems,” outlines a dire situation for state education systems: widened academic achievement gaps between high- and low-achieving learners, teacher staffing challenges, and an unprepared workforce.

The new report builds upon NCSL’s 2018 “No Time to Lose,” which highlighted academic disparities and failures across specific states. It also pointed to alarming National Assessment of Educational Progress and Programme for International Student Assessment scores, which show American students lost nearly 20 years of academic progress during the pandemic and have middling performance when compared with international students.

“These academic test scores, coupled with other measures of student well-being, serve as a warning that our system is failing a vast majority of students, which has significant implications for our future economy,” the new report says.

But there are ways in which state lawmakers can make a positive difference in public schools, and they will require bipartisan commitment, the report emphasizes.

Learning from other countries

The 20 lawmakers involved in the report spent two years learning about education systems in the Canadian province of British Columbia, as well as the national systems in Estonia, Finland, and Singapore. They also heard from researchers about successful state education systems, such as Maryland’s, which used international best practices to create its Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, an extensive plan to increase education funding by $3.8 billion each year over a decade.

“The U.S. education system, which had led the world for a century, … is no longer a world leader,” said Rep. Llew Jones, a Republican state legislator in Montana who participated in the report. “It has not only begun to falter, it is being out-competed by other models at increasingly higher levels.”

After talking with education experts from other countries, lawmakers decided to adopt the National Center on Education and the Economy’s Blueprint for a High-Performing Education System, which establishes a framework for state education systems to achieve “excellence, equity, and efficiency.”

According to the framework created by the Washington-based center, schools should ensure they have effective teachers and principals, rigorous and adaptive learning systems, and equitable foundations of supports to be successful.

The education systems in the other countries were built on “a corps of world-class, well-prepared teachers working in schools that are organized to develop their expertise,” the report says.

The report suggests that lawmakers focus on establishing a career ladder for teachers that includes: a comprehensive, multi-year teacher induction experience; ongoing professional learning, collaboration, and improvement; a structure for developing mentorship and expertise; a strategy to develop leadership at all levels of the system; and a pathway for teachers to move more easily from one district to another.

“There’s no inference that teachers aren’t working hard,” Jones said. “We potentially aren’t working at the right model … We need to offer our teachers the training and the opportunity to work in a more effective model.”

The report also recommends that state education systems create personalized and proficiency-based learning pathways for students. The idea is to let students move through the education system at their own pace rather than at a pace determined by the amount of time spent in the classroom.

For example, the report recommends that state education systems adopt competency-based assessment models, ensuring that students don’t move to the next step in the education system without first mastering the subjects they are working on. The report also places an emphasis on career and technical education that includes work-based learning and has a focus on helping students explore career options.

“A lot of the [other] countries are making sure their students have in their 11th or 12th-grade year paid internships with businesses or volunteer work,” said Alaska Rep. Andi Story, a Democrat who participated in the report. “It helps motivate kids to see how their school years are relating to employment after.”

The importance of bipartisan partnerships

The group working on the report was made up of 12 legislators and eight legislative staff members. The 12 lawmakers included eight Democrats and four Republicans. Those involved believe that improving school systems should be a bipartisan endeavor.

“At the end, the best practices are the best practices, they’re neither Democratic or Republican,” Jones said.

Jones said it’s important for lawmakers to be aware of how they’re talking about education initiatives and open their minds to new ways of solving old problems.

Both Jones and Story, who are on opposite sides of the political spectrum, hope to use the information from the report to improve career and technical education, create systems for teachers to thrive in their workplaces, and establish mentorship programs in their states.

Bipartisanship allows for the lawmakers, who have many differences, to better understand each other and act as examples for students, Story said.

“It’s a way to show our students, our children, our youth, that as adults we can work together in a very civil way on issues that are important to everyone,” she said.

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