Special Report

Boosting School Quality Remains a Slog for States, Nation

By Evie Blad — September 03, 2019 7 min read
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The nation’s latest C grade on Education Week’s annual Quality Counts report—the mark it’s often received since the annual assessment of the country’s K-12 system was created in 1997—is another sign that pursuing educational progress remains a slow and challenging task for many states.

While moving the needle on student achievement has always been a complicated task, educators and lawmakers have seen some changes in the landscape in recent years: Most recently, states have been handed renewed authority by federal policymakers under the Every Student Succeeds Act, and there are signs of an uptick of public concern about education.

If harnessed properly, that momentum could help jump-start the changes necessary to improve the work of schools, educators said. But there is no silver bullet, and it will take a consistent commitment to make lasting change.

Quality Counts synthesizes 39 factors related to school finance, academic performance, and broader conditions related to achievement, like family income and preschool enrollment.

The findings come as states continue to implement their plans under ESSA, the federal education law passed in 2015 that gives them broader flexibility in evaluating their schools.

They also come as the public shows continued concern about funding for public education and as teacher activists seek to harness the momentum they’ve generated in recent years through a wave of walkouts, protests, and strikes as they pushed for raises, policy changes, and more resources for their classrooms.

A Focus on the States

While much of the broader political discussion is focused on national issues, the crosscurrents of education policy debates put states at the center, educators, administrators, and policy advocates say. And, while improving the nation’s educational outcomes is an urgent task, there are no easy answers. It will take sustained public pressure and thoughtful, multi-sector work by policymakers to drive improvements, regardless of how their states stack up in national rankings, in their view.

“There’s beginning to be an awakening that Washington isn’t going to come in and help on this issue,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, which advocates for school funding and equity in New Jersey. “People are starting to wake up to the fact that the unit of authority that can change things is in the state capital, and in order to change the trajectory in a state, it’s going to take time, and it requires a high level of sustained effort and advocacy on multiple fronts.”

Sciarra, whose organization led a long-running legal challenge to New Jersey’s school funding system, credits such ongoing efforts, dating back to the 1990s, for his state’s consistent presence at the top of national rankings.

A strong public prekindergarten program, separate state capital funding for school construction, and a funding formula that accounts for the needs of high-poverty schools have helped promote equity and high achievement in New Jersey, Sciarra said.

And New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, recently signed a budget that increases state aid to districts by $191 million, helping more high-poverty school systems reach adequacy under the state’s formula. But there is still work to be done, Sciarra said.

“We’ve learned over the years that you can’t just sit back and say, ‘Well that’s enough. We don’t need to do any more,’” he said. “What we’ve learned is that the drive for equity is never achieved.”

Continued Effects of Activism

Just as states like New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Maryland are motivated to build on their positions at the top of the Quality Counts rankings, educators in states that often score at the bottom of national indicators of education and well-being say they are equally driven to improve their systems.

In Oklahoma, which ranks among the bottom five states, teachers used bold permanent markers to display examples of the Sooner State’s national standings in areas like teacher pay and per-pupil spending on protest signs they carried outside of the state capitol in April 2018. In a sometimes tense standoff with state lawmakers, they walked out of their classrooms, some shutting down entire schools as they pushed for a $10,000 teacher pay increase after 10 years of no raises. They continued with their plans, even after state lawmakers proposed a $6,000 pay increase.

Other states at the bottom of the rankings, including Mississippi and Nevada, also saw teacher activism in recent years.

Polling data suggest the public supports many of their aims. A recent annual survey by the journal Education Next found that, among respondents who considered themselves “informed” about average teacher salaries in their state, the share of those supporting a pay hike grew from 49 percent in 2018 to 56 percent in 2019. And respondents to PDK International’s poll of public attitudes for education have ranked school funding among schools’ biggest problems for 18 consecutive years.

Oklahoma districts are feeling the effects of their teachers’ activism and increased public engagement in education, Caney Valley Superintendent Rick Peters said. The district, which has “more cows than kids,” had to close down for 10 days for the walkouts, but Peters understood his teachers’ frustrations. Beyond the $6,000 raises, they won new attention from some lawmakers, who are more active in consulting with educators and administrators about their decisions today, Peters said.

“Oklahoma had a decade of—for lack of a better word—brutal funding, brutal everything,” he said. “We were at the bottom of the food chain. We were not well thought of. But everything goes in cycles, and I think we are on an upswing.”

Still, Oklahoma’s amount of per-pupil funding, $9,250, ranks 46th among the states in the Quality Counts analysis. The national average was $12,756. Peters hopes that the attention on school funding will continue into future state budgets, allowing superintendents to recruit and retain more-qualified teachers who can help move the needle on student achievement.

“There were teachers getting jobs in our state who would not have gotten an interview prior to this debacle,” he said. “I would say we turned the corner.”

A Surge in Interest

Building strong state education systems requires adequate funding, but it also requires setting high standards, enacting strong school-improvement strategies, and determining how to measure and evaluate success, said Paul Reville, who served as Massachusetts’ education commissioner from 2008 to 2013.

Increased public attention to education has added heat to debates over issues like charter schools, testing, and governance, said Reville, who is now the founding director of the Education Redesign Lab at Harvard Graduate School of Education. And that’s driven some policymakers away from the steady work it takes to improve education, he said. While some state leaders used to seek to be known as “education governors,” many now find that to be a “no-win” position, Reville said.

Noting that many states with poor academic outcomes also score low on well-being indicators, Reville said it would take broader efforts from other sectors, like health care and business, to really reach equity. He pointed to initiatives like community schools and children’s cabinets at the state level. The nation as a whole got a C-plus on Quality Counts’ Chance for Success Index, which relies on 13 indicators that measure factors like parental education, preschool enrollment, and family income.

“I think that we’ve proved that schools alone—no matter how much you reform them—are, in general, not strong enough to change the kinds of outcomes that you measure in this report,” he said. “In order for students to benefit from school reform, a lot of other factors have got to line up.”

ESSA was designed to acknowledge the importance of such nonacademic factors by requiring schools to track issues like chronic absenteeism, and by allowing states to add nonacademic indicators to their accountability systems. But, without strong research about measuring and promoting such factors, many states were cautious about how they approached the federal law, crafting modest plans, Reville said.

“As a field, we haven’t really developed the indicators,” he said. “We aren’t really ready for prime time.”

Moving forward, even high-performing states will need to innovate to maintain a competitive edge in a global economy, said Susanna Loeb, the director of the Annenberg Institute at Brown University. It takes continued focus to maintain success, and there is no quick way to turn around struggling systems, she said.

“I think what we’ve learned from the states that have done well, is that it is hard work to have a good education system,” Loeb said.

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