Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Five Common Traits of the Top School Systems

By Daarel Burnette II — January 17, 2018 | Updated: October 10, 2018 5 min read
Emilia Peiffer is a guidance counselor at East Allegheny High School in North Versailles, Pa., which has been nationally recognized for its academic counseling programs.

Editor’s note: The state scores and grades referenced in this article have since been updated to reflect the most current results from federal reading and math tests. This article does not represent the latest scores and grades given states in Quality Counts 2018, which are available here.

States that rank high on Quality Counts’ annual report card—including this year’s top five—typically share common strengths when it comes to supporting their education systems. They may enjoy good economic climates, for example, or built-in advantages like a large proportion of parents with strong educational backgrounds.

But while factors like a state’s underlying economy or family demographics are important, some high-performing states also make the most of strategies that can prove useful to policymakers elsewhere, no matter what cards they’re originally dealt. And even the high-performers can face daunting challenges in sustaining the factors that put them in the front of the pack.

Here are examples from the current playbooks of some top performers, some of them long-standing policies, others still taking place. Also noted: caution lights in a few tricky policy areas.

Robust Economic Environments

Parents in top-performing states tend to earn more and have stable sources of income. Such families move less frequently throughout the school year, spend more on in- and out-of-school academic support, and own plenty more political capital to demand change.

Despite all that, there are still pitched battles in leading states over how to best use states’ wealth to more efficiently spend dwindling dollars and close achievement gaps between wealthier and poorer students.

Vermont’s $21,000 adjusted per-student average spending, one of the highest in the nation, is partly a result of small class sizes and an expansive voucher program that pays for its students to attend expensive private schools in surrounding states.

Amid a crushing budget deficit and rapidly aging population, the state last year started forcing its hundreds of districts to consolidate.

Connecticut, one of the wealthiest states in the nation, has attempted to close its achievement gap by racially and socioeconomically integrating its schools.

But Connecticut’s efforts came under attack last year by a state judge whose ruling described the state’s school funding formula as confusing and inconsistent; its standards as inadequate; and its teacher-evaluation system as ineffective. The state’s supreme court is expected to rule in the case soon.

High K-12 Test Scores, Graduation Rates

Quality Counts weights academic achievement more heavily than any other factor. States with high NAEP reading and math scores tend to have high teacher-quality and learning standards, a strong and consistent accountability system, and aggressive and effective school turnaround models that garner plenty of public support.

Massachusetts, which has topped the Quality Counts list for the last four years, has displayed many of these qualities ever since the state passed in 1993 its Massachusetts Education Reform Act. The act sparked a series of reforms in the state including establishing a more equitable funding formula, holding schools accountable for academic achievement, and establishing statewide learning standards.

In recent years, the state also has been lauded for its school improvement strategies, which incorporate both state and local input, and for its stable leadership. Its most recent state commissioner, Mitchell Chester, died last year after almost a decade in office, five times the tenure of the average state chief. The state is currently searching for his replacement.

Relatively High Spending on Schools

High-ranking states tend to spend more money on their students, but don’t always spread their K-12 money more equitably among all their schools. Wyoming, by contrast, has long been lauded for its complicated funding formula that in years past has redistributed the state’s vast coal and oil wealth to its poorest school districts. That system was designed after the Wyoming Supreme Court in 1995 deemed the state’s funding formula inequitable and unconstitutional.

But that funding formula is now under political threat because of economic pressures from the crash in coal and oil revenues.

The state’s political leaders have told school leaders and its state courts that the funding formula must be dismantled and that school funding will have to be dramatically reduced. This year Gov. Matt Mead, a Republican, is proposing that the state cut $66 million out of its $1.8 billion in school spending. A state-hired consulting firm recently recommended to the state’s legislature that it avoid cuts hitting English-language learners and at-risk students.

Strong Foundations in Early Childhood

The top-scoring states tend to have parents with high levels of education, and some also have made swift and long-lasting policy shifts to provide even the poorest of their population access to high-quality preschool programs.

In December, for example, a statewide early-education blue-ribbon committee in New York, ninth on the list, proposed that the legislature set aside $2 million to establish five “Early Learning Regional Technical Assistance Centers” to train educators how to provide mental health services and the best educational settings for the state’s neediest children, and $700,000 to screen for learning disabilities before they enter kindergarten.

And New Hampshire provides literacy screenings of its earliest learners and offers free pre-K summer camp to those who score in the 49th percentile.

Widespread Postsecondary Participation

Leading states tend to get large portions of their student body into and through college.

In eight-ranked Pennsylvania, where close to 66 percent of the high school graduates went on to pursue a postsecondary education, the state education department set up as part of its standards review process in 2015 a robust K-12 curriculum for college and career planning. Last year, Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, signed into law a bill that allows students who earn credentials through one of the state’s many career and technical education programs, to opt out of the state’s high school exit exam.

In Minnesota, which ranks tenth, the legislature required that starting in 2013 all 9th graders create a “personal learning plan” that includes academic scheduling and career and college access exploration.

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