Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Five Hurdles That Keep School Systems From Improving

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 17, 2018 | Updated: October 10, 2018 6 min read
Lola Robertson (left) and Emily Outlaw play during a preschool class at Starkville Early Learning Collaborative in Starkville, Miss. Though it faces challenges in many areas, the state ranked relatively high in preschool and kindergarten enrollment in this year’s Quality Counts report.
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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.

Among states that received the lowest grades in the latest Quality Counts report, the Education Week Research Center identified several common challenges. These include relatively high rates of children and parents living in poverty, limited opportunities for early learning, and struggles with producing strong academic outcomes. These states also have (and provide) limited resources and funding to their K-12 systems.

Here are some snapshots of how low-performing states are dealing with these challenges—or the hurdles they continue to face. In some cases, the proposed solutions to these problems, like new revenue for schools, come from state capitals. In other areas, such as preschool and parent education, school districts and local communities have tried to tackle them.

Stumbling Blocks At the Start

Mississippi ranked relatively high on indicators for preschool and kindergarten enrollments, despite its low overall score. Since the state established the Early Learning Collaborative Act in 2013, the state has been ramping up investments in early-childhood education initiatives. For example, the number of state-funded Early Learning Collaboratives increased from 10 in the 2016-17 school year to 14 in the 2017-18 school year.

These collaboratives include a “lead partner” that can be a public school or nonprofit education group. This lead partner oversees a prekindergarten program for 4-year-olds. At the end of 2017, Mississippi also launched an updated database of child-care centers around the state to give parents more details about performance, violations, the ages and types of children served, and other information. A Mississippi health department official said in a statement that the new database is designed to provide parents and caregivers “complete information at their fingertips to make an informed decision on where to safely and appropriately place their child.”

Nevada has used a federal preschool development grant in the last four years to expand preschool specifically for students from low-income households. The goal is to use this money to support 2,900 students enrolled in full-day prekindergarten programs.

Idaho is one of six states that does not provide state funding for preschool programs, and it ranks 51st in preschool enrollment, when the District of Columbia is included in the ranking.

However, the Boise district set up a pilot preschool program in two of its schools. A Boise State University study of the program released last year found promising results from the pilot based on test scores. But the study was not based on a randomized controlled trial.

High Poverty

The CareerAdvance program in Tulsa, Okla., provides low-income parents the opportunity to further their education, while also connecting them with federal and state child-care systems to help support their children’s development.

While their children are placed in Head Start, Early Head Start, or other state-backed child-care programs, parents in the program can work on making progress in their various careers. (Oklahoma, which ranks sixth from the bottom overall, has one of the most robust early-childhood education programs in the country.) There is also support for night classes and remedial study. Parents who participate get a $3,000 tuition credit for meeting certain academic benchmarks.

A study of CareerAdvance released last year found that children of parents who participated in the program for a year had attended more days of Head Start and were less likely to be chronically absent. The participating parents, meanwhile, reported feeling less stress than the comparison group, and also found jobs in the health care industry at a higher rate.

Limited Funding and Resources

Oklahoma has become a high-profile example of fiscal dysfunction among states, in part due to big budget shortfalls after the recent fall in oil prices. This has compounded the state’s K-12 funding issues, such as having one of the lowest average teacher salaries in the country. It is also 45th in per-pupil spending. Several districts have shifted to four-day school weeks to cope with the lack of adequate funding.

Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican, has sought to separate school districts’ administrative costs from their instructional costs, and to consolidate certain districts based on their administrative spending. A proposal from a state lawmaker in 2017 to increase taxes on energy production, tobacco, and alcohol to help shore up the state’s budget fell short of the votes it needed to pass.

In 2016, Fallin also sought a special legislative session specifically to address low teacher pay, but this move was rejected. Teacher pay has become such a hot-button issue in the Sooner State that it’s been a motivation for at least a few teachers to run for office.

Lagging Academic Achievement

New Mexico, which ranks 51st in 4th grade reading and 47th on 8th grade math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, has instituted a series of significant changes to its educational system in recent years, in particular since 2011. Some of these have been controversial, however, and the state may be shifting its approach in some respects.

For example, over the past seven years, the state has instituted a new teacher-evaluation system designed to identify low-performing teachers. It was vigorously opposed by unions and others, but in the past two years the state has attempted to create a more collaborative environment between teachers and state education leaders.

New Mexico also created an advisory council of 26 teachers, and eventually hopes to have a teacher liaison in each of the state’s nearly 850 schools. There are also newly created teacher ambassadors, and a panel of 36 teachers that developed curriculum materials for the state focused on literacy.

Elsewhere, New Mexico has stuck with its A-F school accountability system, and is using principals as the key to its school turnaround efforts. The state is also ramping up “course choice” efforts to help expand academic offerings to students, and is leaning more on teachers to create content for instruction.

Barriers to Postsecondary Attainment

New Mexico’s graduation rate was 71 percent for the 2015-16 school year, the second-lowest in the nation, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education released last year. In 2011, the state’s graduation rate stood at 63 percent.

This year, GOP Gov. Susanna Martinez said the state has doubled the number of Advanced Placement courses offered. She also said New Mexico has dramatically increased the share of students from low-income households who have access to AP classes. Since 2013, the state has had an “early warning” system designed to prevent students from dropping out.

Beginning in the 2017-18 school year, Nevada put in place new graduation requirements that focus on end-of-course exams. Students will have to pass those tests in five subject areas in order to graduate. The new requirements will be phased in over four academic years. In the 2020-21 school year, students’ performance on these end-of-course tests will account for 20 percent of students’ grades in the respective courses. The shift is part of the state’s “Nevada Ready!” initiative that is designed in part to increase “expectations of what our students will know and master to be college- and career-ready.”


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