Special Report

Looking Through a Wider Lens

By The Editors — December 29, 2006 6 min read
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For the past decade, Education Week’s annual Quality Counts report has tracked state policies for improving K-12 education. But children’s chances for success don’t just rest on what happens from kindergarten through high school. They are also shaped by experiences during the preschool years and opportunities for continued education and training beyond high school.

Smart states, like smart companies, try to make the most of their investments by ensuring that young people’s education is connected from one stage to the next—reducing the chances that students will be lost along the way or will require costly remedial programs to acquire skills or knowledge they could have learned right from the start.

Yet the historical splits between different levels of education in the United States have made such coordination difficult, with early-childhood education, elementary and secondary schooling, and postsecondary education and training often operating in separate silos, with different rules, different financial structures, different accountability systems, and different expectations for success.

Increasingly, states worried about the skills of their future workforces and stiffer economic competition from abroad are trying to connect education from birth to adulthood so that more students are prepared for further study, work, and citizenship.

Quality Counts 2007 begins to track state efforts to create a more seamless education system by looking at performance across the various sectors, and at state efforts to define students’ “readiness” to succeed from one stage to the next.

The Chance-for-Success Index, developed by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center for the report, provides a state-focused perspective on the importance of education throughout a person’s lifetime.

The index is based on 13 indicators that highlight whether young children get off to a good start, succeed in elementary and secondary school, and hit key educational and economic benchmarks as adults. Those indicators, grouped by stage of life, are:

The early years. Percent of children in families with annual incomes at least 200 percent above the federal poverty line; percent of children with at least one parent with a postsecondary degree; percent of children with at least one parent working full time and year-round; percent of children whose parents are fluent English-speakers; percent of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool; percent of eligible children enrolled in kindergarten programs.

The school-age years. Percent of 4th grade public school students who read at the “proficient” level or above on the National Assessment of Educational Progress; percent of 8th grade public school students who perform at the proficient level or higher in mathematics; percent of public high school students who graduate with a diploma in four years.

The adult years. Percent of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in postsecondary education or with a degree; percent of 25- to 64-year-olds with a postsecondary degree; percent of adults with incomes at or above the national median; percent of adults with steady employment (full time and full year).

States that do significantly better than the national average on each indicator receive a point; those that outpace the nation by a very large margin receive two points. Conversely, states that fall significantly below the national average lose a point or two.

Since all states start at zero, the index can capture the cumulative effect of education experienced by residents of a state from birth to adulthood and pinpoint the chances for success at each stage.

When state populations are viewed from this perspective, it’s clear that it matters where children live. At almost every stage, for example, a child born in Virginia is significantly more likely to experience success than the average child born in the United States, while a child born in New Mexico is likely to face an accumulating series of hurdles that puts him or her further and further behind.

Virginia, Connecticut, Minnesota, New Jersey, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire rank at the top of the index, while New Mexico, Louisiana, Arizona, Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama lag significantly behind the national average.

If, as economists argue, human capital is a critical driver of economic development, some states are clearly far better positioned than others. And so are their citizens.

At the same time, there are some key indicators of success that Americans know almost nothing about as a nation because these outcomes are not measured: What do 12th graders know and what can they do, from one state to the next? What do young people actually learn while in college? And how many students arrive on college campuses ready to enroll and earn credits without remedial classes?

For the first time since Quality Counts began publication, the 2007 report examines the extent to which states have defined what young people need to know and be able to do to move successfully from one stage of education to the next.

In general, the report finds far more activity in the early years. Forty-one states and the District of Columbia report having early-learning standards that are aligned with the academic expectations for elementary schools. Thirteen states have a formal definition of school readiness; 16 require districts to assess the readiness of entering students; and 18 have interventions for children not meeting school-readiness expectations.

Special Acknowledgements

To provide a broad perspective on the role of education throughout a person’s lifetime, Quality Counts 2007 draws upon data from a variety of organizations. The Sources and Notes section lists the sources for all indicators presented in the report. However, we would like to offer a special acknowledgment to those organizations and experts on whom we have particularly relied. We would like to thank W. Steven Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, based at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., who provided data from The State of Preschool: 2005 State Preschool Yearbook, and Patrick M. Callan, the president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, for information from Measuring Up 2006: The National Report Card on Higher Education.

In addition, we would like to thank the following individuals for their expertise and assistance: Dick Clifford, co-director, National Center for Early Development and Learning, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Peter Ewell, vice president, National Center for Higher Education Management Systems; Danielle Ewens, director, child care and early education policy, Center for Law and Social Policy; Heidi Glidden, assistant director, AFT Teachers, American Federation of Teachers; Jason Hustedt, assistant research professor, National Institute for Early Education Research; and Jamie Merisotis, president, Institute for Higher Education Policy.

In contrast, while many states report that they are working to better align high school graduation requirements with college- and workforce-readiness standards, many of those efforts have yet to reach fruition.

Eighteen states and the District have a distinct definition of workforce readiness. Only 11 state departments of education report that their states have adopted a formal definition of college readiness.

Typically, those definitions are based on the courses students must take, rather than a more specific list of knowledge and skills needed to succeed in college, and the level at which students must perform.

Nine states have adopted policies that make a college-preparatory curriculum the default curriculum for students now or in the future. Six states—Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, and West Virginia—have aligned their state high school tests with postsecondary expectations, typically by requiring high school students to take a college-entrance exam. Another nine states report using high school test results for admission, placement, or scholarship decisions at public institutions of higher education.

There may be more to report in future years. Twenty-six states have joined the American Diploma Project network, organized by Achieve Inc., a Washington-based nonprofit organization, to better align high school graduation standards with college- and work-readiness standards. And more than half the states are working with the National Governors Association to redesign high schools to better prepare young people for further education, work, and citizenship.

But so far, there appears to be far more goodwill in those areas than actual policy results.

In many ways, this year’s Quality Counts is a transitional document, as we move from an exclusive focus on K-12 education to a broader focus on the connections between K-12 education and the other systems with which it intersects: early-childhood education, teacher preparation, postsecondary education and training, and workforce and economic development.

As the report makes that transition, we are also taking the opportunity to rethink our core K-12 indicators. While this year’s report includes indicators on state standards, assessments, and accountability systems in kindergarten through 12th grade, it does not include indicators on school climate, efforts to improve teacher quality, or school finance, as it has in past years.

Over the coming year, we will be holding a series of meetings, posting white papers on the EPE Research Center, and in other ways reaching out to the broader community to help us rethink those indicators for the future. For that reason, Quality Counts 2007 does not grade the states this year.


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