Special Report

Spanning a Lifetime

By Christopher B. Swanson — December 29, 2006 5 min read

Among the threads that weave through our national consciousness, few are as durable as formal education. We often think of the “American Dream” as achievable by all, especially those from modest beginnings, through a combination of hard work and the leveling power of education. For individuals, schooling helps open doors to meaningful careers and vocations. For communities, education is a vital barometer of social and economic health.

Americans know that education is vitally important. But there’s also a growing appreciation for the degree to which children’s chances for receiving high-quality schooling vary from state to state, as do their opportunities to build on that education as the foundation for a successful life.

Executive Summary
Overview: PRE-K-16
Improving Children’s Chances
Spanning a Lifetime
Child Well-Being
Early Childhood
K-12 Schooling
Postsecondary Success
Workforce Readiness
International Comparisons
Table of Contents

To better understand the part that education plays over a lifetime, the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center has developed the Chance-for-Success Index. Based on an original state-by-state analysis, the index combines information from 13 individual indicators that, as the title of this report suggests, span an individual’s life from cradle to career.

Several indicators, for example, capture the early-childhood years, when family characteristics shape readiness to engage in learning. Participation and performance in formal education, from preschool through postsecondary education, are represented by another set of measures. Finally, the index examines adult educational attainment and workforce outcomes, critical components of the social and economic fabric of the nation and the states.

The Chance-for-Success framework allows a given state to identify strong and weak links in its residents’ educational life course—their typical trajectory from childhood through adulthood. More importantly, the index provides information that could be used to target the efforts of public education systems in ways that better serve students of all ages.

Assessing Critical Junctures

To determine the Chance-for-Success score for each state, the EPE Research Center evaluated the state’s performance at each of the critical junctures represented by the indicators. Statistical tests were used to determine how far a state’s performance exceeded or fell below a national norm.

Data Download
Chance for Success PDFExcel

States significantly outpacing the national average received a point; they received two points if they excelled by a particularly large statistical margin. In a similar fashion, states whose performance fell below the nationwide average lost one or two points. No points were awarded to a state coming close to the national norm for a given indicator.

While each indicator affords an important but narrow insight into a particular life stage, the true value of the Chance-for-Success model becomes apparent when the indicators are pieced together to reveal a state’s educational trajectory from childhood through adulthood. Suppose that states were to start with a score of zero (an even playing field), and that the Chance-for-Success Index were constructed one milestone at a time. This would effectively show the cumulative impacts of education as experienced by the average resident of a particular state.

The results reveal that the chances for a successful adult life are, indeed, heavily dependent on the educational environment of the state in which a person lives.

Differences Among States

Virginia, for example, earns the highest Chance-for-Success score. The average child in Virginia starts out ahead of the curve: less likely to live in a low-income family and more likely to have college-educated parents. Those early advantages are amplified during the elementary-through-postsecondary years, when the typical young person enjoys higher achievement and is more likely to finish high school and continue on to college than in other states.

Life Prospects

The Chance-for-Success Index combines information from 13 indicators spanning an individual’s life from cradle to career. As the map illustrates, a child’s chances for attaining various life outcomes, from preschool participation to high school graduation to a job, vary widely by state.

*Click image to see the full chart.

17chance success small

SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2007

Virginia’s well-educated adult population and strong economy offer ample opportunities to realize the returns to schooling as individuals enter the workforce. Similar conditions prevail in other high-ranking states, including Connecticut, Minnesota, and New Jersey.

A near-mirror image of this pattern occurs in the steadily declining trajectories of states like New Mexico. There, weak school performance is unable to overcome, and may exacerbate, the early sociodemographic disadvantages of poverty, linguistic isolation, and low parental education. Among adults in New Mexico, educational attainment, income, and rates of steady employment all fall significantly below the national average. Other low-ranking states, such as Louisiana, Arizona, and Texas, share many of the same characteristics.

The educational life course in other states is more mixed. In California, for example, the average child starts out with significant socioeconomic liabilities. But relative to national norms, the state holds its own during the schooling years and later outpaces the nation with high levels of postsecondary involvement and educational attainment.

By contrast, Wyoming begins ahead of the curve and builds slightly on that advantage through elementary and secondary schooling. But low rates of adult education and of steady employment, as well as below-average income, signal diminished opportunities to enjoy the fruits of education in the workplace.

Divergent Paths

States gain or lose points on each Chance-for-Success indicator based on how they perform compared with the national average. Putting that picture together across each of the 13 indicators, selected to represent critical life junctures, reveals a state’s educational trajectory from childhood through adulthood. As the graph below illustrates, where you live matters. A child born in Virginia has a better-than-average chance for success at every stage, while a child from New Mexico is likely to face a series of hurdles throughout life.

*Click image to see the full chart.

17chance c2 small

SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2007

The 13 indicators that form the basis of the Chance-for-Success Index gauge a state’s level of educational performance as well as the precursors and consequences of educational success.

For each measure, the state is compared with a national norm. If statistical analyses determine with 95 percent certainty that a state value is greater (or less) than the nation’s, the state receives (or loses) one point. If that determination can be made with an even greater degree of statistical confidence (99.5 percent), the EPE Research Center added or subtracted two points.

The Chance-for-Success score is calculated by tallying the points awarded for the individual indicators. State scores range from -23 to +22. Data are taken from the most recent year for which information is available, 2005 in all but one case.

* Download the table “Chance for Success,” above, which lists specific indicators and data for each state. Results are based on the Research Center’s analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress and Common Core of Data.


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