On this week's podcast, Mike Petrilli, Alyssa Schwenk, and Brandon Wright discuss what’s on tap for state education reform in the new year. During the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines the effects of math textbooks in California.
The one-week delay in Betsy DeVos’s confirmation hearing gives all of us extra time to speculate about her position on this or that wrinkle in federal education policy, and for the politicos to practice their attacks and counter-attacks. All in all, it’s quite a spectacle.
But one useful outcome of this process is already apparent: It has surfaced an important debate about the appropriate contours of school-choice policy. As I argued last month, my sense is that the differences within education reform’s big tent aren’t as significant as the commentary might let on. We all support giving parents the power to choose schools other than those assigned to children by their local district; the question is how wide their range of choices should be.
It also appears to me that some of the differences of opinion come from an out-of-date understanding of various choice mechanisms. Most significantly, some of our friends—as well as our foes—have an iPod-era view of vouchers that needs to be brought into the Uber-age.
I’m referring to the oft-cited misconception, most recently repeated by Senator Elizabeth Warren, that voucher schools are “unaccountable.”
That may have been the case decades ago, when vouchers first burst onto the scene in Milwaukee and Cleveland. Participating students were not generally required to take exams—certainly not state exams—and even if they were, the results were not released by schools in ways that would inform parental choices or lead to administrative actions for chronically low performing schools. And, to be fair, that’s still the case for some voucher and tax credit scholarship programs, where test-based accountability requirements remain light to nonexistent.
But what some voucher-doubters might not know is that the newest and biggest voucher programs—those in Louisiana and Indiana—now have significant accountability provisions that are arguably even stronger than those found in many state charter programs. That’s no accident. Pro-school choice lawmakers adopted these charter-like requirements because some of us accountability hawks and advocacy groups like Howard Fuller’s Black Alliance for Educational Options and, yes, Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Childrenpushed for them.,
In Louisiana, participating private schools that serve more than forty voucher students must administer all of the state tests to them. They then receive a “scholarship cohort index” score that’s used to determine whether they can continue to accept new students. Louisiana state superintendent John White has already triggered the provision to keep several schools from accepting new voucher-bearing pupils.
In Indiana, schools must administer the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress assessment and report their graduation rates to the states. These data are used to determine each private school’s A–F rating—just like their public school counterparts. If a school is rated a “D” or “F” for two or more consecutive years, it becomes ineligible to accept new scholarship students. (The information about these voucher programs comes from the American Federation for Children’s school choice yearbook.)
So if you oppose vouchers because of lack of accountability, it may be time to change your position.
To be sure, many charter-school supporters object to private-school choice for two other reasons: Because some private schools aren’t open to everyone, and because some private schools are religious. Let’s examine each concern in turn.
The first stems from the fact that many voucher programs allow private schools to maintain their admissions standards. (Not all of them, though—Louisiana’s and Milwaukee’s participating private schools must accept interested voucher students via lottery.) And for good reason. Pragmatically, we know from survey research commissioned by Fordham that many private schools won’t participate in voucher programs if they can’t control their admissions—and it’s impossible to run a voucher program without private schools, unless you want only desperate, lower performing schools to participate. This appears to have convinced some of Louisiana’s better private schools not to participate, and may explain why the state’s results to date have been disappointing.
But I can also defend selective enrollment on the merits. We’ve allowed selective-admission “exam schools” to operate within the public education system for over a hundred years. We don’t blush about selective enrollment at the higher education level. And we know that many low-income students—especially strivers and high achievers—are not well served in classrooms with students that are three, four, or five grade levels apart at any given time, or that are overseen by administrators unwilling to enforce discipline standards. Giving low-income students the chance to be in an environment with high academic and behavioral standards strikes me as a victory for equity, not a loss.
As for religion, I surely understand the discomfort many have about un-separating church and state. Yet, again, we tend to be inconsistent on these matters. We let churches run Head Start centers and Pell-eligible colleges and universities. So it’s OK for four year olds and eighteen year olds but not for kids in between?
More compelling, though, is the evidence that religious schools can provide important social capital and character development to students, especially when their larger communities are struggling with a lack of healthy institutions and moral authority.
Catholic schools, in particular, have long been flagged by social scientists for their strong graduation and college-going rates. These worthy long-term outcomes—which tend to be more significant in people’s lives than any short-term test-score gains—likely reflect Catholic schools’ focus on discipline and character as much as academics. In the early 1980s, James Coleman and his colleagues found that Catholic-school students were significantly more likely to report that their schools’ approach to discipline was “excellent or good” than their public-school peers. Later research by Anthony Bryk confirmed this view with Catholic-school administrators, who were much less likely to report student-behavior problems than their public-school colleagues.
A 2012 study by David Figlio and Jens Ludwig found that Catholic high-school students were less likely to participate in risky behaviors, including teen sexual activity, arrests, and the use of cocaine. They speculated why this might be so. One possibility is the most obvious: Catholic schools put the fear of God into their students. Religious instruction, said Figlio and Ludwig, “could affect students’ ‘tastes’ for misbehavior, or increase the perceived costs of misbehavior by defining a number of activities as sins that have eternal consequences.” And of course there is the role of positive peer pressure—by “exposing them to more pro-social peer groups,” particularly by selecting out and/or expelling students more likely to engage in risky behaviors.
I would never require students to attend religious schools. But neither do I see the moral argument for barring them from such schools, just because of their parents’ inability to pay.
So if you find yourself with spare time on your hands while you wait for the big confirmation hearing, consider doing a little homework about the voucher programs you think you oppose. You might come away with a new appreciation for their work, and maybe even a new position going forward.
One of the odd features of education policy is that while a plethora of research exists on the effects of systemic reforms (e.g., class size, charter schools, teacher, and school accountability mechanisms), on student achievement there is very little data on whether curriculum—what kids are actually being taught—makes a difference. As the Urban Institute's Matthew Chingos notes: "It's as if the medical profession worried about the administration of hospitals and patient insurance but paid no attention to the treatments that doctors give their patients."
Slowly, however, the notion that curriculum counts is beginning to gain traction. At a recent Hopkins/Hunter forum (a collaboration between the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and Hunter College), Harvard professor Thomas Kane discussed a recent five-state study he oversaw that showed high-quality instructional materials produced a larger effect than having an experienced teacher versus a novice teacher. Kane plans to follow up with a national study in 2017. Other researchers, such as the Urban Institute's Chingos and the University of Southern California's Morgan Polikoff, are conducting studies on curricular effectiveness, but states don't make it easy: Most states don't collect information regarding which instructional materials schools are using.
Louisiana is one state that does take curriculum seriously. As Rebecca Kockler, Louisiana's assistant superintendent of academic content, explained at the Hopkins/Hunter forum, over the past four years the state has reviewed more than 100 curricular programs according to their alignment with state content standards. The state leaves it up to districts to select curricula but helps them make informed decisions and facilitates professional development for the most highly rated curricula. Louisiana keeps track of what curricula districts are using and about 80 percent now employ materials from the state's top rating tier. The state's emphasis on curriculum appears to be generating results. Louisiana fourth graders achieved the highest growth among all states on the 2015 NAEP and the second highest in math.
While more gold-standard research studies are needed, there is a growing mountain of real-world evidence regarding the efficacy of high-quality curricula. Case in point: The three best-performing charter networks in New York City—Success, Icahn, and South Bronx Classical—all explicitly emphasize a coherent, content-rich, multiyear curriculum. South Bronx Classical, for example, has a meticulously planned classical curriculum that has students learning Latin starting in third grade and studying debate starting in fourth grade. "Great instruction requires great curriculum," declares the school's website. Teachers help refine the curriculum each summer and are provided with a database of detailed and rigorous lesson plans for every lesson in every subject in every grade.
Partnership Schools, a network of six Catholic schools in New York's Harlem and South Bronx neighborhoods, provides another example. Two years ago, the newly established network hired curriculum maven Kathleen Porter-Magee as its superintendent. She immediately replaced the hodgepodge of curricular offerings at the schools with the well-regarded Core Knowledge and Eureka Math curricula and provided teachers with the training and support to implement them well. The result: Over the past two years, Partnership Schools has doubled the percentage of students scoring "proficient" on the state's English exam and nearly tripled the math proficiency rate.
Two new books also make the case for the importance of curriculum. In "Pluralism and American Public Education: No One Way to School," Ashley Berner, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, examines different approaches to education reform and their impact. The interventions that seem to have the most positive results are curriculum-driven. Berner discusses how Massachusetts's embrace of strong standards, curriculum, and well-aligned assessments propelled the state to the top of the national (and even international) rankings of student achievement. Another interesting example that she provides is a case study of the introduction of the International Baccalaureate program in thirteen low-performing Chicago public high schools, which resulted in the International Baccalaureate students being 40 percent more likely to attend a four-year college than a control group.
In "Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories," venerable education scholar E. D. Hirsch uses international data to bolster the argument that he has been making for three decades, that coherent, knowledge-rich, well-rounded curricula are key to student achievement. Hirsch documents how France abandoned its renowned knowledge-rich national curricula in favor of a more Americanized child-centered, skills-based approach. The result: a precipitous decline in achievement on national and international exams in every demographic group. He finds a similar story in Sweden. On the other hand, Germany began to adopt well-defined curricula after it scored below the United States on international exams in 2000. Its reading, math, and science scores soon began a steady upswing.
There are no silver bullets in education. But a growing body of both empirical and real-world evidence makes a compelling case that curriculum is a key component of student success.
Charles Sahm is director of education policy at the Manhattan Institute. Before joining MI, Sahm worked for a number of elected officials and education nonprofits.
Over the last several years, I’ve spent a fair amount of time defending the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in my role as a senior fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education-policy think tank in Washington, D.C. Now, given president-elect Trump’s pledge to “end Common Core,” which he terms “a disaster,” I expect many more opportunities to defend high standards, at least for the foreseeable future. All that said, while I support the standards, I’m not a cheerleader for them. I could no sooner imagine summoning up a love for (or hatred of) Common Core than for, say, electrical codes or auto-safety standards. I reserve my heated passions for literature, history, and civic education. I will eagerly engage in pitched battles over what students should know, read, and grapple with, but standards? They are dry, dull, and unlovely things.
To be upset by academic standards is to invest them with a power they neither have nor deserve. In my five years of teaching fifth graders, I never—not even once—reached for English language arts standards when deciding what to teach. I would wager that when I. M. Pei was commissioned to design the Louvre Pyramid, his first move was not to reach for a copy of the Paris building codes for inspiration. It should be no different with teaching. First things first: What is it you want to teach? Which stories, poems, or novels are worth your students’ precious time? What do you want students to know and understand about art, science, history, and literature? Answer those questions, then reach for the standards and build your lessons and units “to code.”
Suffice it to say that Common Core’s many and vocal critics, perhaps including our president-elect, do not agree.
Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
Six years after Common Core’s debut, these critics have produced enough books to collapse a sturdy bookshelf. Few of them make any earnest attempt to persuade readers to reject Common Core on its merits or lack thereof. Some barely take up the content of the standards at all. Instead, they mainly traffic in fear mongering and paranoid conspiracy theories about corporate greed.
For instance, the teacher and activist Kris L. Nielsen announces on the very first page of his book Children of the Core: “Throughout this book, you will see me referring to something called the ‘Common Core Network.’ I use this phrase to describe a triad of players, corporations, and institutions that are working together to dismantle public education, as we know it (Common Core proponents, the testing regime, and the privatization movement).”
If you are not prepared to accept his proposition—that there is a nefarious cabal pushing Common Core on a gullible public—you will not find much value in Nielsen’s book or in other similar tomes.
In this same vein, Common Core and the Truth by Amy Skalicky simply asserts as fact that the standards are part of the movement to turn schools not merely into “new markets for corporations” but “centers of indoctrination to create ‘global citizens’ with all the right behaviors, attitudes and beliefs, otherwise known as puppets.” Terrence O. Moore’s The Story-Killers opens with an epigraph from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The title of Moore’s book comes from his belief that the standards are “deliberately killing off what is left of the great stories of Western literature.” Common Core is designed, Moore insists, “to smear the Western and American tradition with the brush of sexism, racism, and all the other charges we have come to expect from the Left against this country’s long history of freedom.” Colorado’s excellent Ridgeview Classical Schools, where Moore was the founding principal, “prides itself on the centrality of Socratic discussions, purposeful discussions of literary texts, conceptual approaches to mathematics and science, and a close scrutiny of primary source documents.” Ironically, so does Common Core.
For Common Core’s excitable enemies, there is no such thing as overreach. Brad McQueen, a teacher and “former Common Core insider” (whatever that might mean), wins the prize for hyperbole by comparing Common Core to the Holocaust in his book The Cult of Common Core: Obama’s Final Solution for Your Child’s Mind and Our Country’s Exceptionalism.
Who are the villains in this anti–Common Core narrative? Why, billionaires, of course—the faceless capitalist malefactors of great wealth. “We are increasingly teaching the skills that billionaires want their workforces to have in order to boost their profits,” Nielsen asserts knowingly. The logic escapes me. Clearly, whatever our schools have been doing for the last little while seems to be working out very well indeed for billionaires. Why mess with what’s working?
Sadly, the paranoia that infuses the anti–Common Core literature is particularly prominent in books written by teachers. On close examination, many of these books are not about the standards at all. Instead, they are broad-brush attacks on ed reform at large. Mercedes K. Schneider, a Louisiana teacher and anti–ed reform blogger, hammers the point home with the subtitle of her book Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?, which is riddled with scare quotes and sarcasm.
“The American education system is not evidencing the ‘crisis’ that modern corporate-minded education ‘reformers’ are pushing as the very foundation for promoting CCSS and its assessments,” she writes. Chapter titles include “Achieve: Who’s Your Daddy? Why, IBM CEO Louis Gerstner, Jr.” and “Bill Gates Likes the Idea.” Schneider’s true intent is not to evaluate the standards but to expose the “power grab” behind education reform. The roundup of usual suspects includes Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, the testing company Pearson Education, and even the Fordham Institute.
If teachers such as Schneider, Nielsen, and others are feeling put upon and use Common Core as a target for spleen venting over the excesses of ed reform, it is not entirely without reason. But it is entirely unpersuasive. Their books are not the stinging exposés their authors imagine, but hymnals from which the converted sing. Their obsession is self-marginalizing, doomed to be met with anger by the already angry and a shrug by the vast majority of noncombatants—parents and taxpayers alike—who simply want a decent education for their kids.
Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
If anyone has earned the right to vent her spleen over Common Core it’s Sandra Stotsky, who played a leading role in Massachusetts’s adoption of some of the nation’s strongest pre-CCSS academic standards, along with associated curriculum frameworks and teacher-licensing regulations. Massachusetts has long been the state to which others look with envy for its record of academic accomplishment, a record of which Stotsky can be justifiably proud. If she’s upset with Massachusetts turning its back on her work in favor of Common Core, she’s not easily dismissed as a woman scorned.
Stotsky is the primary contributor to Drilling through the Core: Why Common Core Is Bad for American Education from the Pioneer Institute. This collection of essays from the Boston-based think tank is the best of the anti–Common Core books, a serious tome by sober and principled observers, including Mark Bauerlein, R. James Milgram, and Williamson Evers, in addition to Stotsky.
The introductory essay by Peter W. Wood, the president of the National Association of Scholars, immediately dismisses Common Core’s conspiratorially minded critics. Wood “puts up a fence” between his critique and those who suggest “that the advocates of the Common Core are acting in bad faith: that the proponents of the Common Core know that it is bad and want to impose it on the nation anyway out of self interest.”
Wood’s critique revolves around the standards’ development by private, nongovernmental bodies, including the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the heated rush with which the standards were adopted by states hoping to win federal funding under Race to the Top, which functionally demanded adoption of Common Core as the price of admission to the competition.
At nearly 100 pages, Wood’s takedown notes that Common Core critics cannot agree whether the new standards are too rigorous in K–12 or not rigorous enough, leaving students underprepared for college. “The standards are vague and ambiguous and invite manipulation by those who are charged with filling in the details,” he writes, noting Common Core is “ripe for hijacking.” Common Core also “takes control of our schools away from parents and communities,” leaving schools vulnerable to “a curriculum that has been profoundly shaped around the tests and teaching materials” of the two CCSS testing consortia, Smarter Balanced and PARCC.
Stotsky’s redoubtable thumbprints are evident on several of the volume’s essays, including ones lamenting the “fate of history” under Common Core; another on the “fate of poetry”; yet another on math, co-authored with R. James Milgram; and the volume’s lead essay, with Mark Bauerlein, titled, “How Common Core’s ELA Standards Place College Readiness at Risk.” Like Stotsky, the Pioneer Institute has earned the right to be deeply aggrieved by the Bay State’s adoption of Common Core. The logic of standards-based reform should dictate that other states should be adopting the Massachusetts standards and playbook, not vice versa. Pioneer is a leading intellectual center for reform thinking in the state. The Institute has a right to fear that its efforts to “make historic strides in improving its schools and establishing the highest performing charter sector in the nation,” to quote the book’s preface, are at risk of being diminished and diluted.
That said, even as a supporter of the standards, I would not claim as Peter W. Wood does in the book’s introduction that Common Core is “a far-reaching effort to transform American K–12 education.” However, if one accepts his assertion, then the profound disquiet over Common Core seems not entirely irrational. If the skeptics are right, Wood writes, Common Core “will damage the quality of K–12 education for many students; strip parents and local communities of meaningful influence over school curricula; centralize a great deal of power in the hands of federal bureaucrats and private interests; push for the aggregation and use of large amounts of personal data on students without the consent of parents; usher in an era of even more abundant and more intrusive standardized testing; and absorb enormous sums of public funding that could be spent to better effect on other aspects of education.”
Far more compelling arguments can be made not about how much Common Core matters, but how little. For several years now, Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless has examined National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores and argued patiently that Common Core will have little to no effect on student achievement. Recently, Loveless wondered whether whatever gains Common Core has to offer have already been realized, thus pushing back against those (including me) who believe Common Core won’t bear fruit until professional development, curriculum, and instruction aligned to the standards take hold. Alas, no one thought to offer Loveless a book contract.
Review the key ideas expressed and draw conclusions in light of information and knowledge gained from the discussions.
I remain more sanguine than Loveless, but his sober analysis points to the bald fact that Common Core’s advocates elide and critics ignore: Standards by themselves accomplish little. They set a bar that can only be reached and cleared by means of strong curricula, exceptional teaching, fair and rigorous assessments, and meaningful accountability systems. The challenge, now and always, is not setting standards or even agreeing to them. The challenge is in meeting them. Ultimately, I suspect the primary contribution of CCSS will be not to fix what ails American education, but to reveal a disquieting lack of capacity at all levels of the nation’s K–12 system.
Academic standards cannot create anything close to a uniform experience for students in K–12 education in a country as large and diverse as the United States, any more than building codes force us into identical houses, or USDA standards compel us all to eat boiled eggs for breakfast. All standards can do—and it’s not nothing—is to create something close to uniform expectations. This is no more of a threat to local control of schools than the fact that a computer’s recharging cord can be plugged into a standard wall outlet in every one of the nation’s nearly 100,000 schools.
Principled critics largely concede this point. “Common Core’s English Language Arts Standards could raise literary-historical study to rigorous levels,” Stotsky and Bauerlein conclude in Drilling through the Core. “Much depends on how the states and local districts implement them.” Here, we agree. The great tragedy of the faux “debate” over Common Core is that some of the people most ideally suited to wisely guide its implementation—Stotsky, for instance—have opted instead to endlessly re-litigate the standards, at incalculable cost to students in classrooms today. The nation’s schools are poorer for the estrangement of Stotsky and others.
Notably, the authors of the Common Core ELA standards gave primacy to content, writing in the front matter of the document that literacy depends on students reading widely in history, science, and other disciplines: “Students can only gain this foundation when the curriculum is intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades.” Far from marginalizing teachers in content areas, Common Core establishes them as gatekeepers. Every Common Core critic who frets over loss of local control and nonexistent curricular-content mandates should be holding its authors and implementers to these words. Common Core’s ELA standards do not marginalize subject-area study. The road to meeting the standards passes through subject matter.
In the end, the most lamentable outcome of the overheated Common Core wars has been the estrangement of potential allies in a far more important struggle: the quest for instructional reform. To date, most ed-reform efforts have been aimed at mere structural change—expanding the reach of school choice and charter schools, improving teacher quality, or insisting on test-driven accountability. Yet reformers have tended to lose interest at the classroom threshold: an odd thing, if you think about it. In our zeal to measure educational output and teacher quality—to reward those who do it well and punish those who don’t measure up—we remain resolutely incurious about what exactly kids do in school all day. Unaccountably, those who see first-rate instructional materials and quality teaching as reform levers have been far more likely to fight Common Core than to insist upon it as a means to make instructional reform an education priority, a lost opportunity the likes of which we may never see again.
One can only imagine how much progress we might have made if, instead of attacking the standards, its principled critics had devoted their energies to helping the field choose materials, create curriculum, train teachers, and insist on implementation with fidelity. At a time when the nation’s 3.7 million teachers desperately needed help, when “What should we teach?” was at long last being asked in earnest, the worst of these critics used it as an excuse for bombast and dark mutterings while the best sat idly by, carping on the standards rather than using the occasion to guide thoughtful implementation.
Editor’s note: The article was originally published by Education Next.
Last month, Education Next released additional findings from their 2016 EdNext Poll, a national public opinion survey conducted from May 6 to June 13 of last year. The newly released data focus on parents’ satisfaction with various features of the schools their children attend, such as teacher quality, school discipline, and safety. More specifically, the analysis compares parents’ responses by school sector—traditional public, private, and charter schools—to look for differences in the satisfaction among parents nationwide, making it the first of its kind to do so across all three sectors.
The results reveal that charter school parents tend to be more satisfied with most aspects of their schools than traditional district school parents, yet less satisfied than private school parents. This trend was evident in matters such as teacher quality, school discipline, safety, teaching of values, and achievement expectations for students. On average, charter school parents reported being more satisfied than district school parents in these five categories by 13 percentage points and less satisfied than private school parents by an average of 12 percentage points.
When asked about problems in their children’s schools, few parents reported seeing any major shortcomings. The issue that received the most amount of concern was a lack of extracurricular activities, which nearly 47 percent of charter school parents deemed to be a serious problem, compared to 33 percent of district school parents and 24 percent of private school parents. Charter school parents also reported reaching out to their school staff more than district and private school parents in areas such as their kids’ achievements, homework, and teacher quality.
The survey confirms the general perception that parents are typically happier with their child’s school when they are able to choose it. And the survey’s results are particularly interesting and valuable for the fast-growing charter school sector that relies on parents’ choice and satisfaction to further their expansion and impact. The findings indicate that such schools would benefit from better locations, facilities, and extracurricular activities—but that, of course, assumes they have the money to do so, which is unfortunately rarely the case. Therefore, it might behoove policymakers to listen to these moms and dads and close the charter-district funding gap.
This twenty-first edition of Quality Counts from Education Week builds on past annual installments to look at the state of K–12 education in the U.S. at the beginning of 2017. With a changing of the guard at the White House and the Department of Education, this year’s report focuses on the challenges faced by state and district leaders to ensure that the provisions of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) will be met by the beginning of the 2017–18 school year.
Though ESSA affords state and district leaders greater flexibility, the business of crafting a more nuanced accountability system that effectively balances contentious areas such as teacher evaluation with other indicators of school quality is not straightforward. This report serves as the latest opportunity to gauge the success of efforts undertaken so far, and to guide state and district leaders on where to focus their energies over the coming year.
To determine the quality of U.S. K–12 education, authors looked at thirty-nine distinct indicators based on analyses of state and federal data to determine a letter-grade ranking for each state and the nation as a whole. These were divided into three research indices: 1) chance-for-success, which includes indicators from early foundations (like family income or parent’s education), school years (like fourth- and eighth-grade reading scores), and adult outcomes (like percentage of adults aged twenty-four to sixty-four with incomes above the national median); 2) school finance, which examines educational expenditure patterns and the distribution of funds within states; and 3) K–12 achievement, which assesses the performance of each state’s public schools through current achievement levels, improvements over time, and poverty-based gaps. An overall state score is calculated from the average of the three individual index scores and a nationwide average is determined.
Overall, authors give the nation a middling—and all too familiar—grade of C, with 74.2 out of a possible 100 points (almost no change from 2016). Massachusetts is top of the class with 86.5 (B), followed closely by New Jersey (85.6), Vermont (83.8), New Hampshire (83.4), Maryland (82.8), and Connecticut (82.7). Nevada props up the pack with a measly 65.0 (D), sharing this ignominy with Mississippi (65.8) and New Mexico (66.3).
The report’s chance-for-success index shows little change from 2016. The nation earns a steady C+, but it’s the disparity of state-level scores that surprises—or doesn’t. Massachusetts leads the nation once again with 91.0 (A-), while New Mexico stumbles to 66.4 (D). However, we still think this index should be consigned to the dustbin of education wonk history, since it’s so highly correlated with a state’s wealth, and thus makes rich states’ education systems look better than they really are.
Next, using 2014 data (the most recent available), authors determine that the nation earns a C for school finance. Wyoming tops the table with 89.5 (A-), followed closely by the usual suspects of New Jersey (88.1), Connecticut (87.4), and Maryland (86.6). Idaho flat-lines with 58.9 (F).
In terms of achievement, the nation earns a C- (85.2). Massachusetts (85.2) tops the class again, while Mississippi (60.0) and New Mexico (61.8) scrape the bottom of the barrel with the only D grades for this area.
To anyone following the state of K–12 education in the U.S. over the past decade, these results are not the least bit surprising, and remind us why both major parties agreed to a major overhaul of No Child Left Behind in the first place. Across the board, K–12 education is still not performing well enough.
Yet there have been some tentative positive trends. Montana gained 1.3 points since 2016, while New Hampshire edged upwards by 1 point (and into the top-five states). Despite the transition in the nation’s capital, states are already smack-bang in the middle of fine-tuning their ESSA blueprints. How each state eventually balances the jumble of potential accountability measures into one final coherent system will ultimately determine who the movers and shakers in education quality will be over the coming years.
A new report from the Education Commission of the States looks at the quality of K–12 civic education requirements in all fifty states. While each requires its students to participate in some form of social studies or civics education, the scope and depth of these requirements vary greatly.
Reviewers used seven indicators to analyze each state’s approach to civic education. These indicators include graduation requirements, standards, curriculum, assessments and accountability systems, and statutes. The purpose is not to rank or critique the civic education programs in each state. Rather the report is meant to be informational and highlight general trends in civics education so as to help states learn from the practices and policies of others and improve their own civics education criteria.
The report found that every state addresses civic education in some form within a state statute. Typically this is accomplished in one of two ways: States either enumerate specific civics course requirements for students, or they outline the desired outcomes of a civics education and then leave it up to the individual districts to determine how to reach these outcomes.
Pennsylvania stands out among other states in this indicator and includes both methods within its statute, listing civics courses students must take, while also requiring students to learn about their civic duty to vote and understand the differences and advantages of a democratic government, among other outcomes.
Thirty-seven states require students to take civics assessments, yet there is great variation in how each administers and uses the results of its tests. Some states, like Texas, only require students to be assessed in civics once throughout their entire K–12 education. Others assess the progress of students through projects or portfolios instead of exams. But of these thirty-seven states, only fifteen use the results of these assessments as a requirement for graduation, and only seventeen use them in accountability reports.
Academic standards for civics and social studies are also applied in a diverse number of ways among the states. Many include topics such as citizenship, civic participation, and political processes in their academic standards. And Hawaii requires students to practice community engagement by identifying a civic problem and drafting and implementing an action plan to solve it. Each state is also unique in how it supports its districts in implementing its standards. Less than 50 percent provide some sort of curriculum guideline for their civics instruction. Where states fail to provide curriculum resources, including places like North Dakota and Minnesota, they often rely on third-party organizations, such as the Minnesota Center for Social Studies Education, to provide instructional materials.
One of the roles of a public education is to teach students about patriotism, democracy, and citizenship skills. While all states accomplish this to some degree, there is certainly room for improvement on all fronts. Preparing students for college and for future careers should be a priority of public education—but these outcomes shouldn’t overshadow the need for students to understand the importance and role of their citizenship. As each reevaluates its academic standards to accommodate ESSA, policymakers should work to ensure schools expand and improve their efforts to educate students about their civic responsibility.
On this week's podcast, Mike Petrilli, Alyssa Schwenk, and Brandon Wright discuss what’s on tap for state education reform in the new year. During the Research Minute, Amber Northern examines the effects of math textbooks in California.