Dec 11, 2015 - 12:45pm

How Three States Found Magic in a Bottle and Improved Education

Senior Editor, Digital Content


Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) (left) and former Education Secretary Rod Paige at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and NAACP event: The Path Forward, Improving Opportunities for African-American Students.

At the U.S. Chamber, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) called education “the closest thing to magic in America.” It pulls people out of poverty and puts them on the path of the American Dream, while lifting up the country at the same time.

Two heralded organizations, the NAACP and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, came together at an event this week in Washington, D.C., to discuss how to capture that magic by improving educational opportunities for African-American students.

As my colleague J.D. Harrison has written, the education system is falling short for these students:

National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data from this year show that only 18 percent of African-American fourth graders are proficient in reading, and only 19 percent are proficient in math, both markedly lower than the national averages of 36 percent and 40 percent, respectively. Similar gaps persist in reading and math once students reach 8th grade, at which point African-American students tend to be less proficient than their white peers in civics, history and geography, too.

Once in high school, African-American students have access to fewer high-level courses –particularly rigorous STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) classes. In many states, African-American high school graduates also tend to be less prepared for college than white graduates, the study shows, leading to more struggles at the secondary education level.

“Our education system is a patchwork that is propelling some to success and consigning others to failure,” said U.S. Chamber President and CEO Tom Donohue at the event. “For those who slip through the cracks, their reach is limited, their potential is stifled, and their chances of living a life of struggle are greatly increased.”

This educational failure shows up in the workplace. “American business can’t be all that it should be unless citizens are taught well and can go out into the world and compute well and analyze well,” submitted president and CEO of the NAACP Cornell Brooks.

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In the background of the event was the new education bill. With it the “No Child Left Behind” chapter of education reform has closed, and the “Every Student Succeeds” chapter has opened.

The bill gives states more flexibility, but with it “comes great responsibility,” said Cheryl Oldham, vice president of education and workforce at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

Even with positive changes from the new law, educational systems can’t be improved with a wave of a magic wand. Where has progress been made, and what lesson can be learned?

A U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation report, “From Laggards to Leaders: How Three States Found Their Way Forward,” asked those questions and found some answers. Frederick Hess and Sarah DuPre, both of the American Enterprise Institute, looked at one federal district and two states-- Washington, D.C., Hawaii, and Maryland—that made the biggest gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) between 2005 and 2013.

Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C.’s success stemmed from improving teacher talent and unleashing competition through charter schools, write Hess and DuPre:

D.C. enjoyed several structural advantages that leaders took advantage of—some may be replicable in other contexts, others may not. For one, DCPS leadership did not have to negotiate with the teachers union on teacher evaluation because Congress gave DCPS sole authority over the issue in the 1990s. For another, the “state” of D.C. consists of just one school district. While Fenty’s reforms took care to create a “state education agency” separate from DCPS, the coordination problems are minimal—meaning that the DCPS leadership can make adjustments to policies on a rapid basis and with a fair degree of precision. Finally, D.C. enjoys a vibrant charter sector that holds up examples of success, creating urgency and room for district leadership to become more involved.


Because of the Aloha State’s seclusion, residents feel they have a unique sense of community. Hawaii translated that close-knit culture to focus on higher educational standards:

Hawaii’s gains were ushered in by an era marked by efforts to ascribe to higher expectations of students and teachers via higher standards, boost school autonomy, give leaders more authority, and promote accountability. Hawaii’s larger story, though, is one of culture rather than policy. As longtime Deputy Superintendent Nozoe explains, “For us, it’s about practice and culture. What matters is doing what you said you were going to do and doing it well. We focused on the quality and depth of implementation, and investing in the people doing the work—and protecting them from too many policy changes, which can leave people swinging in the wind. Everything we do in Hawaii we try to ground in the culture. We say, ‘Stay the course, stay the course. We’re going to move in the tide, but we know where we’re going.’”


For Maryland, Hess and DuPre found leadership continuity and solid foundation of educational reforms that started in the 1990s paid dividends:

When asked about the keys to Maryland’s success, stakeholders bring up a steady list of familiar virtues: persistence, accountability, collaboration, and a commitment to ensuring that new dollars are spent in smart and responsible ways. Of course, in the world of K–12 schooling, where so many states jerk from one fad to another, maybe that approach does count as a dramatic departure.

A thread weaving through all three success stories is there is no one “best” solution, no magic bullet. “The states have followed very different paths to educational success,” Hess and DuPre write.

That means educational improvement isn’t like a rabbit pulled out of a hat. It comes about through perseverance, trial-and-error, dedication, discipline, and hard work.

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About the Author

About the Author

Sean Hackbarth
Senior Editor, Digital Content

Sean writes about public policies affecting businesses including energy, health care, and regulations. When not battling those making it harder for free enterprise to succeed, he raves about all things Wisconsin (his home state) and religiously follows the Green Bay Packers.