Jul 29, 2014 - 12:00pm

Does Your State Make the Grade?

In 2006, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched an effort to look closely at the nation’s educational effectiveness on a state-by-state basis. To do this, it employed a variety of factors to grade each state and the District of Columbia on their respective K–12 school systems in order to identify both the leaders and the laggards in school performance.

The inaugural Leaders and Laggards: A State-by-State Report Card on K–12 Educational Effectiveness was released in 2007, providing many states with a sobering look at their education systems.

This year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s (USCCF’s) Center for Education and Workforce—in partnership with the American Enterprise Institute— is releasing an updated edition of the original Leaders and Laggards report on September 11.

The 2014 report revisits some of the same important data and metrics on how effective state education systems are at providing students with a high-quality education, including academic achievement, academic achievement of low-income and minority students, return on investment, truth in advertising about student proficiency, postsecondary and workforce readiness, 21st century teaching force, and data quality.

The 2014 report also discusses a few new metrics to reflect changes in the education system since 2007. They are fiscal responsibility, parental options, international competitiveness, and technology. Similar to the 2007 report, the results vary greatly. While there is marked improvement for states in some areas, the overall findings raise cause for concern.

Some major findings:

  • Every state has improved on its academic performance from the previous report’s baseline, but all states have a lot of work to do to bring their students up to proficiency levels.
  • Differences exist in states’ return on their educational investments, suggesting that states should assess how to use their educational dollars more effectively to achieve greater academic outcomes.
  • States show a wide variation in success rates on Advanced Placement (AP) tests—on average, only about one-third of students taking AP exams receive passing scores.
  • American students—even from high-performing states—are a long way from being internationally competitive. The United States has remained relatively flat, whereas other countries have soared in academic preparedness.
  • States have work to do to ensure that every student is “college and career ready.” Although many states have adopted high standards, implementing them successfully is critical.
  • While states can identify good teachers, they need to do a better job of preparing them  to be effective. States also need to recruit larger numbers of quality teachers.
  • The inability of states to fund their pension liabilities has great potential to undercut public services, including education.

“This report reinforces what Chamber members and businesses have indicated is a growing problem—the lack of a properly educated and prepared workforce,” says USCCF President John McKernan Jr. “The business community is not going to stand for the status quo in K–12 education because our students deserve better.”

A Catalyst for Change

During multiple stops in Tennessee this past May, President Barack Obama’s top education official, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, showered the state with praise for “controversial but commonsense decisions” that he said were having a profound effect on student achievement.

Again and again, Duncan praised state officials for taking on what he called a “courage gap” widespread throughout public education today, pointing to reforms Tennessee embraced despite fierce pushback from opponents.

But it wasn’t always that way in Tennessee. According to former Gov. Phil Bredesen, “When I took office, we weren’t doing very well in education. There certainly were some bright spots, but across the state and against measures nationally, Tennessee was a laggard.”

In the Chamber’s 2007 Leaders & Laggards report, Tennessee ranked near the bottom of all states. In fact, the state received failing grades from the U.S. Chamber in the categories of academic achievement of low-income and minority students, truth in advertising about student proficiency, and postsecondary and workforce readiness.

“In many ways, the Leaders & Laggards report was a catalyst for tremendous change in how we view expectations for students,” says Jamie Woodson, president of Tennessee’s State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE).

Led by former Gov. Bredesen, and with strong support from the business and education communities, the state began implementing policy changes in education. First, Tennessee adopted the American Diploma Project, which outlined end-of-high school expectations in mathematics and English language arts and was the precursor to the Common Core State Standards, which Tennessee adopted in 2010.

Both the American Diploma Project and Common Core should help Tennessee improve in two of the categories where they received failing grades in the 2007 report—academic achievement of low-income and minority students as well as postsecondary and workforce readiness.

“Education reform has got to be about picking a course of action and sticking with it over a long period of time, not just letting it flow back and forth when you get a new governor,” says Bredesen.

Current Gov. Bill Haslam has continued the education reforms in place and has even expanded to new areas. For example, Haslam enacted teacher tenure reform and charter school expansion and has remained steadfast in his commitment to Common Core.

“We are now in the third year of implementing  Common Core,” says Haslam. “Training our teachers and standardizing what we expect of our students, I think, has made a dramatic difference.”

Reforms in Tennessee are paying off in a big way. Nearly 10,000 more Tennessee students are proficient in Algebra II since 2011, the year that subject became a requirement for high school graduation.

Since 2010, an additional 73,000 students in grades three to eight are proficient in math, and an additional 91,000 students are proficient in K–12 math.

Tennessee, importantly, reached a significant milestone in 2013. According to the National Assessement of Education Progress— also known as the nation’s report card—Tennessee is the fastest-improving state in the nation in terms of student achievement outcomes across fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math.

“Our students made more progress over the last two years than students in any other state,” Haslam maintains.

“There’s no way in the world to have the largest gains in the country and the largest gains in the history of NAEP and it be a quirk, an anomaly,” says Mike Edwards, president of the Knoxville Chamber. “This happened very deliberately.”

“The reforms enacted by both Govs. Bredesen and Haslam have given Tennessee’s students what all states should strive to provide their students—the promise of opportunity and success beyond high school,” says Cheryl Oldham, vice president of education policy at the U.S. Chamber.

Watch the video highlighting Tennessee's education revolution

Subscribe for Blog Updates

More Articles On: 

About the Author

About the Author

Sheryll Poe is a former senior writer at the U.S. Chamber, who covered public policies affecting businesses including the three "T's" - transportation, trade and taxes.