Good education news, but ...

Good education news, but ...

January 16th, 2012 in Opinion Times

It's heady news, indeed, when both Tennessee and Georgia improve their national ranking of overall education quality. It's hardly surprising, then, that a report that puts Georgia in seventh place and Tennessee in 21st place among the states in the 2012 Quality Counts report from the Education Research Center was hailed in many circles in each of the states. The celebrations, though, might be a bit premature.

The Quality Counts report, issued Thursday, is only one measure of educational and excellence, and it is a narrow one at that. There are other, more broad-based measures of how a state's schools and students are faring. In those, the two states -- Tennessee, in particular -- continue to lag behind their peers. Educators, the public and parents should consider a broader picture than the one offered by the research center in formulating their own assessment of their state's schools.

The Education Research report is based on an examination of state policies and programs, as well as student performance, to produce what it calls a comprehensive assessment of public schools. The goal is to not only rank state systems in six areas of education policy, but to "track policies that experts believe will lead to future improvement." In other words, the emphasis is on the future -- what schools will do if policies currently in place are followed -- rather than the present.

There's a problem with that formula. Sure, sound policy that provides a foundation for future growth is valuable. Educational improvement does accrue over time. The trouble, though, is that sound policy alone is no guarantee of future performance. There are too many variables. Policy and programming means nothing, for example, if funding to support them is inconsistent. Tennessee certainly has a mixed record when it comes to providing those funds.

A better measure of how a state's schools and students rank nationally is available from various test scores. By that benchmark, Tennessee does far more poorly that the Quality Counts Report indicates. Georgia doesn't do as badly, but it, too, is below the rank assigned to it by the report.

Tennessee, for example, scored in the bottom 10 of the 50 states in each of the four tested areas in the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Georgia placed between 29th and 43rd in the tested areas. Tennessee is one of a handful of states that require all students to take the standardized ACT, but in 2011, the state's students ranked second to last on the test. Those results strongly suggest that the states have considerable room for improvement -- regardless of policies and programs that suggest a more promising future.

The true measure of a state's public education system remains how well its students do after they matriculate. By that measure, Tennessee's students do poorly. About 21 percent of Tennessee adults hold a college degree, far below the national average. Georgia students do marginally better.

A state school system that truly ranks highly among its peers would do a better job of preparing students for higher education and entree into the highly competitive job market a two- or four-year degree provides. The high rankings assigned to Tennessee and Georgia are welcome, but they do not tell the whole story. Both states still must prove that the bright futures cited by the report can come to fruition. That's easier said than done.