States with robust education systems tend to have thriving economies with opportunities for advancement, a functioning government and healthier people – to name a few advantages.
It’s little wonder then, that when it comes to K-12 education, Massachusetts is king. The state’s success can largely be traced directly to a 1993 overhaul of its education system, which increased funding for districts with many impoverished students, introduced more rigorous academic standards and required students to pass a high-stakes test in order to graduate.
“They’ll tell you the biggest thing they’ve done is commit to a strategy and stick with it,” says Chris Minnich, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, the non-partisan organization that represents the heads of state education departments.
States that escape constant course corrections to their education systems upon changes in legislatures and governors, Minnich says, are typically the ones with the strongest systems. And that’s the case with many of the states that top the list for Best States in education.
“The states that have it figured out around governance actually tend to do better,” he says. “A lot of these states show stability does really help.”
That stability translates into measurable outcomes – enrollment in and quality of preschool programs, strong high school graduation and college readiness rates, the availability of affordable public universities and diploma holders with minimal student loan debt. States that perform well on those metrics, the Best States ranking shows, have some of the most robust education systems in the country.
In the case of Massachusetts, the education overhaul that’s largely remained intact translated to steady increases in academic achievement. Now, more than a decade later, its students consistently score the highest on the National Assessment for Educational Progress, a test given to 4th– and 8th-grade students every two years known as the Nation’s Report Card. Indeed, in 2015, 8th graders in Massachusetts scored the highest on the math exam and second-highest in reading.
In fact, students in many of the states that rank among the top 10 in education scored high on the NAEP tests. For example, the top three education states – Massachusetts, New Jersey and New Hampshire – were among the five states where students scored the highest.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, such scores correlate to college readiness, another factor used to gauge which states are leading the way in education. Massachusetts once again sits at the top, with 73 percent of its students meeting ACT college readiness benchmarks in English, reading, math and science. New Hampshire, which ranks No. 3 overall, is second in college readiness, and Connecticut, which ranks No. 4 overall, is third in college readiness.
Despite being the education darling of the country, the Bay State hasn’t been able to overcome some significant academic achievement gaps between students of color and their white peers, or poor students and their wealthier peers – a problem plaguing many states across the country, including several that sit atop the Best States education rankings.
Those gaps, education policy experts say, have an influence on measures such as graduation rates. When taken as a whole, the country’s graduation rate has been on a steady climb the last four years, and hit 82 percent in the 2013-2014 school year, a record high. Yet several states that rank in the top 10 in education for Best States are decidedly not in the top 10 for graduation rates.
Massachusetts, for example, ranks 19th for public high school graduation rates. Moreover, Virginia ranks 23rd, Utah ranks 26th and Washington state ranks a lowly 38th. Only four states that rank in the top 10 overall are also among the top 10 states with highest graduation rates.
On the whole, however, states with consistent K-12 policies and those with healthy funding streams for education come out on top for Best States. The impact of the latter, in particular, can be seen when breaking down states’ overall education ranking geographically: States in the South are home to some of the lowest education rankings.
Southern states account for half of the bottom 10 spots, with South Carolina ranking last. Along with West Virginia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, South Carolina has long suffered from a lack of state and local investments in education.
“Funding is not the only factor that matters, but it does matter in making sure you have the ability to deliver for children,” Minnich says.
Early education and higher education also played a key role in determining the states’ ranking.
A majority of schools that top the Best States education list have the largest percentages of children under 5 years old enrolled in a preschool program. New Jersey tops that roster with a 32 percent enrollment rate, followed closely by Connecticut and Massachusetts. In fact, six of the top seven states with the highest rates of preschool enrollment are also in the top 10 states for education overall.
And when it comes to preschool quality, says Laura Bornfreud, director of early and elementary education at New America, an independent think-tank in Washington, D.C., New Jersey, Maryland and Massachusetts are acing the test.
“In each of those states are efforts to improve and focus on principals and beef up their understanding of early childhood and the kinds of conditions they’re establishing in elementary school,” she says. “They are going above and beyond on the quality side in pre-K.”
New Jersey, in particular, Bornfreud notes, recently restructured its Department of Education so that the personnel for early learning and elementary overlaps and there is better communication about what’s expected of students. “They’ve done a lot of work to create implementation guides to help improve instruction as to what’s actually happening in the classrooms,” she says.
Early education hasn’t traditionally been a strong point for many states. But years of increased efforts by the Obama administration to make early childhood education a major priority, including calling for an ambitious albeit unfulfilled $75 billion investment to make preschool universal, have moved the needle somewhat.
Federal efforts have so far been limited to $750 million in various rounds of competitive grants, but those dollars could be making an impact: For one, the funding is currently benefitting four of the top-10 education states, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland and Washington.
Moreover, the efforts at the federal level have nudged some states to rethink their early childhood education offerings. Nationally, the 2014-2015 school year showed improvement in state-funded preschool with larger increases in enrollment, funding, spending per child, and quality standards than the previous year, according to the National Institute of Early Education Research report in the State of Preschool 2015: Preschool Yearbook, one of the metrics in Best States rankings.
Many of the states leading the way in education tend to harbor the largest proportion of people with an associate’s degree or higher. However, their overall higher education performance is lackluster.
“Many of the states at the top of the list are not known for having particularly robust public higher education systems,” says Ben Miller, senior director of postsecondary education at the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
Massachusetts, for example, has many private colleges and therefore graduates a high proportion of students who are more likely to have amassed student loan debt – an average of nearly $30,000. It also has one of the more expensive public higher education systems, costing students an average of $10,900. The same is true for New Hampshire, which has some of the least affordable colleges and universities in the entire country, with average undergraduate tuition nearly $13,000.
On the other hand, Florida and California, Miller points out, are known for having strong public higher education systems that are also affordable. Florida tops the Best States rankings of states with the best higher education landscape while California, thanks in large part to its sprawling University of California system, ranks third.
Source: US News