Network for Public Education Rates States’ Support for Public Education

On Tuesday afternoon, the Network for Public Education (NPE) released a report that evaluates the states by what is today an unconventional set of standards. States earn points if they have valued school teachers and supported the professionalization of teaching. States earn points for having invested in adequate school funding equitably distributed and for investing in research-proven programs.  And they gain points for reducing poverty and integrating schools racially and economically. The report takes away points from states that have attached high stakes to the federally mandated standardized tests. NPE removes points from states that have privatized schools.

Here is NPE’s description of the principles affirmed in the new report: “NPE values specific policies that will make our public schools vibrant and strong—a well-trained, professional teaching force, adequate and equitable funding wisely spent, and policies that give all students a better opportunity for success, such as integrated schools and low stakes attached to any standardized tests they take. We applaud those states that have resisted the forces of privatization and profiteering that in recent years have been called ‘reforms.'”

Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, our society has increasingly evaluated schools by the test score outcomes they are said to “produce”  with lessening attention to measures of opportunity—the resource inputs necessary for ensuring that children have well-prepared teachers, small enough classes for children to be known and supported by an adult, enough funding for competitive salaries, and a rich curriculum including the arts. The report ranks the states by their policies that guarantee the provision of such resource opportunities.

In the section on “professionalization of teaching,” the report confronts policies in some states that view teachers “as interchangeable—experience is discounted, even viewed as a flaw.”  Instead, “Teaching should be a long-term career commitment.  Research shows that experience matters and leads to better student outcomes, including increased learning, better attendance and fewer disciplinary referrals.  Advanced content degrees, especially in mathematics and science, have a positive effect on student learning and good pre-service field experience builds teacher effectiveness, confidence and job satisfaction.”

Money matters, and provides smaller classes and more support staff.  “More spending is positively associated with better learning outcomes,” but, “During the past decade… the gap in spending between rich and poor districts grew by 44 percent.”  The report ranks states by their school funding adequacy and the equitable distribution of resources across school districts.

The report ranks states by their investment in specific programs known to support children, especially those whose needs are greatest: “We believe we must invest tax dollars in the classroom to reduce class size and invest in early childhood education.  Because the relationship between students and teacher is vital, we are also concerned about the growth in online learning and virtual schools.”

The Network for Public Education also rates the states on the degree to which they have adopted what NPE views are the most damaging policies of test-based accountability and privatization.

Standardized tests are made more damaging for students, teachers and schools by the high stakes that are attached:  “Every time high stakes are attached to test scores to determine grade retention, high school graduation, the dismissal of a teacher, or a school closing, there are negative consequences for students.  In NPE’s rating system, the states that lose the most points are the states that have attached the most high-stakes consequences to their testing.

In her introduction to the report NPE founder and president, Diane Ravitch declares NPE’s commitment to public education as a “pillar of our democratic society”: “We believe that public schools can serve all students well, inspire their intrinsic motivation, and prepare them to make responsible choices for themselves and for our society.  Public education creates citizens.  Its doors are open to all, regardless of their race, religion, gender, ethnicity, or disability status… Educating all children is a civic responsibility, not a consumer good.  Sustaining a public education system of high quality is a job for the entire community, whether or not they have children in public schools….” States gain points if they have invested in strengthening public schools. States lose points if they have privatized public education with vouchers, charters, or parent trigger laws that, “take the governance of schools out of the hands of democratically elected officials and the local communities they serve, and place it in the hands of a few individuals—often elites or corporations with no connections to the community.”

I think NPE’s greatest contribution is in its definition of the principles by which the new report suggests we evaluate schools—by identifying the factors that expand opportunity and by showing which states have instead moved toward test-based accountability and privatization.  The report is more interesting than the letter grades it assigns.

My only quarrel with the report is in its final category that evaluates states on their chance for success depending on the amount of family poverty in each state and the degree of racial integration in each state.  Today’s policy makers are not responsible for the basic demographics they have inherited in their states.  What they can control are the policies they enact to ameliorate poverty and reduce segregation by race and economics.  The report would be stronger if this category focused on specific policies some of the states have enacted—efforts to ensure affordable housing, policies to increase the minimum wage, laws to outlaw just-in-time employment scheduling.  And despite current U.S. Supreme Court decisions that severely reduce permissible remedies for racial segregation, some states have developed innovative plans, for example, Hartford, Connecticut’s magnet schools.  The report would be stronger if it awarded points for the practical and innovative efforts some states have made.