Gov. Phil Bredesen sounded a few upbeat notes on education in his State of the State speech
last night by invoking Education Week
’s recent state-by-state report card
on public schools:
Believe me, these kinds of grades and rankings should always be taken with a grain of salt, and they don’t always capture what is most important. But I’ll confess to you that it was nice to look it over this year. We’re still in the 40s on school finance, 41st to be exact. But this year for the first time they ranked states on overall scores – the measure that tries to take everything into account—achievement, standards, transitions, teachers, finance—the bottom line. In that ranking, this January, we’re not in the 40s. We’re not in the 30s. We’re not in the 20s even. Tennessee is ranked this year No. 16 in the nation.
In areas we have focused on, we do even better. In the category of “Standards, Assessments and Accountability,” we’re ranked number 10 in the nation. After the actions that our State School Board took last week to further raise standards, I expect this to climb even higher in the years ahead. And my personal favorite ranking: In one of the six categories they look at, “Education Alignment Policies”—this is where pre-K lives—we know we still have lots to do here, but in 2008 our Education Week rank nationally is one.
It’s hard to fault the man for trying to find a little sunshine in the state’s public education darkness, but his bright spots were carefully chosen. A few other tidbits from the Education Week
report that put things in perspective:
* On K-12 achievement Tennessee gets a D+, still mired in the bottom tier of states on all four key achievement measures: 4th grade math (46th), 4th grade reading (41st), 8th grade math (42nd), and 8th grade reading (39th).
* Tenessee’s percentage of three- and four-year-old kids enrolled in preschool stands at just 36.4, ranking 45th among the states.
* The summary ranking of 41st on “school finance” masks some underlying numbers: Tennessee is 47th in state K-12 expenditures as a percent of state taxable resources, 42nd in per-pupil expenditures adjusted for regional cost differences, and 48th in percent of students in districts with per-pupil expenditures at or above national average.
* We do score well—ranked 4th—on a measure of “restricted range,” defined as the difference in per-pupil spending between the 95th and the 5th percentiles. In other words, we may spend way too little, but we do it equitably. Perhaps there’s some perverse solace to be found in sustaining an equal opportunity educational wilderness.
Bredesen’s summary statement last night – “We are making progress in education” – finds some tangible support in the EW
numbers. Tennessee’s gains on national tests have outpaced improvements in more than two-thirds of the states in several categories, and we did rank numero uno in graduation rate improvement between 2000 and 2004. But even if noteworthy in relative terms, the gains are objectively modest, and levels of achievement remain stubbornly weak. We're doing pretty well on the bookkeeping and bureaucracy parts of public education, earning high marks for accountability, standards, and “alignment.” It’s the spending and learning parts that we haven’t quite figured out.