Education policy analysts look to states for reform

Katie Callahan Contributor
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A look at individual state report cards reveals that states need to pave the way for new reform by filling the gaps between teacher quality and student achievement, education policy experts said at a panel Wednesday.

Representatives from Education Week, National Council on Teacher Quality, StudentsFirst, and New America discussed methodology and differences in grading on the basis of their separate subjects and objectives as an organization at the New America Foundation’s Make the Grades: What State Policy Report Cards reveal about Education Reform event.

States were graded overall on teacher effectiveness, school choice, academic standards, and outcomes in the state education policy report cards that each organization produced. These reports can be used as status indicators of state progress.

Education Week gave a C+ for the average state grade with National Council for Teacher Quality giving a C-, and StudentsFirst, a D+. The highest grades for each were a B+, B+, and a B- respectively.

Researchers discussed the need to fill the gap between education policy being introduced and successfully incorporated to help schools succeed.

“It’s clear that we all see the utility of these rankings and grades, but also the need to really figure out implementation and how to be thinking about that in a different way,” said Anne Hyslop, policy analyst for the education policy program at the New America Foundation. “One of the takeaways… is how can we move from policy adoption to policy implementation and incorporate that also into our work? That’s going to be what really drives whether we see the achievement results that we want.”

In part, what makes this event so important is the implementation of the reports into policy, which Hyslop said starts with the states.

“States have been leaders in education reform over the last few years; the federal government hasn’t been enacting much legislation lately, so a lot of what’s happening really is at the state level,” said Hyslop.

Sandi Jacobs, vice president and managing director of state policy at the National Council on Teacher Quality emphasized reaching the audience and starting the dialogue between state policymakers and these organizations.

“Our primary audience is policymakers. We are trying to give policymakers a blueprint, a roadmap…that they can use. We’re trying to show states examples of what other states are doing that we think is good strong policy to really emphasize those best practices,” Jacobs said.

Analysts then measure progress from the report card through changes in GPA. Jacobs traced this progress from 2009, when the average score for states was a D, to 2011 with a D+, to the C- from the most recent report.

“So as far as how we assess progress, I mean, the beauty of the report card is itself. You have ways to compare from year to year pretty clearly,” Jacobs said. “The most exciting thing for us has been the change over the last few years, states have put a lot of emphasis on teacher policies.”

Hyslop said that the National Council for Teacher Quality has adjusted standards, changing what counts for an A, and setting the goals higher for state education.

Even with research, reporting, experts, and staying in touch with education policy, Chris Swanson, vice president of research and development of Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit publisher of Education Week, said it’s difficult to show effectiveness of these policies because of the lack of “really solid blue-ribbon, gold star research.”

Education Week’s Quality Counts report is the sole provider of student outcomes/achievement grades, and has since updated their subjects for 2014.

“Policy is a lot trickier to connect the A-B-C than a lot of people think,” Swanson said.

Eric Lerum, vice president of national policy at StudentsFirst, said that policy is what really matters and that it explains student outcomes and state action in education reform.

“When you look at achievement across the whole country in any state, it’s hard to argue that it’s not just abysmally low in most places, unacceptably low at best in any state in terms of overall achievement, in terms of achievement gaps,” Lerum said.

Hyslop said that the only way to know what’s going on in states is through state-by-state analysis. The changing nature of the education system makes it hard to form a national perspective.

“I  think we haven’t quite figured out what our next big national message is or should be, and states are really in the driver’s seat right now,” she said.

Swanson said that the most important question to be asking is why student need doesn’t match with teacher quality and what policies keep that from happening. In the past, in the south, states were more intentional about education reform because of their historically low performing schools. Now, not much has changed.

“Some of the states that are most aggressive on policy are also the lowest performing and are looking at policy as a way to remedy that,” Swanson said.

Policy analysts and leaders from Education Week, National Council on Teacher Quality, StudentsFirst, and New America discussed methodology and differences in grading on the basis of their separate subjects and objectives as an organization. Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, moderated the event.

The most recent reports on education policy that these panelists referred to are Education Week’s Quality Counts 2014, National Council on Teacher Quality’s 2013 State Teacher Policy Yearbook, and StudentsFirst’s State Policy Report Card.

Ultimately, these reports serve those who need them the most, those within the education system.

“Teachers and students are really who we are doing this for. That’s who we want to arm with better information to take and make better for themselves,” Swanson said.