Leader Blues

Friday, January 18, 2008

EDITORIAL>> Better ranking

School rankings come out by the dozens every year and Arkansas lands all across the spectrum, making it hard to draw much elation or sorrow from any of them. We have to look just as philosophically at the latest one, which ranks the quality of Arkansas public schools no lower than eighth in the country, but it offers at least some medium-sized encouragement.
The 12th annual Quality Counts report by Education Week, the Washington-based journal on American education, gave Arkansas a B-minus for the overall quality of its education, a little better than the nation as a whole, which got a C. Arkansas in the past has been down there with the below-average states. Neighboring Mississippi, our longtime ally in the basement, is still there. It was among six states with a D minus.

It is important to recognize what the Quality Counts ranking is and how Arkansas achieved its moderately exalted ranking. The states are graded on a variety of measures of educational policies and student achievement. Arkansas has always ranked among the lowest states in student achievement, measured by national norm-referenced tests, and, alas, in that category we are still 34th with a grade that is below the national average. That was one of the state’s lowest marks in all the ratings and, yes, it is the one that ultimately is of real value.

But here is why the report is encouraging: The measurements of education policies, such as standards, accountability and spending, where Arkansas has made dramatic strides in the past four years, ought to reflect the quality of future learning.
The high marks in many areas represent the school reforms enacted by the legislature in the aftermath of the Arkansas Supreme Court ruling in 2002 that the state had to take steps to meet the requirements of the state Constitution that it provide both quality and equality in its education programs.

Arkansas ranked highest, second among the 50 states and the District of Columbia, in teacher quality, a B plus. Arkansas teachers must follow a rigorous licensing process, compensation was raised sharply and the state provides mentoring programs and a variety of professional development opportunities. Only a few years ago Arkansas ranked 49th or 50th in teacher salaries but now only Texas of the surrounding states pays teachers more on average.

Since 2004, the legislature has raised the level of state aid to the schools by nearly $700 million annually and last year allocated another $456 million for school facilities, which put the state 16th in school financing and 14th in equity between schools in rich and poor areas.

Arkansas is still abysmal, 45th, in a category called providing students with a chance to succeed, but mainly because there are so many children living in poor households where parents have a low level of education. The legislature in 2004, 2005 and 2007 allocated $100 million a year to provide a pre-kindergarten education for poor children.

We must now wait and see whether that and the other systemic reforms make a real difference in the achievement of those poor children, whose failure is the source of the American education crisis and most of the domestic maladies of the land. For that, let’s check the student achievement rating in the Quality Counts report of 2015.

—Ernie Dumas