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Excellence in education is up, but challenges persist

Each state has received a grade in Education Week’s annual report on excellence in education, and the news is mixed. Improvements across the nation as a whole are statistically insignificant and most districts and states remain essentially stagnant. And some are falling behind.

The United States received a grade of 70.2, up from its former grade of 69.7. Both equate to a C-.

In an era where advances in technology and theory are receiving significant attention, challenges persist for districts across the country. Whether it’s dilapidating infrastructure, bullying, local control versus national standards, or the ongoing struggle over standardized tests such as Common Core Standards, the one-size-fits all Quality Counts report demonstrates that without successful interventions, the United States may continue to fall in global rankings. That’s not good news for the 50 million school-age children in this country — or the generations to follow.

Many of the pressures bearing upon education in the United States, according to Quality Counts, are felt most acutely by school districts. “Budget crises, state and federal demands for academic improvement, and the rise of market-based approaches to running schools” are, the report concludes, forcing districts to evolve in new directions. Though some experiments will not generate substantial improvement, some just may work. And it may take time to see positive results, which these grades do not reflect.

Charter schools are an increasingly popular choice to try new ways to administer schools at the local level, in urban and rural areas and from East to West. Each charter is different, but they all share common characteristics: they are publicly funded (often augmented with private donations), governed by outside groups that contract with divisions of state governments, and are exempted from some rules and regulations that bind school districts. Approximately 2.3 million students went to some 6,000 charter schools last year. Post-Katrina, New Orleans' system was inundated, and charter schools enrolled 79 percent of New Orleans’ primary and secondary public school students. More than 120,000 students in Los Angeles attend charters. These are impressive figures, considering that the first charter school opened just 23 years ago.

Despite these numbers, scientific data does not support the premise that these schools will improve the nation’s excellence in education anytime soon.

The latest landmark study out of Stanford University finds that “[a]cross the charter schools in the 26 states studied, 25 percent have significantly stronger learning gains in reading than their traditional school counterparts, while 56 percent showed no significant difference and 19 percent of charter schools have significantly weaker learning gains.” Other studies find that students in charter schools perform no better than their peers enrolled in traditional public schools.

Quality Counts also emphasizes other things districts are using to achieve solid improvements. “A growing consensus also recognizes that the elements that make up school climate — including peer relationships, students' sense of safety and security, and the disciplinary policies and practices they confront each day — play a crucial part in laying the groundwork for academic success.” Students, teachers and administrators are seeking to recognize and seize opportunities to integrate new technologies into classrooms and schools and tailor them to each environment’s unique needs. Another set of issues almost every district faces are evolving discipline policies and the perfection — or abandonment — of standardized tests.

Nevertheless, in order for grades to improve in the coming years, a majority of the education officials responding to the Quality Counts survey believe that significant structural changes are necessary before officials can effectively address current — and future — challenges. As Education Week notes, “administrators grapple with a host of forces demanding a break from business as usual.”