A Report Card on Our Schools

Schools across the country have received a report card. And, Massachusetts is doing very well. Oh, not as well as Minnesota, say, or Iowa, or even Montana. But, very well.

The American Legislative Exchange Council has just released a massive study of all of the states and Massachusetts and all of New England fared very well.

In short, the New England region ranks first in average teacher salaries, with an average of $44,938, and Massachusetts even better with the average salary at $55,630-highest in the country.

New England states averaged per pupil expenditures of $7,127. National average was $6,081. Massachusetts? $7,540. A 33 percent increase over 20 years.

Does money count? Well, every state in New England (except Rhode Island which came in 28th) ranked in the top third of states nationwide in student performance on standardized test scores. Ranks were New Hampshire in 5th place, Connecticut 11th, Massachusetts 12th, Maine 13th and Vermont 14th.

How many kids in a classroom? Our 950,000 students average just 15 students per teacher in elementary and secondary schools, compared with the national average of 17.

And, most kids are staying in our classrooms. The drop out rate is 3.5 percent in Massachusetts.

There's one big, unanswered question. Where did almost a fifth of our students go? Over the 20 year period, 1978-1998, Massachusetts saw a 17.5 percent decrease in the number of students.

If you're thinking about moving, and education is important, you might want to avoid the southeast. The ALEC study says the Southeast region is the worst performing region in the country. Seven of ten of the states-Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida--are in the bottom ten states nationwide.

The Northwest, although salaries and per pupil costs are below average, is the third highest performing region in the country.

The Midwest was the top performing region in the country, with Minnesota first overall in the nation. Iowa is second. In fact, every Midwestern state, except South Dakota, is in the top half of the states nationwide when you measure student performance on standardized tests.

The tests. Females still lag behind males. Average SAT scores are still declining. Some 69 percent of eighth graders taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests perform below the proficiency level in reading (and I haven't even mentioned our own dismal MCAs results).

Back to Massachusetts. Looking at the big picture, the basic demographics in the study, the median family income in Massachusetts is $42,511, which puts us 13th in the country. (Alaska, New Jersey and Maryland are the top three.) Slightly more than 10 percent of our citizens live in poverty (we rank 35th, with the poorest living in West Virginia, Mississippi and Montana). Some 85 percent have completed high school (we're 18th, with Alaska, Utah and Washington leading the country and South Carolina, Louisiana and Kentucky bringing up the rear), and a third have at least a bachelor's degree (in third place, only Washington DC and Maryland come in ahead of us and Indiana, Arkansas and West Virginia are last).

Okay, what does it all mean? ALEC summarizes that "despite a significant increase in resources being spent on primary and secondary education, student performance has improved only slightly" and "that while factors such as dollars per pupil spent, pupil-to-teacher ratios, and teacher salaries are easy to measure, they do not, by themselves, produce educational achievement ."

Further, and this is a quote from the report, "America's public schools are not serving our nation as well as we should expect as we enter the new millennium, and 20 years of history shows that the conventional view that more money improves student achievement is wrong.the factors that affect student achievement appear to be much broader and deeper than these inputs, and if we are truly to solve the problems of our schools, our search for answers must go far beyond them.

"Perhaps the best conclusion that can be reached is that the status quo must be challenged. As Robert L. Woodson, President of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise is fond of saying, 'If you keep doing what you're doing, you'll keep getting what you're getting.' If we want more from our public schools then we must pursue serious fundamental reform, and there is no time to waste."

And, finally, "lawmakers must recognize that there are other important factors that significantly impact the ultimate success of students."

We have the report card from ALEC. Where do we go from here? What do we do? What are those things that can't be measured that work?

Parental involvement, for starters? The dedication of teachers? Setting and meeting curriculum standards. What would be on your list?

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