In our increasingly globalized world, an effective, first-class education is more and more critical. For businesses to compete globally and for the U.S. economy to continue to grow, access to high-quality talent and a skilled workforce is essential. While the numerous benefits of an educated society are well documented—higher earnings, reduced inequality, and improved health and well-being, to name just a few—solutions to the challenges facing business will be solved by those countries that can access the best and brightest human capital and thereby gain a competitive advantage. Failure to compete will not only exacerbate unemployment, poverty, and inequality, but it will put the nation at risk of long-term economic stagnation.
As countless data have shown, better educational opportunities improve one’s quality of life and potential for economic success. Over the course of his or her lifetime, a high school graduate can expect to make almost $500,000 more than a high school dropout, and a college graduate can expect to make about $800,000 more than a college dropout.
Unfortunately, numerous indicators outline America’s challenges in delivering a high-quality education for all students. Comparisons of even our most privileged students to their international peers place U.S. students in the middle of the pack. The testing company ACT reports that as few as 25% of students taking the ACT college admissions test produce college-ready scores in all four tested subjects (English, mathematics, reading, and science). Looking at our most disadvantaged students, the results are downright shocking. In some states, high school graduation rates for African-American and Hispanic students are less than 60%. No society or economy can afford for so many of its students to be left behind.
Business leaders have a clear stake in the nation’s educational future. While America’s K–12 education system is found to be middling in international comparisons, our private sector is a world leader renowned for its innovation and productivity.
But current status is no indication of future superiority. Today’s students are tomorrow’s business leaders. For our economy to maintain its leadership position, our education system must improve.
Like leaders of large and complex organizations, state policymakers need actionable data. To address this need, in 2007 the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched an effort to dig into national statistics and available rankings of state policy environments to see who were the national leaders in educational performance—and who were the laggards. The resulting report, Leaders & Laggards: A State-by-State Report Card on Educational Effectiveness, ranked states on nine indicators. A second iteration of Leaders & Laggards was released in 2009, which focused on the states that led the way in educational innovation.
These two reports produced findings that influenced subsequent discussions around K–12 education policy.
The rankings included the first measurement of return on investment, comparing a state’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to the amount of money that a state spends on education. This led the Center for American Progress to create a Web-based tool that tracks return on investment down to the district level, while the American Enterprise Institute and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute co-hosted a public research conference dedicated to “stretching the school dollar."1
Leaders & Laggards also decried the low-quality and inconsistent standards in many states around the country. This, among other contributing factors, prompted state leaders to work together to create a new set of common standards, known as the Common Core State Standards, which has been adopted by more than 40 states and the District of Columbia.
In the growing age of digital learning, a new nonprofit called Digital Learning Now! answered the call in Leaders & Laggards for better indicators of technology policy by releasing its own state rankings on education technology.
- The 2007 Leaders & Laggards report found that many states performed admirably on the Data Quality Campaign’s (DQC's) rankings of 10 “essential elements” for proper longitudinal data systems. DQC has since created a new set of 10 “state actions” to keep the pressure on states. This higher bar, in the words of DQC, “reveals that states have more capacity than ever to use secure education data, but they need to place a greater focus on using the right data to answer the right questions to improve student success.”2
A focus on higher standards, access to better data on student performance, a greater awareness of the need not just to spend more money but to spend it wisely, and the growing consensus on improving digital learning opportunities to create 21st century schools were all wins for our K–12 system and will pay dividends in augmenting the skills and competitiveness of our workforce.
But we couldn’t stop there. Leaders & Laggards 2014 updates and enhances earlier iterations of the report, shining a light both on areas of improvement as well as areas that continue to fall short. We also added new metrics, including measures of parental choice, international competitiveness, technology policy, and fiscal responsibility. In addition, for the first time, we show change over time in student scores between the first Leaders & Laggards report in 2007 and this edition.
Neither this Leaders & Laggards nor its earlier versions are the first attempts to rank states on their performance and policy environment. For example, Education Week releases Quality Counts, a collection of metrics on school system performance every year that leverages similar metrics to those used here. What makes Leaders & Laggards unique is its orientation to the needs and values of the business community, like international competitiveness, fiscal responsibility, and a respect for markets. The indicators used in this report draw upon and reflect the business expertise of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its members.
The business community has demonstrated its ability to effect change, and this report has shown how being armed with the right data can lead to improved student outcomes through statewide reform. After receiving an F in Truth in Advertising on the 2007 Leaders & Laggards, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen declared a new reform agenda to improve the educational experience for Volunteer State students, which began with raising the state’s standards. “In many ways, the Leaders & Laggards report was a catalyst for tremendous change in how we view expectations for students,” said Jamie Woodson, president of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE). When Gov. Bill Haslam became the state’s leader, he continued to work with business and education leaders to make improvements in education, including charter school expansion. To say the hard work was well worth it is an understatement: The latest NAEP results confirmed that Tennessee made more academic achievement improvements than any other state in the country between 2011 and 2013. While the state’s overall proficiency rates are still below the national average, Tennessee is poised to see improved outcomes for students as implementation of reform efforts continue.
Tennessee’s leaders have proven it is imperative to move forward with business-centered analysis. The research used in Leaders & Laggards focuses on performance measures essential to operating and improving complex organizations in any sector. This combination of data is particularly applicable to systems that are responsible for building a competitive workforce. The research offers both output measures—such as student performance on nationally normed exams in a variety of subjects—and inputs—such as state policy environments that determine how hospitable a state is to future reform.
It is propitious timing for this kind of study. Calls from policymakers and the general public to improve America’s K–12 performance continue. In a 2010 speech, President Obama highlighted these concerns for the country and for business leaders: “America’s prosperity has always rested on how well we educate our children—but never more so than today. This is true for our workers, when a college graduate earns over 60% more in a lifetime than a high school graduate. This is true for our businesses, when according to one study, six in ten say they simply can’t find qualified people to fill open positions.”3
A 2012 study sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations said, “The United States’ failure to educate its students leaves them unprepared to compete and threatens the country's ability to thrive in a global economy and maintain its leadership role.” The study called for a national security readiness audit that would help raise public awareness about K–12 performance, including if students are college and career ready and if they are mastering “national security” skills like foreign languages and computer science.4 Recognizing these trends, measures of international competitiveness and student performance on computer science and foreign language exams are in this Leaders & Laggards.
More specifically, the metrics of Leaders & Laggards 2014 comprise the following:
Academic Achievement: Student performance on NAEP, including gains from 2005 to 2013
Academic Achievement for Low-Income and Minority Students: Student performance on NAEP, including gains from 2005 to 2013; disaggregated for African-American, Hispanic, and low-income students
Return on Investment: NAEP scores divided by state education expenditures, adjusted for cost of living
Truth in Advertising: Student Proficiency: State-reported proficiency rates compared with NAEP proficiency rates
Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness: Advanced Placement (AP) exams passed by the class of 2013, high school graduation rates, and chance for college at age 19
21st Century Teacher Force: Preparing, recruiting, and evaluating the teacher workforce
Parental Options: The market share of students in schools of choice, and two rankings of how hospitable state policy is to greater choice options
Data Quality: Collection and use of high-quality and actionable student and teacher performance data
Technology: Student access to high-quality computer-based instruction
International Competitiveness: State scores on NAEP compared with international benchmarks, and AP exams passed by the class of 2013 on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and foreign language exams
Fiscal Responsibility: State pension funding
Taken together, these 11 measures create a multifaceted picture of both the state policy environment and performance across the country.
Finally, it is important to note that this report is not designed to push a particular set of reforms or justify particular policy positions. Its purpose is to inform the debate with timely information and the opinions of groups focused on individual education policy areas (such as Digital Learning Now!, the Data Quality Campaign, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the National Council on Teacher Quality). As such, there are some inherent biases driven by those rankings we chose to include and those we did not. Any such ranking would be subject to this limitation.
Our hope is that state leaders and education advocates can use this information to better understand both how states are performing and what states are doing to improve. Business leaders play a critical role in recognizing the urgency of addressing the shortcomings of state education systems. Meaningful and substantive employer engagement is necessary to advance improvements in education. Ultimately, an improved education system will result in a more skilled and prepared workforce—and there is no greater need.
1 Ulrich Boser, Return on Educational Investment: A District-by-District Evaluation of U.S. Educational Productivity, Center for American Progress, 19 Jan. 2011. http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/education/report/2011/01/19/8902/return-on-educational-investment; A Penny Saved: How Schools and Districts Can Tighten Their Belts While Serving Students Better, American Enterprise Institute and Thomas B. Fordham Institute, The Mayflower Hotel, Washington, D.C. 11 Jan. 2010. http://www.aei.org/events/2010/01/11/a-penny-saved-how-schools-and-districts-can-tighten-their-belts-while-serving-students-better
2 State Analysis by State Action, Data Quality Campaign, 2013. http://www.dataqualitycampaign.org/your-states-progress/10-state-actions
3 The White House, President Obama Calls for News Steps to Prepare America’s Children for Success in College and Careers, 22 Feb. 2010. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/president-obama-calls-new-steps-prepare-america-s-children-success-college-and-care
4 Joel I. Klein, Julia Levy, and Condoleezza Rice, U.S. Education Reform and National Security, Council on Foreign Relations, March 2012. http://www.cfr.org/united-states/us-education-reform-national-security/p27618