States in the Southeast have made significant strides in improving public education, and many parts of the region are thriving economically. But residents still see wide disparities in educational quality and opportunity for students across their states and even within the same districts, according to a report released today by a network of Southern state-based organizations called the Columbia Group.
“Accelerating the Pace: The Future of Education in the American South” calls for improvements in teacher education and recruitment, higher expectations for students, and school finance systems that provide the resources necessary to prepare all students for college or careers.
“No child’s circumstances or location should predict their access to a good education that helps prepare them for life and work,” the report says. “But significant numbers of students nationally — and especially in the South — are limited for those very reasons.”
The report includes the results of the Education Poll of the South, a first-time survey of registered voters in 10 states — Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia — as well as southern Virginia and northern Florida.
Almost three-fourths of the respondents said that their state doesn’t do an adequate job of educating all students. In addition, 64% said there are differences in how schools in their state are funded, and 84% were in support of addressing those differences in order to improve schools.
While the region has made overall gains in student achievement, the report notes that between 2005 and 2015, gaps between racial and ethnic groups and between students from low-income and more advantaged families grew wider in some states and in some subject areas.
In Kentucky, for example, gaps for black students widened in fourth and eighth grade reading and math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And in North Carolina, gaps widened in fourth and eighth grade reading for Hispanic students.
‘An urgent moment’
“We as a group of southern states believe we’re at an urgent moment in time,” said Brigitte Blom Ramsey, executive director of Kentucky’s Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, one of the Columbia Group organizations and the advocacy group that helped to craft the landmark Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) in 1990.
Ramsey said KERA’s strength was in creating standards and accountability measures for all students and including parent and citizen engagement as part of the process. Those changes helped the state rise from the bottom to the middle in student achievement, she said. But now, it will take “more than accountability and standards” to make further progress, she said. “We believe we need re-energized citizen engagement.”
Schools also need to be able to respond to the specific needs of their students, Ramsey added. She mentioned recently visiting a high-poverty elementary school in Henderson, KY, where the reading scores of African-American students are twice as high as in the state overall. She said a focus on high-quality teaching, a positive culture and climate in the building and local autonomy has contributed to the school’s growth.
Other examples of programs and initiatives that have been successful in helping more students complete school — such as the Graduate Marietta Student Success Center at Marietta High School in Georgia — are included in the report. The center offers a café run by students, space for support group meetings, free diapers and formula for teen mothers, as well as a social worker, psychologist and other staff members who can assist students with problems that might be keeping them from graduating.
Emphasis on early learning
The report notes areas in which southern states have been education leaders, such as early-childhood education. Georgia, for example, under former Governor Zell Miller, was the first state to open pre-kindergarten to any 4 year old, regardless of family income. And for several years running, Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program has met all 10 quality standards for pre-kindergarten programs set by the National Institute for Early Education Research.
But the report says that more improvements are needed to increase access to pre-K, especially for 3 year olds. And it refers to recommendations made by the Southern Regional Education Board, such as expanding or strengthening rating systems so that families can find which child-care and pre-K programs meet standards of quality.
“Our kids fall behind at an early age,” Kevin Greiner, the president and CEO of Gas South in Atlanta and a former board chairman of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education (GPEE), said in the report. “Early education doesn’t cover all kids and doesn’t start early enough.”
At the secondary level, the report recommends stronger connections between high schools and community or technical colleges with the goal of giving all students the opportunity to earn a two-year degree or an industry certification while in high school.
“Accelerating the Pace” also includes a series of questions for policymakers to ask in their states about educational equity, the teaching workforce, support and options for students, and school funding.
“For a lot of these smaller districts, they’re spending all the money they have … to keep the lights on,” a resident of London, KY, a town of about 8,000, said in one of the focus groups conducted as part of the research for the report. An Atlanta-area resident said, “The worst schools get worse … and that gap just constantly keeps increasing [between schools].”
Closing gaps takes 'political will'
Gary Henry, the director of graduate studies at Vanderbilt University — who has also worked at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Georgia State University — said that solutions that focus on all students can allow such gaps to widen, but that there are policies that can help to narrow the divide.
North Carolina’s Disadvantaged Student Supplemental Fund, for example, sent additional funds to the state’s 16 most disadvantaged school districts and led to gains in achievement, he said. He also pointed to Tennessee’s Innovation Zones, which increase teachers’ salaries in low-performing schools within districts in order to recruit and retain more effective teachers in schools where students have the most needs.
He added, however, that implementing such policies are difficult to negotiate and implement.
“They take political will to build support for them among those who might not receive direct advantages, and to engage with the communities served by them,” Henry said. “For progress in reducing the gaps, policies will need to focus on improving the instruction and services of those who have been on the wrong side of the gap since it was discovered."
The organizations that make up the Columbia Group have worked, from a business perspective, to improve educational outcomes in their states. For the past 25 years, members of the group have met regularly to share ideas and work together on projects. An earlier report, “Southern Synergy” focused on the work of the organizations and their role in contributing to the education agendas in their states.
“The ability to alternate between working under the glare of public scrutiny and promoting change from behind the scenes,” the report says, “has enabled Columbia Group organizations to be a constant force for reform.”
In addition to the Prichard Committee and GPEE, the other organizations involved are A+ Education Partnership in Alabama, Education’s Next Horizon in Louisiana, Mississippi First, the Public School Forum of North Carolina and the State Collaborative on Reforming Education in Tennessee.
Ramsey said each organization will use the report to advocate for changes, such as increased education funding, in conversations with policymakers and citizens.
“Each of the members will be responding in their states,” she said, “based on where they see the opportunity to move forward.”