Expanding state pre-K programs, increasing teacher salaries, and allowing prospective elementary educators to specialize in a specific content area are among the steps some states are making to emulate the top-performing education systems in the world.
Gathering this week at the National Conference of State Legislature’s (NCSL) summit in Nashville, Tennessee, lawmakers from Maryland, Indiana and New Mexico shared what their states have been doing to implement recommendations in a 2016 NCSL report, which suggested relying on “silver bullet” strategies was contributing to disappointing student outcomes and causing states — and, therefore, the U.S. — to fall further behind other nations.
“There is a race on between education and what is happening in terms of technology, in terms of globalization, quite frankly in terms of the sustainability of the planet,” said Anthony Mackay, CEO and president of the National Center on Education and Economy (NCEE). “How do we get a learning system adequate to those challenges?”
Moderated by Mackay, the live-streamed session was the latest in a series of NCEE events focusing on what the U.S. and individual states can do in four key areas — early childhood, the teacher workforce, career and technical education (CTE), and aligning standards, assessments and instruction.
“Education is first and foremost a state responsibility,” said a summary of “No Time to Lose: How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State,” the 2016 report based on the work of a 28-member International Education Study Group. “Each state can develop its own strategies for building a modern education system that is globally competitive, similar to the approach taken by other high-performing countries.”
Building a 'solid foundation'
Rep. Robert Behning, an Indiana Republican who served as a member of the study group, described how the “race” MacKay noted is playing out in his state.
Most domestic-made Subarus, he said, are built at a plant in Lafayette, Indiana. Five years ago, the plant employed 800 welders. Now there are none.
“Everything is done by computer,” Behning said. “It was an aha moment for a lot of people.”
One of the lessons the study group learned from other countries, he said, was that instead of being generalists even at the elementary-level, teachers are specializing in math, science and other content areas. Teacher preparation programs in Indiana are now implementing that model.
“You can’t just rethink the K-12 system. You have to rethink the whole trajectory.”
Republican congressman from Indiana
“If you’re serious about STEM you can’t wait to high school or middle school,” Behning said. “You’ve got to build that solid foundation early.”
His state, he said, is also expanding its On My Way Pre-K program, which is focused on children in low-income families. And schools are providing more support services for students experiencing homelessness and facing other barriers to learning.
Behning added, however, that work is still needed in Indiana to build a stronger CTE system and expand youth apprenticeship opportunities — and to consider how those systems connect to higher education.
“You can’t just rethink the K-12 system,” he said. “You have to rethink the whole trajectory.”
'Perfect storms' in Maryland and New Mexico
Participants from Maryland and New Mexico both described how it took a “perfect storm” in their states to begin working toward implementing the components found in countries that rank higher than the U.S. in the Program for International Student Assessment, such as Shanghai, China, Finland and Poland.
In Maryland, it was the realization that the state’s school funding formula was not as equitable as officials thought it was, combined with declining student performance following the recession, said Delegate Maggie McIntosh, a Democrat and chair of the state House Appropriations Committee.
“I began to see school district after school district come in and say we’re falling behind,” she said.
A state Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education crafted a broad “blueprint” that includes expansion of preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, more community schools and services for students in high-poverty areas, and increases in teacher salaries as well as more rigorous preparation programs.
“Teaching is considered one of the most admirable and also lucrative professions,” Rachel Hise, a principal analyst with the Maryland Department of Legislative Services, said about the countries studied. “So, they put their money where their values are.”
The commission will continue its work through the end of the year, and legislation based on the report’s recommendations is expected next year, McIntosh said.
“As a legislator, I encourage everyone in this room to do this in your state,” she said.
In New Mexico, state Sen. Mimi Stewart, a Democrat and a retired teacher, said she pushed for a similar commission in her state. While her bill didn’t pass, several forces — a new governor, a school finance lawsuit and record-high oil production — came together to allow lawmakers to move toward the recommendations of “No Time to Lose.”
The report has been a “framework to change the conversation about schools,” Stewart said. “It just gives you hope about what you could do in your own state. It’s changed the way I think about legislating.”
New Mexico, which had 740 long-term substitutes in classrooms last year, Stewart said, has increased teacher salaries and expanded its long-running K-3 Plus through 5th grade. The program gives children in low-income and struggling schools an extra 25 days of learning.
Behning stressed, however, that policymakers have to work closely with educators and school leaders to move toward such major changes. Otherwise, he said, “Educators are going to say ‘It’s just another reform you’re trying to shove down my throat.’”