For the second straight year, the national magazine Education Week has ranked Arkansas fifth in the nation when it comes to public schools. It’s not that simple.
The magazine ranks states in six categories. Three were updated this year: "chance for success"; "school finance"; and "transitions and alignment," or the way that public schools lead into other areas of education, such as college and workforce training. The magazine used last year’s research in the other three areas: "K-12 achievement"; "the teaching profession"; and "standards, assessment and accountability."
Let’s remind ourselves that this is a bunch of education reporters looking at a lot of numbers through the lenses of their own perspectives and then guessing. Because they rank Arkansas fifth does not mean Arkansas is fifth.
But while they didn’t uncover the undeniable truth, they did create something worth considering, and while Arkansas may not be fifth, it’s probably doing OK compared to other states.
The state’s education system gets A-pluses, 100 percent, in the standards it sets, how it holds schools accountable, its early childhood education programs, and the way it transitions from public schools to workforce education.
It is because of these areas that you will hear Gov. Mike Beebe trumpeting the state’s high rating, as he did, and rightly so, during his 2010 re-election campaign. In fact, Arkansas has been doing well in this survey for a while now.
But you also will hear a resounding "yes, but" from Republicans and some others. They’ll be pointing out – and rightly so – that in the areas that really matter, student achievement and chance for success, Arkansas is receiving C’s and D’s. In fact, it gets a solid F in current student performance.
So is Arkansas doing poorly, or doing well? Yes.
Student achievement and chance for success are why we have schools. Nobody outside education really cares about good policies. Results are what matters. So schools are doing poorly.
However, if Education Week is to be believed, Arkansas’ education system is doing well in those areas it can control – policies, programs, the teaching profession as a whole.
It can’t control who walks in the door the first day of kindergarten or do much about their lives at home. This is a poor state, and household income is one of the most reliable contributing factors to student performance. Arkansas has high divorce and teen pregnancy rates, though its percentage of children living in single-parent homes, 38 percent, is not that much higher than the national average of 35 percent, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Still, many students lack a stable, two-parent home where someone is available to check their homework and attend parent-teacher conferences. Arkansas also has the nation’s second-lowest percentage of adults with college degrees, so there are fewer homes where higher education is a legacy.
Let’s be clear that many poor or single-parent families produce fantastic students. Many, many people who don’t have college degrees are successful without them and still raise their children to believe that school is important. And schools in pockets of Arkansas have figured out how to thrive despite many of their students coming from challenging circumstances.
But, taken as a whole, these outside issues have a huge effect on how students perform in the classroom, and on how Arkansas ranks in certain categories. They are the results of millions of individual choices and circumstances, and schools can do only so much in response. Public schools are a function of the government, and we all ought to know that there are many problems government simply cannot fix.
So, when it comes to education, Arkansas is both doing well and poorly. Its policies and programs are pretty good, but not good enough, and maybe not nearly good enough. Regardless, aspects of the state’s culture make it more difficult for schools to succeed.
It’s not as simple as A, B, C.
Or D and F.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org