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Ken James

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Contrary to Conventional Wisdom, States Are Leading the Way in Education Reform

Posted: 10/26/09 07:06 PM ET

The Obama administration made a big splash with its decision to spend $100 billion in stimulus funding on education, including $5 billion specifically targeted to educational innovation in the states. These federal resources are welcome and necessary, but they may give the false impression that up until now states have been lagging on reform.

The truth is exactly the opposite. While the federal government is a relative newcomer to education reform, states have been demanding and driving change for decades.

The biggest milestones in school reform all have the mark of state leadership. For instance, in the 1990s governors and state school chiefs implemented vigorous accountability and academic achievement plans that have helped states identify student achievement gaps and move swiftly to close them.

More recently, states have focused their efforts on college readiness, working to ensure that every student graduates high school with the skills necessary to compete in the 21st century global economy. While not every high school graduate will attend college, every student will benefit from a strong curriculum that emphasizes subject-matter proficiency, critical thinking skills, and an understanding of the global nature of society and the economy.

We still have a long way to go. According to data from educational testing and research organization ACT, fewer than 20 percent of 8th-grade students are on track to be college ready in the four core subject areas of English, math, reading, and science.

Those statistics are unacceptable, and governors and education chiefs are working harder than anyone to improve them.

As the former schools chief in Arkansas and president of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), the organization that represents state education leaders, I've had the opportunity to lead and to observe state-led reform efforts.

In Arkansas, we increased per-pupil spending and consolidated school districts to make education spending more effective, eliminate bureaucracy, and bring innovation to more schools.

We also made it a priority to raise standards and focus on college readiness. We increased the number of students taking Advanced Placement courses and Arkansas became one of ten states implementing the rigorous Smart Core curriculum, which includes four years each of math and English and three years each of science and social studies to prepare students for the rigors of college.
The improvements we made in Arkansas reflect the work being done in many states.

For instance, Massachusetts, which is consistently a top performer on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), has set its sights on international competition, benchmarking elementary math performance against Singapore.

West Virginia recently revamped its student standards with a focus on 21st century skills development, to ensure that students are ready for national and global competition. Similarly, Colorado strengthened its state standards and is in the process of implementing end-of-course exams.

And in Maine, state education officials are incorporating technology throughout the curriculum. All middle school students are issued laptops and the effort is expanding to include high schools.

States are also working together, with support from the National Governors Association and CCSSO, to develop uniform educational standards and common curriculum goals. It is past time for all of us to agree on what it means to be proficient in math and reading. Every child in America needs a strong foundation in these subjects, regardless of where he or she lives. Forty-seven states and three territories have signed on to the effort to develop common standards and they're making encouraging progress.

As education reform advances, state leaders are making improvement of struggling schools a top priority. That includes recruiting turnaround leaders, building partnerships with community stakeholders, and clearing away barriers to effective teaching and leadership. We also must enhance teachers' ability to make progress in the classroom, build data systems that connect schools from preschool through college, and use data for policymaking and improvement.

As leaders and citizens in their states, governors and school officials have a vested interest in driving education reform and making sure it succeeds. The Obama administration recognizes this crucial role and is supporting states with programs such as the new i3 innovation fund and Race to the Top grants.

By tapping into the creativity, innovation, and dedication at work in the states, we're developing a more complete understanding of which reforms are most effective and how they can be implemented throughout the country. With greater federal support, states will continue to lead the way in ensuring that all students are educated to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities of the 21st century global economy.