U.S. Schools Get Low Marks from Chamber of Commerce

September 11, 2014

K-12 education systems are improving nationwide, but states aren't doing enough to keep the U.S. competitive on the global stage, according to a new report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

The "Leaders & Laggards" report grades each state's education performance and policies based on 11 business-oriented criteria, ranging from the availability of school options, such as charters, to the state's pension-funding situation.

The report found that 12 states didn't receive any A's, while eight states earned at least 4 F's. On the bright side, more than a dozen states didn't receive any F's, while eight states earned at least four A's or A-minuses.

"We're making progress but not enough progress…people ought to be outraged," said Cheryl Oldham, vice president of the foundation's Center for Education and Workforce. "Hopefully this is a wake-up call."

In terms of academic performance, measured by students' scores on a national test, all states improved since 2007, when the Chamber last issued a report on K-12 educational effectiveness. The gains were uneven, however.

South Carolina, Michigan and South Dakota saw bumps of less than 2 percentage points, while Hawaii, Maryland and the District of Columbia scored at least 10-point gains. Other factors considered in the report—compiled with the help of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank—included the state's return on investment, international competitiveness and academic achievement.

Massachusetts earned the highest number of A's, with six total.

"I am proud that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has recognized Massachusetts' strong academic performance, including our high standards and international competitiveness," Mitchell D. Chester, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said in a statement. The state's biggest challenge is the dearth of technology in schools, he said. Massachusetts received an F on the technology measure.

Alabama, by contrast, received nine F's. Alabama State Department of Education spokesman Michael Sibley said the scores reflect old standards and noted his state fully implemented new math and English standards last school year. "We own our faults and we recognize our shortcomings in the way we have been preparing our students," he said. "The goal is that our students are college and career ready. We're beginning to see change already."

The report found that the U.S. has a lot of work to do to keep up with the rest of the world's educational gains, an idea supported by other recent findings. The U.S. remains a global leader in the proportion of adults with post-high-school education, but many nations are closing the gap, according to a global education survey released earlier this week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The U.S. ranked 18 out of 27 countries in its percentage of today's young people expected to finish a university education in their lifetime.

With an average math score of 514 for 15-year-old students, Massachusetts beat the average score of 494 for the OECD's 34 member countries in 2012, according to a state report released this year. Still, the state ranked lower than countries such as Japan and Switzerland.

Some experts say the education system can't do the job alone.

"While our education system needs to do better, it would not be able to do so unless the business community plays a stronger role both in setting standards for what young people should be learning [at a more specialized level] but also in creating the opportunity for them to get on-the-job experiences," said Andy Van Kleunen, executive director of the National Skills Coalition, a nonprofit focused on workforce issues. "Local business still has to be a player in shaping education at the local level."