A Misguided Study on Stupid States

The publishing firm of Mortgan Quinto has dubbed Arizona as the nation’s stupidest state. (The 480-page rankings are available for  $59.95)

On what basis? Illiteracy rates?  Some sort of IQ test? College graduation rates? Not quite. It’s a hodgepodge of criteria that demonstrates some of the confusion that surrounds education policy today.

Arizona-based columnist John Faherty takes exception to the report, as do the state’s top officials. He suggests that “the rankings deserve more serious scrutiny.”Indeed.

He goes on to say that “It is, in short, a comparison of the education systems in the 50 states and not a measure of a state’s intelligence.”

The term “education systems” deserves some unpacking. The study ranks, in the words of Faherty, “money spent on students, standardized test scores, graduation rates, teacher salaries and teacher/student ratios.”

In other words, the criteria is a mix of inputs–money spent on students, teacher pay, teacher/administrator ratios, teacher/student ratios–and school performance–test scores and graduation rates. The conflation of inputs with outcomes is common in the discussion of K-12 education. Twelve of the 21 factors measure inputs. Another

Tom Horne, the Arizona superintendent of education, says that standardized test scores are a much better gauge of the state’s performance than the study’s methodology. We’re inclined to agree, though with this qualification: there ought to be some measure of value-added performance of schools. In other words, good test scores are great. Good test scores earned by students who started out with very low test scores are even better.

Of course, it’s also a plus if a state is efficient with the money that it does spend. Arizona’s scores are average, but the money it spends per pupil are way below average, suggesting that it’s smart in the way that it spends the money.

Morgan Quitno defends its method, saying (quoting Faherty again) that they “indicates a state’s commitment to education.” In other words, the state’s intentions. But are good intentions enough? Hardly.

Faherty ends with an anecdote that reveals that the ill-advised emphasis on systems, rather than results, is widespread: “In Broome’s experience, however, Arizona’s reputation for having a wide array of school choices, public and private and charter, makes up for a shaky education reputation.” [Barry Broome is the CEO of the economic development corporation in the Phoenix area.]

The East Valley Tribune piles on in an editorial, saying that “Morgan Quitno’s use of schoolyard-level insults” merely grabs attention, and “doesn’t actually say anything we haven’t heard before,” namely, the call for more school funding. It notes that “the History Channel said the state’s social studies curriculum is the most rigorous in the nation.” Nice, but again, that’s an input, not a performance measure.

The governor called the study flawed, reasoning from the marketplace: “I can tell you that because I’m in the schools and I’m with the students and I meet with employers who are moving here. Why? Because they think we have a terrific work force.”That’s another reasonable way of measuring an education system: is it preparing people for life after school? But then again, the emphasis on inputs came back: “[Governor Janet] Napolitano did concede that Arizona is not spending enough on education.”

Given a cost-effective approach and positive feedback from employers . . . we have one question: How can Governor Napolitano say that?

By the way, would you like to know where Kansas ranked? 15

Sources: John Fahrty, “Arizona ranked dumbest in U.S.,” Arizona Republic, October 18, 2006

“Nationwide schools survey better at name-calling than evaluating issues,” East Vally Tribune, October 21, 2006

“AZ schools’ U.S.-worst ranking is denounced,” Arizona Daily Star, October 19, 2006

Morgan Quinto publishers web site.

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