A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from communications associate at WalletHub.com, identified in the email as “(one of the leading outlets covering the personal finance industry).” The associate wanted me to respond to a series of questions and provide a picture for an article in their “consumer education section” and (maybe?) national media.
Of course, WalletHub is the source of one of the worst and most popular practices around U.S. education—ranking states by educational quality, 2022’s States with the Best & Worst School Systems. I noticed when searching my email, I had been contacted before by WalletHub, but likely deleted without replying. This time I sent a pointed response that since I focus on equity in my work, I would not want to be associated with their harmful and misleading ranking.
The exchange was irritating and frustrating—and just business as usual in terms of how the media, politicians, and the public label education. And then I read this in the Post and Courier (Charleston, SC):
Scores from 2020-21 showed only 31% of our public school fourth graders read competently, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress.
That means 69% of our children cannot read well enough to complete work at their grade level. It would be worse without the many homes where parents teach their children to read.
Part of the responsibility rests with the South Carolina Department of Education.
Year after year we see the same results on fourth grade reading and math.
W. Edwards Deming, an eminent scholar and teacher in American academia, says that “A bad system will beat a good person every time.”
And South Carolina has a bad system for teaching reading.
The South Carolina Department of Education has at least at least 30 people in the Office of Early Learning and Literacy.
If South Carolina’s children have been failing for the past 40 years, what have they been doing? Why do we have them? Where is their accountability?
Do they not see failing as a bad thing?
The system focuses on the curriculum rather than focusing on reading.
To get everything in, reading is integrated into other subjects rather than given its own primary focus.
In trying to teach so much, school leaders accomplish so much less.
I don’t understand why parents are not outraged over this. I certainly am.
Lake CityWhy does South Carolina seem to care so little for its children?
There is so much wrong here—the data, the claims about teaching and reading, the influence of ranking on how the public views education, etc.—I cannot address it all, but let’s just focus on the ranking and suggesting there are valid ways to label states as “best” or “worst” in education.
The problems with ranking educational quality among states are many, and I recommend simply Googling “Gerald Bracey” and “educational rankings” if you want to explore the granular issues with statistics, etc.
The short version is that the urge to rank is itself a problem since to rank, you must create metrics that will produce a spread among whatever is being ranked. It is a sort of self-fulfilling process that necessitates that some things are labeled “best” and some “worst.”
But at the deeper level, the metrics and data used to rank are always something other than what is being ranked to begin with. In education, rankings often claim to be labeling educational quality while using metrics and data that are mostly about issues of equity—poverty, race, native language, school funding, student/teacher ratios, teacher experience and certification, etc.
Therefore, there is a great deal of overlap in WalletHub’s nonsensical “best” and “worst” rankings and the following:
- Poverty rates by states
- Racial demographics by states
- Change in racial demographics by states
- Equality by states
At the most basic level—and the issues are far more complex than this—note the tremendous overlap of “worst” and poverty:
Here is the ugly truth: State rankings by educational quality are mostly rankings by poverty, race/racism, racial diversity/equity, etc.
Here is an even uglier truth: Schools and education systems tend to reflect, not change or overcome, the inequities of states and communities.
There are many aspects of schooling we should (must?) address, such as teaching and learning conditions and access to high-quality teachers, curriculum (such as content being banned by Republicans), and materials (such as the books being banned by Republicans).
But separate from that, we must reject rankings as, well, rank, having a foul and offensive smell.