Americans cheered the latest release of the test called "the nation's report card," which showed marked long-term gains in math and reading for elementary and junior high students. But the loudest applause is due for the South, as it turns out. Largely missed in the initial hoopla was a startling fact:
Much of the national progress reported for 9- and 13-year-olds was driven by gains in the South. For example, while 9-year-olds in the Northeast gained 10 points in reading achievement (the equivalent of a grade level) over the past 30 years, the South gained 24, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). While reading scores for 13-year-olds barely budged in most of the United States, the South gained 12 points, more than a grade level.
It's vindication for a generation of Southern governors, business groups, and educators who launched the standards movement in education a decade before it was picked up by the rest of the nation.
"Being behind is a great stimulus," says Mark Musick, president of the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB), who retired this week. "In the 1980s, a number of enlightened leaders in the South were not hesitant to say, 'We're behind, and we have to catch up.' "
The regional results were not immediately obvious. They weren't included in official briefings on the 2004 long-term National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) or its 126-page summary report. Instead, they were buried four levels deep on the NCES website.
For most of American history, the South has remained at rock bottom for education achievement. Writing in 1949, political scientist V.O. Key described Southern states as "often dominated by the least forward-looking elements and always overshadowed by Washington."
But by the late 1970s, a new generation of leaders, who came of age during the civil rights struggles in the South, took on education as their top priority. Governors like Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee, Richard Riley (D) of South Carolina, Bill Clinton (D) of Arkansas, William Winter (D) of Mississippi, James Hunt (D) of North Carolina, and Charles Robb (D) of Virginia poured resources into schools and, in return, promised taxpayers higher student performance.
Governor Alexander launched a master-teacher program, including merit pay for teachers. Governor Riley stumped every corner of the state to win support for a penny increase in the sales tax for schools.
"The link of all of this was our hunger and need for economic growth, so our people would have good jobs," says former Governor Hunt, who now directs a think tank to help governors better promote improvement in schools.
Perhaps more remarkably, Southern governors, Democrats and Republicans, stuck to the program, resisting the reflex of new governors to trash the reforms of their predecessors.
The SREB launched sweeping reforms in 1988 to bring the region into the new economy. At its heart: a commitment to setting higher standards for all Southern students, black and white, and annual testing to ensure the standards were being met. "The citizens of any state are not likely to achieve more in education than they and their leaders expect and aim for," said the SREB mission statement.
The flood of new jobs and industries into the South seemed to confirm that the region was on the right track. The new NAEP scores provide more confirmation, experts say.
"Gains like this mean that things are going right in schools," says Daria Hall, a policy analyst with the Education Trust in Washington. When states have standards in place and hold schools accountable for results, "that is when we are seeing progress for students," she adds. "Since ... the South had these systems in place a decade earlier, it's not surprising that we're beginning to see the payoffs."
One key to progress was shifting the focus from the region's low rankings to its progress in closing the gap, several former governors say. "I always talked about improvement instead of ranking," says former Governor Riley, who was also Education Secretary in the Clinton administration. "Anyone who has studied the history of the South and really cared about it would have to realize that there has always been a kind of spirit here that we could do better. But it takes time, constant attention, and some measure of continuity. That's what the standards movement has given us."
Reporting test results by disaggregating data by income, race, and ethnicity - a practice begun in the South - allowed governors to focus on student improvement, rather than ranking.
"In North Carolina, we measured progress year by year, which is the only fair measure," says Hunt. If a school made a year's worth of progress, it got a bonus. If it made "extraordinary progress," it got another bonus. "It gave incentives to schools wherever they were: If you could bring students up, you were doing a good job," Hunt adds.
The disaggregation also revealed patterns of educational achievement that were not obvious by comparing high-performing states like Iowa or Connecticut with Southern states.
"What the NAEP results are telling us is that if you're white and not poor in America, you're doing pretty well. The results are amazingly similar across America," says former SREB president Musick. That makes the region's progress in raising student achievement levels all the more remarkable, he adds. "The South is now a leader in preschool education. That was unimaginable two decades ago."