Editorial: States of success

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 9, 2007

For ambitious youngsters who want to know the keys to lifelong success, we offer this advice: work hard, stay in school, get plenty of rest and exercise — and try to be born in Virginia.

Children growing up in Virginia have the best chance for success in school and life afterward, according to a new report from the folks at Education Week. The Chance-for-Success Index is a new addition to the organization’s annual Quality Counts assessment of American Schools. To gauge the odds that a state’s progeny will distinguish themselves in academia, scramble up the career ladder or simply become solid, productive citizens, the index compares states on 13 indicators, including preschool participation, reading and math scores, high school graduation rates, parents’ education and family income. Other states ranking near the top included Connecticut, Minnesota, New Jersey and Maryland.

North Carolina ranked 35th on the index, which isn’t that surprising considering that states in the deep South historically cluster toward the bottom tiers of any comparisons where family income and graduation rates come into play. The reasons are simple, even if the solutions aren’t: Whether compared to Virginia or the nation as a whole, we have a higher proportion of low-income residents, and North Carolina, like much of the rest of the South, is still struggling to free itself from an economic model defined more by textile mills and tobacco fields than high school diplomas and college degrees.

As other studies have shown, North Carolina has too many children who grow up in poverty, more often than not with parents who have low-education levels and precarious employment situations. We have too many children who suffer from poor nourishment and lack of good health care. Breaking that cycle of disadvantage is a major challenge for the state as whole, as well as for individual communities such as Rowan County, where income and education levels have tended to lag state averages in a below-average state.

While the quality of a child’s education obviously plays a central role in determining a child’s future in the workplace and in society, the report emphasizes that schools aren’t the only component that needs to be considered. “Rather, broader social policies may be needed to address issues of changing demographics, health care, concentrated poverty, and an economy increasingly stratified by wealth.”

Obviously, comparisons that look at success or failure in the aggregate don’t tell the whole story. What the Chance-for-Success Index confirms is that education doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and many of the factors that determine success are beyond the control of school systems. Regardless of which state they call home, students who are born into nurturing, supportive environments that encourage learning are already well on their way to achievement and well-rounded lives, while students on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder face a daunting climb.