Center for Applied Economic Research

Quality Rankings of Education in the Fifty States

Montana Comparisons

Dennis E. Clayson, Ph.D., Director
Center for Applied Economic Research

This report looks at the quality of Montana's schools through several different methods. Montana has a school system with poor inputs, but with generally good outputs. This is achieved by a relatively efficient system. The positive outputs of the state education system, however, have not manifested themselves in increased positions that will attract college graduates or in corresponding incomes.

Recently, the Thomas Fordham Foundation released a study to the media ranking the states on the basis of "teacher quality".  Montana ranked dead last out of 49 states.[1]  The report elicited the expected negative reaction from educators within Montana.

There are numerous ways that education quality can be evaluated.  The following table outlines a number of these.

Measures of Educational Quality

Teacher Quality Education Input Education Output Education Social Impact Education Efficiency
  1. Texas
  2. Florida
  3. Michigan
  4. California
  5. N Carolina
  6. New York
  7. Kentucky
  8. Mass
  9. Colorado
  10. NewJersey
  11. Georgia
  12. Penn
  13. S Carolina
  14. New Mex
  15. Virginia
  16. Oklahoma
  17. Maryland
  18. Missouri
  19. New Hamp
  20. Delaware
  21. Utah
  22. Illinois
  23. Minnesota
  24. West Vir
  25. Arizona
  26. Conn
  27. Mississippi
  28. Ohio
  29. Louisiana
  30. Tennessee
  31. Rhode Is
  32. Nevada
  33. Idaho
  34. Wisconsin
  35. Arkansas
  36. Vermont
  37. Wyoming
  38. Indiana
  39. Wash
  40. Iowa
  41. N Dakota
  42. Nebraska
  43. Alaska
  44. Hawaii
  45. Maine
  46. Alabama
  47. S Dakota
  48. Kansas
  49. Montana
  1. New York
  2. California
  3. Michigan
  4. NewJersey
  5. Penn
  6. Alaska
  7. Conn
  8. Maryland
  9. Florida
  10. Mass
  11. Delaware
  12. Illinois
  13. Colorado
  14. Arizona
  15. Utah
  16. Minn
  17. Wash
  18. Ohio
  19. Texas
  20. Rhode Is
  21. Georgia
  22. Nevada
  23. Wisc
  24. Kentucky
  25. NewHamp
  26. Indiana
  27. NCarolina
  28. Hawaii
  29. Missouri
  30. S Carolina
  31. Virginia
  32. West Vir
  33. Vermont
  34. New Mex
  35. Idaho
  36. Oklahoma
  37. Tennessee
  38. Wyoming
  39. Miss
  40. Louisiana
  41. Iowa
  42. Arkansas
  43. Kansas
  44. Nebraska
  45. Alabama
  46. Montana
  47. N Dakota
  48. S Dakota
  1. Maine
  2. Wisc
  3. Conn
  4. Iowa
  5. Minn
  6. N Dak
  7. Montana
  8. Mass
  9. Nebraska
  10. Indiana
  11. Wash
  12. Utah
  13. Miss
  14. Wyoming
  15. Nevada
  16. Colorado
  17. NewYork
  18. Rhode Is
  19. Penn
  20. Texas
  21. Virginia
  22. Maryland
  23. Arizona
  24. West Vir
  25. N Carolina
  26. Kentucky
  27. Delaware
  28. Hawaii
  29. Florida
  30. New Jersey
  31. Tenn
  32. Georgia
  33. Arkansas
  34. New Mex
  35. Alabama
  36. California
  37. S Carolina
  38. Louisiana
  39. Miss
  40. Michigan
  1. Conn
  2. Maryland
  3. Mass
  4. NewJersey
  5. Colorado
  6. Wash
  7. NewHamp
  8. NewYork
  9. Minnesota
  10. Ohio
  11. Virginia
  12. Illinois
  13. Kansas
  14. Oregon
  15. Vermont
  16. Alaska
  17. Hawaii
  18. Rhode Is
  19. Utah
  20. Del
  21. California
  22. Wisc
  23. Neb
  24. Iowa
  25. Indiana
  26. Wyoming
  27. Missouri
  28. Arizona
  29. Maine
  30. Michigan
  31. N Dakota
  32. Florida
  33. Idaho
  34. S Dakota
  35. Penn
  36. New Mex
  37. Texas
  38. Georgia
  39. Nevada
  40. Oklahoma
  41. N Carolina
  42. Montana
  43. Tennessee
  44. S Carolina
  45. Louisiana
  46. Alabama
  47. Kentucky
  48. Arkansas
  49. West Vir
  50. Miss
  1. Utah
  2. N Dakota
  3. Tenn
  4. Iowa
  5. Nevada
  6. Arkansas
  7. Montana
  8. Missouri
  9. N Car
  10. Ala
  11. Arizona
  12. Minn
  13. Colorado
  14. Indiana
  15. Texas
  16. Nebraska
  17. Maine
  18. New Mex
  19. Kentucky
  20. Virginia
  21. Miss
  22. Georgia
  23. Wash
  24. Wyoming
  25. Wisc
  26. S Carolina
  27. Florida
  28. West Vir
  29. California
  30. Mass
  31. Penn
  32. Louisiana
  33. Rhode Is
  34. Hawaii
  35. Conn
  36. Maryland
  37. Delaware
  38. New York
  39. NewJersey
States Missing Data
Oregon Oregon Alaska
N Hamp
S Dak
S Dak

In the social sciences, a term like "quality" is referred to as a hypothetical construct. "Quality" is not something that can be measured like the length of a table or the weight of a car.  "Quality" must be inferred from other measurements that are related to what people generally mean by "quality".

 Because of the inference of relationships, different measurements of "quality" can be created which reflect a number of different viewpoints, including those that are political. Therefore, it is imperative when judging the results of these studies to know how "quality" was defined in terms of how it was measured.

The rankings in the above table were calculated using the following data.

Teacher Quality

This is the result of the recent Thomas Fordham Foundation study.  Teacher "quality" was measured by how the:

  1. States punish or reward teachers and administrators for student achievement,
  2. Conducts checks on teachers' backgrounds and college course work, and
  3. How much power the state gives for individual schools to hire and fire teachers.

Education Input

Four measurements were standardized and then averaged for this variable:[2]

  1. Average teacher salaries,
  2. Pupil/teacher ratios,
  3. Education cost per student, and
  4. The Thomas Fordham results.

Education Output

Output was calculated by using the standardized average of:

  1. Percent of 4th graders at or above grade level as measured on NAEP tests on
    1. Reading, and
    2. math
  2. Mean ACT score for the state.[3]

Education Social Impact

The measurement is problematic. In this case it was simply measured by using the standardized average of three measures:

  1. Per capita income,
  2. Percent of population with college degrees, and
  3. The average number of books checked out of libraries per capita.

Education Efficiency

This measurement is basically the "bang-per-buck" of education.  It is a measurement that businesses would use if they were measuring efficiency.  It was calculated by using the standardized average of the cost per student per unit measured output.  Three measures were used:

  1. The cost per student per percent of reading above or at 4th grade level,
  2. The cost per student per percent of math above or at 4th grade level, and
  3. The cost [4]


The median family income is positively related to all of the measures noted above.  In other words, states that have higher family incomes have better schools on all measures.  This is true even for efficiency, partially dispelling the notion that efficiency is simply a statistical artifact created by the fact that any education program is better than none.

There is, however, no relationship between the educational inputs and educational outputs.  This conclusion is not counterintuitive.  There is, in fact, almost a negative correlation between the amount of money spent historically on education in America and almost any measure of achievement (except perhaps, psychosocial benefits).

Another indicator that there is little relationship between inputs and outputs is found in the relationship between minorities and educational achievement.  States that have a higher minority population percentage have, on average, lower educational outcomes as measured by standardized tests.  In the above data, there is a strong negative relationship between the percentage of minorities in a state and the educational output.  There is, however, no relationship between minority percentage and educational inputs.

There is also no significant relationship between educational efficiency and educational output. This is not unexpected since efficiency is a function of monetary input. There is a strong relationship between education efficiency and education's social impact. This finding is, however, not related to monetary input but to population density.  States with lower population density generally do better with the resources they have.

It is instructive to compare Montana's ranking with related states.

Rankings of Selected States Compared with Montana

Factor Montana Wyoming N Dakota Utah Iowa
Teacher Quality 49 37 41 21 40
Input 47 38 48 15 41
Output 7 14 6 12 4
Social Impact 42 26 31 19 24
Efficiency 7 24 2 1 4

These states were selected for several reasons:

  • All have relatively small populations; none are over four times as large as Montana in population,
  • All (with the possible exception of Utah) are considered to be rural states,
  • North Dakota and Wyoming are Montana neighbors,
  • Utah has the highest efficiency rating, and
  • Iowa had the highest combined ACT and SAT scores in the nation the year the data was collected.

Whereas the Thomas Fordham Foundation's study puts Montana dead last, it is basically a measure of the local control of education. Other measures give a mixed picture. In the latest comparative data (generally 1996-97), Montana's educational inputs were not impressive.

Input Rank
Pupil/teacher ratio 28
Teacher's average salary 45
Expenditure/student 28

On the other hand, educational outputs were more positive.  

Outputs Rank
Reading, grade 4 6
Math, grade 4 8
Mean ACT score 7

The social impacts of education are negative to mixed.

Social Impact Rank
Per capita income 47
Per cent with college degrees 25
Library books in circ/capita 31


In summary, Montana has a school system with poor inputs, but with generally good outputs. This is achieved by a relatively efficient system and the fact that, fortunately for Montana, there is little relationship between monetary inputs and measurable outputs.  The positive outputs of the state education system, however, have not manifested themselves in increased positions that will attract college graduates or in corresponding incomes.

[1] Data from Oregon was not available.

[2] Data came from the last national survey readily available, which was 1997.

[3] SAT was not used. Students most likely to go to the most prestigious colleges are more likely to take the SAT. Consequently, a state that has few students going on to the higher college levels can have higher scores, ironically because they don't produce many higher quality students.

[4] For example, State A and State B both spend $5000/student/year.  However, the average ACT in State A was 21 and the average ACT in State B was 18. State A is more efficient. It costs $238 per student in this state to produce one ACT point. In State B it costs $278.

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