RALEIGH – If you say that North Carolina’s public schools are better than they used to be, you’ll get no argument from me.
A generation ago, educational attainment and quality in North Carolina ranked low by national standards. We had a relatively low rate of high-school graduation. Our students ranked low in reading, math, and college readiness. In 1992, more than 60 percent of North Carolina students lacked even basic math skills.
Today, North Carolina’s public schools look better by nearly all measures of performance. Our reading scores are roughly at the national average, with our math scores slightly above and our science scores slightly below. Only 25 percent of our students now lack basic math skills, for example. Our four-year graduation is within a few tenths of a percent of the national average. Our SAT scores are slightly below average. Our ACT scores are slightly above.
In short, public education in our state used to be abysmal. Now it is mediocre. This is progress – but we have a long, long way to go if our goal is to lead the nation and compete with other countries in educational achievement.
We won’t get there by timidity, or by simply sticking with the current slate of education programs. Most of North Carolina’s progress in student performance I described above occurred during the 1990s, not during the subsequent decade. Since 2000 our reading scores have leveled off, and our math scores have risen at a lower-than-average pace. To reach the next level of performance, we will have to take bolder action.
Based on national and international analysis of what policy factors are most strongly associated with student achievement, the next generation of North Carolina leaders should push for:
• Higher academic standards. We still ask too little of our students, and fill the curriculum with bunk and happy talk. States and countries with truly exemplary performance tend to set high expectations and assess student progress with rigorous, independent tests.
• Better teachers. Many high-achieving states and countries hire and pay their teachers according to subject-matter knowledge and demonstrated performance. According to a 2011 study of international test score data, countries where public schools routinely pay teachers according to performance outscore the others by the equivalent of an entire grade level in math and reading, and by half a grade level in science. We should junk our current salary schedules, restrict or abolish teacher tenure, give principals more tools with which to manage their employees, and hold everyone accountable for results.
• Greater choice and competition. We should continue to promote parental choice among public schools, through open enrollment and charters, while also expanding access to private alternatives through scholarship programs, tuition tax relief, and education savings accounts. There is now compelling evidence that choice and competition affect student performance. A 2009 study concluded that, after adjusting for other factors, every 10 percentage-point increase in a country’s share of students attending privately run schools is associated with a rise in average math scores equivalent to as much as half a grade level. There was a positive but smaller effect on average reading and science scores.
These findings comport with stateside evidence. There have been a number of high-quality studies of the effects of choice programs in Wisconsin, New York, Washington, Charlotte, and other cities on test scores, graduation rates, parental satisfaction, and other outcomes. Not a single one has shown any harmful effects on participants. Most find gains in either math or reading scores, or both, for at least some subset of students when compared to a control group of students who qualified for but did not receive scholarship assistance. These gains were often large and sustained. As psychologist and education scholar Herbert Walberg puts it, “The results are extremely unlikely to occur by statistical chance and are about as consistent as any in the social sciences.”
If we want North Carolina’s educational level to rise from mediocre to exemplary, we should embrace a reform agenda of higher standards, better teachers, and greater choice. The economic, fiscal, and social returns would be massive.
I’m in. What about you?
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.