Carolina Journal News Reports

Despite High Spending Level, N.C. Students Struggle to Compete With Peers

New JLF report recommends performance pay, better tests, improved teacher quality

Feb. 1st, 2012
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RALEIGH International comparisons show North Carolina public school students struggle to match the performance of economic competitors around the globe, despite spending levels that rank among the highest in the world. The John Locke Foundation's top education expert reaches that conclusion in a new Spotlight report.

"Despite ample resources, public school students in North Carolina fail to meet or exceed the performance of students in economically competitive European and Asian nations, who easily outperform students from the Tar Heel State," said Dr. Terry Stoops, JLF Director of Education Studies. "Simply put, the state has failed in its goal of producing 'globally competitive' students. That failure is cause for serious concern."

The solution is not higher spending on the state's public schools, Stoops said. Instead his report recommends four immediate reforms.

"First, develop a comprehensive performance pay system for teachers and administrators," Stoops said. "Second, adopt high-quality tests and curricula that can yield comparisons with other states and nations. Third, promote transparency and decisions driven by data. Fourth, raise teacher quality by reducing barriers for would-be teachers and strengthening teacher accountability."

Long-term reforms include expanding public and private school choice and focusing on student-centered funding, Stoops added.

These recommendations follow Stoops' examination of the evidence. Among his key findings: Per pupil spending on North Carolina public school students rates a top-ten ranking among the world's industrialized nations.

"North Carolina elementary schools rank No. 6 in the world in per pupil spending, using the latest available data, and the rank climbs to No. 5 for students in secondary schools," he said. "So what does our significant investment in public education yield? Not much."

Multiple studies that link North Carolina test results to those compiled in economically competitive nations show Tar Heel students "hovering around the international average" in reading and math, Stoops said.

"There are no easy ways to compare academic achievement in North Carolina to student performance in other nations since this state does not participate in international testing programs," he explained. "Still, researchers have found statistical techniques that lead to reasonable comparisons. Those comparisons paint a disappointing picture for North Carolina."

Creating a peer group of 10 mostly European countries with similar enrollment to the North Carolina public schools, Stoops found that seven outperformed Tar Heel students in math, while four surpassed North Carolina students in reading.

"Meanwhile, of the nine nations with available spending data, three spent more per pupil than North Carolina, and six spent less," he said. "Students from the Czech Republic and Hungary had similar math performance to North Carolina students, yet both countries spent about half of what this state spent per student. Nations on the list with the highest spending did no better than nations spending a fraction of the money on students. In other words, there was a very weak relationship between student expenditure and student performance."

Stoops found other factors with a much better link to student success. "Researchers have found that consistently improving school districts have such features as world-class standards, curricula, and tests," he said. "Those districts also focus on raising the quality of school teachers and administrators. They have data systems that guide decision making and instruction. They also focus on transparent, clear reform efforts."

Wide variations in benefits, supplements, and other compensation make teacher salary comparisons difficult from nation to nation, Stoops said. Different marginal tax rates also limit the usefulness of comparing average teacher pay in North Carolina to salaries offered in higher-tax European nations.

"There is one piece of the salary puzzle that is worth considering," he said. "A majority of the world's highest-performing nations offer teachers performance pay. A handful of North Carolina school districts have implemented pilot performance pay programs, but the state does not have the kind of system that appears to be commonplace throughout the world."

Many of these nations with high-performing students also offer some kind of public or private school choice option to parents, Stoops said. "Countries like Australia, Belgium, Chile, and Denmark divert a substantial percentage of school expenditures to private schools, and these countries have a high percentage of students who attend schools similar to our charter schools."

State education officials have spent much time and money visiting outstanding public school systems in Europe and Asia, with little to show for their travels, Stoops said.

"Beyond trendy catchphrases and lofty goals, the state education establishment is not taking steps to measure the global competitiveness of North Carolina's public school students," he said. "This report should help point policymakers in the right direction."