There’s no magic bullet. N.C. lawmakers admit as much when they discuss ways to boost student achievement in school districts labeled “predominantly disadvantaged.”
They would be wise to endorse another concept: “There’s no master plan that state government can come up with and fix this problem.”
Sen. Andy Wells, R-Catawba, offered those words of caution during a recent meeting. Wells’ pronouncement followed nearly an hour of discussion and debate June 10 about a report on student performance within North Carolina’s most challenging school districts.
The General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division prepared the report. It defined “predominantly disadvantaged” districts as those with the lowest socioeconomic resources and the highest percentage of students qualifying for free and reduced-price lunches.
Evaluators identified 1,988 school districts across the country meeting that standard, including 45 in North Carolina. That means 39 percent of this state’s 115 districts qualify as predominantly disadvantaged, compared to a national total of 18 percent.
Just seven of North Carolina’s disadvantaged districts (16 percent) have student bodies performing at or above grade level on standardized tests. That’s not great. But it beats the national rate: 5 percent.
Within the small sample of high-achieving disadvantaged school systems nationwide, evaluators selected 12 districts as case studies. School systems in Alleghany, Jones, and Wilkes counties made the list, along with city systems in Hickory and Whiteville. Other districts on the list represented Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Tennessee.
Investigators found some common characteristics. Perhaps most interesting: Districts with the greatest success “are already demonstrating high achievement in third grade.”
This will not surprise legislators who have targeted third-grade reading proficiency in recent years. Their Read to Achieve program has faced pitfalls. But the goal of third-grade reading mastery fits well with the larger aim of boosting student performance throughout a struggling system.
Prekindergarten advocates will note that all 12 case-study districts offer pre-K. Among the N.C. districts, four of five have at least 75% of the eligible population participating.
Other characteristics of the case-study districts include maximized learning time for students, local school boards focusing on student achievement, good plans for finding and keeping high-quality teachers, and use of data and coaching to improve instruction.
The evaluation did not point to a single factor guaranteed to lead to success. “What it boils down to is there’s no magic bullet,” said Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, after reviewing the report. “We’re trying lots of things. We need to continue trying lots of things. Some of them are going to work for some folks. … Nothing works for everyone.”
“We need to try pretty much anything we can find,” Horn added.
He focused on ideas to close what he called a “preparation gap” among kindergartners. That gap is linked to multiple factors. “Some of them are family issues,” Horn said. “Some of them are academic issues. Some of them are physical or medical issues. But under any circumstances, we need to reach out to these kids and their families and do everything we can.”
The report offered lawmakers two recommendations. First, require low-performing school districts to develop an early-childhood improvement plan. Second, call on the state Department of Public Instruction to incorporate early childhood learning in school districts’ comprehensive needs assessments.
Amid discussion of these recommendations, Wells urged colleagues not to expect the state to dictate one common plan for every disadvantaged district. He referenced a key line from the report.
“It says, ‘Although commonalities exist among the 12 case-study districts, they did not use identical strategies and approaches,’” Wells said. In other words, those districts cannot help the state create a one-size-fits-all master plan.
“There are a number of steps you can take, but it seems to me — from reading this report — that the most important one is that you take the care to have a plan,” Wells added. “A plan. Not the plan. You’ve got a half-dozen things that may or may not need to be included in that plan.”
Focusing energy on this plan is “kind of like sharpening your saw,” Wells said. “You can go out in the woods and cut down a few trees with a dull saw. It’s not a lot of fun, and you look like a fool to anybody watching. If you take a little time to put an edge on — a precise edge — you can get a whole lot more done.”
State government can say to local school districts, “You figure out what that plan needs to be,” Wells said. Local school leaders then can call on successful peers for help.
“Jones County [has] 83% free and reduced[-price] lunch, but they made the good list,” he said. “So anybody can make a good list if they have a plan and execute it.”
No magic bullet. No master plan from Raleigh. But North Carolina’s disadvantaged districts still can take steps that will lead to better outcomes for their students.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.