North Carolina’s elementary and secondary schools are among the best in the country at delivering academic value for the tax dollars spent on them. If you haven’t heard that before, it’s not your fault. You have been repeatedly misinformed.
Before I defend my claim, let me clarify it. I’m not saying our students are getting everything they need to thrive and prosper. I’m not saying there aren’t significant performance gaps. I’m not saying the task of education reform is complete. We’ve barely started it. The strength of our economy, the health of our families and communities, and the fate of our republic depend on seeing it through.
But to chart an accurate course, we must know our current position. We have to take the right measurements. And ranking North Carolina’s schools low based on politically motivated criteria will not get us there.
For years, critics have argued that the state’s current letter-grade system, which relies mostly on raw test scores, yields both false negatives and false positives. Because there is a strong relationship between student performance and family background, they observe, high-poverty schools get low grades even though their students might actually be making impressive gains. Just as problematic, schools with few disadvantaged students get high grades even when those schools aren’t really delivering the educational value they ought to.
This criticism is deserved. North Carolina absolutely should change its letter-grading system to emphasize the value added by schools. But the argument proves more than its adherents may realize or admit.
Here’s another widely understood truth: organizations that judge themselves by resources or effort expended rather than by results are fooling both themselves and those who invest in them. In my role as the president of a grantmaking foundation, I recognize and apply this truth every day. I don’t assume that giving money to a nonprofit with a noble mission will necessarily result in social progress. My team and I know it’s our job to try to pick the grantees with the greatest potential to do good with our dollars.
Some models work better than others. Some teams of nonprofit staff and volunteers are better led than others. Some previously successful ideas become outdated. Some money spent in good faith gets wasted.
In the business sector, assuming that how much you spend and how many people you hire are equivalent to how much value you create is a one-way ticket to bankruptcy. It’s about the rate of return — not budgets, promises, or good intentions.
So, if we know that what happens in schools is only partially responsible for how students perform, and that measuring inputs isn’t the same as measuring outcomes, then why in the world would we rank education systems without taking these fundamental realities into account?
Stan Liebowitz and Matthew Kelly, researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas, have just done rankings the right way, by using independent measures of student achievement from the National Assessment of Educational Progress and adjusting them for student background. North Carolina ranked 12th in school quality by this measure. Then Liebowitz and Kelly adjusted for educational expenditure. By that measure, North Carolina ranked 6th in the nation in cost-effectiveness.
To state these facts is not to settle any particular dispute about education policy. If you are a fiscal progressive, you can argue that if North Carolina raised taxes in order to vastly increase education spending, that would catapult us into the top 10. Fiscal conservatives can respond by pointing to Florida (3rd in performance and 1st in efficiency) and Texas (5th in performance and 2nd in efficiency) as examples of why higher taxes and vastly larger budgets are neither necessary for better schools nor advisable for our economy.
But to assert the counterfactual — that North Carolina ranks low in the effectiveness of its education system — is to misinform the public about the performance of the largest government enterprise in our state. Parents, educators, and taxpayers deserve better that what they’re getting. They deserve the truth.