Policy & Progress article: North Carolina's Public Schools Can Soar

August 2012

By Matt Ellinwood
Policy Analyst for the NC Justice Center’s Education & Law Project

North Carolina’s public schools have made impressive progress over the last 20 years. According to a report from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, North Carolina ranks among the top 12 states in terms of the annual rate of growth in student achievement in math, reading, and science as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—the only test that can be used to compare students from different states over time.

North Carolina had a great deal of room for improvement, and the state made considerable investments in order to move from the low end on student achievement to the middle of the pack in comparison to other states. Policymakers now face the more difficult question of how to build on these successes and create one of the highest-achieving educational systems in the world so North Carolina’s workers can compete with their peers globally.

Learning by Example

Building a world-class public school system in North Carolina is possible, and we need only look to the highest-performing states for examples of how to do it.

According to Harvard’s Kennedy School report, if all the students in the country made the same gains as students in the leading states made over the last 20 years, the United States would be back among the top-performing countries in the world.

In the 2012 legislative session, the North Carolina legislators looked to other states to see what is working that can be replicated in North Carolina. Unfortunately, the state they chose as a model for education reform, Florida, actually lags behind North Carolina on 7 out of 8 available measures of student achievement on the NAEP. Florida does have extremely low per pupil expenditures, and that seemed to be the primary focus for many state legislators this year.

There is one state – Maryland – that jumps off the page when looking at NAEP data because it leads the country in improvement over the last 20 years and is currently among the top states on every available performance indicator. Maryland is one of the few states that can compete on equal footing with the highest-achieving nations in the world, based on its scores on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is used to compare student achievement internationally.

Plotting a Course to Success

Maryland made these remarkable gains by focusing its reform efforts on policies that have the greatest impact on student achievement: improving the quality of teaching, improving the curriculum, and committing adequate financial resources to provide instruction effectively.

There are a number of key reform efforts ongoing in Maryland that can be replicated in North Carolina to improve student achievement.

  • Emphasize critical thinking skills. One of the problems with high-stakes multiple-choice testing is that it generally favors rote memorization over the application of critical-thinking skills. Students may soon forget memorized facts, but they never lose the thought processes they develop from thinking critically. Maryland, like the nations that lead the world in student achievement, has developed assessments that test critical-thinking ability. As a result, students are better prepared for high-skill jobs.
  • Elevate the teaching profession. Maryland is committed to making teaching a desirable and high-status profession. The average teacher salary is $64,000, compared to $42,000 in North Carolina. Maryland also has high professional-development standards, provides mentoring by master teachers, offers teaching academies, and supports new teachers with induction programs. By contrast, North Carolina cut all state funding for professional development in 2011, did away with the Teacher Academy, and cut funding for teacher mentoring.
  • Provide high-quality early learning. The National Institute for Early Education Reform (NIEER) ranks Maryland in the top 10 states for its pre-kindergarten program. Research on pre-kindergarten shows it improves the academic performance of all children, particularly for economically disadvantaged students. Everyone from education experts to economists like Nobel Prize winner James Heckman agrees that pre-kindergarten is not only effective but also economically efficient—meaning, if you provide kids with quality pre-kindergarten education, they do better and cost the state less throughout their academic careers.

North Carolina also has a high-quality pre-kindergarten program called NC Pre-K (formerly More at Four), which is ranked in the top three in the country by NIEER. However, the state legislature eliminated 20 percent of prekindergarten slots in the 2011 budget and has not replaced them. Throughout North Carolina, at least 12,750 children are stuck on the most recent waiting list for NC Pre-K.

  • Link local education interventions to research. Individual school districts in Maryland have demonstrated a willingness to enact comprehensive reforms that are linked to educational improvement. Economically integrated housing (also called inclusionary zoning) began in 1976 in Montgomery County, MD, one of the highest-achieving districts in the nation. Lower-income students from Montgomery County have significantly outperformed their peers in high-poverty schools during this period, resulting in large overall proficiency gains for Montgomery County students. As a result, the achievement gap has been cut in half for math and by one-third for reading.

Policymakers should look to educational interventions such as these that have a proven track record of success for improving student learning. Doing so can put North Carolina’s public schools on the path to becoming a truly world-class educational system that will enable the state to thrive for years to come.

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