Old school

 In 2015-02

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During the 1990s, North Carolina posted some of the largest gains in standardized-test scores in the nation. Politicians of both parties claimed credit for the good news. To some extent, they deserved it. In the early 1980s, Democratic legislators and Gov. Jim Hunt set minimum standards across the state’s school districts for academic programs and state funding. Nearly a decade later, Republican Gov. Jim Martin and a coalition of Democratic and Republican lawmakers passed legislation to allow more local flexibility and control. A few years after that, in the mid-1990s, Hunt was back in office and cooperated with a Democratic Senate and Republican House to enact additional reforms, including a new testing program.

Many of these policies could plausibly have been the cause of North Carolina’s significant increases in reading and math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an independent set of exams for state samples of public-school students in the fourth and eighth grades. Because other states pursuing different school reforms also experienced gains during the ’90s, you can’t attribute all of North Carolina’s improvements to public policies. No doubt the influx of new residents from high-performing states served to boost the average test scores. There were also policies put into effect during the mid- to late ’90s — such as Smart Start, which offers care and education for qualifying children younger than 6— that couldn’t possibly have affected the trend, though politicians have continued to claim otherwise.

Here’s the point: Around the turn of the 21st century, our state’s educational progress began to flatten out. From 2003 to 2013, math scores for eighth-graders rose just four points while the national average rose seven. In eighth-grade reading, North Carolina made no statistically significant gain over the decade. In neither case did it rank anywhere close to the most-improved states. Some of those may surprise you, by the way. In math, the largest improvement in NAEP scores was the District of Columbia’s 22-point gain, followed by Hawaii (16), New Jersey (15), Massachusetts (14), Arkansas (12), Rhode Island (12), Texas (11), Pennsylvania (11), Mississippi (10) and Nevada (10). In reading, Maryland (up 12 points), California (10), Nevada (nine), D.C. (nine), Hawaii (nine), New Jersey (nine), Florida (nine), Pennsylvania (eight), Washington (eight) and Tennessee (seven) were the top gainers.

There is no obvious pattern to the distribution of most-improved states. Some are urban. Some are rural. Some have lots of racial diversity and relatively high poverty rates. Others are whiter and more affluent. Some are Democratic-leaning states with large education budgets. Others are Republican-leaning states with modest budgets. What binds most of these states together, however, is that they embraced one or more of the following reforms: district or school autonomy in operational and personnel matters, better evaluation of teachers on the basis of their performance (whether through personal observation or value-added test scores) and greater choice and competition in the education sector. Again, neither demographics nor public policy can explain everything. Massachusetts and Mississippi differ substantially in nearly every way, yet both posted sizable gains in math. Florida is a national leader in market-based education reform. California is not. Yet both made major improvements in reading scores.

Fortunately, we don’t have to rely merely on eyeballing data to inform our speculations about what North Carolina can do to vault itself back into the ranks of top-gaining states. For more than two decades, scholars have used NAEP scores and other statistics to explore what policies deliver the best bang for the buck. On balance, these peer-reviewed academic studies have confirmed the efficacy of structural reforms.

While most studies find no correlation between student performance and such factors as per-pupil expenditures, class sizes, average teacher salaries, whether teachers have graduate degrees or whether teacher assistants are present in elementary-school classrooms, other factors appear to matter. Paying teachers according to performance correlates with higher student success in 61% of the relevant studies. Rigorous state standards and testing programs are associated with better student performance in 79% of the studies. School choice and competition programs also fare well in the academic research, with 55% of the studies showing benefits from charter schools, 66% showing benefits from choice within public schools and 65% showing benefits from vouchers or other programs encompassing private as well as public schools.

Over the last several years, North Carolina has enacted or expanded the structural reforms that seem to produce academic gains, all other things being equal. Thus there is good reason to expect that, over the next decade, our state may again show improvements in scores that match or exceed the national average. Few outcomes would be as beneficial for our state. High-performing students tend to become productive workers, innovative entrepreneurs, inventive scientists and involved parents, community leaders and citizens.

Some object to North Carolina’s reforms for philosophical reasons. That’s their prerogative. But to the extent they object on the grounds that the state was already doing well, they are living in the past. During the last 10 years, North Carolina has ranked poorly on the list of states making gains in core subjects. It was time to try something new.

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