Publisher's note: The author of this fine report is Barry Smith, who is a contributor for the Carolina Journal, John Hood Publisher.
Economy, reduced standards play role in boosting numbers
RALEIGH When statistics came out in early August that North Carolina high school graduation rates had topped 80 percent for the first time in memory, politicians from both sides of the aisle were quick to claim credit and point fingers.
But an education policy expert at the John Locke Foundation says neither the Republicans nor the Democrats should be jockeying for position to gloat over the new figures. Instead, Terry Stoops, JLF's director of research and education studies, says policymakers should be focusing on the quality of education that students receive rather than the number of people who receive a diploma.
State officials announced that the high school graduation rate for 2012 was 80.2 percent.
Republicans, who won control of both chambers of the General Assembly following the 2010 election, were quick to praise their approach to education policy and funding while also giving a pat on the back to students, parents, teachers, principals, and superintendents.
"Our graduation rate shows that improving our education system is not simply a matter of dollars and cents," House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said in a statement. "We must continue to give superintendents, principals, and teachers more flexibility and ensure that education is driven by factors inside the classroom rather than by distant administrations and political rhetoric. Our broad-based, open-minded approach to education is helping students and educators improve outcomes across the state."
House Minority Leader Joe Hackney, D-Orange, retorted and took aim at the Republican policies that he said moved education in the state backward.
"After firing more than 6,000 educators in the past two years, Republicans are now unbelievably trying to take credit for the remarkable improvement in our state's graduate rate," Hackney said in a statement. "North Carolina's graduation rate has improved 17 percent since 2006 as a result of long-term effort and investment in education."
He went on to say that the improvement in the dropout rate is part of a six-year trend and is not an overnight achievement.
"Under Democratic leadership, our state invested in dropout prevention programs and improvements to public education that have resulted in tremendous gains," Hackney said. "Astoundingly, Republicans this session abolished the successful Dropout Prevention Grant program, an innovative program that put small grants into community-based dropout prevention efforts across the state."
Stoops countered that the economy and other factors, such as family and parental influence, likely have more to do with the improvement in the dropout rate than either party's education policy.
"Teenagers are smart enough to know not to drop out when there are no jobs," Stoops said.
Stoops said that while schools may on some small scale be able to improve the graduation rate, "it's largely out of their control."
He suggested that education policymakers should focus on what students are learning rather than how many of them or getting a diploma.
"There's a larger question of whether improvement in the graduation rate indicates improvement in student performance," Stoops said. "And I don't think they do."
Stoops acknowledged that North Carolina's public schools have made academic gains, particularly in math. But reading performance remains disappointing, he says.
According to National Assessment of Educational Progress test results, fourth-grade and eighth-grade reading scale scores were higher in 2002 than they were in 2011, Stoops says. Over that same time, fourth-grade and eighth-grade reading scores have remained flat.
Stoops also pointed to the efforts that community colleges have to put into remediation programs as evidence of lack of student performance.
"Sixty-five percent, nearly two out of three students, who enroll in a community college directly after graduation have to enroll in one or more remedial course in a North Carolina community college," Stoops said.
He said that percentage has been increasing for years.
"They're graduating without very basic skills," Stoops said. "Even if they don't go to community college, these are skills that they should possess."
He suggested allowing for more parental and student choice in schools as a means of helping students stay engaged in their education.
"Meeting the individual needs of students makes them more likely to stay in school and choice is a way to do that," Stoops said.
Barry Smith is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.