Education leaders and politicians are no longer cringing at North Carolina’s high-school graduation rate.
News Thursday that North Carolina had reached the symbolic mark of having more than 80 percent of its students graduating with a high school diploma was met with widespread, bipartisan applause. The new figures continued a trend that has seen the state’s graduation rate rise nearly 12 percentage points over the last six years to 80.2 percent this year.
In 2009, the last year for which data are available, America’s Promise Alliance found that the national graduation rate was 75.5 percent.
“Wow. It’s a good day, a great way forward for North Carolina,” said Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue at a news conference to celebrate the graduation results.
Across the political aisle, state House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Mecklenburg County Republican, called the new graduation rate an “achievement” that “is a testament to the hard work and dedication of our state’s students, parents, teachers, principals, and superintendents.”
But differences emerged Thursday over the role that state funding has played in the graduation gains and what impact recent cuts will have on continuing the progress.
In 2006, North Carolina’s graduation rate stood below the national average at 68.3 percent. Calls to raise the graduation rate spurred increased efforts to keep more students in school.
State Schools Superintendent June Atkinson credited initiatives such as the state assisting low-performing high schools and local districts starting ninth-grade academies to help freshmen transition into high school.
Atkinson also said the gains reflected increased state education investments in the early and mid-2000s.
Former Gov. Jim Hunt said the state has achieved its highest graduation rate in part because of the testing program and school rating plan known as the ABCs of Public Education. He also credited an increased emphasis on improving teaching.
Hunt was governor when the ABCs plan was born. He said the student tests yielded valuable information for teachers on student learning.
“Putting in the ABCs in the mid-’90s was very important in getting us to focus on the data,” he said. “That was one of the most important things we’ve done in the last couple of decades.”
The state will no longer use the ABCs after Thursday. Though students will continue to take standardized tests, the state will have a new way to evaluate and report school performance next year.
Perdue said the increasing number of high school graduates is needed for North Carolina to continue to have a well-trained and well-educated work force.
“The bottom line (is) we can’t have a mom or dad or grandmom or grandpa in this state or this country who doesn’t understand that every child needs a high school diploma to compete, and that’s just the first step up the ladder toward qualifying for competition,” Perdue said.
North Carolina’s graduation gains have attracted national attention.
A March report from the America’s Promise Alliance, a group founded by former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, credited North Carolina with being one of the 12 states responsible for the majority of progress in increasing the nation’s graduation rate between 2001 and 2009. The report also found that North Carolina was among the top 15 states in reducing the number of students attending “dropout factories” – schools where fewer than 60 percent of students graduate.
Atkinson, a Democrat, said the goal is to get as close as possible to a 100 percent graduation rate but education cuts approved by the Republican-led state legislature are making it harder.
“We need to make sure we have the resources to continue our growth,” Atkinson said. “Our teachers – under some very difficult circumstances – are continuing to focus on students and their graduation.”
But Tillis countered that “improving our education system is not simply a matter of dollars and cents.” Tillis instead credited efforts to give superintendents, principals and teachers more flexibility to do their jobs.
“Our broad-based, open-minded approach to education is helping students and educators improve outcomes across the state,” Tillis said in a written statement.
Wake County school board member John Tedesco, who is Atkinson’s Republican opponent in November for schools superintendent, said having to work with less funding has caused districts to reprioritize how they spend money.
“Schools are learning to do things differently,” Tedesco said. “We’re putting more money into the classroom and having less administrative overhead.”
Improving education is not about money, Hunt said, but it is critical to pay teachers, principals and counselors enough so they continue to work in schools.
“Those people have a choice about what they’re going to do,” he said. “Teachers deserve to be paid well. The best ones we can get and keep have choices.”