Martinez: Forced to improve the schools

rickjmartinez2@gmail.comAugust 8, 2012 

A big shout-out to Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson and the state’s principals, teachers and support staff for the simply sterling ABC test results for the 2011-12 academic year. The eternally grumpy among us will focus on some negatives in the report, but come on, North Carolina educates 1.5 million kids.

Graduation rate is the money stat of the myriad ABC statistics. Entering the workforce without a high school diploma is economic suicide, particularly for minorities. But for the first time while reliable statistics have been kept by the state, the 80 percent ceiling was broken. That’s phenomenal given that, as recently as the 2005-06 academic school year, the state graduation rate was a meager 68.3 percent.

Now the really good part. The biggest improvement came among the groups that needed it the most. The graduation rate for black kids rose 14 points during that six-year time span, to 74.6 percent. For Hispanic and poor students (those labeled economically disadvantaged), the increase was 20 points, up to 72.8 and 74.6 respectively. And among Native Americans (my nominee for the most overlooked folks in North Carolina) the improvement was a spectacular 22 points, to 73.7. Wow.

Now the hard part. I hope educators have the honesty to acknowledge that much of the classroom improvement they produced was because of accountability reforms forced on them, particularly by the federal No Child Left Behind law (NCLB), which many educators despise. To be fair, NCLB was not the birthplace of accountability, but it was the first law to have teeth and empower parents to get out of a lousy school. But instead of leaving lousy schools, many parents demanded that their neighborhood schools be improved.

Parents are smart.

The biggest NCLB attribute is that it really does leave no child behind. NCLB forced the “disaggregation” of student achievement by poverty, race, ethnicity, disability and limited English proficiency. No longer could school districts hide low classroom performance within overall figures. NCLB forced school districts to concentrate attention and resources on the lowest-achieving groups.

Is NCLB perfect? No. Even I think the all-or-nothing approach is unrealistic. So I’m not concerned that North Carolina received a waiver from some of the law’s most stringent requirements. But a double-digit improvement in graduation rates for poor and minority students wouldn’t have happened without the big sword hanging over educators’ heads.

Now for the really hard part.

Is it a coincidence that the best overall ABC report card on record was produced in an era of flat and reduced state education funding? I don’t think so, but I don’t have data to back that up. Still, common sense and real world experience tell me that just as NCLB forced educators to concentrate on low-achieving students, tighter budgets forced them to reduce or eliminate investments that didn’t provide a direct classroom payoff.

Regardless, the final ABCs report (the state transitions to the READY accountability model next year) has restored a good bit of my faith in public education in North Carolina. The remaining doubt lies in the continued intransigency of educators toward innovation, economic efficiency and critical self-examination.

For example, North Carolina pays an additional $38 million a year to National Board Certified teachers even though research is mixed, at best, that board-certified teachers produce better results. Wouldn’t that money be better spent on bonuses for teachers who produce extraordinary results regardless of certification?

Unfortunately, too many educators view fundamental questions like that as a threat instead of a means of empowerment. For them, innovation always comes with a high price tag. But lack of resources often inspires the most productive innovation.

While I doubt I’ll ever see a study entitled, “How High Standards and Tight Budgets Fueled Student Achievement in North Carolina,” ignoring such a premise is a disservice to taxpayers, parents, students and educators themselves.

Contributing columnist Rick Martinez (rickjmartinez2@gmail.com) is news director at WPTF, NC News Network and SGRToday.com

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