Press Release

Academic research shows N.C. education reforms moving in the right direction

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Click here to view and here to listen to Dr. Terry Stoops discussing this Spotlight report.

RALEIGH — A survey of nearly 900 academic studies from the past quarter-century shows North Carolina has been moving in the right direction on education reform in recent years. That’s a key conclusion from a new John Locke Foundation Spotlight report.

“Based on findings from 888 studies published in peer-reviewed journals or by the National Bureau of Economic Research since 1990, North Carolina officials have enacted policies that will likely improve the efficiency and efficacy of our education system in the coming years,” said JLF President John Hood, the report’s co-author. “Policymakers should resist attempts to backtrack from the significant accomplishments already achieved.”

Hood and co-author Dr. Terry Stoops, JLF Director of Research and Education Studies, scoured studies assessing the impact of school spending, teacher quality, teacher pay, testing, school choice, and other variables on student achievement.

“It’s the responsibility of policymakers to make decisions based on the best available empirical evidence about how education systems really work, not just folk wisdom, anecdotes, or newspaper editorials,” Stoops said. “This paper gives North Carolina policymakers a place to start.”

Among the new report’s key findings:

  • Higher spending was associated with higher student performance just 32 percent of the time in 116 studies exploring that relationship.
  • More than half (56 percent) of 90 studies found mixed or statistically insignificant results when examining the link between average teacher salaries and student outcomes.
  • Just 41 percent of 132 studies found a positive effect of additional years of teaching experience on effectiveness in the classroom.
  • Only 16 percent of 114 studies showed a positive relationship between a teacher’s graduate degree and student outcomes.
  • In contrast, 61 percent of the 34 studies on teacher incentives for individual or schoolwide performance, or both, found statistically significant gains in student outcomes.
  • Roughly two-thirds (66 percent) of 73 scholarly studies associated public school choice and competition with higher student outcomes.
  • A similar rate (65 percent) of 127 studies found positive, statistically significant benefits for students from private school choice and competition.

“Examine those numbers, and you’ll see that the empirical research does not offer solid support for the strategies of increasing education spending indiscriminately, raising average teacher salaries, or paying teachers higher salaries based on either years of experience or graduate degrees earned,” Stoops said. “On the other hand, the data look good for merit pay and increased school choice — both public and private.”

Overall results can “obscure some important subtleties,” Hood and Stoops note on more than one occasion. For instance, a significant number of studies found that a teacher’s experience mattered during the first few years of her career.

“While teachers with seven years of experience are often more effective than those with two years of experience, the difference between teachers with seven years of experience and those with 30 years of experience is often negligible,” Hood said. “The research suggests that a ‘frontloaded’ teacher pay system leads to better student proficiency in reading and math than systems that offer greater rewards for years of experience.”

Hood and Stoops find that both very small and very large schools tend to produce below-average student outcomes. Once school districts grow “very large,” at more than 25,000 students, results also turn negative.

Those findings suggest moderation in both district and school size, Stoops said. “Unfortunately, our state isn’t moderate when it comes to the structure of our public education system,” he said. “School sizes in North Carolina are 15 percent higher than the national average for elementary grades and 20 percent higher for secondary grades. Thirteen North Carolina districts enroll more than 25,000 students. Wake and Charlotte-Mecklenburg public schools enroll more than 140,000 students each.”

A slight majority of 17 studies of national board certification for teachers found positive relationships between certification and student outcomes. “The findings suggest using board certification as a signal for teacher quality isn’t unreasonable, but it’s not a particularly strong one,” Stoops said. “It’s also a relatively expensive signal in North Carolina, where board certification leads to a 12 percent pay increase.”

Hood and Stoops find research support for using both value-added assessment data and principal evaluations in decisions about teacher retention and compensation.

More than three-quarters of academic studies found a positive relationship between centralized, independent, and rigorous standardized tests and higher student outcomes. While centralization appears appropriate for testing and accountability, nearly two-thirds of studies supported decentralized educational governance. “As districts and particularly schools gain more autonomy to make operational decisions, students appear to make larger gains in test scores and other performance measures,” Hood said.

The report offers four key conclusions:

  • There are no automatic benefits from raising government spending on education.
  • North Carolina’s teacher salary schedule should place greater emphasis on effort and effectiveness, with less emphasis on credentials and experience.
  • North Carolina needs to adopt the right mix of centralized and decentralized authority.
  • North Carolina should continue to encourage parental choice and school competition statewide.

“Above all, we demonstrate that the very factors that produce high performance in other industries and professions — factors such as entrepreneurship, choice, and competition — also produce high performance in education,” Hood said.

John Hood and Dr. Terry Stoops’ Spotlight report, “Educational Freedom Works: Scholarly Research Shows Gains from School Choice and Competition,” is available at the JLF website. For more information, please contact Stoops at (919) 828-3876 or [email protected]. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].

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About John Locke Foundation

We are North Carolina’s Most Trusted and Influential Source of Common Sense. The John Locke Foundation was created in 1990 as an independent, nonprofit think tank that would work “for truth, for freedom, and for the future of North Carolina.” The Foundation is named for John Locke (1632-1704), an English philosopher whose writings inspired Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders.

The John Locke Foundation is a 501(c)(3) research institute and is funded solely from voluntary contributions from individuals, corporations, and charitable foundations.