by Dr. Terry Stoops
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
So, who gets the credit/blame for the excellent/dismal graduation rates and improving/irrelevant state test results? They do, of course!
After the NC Department of Public Instruction released accountability results for the 2011-12 school year, the politicos were out in force. Liberals and the publications that support them took credit for the increase in the graduation rate, which has been going up, up, up since the start of the Great Recession. They attributed the increase to "investments" in public education, particularly during the halcyon days of the Basnight-Black political machine. According to their narrative, the more North Carolina spends on education, the better the result.
Unfortunately, the liberal logic hits a snag. Simply put, the state spends less on public schools today than it did in 2009. By their reasoning, graduation rates should have declined or at least flat-lined in 2010 and 2011. But they didn’t. As funding decreased, graduation rates mysteriously continued to increase.
Under Democratic leadership, the General Assembly cut the state K-12 education budget in 2010 and again in 2011. According to NC Department of Public Instruction (DPI) statistics, state education funding fell from $8.05 billion in 2009 to $7.34 billion in 2010 to $7.28 billion in 2011.
Additional federal funds softened some, but not all, of the Democrat-imposed cuts. Combining state, local, and federal funding sources, public schools had $425 million less in 2011 than they did in 2009. Total per pupil expenditures dropped from $8,712 to $8,414 between 2009 and 2011. The state lost approximately 7,900 full-time teacher and teacher assistant positions during the period of Democratic domination.
Well, the Democrats say, the key is "long-term investments" in public education. But long-term results have been mixed. Without a doubt, North Carolina’s public schools have made academic gains, particularly in math performance. Yet, reading performance remains mediocre.
According to National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test results, fourth-grade and eighth-grade reading scale scores were higher in 2002 (when the real average per-pupil expenditure was $8,113) than they were in 2011 (when the real average per-pupil expenditure was $8,512). In 2002, North Carolina boasted a scale score of 222 in fourth-grade reading and 265 in eighth grade reading. Nine years later, the state’s reading scale scores are 221 and 263 respectively.
Of course, test scores have little to do with graduation rates. Or do they? Test scores remind us that we should be attentive to the quality, not just quantity, of high school graduates. NAEP scores are a good, albeit flawed, measure of academic rigor. Community college remediation rates are a much better indicator.
Over the last five years, community college remediation rates have been on the rise. North Carolina has seen an increase in the percentage of high school graduates who were required to take at least one developmental/remedial course (in English, reading, or math) during the community college year that immediately followed their graduation. In 2007, 57 percent of recent high school graduates enrolled in a remedial course. In 2010, that percentage increased to 65 percent. Higher remediation rates suggest that the graduation rate increase is simply a matter of quantity over quality. North Carolina school districts have continued to increase their graduation rates, but they have done so at the expense of providing graduates with basic literacy and numeracy skills.
State education officials speculate that graduation rates rose in concert with adoption of mostly state-level school reforms. In fact, Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson is fond of identifying a number of state-led efforts that purportedly decreased dropouts and increased graduates. That is her job. Yet, there is no empirical evidence that DPI dropout prevention or school support initiatives produced higher graduation rates.
Indeed, many factors may be working to raise the graduation rate. Remediation rates and test score trends suggest that declining rigor plays a role. Moreover, it would be foolish to discount the relationship between the economy and the graduation rate. When times are good, a thriving job market will provide a strong incentive for a disaffected teenager to leave school. When times are bad and jobs are scarce, a prospective dropout will delay entry into the workforce, perceiving that attainment of a high school diploma will make him more competitive.
As you may have noticed from the labored discussion above, graduation and graduation rates are complex issues. The financial, academic, economic, and psychological mechanisms that keep children in school, as well as drive them out of school, are not well understood by researchers. Democrats and Republicans need to remember this when they take credit or assign blame for changes in the graduation rate.
Allow Crow T. Robot to inspire you today: "Well, what would Joel do in a situation like this? No, no, nope nope, no, uh. I’ve got to learn to think for myself. To stand on my own two foot-like appendages. Seize the day. Yes. Think globally, act locally. Yes, by god, I can do it! Why, I could start a letter-writing campaign, yeah, that would help. And, uh, I could organize a bake sale. Or, uh, hey! We could ALL help! Come on friends, run to your window and shout, ‘I’m really cheesed and I’m not gonna hang around ’till this thing gets better!’ Uh, why organize a, uh, improv group and do gorilla theatre at the food court in your mall. Dress a little differently. Make it more exciting for you and your spouse. Or here’s an idea: toss a little Cajun spice into the party mix and watch the fun. Put on a one-man show and talk about your true inner feelings in an emotionally-charged, gut-wrenching, autobiographical account of your warped adolescence, and then watch the grant money come in. Whoooo! But don’t snap judge me. And then, watch that – uh, uh, I know! Put a drop of vanilla behind each ear and you’ll smell like a cookie all day! Or, eat an apple: nature’s toothbrush. Ask Mr. Owl how many licks it takes to get to the tootsie center. Have you met everyone on your block? Now would be a nice time to start, doncha think? Hmmmm. In a classroom, slide your desks together and create an ecology symbol. Police the lives of those around you and get your sensibilities way the heck outta whack! Parade up and down the street in your underwear. Impose your ideas on others! It’s easy! Crush someone with an emotional word or an enigmatic look. You decide. You do it!"
Facts and Stats
North Carolina Cohort Graduation Rate, 2006-2012
What a tragedy (WSJ, "Highland Parks Outsources," August 2, 2012)! Some truths are clear. High teacher salary ($63,000), high expenses per student ($16,508), and low ratio of students to system employees (6:1) have no meaningful correlations with student performance.
Highland Parks, however, has a nearly optimum size for testing the latest development thoughts from universities such as Stanford, Univ. of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, etc. Clearly, there will be emphases on pre-schooling, physical health of the students, and pep talks for parents and care providers.
There are those who will say that success is doomed unless the schools are set up to be academically diverse and socioeconomically diverse. Highland Parks will provide an experiment for verifying more fundamental issues related to educational progress. The first signs of potential success will be the smiles on eager students entering the haven of their schools each day.
William T. Lynch, Ph.D.
Education Acronym of the Week
CGR — cohort graduation rate
Quote of the Week
"Yet the real test of the value of the higher graduation rate is whether more students are graduating with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed after they graduate — either in higher learning or on the job. If the past is a guide, probably not. A 2011 John Locke Foundation study found that as the N.C. four-year graduation rate rose from 69.5 percent in 2006-07 to 71.8 percent in 2008-09, the percent of students enrolled in one or more remedial courses in state community colleges increased from 57 percent in 2006-07 to 64 percent in 2008-09."
– Charlotte Observer editorial, "Higher N.C. grad rate is welcome progress: But officials must marry it with better academic preparation," August 5, 2012
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