New N.C. Report Card Sizes Up State's Education System
Calling on educators, policymakers, and parents to be patient yet persistent, North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. said last week that the state's public schools stand about average on five broad indicators, but face a long road ahead in their quest to be among the best in the nation.
The state's first report card on its school system, released Dec. 6 as part of Gov. Hunt's "First in America by 2010" initiative, gave the schools B's and C's overall, including high ratings for involving parents in children's learning and a failing grade for school buildings and instructional materials.
"I want you to be tolerant when you find out that we are not doing as well as we hope to do yet," Mr. Hunt, who steps down next month, told reporters and educators at a news conference here in the state capital last week. "We're performing a little better than average, but only a little bit."
Still, the governor hastened to add, "we're in a state where we used to perform way down near the bottom [on national indicators]."
State officials hope to issue similar reports on North Carolina's progress annually. "Today starts the baseline," state schools Superintendent Michael E. Ward said. "It is a good start."
B's and C's
The North Carolina Education Research Council, an independent research organization based in Raleigh, was commissioned to prepare the report card by a panel of top education leaders in the state known as the "education cabinet."
That panel, which includes the state schools chief and the chairman of the board of education, set the goals used to assess how well schools measure up.
The research group relied on data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the SAT college-entrance exam, state tests, surveys of teachers and parents, and other state statistics, to determine the grades.
The state school system received a B-minus on three of the indicators: children's readiness to learn when they enter school, the quality of teachers and principals, and strong family, business, and community support.
Student performance earned a C, based on students' progress on state and national tests, their preparation for college and work, and school accountability.
School climate, as gauged by safety, the condition of facilities and materials, whether students are cared for by teachers, and whether parents feel welcomed, earned a C-plus.
Because comprehensive national statistics in some study areas are not available, some data used for the report are "rough-and-ready indicators of the present performance of the system," the report's introduction says.
The report card looked at five categories: "high student performance"; "every child ready to learn"; "safe, orderly, and caring schools"; "quality teachers and administrators"; and "strong family, business, and community support."
Each area was graded using several indicators. To determine children's readiness to learn, for example, the report analyzed data and surveys on child heath and development, the quality of child care, and parents' roles in their children's early education.
The state's grading criteria, while complex, "are tied to some pretty core values" about what factors are important for school success, said Kathy Christie, a policy analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. "As the old saying goes, it is better to monitor loosely that which matters than to monitor well what is not."
North Carolina's Gains
Mr. Hunt, a Democrat who has spent 16 of the past 22 years as governor, laid out his ambitious "First in America" plan last year in the hope of extending his education agenda through the next decade.
The governor is widely credited with helping North Carolina climb out of the basement on national indicators. In the past few years, he pushed successfully for an accountability system that rewards and punishes schools based on how well their students perform on state tests. He was also instrumental in addressing the state's anticipated teacher shortage, pushing for higher teacher quality and compensation.
The state's 4-year-old accountability plan has received bipartisan support in the legislature, which allocated more than $1 billion for the program. Some state leaders said they are determined to maintain the efforts.
Over the past decade, North Carolina students have shown greater gains than most other states on NAEPthe federally sponsored assessment of a national sampling of students that also offers state-by-state comparisons—as well as the SAT. But the state still has a significant achievement gap between minority and white students.
The state has raised teachers' salaries over the past three years, moving from the bottom to the middle on national salary rankings, and the state claims about a third of all teachers certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, with 2,300 teachers. The study found that North Carolina teachers are generally competent, caring, and qualified, but that improvements are still needed in professional development and the percentage of teachers with masters' degrees.
Mr. Ward said the report shows that teachers and students are ready to do their part. But he said districts must do more to provide them with the tools to succeed.
"I'm encouraged by the reflections on teacher competence and quality," Mr. Ward said. "But our teachers are working under conditions that just aren't acceptable."
The state received one failing grade, on the condition of school buildings and availability of high-quality instructional materials. Too many teachers say schools are overcrowded and that they spend their own money to buy materials, Mr. Ward said.
Vol. 20, Issue 15, Page 28