RALEIGH — If state leaders want to improve North Carolina’s education system in the future, they will have to begin with a better understanding of the history of school reform in our state.
Unfortunately, the current education debate has become more about political gamesmanship than hard facts or sound reasoning. Exhibiting the natural human tendency to embrace information that fits one’s preconceived notions — a phenomenon known as “selection bias” — many politicians have drawn invalid conclusions about the history of North Carolina education reform.
Former Gov. Jim Hunt, a smart and successful politician, is one of them. During his third and fourth terms in the 1990s, Hunt made education his signature issue. Early on, he pushed for the creation of a preschool program, Smart Start, to improve student readiness to learn. He also helped formulate and enact the Excellent Schools Act in 1997 that included a four-year raise in average teacher pay. It passed the legislature with bipartisan support.
There was, in other words, a flurry of activity in education reform during the mid- to late-1990s. Hunt was at the center of most of it. The Democrats who ran the state Senate and Republicans who ran the state House also played big roles. All had a strong incentive to describe their handiwork as successful. It quickly got them into rhetorical trouble.
In 1998, for example, North Carolina showed sizable gains on tests administered to 4th- and 8th-graders by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In a statement, then-Gov. Hunt credited Smart Start as one explanation for the test-score gain.
But his arithmetic had failed him. Smart Start participants were not yet old enough to have taken the tests.
More recently, Hunt made a similar error of exuberance. In a widely read Jan. 4 op-ed in the Raleigh News & Observer, he argued that North Carolina should replicate the educational success of his previous teacher-pay increase. “By the year 2001, teacher pay in North Carolina had reached the national average,” Hunt wrote. “We rose from 43 in the national rankings to the top 20. Student learning went up, too. Our average SAT scores rose 40 points, more than any other state. Our students made the highest gains on the National Assessment of Educational Progress of any state.”
I happen to think North Carolina schoolteachers need a pay raise, too, but my opinion isn’t based on Hunt’s demonstrably fallacious argument. There certainly was a period during which North Carolina posted a 40-point gain in SAT scores and the largest NAEP gains in the country. But this period occurred before the pay raise to which Hunt refers.
From 1990 to 2000, the state’s average SAT score rose by 40 points, including 36 points between 1990 and 1998. During the following decade, 2000 to 2010, it rose by only 16 points. As for the NAEP, North Carolina’s average 8th-grade math score rose a dramatic 30 points from 1990 to 2000, but only 10 points from 2000 to 2013 even as the national average rose 12 points. In reading, North Carolina experienced solid gains during the early to mid-1990s. From 1998 to 2013, however, our reading scores rose just three points compared to the average national gain of four points.
It is simply impossible for an increase in teacher pay to the “national average” by 2001 to have caused test-score gains that occurred before 2001, and indeed for the most part before 1998. Again, it may well have been a good idea to raise teacher pay for other reasons. But it didn’t lead to higher test scores.
Whatever you think of the virtues of Smart Start and the Excellent Schools Act, you cannot argue that they increased the rate of educational improvement in North Carolina, at least as measured by independent assessments of reading, math, and college readiness. That growth rate has been lower since their creation than it was before.
It’s time for a real, reasoned conversation about education reform, not another round of political games.