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NC’s rising graduation rate: Five common sense conclusions

Graduation caps [1]Today’s good news about North Carolina’s rising high school graduation rate [2] serves to highlight several important facts that ought to be taken into account as the public and state leaders debate the future of our public schools. Here are five:

#1 – There are no “quick fixes” in a giant system like the North Carolina public schools. The latest encouraging numbers are no more the result of recent legislative actions than, say, improved traffic flow on the interstate highway system is. To improve outcomes in such massive systems takes sustained attention and investments over a period of many years.

#2- The new results are, therefore, quite clearly the result of many years of hard work by a lot of people. At the core of the success, however, was the widespread acknowledgement by virtually all stakeholders — elected officials, education leaders, business leaders, teachers, parents, advocates etc… — that the state had a big problem and that something had to be done.  The widespread acceptance and discussion of this fact led, over time, to more and more people talking about the problem and more and more people wanting and trying to do something about it.  Many ideas undoubtedly flopped, but over time, the cumulative effect of lots of creative thinking and sustained attention has born some excellent fruit.

#-3 – The work to improve graduation rates starts before a child even enters school. Things like access to quality pre-school (thank you, Governors Hunt and Easley!), improved immunizations, the Health Choice Children’s Health Insurance Program, the work of the Child Fatality Task Force, affordable housing investments, expanded access to food and nutrition and dozens of other public and private initiatives to lift up our kids — especially very young kids — are starting to pay off.

#4 – Tough economic times and our changing economy have made school more attractive. One simple truth about graduation rates is that North Carolinians used to be able to drop out and find manufacturing work that did not require a high school diploma. These jobs are incredibly and increasingly scarce today. While 17 and 18 year-olds are well-known for not always making rational decisions, there’s simply no denying that more and more young people have figured out the hard economic reality of the times in which they live.

#5- North Carolina can still blow this. Given that turning the education ship of state takes years at best, it’s also clear that sinking it takes time as well. Therefore, just because budget cuts of the last few years haven’t led to an immediate meltdown in results is no reason to think they won’t over time if they’re not reversed.  As with so many big problems, there’s no substitute for the sustained application of collective resources and attention. Start cutting back and doing things on the cheap and you will, over time, see performance fall.  As the refrain from the old TV ad for oil filters went: “pay me now or pay me later.” Let’s hope North Carolinians remember this simple underlying truth as they interpret these new results and their implications going forward.