Rob Christensen of Raleigh’s News & Observer — someone who’s been the target of occasional barbs over here at The Pulse — deserves some kudos this morning for a straightforward and important column in today’s paper entitled “NC’s kids are doing better than you think.” 
As Christensen notes, it’s become almost an article of faith in many circles these days that our public schools and students are failing:
“That North Carolina’s schools are failing is a widely shared assumption in certain circles. It is repeated in the echo chamber of talk radio. It is confirmed every time you come across some store clerk who can’t make change, or you hear from an employer who can’t find somebody to operate some piece of technology.
It is given credence by news stories of struggling school systems in poor areas, of racial disparities and of confusing reports about test scores being down because the tests are more difficult.”
But as he goes on to explain, this narrative is actually badly flawed. Christensen cites new results from math and science testing that shows that North Carolina students are actually faring well — i.e. above the national average and ahead of lots of other countries (some of which will be surprising). As he says:
“I don’t offer this information to argue for one education policy or another – for higher pay for teachers, for tax credits for private schools, for charter schools, etc. They are all separate subjects worthy of debate by themselves.
But the next time someone says the North Carolina public schools are failing, you should understand that someone is expressing their opinion, not the facts.”
He might have added that the story of our public schools is complex. Many kids — more than ever, actually — are doing very well. The problem, of course, is that many still aren’t — not so much because of the schools themselves, but because of intractable poverty and the other giant pieces of baggage the kids bring with them. And while half the kids could drop out before graduation and find work in mills and other manufacturing businesses 50 years ago, things are different today; the stakes are higher.
The #1 challenge for North Carolina today and in the years ahead is not much to find a way to “fix” schools that are “broken,” but to find a way to make them work for all students as well as they work for most students. And this is not a problem that can simply be successfully addressed through “competition” or “choice.”
Rather, it will only be addressed through the sustained application of an array of public and private strategies to invest in education and children themselves. Yes, we need to improve our schools, but we also need to improve the public systems and structures (and grow the private economy and jobs) that make middle class life possible. In short, we need an intentional “all hands on deck” approach if we’re going to succeed in the 21st Century.
And as Rob Christensen rightfully points out, such a strategy should begin with an honest and clear-headed assessment of where things currently stand.