North Carolina received a D grade in a recent report card put out by Students First, a national education advocacy group run by the polarizing Michelle Rhee.  Normally, getting a bad grade on one of the slew of “report cards” issued by various education groups is cause for some degree of consternation, but an inspection of the methodology that Students First employs makes it hard to take this report too seriously.

The most surprising omission from this study is that Students First in no way factored in the most important variable for determining if an education system is working well or not: student achievement.  State proficiency scores, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), international benchmarking tests, and gains made on these measures are not included in Students First’s methodology.  Instead of looking at whether or not schools are performing well in given states, Rhee’s group focuses on whether or not the states are adopting the policies for which Students First advocates.   This approach leads to results that do not comport with what we know about how schools in various states compare with one another.

For example, Louisiana is arguably the most troubled state school system in the nation, with NAEP scores that consistently rank in the bottom 5 states and seemingly constant legal and accountability debacles.  But it gets the highest grade of B- on Students First’s report.  The nation’s top performing school systems get the poorest marks in Students First’s report.  The highest performing school systems in terms of the NAEP (Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Jersey) as well as the state has the made the greatest gains on the NAEP over the past 20 years (Maryland), all received D’s and F’s.  If North Carolina’s goal is to improve educational achievement for it’s students, then getting a D on Students First’s report card may not be such a bad thing after all.  The state is certainly in much better company than if it had received the highest grade.

In a recent Education Week blog post, former Executive Director of the National Education Association and the North Carolina Association of Educators John Wilson lays out a compelling argument for teachers to be compensated like the highly skilled professionals that they are.  Factoring in inflation, teacher salaries have declined by 3.4% over the last ten years.  The situation is even worse in North Carolina, which has plummeted from 22nd in the nation in average teacher pay (following a successful campaign to improve teacher pay in 2000) to 41st in the nation in 2010-11.  Over the past ten years, North Carolina ranks 51st in the nation in teacher raises.

In the highest performing educational systems in the world, teacher pay is equivalent to what other professionals receive – making teaching one of the highest status and most sought-after professions.  In the United States, teachers earn 20% less than other workers possessing similar levels of education and experience.

The relationship between teacher and student has a profound impact on student achievement.  As recent events have made clear, today’s teachers must educate a student population that has become increasingly diverse, multifarious, and, in some cases, difficult to reach.  They must be prepared to educate students who have learning disabilities, speak languages other than English at home, and have exceptionally difficult home lives.  Parents are working longer hours and there are more single-parent families, making parental involvement less common than it once was.  In short, over the past decade we have continuously expected teachers to do more for less.

Many policymakers have focused on improving teaching by holding teachers accountable and making it easier to fire low-performing teachers.  But to anyone who has spent time working in schools, the concept that teachers must fear for their job in order to be dedicated to it does not ring true.  There are many reasons why teachers choose to teach, but in the end they teach because they are passionate about improving the lives of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens.

North Carolina cannot fire its way to a better teaching force – it must be built.  As is the case for all professions, teacher wages and conditions must be improved in order to attract a high quality pool of potential teachers.  Teacher compensation should reflect the value our society places on the incredibly difficult and important work that teachers do in educating our children.  By allowing teacher wages to stagnate and decline, states like North Carolina are sending the message that teachers simply do not matter much.  That needs to change.

American students scored in the top four nations in terms of reading literacy on the 2011 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), posting a 16 point increase (from 540 to 556) since 2006.  The gains made by American students also outpace the gains made by the nations that the United States currently trails on the reading measure (Finland, Russia, and Singapore).  The marked improvements reversed a disturbing trend from the 2006 exam where American students’ scores declined by two points from 2001 to 2006.  Gaps in achievement are still persistent, particularly for low income students, and much more needs to be done to get American education on par with the top nations in the world.  But this improvement shows that targeted efforts to improve literacy in the early years across the nation are having the intended impact.

In terms of science and math achievement, as measured by the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), the United States remains above the average for participating countries.  However, Massachusetts scored higher than every nation besides Singapore in math and Minnesota trailed only Singapore and Taiwan in science.  The success of these education leaders demonstrates that the United States can compete internationally in science in math if thoughtful education policies are implemented throughout the country.

Both states have improved student learning by emphasizing critical thinking skills, elevating the teaching profession, providing high quality early learning, and linking educational interventions to cutting edge educational research.  North Carolina policymakers should look to these states for reforms that have proven international results rather than focusing on measures designed to cut funding, privatize schools, and punish teacher and students on the basis of test scores – none of which are being employed by the highest performing states or nations.

The Center for American Progress recently released a report showing that students of color are shortchanged in comparison to their white peers in terms of the amount of federal funding that each student receives.  Schools enrolling 90% or more non-white students spend $733 less per pupil per year than schools enrolling 90% or more white students.  On a per student basis, each white student receives about $334 more in district spending than each black student.

Racially-isolated schools such as those described in the report are associated with a higher share of students with special needs, more students who are at risk of failing, and the increased financial burdens related to educating students with other challenging educational obstacles. One would expect that racially-isolated schools such as these would receive the greatest share of federal funding rather than a disproportionately small one.

However, the federal government actually sends more money for teacher salaries to wealthier districts employing teachers who are more experienced and more likely to possess credentials like National Board Certification. This policy is mirrored in North Carolina, where the state sends more money to districts that have more experienced and highly skilled teachers than to districts with more inexperienced teachers. Both North Carolina and the Department of Education need to significantly alter the way they allot scarce education funding dollars to ensure that the money is actually reaching the students who need it most.

The North Carolina Public Schools Charter Advisory Council has recommended 25 charter schools to the State Board of Education for consideration at its August meeting.  The Charter Advisory Council received 63 applications to open charter schools and then selected 30 applicants from that pool for interviews last week.  The Charter Advisory Council then recommended 25 of these 30 interviewees to the State Board of Education for approval.

Many of the recommended applicants will face questions on review before the State Board that were not resolved before the Charter Advisory Council, particularly around the procurement of facilities, transportation plans, and more specifics about instruction.  The State Board must consider the impact on local districts of a rapid expansion in the number of charter schools:  If all 25 recommendations are accepted, that number could increase by more than 33% within the next year when coupled with the 9 fast-track charter applications that the State Board recently approved.

This expansion could also cause a significant strain on already limited charter school oversight and accountability in the absence of additional staffing, as there are currently only 6 staff members overseeing all of the charter schools in the state (4 of whom are consultants).