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JOHN HOOD COLUMN: We all want better schools

North Carolinians disagree about a great deal. But here’s a proposition virtually all of us endorse: the future of our state is closely tied to the amount and quality of education our people receive.

John Hood

I could say the future of North Carolina’s economy depends on better education — and I’d be right. You only have to listen to what employers say about the importance of skilled employees who exhibit creativity, collaboration and a strong work ethic. You only have to listen to what employees say about the value of what they learned, or should have learned, in school. And you only have to scan the dozens of studies that link average test scores or educational attainment to GDP and income growth.

To focus on economic considerations alone wouldn’t fully capture what I mean, though. Education encompasses more than vocational training. It introduces learners to great swaths of human experience and accomplishment. It broadens perspective. It provides historical context. It builds character. It forms citizens. It fires the imagination.

It isn’t just the future of North Carolina’s economy that is at stake here, then. Better education will strengthen our relationships, our communities, our culture and our democracy.

Easier said than done, of course. Progressives and conservatives tend to emphasize very different school reforms. That often leads one side to claim that the other side doesn’t really share the goal of better education. I think such claims are profoundly mistaken and actively obstruct both policy debate and educational improvement.

As a conservative, I have long championed choice, competition and rigorous standards as essential to boosting education in North Carolina. I believe these principles, well-established as important in other fields of endeavor, apply well to education. I also read the available empirical evidence as suggesting that choice, competition and rigorous standards tend to make students better off, although the research findings are hardly unanimous and some of the effect sizes, while statistically significant, aren’t very big.

For example, the journal Education Finance & Policy just published a paper by two researchers, Anna Egalite of North Carolina State University and Jonathan Mills of the University of Arkansas, that examined what happened when Louisiana instituted a scholarship program for students attending private schools in that state. Egalite and Mills concluded that the resulting competitive pressure tended to have positive effects on student performance in Louisiana’s district-run public schools, although the effects were small and confined only to math.

I’ll take those gains, however — because my further reading of the evidence is that nearly all education reforms have relatively modest effects by themselves, particularly when they are evaluated shortly after introduction and have not really been implemented to scale.

I support school choice and related reforms even as I also support direct measures to enhance public-school performance such as offering better recruitment, training, and incentives to school principals and giving great educators more ways to expand their impact — and earn higher salaries — through advanced teaching roles. There’s no inconsistency here. Education is a complex enterprise. There’s unlikely to be one single policy, teaching style, or school design that works best for every educator, student and family in every community.

Add up many marginal or moderate gains and you end up with big gains. That’s the practical approach. Just as the cause of school reform isn’t advanced by demonizing opponents, it’s also not enhanced by catastrophizing the issue. While we can and should do much better, North Carolina’s public schools are already among the most effective in America. Adjusted for student demographics, North Carolina’s eighth-graders ranked third in the nation in math and 11th in reading on the most-recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. That fact shouldn’t make us complacent. But it should make reformers less likely to panic or fume if they don’t immediately get their way.

One lesson we ought to impart to future generations of North Carolinians is that we can argue such issues in good faith, without impugning the motives of others.

John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member and author.