NC State School Superintendent: The Truth About NC Public Schools

In the past few weeks, there has been much discussion about how to “reform the failing public schools.” The problem with this current dialogue and the corresponding proposed solutions are that they are not based on all the facts. The truth is that our schools are not failing and that we are already doing groundbreaking work to upgrade our state’s system of public education. One of the greatest challenges facing North Carolina public schools right now is a lack of resources. If we are going to have an honest and productive conversation about public schools, we need to consider the following facts.

  • North Carolina public school student performance has improved in many areas over the years. Our high school graduation rate is the highest it has ever been. Over the past decade, our students have increased their scores on the SAT by more than 20 points. This is the largest gain among all the states where the SAT is the most commonly used college entrance exam. When the state began participating in the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) in 1992, approximately half of all North Carolina fourth graders scored below Basic in mathematics. In 2011, only 12 percent of the state’s fourth graders scored below Basic. Among eighth graders, this percentage has dropped from 62 percent scoring below Basic in 1990 to 25 percent in 2011. We have made great progress over the years and, while there is certainly more to do, we consistently rank near or above the national average on many measures. Yet it is convenient for some to ignore these facts and claim our public schools are broken so that they can advocate for other models of education that lack accessibility and accountability.
  • Our system of public education does need remodeling, or upgrading, and we are doing it right now. Many of us have software that we must continually upgrade. When we do this, it does not mean that our old software is broken. It just means that we now have access to better tools to allow us to be more productive. The same is true for our public schools. That is why this coming fall, we are launching a revised statewide Standard Course of Study, improved assessments and a new school accountability model. Each of these new tools will help us to better prepare all students for college and a career.
  • Reading is important. Good teachers are important. Schools and educators do need to be held accountable for student progress. That is why we are so focused on early diagnostics, supporting the NC Teacher Corps, creating better assessments and developing more effective curriculum support and professional development for educators. All of these efforts are currently underway and have been supported and strengthened through North Carolina’s Race to the Top grant.
  • Holding students back does not work to accelerate learning. In fact, studies have found that when students are retained, they are more likely to drop out of school, not work harder.
  • Over the past few years, no one has “tossed money” at North Carolina’s public schools. In fact, our schools are approaching the fourth consecutive year of budget cuts. Teachers have not received raises nor ABCs bonuses for years. Funding has been completely eliminated for teacher mentors, staff development, dropout prevention, student diagnostics and school technology. Class sizes are up. There are fewer custodians to clean the school buildings. Students are sharing textbooks and other equipment. School building repairs has been placed on hold. Students wake up earlier and get home later due to longer bus routes. In fact, many local school district leaders have said they no longer have the resources to meet the most basic needs of students and teachers. And this year, districts will receive and then be required to return more than $500 million to meet the largest “discretionary reduction” ever included in North Carolina’s state budget. We expect our teachers and schools to improve, but budget cuts have robbed them of the tools they need to be successful.

We agree that working together to improve education is important. But we need to engage in this critical work while also acknowledging the facts about our public schools. Graduation rates and student performance are better than they have been in the past and outcomes are on an upward trajectory. We are currently doing exciting and innovative work to remodel public schools. Our system is not broken. But if nothing changes during this budget session, the lack of resources and support for public schools will stop this progress and most certainly take us back in time.


June St. Clair Atkinson
State Superintendent