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John Hood: Three school initiatives show promise

By John Hood

RALEIGH — In North Carolina politics, few issues are as contentious as education.

For years, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the Republican-led General Assembly have locked horns on such issues as funding formulas, teacher pay, and parental choice. More recently, legislators have tried to give all schoolchildren access to in-person instruction, only to be stymied by Cooper’s veto pen — wielded at the behest of the North Carolina affiliate of America’s largest teachers union.

The problems we face are grave. Among the disastrous effects of COVID-19 and the ensuing shutdowns have been emotional distress and learning loss. Most high schoolers just failed their end-of-course exams, for example.

Given all this, it would be easy to look across the landscape of North Carolina education and see only dark shadows. But I’d urge you to look more closely. There are promising developments, too. Sparks of imagination. Fires of innovation. Torches held high to light our way to a better future.

One of them is the growing consensus about school leadership. To put it simply: principals matter — a lot. 

A just-released study by Jason Grissom of Vanderbilt University, Anna Egalite of North Carolina State, and Constance Lindsay of UNC-Chapel Hill placed principals into four equal groups based on demonstrable effectiveness. They estimated that replacing a principal in the lowest quartile with a top-quartile principal would boost student learning by an annual average of 2.9 months in math and 2.7 months in reading. In the context of education research, that’s a strikingly large effect.

Drawing partly on evidence of principal performance here in North Carolina, the authors concluded that effective principals enhance student learning in several ways. They recruit, coach, and evaluate in ways that improve teacher quality. They build teams and cultures that keep good teachers from leaving. And they build school environments that keep students from dropping out.

The good news is that North Carolina institutions aren’t just producing good ideas about how to improve school leadership. They’re on the ground implementing them. Thanks to the relentless prodding of the education-reform nonprofit BEST NC and other like-minded groups and lawmakers, North Carolina now has one of the top principal-training initiatives in the country.

Thanks to the efforts of many of the same institutions, our state is also a leader in matching our best teachers with the greatest needs of our students. Beginning in 2016, an increasing number of school districts have been implementing “advanced teaching roles” programs that, for example, pay high-performing educators more for teaching additional students or for coaching their colleagues. Two of them, Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Cabarrus, were among three systems subjected to intensive study by scholars associated with the Brookings Institution. The scholars found that, according to the most-cautious analysis of the data, the advanced-roles model they studied was associated with large learning gains in math.

Finally, one consequence of this frustrating year is that more parents than ever are intimately acquainted with the conduct and content of their children’s education. For some parents, of course, that frustration has turned to anger. But if we truly want the parental involvement that policymakers and educators have been talking up for years, we have to accept the reality that some newly involved and energized parents won’t like what they see.

As a longtime advocate of parental choice, I am neither surprised nor outraged to see some dissatisfied parents vote with their feet, making greater use of charters, homeschooling, and private alternatives. I think the resulting competition, and tighter fit between particular students and school environments, will be good for education as a whole. 

Perhaps you disagree. If so, I think you should support the concept of education savings accounts, as I have for more than two decades. Why must choice be an either-or proposition? Providing tax breaks or subsidies for ESAs would give parents who keep their students in district-run public schools the ability to address unmet needs through tutoring or other supplemental services.

I’m optimistic about the trajectory of North Carolina education over the coming decade. You should be, too.

John Hood is a Carolina Journal columnist and author of the forthcoming novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution. (MountainFolkBook.com).

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