Weekly Briefing

Claiming credit for other people’s work

New graduation numbers give rise to some shameless political spin

The big news last week in the North Carolina public policy world was the announcement that the state has made some real progress on high school graduation rates.

This is from the WRAL.com story:

“High school graduation rates in North Carolina cracked the 80 percent mark in 2012 for the first time, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction said Thursday.

The graduation rate jumped to 80.2 percent, the highest four-year graduation rate ever reported in the state and nearly 3 percentage points higher than the 2011 rate, according to the DPI’s annual ABCs of Education report, which shows how students performed on end-of-year and end-or-course tests in grades 3 through 12.

In 2011, the graduation rate was 77.7 percent. In 2006, the rate was 68.3 percent.”

This is obviously grounds for celebration. Though still far short of where the numbers need to be, the state seems pretty clearly to have made some real progress on an important indicator of success in K-12 education. Good for North Carolina and all of the dedicated people whose work went into producing this result.

Spin wars

Unfortunately, as one might have expected, the new results have produced some “through the looking glass” responses in some conservative circles. Ironically, just days before the graduation rate announcement, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger was claiming that the state K-12 system was “broken.” According to House Speaker Thom Tillis and his staff, however, the new numbers offer validation for the education budget cuts of the last couple of years.

This is from an email sent out by the North Carolina House Republican Caucus last Friday:

“Today’s graduation rate numbers prove that far-left Democrats are wrong on education. Our approach to education is working.”

Got that? According to current legislative leaders, recent improvements in state high school graduation rates are the result of the education policies adopted since they assumed responsibility for writing the state budget and crafting substantive education legislation in 2011.

It’s often said that success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan, but, this claim is truly ridiculous. Even if one accepted the extremely suspect proposition that the policy changes implemented in the summer of 2011 could somehow have had any major and measurable beneficial impact on student outcomes in the 2011-12 school year, the last such outcome likely to be affected would be graduation rates – i.e. something 13 or more years in the making. For better or worse, that die was cast years ago for the kids in the class of 2012.

But even if one suspended common sense and accepted this scenario as a possibility, the notion that the changes enacted in 2011 could have produced such positive results – changes for which the centerpiece was a budget reduction of hundreds of millions of dollars – is enough to make a person laugh out loud.

To claim that slashing the state education budget and firing thousands of educators produced an immediate uptick in the high school graduation rate is sophistry of the highest order.

Causes and effects

But, of course, the same would also be true if lawmakers had acted with the dedication and responsibility that was called for by doing everything in their power to preserve or even increase state outlays for education. The plain truth is that making impactful changes (positive or negative) to such a massive system as the North Carolina public schools – a system that educates more than 1.5 million children – almost always takes several years to pull off.

As in so many important things in life, one can’t simply snap one’s fingers and produce immediate results.

Think for a moment about what goes into producing a positive end result for one extremely complex and unique human being over a 13 year (18 years really) process. Now think of what goes into doing that for hundreds of thousands of such humans spread in and amongst nine million others over an area of nearly 50,000 square miles.

The claim that 2011 budget cuts spurred higher 2012 graduation rates is akin to claiming that state air quality improved over the past year because of cuts to enforcement staff at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. It’s like claiming that the military’s ultimate success in tracking down Osama Bin Laden was the result of recent cuts to procurement staff at the Pentagon the week before the assault.

By any fair analysis, the recent positive change in North Carolina’s graduation rate is clearly attributable to myriad intentional and incremental improvements made over many years in scores of places. For one graduate, it was the Smart Start program they were able to enroll in 1998. For another, it was the Limited English Proficiency or English as a Second Language teacher who helped them get acclimated to third grade. For another, it was the unemployment insurance benefits that kept their family from being foreclosed upon after the father’s layoff during the recession of the early 2000’s. For yet another it was the Health Choice children’s health insurance program or access to an arts or athletics class that kept them engaged in school.

The point, of course, is that making the public schools work effectively is like constructing a giant, three dimensional, jigsaw puzzle. Sure, there’s no reason to waste resources, but as a general rule, the more hands, eyes and smart people you enlist to help, the better the results.

As former legislative leader noted with some eloquence (and evident ire) in a statement issued last Friday:

“North Carolina’s graduation rate has improved 17 percent since 2006 as a result of long-term effort and investment in education. This year’s rate passed an important milestone, but it is part of a six-year trend, not an overnight improvement. Dropout prevention is the product of many years of effort, often beginning in middle school or earlier…This legislature has stepped backwards on public education, yet it now wants the public to believe that cutting $650 million in funding has somehow strengthened our schools. Their efforts have diminished public education in North Carolina and unless reversed will continue to damage public education for years to come.”

Going forward

Now in fairness, Democrats imposed some problematic education cuts as well during the Great Recession when state revenues were crashing, but the basic truth in the above statement seems inescapable. The notion that we can produce improved results by reducing our commitment to such a critical issue is, in a word, absurd.

And while predicting the future is always difficult, it seems all but certain that if the trend of recent years is not reversed, North Carolina’s marked progress will be unsustainable – not, perhaps, for the class of 2013, but almost certainly for the classes of 2018 and 2023.

Let’s hope this obvious bit of common sense sinks into the minds and hearts of state leaders of all parties and ideologies before such a grim and unnecessary backslide becomes unavoidable.

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