State Education Rank Isn’t Low

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If you recently read or heard about North Carolina ranking 40th in “education” and found that rank plausible, I thank you for keeping up with the news. If you saw that story and found North Carolina’s low ranking implausible, I thank you even more energetically for being both informed and duly skeptical.

North Carolina doesn’t rank anywhere near 40th in either educational outcomes or resources, properly measured. The “Quality Counts” study by Education Week is not a quality count, in other words, and should not be taken seriously by policymakers in our state or anywhere else.

For starters, the study does not appear to adjust properly, if at all, for state-by-state variations in buying power. When schools vie for the services of teachers, vendors, or construction companies, they are competing against other potential employers or buyers. To evaluate the real expenditure, then, requires either adjusting measures such as per-pupil spending and teacher salaries for living costs or comparing against, say, the average pay of non-education jobs that prospective teachers might take in their respective jurisdictions.

The business group BEST NC just released its annual compilation of facts and figures on North Carolina education (at and it does a better job of presenting apples-to-apples comparisons.

On teacher compensation, for example, BEST NC uses the latest-available figures to show that the average pay of a North Carolina public schoolteacher in 2016-17 was $49,837. That ranked the state 35th by raw data and 27th after adjusting for cost of living. Among neighboring states, cost-adjusted salaries were lower in South Carolina (42nd) and Virginia (39th) but higher in Georgia (8th) and Tennessee (25th).

With regard to educational outcomes, there are also challenges in constructing valid apples-to-apples comparisons. While policymakers, parents, and taxpayers certainly need to know the overall performance of our students, raw measures of test scores and graduation rates don’t necessarily speak to the educational value added by the schools themselves.

According to the latest scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 30 percent of North Carolina eighth-graders were proficient in reading, 33 percent were proficient in math, and 31 percent were proficient in science. None of these results was statistically distinguishable from the national average.

If we focus only on average scores of students with household incomes low enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, our eighth-graders ranked close to the national average in math and science, and significantly below the national average in reading. But among fourth-graders, North Carolina students fared far better — including our low-income kids, who outperformed the national average in math, science, and reading.

I favor continued increases in teacher pay — provided they are structured effectively to attract and retain high performers — and certainly don’t think we should settle for average performance in any grade. But to rank North Carolina’s education system near the bottom of the heap is absurdly at odds with reality. It provides no useful information, and mainly serves the rhetorical needs of partisans and special interests.

There is plenty of room for healthy disagreement without resorting to trafficking in such nonsense.

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