Capital - January 2005

High schools need to get down to business
By Ned Cline

Braggarts across North Carolina are trumpeting rising test scores as proof of how great the state’s public schools are. It ain’t bragging if you can do it, former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Dizzy Dean opined. But is the state really doing it?

Much of the hoopla sounds as hollow as a whiffle ball. Test scores have become a dime a dozen because government now grades schools almost as often as teachers grade their charges. More doesn’t always make things better, though.

Concern is growing about the value and volume of these tests, some of which are cousins of political polls, providing only a one-day snapshot of knowledge. The scores reveal little about the quality of education. Students might only be learning to pass government-mandated tests. If they can do that, though, the politicians and educators can keep bragging.

Evidence of this comes in State of the South 2004, published by Chapel Hill-based MDC Inc. The latest of MDC’s biennial reports, it assesses public high schools across the South. MDC isn’t a left-leaning think tank looking for ways to spend government money. Founded in 1967, it studies pressing public-policy issues in 13 Southern states and proposes ways to address them. A small part of its $2.6 million annual budget comes from the state of Mississippi. Other support comes from foundations such as the Duke Endowment.

The study’s results don’t put the Carolinas among the top of the class. High schools are failing not so much because of what they aren’t doing but more because of what they aren’t getting. A key ingredient that’s missing, the report says, is community and business involvement. Among its recommendations is a challenge to business leaders to take a more active role in improving public schools in their communities. If they don’t, the report says, they may end up with a work force that isn’t trained to work.

“What we really need is more civic will and a kind of civic cholesterol test,” MDC President David Dodson says. “We cannot solve the problems by using only people with educational titles. We need to involve community and civic leaders because they know what is needed for economic progress.”

The MDC report urges civic and business leaders in North Carolina and other Southern states to step forward as leaders in this state did more than 40 years ago when they created the community-college system. It recommends job-training programs in high schools that will meet specific needs of businesses in the communities.

The concept isn’t new. Hargrove “Skipper” Bowles — father of erstwhile U.S. Senate candidate Erskine Bowles — proposed a similar plan for high schools when he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1972. Few leaders — and not enough voters, for that matter — took him seriously. Perhaps they should have. Despite all the talking about school reform in the decades since, there has been little walking.

“Businesses depend most on workers we are educating the least as students,” Dodson says. “It is the base of the future work force that we are failing. Civic attention to the problem seems to have vanished in this state except for the technical [governmental] support given by advocates like former governors [Terry] Sanford and [Jim] Hunt.”

The report considers issues that affect all students but focuses on what MDC calls the “muddled middle.” They’re the ones who miss out on both the federal dollars often available for economically disadvantaged students and the attention from teachers and principals who focus on high achievers. These students might not be future CEOs or future dropouts, the report says, but they likely will be the backbone of the future work force. “We suspected some of the perils we found,” Dodson says, “but we thought we were better than we are.”

As many as 40% of freshmen in North Carolina high schools don’t graduate in four years, if at all. Some of the blame, Dodson says, lies as much in the academic structure of schools and the lack of skills training as with students’ abilities.

Educators either have not or cannot solve the problems. So what can corporate CEOs do? Dodson suggests working with local schools to determine what is working, what is failing and how companies can help. They can offer tutoring programs or help design classes that teach skills to meet specific company needs. They can work with guidance counselors on ways to develop stronger work ethics in students who may not be high academic achievers. They can urge their own employees to volunteer in local schools.

It shouldn’t be hard to mobilize business leaders. Strong schools breed economic success. Still, it isn’t happening. One reason may be that the successors to once-influential executives aren’t as interested in their communities. Mergers, downsizing and closings have shifted top management jobs and corporate headquarters elsewhere. Business leaders who once were mainstays of North Carolina communities large and small now think in terms of their company’s place in the world instead of its place in its hometown.

“This is a real problem in North Carolina,” says John Dornan, president of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a Raleigh-based nonprofit working with MDC to develop strategies to solve public-school problems. “This ought to be an alarm bell for businesses to get more involved because the report puts problems in the context of the new economy. We have been losing that in North Carolina.”

Private investment in public schools does work. In Guilford County, for example, the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation invested more than $5 million in academic programs designed to help students better understand classroom assignments through organized peer discussions and direct teacher-student exchanges. Participating schools have shown academic improvements and have had fewer discipline problems. The same foundation has invested in leadership training for teachers and principals through the private Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, a corporate-training organization.

Guilford businesses have worked with school administrators to provide incentives for students and teachers, awarding cash prizes, computers and scholarships for achievement. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation sank $11 million into the state to study the creation of smaller high schools and specialized schools. The initiative is too new to have produced results, but Dornan of the Public School Forum, which is managing the funding, is hopeful.

These are the types of programs the MDC report recommends expanding through increased corporate involvement. The think tank is working with private foundations to push the report and enlist business leaders to drive educational improvements.

Students in North Carolina’s high schools may be passing the tests, but in the end they may not be making the grade. Dodson and Dornan say MDC’s report is a call to action. Whether civic and business leaders heed it remains to be seen.