Hardly a week goes by without hearing news that North Carolina or some North Carolina city or town is achieving a high ranking on a business or quality of life survey. The steady influx of millennials to cities like Charlotte, Raleigh and Durham paints a bright future with skilled technology workers and high-paying jobs. A recent article referenced a study by CompTAI that ranked Charlotte and Raleigh Durham the number one and two “tech towns” in the nation based on cost of living, IT job growth and salaries.
Heady stuff. But don’t be fooled by the glowing reports. Behind those shiny new glass buildings springing up in Charlotte and Raleigh lies a disturbing truth: Most of the workers to staff those new jobs are coming from elsewhere.
Our schools are failing to prepare students for college and the world of work. The reality is the demand for tech jobs far exceeds the area’s available tech talent. According to January 2018 LinkedIn Workforce Report, Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina had the 9thlargest skills gap in the country. Experts have been calling attention to the American skills gap for years. Even without Apple or Amazon locating in the Triangle, local companies are still having difficulty finding tech talent. A 2018 survey of local tech companies by Robert Half Technology found 63 percent of hiring managers want to expand their tech payrolls, but can’t find the talent. A full eighty-six percent of hiring managers said they expect more tech workers to move to Raleigh for job opportunities.
Our schools aren’t helping. The evidence is not hard to find. Earlier this year, the ACT college entrance exam released its annual report called the Condition of College and Career Readiness. It concluded that many high school students will struggle with math and reading when they get to college. Only 40 percent of students nationally met the benchmark for math readiness. In North Carolina only 31 percent of all students met the math benchmark. Less than half (46 percent) of students who took the ACT test nationally met the readiness benchmark for reading. In North Carolina the figure was 35 percent.
That’s approximately one in three students in our state who meet the reading readiness benchmarks. Yes, I said one in three. Abysmal results – with potentially catastrophic consequences.
The problems don’t stop there. According to 2018 test results, the percentage of students demonstrating “grade level proficiency” (Level 3) in mathematics, declined every year from grade 3 through grade 8, except one (grade 5) which experienced a slight increase of less than two percent.
Most pundits called North Carolina’s 2017 NAEP results – generally considered the best indicators of academic progress —a mixed bag. Eighth-grade reading, and math scores were up one and two points respectively —essentially no change from the 2015 scores. More concerning were fourth-grade test results, which declined by two points in reading and three points in math.
We’re all familiar with the flurry of state and federal programs that have been developed to improve student learning and improve our competitiveness internationally. You’ve heard the names of the big federal initiatives, Goals 2000, No Child Left Behind, Every Student Succeeds Act, so I won’t bore you.
However, there has been no shortage at the state level as well. In 2010, the State Board of Education adopted Common Core Math and English Language State Standards with the express purpose of making our students ready for college and career. North Carolina received $400 million for A Race to the Top grant. In 2012, the North Carolina General Assembly created the Read to Achieve program. The goal was laudable: to provide funding for additional literacy instruction for students at risk of not reading at grade level by third grade, a pivotal time when students either demonstrate significant progress or begin to fall behind. The state legislature spent $150 million on this initiative.
Have the programs worked? If the purpose of Common Core was to make our students college and career ready, we know the answer to that. Race to the Top? North Carolina received a $400 million grant. I don’t mean to sound flippant, but can someone tell me what changed? Lastly, there is Read to Achieve.
Researchers at N.C. State University recently evaluated the Read to Achieve program and found “no evidence – either one or two years after receiving Read to Achieve services – that they performed better on reading tests than did similar students who did not receive additional services.” The outcome of these efforts underscores the truth that money is not the problem. Money is not unimportant, but merely throwing more money at proposed solutions is a losing battle. The lack of relationship between spending and improved outcomes is evident in much of the research. (See: State Education Trends: Academic Performance and spending over the past forty years.)
Conservatives often get accused of bashing the public education system. It’s unfair. We are simply highlighting the problems of failing schools and students. Is it constructive to remain silent when less than 20 percent of North Carolinians meet college readiness benchmarks in English, Math, reading and science – eight years after the State Board of Education signed on to a massive effort specifically designed to make our students more college and career ready?
Would any CEO survive if 80 percent of his or her products failed in the marketplace?
For some reason we tolerate it.
Presidents get defeated at the ballot box, CEOs get booted by shareholders. People need to understand the major education decisionmakers at the state and local level are the State Board of Education and local boards of education. Yet most people would be hard pressed to name a member of their local school board much less someone on the State Board of Education. The entire accountability structure seems largely inoculated from public sentiment. Why?
Earlier this week, Amazon announced the site of its second headquarters —
known as HQ2 — locating to Northern Virginia and New York City. The possibility of luring 50,000 jobs and billions in additional investment was strong enough to entice 238 cities to submit proposals – including Charlotte and Raleigh. Those proposals included millions in tax breaks and corporate incentives. What decided the outcome? One of Amazon’s main requirements is simply the availability of tech talent. The Wall Street Journal reported that earlier this spring Amazon realized no single city could possibly meet its requirements for a talent pool. Solution: locate HQ2 in two cities with sizeable pools of tech talent.
The decision upends the conventional wisdom that tax incentives and subsidies determine where businesses decide to locate. Amazon said it was the quality of the workforce, and the size of the pool of technology workers that won the day. An educated, skilled workforce draws private sector jobs and investments.
Which brings us back to our problem: too many students are leaving high school in North Carolina not ready for college or a career.
Companies continue to move to North Carolina, because we have cities with attractive pools of technology workers. It’s hard to ignore the glaring fact that our schools are doing little to enhance that pool. Too many of our students aren’t ready for college or work. Worse yet, most of the billions we’ve spent to reverse those efforts produce little to no measurable impact.
“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.” That sentence is from A Nation at Risk, a national report from 1983 that many believe to be the founding document of the modern education reform movement.
The sentiment is applicable across our state. So, is the question that emerges from it all: Where’s the outrage?