Student achievement in NC isn’t getting the attention it needs

Published April 18, 2024

By Beverly Perdue

Editor's note: This opinion piece was first published in The News and Observer, April 18, 2024)

The American dream is rooted in the idea that if you study and work hard you can do better than the generation before you, but young people today are facing troubling predictions about their future financial stability due to declining achievement levels. It’s a problem parents, policymakers and education and workforce leaders must tackle head on — with urgency.

Most of us know student progress in core academic subjects, which wasn’t particularly strong pre-pandemic, fell dramatically when COVID disrupted education. It’s also widely understood that recovery efforts have been slow and uneven. But a huge issue that isn’t getting the attention it deserves is the harmful effect these low achievement levels will have on our economy and students’ future earnings.

In North Carolina, where pandemic learning declines were larger than average, we’re expecting gross domestic product shortfalls of 2.3% or around $430 billion, according to an economic analysis. Students in our state who attended school during the height of the pandemic can expect 7% lower lifetime earnings than they would have otherwise experienced. If that doesn’t serve as a wake-up, I don’t know what will.

We should acknowledge and learn from strong recovery efforts already happening. A recent analysis out of Harvard and Stanford spotlighted robust academic growth in places like Durham and Winston-Salem. Smart strategies like summer school offerings led by highly effective teachers and intensive tutoring programs like North Carolina Education Corps ought to serve as a model, though there are concerns over where the money will come from since federal pandemic relief aid sunsets this September.

Finding the resources should be a top priority.

We also must seek out and listen to the ideas of young people. They’ve shown tremendous resilience since COVID but have lingering social and emotional needs. It’s critical we find ways to address those and make students’ educational experiences more engaging and relevant, especially given high chronic absentee rates.

In a recent national survey, high school students said they valued on-the-job training over other post-secondary options like earning a college degree. We need to step up efforts to make future-ready work opportunities and apprenticeship programs available during the K-12 years. This is in line with what governors say they want to focus on, and I hope that consensus drives innovation and progress.

College-readiness is still important. When I was governor, we launched the Career and College Promise Program that allows students to take college credits while enrolled in high school for free. It’s had a huge impact on helping students figure out what they want to study in college and lowering the sky-rocketing cost of higher education. I hope today’s policymakers deepen their investment.

As a policymaker — but more importantly as a mother, grandmother, and community member — these issues are important and personal to me. We need to create a public school system worthy of our kids — one that closes academic learning gaps and helps children develop durable skills, like the ability to think critically and collaborate.

Teachers and schools can’t do it alone. They need policymakers, education leaders and employers to support them with sound policies and robust resources. We all need to understand that a failure to act will have enormous consequences, including on our economy and the economic well-being of our children.

Beverly Perdue was N.C. governor 2009-2013. She has since founded the nonprofit digiLEARN and chairs the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the Nation’s Report Card.