Education needle not moving enough

By: Tom Campbell - Contributing columnist

What should we expect when we invest $150 million in reading programs for our elementary students? I’m not sure what the objectives were, but I am pretty certain the results weren’t what anyone wanted.

In 2011, North Carolina’s legislative leadership recognized our reading crisis. Only 34 percent of our fourth-grade students were considered proficient (having solid academic performance) in reading and just 68 percent possessed basic grade-level skills, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP test. When launching the Read to Achieve Initiative, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger stated that in the first three grades children learn to read and from that point on they read to learn. Reading proficiency is the launching pad for success in school and life.

Since then North Carolina has invested $151.7 million on Read to Achieve. The results: the 2017 NAEP assessment indicates a five percent improvement to 39 percent among fourth-graders, while 33 percent of eighth graders read proficiently. Just over one-half of our state’s white or non-poor students were considered proficient, however only 19 percent of black students and 22 percent of Hispanic and low-income students achieved proficiency status.

We’ve known for years that socioeconomically disadvantaged and minority students were not receiving the “sound basic education” our constitution dictates. It is a troubling realism that we cannot change the economic circumstances, the home environments or many other factors that contribute to these students’ low performance. We are earnestly seeking solutions for low performing students but with spotty results. While some students are achieving and doing well in our current system, we clearly are not moving the needle far enough and fast enough for far too many.

Once the world’s leader in elementary and secondary education, the U.S. doesn’t even rank in the top 20 nations now. The Program for International Student Assessment tests 15-year-olds from 72 countries every three years. The 2015 scores rank the United States 40th in math, 24th in reading and 25th in science scores. Compared to the 2012 tests, we dropped 11 points in math, while remaining flat in reading and science.

Just as we united with single-mindedness to win World War II, we need a similar resolve to reinvigorate our education system. It begins with higher expectations of students and parents, more rigor in subject matter, longer class days and calendar years, and includes improved technology and learning techniques, better trained educators and, yes, we need to be prepared to spend greatly (and) increase funds for education. But too much data shows money alone isn’t the secret sauce, as we learned with the $151 million our state spent trying to improve reading. And let’s be clear on another essential point — our teachers and principals may be on the front lines, but they cannot win this war of a greatly improved educational system alone.

This country and our state are failing our children; more importantly, we are condemning ourselves to a much less-healthy future. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, we are indeed part of a global economy and we cannot compete with a mediocre education system. Not to overdramatize, but this is a war we cannot avoid and one we cannot afford to lose.

Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues that airs on UNC-TV. Contact him at

Tom Campbell

Contributing columnist