As state mottos go, “Live Free or Die” is unrivaled. We have the best state motto in the nation. But North Carolina’s Latin motto, Esse Quam Videri – translated as “To Be, Rather Than to Seem” – makes my list of the Top Five.
The idea of “being” rather than “seeming” struck me as I endured that New Hampshire rite of spring, the annual school district meeting. Approving a budget of nearly $27 million dollars for a district with fewer than 1500 students (do the math – that’s more than $18,000 per student) to fund a system that is not, to put it charitably, a beacon of learning, was hard enough to swallow. What made this year extra special was having to debate (again) that ultimate feel-good-over-do-good issue, full-day kindergarten.
Brought to the floor as a petitioned warrant article, the nearly $500,000 measure failed handily. The debate didn’t live up to the moral calling of either New Hampshire’s or North Carolina’s state motto. A relative handful of voters tried to push a costly program onto all taxpayers that might benefit a few parents but would not solve any of our district’s education challenges. Had it passed, full-day kindergarten (FDK) would have been an example of tyranny of the minority and the triumph of seeming over being. (Only 235 voters participated in the meeting.)
The floor debate split along familiar lines. Those opposed focused on the fact that FDK programs have no documented success at improving education outcomes. What little measurable academic improvement was found for certain students had disappeared by second grade. This proposal was the wrong answer to the wrong question; we needed to be asking how we could best address our district’s mediocre academic performance, not how could we be like other districts.
Yet proponents used that disreputable “but everyone else has it” argument (Did that ever work for you when you were a kid?), along with the equally odoriferous “for the children” as fallback. No amount of data was going to sway them from wanting to do what seemed or felt right, rather than figuring out what the right thing might be.
Beyond the motto, the Tar Heel state has something to teach us Granite Staters about education. North Carolina has implemented an interesting program aimed at “being” – accomplishing the objective – rather than seeming to do so.
Read to Achieve (RtA) was passed by the NC legislature in 2012. The program focuses on getting third-grade students to grade-level proficiency in reading before moving up to fourth grade. The Vision Statement is clear, simple, and measurable: All children will be proficient readers by the end of third grade.
That metric is important because “Learning to read by the end of third grade is the gateway to lifelong success. When students are not able to read by the end of third grade, their risk of falling behind grows exponentially. In fact, research shows that nine out of ten high school dropouts were struggling readers in third grade. Students reading below grade level are almost six times more likely than proficient readers to not finish high school on time.” The clarity and logic of that statement stands in stark contrast to the emotional arguments used to try foisting FDK on a district struggling academically and financially.
The results of RtA are promising. In the first 4 years, fourth graders improved half a grade level on the reading section of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Students scoring below basic in reading decreased 5 percentage points. Students scoring at or above proficiency increased 4 points.
In an education policy report card by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), NC received a C+ grade; NH earned a C-. WalletHub’s comparison of state school systems ranked NC 13th; NH was 3rd. North Carolina has more large, urban districts and students from racial minorities than we have; those factors tend to lower academic performance. That said, NC spends half of what we spend per pupil yet achieves comparable NEAP test scores. What could we learn from them?
The achievement of “being” should trump the virtue-signaling of “seeming,” but I won’t hold my breath. Despite all the reasons to oppose FDK (neither the Winnisquam School Board nor Budget Committee supported the warrant article), the chairman stated that the Board recognized the value of the program and were working on ways to implement it. I challenge him to craft a Vision Statement for FDK as clear as the Read to Achieve declaration – and to promise similar, measurable results.
In Winnisquam as in all school districts across the state, we deserve what we tolerate. But for education, when we prefer seeming to do the right thing over being right, it’s the next generation that suffers from our folly.