Here's how N.C.'s achievement gaps can be overcome

ByTiffany Flowers (op-ed)

As Gov. Pat McCrory begins his first term, I hope he will fulfill his election night promise to “bring this state together.” One critical way he can do this – and at the same time improve the long-term health of our state – is by focusing on public education.

The Tar Heel State has good reason to be proud of our students. Our 2012 graduation rates were the highest in our state’s history, showing six consecutive years of improvement. In addition, N.C.’s fourth- and eighth grade students beat the U.S. average in mathematics in the most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. But when it comes to closing the race-and-income based achievement gaps in North Carolina, we still have a ways to go.

At KIPP Charlotte, a charter middle school in East Charlotte, I see daily that a child’s zip code need not define his or her educational destiny. When KIPP Charlotte’s students come to us in fifth grade, many are two to three grade levels behind. By the time they reach eighth grade, these same students are outperforming the district and the state on end-of-grade tests.

As Gov. McCrory takes office, I encourage him to focus on ways we can build on our state’s progress. I see three integral measures that can help move us in this direction:

Maintain a high bar for teacher quality: Teachers are the single biggest influence on student achievement. We must recruit the best college graduates we can find to the teaching profession, and find ways to keep them in the classroom. We are fortunate in Charlotte to have programs like Teach For America that are bringing top talent to serve as teachers and leaders for educational equity. (Two-thirds of our staff came into teaching through Teach For America.) But we have to do more and give them great reasons to stay in the profession long-term.

Support high-performing charter schools and close low-performing ones: While lifting the charter cap in North Carolina is a great leap forward for our state, our next step should be ensuring that all our new charter schools operate at high levels. That means giving high-performing charter schools the chance to expand.

But we also have to remember the central promise for charter schools – freedom for accountability. Our state should be relentlessly focused on using data to build a rigorous review process to ensure that only charters with strong academic programs are able to expand and that underperforming charters close.

Reward colleges that successfully graduate first-generation college students: According to the Pew Economic Mobility Project, students from low-income families are eight times less likely to complete college than their more affluent peers. In order to close that gap, we must support the colleges and universities that enroll these students with programs that aid students and reward successes. Duke University and Davidson College are strong leaders in this area; they recently partnered with KIPP to help ensure more underserved students are able to reach their goals of college graduation by increasing financial aid and providing on-campus mentoring and social supports.

As our state’s leaders prepare to move our state forward, I hope they will make education their top priority and institute changes that will allow all North Carolinians to receive an excellent education. In fact, I don’t see how we can afford not to.