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Rhetoric matters. So let us ponder the language used to define the goals and frame the purposes of education in our state and nation. And, let us also go on to think more about the power of higher expectations and, as a headline last Sunday in The New York Times put it, “The Power of a Simple Nudge.”

Officials speak about education in a rather common language, even across party lines. The website of the state Department of Public Instruction, under Democratic Superintendent June Atkinson, says that “North Carolina students must be ready for life after graduation, including citizenship, college and careers.” In his essay last week for EdNC.org, Eric Guckian, the education adviser to Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, said, “Governor McCrory and I believe what most North Carolinians believe, that the purpose of an education is to gain the skills and knowledge that you need to get a job, earn money and enjoy life.”

Commenting on a story about the rise in the number of poor children in public schools, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education offered this observation: “Now more than ever, it is critical that we as a country ensure schools have the resources and support necessary to prepare every student – no matter his or her ZIP code – for college, careers and life.”

The purpose here is not to criticize this rhetoric; indeed, education advocates have understood that the economic-advancement rationale has proved more powerful politically today than Thomas Jefferson’s classic argument that education is essential to an informed electorate. Rather, the modest point here is to warn against rhetoric that suggests, even inadvertently, that high school necessarily leads to a “career,” especially a career that sustains a middle-class standard of living.

The South can no longer regard high school graduation as an end-point of education, but rather a transition to more education

Over the past 20 years, I have had to confront educational, economic and demographic data, and to think about its implications for our state and region as a member of MDC’s1 team in producing eight State of the South reports. Among the findings that flow out of MDC’s work are these: The South can no longer regard high school graduation as an end-point of education, but rather a transition to more education; and inculcating a culture of higher expectations, particularly among black and Latino adolescents, is critical to elevating state and regional educational outcomes.

The first State of the South report, issued in 1996, used vivid, yet what now sounds like quaint imagery: “In economic terms, a high school diploma these days does as much good as rabbit ears on a computer. A worker armed only with a high school diploma today has fewer prospects than a dropout a generation ago. The South’s civic and business leadership can change a culture that encourages too many students to quit pursuing education after prom night. In the South, postsecondary education should be universal. Middle schools and high schools need to steer students, all students, toward postsecondary education, as well as give them serious exposure to a variety of careers.”

In the two decades since my friend, the late George Autry, wrote those words into the State of the South report, much has changed – in the economy and in education – in North Carolina. The two recessions of the 2000s eliminated vast numbers of jobs in textiles and furniture once available to people with no more than a high school diploma, while the state’s metro areas continue to advance in high-wage, high-skill enterprises. Meanwhile, North Carolina made significant gains in raising its graduation rate – 84 percent in 2014 – and became a national leader in initiatives to blend high schools and community colleges.

As John Quinterno, an analyst at South by North Strategies, points out, education by itself can’t fix a labor market with too much underemployment and lag in wages. In an email to me, he wrote, “The decline in wages for high school educated men is not an education problem but a political economy problem.”

Still, education beyond high school can position more men and women in the South to thrive, and position states as more attractive to expanding existing and recruiting new high-paying businesses. In the last two years of his governorship, Democrat Mike Easley used the escheat funds and new appropriations to provide need-based aid that would make community college free for certain students, an initiative that got little attention at that time. More recently, the Republican governor of Tennessee, Bill Haslam, has a plan to cover the full cost of a two-year college for every high school graduate beginning next fall. Now, President Obama has proposed a national initiative for free community college for students who hit specified benchmarks.

Are North Carolina, the South, and America moving toward “universal’’ postsecondary education? Not quite yet. But it remains a goal worth pursuing. To reach that goal requires some civic attitude adjustment, as well as day-to-day interactions with students in schools. The New York Times story with the headline, “The Power of a Simple Nudge,” offers a compendium of academic evaluations of relatively inexpensive methods to encourage students, especially from poor families, to persist in education. For example, The Times reports, a Los Angeles school saw completed homework go up and test scores improve as parents and students responded to personalized text messages from their high schools and middle schools.

Let me close, for now, with a few words from the 2014 State of the South report, which may help inform the rhetoric used to re-define our educational aspirations. “The South remains afflicted with an absence of long-range vision and low expectations for too many of its people – a failure to imagine a future for people and places beyond the current trajectory,” says the report. “Southern policy often has rested on the assumption that certain people – whites, blacks and Latinos – will remain stuck at or near the bottom, that mobility is not their destiny.”

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  1. MDC, founded in 1967, is a Durham-based nonprofit. Guillory is a senior fellow.
Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is the Director of the Program in Public Life and Professor of the Practice at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and the Vice Chairman of EducationNC.