Point of View

No more cosmetics: Keep the classroom as focus of NC education reform

May 11, 2013 

My father-in-law was famous for his habit of painting the inside of the garage whenever there was a major party at the family home. Not that it needed painting. But it seemed to satisfy his need for taking some action – even while the rest of the family attended to the real needs of the coming event.

The legislative majority’s efforts on public education have me thinking a lot these days about my father-in-law and that garage.

To address the agreed-upon goal that students need improved educational opportunities to better prepare them for today’s workforce, legislative leaders have offered up solutions such as a new grading system, new teacher contract laws, a revised report card for teacher preparation programs, relaxed class size requirements, a separate board for charter schools and private schools vouchers.

I can see my late mother-in-law rolling her eyes at my father-in-law and saying, “The party is not in the garage.”

The trouble with this agenda? It looks like North Carolina’s policy agenda from the 1990s. At best, the governing majority is offering new versions of policies we already have in place. In the main, they are proposing new bureaucratic solutions that have little chance of making any difference in the classroom.

At worst, they are restricting access to proven efforts like prekindergarten while expanding access to unproven initiatives like public subsidies for private schools.

Progress on our historic – and constitutional – commitment to educating North Carolina’s young people will not be won with cosmetic changes, report cards or new state bureaucracies. Progress requires targeted investments and direct supports that affect the daily lives of our teachers and our students.

In short, our legislative and executive branches need to steer clear of the garage and focus on the classroom. Here are five strategies to do that.

1 Increase the skills of existing teachers and the principals who support them. With higher standards and the increasing availability of new technologies to support students’ needs, teachers and principals need support to continually improve their practice. Recent research from the Gates Foundation that looked at teachers’ classroom practice and student results shows that there is little differences among the vast majority of teachers (85 percent) – with performance demonstrably worse by about 7 percent and demonstrably better by about 7 percent. If we are serious about improved student achievement, we need to avoid a disproportionate focus on the 15 percent and commit to significant supports for the 85 percent.

2Increase access to Pre-K. NC has one of the best prekindergarten programs in the country – more students need to be in it. Current proposals would reduce the income limits of eligible families from 200 percent of the federal poverty line ($39,000 for a family of three) to 100 percent. Quality pre-k has been proven in NC to increase student achievement in school. If you want better third-grade reading scores and graduation rates, pre-k is the indispensable, results-backed strategy.

3Provide clear routes to industry-backed certificates and degrees. Many students need to see pathways to workforce skills and jobs. While associate’s and bachelor’s degrees can be tickets to the middle class, so too can certificates. These are shorter-term programs that end with credentials in areas like computer programming, IT support, HVAC and nursing assistants.

One approach would be to build on our nationally-acclaimed and proven Early College High Schools model – which leads to both a high school diploma and college credential – and make it a part of every high school’s approach in partnership with local community colleges and universities.

4Develop school options that are accountable. Options can be important for students for whom traditional schools are not meeting their needs, but those options should be proven and accountable. We should recruit proven charter organizations like KIPP, Green Dot, Aspire and Yes! Prep to bring their approaches that have produced results with low-income, low-achieving students.

5Support Presidents Tom Ross’ and Scott Ralls’ college completion agendas. Our university and community college system presidents are leading aggressive and sorely needed agendas to increase the graduation rates on their campuses. Their efforts will ensure that when families and the taxpayers invest in higher education, they are receiving a reasonable return – as well as boosting the competitiveness of the state’s workforce. This needs not just campus, but legislative and executive branch leadership. After all, college completion is a jobs agenda.

Our state has long understood the connection between a well-educated population and local economic development and quality of life. That is the brand that has kept and brought families and companies to our great state.

If our governor and our legislators want to build on that commitment and make dramatic improvements for students and families, they need to lead an agenda that will make a difference for teachers and students in their schools and classrooms tomorrow.

That’s where the party is.

J.B. Buxton, former deputy state superintendent of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, consults with state governments, foundations and nonprofits on state education strategy.

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