Zane: To fix NC schools, drop the moralizing

CorrespondentNovember 19, 2013 

Most everybody agrees that education is a key to success and that our urgent and daunting challenge is to figure out how to help students reach their potential in an increasingly competitive world.

Unfortunately, the broad common ground we stand upon is riven by the deep and ugly partisan divide that runs across North Carolina and the nation. Instead of focusing on solving our perilous problems, too many of us engage in schoolyard name calling and demagogic claims to the moral high ground. Labeling those we see as opponents as shameful, extreme and selfish is hardly an argument and certainly not a solution.

This nasty self-righteousness transforms our common struggle to help our children into a bitter fight over power. But power to do what? If either side really could turn things around, it would have done it already. We are still trying to figure things out.

The corrosive effects of morality politics and the stagnant nature of our current debate are clear in the fight over public education in North Carolina. Consider the issue of teacher salaries. Many Democrats claim that Republicans are immoral for freezing teacher salaries and denying them increases as they’ve added experience. But the freeze actually began when Democrats controlled state government. Due to the salary freeze in place since 2007-08, a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and five years of experience made 6.5 percent less in 2010-11 than a comparable teacher did in 2007-08 ($32,640 compared with $34,910).

One might argue that teachers should earn more, and the GOP seems to have embraced this idea.

Unhappy teachers are rarely effective. But if letting teacher pay erode is immoral, then both sides are guilty. In fact, teacher pay has shrunk because neither party, when it had the power, wanted to increase taxes significantly to pay for raises. This was not a moral decision but a practical one in the face of a devastating recession.

Because our ultimate goal is not taking care of teachers but students, we must admit there is little correlation between dollars and achievement. Since 1970, per-pupil spending has doubled in the United States without producing performance gains. Two other perks that North Carolina’s teachers have lost – raises for earning master’s degrees and the chance to earn tenure – did not produce a marked increase in classroom performance. Teachers might deserve a raise, if only to make up for the pay cuts they have absorbed. But that will not begin to turn around struggling schools.

Taking a clear-eyed look at education, we must stop blaming teachers alone for poor performance. As Dr. Michael Freemark and Anne Slifkin noted in The N&O last week, the home environment and economic status of students are the greatest predictors of classroom success.

“The major determinant of success on end-of-grade testing, and of supposed ‘school quality’ is, unequivocally, the economic status of the students,” they wrote in a Point of View. “Schools with high percentages of poor children have low pass rates. Schools with low numbers of poor children have high pass rates. It is that simple.”

Recent studies suggest this gap begins at birth. By age 3, poor children have heard about 30 million fewer words than those from wealthier homes, creating deficits almost impossible to make up. This is one reason Head Start programs have only a modest effect on school performance. Proposals to devote billions more federal dollars to expand this program reflect tired old approaches that fail most cost/benefits analyses.

Such findings suggest the depth of our challenge. They urge us to develop fresh approaches to the forces limiting student performance – from the entrenched problems that affect the poor to the corrosive effects of technology on most every student’s ability to think and communicate. To help North Carolina’s children, we adults must cast aside tired moral arguments that only stoke conflict and come together to focus on forging policies that are right because they work.

Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at

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