Federal government backs NC schools' progress

January 1, 2014 

The whole notion of grants from the federal government in the Race to the Top program came about because public school systems had some work to do to bring all schools up to a better level. So it wouldn’t be fair to pronounce North Carolina’s participation in the program as unsuccessful just because some goals weren’t met.

That might be a negative spin on the state’s performance, but it would be wrong. The state is, as a result of $400 million grant it won three years ago, upgrading technology with an Internet “cloud” for parents, teachers, principals and staff that will allow teachers, for example, to share lesson plans and will allow all involved in the schools to communicate more and better with each other.

In addition, the Race to the Top money enabled the state to develop a better evaluation system for teachers and principals. Some 87 principals left their posts as the grant program began.

Big ideas

The state Department of Public Instruction under Superintendent June Atkinson also used funding to intensify efforts to bring under-performing schools up to higher standards, and made progress. Unfortunately, some well-intentioned money, such as vouchers to draw teachers to low-performing schools, wasn’t used much.

It has been a big program with big ideas, and parts of it worked better than others, which is nothing to be ashamed of.

And the truth is, the state has drawn praise from federal officials for showing progress in improving public schools. That’s been no mean feat, though it could be at risk in the immediate future, in a time when Republican legislators have made public education a punching bag for the ideologically driven tea party crowd.

Another sign that North Carolina is doing well by many lights is the announcement last week that the state is getting a $13.6 million grant to continue work on improving those low-performing schools. North Carolina’s grant was the largest among seven states that got such allocations. That’s a high compliment to state education officials, who haven’t heard many kudos from the legislature.

The state has a distressing 118 schools that are ranked as consistently low-performing. It must be recognized that many of those schools serve low-income children whose families don’t have the resources to support the outside-of-school enriching experiences that help children in wealthier areas.

That said, the state is looking and has looked for ways to bolster those schools, and the schools that want the money have to apply for it. They’re then monitored for progress.

At the Core

Atkinson doesn’t sell the federal program as a cure-all for underwhelming public schools, but she does say those schools that have received the money in the past, including some in Chatham, Orange and Wake counties, have indeed gotten better.

The timing is good. Schools are having to work toward measuring up to the Common Core State Standards, which raise learning goals for students. Though controversial among some conservative groups, Common Core is most strongly supported, for example, by former Gov. Jim Hunt, the premier “education governor” of his time.

And there is good reason for that, and for the support it has among other leaders: It is better to raise standards and have students strive to meet them, even if it takes more time. To maintain lower standards that will give parents the idea that their kids are learning in a way that will make them competitive for college and work opportunities with others isn’t doing them or their children any favor.

Schools will use the money for technology, but also for luring better teachers, and for helping teachers on staff improve through more training. For teachers, underpaid and overworked and often forced to go in their own pockets for supplies, are due all the encouragement we can give them.

This money is a positive, promising and, for North Carolina, a complimentary development. It demonstrates that federal education officials have confidence in the state’s ability to spend wisely and produce results.

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