Berger should seek broader advice on school reforms

February 7, 2014 

State Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger has a passion for improving education. That’s commendable. But improving education first requires doing some studying to thoroughly understand the problems and then discussing solutions with educators.

On that requirement, Berger is heading toward a failing grade.

Berger, an Eden Republican, pushed through major education reforms last session as part of the state budget bill. One aims to improve teacher performance and root out poor teachers by offering pay incentives and eliminating tenure.

Teachers deemed to be in the top 25 percent of their district would be offered a series of $500 raises over four years if they agreed to surrender tenure. Tenure for teachers is not a job guarantee but simply the assurance that experienced teachers cannot be fired or demoted except for reasons named in state law. Those reasons include poor performance, immorality and insubordination.

Berger also took on the difficult issue of widespread poor reading skills. He succeeded in making it a law that third-graders who can’t read at grade level and have no disability or extenuating circumstance must attend summer reading camps. Those who don’t improve sufficiently would not be promoted.

These two measures were bold moves, but from the start they were unpopular. Now they’re proving unworkable.

Local school boards say they don’t want to designate the top 25 percent of their teachers and that, even if they did, it would by an arbitrary process that work hurt morale more than increase motivation.

Teachers, meanwhile, are balking at giving up tenure for a raise. The N.C. Association of Educators has sued to block the law that takes away a job protection that North Carolina teachers have had 40 years. Teachers wearing red in protest of the tenure law and low salaries are expected to turn out in Raleigh today as part of a broader protest against new laws involving voting rights, tax changes and environmental regulations.

The third-grade reading requirement is also meeting resistance at the school district level. Enforcing the law could require frequent testing, and high failure rates might require creating special transition classes.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson, a Democrat, said last week that lawmakers should change the law to give parents, teachers and principals more say in whether a third-grader should go on to fourth grade. She said it’s wrong to have the decision turn on the basis of a reading score.

Berger didn’t weigh Atkinson’s advice. He blasted her in a statement that said: “Superintendent Atkinson’s continued insistence that we keep advancing kids who can’t read into fourth grade is disturbing and could amount to an economic death sentence for those students.”

That response shows what’s lacking in Berger’s approach and why his reforms are themselves in desperate need of reform. He’s skeptical about the education establishment’s willingness to change, so he’s imposing changes by fiat. But reforms won’t work unless they draw from the collective wisdom of people who teach children or oversee school systems. Berger should retreat on these unworkable changes and do what he failed to do in the first place: Reach out to all corners and levels of public education and craft solutions conceived by those most familiar with the problems.

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