Judge Manning champions public school children

May 9, 2014 

It will never be said of Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. that those subject to his rulings don’t know where he stands. Thus, the state’s educators, from administrators on down the line, should pay close attention to Manning’s tough words about the many thousands of young students who cannot read as well as they should, students Manning says in effect are being cheated.

And he further says that changes in standards aren’t the answer to anything.

In a report, Manning wrote, “... the state of North Carolina cannot cut and run from the results (of assessments such as end-of-grade and end-of-course tests) by reducing standards and deleting the assessments because they do not bring good news.”

In other words, changing standards by cutting some tests and the like, blaming higher Common Core standards or ignoring testing as a way to guide the teachers’ instruction of students at different levels in the same class is not acceptable.

Manning focused in his latest report on his belief that reading levels for third-graders were crucial to their future success in school.

Manning was tough: “Bottom line requirement: Do the formative assessment and use the information to tailor instruction to meet the needs of the individual child. Do not put the data in the folder and continue on with the instruction for the entire class on one level. (What about this do you not understand?).” The judge is planning to review this year’s end-of-grade scores and ACT results.

The state Supreme Court has twice reinforced the state’s constitutional obligations to provide all children with a “sound, basic education,” something that came out of a suit (called “Leandro”) from five low-wealth school districts filed in 1994. That meant the state was required to provide adequate resources and instruction. It held the legislature and for that matter all of the state’s leaders responsible without specifically telling them how to achieve it.

In another development that is likely to shake up legislators and educators, the attorneys for those five counties have offered a court filing calling for an August hearing to pin down the state on how it is going to comply with that original “sound, basic education” ruling. They contend the state has not lived up to what the Supreme Court ruled was its obligation.

They say the state’s teacher salaries remain 46th in the country, that programs such as the Teaching Fellows have ended, teachers’ assistant jobs have been cut along with places for pre-kindergarten programs and textbook money. And while all this has been going on, the percentage of kids in the state who are eligible for free and reduced lunches has gone up to 56 percent from 39 percent 17 years ago.

In other words, the state has been doing less when it should be doing more.

While inadequate funding and those cutbacks surely have hurt many schools and many kids, Manning is right to hold educators responsible for the problems with reading and to encourage them (that’s putting it politely) to be flexible in using different strategies to teach children of different skill levels.

Manning certainly has not been unsympathetic to teachers and administrators and the difficulty of the task of public education to teach children from many different backgrounds in the same school and the same classroom. Now he seems to be issuing a wake-up call based on inadequate reading instruction.

And in the meantime, another Leandro confrontation seems to be inevitable. But if the tumultuous debate over the quality of education, and that right to a fundamentally sound and basic education, ultimately results in opening opportunities for all children, it will most emphatically have been worthwhile.

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