Gov. Roy Cooper said Tuesday that he was “surprised and appalled” that so many bright low-income students have missed out on rigorous and challenging classes that could lead them to college and higher-level careers.
“We have a treasure trove of hidden talent in North Carolina schools who we should be educating better and not overlooking,” Cooper said in an interview.
Cooper and others spoke in response to “Counted Out,” an investigation from The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer that found disparity in the treatment of bright students who come from low-income households.
The articles reported how high-achieving, low-income students across North Carolina are far less likely than their more-affluent peers to be placed in advanced or challenging classes. The disparity starts with gifted programs in elementary school and grows in middle and high school.
The stories found that lower-income students scoring above grade level on end-of-grade tests in math are less likely to get into advanced classes that put them on the road to college. The sorting starts early, it accumulates and it consistently works against children from low-income homes.
Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican, said he was disappointed that lawmakers have never received similar analysis from the State Board of Education.
“The discrepancy revealed in the data you’ve uncovered, about kids from low-income backgrounds not having the same opportunity to get into these programs early on, it’s troubling and it’s problematic and it’s something we need to address,” Berger said.
Berger said he wants to see better use of data by educators from the state board down to the classroom. He mentioned EVAAS, a data analytics program from the software giant SAS, that uses past performance to predict a student’s readiness to take advanced classes. Berger said he believes the program eliminates subjective measures, such as a student’s economic status or classroom behavior.
“The data is very accurate in predicting the capacity of the student,” Berger said. “Unfortunately, it appears that we don’t trust data as much as we should.”
Cooper, a Democrat in his first term as governor, said the first message from the mouths of CEOs is their need for a highly trained, well-educated work force.
“For our state, these are potentially high-skilled workers who show they have the smarts for higher-level careers,” Cooper said. “It’s important that they reach their own potential, and bring their families out of poverty with hard, challenging work.”
Cooper applauded the legislature’s actions to raise teachers’ salaries. But he criticized the General Assembly’s reduction in positions critical to helping bright students into the most challenging classes. He called for more gifted teachers and counselors, saying his proposed budget had called for $20 million in flexible spending for such positions.
“Where we’ve suffered is support personnel,” Cooper said. “It’s important that we make sure local systems can hire these gifted specialists and counselors.”
Berger said he’s open to more counselors. But he said he needs more detail on how districts are spending money that the legislature appropriates.
Wake board’s ideas
Legislators, school board members and other education experts offered a wide variety of possible fixes.
Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican and a lead education budget writer, said the legislature needs to make sure the poorest students have the best teachers.
“Part of the reality is we don’t always attract our best and brightest teachers to the poorest areas,” Horn said. “We need to get well-trained, well-prepared teachers in the classroom with the neediest kids, whether they be rural or urban, the kids who are often prejudged because of race or color or ethnic origin. That’s just wrong.”
Members of the Wake County school board acknowledged the problem and suggested a variety of fixes:
▪ Christine Kushner said she wants more school counselors, who play a key role in deciding what classes are offered to students, especially in high school. Wake has asked for $10 million in additional funding this year to hire more counselors and social workers as part of a larger budget request, but county commissioners appear likely to approve substantially less.
▪ Kathy Hartenstine, a retired teacher and principal, wants to put more money into programs for kindergarten, first and second grade.
▪ Jim Martin said he’s in favor of extending gifted-style classes to more high-achieving students as well as those who struggle.
“Struggling students and advanced students respond to the hands-on learning that’s typical of gifted settings,” Martin said. “Too much remediation is mechanical and boring and not useful for learning.”
A tenured chemistry professor at N.C. State University, Martin said he’s frustrated by how the district uses fill-in-the-bubble tests to identify students for gifted and rigorous classes.
“I’m dyslexic,” Martin said. “I didn’t test well, but some teachers recognized my ability that didn’t show up in tests.”
The state funds gifted education with a contribution based on 4 percent of a district’s enrollment. In Wake, 18 percent of students are labeled gifted.
Wake contributes a 25 percent match of the state’s contribution, while other Triangle school districts contribute much more: Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools contribute twice the state’s share, while Durham Public Schools more than doubles it.
Martin said that Wake’s unrelenting growth in enrollment and new schools has overwhelmed the school budget.
“All increases in revenue get sucked up by the growth hole,” he said.
Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, said schools need more adults, such as counselors and parent advocates, in contact with students, especially in high-poverty schools. He said the data in the series was “startling.”
“It’s a wake-up call to all of us as educators that we don’t let our top academic students slip away from us,” Jewell said.
“I don’t think anything would be more tragic than having a talented, gifted kid not get the resources they need and end up dropping out of school.”