When I started my teaching career at age 22 in 1987, I remember ignoring the political aspects of education and focusing solely on my students and their families. In retrospect, if I could talk to my young teacher self I would say, pay closer attention to our leaders in Raleigh. The decisions made in the General Assembly directly impact what happens in the classroom, and as teachers, we need to come together and be advocates for public education. While some of the legislation or budget decisions may have been based on good intentions and some of the legislation had merit, many of the educational policies established over the past nine years have thoroughly frustrated teachers, families, school communities and those of us in teacher education.
In 2013, the NCGA passed the Excellent Public Schools Act, which required schools to be assigned a grade, A through F, based predominantly (80 percent) on students’ end-of-year test scores. This year the federal government gave states the freedom to change this formula, but our current leadership decided to double down on it. Research shows that the parents’ level of education and income are the best indicators of children’s test scores. Schools in poverty are less likely to post high scores and are more likely to be labeled as D or F, despite student growth or success in untested areas. According to the News & Observer article “How many failing schools are in North Carolina?”, in the 2016-2017 school year, there were 146 failing schools (F) and 547 low-performing schools (D).
Educators (and our General Assembly) know the A-through-F system doesn’t accurately represent the instruction in the school but instead predicts the level of poverty. Even more damaging are the implications from being labeled an F school. For instance, expectations of students may be lowered, assumptions and biases are more likely to prevail about the community, children may feel helpless, and teachers are further constrained in decision-making and autonomy. The cycle is relentless and unending. While the original intent by the N.C. General Assembly was to hold schools accountable, the actual result has hamstrung school systems and frustrated teachers, especially those who are committed to schools with large numbers of families in poverty.
In addition to these teachers being negatively labeled, the North Carolina General Assembly made the decision in 2014 to no longer provide a raise for teachers who earn a master’s degree. In the Teacher Education program at UNCG, there were 808 graduate students working on their master’s degree in fall 2014 and only 119 in fall 2016. That is frightening data that signals danger for the quality of future teachers in the classroom.
I assume the intention was to balance the budget, but the ramifications are numerous, and a lack of investment in our teachers is a lack of investment in our economy. One of the first considerations before a family moves to a new area is the quality of the school system. In addition, the leadership in North Carolina communicates to teachers that they do not respect them, do not care about their professional growth or leadership potential and are not concerned with how this might impact future students. When teachers feel unsupported, it is difficult to recruit and retain them. Without a strong pool of teachers, some “learn on the job” with such programs as Teach for America and other lateral-entry routes to certification. This has a direct impact on our children. We know the single most important factor on a child’s learning is the teacher in the classroom.
Another piece of legislation passed by our current General Assembly is increasing the voucher system. Make no mistake, vouchers are not about school choice but about privatizing education and defunding the public schools. Students who accept a voucher to attend a private school take public school funds with them. This reduces the programs offered in the school as well as the number of teachers. In addition, according to Harvard Graduate School, taxpayers do not see the results of their funding because private schools and for-profit schools are not held to the same level of accountability or transparency. In fact, 50 percent of their faculty can teach without a license. Despite the intention to offer choice, this legislation is actually limiting choices for parents by eliminating their neighborhood schools, magnet schools and public school programs.
As stated by former Gov. Jim Hunt, “Teachers have the most important job. They are building our nation.” When we vote for our North Carolina legislators, we are voting to either support our public education system or not. We are choosing to build a nation or to turn our backs. I know firsthand that we should be investing resources and proposing legislation that supports students, families, teachers and our communities. So, to my colleagues and teachers around the state of North Carolina, it’s time to advocate for ourselves and our students.
Jennifer Mangrum is a clinical assistant professor at the UNC-Greensboro School of Education where she helped launch the STEM Teacher Leader Collaborative.