State lawmakers passed and Gov. Pat McCrory signed a law this year terminating our public schools’ only legal requirement that schools identify and help students who are failing.
Our public schools had been required to identify students at risk for, or frankly, failing in school, to meet with the student and parents and to consider a list of reasonable alternative supports for the student. They were required to implement those supports, to monitor the student’s progress and to keep records of it all. According to the Professional Educators of North Carolina, the schools were not implementing these Personal Education Plans, and they had become “obsolete.” The argument was that it was a waste of time and resources to require teachers to fill out paperwork, contact students and parents and schedule meetings. So, the legislature simply removed the only statutory requirement that schools assist these students.
We have long used the term “fallen through the cracks” to describe what was thought to be a small percentage of students who did not achieve academically. From N.C. Department of Public Instruction data, we now know that more than half of all North Carolina public school students fail the end-of-grade exams. Out of roughly 1.5 million students in North Carolina, over 400,000 are considered at risk for failure.
Nationally, more than 80 percent of prison inmates are high school dropouts, and the poverty rate of those incarcerated is over twice as high as college graduates. High school dropouts are 72 percent more likely to be unemployed. The average high school dropout costs the economy approximately $250,000 over his or her lifetime in terms of lower tax contributions, higher reliance on Medicaid and Medicare, higher rates of criminal activity and higher reliance on welfare.
Now that PEPs are no longer required, what programs are in place to help low-performing and failing students? What is the NCDPI’s plan? School staff and administrators tell me that there have been other tools that are also not being dependably applied. These programs include the Student Assistance Program, Child and Family Teams, Child and Family Support Teams, Response to Intervention and Multi-Tiered System of Support.
As it stands, North Carolina is not doing what it can to help children who are failing academically. I know of at least one large school district where the tools (CFTs, CFSTs, PEPs and RTI) have long been provided, yet implementation and follow-through are very uneven, and many students who need assistance do not receive it. The reasons given to me within district staff and administration are not lack of funding but include lack of accountability, need for proper training and lack of will.
If there are school districts where this assistance is inconsistently applied, are the NCDPI and the local district trying to determine why and correct it? Is the NCDPI assessing the effectiveness of programs for failing students already in use?
The NCDPI needs to determine which schools and which programs are accomplishing measurable improvement for failing students, identify how that was achieved and that program’s scalability, and then make it mandatory in as many districts as possible. It may be that if any of these programs meant to improve academic performance were put to its intended purpose with fidelity, we could see significant improvement in academic performance, school attendance, parent engagement and graduation from high school. Evaluating the effectiveness of each program may give us valuable information, and discontinuing ineffective programs may save lots of much needed money.
I don’t mean to condemn all teachers and administrators of public schools. We are fortunate to have mostly well-meaning and capable people caring for and teaching our children in public schools. But the problem of helping at-risk students is sufficiently widespread for us to question what we are doing for our students who most need help.
Having worked on N.C. education issues for 20 years, I have observed little direction or accountability exercised from the NCDPI and district leadership, hence the disparity in implementation. Where programs for failing students are in place, they are inconsistently supported with protocols, funding and staff and inconsistently applied. The taxpayer-funded effort to prevent students from failing is erratic. Taxpayers and failing students and their families deserve better.
Mark Trustin is an attorney in private practice in Durham.