In pursuing testing and accountability as the route to school improvement, North Carolina has overlooked the benefits of collaboration and innovation. The following two examples of innovation illustrate both the challenge and the opportunity.
During the recession, when funds were cut for after-school transportation, a high school had to change its after-school tutoring program. It adopted a new program, Smart Lunch, which provided additional time for tutoring to occur in the middle of the day. This change brought several advantages: Tutoring was no longer an add-on at the end of the day; it did not have to compete with after-school programs or students who had jobs or family responsibilities; and it was not dependent on transportation.
Six years later the program was adopted by another high school, located 30 miles away in a neighboring district. It took six years for this new program to travel 30 miles. The main reason for the change was that the principal changed schools.
In another case where an educator took the initiative to innovate, an elementary teacher created a desk-less classroom, resulting in a significant improvement in her students’ proficiency and growth. The teacher wrote about the change on medium.com. Unfortunately, North Carolina does not have an infrastructure in place that values innovation in education or the sharing of such practices.
While reform through accountability has led to some improvements, it has also fostered a compliance culture and supplanted another important option – improvement through a professional culture. The former approach is based on competition between teachers, schools and districts with rewards and punishments for teachers and schools that are doing what a culture of compliance might define as the right thing.
The latter approach recognizes teaching as a profession, builds on what schools are doing well, supports collaboration and the sharing of best practices, champions innovation and takes ownership for doing and defining what is right for learner success. With the lifting of some of the federal testing requirements and a new state superintendent, North Carolina should seize the opportunity to reexamine the balance between these two approaches to school improvement.
A review of the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction website reveals the absence of support for a professional culture. In today’s technological era, the NCDPI website should serve as a key part of the organization’s overall operation and success, communicating the mission, sharing what works, highlighting successful programs, models and schools and promoting innovative approaches to teaching and learning.
The website provides detailed information on inputs (curriculum, students, teachers) and outputs (test scores, graduation rates, school grades) while schools, which mediate these, are omitted as unexplored black boxes.
Given that we have been educating students in North Carolina for over 150 years, we surely have gained some insights about effective programs and the characteristics of what makes a school good. Considering there are 1,400 K-8 schools and over 400 high schools in North Carolina, why would we expect each school or each district to have to figure out in isolation: “What is a good school?”
How would educational improvement be viewed differently if improvement were seen through a professional culture? NCDPI’s role would be to support education and school improvement in North Carolina. It would provide information and resources for schools on effective programs and characteristics of good schools. It would create a detailed database of schools successfully implementing specific programs with contact information for others to access. It would identify models of exemplary schools across the state.
NCDPI would support the creation of learning networks for schools, teachers, and other educators to participate in across N.C. to share resources and successful strategies. Finally, if for example, being proficient in English II is an important state goal for all N.C. students, NCDPI would work with districts, schools and teachers to achieve this goal, helping schools access and share effective practices and resources.
A major concern with a compliance culture is that it stifles innovation. Not only are schools and teachers incentivized around predetermined goals, they are fearful of making significant changes. Further, in a compliance culture, alternative ways of thinking or viewing problems are suppressed. Schools and teachers do not see innovation as something that is valued. Compared to the major infrastructure on NCDPI’s website supporting testing and accountability, innovation is a blank space. Yet, even despite this, there are many examples of innovative strategies and programs implemented by excellent teachers and forward thinking schools across the state. However, without a system in place to share innovations, these remain unknown.
From a professional culture perspective, N.C. educators and schools represent an untapped potential to foster innovation. If we want 21st century schools, then we need to address the conditions and constraints affecting all schools and not expect that by centralized policy mandates or creating a handful of charter schools each year we can change the system of N.C. schools.
Provide incentives for all schools to be innovative. Create incentives for districts to innovate. Give innovation at least the same infrastructure that we provide for testing and accountability. Assess and evaluate innovations for success and share significant innovations across the state. Consider how our children’s education could be improved if N.C. was to focus on sharing best practices across schools and districts, and providing support for teachers, schools and districts to be innovative.
Robert W. Smith is a professor in the department of instructional technology, foundations and and secondary education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.