A New Direction for the School Reform Debate
This week the Senate continues to discuss Senate Bill 795, The Excellent Public Schools Act. As people have chimed in, there seems to be a tendency to comment on a goal that they agree with or to express concern with implementation of a particular provision. What is missing is the broader conversation on the future of public education that leads to consensus on particular strategies. This broader conversation should include not just the Senate, but also the House. It should include parents, educators, business people, citizens, scholars – and indeed all those that recognize the importance of public education in our democracy. This is why we believe this kind of legislation must wait for the long session.
So what does this conversation look like? It begins with the vision. "Great states have great education systems, and great education systems are found in great states. North Carolina deserves a great education system." This is the framing of the vision that we have created so far through a series of conversations that began last fall. Imagine how differently the conversation goes if we start with this vision.
We start by asking where we are in reaching this vision. Instead of using rhetoric of failing schools that is intended to create buy-in for drastic reforms, there is an honest conversation about the progress of education in North Carolina. This conversation recognizes that we are doing better than ever– graduation rates are at our highest – and that we need to continue to improve and update our system. It recognizes that progress has been made with scarce resources – that whether we are 40 or 45 or 49 in funding compared to other states – that we need to agree that we need to invest more in education in this state if we want a great education system.
We then would ask key questions we know to be important in building a great education system. We would be asking what does it take to bring and keep effective teachers into the education system. If this were our question, we would not only have the NC Teacher Corps as an answer – as promising as it is for bringing to education those who had chosen other career paths. We would also be talking about restoring the Teaching Fellows Program so that we can be building a strong pipeline from high school. We wouldn't settle on a system of fewer employment protections for teachers as an answer. We would be looking at the teacher mentoring, calendar flexibility for professional development, and the funding and support of organizations that help build a strong teaching force.
We would be asking the question of how we can use time best to help students learn. If this were the question, we would not end up with the convoluted calendar provisions in Senate Bill 795. We would instead be talking together about how to provide extended learning opportunities throughout the year and limit breaks in instruction. We would talk about how to align calendars between the community colleges and schools. We would make sure that there are enough days for professional development. And we would make sure that we encouraged local flexibility to start creating better systems than we can learn from.
Rather than requiring an A-F grading of schools, we would start by asking the question of how we hold the education system accountable for delivering public education. That conversation would cover public schools whether they are a charter school or part of the local education agency. We would make this a threshold question before diverting public education dollars to entities that don't have accountability for the funds or for the education it delivers. And yes, a part of the answer would be to have a report card that provides the public with easy access to information about a school's performance. But we would bring in the scholars, the business people, the education experts into this conversation. And if we did, we would not end up with a process that merely produced an A-F score and ignored the results by subgroup and failed to consider growth. And this report card would be integrated into a clear system of accountability of what happened when education isn't being delivered.
So the bottom line on Senate Bill 795? It calls for drastic reform based on flawed assumptions. It gives some strategies but doesn't frame the right conversation. It provides some appropriations but doesn't assure that the big gaps in funding will be addressed. So let's start over and have a real conversation that includes all of us.