Open Letter from my son Malcolm to Sen. Berger – Teacher Assistants are vital

This letter was constructed this past November, but I never shared with any blog, news organization, or other media. But I did send it to Sen. Berger on behalf of my red-headed little man. The talk of teacher assistants being slashed from budgets is still being bantered about and with the long session of the NC General Assembly approaching, I thought I would allow Malcolm to talk about his amazing teacher assistant.

For those who know Malcolm, you can attest for his infectious personality, unfiltered passion for sports, and a love of life. The fact that he has an extra 21st chromosome doesn’t define him. He could care less, especially if it involves basketball. We literally play it at least two hours a day during this spring break on his specially adjusted goal that Grandpa Ed made him.

If you know Malcolm, then you know McK, his big sister and probably the best teacher of life he has ever had. When it comes to helping Malcolm be the best he can be, she is the MVP.She certainly has taught me much.

Yeah, she has red hair too. So does my wife.

Even the dog is kind of red-headed.

I don’t really have any hair.

Enjoy.

 

 

Dear Senator Berger,

My name is Malcolm. I am 8-years-old. I have my mom’s red hair and her blue eyes. I like sports like my dad. I am in second grade at Sherwood Forest Elementary School in Winston-Salem.

Oh, and I happen to also have Down Syndrome, but I don’t think about that much. It does not define me. What defines me is that I am like every other kid here at school. I want to learn and be part of this world. And I need helpers along the way.

I asked my daddy to help write this for me. I do know my numbers and letters and my vocabulary grows all the time. But I am still getting trying to get enough muscle control to write. So I asked my daddy to help me. He is a teacher for big kids. He loves his job.

I have a teacher at school and there is someone who helps her. She is the teacher assistant. I do not learn as much if that teacher assistant is not there. She helps me to become more independent. She keeps an eye on me and helps me learn. In fact, I hug her every day. And I do not hug many people.

I was hurt that you said you do not want to have any teacher assistants in North Carolina anymore. That means that you don’t want me to learn as much as I do now. That means that you don’t care if I don’t get the attention and help that I need to be better.

My daddy showed me the video of your speech at Best NC’s legislative meeting (https://www.ednc.org/2015/11/03/speech-by-sen-phil-berger-raises-questions-about-the-future-of-teacher-assistants-schools-of-education-in-nc/). I really was hurt by your comparing teacher assistants to manual typewriters. It seemed like you were calling them names. I asked my daddy what it meant and he said the following,

“Well buddy, Sen. Berger thinks teacher assistants are a waste of money, especially when it comes to his misguided and narrow-minded interpretation of education reform. When Senator Berger speaks about what ails education he forgets that it all starts in Raleigh on West Jones Street. Many like him have taken actions to weaken public education so that they can brand their own form of reform like charter schools and vouchers to help a few make profits from public school money.

“But I think he doesn’t realize that his comparison of teacher assistants to manual typewriters might not be far from the truth, if you look at it from a different angle.

“Manual typewriters make a lasting impression. Every key stroke makes an indelible mark on each piece of paper that passes through it. No need for electricity. No need for software programs. No need for internet. No need for printers. It does it all by itself, totally capable of working in any room or environment. It doesn’t even need to be updated. In a day when all electronics are built to become disposable and dependent on some other source of energy, those manual typewriters stand tests of time and use.

“Manual typewriters are authentic and remind us of days when there were no shortcuts to producing something genuine. Do you know that when I teach my high school students all of those novels and poems, that many of them were composed on a manual typewriter? And the very same words those famous writers wrote and typed are still read today.

“Sure, we have computers today, but the keyboard is the same. The letters and numbers are in the same arrangement. But if you walk in many offices today, there are still some manual typewriters, because there are jobs that only a manual typewriter can do best that cannot be replicated. That sounds a lot like teacher assistants if you think about it. They are still needed because they perform duties that no one else can fulfill.”

I think my daddy is right. Only my teacher assistant can do the things that she does. And I am successful because of her. I don’t need unnamed and uncited research to know it either. I experience it each day.

I asked my daddy if he thought there was any chance that you would actually read my letter.

“Probably not, son. He will most likely have one of his assistants read it for him. According to a Feb. 13th, 2015 Asheville Citizen Times report by Gary Robertson (“NC legislative leaders’ staffs keep growing”), Sen. Berger has over a dozen assistants working for him alone. Over half of them command at least 100K in salary. In fact, he’s got more assistants than your whole school does.”

Wow. That doesn’t seem right.

Senator, you also said that we should take away our schools of education. I think it is rather odd that you want to take away schools in order to make schools better. That doesn’t make any sense. Even a second grader can tell you that.

 

Sincerely,

Malcolm
Exceptional Child in Public Schools
Son of Stuart Egan, a public school teacher

 

Open Letter to Sen. Tom Apodaca concerning HB2 – You Brought it all Upon Yourself

Dear Sen. Apodaca,

Last week I wrote an open letter to both Rep. Tim Moore and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest on their active roles in convening a special session of the General Assembly to craft, push, and pass the most prejudiced piece of legislation in recent memory. I noted that it was sadistically ironic that their claim to “protect women and children” actually went out of its way to discriminate citizens.

And I would be remiss if I did not mention your role in creating the venomous HB2, its fallout, and the continuing national backlash that threatens to hurt North Carolina not only economically but in how the rest of our nation views us through a different lens.

If Friday’s (3/25) report by Derek Lacey on BlueRidgeNow.com is read correctly, you actually wanted to charge the city of Charlotte the cost of having the special session to overturn its ordinance (http://www.blueridgenow.com/article/20160324/NEWS/160329873/1151?Title=Apodaca-calls-for-Charlotte-to-cover-cost-of-special-session&tc=ar.) Even you seem to be taking a turn at sardonic irony with what may be the most egregious notion of the last three years to come from West Jones Street.

Mr. Lacey reported that you asked your staff to “look and see how the General Assembly can charge Charlotte to cover the costs of Wednesday’s special session, including the possibility of withholding the city’s sales tax revenues.” And why? You claimed because “Charlotte brought this all upon themselves.”

For someone rated “the second most effective legislator the past two sessions” according to the Henderson Lightning (“Apodaca bowing out”), you allowed your puritan ideology to cloud sound judgement over what is best for the state. You allowed your personality to override principles. You became the antithesis of what an elected official should be. You became a walking contradiction of the very representative you claim to be.

Sen. Apodaca, you (and many other senior GOP state legislators) have indicated that you will not seek reelection for another term. You therefore have one more “long session” left in your career as a state senator, and with the winds blowing so erratically this election season, there may be some method to your madness and the madness of other GOP lawmakers in having this special short session to pass HB2.

If I view this in a certain lens, your actions last week just might have been a brilliant maneuver to create more business opportunities for your post-legislative days.

Taking a look at your biography on your personal website, www.senatorapodaca.com, you talk of your success as a businessman. Now that you will not be seeking reelection you will be able to concentrate on your “current interests” including “bond insurance, real estate investment, and a travel agency.”

Think about it. First, with the overturning of the Charlotte ordinance you have brought to light the amazing amount of illegal activity concerning people intentionally going to the wrong bathroom to prey on women and children (emphasis on the tongue-in-cheek tone). While I do not have empirical evidence of this, it obviously was going to occur so much that you had to have a special session of the NCGA to do something about it (kind like all of that voter fraud that has been stopped witht eh voter ID law). Now those people can be brought to justice and many of them will need to have bail posted.

As a bails bondman, you may profit from that.

Secondly, with the passing of HB2, we may see real estate (especially commercial real estate) start to become a buyer’s market. Since untold numbers of industries and companies are voicing disapproval of the bill and refusing to continue commerce here, there will be less business taking place in North Carolina because of boycotting. But the buildings will still be there. Maybe buy cheap and sell later when the courts overturn HB2 because of its unconstitutionality and we start to regain some of that lost business?

Again, more profit for you.

Lastly, your travel agency venture will probably do fantastically as many from NC seek to vacation in other parts of the country like South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and possibly Georgia (to name the closest destinations) where LBGTQ people are not discriminated against by law like they are now in North Carolina. In fact some of those vacations may be permanent.

Once more, more profit for you.

While that might be farfetched to even imagine as a possible motive for you in helping pass HB2, what is more mindboggling is that you actually suggested that Charlotte pay for your actions by withholding some of the city’s tax revenues.  You even had the nerve to admonish them for making you convene a special session. You stated in Lacey’s article that  they knew exactly what “this” would cause.

But for someone who has been garnered numerous awards for “pro-business” politics (http://www.senatorapodaca.com/awards3.html), you may have done more with those words and with that legislative vote to drive away business from the Old North State than can be remedied in many years to come. And that’s not just ironic; that’s corrosive.

If Charlotte’s mayor and city council could have consulted a crystal ball and seen what their actions would have “caused,” then I know they would still have voted to pass a protective ordinance for the LGBT community anyway because they were acting in the best interests of the very people they represent.  They would have also seen that you and other GOP members would have outlawed the use of crystal balls because that is not specifically covered under religious freedom legislation.

Yet, while the GOP-led NCGA (with you as its second most effective legislator) has moved to strike down Charlotte’s ordinance, HB2 will be overturned. No crystal ball is needed to see that. A Federal lawsuit is already been filed and the governor is already showing that he has no viable way of defending the bill.

In the court of public opinion in this state and in the entire country, a verdict has already been reached in this matter. It is only a matter of time that the courts follow.

And if it costs the taxpayers money to defend this bill because the NCGA stubbornly tries to defend it, maybe the citizens should look to see if you and other legislators who voted in favor of HB2 could be charge to cover the costs.

And when elections for governor and others to replace legislators (like yourself) go in favor of democrats, I may just look back on this past week and say of the very GOP members who championed HB2, “they brought it all upon themselves.”

From the Vault – An Open Letter to Rep. Rob Bryan concerning his Surreptitious Achievement School District Plan

On March 30th, 2016, Rep. Bryan will hold another committee meeting concerning his championing of an ASD pilot in the state. Most of this planning was done secretly and then was presented in a fashion that smelled of back-door politics.

In reference to that, I wrote Rep. Bryan an open letter that was reprinted graciously by NC Policy Watch. I have reprinted it below.

With all that is going on with HB2 and the backlash that has occurred, please do not forget this “reform” that is certainly geared to make someone a profit.

Enjoy again or for the first time.

 

 

This is an open letter to Rep. Rob Bryan, Republican-Mecklenburg. He is the Chairman of the Education Appropriations Committee in the North Carolina General Assembly.

Rep. Bryan,

After reading a recent report by the McClatchy Regional News printed in the Winston-Salem Journal on August 10th, 2015 entitled “Plan being crafted for charter takeover of worst schools”, I am saddened that you would consider pawning off our “failing schools” to an entity that has not really produced discernable results when examined carefully. You can review that article here: http://www.journalnow.com/plan-being-crafted-for-charter-takeover-of-worst-schools/article_ad7601f1-834f-52a4-bc75-927efe9eedbb.html.

It is egregious that a leading legislator has to “craft a proposal behind closed doors” by “talking to lawmakers, educators and advocates of his choosing.” Oftentimes when one secretly meets with others of his choosing, then those “others” tend to have like-minded views. Rather than having a public debate about how to best help our “failing” schools with our own proven resources, you choose to surreptitiously strategize and plan a takeover of schools that need your help, not your ignorance.

Think about it. As a two-term representative, you have helped create a system by which poverty-stricken schools are not only labeled as failing (Jeb Bush school grading system), but you have fostered an environment that keeps schools under the foot of government by lowering per pupil expenditures and vilifying veteran educators. And now you meet behind closed doors with those who are willing to siphon money to charter schools run by out-of-state private entities?

You were quoted as saying, “I think the question is how long are kids allowed to be in failing schools” when asked about your reasoning for crafting a charter takeover. Yet, the question you ask is the wrong one. Rather, you should have asked, “How long are we as legislators going to continue creating an environment that keeps schools from being successful?”

Anyone objectively looking at what the North Carolina General Assembly has done in the last three years to public education can easily understand that the biggest obstacle in helping schools achieve actually resides in the Legislative Building on West Jones Street in Raleigh. But when you meet frequently behind closed doors, you do not get that objective point of view. You fall in love with your own ideas because you surround yourself with people whose motives are as single-minded as yours.

Any public servant or elected official like you should be willing to surround yourself with those who may disagree with you. That promotes true debate, careful consideration, and the opportunity to appreciate others’ viewpoints.

But when the McClatchy report recounted that you planned “to substitute your bill for another one introduced in February, circumventing a spring deadline for introducing new legislation,” then that’s not just sneaky; it’s devious.

You claim to have talked with the Tennessee governor and those responsible for the Achievement School District. Simply do a “Google” search on ASD in Memphis and you see the polarizing results of Tennessee’s experiment with the charter school takeover. Whether the criticisms are all valid or not, the fact that so much animosity exists begs for there to be more open discussion about the use of charter schools to “takeover” failing schools. And Rep. Bryan, the words “open discussion” never really apply to you when it concerns your phantom bill.

In reading the Oct. 29, 2013 article from The Atlantic entitled “When Outsiders Take Over Schools: Lessons From Memphis”, I noticed that those who praise the ASD’s efforts talked about the smaller classes, more one-on-one teaching, and tighter structure. If those are ingredients for success in turning around schools, then why are you advocating policies that remove class size caps, lower per pupil expenditures, and abolish teaching assistants in the very schools you hope will be taken over?

Other accolades given by parents to the ASD vouched for the dedication of the staff and teachers. Oddly enough, in North Carolina you and other GOP members have abolished due-process rights for new teachers, removed graduate degree pay, and targeted other ways to keep teachers from retiring in the profession in our state. If claiming that failing schools are the result of undedicated teachers, then you may need to consider the fact that current veteran teachers not only withstand government scorn, but work in worsening conditions, and still go out of their way to help all kids. That is the real definition of dedication. And you want to replace these dedicated professionals with unproven and often uncertified replacements?

Another disturbing element to your legislative maneuvering is that your involvement in certain committees in the NCGA suggests an incestuous relationship with all parties who would benefit from charter school takeovers. Just take a look at the list of committee assignments on your profile page on the NCGA website.

You are a chairman of the Education Appropriations Committee that stipulates what monetary resources are given to school districts in the state. You literally control the money. As a member of the Education K-12 committee, you help determine how schools are rated and judged. You literally control how schools are graded. Add to that your vice-chairmanship on the overall state Appropriations Committee as well as voting membership on the Banking, Commerce & Job Development, Elections, and the University Board of Governors Nominating Committees, and it can be deduced that you wield a wide influence on how education and the private market could collaborate.

Yet, what really disturbs me is that you represent an area whose public school district probably suffers from one of the worst teacher shortages in the Southeast – Charlotte/Mecklenburg. So many teachers left the CMS system this past year (some estimate that it was over 1000), that the school system participated in over 50 job fairs according to a May 25th WBTV report. As of last week, over 300 teaching positions were still posted.

Just travel down I-77 to York County, SC and you may see where many of the former CMS teachers are surely making a better salary with more support and without the fear of a corporate, I mean, charter takeover. Even the NC Teacher of the Year chose an advocacy job over returning to your district. That is a direct statement on the eroding conditions that you have helped create in your own backyard.

Last February, I wrote an op-ed concerning the state’s grading system of schools and I closed with an observation that seems even more true now than it did six months ago. Schools provide a great reflection of a society and how it prioritizes education. When our schools are told that they are failing, those with the power to affect change are really the ones who deserve the failing grades.

 

Stuart Egan, NBCT

Public School Teacher

 

Open Letter to Catherine Truitt, senior advisor on education to Gov. Pat McCrory concerning her op-ed on March 25th on EdNC.org.

Dear Ms. Truitt,

I read with great interest and frustration your op-ed that appeared on March 25, 2016 on EdNC.org (“The truth on education spending”) .

While you state that you have been a senior education advisor for Gov. McCrory a “short time,” the arguments that you make to boost Gov. McCrory’s reputation as an advocate for public education have been long overused and are cursory at best. As a teacher in North Carolina for over the last almost 11 years (and 13 of my 18 years as a teacher), I can with certainty state that your arguments only highlight a faint bloom of success, but not the toxic soil that feeds it.

You make several “spun” assertions in your op-ed. Please allow me to respond in hopes that the positives you attempt to point out are actually the opposite and are actually real problems that the governor has helped foster.

  1. The state’s portion of budget to public education.

You state,

“The truth is, total K-12 funding has increased each year of Gov. McCrory’s administration and North Carolina now spends 57 percent of its state budget on education, far higher than the national state average of 46 percent.”

This is the same argument that Rep. Hardister made on Sept, 3rd, 2015 on his blog The Hardister Report (http://jonhardister.blogspot.com/2015/09/public-education-funding-whats-truth.html). He talked of three sources of financing for NC public education – federal, state, and local. You are right; 57percent is far higher than the national average. But that’s because it is supposed to be. The state constitution declares it.

The Public School Forum of North Carolina’s publication the 2014 Local School Finance Study provides a great history of the state’s practice in funding public schooling which is rooted in the proclamation that all children in the state ages 6-21 are guaranteed a good public education. The rest of my explanation to him can be found at this link, http://pulse.ncpolicywatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Letter-to-Hardister.pdf.

However, I do want to point out that before we had a “Republican governor and a Republican-controlled legislature,” the state spent an even higher percentage on public education because THAT IS WHAT THE STATE CONSTITUTION DECLARED. As I stated to Rep. Hardister,

“…those percentages of spending are not a badge of honor that this General Assembly gets to wear; it was earned many decades ago. The fact that the percentage is getting lower actually is not a positive sign for this administration. It is a reflection that the NCGA’s level of commitment to public education is wavering. Since most of the state funding goes to salaries of certified and classified employees, the fact the percentage of funds from the state is not higher than it was in years past is indicative of the stagnated salaries NC gives to teachers and assistants. With the elimination of funds for professional development and talk of cutting numbers of teaching assistants, how can you brag about the level of money spent on public schooling?”

Also lost in this is the uneven fashion in which money from the state is actually dispersed to LEA’s on the county and city levels. One of the more cohesive explanations of North Carolina’s state funding practices is a publication by the Center for American Progress entitled “The Stealth Inequities of School Funding” produced in 2012. It summarizes our state’s practices in a fairly concise manner, especially on page 46.

  1. Teacher Salary.

The statement you make about teacher salary is the most recycled, spun statement used by West Jones Street concerning public education in the last three years. You state,

“Teacher salary raises enacted in 2014 reversed the pay freezes that were enacted under Gov. Beverly Perdue shortly after she took office in 2009. In fact, the 7 percent increase in average teacher salary between the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years was the largest teacher pay raise in the entire nation.”

First, Gov. Perdue and the NCGA at that time (2009) froze salaries and salary schedules because of the GREAT RECESSION. I think almost every business (in every state) froze their salaries; many even lowered them. Less money in people’s pockets, less money in state coffers. I, for one, was grateful to still have a job during that time. But ironically, why didn’t the governor just reinstall the salary schedule that was in effect in 2008 when he came into office after Perdue if he helped to guide us out of the recession? I surely would be making a lot more than now.

Secondly, you use that magic word – “average.” When Brenda Berg, CEO of Best NC made that same claim as a positive for NC, I responded with an explanation that has been made many times by many people. I stated in an August, 2015 open letter printed on EdNC.org (“A teacher weighs in on the war on public education”),

“The operative word here is “average.” Beginning teachers saw an average pay hike of over ten percent, yet the more years a teacher had, the less of a “raise” was given. The result was an AVERAGE hike of 6.9 percent, but it was not an even distribution. In fact, some veterans saw a reduction in annual pay because much of the “raise” was funded with what used to be longevity pay. And as a teacher who has been in North Carolina for these past ten years, I can with certainty tell you that my salary has not increased by 6.9 percent.

Mr. Hogan’s (James Hogan) claim that there was only an average salary increase of $270 comes when one takes the actual money allocated in the budget for the increase and dividing that evenly across the board.

That raise you refer to was funded in part by eliminating teachers’ longevity pay. Like an annual bonus, all state employees receive it—except, now, for teachers—as a reward for continued service. Yet the budget you mentioned simply rolled that longevity money into teachers’ salaries and labeled it as a raise. “

Your claim here, Ms. Truitt, is simply using that same “average bear” technique.

  1. Technology

You state that the governor is championing “transformational measures” to make NC’s schools the best in the nation. You state,

“For example, North Carolina is on track to be the first state in the country to connect every classroom to high speed wireless Internet. This development will enable a wide range of personalized learning applications for all North Carolina children and has the potential to transform the way students learn.”

Interestingly enough, when politicians talk of personalized learning through technology, this veteran teacher (and many others) hears that you want to make the learning experience more virtual than realistic, specifically through virtual charters and academies.

I do understand that many students have circumstances where technology can help alleviate problems and open avenues for learning. My own son, who happens to have Down Syndrome, is a very visual learner. Technology has been huge for him when it is facilitated by a professional educator. However, when you put in technology for technology’s sake (with an already biased “positive” view of for-profit virtual schools), then your claim seems more like a plug for buying more computers and software and divesting from the human capital that really drives the dynamic learning experience – the student/teacher relationship.

  1. Teacher / Student ratios

You state,

“The budget he signed provides funds to reduce class size in first grade to one teacher per 16 students by 2016-17. He also signed legislation that will dramatically increase access to summer reading camps to ensure every student achieves the needed literacy by third grade.”

Let me refer to the Allotment Policy Handbook FY 2013-14 on guidelines for maximum class size for all classes. There is a table from p.26 that gives some guide lines to students per classroom. However, local authorities can extend those class sizes if there is a need in their eyes. If you look on the very next page of the same handbook there is a reference to the use of provisions according to HB112.

That bill referred to, HB112, allowed the state to remove class size requirements while still allowing monies from the state to be allocated based on the previous table’s numbers. And that’s huge! I rarely have a class that is at or below 29 students. Some classes on my campus push upwards to 40 students.

Another detail to emphasize is the change that some districts have taken to move away from the 6/7 period day to block scheduling. Take my own district for example, the Winston-Salem / Forsyth County Schools. When I started ten years ago, I taught five classes with a cap of 30 students. With the block system in place, I now teach six classes in a school year with no cap. The math is simple: more students per teacher.

So, you claim that putting a cap on class size for one of the twelve grades is a positive? My own son’s class for developmentally delayed children has well over a dozen students in it. Would the governor help cap those classes as well to help in those situations? I will partially believe it when my son’s teacher sees it. I will fully believe it when all classes have caps.

            5. Opportunity Grants

You stated,

“In 2014, the governor increased choice for low income parents by enacting the Opportunity Scholarship that provides financial assistance for alternative schooling for students who are not succeeding in a traditional school setting.”

Allow me to use the explanation I offered in a recent Winston-Salem Journal op-ed I wrote in February (“Defending public education”) against the use of Opportunity Grants which at a maximum of $4800 does not even cover one semester in a competitive, private school that can reject any applicant without explanation. I stated,

“One can argue that the Opportunity Grants can help alleviate high tuition costs, but if the grants are targeted for lower income students, then how can those families even think about allotting their already limited funds for a private education, especially when NC has refused to expand Medicaid services for many who would qualify to obtain an Opportunity Grant? That’s not really giving families choices.

If you scroll down on the North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority website for the Opportunity Scholarship and click on the link called “Current List of Nonpublic Schools”, you will find a list of schools participating in the grant program. Notice a vast majority of those schools have religious affiliations. Ironically, many of those schools are already supported by churches that do not have to pay taxes. And now those entities are getting more taxpayer money to support curricula and processes that are not even regulated like those of public schools?”

Furthermore, if you think that it is necessary for funds to be given to people to get them a good education, then why not invest that very money in the very public schools you are constitutionally supposed to support to help those very students succeed in their public schools?

            6. 21st Century Skills

You stated,

“Gov. McCrory recognizes the role the state’s community colleges play in giving North Carolina citizens the skills they need to prosper in a 21st century economy.”

First, it helps that we have a strong public school system that gives a strong foundation of learning and academic skills for those who enter the community college classrooms. But there has to be jobs for these citizens to use their skills.

Look at the list of businesses, companies, and corporations that have disavowed the governor’s signing of HB2, the most discriminatory piece of legislation in recent memory which ironically was signed merely hours before your op-ed was published on EdNC.org.

Too bad that the very citizens the governor is claiming to help train for the 21st century economy will not have companies that are willing to relocate and start here or even continue to do business with the state. That’s because 21st century economies do not work well with Jim Crow-style, bigoted climates that the governor promotes.

This is an election year, Ms. Truitt. Your boss is embarking on a re-election campaign that daily is coming under fire for his very lack of leadership. As teachers and voters, we need to be able to see substance to your arguments, not airy claims.

Stuart Egan, NBCT
West Forsyth High School

Amorphous Terms – How something undefined defines North Carolina public education

To say that public education in North Carolina will be a focal point in this year’s state elections is an understatement.

Consider that when the NC General Assembly reconvenes, there will be many who seek to advance privatization of the public schools and present legislation to further weaken public schools. Rep. Rob Bryan has pushed for Achievement School districts. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest has touted charter schools. Rep. Paul Stam has openly suggested merit pay.

Those who seek to “reform” will all use numbers and figures that portray student achievement in public schools as lagging. They may talk of low student test scores and graduation rates that are not high enough. They may talk about school performance grades and teacher evaluations.  Yet their arguments rely mostly on hazy premises and vague assumptions.

That is because when speaking of “student test scores”, “student achievement”, and “graduation rates”, you are speaking about three of the most nebulous terms in public education today. And while I applaud anyone who wants to improve student outcomes, one must be willing to see how each of those terms can be defined with political spin by those who want to paint public education in a certain light to further a political agenda.

When speaking of “test scores”, we need to agree about which test scores we are referring to and if they have relevance to the actual curriculum. Since the early 2000’s we have endured No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top initiatives that have flooded our public schools with mandatory testing that never really precisely showed how students achieved.

In my years as a North Carolina teacher (1997-1999, 2005-2015), I have endured the Standard Course of Study, the NC ABC’s, AYP’s, and Common Core. Each initiative has been replaced by a supposedly better curricular path that allegedly makes all previous curriculum standards inferior and obsolete. And with each of these initiatives comes new tests that are graded differently than previous ones and are “converted” into data points to rank student achievement and teacher effectiveness.

There seems to be no consensus and continuity in what tests effectively and consistently measure “student achievement” over time. That does not even begin to cover the amount of local assessments that have been created to measure how well students might perform on ever-changing state and national tests. It almost boggles the mind to see how much instructional time is lost just administering local tests to see how students may perform on state tests that may be declared invalid with new education initiatives. Even as I write, most states are debating on how they may or may not leave behind the Common Core Standards and replace them with their own. Know what that means? Yep. More tests.

This past year, the Council of Great Schools released a bombshell of a report on the negative effects of testing in public schools that so rattled the status quo that even President Obama had to address its findings over the next weekend and amend his stance on standardized testing.

The Washington Post in a story printed on October 24, 2015 entitled “Study says standardized testing is overwhelming nation’s public schools” reported on the Council’s study stating:

 

The study analyzed tests given in 66 urban districts in the 2014-2015 school year. It did not count quizzes or tests created by classroom teachers, and it did not address the amount of time schools devote to test preparation.

 

It portrays a chock-a-block jumble, where tests have been layered upon tests under mandates from Congress, the U.S. Department of Education and state and local governments, many of which the study argues have questionable value to teachers and students. Testing companies that aggressively market new exams also share the blame, the study said.

 

“Everyone is culpable here,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. “You’ve got multiple actors requiring, urging and encouraging a variety of tests for very different reasons that don’t necessarily add up to a clear picture of how our kids are doing. The result is an assessment system that’s not very intelligent and not coherent.”

 

The study also states that many of the tests given are not even aligned with the curriculum standards that are supposed to be measured. With such an emphasis on these tests, can one be really certain that “student achievement” has actually been correctly measured?  And if not, then why are school performance grades and teacher evaluations (especially North Carolina) so reliant on those same tests?

Along with “student test scores” and “student achievement”, “graduation rate” might be one of the most constantly redefined terms in public schools. Does it mean how many students graduate in four years? Five years? At least finish a GED program or a diploma in a community college? Actually, it depends on whom you ask and when you ask. But with the NC State Board of Education’s decision to go to a ten-point grading scale in all high schools instead of the seven-point scale used in many districts, the odds of students passing courses dramatically increased because the bar to pass was set lower. That drastically affects graduation rates.

Add to that, it takes fewer credits to graduate (20-21) than it did 15 years ago (24+), and in many cases students are taking more classes to pass fewer credits because many systems have adopted the block schedule. In fact, most all high school teachers are teaching more classes and more kids because of removed class size caps and overcrowding in schools and altered schedules.

And many want to claim that graduation rates are strictly tied to teacher performance. That’s like redefining what it means to be obese in medical communities by raising the threshold for weight. All of a sudden more people are not considered overweight, but their health does not change and you place all the blame on doctors.

If student achievement and graduation rates rest totally on the shoulders of teachers, then that’s narrow-minded and biased. Other scholarly research continues to point out that there are other influences such as socio-economic factors which affect student outcomes like poverty, health care access, and resources at home. Those are factors that the very politicians in Raleigh who complain about school performance can do something about.

As a veteran teacher, I believe that schools and society are mirror reflections of each other; strong communities help strengthen schools which in turn support communities. Teachers do make a great impact on the lives of students no matter what, but when teachers, parents, communities, and government work in synchronicity with each other, the greatest of impacts happen.

A successful public school system is not a product-driven industry. It is a people-powered process. It is not a test-taking machine, but a community that nurtures skills and promotes responsibility. It does not look solely at test scores from one day in a student’s life, but rather looks at the growth of the student over time. A successful public school system values the student-teacher relationship, not a bottom line defined by non-educators.

In schools that received a “D” or “F” in their performance grades, there are students achieving and strong teachers overcoming obstacles to help students. The teacher who may be attached to low test scores on EOCT’s may in fact have fostered more growth in students than teachers who have high test scores on their evaluations. You do not know unless you investigate, because fuzzy numbers do not always tell the entire story.

You do not have to solely believe what people in Raleigh say about our public schools. All you have to do is visit yourself and see the great work that is done in public schools.

A Pot to Piss in – Open Letter to Rep. Tim Moore and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest

Dear Rep. Moore and Lt. Gov. Forest,

The special legislative session convening on Wednesday, March 23, 2016 is a perfect example of one of the many lessons that I am asked to teach my students each and every year as a public high school English teacher. That lesson is in the use of irony.

The common core standards that ironically you helped place in our schools and are now debating on replacing are specific in teaching irony. Consider these examples:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.11-12.6
Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.8.5.A
Interpret figures of speech (e.g. verbal irony, puns) in context.

One of the greatest teachers I have ever known used to say, “Irony makes the world go round.” Well, it sure is fueling the North Carolina General Assembly’s actions in this short special session, a session which will surely become a wonderful example to use when teaching irony.

There are three basic types of irony we teach in schools: situational, verbal, and dramatic.

Verbal irony is when you say one thing, but mean another. Take for instance your quote, Rep. Moore, on the cost of holding these special sessions of the General Assembly. You were quoted in a Feb. 25th report by Jim Morrill in the Charlotte News and Observer (“NC House speaker weighs special session on Charlotte LGBT ordinance”) as saying, “While special sessions are costly we cannot put a price tag on the safety of women and children.”

Rep. Moore, you are right from an ethical point of view. Nothing is more important than the safety of our loved ones. But where was that sentiment when the General Assembly and the governor decided not to expand Medicaid for many of the very women and children you are alluding to? Maybe many of those very same women look to Planned Parenthood for health and pre-natal support, but you have stated a very strong stance on Planned Parenthood.

You said in an August 2015 statement during the “long” session of the NCGA,

“As we continue the development of our state budget, I will work to include language in the final document that states in no uncertain terms, no state funds will go to organizations that are involved in the reprehensible practice of profiting from the sale of a baby’s remains.”

This very statement was made with the assumption that the videos made by The Center for Medical Progress secretly in Planned Parenthood offices were actually valid. Ironically, those videos were doctored. (Pardon the pun, but we teach the use of puns in school as well).

Even you, Lt. Gov. Forest, use the women and children of our state as a reason for the special session. You stated with Rep. Moore in another report (March 21) by the Charlotte News and Observer’s Jim Morrill ( “NC lawmakers heading for the special session Wednesday”), “We aim to repeal this ordinance before it goes into effect to provide for the privacy and protection of the women and children of our state.”

What you both are really saying is that you are offended that a local government has stepped up to protect rights of some of its citizens without asking you and others in Raleigh first. It seems that you want to exert control over a situation that really does not affect you. Furthermore, it is ironic that the political party to which you both are aligned favors small government and less regulation from a larger government body when the very opposite is occurring here.

 

Want some more irony? This special session deals with Charlotte, the place where Gov. McCrory was a four-time mayor, and a successful one according to him because he was so adept at reaching across the aisle and working with both parties. One would think that that would translate to his current job where he works with both parties to construct legislation that truly benefits women and children. But that sadly is a case of situational irony, when what was expected is totally opposite to what actually happened.

 

Many cities have enacted the same ordinances in defense of the LGBT community as Charlotte, and I have yet to hear how those have caused in those locales the very problems you claim will happen in Charlotte when April 1 comes. This sounds a lot like the need to prevent non-existent voter fraud with a voter ID bill that was enacted. You made the claim that there were problems, but in reality you wanted to make it harder for those who align themselves with the Democratic Party to vote. Isn’t that ironic?

 

The cost of the special session is estimated at $ 42,000 a day. Is that not a little too much for a “fiscally frugal” crowd on the heels of an extra-long summer session that really did not produce a fantastic budget? That’s even more ironic.

 

Yet, perhaps the most ironic aspect of this special session is a wonderful example of dramatic irony, when the audience (in this case the citizens) knows more than the actors on stage (legislators).

 

You say that you are going to protect our women and children, yet most all of us know that behind closed doors on West Jones Street more will be done to further the current General Assembly’s grip on this state during an important election year.

 

You say that you are protecting the public, but history has shown that you will surreptitiously enact more policy that will further damage our state’s health. Even Rob Schofield’s recent March 23 post on NC Policy Watch (“Bathroom bill will be far ranging…”) has a copy of the bill being considered in this special session. And it does not limit itself to the Charlotte ordinance. It is far reaching.

 

When I teach irony, I inform my students that it is not always funny and humorous. In fact, it is many times cruel in nature.

 

And this particular example of irony is definitely cruel, considering that you are stating you are more concerned with where people go to the bathroom when you should consider that too many people in this state do not even have a pot to piss in.