Below is the transcript of an open letter I wrote to Mark Johnson almost a year ago when he was running for the office of state superintendent. I revisit it to compare what he has done in office in these seven months on the job to what he claimed he was going to do.
Judge for yourself and see if there is any correlation.
Dear Mr. Johnson,
I read with great interest your essay posted on EdNC.org entitled “Our American Dream” on September 7th. Because you are a member of the school board from my own district and the republican nominee for State Superintendent, I was eager to read/see/hear what might distinguish you from Dr. Atkinson.
I agree that there is a lot to be done to help cure what ails our public education system, and I agree that we should not be reliant on so many tests in order that teachers can do what they are trained to do – teach. I also positively reacted to your stance on allowing local school boards to have more say in how assessment portfolios are conducted and focusing more resources on reading instruction in elementary grades.
However, I did not read much else that gives me as a voter the immediate impetus to rely on you to lead our public schools, specifically your words on student preparedness, the role of poverty, and school funding. In fact, many of the things you say about the current state of education in this op-ed make you seem more like a politician trying to win a race rather than becoming a statewide instructional leader.
You opening paragraph seems to set a tone of blame. You stated,
“Politicians, bureaucrats, and activists are quick to proffer that public education is under assault in North Carolina. They angrily allege attacks on the teaching profession; furiously fight against school choice; and petulantly push back against real reform for our education system. But why is there no comparable outrage that last June, thousands of high school seniors received diplomas despite being woefully unprepared for college or the workforce?”
In truth, many politicians and bureaucrats have engaged in attacks on the public school system and its teachers. Just look at the unregulated growth of charter schools, the rise of Opportunity Grants, and the creation of an ASD district. Look at the removal of due-process rights and graduate pay for new teachers.
Not only am I a teacher, but I am a parent of two children in public schools, a voter in local school board elections, and an activist. I have fought against school choice as it has been defined on West Jones Street with Opportunity Grants and charter schools because it has come at the expense of traditional public schools that still teach a vast majority of our kids.
And I would like to hear what you think real reforms are. Your op-ed would have been a great place to outline (not just mention) some of those reforms.
But your last sentence in that opening paragraph (“But why…), I believe, shows a disconnect between what you believe to be happening and what the truth is.
This past June I wrote an op-ed for EdNC.org entitled “Zero to Fifty” (https://www.ednc.org/2016/06/15/zero-to-fifty/ ) about the policy of some school systems like the one you serve to mandate that students not receive a mark below “50” for a quarter grade no matter their performance in class. A student may never turn in work or refuse to participate, but he/she is guaranteed a “50” as a final grade for a quarter as stipulated by the local school board. That means that you are partly responsible for the very condition you bemoan, especially when you say, “This upsetting list goes on and on while North Carolina education leaders brag that 86 percent of students receive a diploma.”
When the “0 to 50” rule went into effect, it was coupled with the state’s own statute that all schools have a ten-point grading scale. That means that of all of the possible grades a student could receive as a final grade (50 scores points), only 10 of them were failing grades. In essence, the system that you represented on a local level pretty much told teachers that they had to pass students who may have been “woefully unprepared”.
And believe me, we teachers were screaming about it. You could even call it “comparable outrage.”
You also stated, “The education establishment and its political allies have one answer that they have pushed for the past 40 years – more money for more of the same.” First, I need for you to define “same.” In the years I have been in NC, I have been through many curriculum standards, evaluation systems, pay scales, NCLB, Race to the Top, etc. Secondly, who is the educational establishment? The people I see dictate policy in schools on West Jones Street certainly are not the same people who were crafting policy ten years ago. And less than fifteen years ago, North Carolina was considered the best, most progressive public school system in the Southeast. Is that part of the “same” you are referring to?
You also state that “nearly half of all those graduates fail to meet a single readiness benchmark on the ACT, almost half of all graduates who go to community college need to take remedial courses, and many employers say they can’t find good candidates due to a “lack of education credentials.”
Using the ACT might not be the best benchmark for student achievement. North Carolina is one of only thirteen states that requires all students (EC, LEP, etc.) to take that exam which has no impact on their transcripts, provides no feedback in its scores on how to improve student achievement, and is administered on a school day in which other activities and classes take place. Most states only have paying students take the ACT on a Saturday; those students have an investment in the results, hence higher scores.
I agree that “most teachers and school leaders work tirelessly for their students despite the challenges.” But as a teacher I cannot really give credit to lawmakers in Raleigh for seeking much-needed, overdue raises for them. Those “historic” raises are not what they really appear to be, especially in light of countless rebuttals to the contrary such as this from your hometown paper – http://www.journalnow.com/opinion/columnists/stuart-egan-about-those-teacher-salaries-and-raises/article_556420c9-9f7e-5a7b-a7d6-35b8a91e484d.html .
You go on to say,
“But no matter what we pay our educators, the system in which they teach is broken. Until we confront this fact, we limit the potential of our teachers and, sadly, of our students. Ask any educator about how much time they are forced to stop teaching and focus on testing at the command of the NC Department of Public Instruction.”
Placing the entirety of blame in this instance on DPI seems a little narrow-minded. What I hear a lot of teachers talk about are actions done by the legislature such as:
- Elimination of due process rights for new teachers
- Graduate Degree Pay Bumps Removed for new teachers
- Revolving Door of Standardized Tests
- Less Money Spent per Pupil now than before 2008
- Remove Caps on Class Sizes
- Incorporated the Jeb Bush School Grading System that really just shows the effects of poverty
- Cutting Teacher Assistants
- Expanding Opportunity Grants
- Uncontrolled Charter School Growth
- Virtual Schools Run By For-Profit Companies
- Achievement School Districts
- Reduction of Teacher Candidates in Colleges
- Elimination of Teaching Fellows Program
Are you willing to confront those people on West Jones Street?
And speaking of that Jeb Bush School grading system that NC incorporated to designate school performance grades, they really highlight the issue of poverty you allude to in your op-ed. Specifically, you said, “The transformation of our public education system will open true pathways out of poverty.” I would argue that addressing poverty outside of class would help students inside of class as much if not more.
What the state proved with this grading system is that it is ignoring the very students who need the most help—not just in the classroom, but with basic needs such as early childhood programs and health care accessibility. These performance grades also show that schools with smaller class sizes and more individualized instruction are more successful, a fact lawmakers willfully ignore when it comes to funding our schools to avoid overcrowding.
Take a look at the following data maps available on EdNC.org’s Data Dashboard. The first shows a distribution of the school performance grades from 2014-2015. The second shows the number of students who qualify for free and reduced lunches.
If you superimpose them upon each other you will see the strong correlation between poverty and school performance.
Education can help pull people out of poverty. I will not argue that, but attacking poverty at its root sources will do so much to help education because it is a “moral obligation.”
I do not think that what you describe is the fault of the education system alone, and your experience at West Charlotte High School is not unique. Teachers who have taught much longer than your two year tenure, who have taught longer than you have been alive, who trained to be a teacher longer than you were a teacher, who have experienced procedure changes, changes in leadership, changes in curriculum, changes in salaries, and other seismic shifts in policy will probably affirm the idea that schools are a mirror of the society it serves. Other problems exist that education alone cannot remedy, especially when you suggest that we not spend more money.
So, I do agree that “many different challenges face us,” but I cannot “acknowledge the truth that our public education system needs to be transformed” totally when I believe as a veteran teacher that we need to transform our commitment to public education and prioritize that commitment first.