“Blood Done Sign My Name” – Lessons From a Timeless Book That We Still Need to Learn

Blood Done Sign My Name

There are books that I personally recommend to anyone who is looking for a great read.

There are books that I encourage people to read for its social commentary.

There are books that I applaud because of the narrative style.

There are books that continually haunt me.

There are books that reaffirm the fact that I am human.

There are books that speak to parts of me that I have not been introduce to fully yet.

Then there is that rare book that does all of the aforementioned to which I refer back time and again for perspective and to use simultaneously as a mirror and sounding board. Tim Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name is one such book.

The book is anchored by an incident that happened on May 11, 1970 when Henry Marrow, a 23-year black man was killed by three white men on a main street in Oxford, NC. Tyson, who was 10 at the time was the son of a local minister, chronicles not only the events of that spring day, but the aftermath and the struggle to come to grips with a society that bred (and still does) racial equality.

I was born in the summer of 1970 in Alabama. I was raised in a small town in rural Georgia that had its own past and current struggles with race inequity. When I first read Dr. Tyson’s book, I could imagine every detail as if taking place in a running and stunningly vivid motion picture in my head.

I had the honor of hearing Dr. Tyson speak years ago in Winston-Salem in a church one Sunday evening. He spoke from the pulpit about the very issues that were at the heart of his book. I remembered at the time that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once stated that the most segregated hour in America was 11 A.M. on Sundays when church generally convened. However, the church Dr. Tyson was speaking in celebrated all people despite race or income levels. I pass by that church often and think of how that evening years ago was one of the most welcoming times a stranger like me could ever feel.

Afterward, I got to speak with Dr. Tyson, explained to him I was a teacher and that I was using the book as one of the choice reads in my AP English Language and Composition classes. I also wanted him to know that I appreciated the book because it was true and brave to me, but I especially wanted to tell him that his writing about the relationship that his father had with Dr. Tyson and people of the younger generation was truly special. What his father did was be a teacher. What Dr. Tyson did (and still does) is be a teacher.

And we need teachers.

There are many things still happening in today’s world that makes me think of Dr. Tyson’s book and what it can still teach us about looking at our sordid social past and what we should have learned from honest reflection and tenacious honesty.

We live in a state that has gerrymandered its political districts to keep certain voters from being equally heard with their votes.

We live in a state that had an unconstitutional Voter ID law that targeted poor minorities in small rural towns.

We live in a state that refused to expand Medicaid to our most needful citizens.

We live in a state that is suffering greatly from poverty when our legislation brags of a state surplus.

We live in a state where a decentralized privatization of public schools is literally desegregating our schools.

We live in a state that has so much racial inequality.

My fear is that if we do not really learn from our past, then we are not only condemned to repeat it, we are doomed to magnify its effects.

Truthfully, Dr. Tyson’s book is as relevant today as it was when first published.

Blood Done Sign My Name is the kind of work that freezes the present time, takes us back to the past and allows us to compare the two periods in an honest but true fashion. If we are to think that the time between 1970 and 2017 has brought healing to our racial inequality, then we should get out of our boxes a little more.

We need good teachers when it comes to the subject of society, especially one that claims to follow the teachings of Christ, speaks of everyone being equal, and promotes democracy.

Blood Done Sign My Name is a great textbook for that subject.

“Sweetness Follows” – Hopefully

REM

Hopefully, sweetness will follow. All of the “little things” and the bigger events happening in the world today have cast a gloomy haze on our world.

And the response by those who could affect change has added a bitterness to it all.

Hurricane Harvey in Texas. Hurricane Irma in Florida. Hurricane Maria ripping Puerto Rico. Wildfires in California. DACA attacked. ACA being dismantled. Silent protest loudly criticized. Growing income inequality.

That’s just since August. In America, and yes, Puerto Rico is America.

Almost six years ago in January of 2017, NPR’s All Things Considered did a series of interviews with well-known artists and writers about “winter songs” and specific effects those songs had on the featured person.

Thomas Mullen, the novelist, chose to speak about R.E.M.’s “Sweetness Follows.” He stated in his interview,

“It’s a kind of dark and brooding song … I was home from break, it was my junior year, and my family had gone through a major financial reversal that fall,” Mullen says. “My dad’s business had gone under, we’d gone bankrupt, and we’d lost our house. We weren’t sure if it was going to get worse. So when I came back, my family, we spent some time in the old house — you know, boxing up our things — and trying to decide, you know, what are we going to put in storage or in some extended relative’s basement, or what might we take to an antique store or sell in a yard sale” (http://www.npr.org/2012/01/13/145172254/winter-songs-r-e-m-s-dark-and-brooding-sweetness).

Mullen spoke of a “low, fronting cello and spectral organ” that serenaded the short days and extended darkness of the Northeast. Interesting how a “dark and brooding” song with such a distinct sound is so sweet upon the ear. That’s because it is more than the ear listening to it.

While many have never had to confront the reality of what Mullen’s family experienced, we as a society must somehow come to grips that what devastates the reality of others can just as easily devastate us, especially if they are family – the biological one and the extended one.

Mullen mentions some simple but powerful words: “dad,” “our,” “extended relatives.” Stipe sings of a “father,” “mother,” “sister,” and “brother.” Both speak of family.

We all have a family – biological and chosen. When they hurt or are devastated, we feel that same pain, that sense of loss, and perhaps that notion that things will not get better. Then hopefully, sweetness follows.

When so many in our country profess a faith that abides by a “Golden Rule” of doing “unto others as you would have done upon you,” being a “brother’s keeper,” calling fellow churchgoers your church “family,” all while worshipping a heavenly father who looks at us all as his children, it is not a far-fetched conclusion that we have fallen short of what Christ seemed to be preaching.

But those in power advertise such good intentions well on their sleeves (and tweets) with messages of thoughts and prayers that are devoid of actions. One has to look no further than our president whose response to aid for those citizens he supposedly leads has been more bitter than sweet. It’s almost as if some who are supposed to help have intentionally “distanced” themselves by deliberately becoming “blind” and “deaf to the other” while living their “little lives.”

Mullen said of his family’s experience, “You know, I think back to that time, and it was tough, and it was dark, and it was hard for everyone — but we got through it.” While the lives of many people will forever be altered by the natural and man-made disasters they undeservedly endured, they will find a way to get by with or without the help of those in government.

Yet there is no red tape, protocol, or formality involved when it comes to helping those in need with action.

Then hopefully, sweetness will follow.

For all of us.

 

 

Readying to bury your father and your mother
What did you think when you lost another?
I used to wonder, why did you bother?
Distanced from one, blind to the other

Listen here my sister and my brother
What would you care if you lost the other?
I always wonder, why did we bother?
Distanced from one, blind to the other

Oh, but sweetness follows

It’s these little things, they can pull you under
Live your life filled with joy and wonder
I always knew this altogether thunder
Was lost in our little lives

Oh, but sweetness follows
Oh, but sweetness follows

It’s these little things, they can pull you under
Live your life filled with joy and thunder
Yeah, yeah we were altogether
Lost in our little lives

Oh, but sweetness follows
Oh, but sweetness follows

Before We Challenge Books, We Should Be Challenged By Them – In Defense of Being Uncomfortable

 

From WRAL today:

 — “To Kill a Mockingbird” is being removed from a junior-high reading list in a Mississippi school district.

The Sun Herald reports that Biloxi administrators pulled the novel from the 8th-grade curriculum this week. School board vice president Kenny Holloway says the district received complaints that some of the book’s language “makes people uncomfortable.”

Published in 1960, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee deals with racial inequality in a small Alabama town.2

A message on the school’s website says “To Kill A Mockingbird” teaches students that compassion and empathy don’t depend upon race or education. Holloway says other books can teach the same lessons.

The book remains in Biloxi school libraries (http://www.wral.com/district-erases-to-kill-a-mockingbird-from-lesson-plan/17014187/). 

And it reminded me of a post I had last year from December. My view has not changed.

From that post:

News that a Virginia school district recently pulled its copies of To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from all of its classrooms and school libraries is another disturbing sign of what might be part of what divides America so much as evidenced by the recent presidential election: the fear of being challenged by what others have to say.

Of course, I am biased on the issue of banning books and removing them from circulation in libraries in schools based on the concerns of one or a couple of parents. I am a high school English teacher who teaches AP classes. It infringes on censorship in my mind, especially if that book has been a staple in American schools for quite a while such as Harper Lee’s classic and Twain’s iconic work.

Now, that does not mean that I want all students to read Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth or Lolita by Nabokov, but great literature is meant to be an exploration of sorts into the perspective of society in which the book was written.

It’s sort of like an archeological dig into the past that allows us to experience how society viewed itself, viewed others, and what society held dear. It also teaches us how we have changed, whether for the better or for the worse. Great literature is meant to challenge us on a variety of levels.

  • If you want to read how the Industrial Revolution and the rise of cities began to change the nuclear family, then read Dickens.
  • If you want to see how the rise of the atomic age and Communism changed our perception as a society, then read Bradbury, Huxley, or Orwell.
  • If you want to see how the role of women in society has been more of a battle for equality than we would like to admit as a country, then read Chopin and then pick up some Atwood.

Great social movements tend to be preceded by works of literature and music that allow for ideas of thought and emotion to be expressed and take root. Look at the Harlem Renaissance and the subsequent Civil Rights Movement. Less than half a century after the Civil Rights Act, we elected our first minority president.

Ironically, one parent in Randolph County, NC complained about Invisible Man, arguably the most famous novel from the Harlem Renaissance. The school board removed it from the schools for a short while. From NPR.org:

“A North Carolina county voted this week to ban Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man from school libraries. The Asheboro Courier-Tribune reports that the decision followed a complaint from a parent, who called the novel “too much for teenagers.” The decision was 5-2, with one board member claiming, “I didn’t find any literary value.” The 1952 novel, which won the National Book Award, is among the most famous novels dealing with black identity — and black invisibility — in America. The famous opening lines of the novel read, “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me” (http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2013/09/20/224360854/book-news-north-carolina-county-bans-the-invisible-man ) .

My first argument is if the book itself is too much for teenagers, then teenagers are in for a rude awakening when they as teenagers go off on their own in the world of college or the work force.

However, my second inclination is to ask the parent and that school board member who made the comment about literary value of Ellison’s work if either had actually read the book.

And allowed the book to challenge him/her.

Great literature teaches us about ourselves, especially the parts of ourselves that we do not want to acknowledge but that control how we perceive others and how we treat others. And in a nation where many hold the Second Amendment and guns with as much fervor as it does the Bible (which by the way is one of the most challenged books in the country), should we not also look at the First Amendment and its protection of the freedom of speech as dearly?

The very man who is about to be president of the United States freely exercises his right for freedom of speech through his Twitter account. He exercises that right because he can. But he uses that right because he refuses to be challenged. With his cabinet picks and his steadfast adherence to picking billionaire donors for cabinet positions, Trump is assimilating the whitest, most financially elite, and ultimately most homogeneous cabinet in modern history.

I think part of the reason is that he doesn’t read. And what I mean by that is that he does not allow himself to be challenged by the words, the actions, the viewpoints, and the events that have shaped this country. In fact, when he “writes” his books, he has someone do it for him.

Speaking of challenges:

In my home state of Georgia, the State Supreme Court ruled in that the Harry Potter books could stay in schools after a very heated challenge by a parent in 2007.  From www.today.com:

The adventures of boy wizard Harry Potter can stay in Gwinnett County school libraries, despite a mother’s objections, a judge ruled Tuesday.

Laura Mallory, who argued the popular fiction series is an attempt to indoctrinate children in witchcraft, said she still wants the best-selling books removed and may take her case to federal court.

“I maybe need a whole new case from the ground up,” Mallory said. The woman, who said two of her four children attend public schools in the county, was not represented by an attorney at the hearing.

The ruling by Superior Judge Ronnie Batchelor upheld a decision by the Georgia Board of Education, which had supported local school officials.

County school board members have said the books are good tools to encourage children to read and to spark creativity and imagination.

Rumor is that she had never read the books. If that is true, she was never challenged by them.

Take a look at this report from a 2013 issue of The Week entitled “America’s most surprising banned books” (http://theweek.com/articles/459795/americas-most-surprising-banned-books).

It includes: Tarzan, the DictionaryCharlotte’s Web, Anne Frank’s account of her hiding, The Lorax, “Little Red Riding Hood”, Eric Carle’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and Twelfth Night by Shakespeare.

Yep, you need to read it. And if you are going to challenge works of literature based on sexual imagery, then that would eliminate almost all of Shakespeare except Julius Caesar, but that has people washing the hands in the blood of a murder victim, soothsayers, and talking ghosts.

Now back to the recent Virginia case. A recent Washington Post article explained:

In response to a formal complaint from a parent, Accomack County Public Schools Superintendent Chris Holland said the district has appointed a committee to recommend whether the books should remain in the curriculum and stay in school libraries. District policy calls for the formation of the committee — which can include a principal, teachers and parents — when a parent formally files a complaint.

The parent, Marie Rothstein-Williams, made an emotional plea at a school board meeting Nov. 15, saying the works had disturbed her teenage son, a biracial student at Nandua High School on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

“I’m not disputing this is great literature,” Rothstein-Williams said. “But there is so much racial slurs in there and offensive wording that you can’t get past that, and right now we are a nation divided as it is.”

She’s right. We are a divided nation. But I would like to know if she herself has read the book. I would like to know if before she challenged the book, she allowed herself to be challenged by it.

And if a school system is willing to remove a book from access to all students based on the complaint of one parent, doesn’t that create more division?

And as the lady in the previous quote who is challenging Huck Finn said, she is not disputing that it is “great literature.”

Makes me wonder if she has ever read it and discussed it with her child.

Why Service Work Matters For High Schoolers And the Rest of US

October 15th is rapidly approaching and I am busy rereading drafts of recommendations for those students who have deadlines for early decision applications and scholarship awards. This year, most early decision recs are being sent to UNC-Chapel Hill, my wife’s alma mater. Some to App State’s Honors College. A couple to USC in Columbia. One to my beloved Wake Forest.

I am also honored to write a few for Morehead-Cain and Park scholarship consideration.

A transcript can say many things about academic achievement and course work mastered. Test scores can be sent easily. Numbers can be measured against other numbers.

So, when I write a recommendation I try and write about what kind of service work a student may have performed. It helps paint a better picture of a student and an even better image of a person who is committed to community.

This past month, West Forsyth played host again to the Piedmont Down Syndrome Support Network’s Buddy Walk. It is the biggest event of the year and its most vital fundraiser. In the years that it has occurred at West, nearly $400,000 has been raised to help families of children with special needs, specifically Down Syndrome. I am in one of those families. My son, Malcolm, happens to be “genetically enhanced.”

I get to recruit the student volunteers for this big day, and literally about an hour ago I looked at the volunteer sign-up sheet. Almost 250 students from West volunteered and came to help.

250.

That’s nearly ten percent of the student body came out to help other people.

Our country talks of deficits, usually in quantifiable ways like money and materials and even time. However, the biggest deficit I believe we have as a country is a deficit of empathy. We simply have forgotten to empathize and put ourselves in the shoes of others.

But when you see as a teacher, parent, taxpayer, voter, and concerned citizen over 200 students from one school going out of their way on a Saturday morning to help some families like mine with some special kids, then you see how that deficit can quickly be eliminated.

I will write about that all day long on a recommendation because service work matters to us as a society. We never know when we will need it for ourselves.

Just tonight West had a fundraiser for two adopted schools in Texas and Florida drastically affected by recent hurricanes. Students wanted to help other students. In a span of about two hours, a bunch of students raised several hundred dollars for some other students because they wanted other school families to be able to stay together the way these kids bonded with each other tonight.

It would take several hands with many fingers to count all the ways that students in many high schools are performing service work that is not necessarily documented on some time sheet to fulfill a requirement that might make a college application look good.

If a student cares about his/her community, then that student will find a way to help. That action to help creates a bond and whittles away at the deficit of empathy. It creates community. And it shows that we adults could learn a lot from these students.

In fact, we need that desperately.

That and it makes writing a lot of these recs so much easier.

(I)ntruding on (S)chools (D)eliberately – Why There is Nothing Innovative About NC’s ISD Reform

Last week’s State Board of Education meeting saw a potential list of schools to be considered for the new NC Innovation School District whittled down to four.

The ISD Superintendent, Dr. Eric Hall, made his presentation to the SBOE answering questions and doing what he is expected to do: his job. And to all accounts that favor the use of the ISD, he has been doing well.

But no matter how “well” he is doing his job, it still does not cover the grossly intrusive nature and the glaring apparent contradiction that is North Carolina’s version of the “Achievement School District.”

This has been tried before in other states, most recently and most notably in Tennessee. Simply “google” Tennessee’s experiment to quickly find how unsuccessful that initiative was. State leaders who championed the use of the ASD here promised that it would be different in our state because, well, because….

If one looks at the time-line, the care, the money, and the soft kid gloves used to handle the selection of schools, then one can easily see that NC’s version of instituting an ASD really shows how North Carolina’s General Assembly and SBOE have weakened public schools. It almost seems that if any institution needs to be taken over because of its performance, then it would be a certain building on West Jones Street.

Consider the following:

  1. The word “innovative.”

Shakespeare had his famous Juliet say, “…a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Simply changing the name from ASD to ISD does not automatically alter the outcome. It still smells as “sweet” or in this case, pungent.

Handing over community schools to charter control is simply not innovative. It’s privatization. Looking to “for-profit” charter chains to bring “new ideas” when the very constraints that are holding back many of these “low-achieving” schools could be remedied by better treatment from Raleigh to the very populations that feed these schools is not innovative. It’s creating a situation that gives the appearance of a need from outside sources so that someone may profit.

  1. The State Superintendent’s mantra of “local control.”

If the control for power for NC’s public schools goes in favor of the NCGA and Mark Johnson, then Johnson will have control over the ISD. Yet, is it not Johnson who ran a platform that emphasized local control of schools? From an interview with WUNC in May of this year (http://wunc.org/post/qa-nc-superintendent-wants-give-schools-flexibility#stream/0):

“ But there is the distrust between people in Raleigh and out in the local school districts of whether or not that may be happening.”

“This department in Raleigh needs to be a place that is seen as a department that supports schools in the local districts, not tells schools what to do. “

With this particular “innovation,” what Raleigh is actually doing is telling systems what to do. Leaders may be saying that schools have a say in whether they want to be a part of the ISD, but look what happens if schools who are chosen for the ISD refuse to become part of the ISD – close down.

From WRAL on Sept. 18th:

“Once the state board selects a school for inclusion in the ISD, the local board of education that runs the school has two options – agree to relinquish control of the school or close it down” (http://www.wral.com/durham-johnston-schools-ask-to-be-excluded-from-nc-s-new-innovative-school-district/16948299/).

That’s not local control. That’s overreach.

  1. No one wants to be a part of it.

There is no indication that any single school on the list of prospective schools to be taken over by the Innovative School District wants to be a part of it.

Not one.

Again, not one – even after meeting with officials representing the ISD.

  1. Possible one school district?

After last week’s meeting with the State Board, it became apparent that it might be possible that the NC ISD has for the first year only one-school.

That’s a one-school district with one superintendent making $150,000 to run it with the unwavering support of the state superintendent, the state board, and the General Assembly. That school district will get every resource possible to make it work.

Imagine if every school in the state got that kind of support.

  1. Proving that poverty affects schools.

Alex Granados from EdNC.org this past Thursday published a report entitled “List of schools eligible for ISD cut to four.”

In it he articulated the selection process for the ISD school list.

Originally, he said he had a list of 48 schools based on the criteria set out in legislation. First, his team removed all schools that had school improvement grants which might be affected by joining the ISD. 

“We removed those schools because we know that they’re on a path, and they have additional resources, and we don’t want to see anything happen to those resources,” he said. 

That brought the number down to 41. Then his team removed all D schools, leaving them with only the F schools. Then they removed all F schools that met academic growth last year. 

“If they met growth, the hope is that the needle is going to start moving in the right direction,” he said. 

That left him with only F schools that did not meet growth last year. Then his team looked at the two years prior to last year. If the schools had met growth in those two years and also had a D, he said his team gave them the benefit of the doubt. 

Finally, they looked at the schools in the districts where 35 percent or more of the schools qualify as low performing. Those are the districts where all the schools could join the innovation zone if a school was chosen for the ISD. That brought the list down to six schools, two of which were removed at the meeting (https://www.ednc.org/2017/10/05/list-schools-eligible-isd-cut-four/).

If ever there was a correlation to poverty and student achievement, this list shows it because these schools were measured by the Jeb-Bush style grading system that literally shows that most every school which has an “F” school performance grade is one that services a population with high levels of poverty.

Even DPI’s recent report on school report cards grades and poverty yielded the following graph:

poverty table

DPI is run by Mark Johnson who is controlled by the General Assembly and may soon have control over the ISD process. That’s the same General Assembly which brags about a state surplus while lowering per pupil expenditure, expanding vouchers, and refusing to expand Medicaid. Oh, and they cut DPI’s budget drastically without the state superintendent fighting it.

That’s not innovation. It’s proof that the Innovative School District is yet another attempt at weakening the ties between the community and its schools to create a veiled appearance that the state needs to step in and do something that will profit someone else.

The State Superintendent and the Elephant in the Room – Mark Johnson’s Refusal to Drive the Bus

State Superintendent Mark Johnson has mentioned many times that he draws upon his “years” of teaching as casting perspective in his new role as the leader of the public schools.

And as an “instructional leader,” he should know that questions asked in any “class” should be answered in a straightforward manner with honesty and integrity.

That is what makes the situation that occurred in his October monthly report to the State Board of Education so unsettling and disturbing.

The exchange between Greg Alcorn and Johnson after the presentation definitively displayed how unqualified Johnson truly is in leading the state’s school system. Why? Because Johnson is not acting like a real teacher.

From WRAL’s report entitled “State board member asks NC superintendent to address ‘the elephant in the room,’”

But after 11 minutes of good news stories from the superintendent, state board member Greg Alcorn wanted more.

“I appreciate the good news, but the elephant in the room is the budget cuts,” Alcorn said.

“I’d like to request, Superintendent Johnson, that if possible next month you put a couple things on your presentation that will help us with our clarity and consistency of message,” Alcorn said. “One is the budget cuts and how we’re handling that from your perspective, being able to hear as much as we can on that.”

Alcorn explained that the board also wanted to hear the superintendent’s thoughts on principal pay and how state lawmakers are handling that topic.

“You’re the face and the voice for the state … and I would encourage you to take this precious time to be able to support those two things so I can be in unison with you,” Alcorn added. “Please help us with that.”

Johnson listened quietly, then pulled his microphone in close.

“Yeah. Thank you for that feedback. I’m sure you’ll make the same request of Chairman Cobey for his (monthly) report,” Johnson said, and pushed the microphone away, ending the conversation (http://www.wral.com/state-board-member-asks-nc-superintendent-to-address-the-elephant-in-the-room-/16996539/).

If Mark Johnson was a real teacher, then he would address any “elephant” in his classroom because it is disturbing the progress of the class. In fact, addressing elephants in the room is the job of any teacher because of the “urgency” involved.

When you choose to become a teacher in a public school, you choose to be the person to whom the toughest of questions are asked inside of a classroom setting. And the answers a teacher gives to inquiries concerning the curriculum, the climate of a class, or the actions of a student will always be heard, especially the ones that are not given but are dismissive.

Furthermore, in this day and age, those answers may be communicated quickly to others through social media and technology, hence this report.

Imagine having a student challenge an answer in class or a point of view. A real teacher offers an answer and acknowledges the questions asked.

Johnson once chose to become a teacher. Then he chose to become the leader of schools, at least in name. But this episode says that he again chooses not to lead by action.

Earlier in that meeting he even presented a picture of himself as the person in the driver’s seat of a bus.

Johnson bus

He even jokingly said, “”For some reason, they let me get behind the driver wheel. Luckily, the bus was not turned on.”

Yet, as the metaphorical driver of the entire school system’s bus, he is responsible for the upkeep, maintenance, running, and financing of the “bus.” When he is asked if the “bus” has enough “gas” to make all of the “stops,” he needs to answer. Urgently. But yet….

What Johnson did was to purposefully not answer the question. It’s like the teacher who deliberately ignores a student’s request or inquiry because it might expose a lack of preparation in the lesson planning.

So why does Johnson do this? Because he refuses to acknowledge the elephant in the room.

It is not what a real teacher would do. It’s not what a real leader would do. It’s not what someone elected to state office should do.

 

We Should Not Allow the ACT to Have This Much Power Over Our Schools

Almost to the day two years ago, an extended editorial appeared in newspapers across North Carolina concerning public education. I happened to read it in the Winston-Salem Journal.

It was written by Walter McDowell, a board member of BEST NC. McDowell, a former executive with Wachovia, talked of the dire need to transform education in North Carolina. You can read that op-ed here: http://www.journalnow.com/opinion/columnists/walter-mcdowell-n-c-budget-a-missed-opportunity-to-transform/article_38dd2903-b54c-57aa-a47f-fa82aea992b7.html.

In short, McDowell told the state it had a huge problem and that his consortium, BEST NC, was mapping a way for our transformation. He called it “Excellence: North Carolina’s Education Vision.”

“Recently, Excellence: North Carolina’s Education Vision was launched. It was developed with input and collaboration from education, business and policy leaders from across the state. Excellence outlines a shared vision to make North Carolina’s education system the best in the nation by 2030.

Inspired by this vision and the important work of our educators, the 115 business leaders who compose BEST NC will continue to work with the education community, the governor and the General Assembly on high-yield investments and systemic strategies that will dramatically improve students’ educational experiences in our state. It is our hope that our elected leaders see from this report that elevating educators must be at the top of the list in those discussions.”

It is always nice to think that we educators are being “lifted” in the eyes of the public, but McDowell used as one of the measures to qualify our state’s dire circumstances the state’s average ACT scores.

He said,

“Then, shortly before the budget passed, North Carolina received news that we are still last in the nation in college and career readiness as measured by the ACT exam. There could be no greater urgency in North Carolina than solving this education crisis.”

I responded to McDowell’s argument with a rebuttal. It was published in the 10/17/15 edition of the Winston-Salem Journal. Specifically, I responded to the use of the ACT as the barometer of the entire health of the NC education system. I argued,

“North Carolina is one of only 13 states (in 2015) 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 on 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” (http://www.journalnow.com/opinion/columnists/stuart-egan-judging-schools-by-an-unfair-standard/article_0aa55234-8b82-5713-8114-65bc43e80eb1.html).

But now in the coming year, the ACT is about to become the most “important test” that will be given in all of North Carolina high schools. That is thanks to CCRGAP, or the Career and College Ready Graduate Alignment Partnership.

It cannot be helped that taking out a “C” and the “G” from the acronym gives us “CRAP” was not noticed.

According to Section 10.13 of S.L. 2015-241 (and a presentation found created by the NC Community Colleges),

ACT1

What this is saying is that if any high school junior does not make a certain score on the ACT (or its particular subject areas), then they must go through remediation during their senior year using a curriculum chosen/designed by a local community college but delivered by the high school teachers within already prescribed core courses.

In short, teachers would have to take time in their already crowded and time-constrained classes to deliver more curriculum.  No extra time will be given. Curriculum standards for the actual classes still have to be met. Why? Because there will be a test for them.

Debate over what scores will be the threshold for whether a student must be remediated maybe just starting. What was reported to this teacher in a professional development workshop was the following:

GPA of 2.6 -or- 18 on English and 22 on Reading (tentative)

If you don’t know how an ACT score is broken down, then:

ACT

You can access that chart here: https://www.princetonreview.com/college-advice/act-score-chart.

What CCGRAP (as told to my school system’s English teachers) is saying is that all students must get at least 40 or 41 of 75 questions on the English section correct and 26 of 40 questions correct on the language portion to avoid remediation.

I have not even mentioned what happens with math.

That’s a high bar for all students. I repeat, a high bar. If you do not think so, then take the test yourself in a controlled situation. For students in North Carolina public schools, that administration will happen on a school day when they have other classes. Of course, many will succeed, but we are talking ALL students.

However, according to some sources, students can escape remediation if they have a high enough GPA. But some administrators have reported being told that it is not an “OR” but an “AND” when it pertains to ACT scores and GPA requirements.

The ACT just got a lot of power over our students.

Interestingly enough, State Superintendent Mark Johnson just delivered an interview with EdNC.org and WRAL. In it he talked about “teaching high school students that college is not the only path to success” (https://www.ednc.org/2017/09/27/fighting-status-quo-inside-combative-world-ncs-new-public-schools-chief/).

But we’re about to let the ACT, a college-ready testing tool, determine the lot of all students during their junior year.

Yes, the ACT is considered a test of knowledge and how much a student has learned. But many studies do show that the ACT is as flawed in being concretely certain in a student’s ability to do well in college as the SAT. In fact, many studies show that grades and GPA are a better indicator than standardized tests. Here is some fodder on that: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/nail-biting-standardized-testing-may-miss-mark-college-students/.

Also, ACT scores seem to have a greater correlation to students’ household income levels. Consider the following:

ACT3

That’s from a Huffington Post report. Yes, it’s a left-leaning publication, but it is using only data points here that are really hard to refute (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/18/act-score-family-income_n_5600065.html).

We have in NC another rather good indicator of the effect of poverty in public schools. It’s called the School Performance Grade. The correlation between schools that scored “D” or “F” and high poverty levels is astounding.

The state of North Carolina pays for the administration of the ACT to all high school juniors during valuable class time on a regular school day. That’s a lot of money going to ACT. Furthermore, classroom teachers are having to administer the ACT as well as play “catch-up” with students because of the missed class time.

Let’s go further than that. If a student does not get a high enough score, that student will then have to be remediated with a curriculum designed by someone else by that a teacher who possibly gave the ACT and lost class time because of it who still has to teach the already prescribed curriculum to a large number of students in the same class period and classroom.

Oh, and DPI just had their budget slashed by the General Assembly.

Oh, and we have lower per-pupil expenditures now than we did in the past when adjusted for inflation.

  • So, what does our State Superintendent Mark Johnson say about this in regards to his platform of less standardized testing?
  • Is this what Walter McDowell and BEST NC had in mind?
  • Is this really what we want for our students and schools?

Those are not rhetorical questions.