Perdue’s New Education Agenda – Ready, Set, Show Me the Details.

Governor Perdue’s announcement of her new education agenda today was full of sleeve rolling and big ambitions: get every child ready for school, get them graduating high school, get them to graduate without needing remedial education if they go to community college, get them ready for college, community college, technical training or a genuine career, get them through college.

It was heady stuff, delivered in Perdue’s down-home on-the-front-porch style. But in contrast to the lofty ambitions, the policy agenda was far more modest reflecting modest budget times.

The agenda was also short on specifics. That we understand, will come later. But from what we saw today, three aspects of pre-K-12 education appear to become focal points in the next three years.

First, it looks like there will be a renewed effort to improve continual assessment and learning diagnostics, especially in the early grades. This is a very welcome development since it will further a major policy ambition, to ensure that children by the end of third grade can read, write and perform basic math (the ‘Ready’). This goal is so vital it is a wonder it has not been a drumbeat of every education Governor. After all, North Carolina has had plenty of those.

In the later grades, diagnosis and assessment will focus on college and community-college readiness. The goal is to to reduce the large expenditure at the community college level on so-called developmental education. Ensuring that students are learning skills in high school essential for post-secondary learning will keep them out of the community college remediation courses that often suck the will to succeed from struggling students, not to mention student loan dollars.

Second, there appears to be moves to tinker with school curriculum. The buzz concepts are alignment – making sure subject material and learnt skills in earlier grades leads seamlessly into subject material and skill acquisition in later grades to create a ladder, in theory, that leads students to post-secondary education – and standards. The details are most critical here. Put together, the diagnosis and assessment changes in the later school years plus the curriculum reforms are the ‘Go’.

Finally, and in a nod to the goal of increasing pass rates on end-of-year tests (the ‘Set’), it appears likely that the Governor’s next budget will have some kind of incentive program to attract better quality teachers to hard-to-staff schools and into subject areas with qualified teacher shortages. This means getting more qualified, experienced teachers into schools with high percentages of students from low-income and poor families or into smaller rural schools. It also means offering salaries that are capable of attracting science and math college grads into teaching. In addition, more emphasis on school principal professional development looks likely.

Enhancing teacher and school principal quality in order to boost the learning of low-income and poor children is a completely laudable policy approach, much discussed and approved by writers of all political stripes nation-wide. But unlike the first two focal areas which can be kick-started with a big one-time injection of funds (including Race to the Top dollars), this approach needs to show the money and keep showing it year after year. It also needs to be very well-designed. We await more details. A brief incent scheme early in the 2000s that may or may not be a potential blueprint for Perdue worked well before it was yanked all-too-soon.

If done well, today’s fairly technocratic policy agenda could be a money saver – less students repeating classes and less expenditure on remediation at all levels of the education system. Whether it lifts the graduation rate by the ten percent the Governor seeks is another matter entirely.

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