Back to School Series

For most North Carolina public school students, the bell chimed and they will start the school year. The students will return to school this academic year after a summer break where public education discussions seemed to dominate the legislative session, the courtroom and the news.

Here of a few of questions that North Carolina public school students may ask as they return to school:

  • I heard that my teachers got a raise but I hear that it may not be true – did they get a raise or not?
  • Where are my textbooks?
  • I need to take the bus to school – Is it safe?
  • Is it true that vouchers are unconstitutional? Why?
  • I am going to get free lunch even though my parents did not fill out an application – How is that possible?
  • Why does it seem like my school has fewer resources each time I start a new year?
  • Will I still be learning from the Common Core State Standards?

There are many more questions to answer, which is why there will be a Back to School blog series. For the next two weeks, several writers will contribute pieces about what is happening in and to North Carolina public schools.

 

 

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This week, Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan announced that the Department of Education will require states to make a comparison between students with special needs and their counterparts who have not been so-identified.

In the past, the United States Department of Education only asked that schools districts follow timelines and procedures by ensuring that correct paperwork was filed when it came to identifying and serving special needs children. Under those standards, most states and territories were in compliance. The new standards demand more.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) jurisdictions fall in one of four categories Meets Requirements, Needs Assistance, Needs Intervention and Needs Substantial Intervention. The new framework means that only 18 states or territories received the label of Meets Requirements. North Carolina is in the Needs Assistance group.

The importance of ensuring that special needs children receive a quality education should, of course, go without saying. Because students may have special needs does not mean that they should be relegated to classrooms in which they are not educated with the same fervor as their non-special needs classmates. It’s good that Duncan seems to want to advance this cause.

Unfortunately, his plan includes a major flaw in that the measure of proficiency used for both exceptional children and students without special needs under the new standards is a standardized test. Simply put, it is hard to think of any recent educational policy that succeeded based on high-stakes testing. For instance:

  • No Child Left Behind failed because of the unrealistic proposition that there could be 100% proficiency demonstrated through testing.
  • Merit pay” for teachers is based on grades on standardized tests. There is little evidence, however, to show that teachers are more successful in raising test scores because they will receive extra pay.
  • Charter schools become less likely to be the “laboratories of innovation” they were supposed to be because their accountability is measured by the same high-stakes tests that traditional public schools are.
  • North Carolina’s Excellent Public Schools Act (ESPA), which passed in 2012, is rife with problems of high-stakes testing and over-testing – most notably the scheme to retain 3rd grade students who do not show reading proficiency on the End-of-Grade test. Indeed, the “Read to Achieve” section of the (ESPA) sent parents of 3rd graders and students themselves into a frenzy because students were being over-tested by mini-quizzes.

Fortunately, there are better models out there. Even under the flawed North Carolina law, the grades from the quizzes go into a portfolio that can show a child is proficient in reading if they do not pass the 3rd grade test. As noted previously in this space, a portfolio that includes a body of work over time would be the best way to assess and identify children for the services they need.

The students in North Carolina – both exceptional children and those without identified disabilities – should not be subjected to constant testing. All students should have a portfolio that will be evidence of proficiency with a body of work over time. While it is not only admirable but necessary that we investigate whether exceptional children are getting the same level of education as their classmates without identified disabilities, no child is done any favors by being subject to high-stakes standardized tests.

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There is no doubt that ensuring that 3rd graders read at grade level or above is a great goal. The recently revised Read to Achieve section of the Excellent Public Schools Act is North Carolina’s way to carry out that goal. Very much like other education policies that North Carolina has adopted (vouchers, repealing Common Core), Read to Achieve started in other states.

The most damaging part of Read to Achieve is the retention policy, particularly retention based on the results of high-stakes testing. If a 3rd grade student cannot show proficiency in reading, s/he will be left back. There are reams of paper of research that show how detrimental retention is for students. The website for Mecklenburg ACTS, a pro-public education organization contains a lot of information about Read to Achieve as well as the problems with high-stakes testing.

There are things that can be done to make Read to Achieve less punitive.

  • The best idea would be for North Carolina to do what Oklahoma did. Oklahoma repealed the retention section of its law to allow parents and educators to decide if the student should be promoted even if the student did not pass the high-stakes test. Unfortunately, that is unlikely since North Carolina just revised the law.
  • The reading portfolio described in the law should be a body of work over time. The portfolio allows for a student to show evidence of mastery of reading benchmarks. That mastery does not have to be done through testing.
  • Personal Education Plans (PEPs) must be used for struggling students. Students at-risk for failure must be offered interventions to help them succeed and all efforts must be provided free-of-charge, including transportation to and from the activities. It is important to note that PEPs are not just for reading but must be given for every class a student is at-risk of failing.
  • Adequately fund early childhood programs. A Duke study showed that 3rd grade reading scores were raised in jurisdictions with early childhood programs even for students who did not attend the programs. The rising tide of early childhood programs raised all 3rd grade reading boats.

Our youngest children should not fear school because of constant testing. When education is enjoyable, students will achieve. If students are struggling, we need to use all interventions at our disposal. That means having resources like textbooks and teaching assistants. Test anxiety will not bring reading achievement.

Students do not achieve because of copycat laws that punish students. We need to copy things that have already been successful like professionalizing and respecting teachers and treat learning as a lifelong goal not information to pass a high stakes test. Most importantly, students will have better chances at achievement when we not only provide not only reading interventions but intervene to provide adequate healthcare, safe and affordable housing and access to healthy food.

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Today, there are several adults and children in the legislative building wearing T-shirts with the logo of Parents for Educational Freedom of North Carolina and the words “Lift the Cap on Opportunity Scholarships.” It is great when students get to see how government works.

Rather than the excitement of floor debates (although, they would have heard a stirring but constitutionally incorrect speech about vouchers by a legislator last week) or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington filibusters, all students will see are the offices of a part-time citizens’ legislature that does more meeting in caucus than meting out constitutional law.

It just goes to show that like government in operation, the vouchers are not quite what they seem.

For example:

  •  The voucher program violates the state constitution by taking money that is for the exclusive us of public schools to unaccountable private schools. (This would be a great lesson in government that students should learn).
  •  Vouchers are said to help students who are struggling in public schools. Private schools, however, have barriers to admission like entrance exams that can keep a student with academic trouble out of the private school even with a voucher.
  •  Vouchers are supposed to be given to low-income students but the $4,200 voucher is unlikely to provide enough money to attend a quality private school. The parents that are in the legislature today should not have to dig in their pockets to get the free public education that the General Assembly is constitutionally required to provide. (Another lesson in government the students should learn).
  •  Some promoters of vouchers in the General Assembly see the students as if they are commodities. They say that it is cheaper to give them a voucher than it is to educate them in public schools. The students should be offended that the government that is responsible for educating them is trying to do so “on the cheap.”

One can hope that when the students received their T-shirts that they also received a copy of Article IX of the North Carolina Constitution.

Their government should be more concerned with ensuring they will be wearing a gown and cap at graduation rather than lifting the cap on an unconstitutional program.

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May 17, 2014 marks the 60th anniversary of the landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education. There will be and should be much said about whether the United States is fulfilling Brown’s promise of desegregation in public schools and in other areas of society. Many are likely to answer “no” and there is not a lot of opportunity to disagree. Starting with public education, we can see that North Carolina’s recent history is disturbing when the following matters are considered:

  • Halifax County has three school districts, Halifax County Public Schools, Weldon City Schools and Roanoke Rapids Graded School District, which are racially segregated. According the UNC Center for Civil Rights from a report published in 2011, although only “39 percent of the county is White”, Weldon City Schools and Halifax County Public Schools are “both almost 100 percent Non-White” Roanoke Rapids Graded School District “is over 70 percent White.”
  • In 2009, the NAACP filed a Title VI Complaint with the Department of Justice because in the Wayne County Schools Central Attendance District all but four students out of 2,100 were people of color. Students were living in poverty as 94 percent receive free or reduced price lunch.
  • In 2010, a Title VI Complaint was filed with the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights was filed against Wake County Public School System because a new school board jettisoned a socioeconomic diversity plan.

What we know is that the decision in Brown was right. Integration matters. Research tells us the following:

  • Given the segregated housing patterns in Wake County, the socioeconomic achievement gap would have wider but for the diversity policy.
  • A Century Foundation report found that the socioeconomic achievement gap was narrowed because of integrated housing through inclusionary zoning.
  • According a report by the National Coalition on School Diversity (NCSD), minority students that attend integrated schools are more likely to graduate from college and less likely to have involvement in the criminal justice system.
  • Another report from the NCSD found that White students benefit from thought-provoking discussions in class and strengthen their “critical thinking and problem-solving skills.” This leads to higher results in their academic achievement.

There is much more to be said about our state and our country 60 years after, perhaps, the most important decision ever rendered by the Supreme Court of the United States. If the answer to the question if the United States and North Carolina is fulfilling the promise of Brown is “no”, we do know that we have solutions. In public education, one of the clear answers to our problems is diversity.

This post is the first in a periodic series about the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.