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Scott RallsIn an interview with NC Policy Watch, Scott Ralls, president of the North Carolina Community College System, talks about various efforts underway to address the system’s 65 percent remediation rate and ensure more students end up with the credential they need to either enter the workforce or attend a four-year university.

NC Policy Watch: Why is the remediation rate so high?

Ralls: I think there are a variety of reasons. One of which is the lack of connections. … We were doing lots of assessments in public schools and in high school, and then students were coming to us, and we were giving them entirely different assessments. We weren’t really using the same language, and we weren’t necessarily making the types of connections that needed to be made to help address those issues earlier on for students.

NC Policy Watch: The K-12 system is developing a transitional remediation course for high schools students. What do you think of that?

Ralls: I think it’s a very important step. … It will bear fruit as (we) continue to make that connection between public schools and community colleges in terms of what is college ready.

One of the things we’ve been very careful about in the community college is not to say this is just a high school issue. We’ve had to look in the mirror ourselves and say, ‘What have we not been doing, what can we do better?’ … We have so many students going into developmental education and not nearly enough coming out. So it’s about us looking in the mirror as well.

NC Policy Watch: In the course of looking in the mirror, what have you begun to do differently?

Ralls: We started with developmental math because looking at the data we saw that was a particular problem area. … We pulled together 18 faculty, (and) for six months they just tore apart the entire developmental education curriculum. We gave them some charges in terms of specific principles. We said this really should not take any student longer than one year. We said it needs to be more modular with the opportunity for students to take smaller chunks rather than whole semesters. In other words, if a student is struggling in fractions, then we should be able to give them a fractions course in a quicker period of time and get them in and out. Read More

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In its final report to the General Assembly, the interim committee on digital learning called on lawmakers to initiate the shift from hardbound to digital textbooks and to implement other measures that will ensure North Carolina public schools are, in fact, providing students with a 21st century education.

In addition to the transition from bound books to e-books, the committee recommended the use of lottery funds for digital learning needs and the creation of a new “digital competency” standard that teachers and administrators would have to meet to get their credentials.

“We truly have set North Carolina on a new path forward into, as we say, the 21st century,” said Rep. Craig Horn, a Republican from Union and co-chair of the committee. “This is important work. It does not end here. All we’ve done is . . . (identify) the direction in which the ship should go at some point, so lots of work ahead.”

Like other interim education committees this week, the digital learning panel sidestepped the one or two issues destined to create controversy. In this case, the issue was virtual charter schools.

Rep. Marvin Lucas, D-Cumberland, pointedly noted the omission but there was no other discussion about the possibility of allowing virtual charters to become a part of North Carolina’s school choice landscape.

Criticized in other states for providing a lackluster form of education, virtual charters have met with resistance in North Carolina. A superior court judge effectively blocked an educational company called N.C. Learns from opening a virtual charter school earlier this year, a move supported by school boards across the state and the N.C. Justice Center.

“We hope,” said Katherine Joyce, assistant director of the North Carolina Association of School Administrators, that “the committee’s decision not to recommend authorizing a virtual charter school indicates an awareness of the concerns surrounding that proposal and all the unanswered questions that need investigation before the state moves in that direction.”

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The General Assembly’s interim career and technology committee stopped short Wednesday of calling for the creation of a dual track diploma in North Carolina. Instead it recommended “endorsements” for the already existing high school diploma.

Each student in North Carolina is required to take a certain number of electives. The endorsements would simply reflect whether those electives met the requirements for one of three special designations – career, college, or both.

It would be up to the State Board of Education to determine the requirements, which, according to the committee, should be in place by the 2014-2015 school year.

Citing a “skill gap” in fields reliant on science, technology, engineering and math, the report also recommended a streamlined process for hiring career and technology teachers; the sharing of resources between public schools and community colleges; and a concerted effort to increase the number of students enrolled in vocational education programs.

In a similar fashion, the Education Oversight Committee also avoided hot button K-12 issues in its final report, which focused instead on improvements to teacher training programs, college completion rates, and the transition from two-year to four-year colleges.

The omission of vouchers, education savings accounts and charter schools, however, means very little.

“I imagine they are going to take substantive legislation that will need a lot of committee review and a lot of study,” Sen. Jerry Tillman, a Republican from Archdale who co-chairs the committee. “That’s probably something that would not be normally handled in this report.”

“They probably will come up,” he said, “just not in that report.”

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The state’s textbook warehouse, already rather empty due to budget cuts, could become even more vacuous if lawmakers follow through with a recommendation to substantially shift textbook funding from hardbound tomes to e-books.

The issue is likely to be discussed this week when the digital learning committee releases its recommendations for the upcoming legislative session. A draft of those recommendations calls for the General Assembly “to transition funding for textbooks to funding for digital textbooks and instructional resources.”

So far, the transition to online learning has taken place on a piecemeal basis both nationally and throughout the state. Maine, for example, has implemented a shift toward digital textbooks coupled with a policy that provides all seventh and eighth graders and half of the state’s high school students with a laptop.

In North Carolina, Mooresville Graded School District in Iredell County went completely digital 3 ½ years ago in grades four through 12, and the governor’s office recently recognized four high schools and six school systems — Mooresville, Cherokee, Rutherford, and Granville, among others — for their use of classroom technology and digital learning.

The legislative recommendation, however, could make digital learning a much more common practice in North Carolina – a practice that also raises concerns about the so-called digital divide.

While 81 percent of the state’s households have a computer and 80 percent have access to the Internet, there is a large discrepancy between the haves and have-nots.

According to a 2011 NC Broadband report, only 52 percent of households with an annual income under $15,000 have a computer, and 50 percent have access to the Internet. Among those earning $15,000 to $24,999 a year, 62 percent have a computer and 62 percent have Internet access.