Mississippi taps North Carolina’s Department of Public Instruction for new state superintendent

Robert Taylor

Robert Taylor, a deputy superintendent in the NC Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI), has been hired to lead the Mississippi Department of Education.

Taylor, a Mississippi native, is a former superintendent of Bladen County Schools. He will start his new job in January, pending confirmation by the Mississippi state senate.

As Mississippi’s state superintendent, which is an appointed position, Taylor will lead 140 school districts. Those districts enroll more than 440,000 students.

“Mississippi has made tremendous strides in literacy and our goal as a state should be to continue this growth and refine the work that has produced such great results,” Taylor said in a statement last week. “I look forward to working with local school districts, superintendents, and their school staff in identifying barriers to success.”

Taylor will become Mississippi’s second Black superintendent. The first was Henry L. Johnson, who came from North Carolina in 2002. Johnson was an associate state superintendent at NCDPI and an assistant superintendent for Johnston County Schools.

The Mississippi Department of Education told Mississippi Today, an online nonprofit publication, that Taylor will be paid $300,000 annually.

Truitt posted a celebratory tweet sharing the news about Taylor’s new position.

Mississippi has won accolades in recent years for its success in early literacy. In 2019, the state posted the highest growth of all states on the National Assessment for Education Progress.

Taylor’s departure from NCDPI comes as this state launches new efforts to improve early literacy after the failure of Read to Achieve, a statewide early childhood literacy program, that despite investments of more than $150 million, yielded poor results. The program was designed to get more children to read by third grade.

To improve literacy, the General Assembly approved Senate Bill 387 (The Excellent Schools Act of 2021) requiring all teachers to be trained in the “science of reading,” which is essentially a phonics-based approach to teaching students to read.

Taylor joined NCDPI in early 2021 as deputy secretary of student and school advancement. He began his 10th year as superintendent of Bladen County Schools in 2020. Before taking the job in Bladen County, Taylor was the assistant superintendent for Clinton City Schools from 2003 to 2011.

A 1990 graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi, Taylor earned his bachelor’s degree in history and political science before earning a master of school administration from Fayetteville State University (FSU) and later his doctorate in educational leadership in 2009. He is an active member on multiple boards within the state – serving on advisory councils at both FSU and UNC Pembroke.

Report: Confidence in public education has decreased since pandemic

Polling indicates confidence in public education has declined since the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc in schools.

Nearly 50% of voters say their confidence in public education has waned since the pandemic sent public education into a tailspin, according to a national survey of voters and parents released Monday by the Hunt Institute.

The Hunt survey also shows that only a quarter of parents believe school district officials, state education leaders and school board members have handled COVID-related challenges well.

The findings are part of a report titled “Across the Aisle: Bridging the Education Divide, What Voters and Parents Want in Education.”  The report was co-authored by Hunt Institute President and CEO Javaid Siddiqi and former West Virginia governor Bob Wise.

Javaid Siddiqi

Siddiqi and Wise report that the growing dissatisfaction with public schools was most acute among Republican and independent voters. The declining perceptions of public schools have coincided with the growth of school choice options and preferences, the two report.

Forty-four percent of parents surveyed said they enrolled their child in a charter, magnet, private or religious school because they thought the quality of education was better.

In a statement, Sidiqi said the report gives policymakers insight into the issues voters and parents care about when it comes to schools.

“This initiative was created to provide policymakers with accurate, unbiased insights into the minds of their constituents, so we can move past speculation into reality and action,” Siddiqi said.

The report is a follow-up to last year’s 2021 Emerging Priorities for Education Leaders Report which sought to understand the educational challenges and issues that most concerned the public’s mind. This year’s report explores whether priorities have changed.

Here are key takeaways from the new report:

  • Recent hot-button issues such as book banning and curriculum censorship are largely unpopular. About 7 in 10 voters (68 percent) and 6 in 10 parents (60 percent) believe book banning and curriculum censorship is a problem. In addition, compared to other issues provided in the survey, it is among the lowest ranked priorities for policymakers to address.
  • School safety in particular is a high priority issue in the eyes of voters and parents. Three in four voters (75 percent) believe that guns and other physical violence in schools is a problem, and a similar number (73 percent) believe bullying, including cyber bullying, is a problem.
  • Voters look to additional mental health supports as a necessary part of recovery efforts. Over half of voters (51 percent) strongly favored investing in student’s individual needs, including their social and emotional learning needs. Additionally, 85 percent of voters believe that additional counseling or social, emotional, and mental health supports would help students move forward from the pandemic’s impacts.
  • One year later, learning loss remains a high priority issue for parents and voters. Seventy percent of voters believe that learning loss is currently a problem, and 40 percent believe that it is a very big problem. Early literacy in particular is a key issue among the public with 70 percent of voters identifying students reading at grade level as very important.

Bob Wise

Wise said the way forward is through the strategic use of billions in federal COVID-relief dollars to make major investments in public education.

The deadline for states to use Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) dollars is less than two years away. The U.S. Department of Education established the program in response to the pandemic.     ­

“People understand or are coming to understand that there are federal dollars for education, and they want to do both,” Wise said. “They want to return to a new normal and use COVID relief dollars to get their children safely back in school. At the same time, they understand that this may be the only major source of investment that we have for a long time, so they want to make both short- and long-term investments.”

Let’s hit pause on half-baked teacher performance pay proposal

State Board of Education meets Nov. 30th.

The November 30th State Board of Education meeting will be the most consequential in some time. The Board will determine whether to recommend radically overhauling how to certify and pay the state’s 93,000 teachers. At question is whether the Board will move forward with an ambitious performance pay plan called Pathways to Excellence. The plan would end the current practice of paying teachers based on their credentials and years of service, instead basing teacher pay on measures of effectiveness and their willingness to assume additional responsibilities.

It’s a plan that should be rejected.

As detailed in the new Justice Center report, “New Performance Pay Plan for Teachers: Approach with Caution and Skepticism,” there are four important reasons why the State Board should reject this plan:

  1. A performance pay plan fails to address the underlying causes of our challenges in recruiting and retaining teachers, nor is it likely to benefit student performance. Worse, this plan is likely to distract from proven policy efforts to address the teacher shortage and to boost student performance.
  2. Major aspects of the plan, including how to measure teacher performance, remain undeveloped, and it is unclear whether the General Assembly will provide the staffing and funding necessary to implement the proposal fully.
  3. There’s a substantial risk that the plan will increase the share of teacher candidates from alternative programs; these candidates tend to have lower retention and effectiveness than candidates from university preparation programs.
  4. The plan lacks support from teachers. If the goal of the Pathways plan is to improve the recruitment and retention of teachers, then the opinions of teachers should hold sway. After all, teachers are the undisputed experts on the factors that will entice their colleagues to remain in the classroom or depart for other opportunities

Instead of moving forward with an unproven and unpopular plan, State Board members should be advocating for proven measures to recruit and retain great teachers such as:

Image: Adobe Stock

  • Providing broad-based pay raises to make teacher pay competitive with other college degree requiring professions in North Carolina
  • Improving classroom conditions by implementing the Leandro Plan, which will provide educators with the resources and additional supports necessary to help students thrive
  • Restoring benefits that legislators have removed over the past decade, such as career status, master’s pay, and retiree health care benefits
  • Permitting collective bargaining so that teachers can directly negotiate for better working conditions and a voice in the policymaking process
  • Allowing teachers the freedom to be professionals rather than trying to police how teachers approach controversial subjects and placing an overly narrow focus on tested subjects
  • Expanding the social safety net to reduce the barriers to learning placed in front of students from families with low incomes

That is not to say there isn’t room to improve North Carolina’s teacher licensure process or to develop new career pathways for teachers. However, such efforts should adhere to basic principles of good policymaking:

  • Risky reforms like Pathways should only be considered after policymakers have addressed fundamental shortfalls in teacher pay and working conditions
  • Changes to pay and working conditions should be developed collaboratively with those affected, in this case, teachers
  • Solutions should be responsive to local challenges rather than one-size-fits-all
  • Implementation should be deliberate and iterative so that implementation challenges are addressed prior to a larger rollout

If the State Board approves the Pathways plan, it will then move on to the General Assembly. Since the plan remains half-baked, it will be up to the General Assembly – a body that has spent the past decade degrading the teaching profession – to finalize and fund the plan. Undoubtedly, that process will take place behind closed doors, rely on ideologues rather than experts, and fail to result in a product that benefits educators and students.

To avoid such an outcome, it’s important for the State Board to reject Pathways and instead support proven methods for improving the recruitment and retention of teachers.

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