My father-in-law was famous for his habit of painting the inside of the garage whenever there was a major party at the family home. Not that it needed painting. But it seemed to satisfy his need for taking some action – even while the rest of the family attended to the real needs of the coming event.
The legislative majority’s efforts on public education have me thinking a lot these days about my father-in-law and that garage.
To improve educational opportunities to better prepare students for today’s workforce, legislative leaders have offered solutions such as a new grading system, new teacher contract laws, a revised report card for teacher preparation programs, relaxed class size requirements, a separate board for charter schools, and private schools vouchers.
I can see my late mother-in-law now rolling her eyes at my father-in-law and saying, “The party is not in the garage.”
The trouble with this agenda? It looks like North Carolina’s policy agenda from the 1990s. At best, the governing majority is offering new versions of policies we already have in place. In the main, they are proposing new bureaucratic solutions that have little chance of making any difference in the classroom. At worst, they are restricting access to proven efforts like prekindergarten while expanding access to unproven initiatives like public subsidies for private schools.
Progress on our historic – and constitutional – commitment to educating N.C. students will not be won with cosmetic changes, report cards or new state bureaucracies. Progress requires targeted investments and direct supports that affect the daily lives of teachers and students.
In short, our legislative and executive branches need to steer clear of the garage and focus on the classroom. Here are five strategies to do that.
1. Up-skill existing teachers and the principals who support them. With higher standards and the increasing availability of new technologies, teachers and principals need support to continually improve their practice. Recent research from the Gates Foundation shows there is little difference in quality among 85 percent of the teachers. We need to avoid a disproportionate focus on the 15 percent and commit to significant support for the 85 percent.
2. Increase access to Pre-K. North Carolina has one of the nation’s best prekindergarten programs and more students need to be in it. Proposals would reduce the income limits of eligible families by half. Quality pre-K has been proven to increase student achievement in school.
3. Provide clear routes to industry-backed certificates and degrees. Many students need to see pathways to workforce skills and jobs. While AA and BA degrees can be tickets to the middle class, so too can certificates. These are shorter-term programs that end with credentials in areas like computer programming, IT support, HVAC, and nursing assistants. One approach would be to build on our nationally-acclaimed and proven Early College High Schools model and make it a part of every high school’s approach in partnership with local community colleges and universities.
4. Develop school options that are accountable. Options can be important for students for whom traditional schools are not meeting needs, but those options should be proven and accountable.
5. Support Presidents Ross’ and Ralls’ college completion agendas. Our university and community college system presidents are leading aggressive and sorely needed agendas to increase graduation rates on their campuses. Their efforts will ensure that when families and taxpayers invest in higher education, they are receiving a reasonable return – and boosting the competitiveness of the state’s workforce. This needs leadership not just on campus, but from the legislative and executive branches. After all, college completion is a jobs agenda.
Our state has long understood the connection between a well-educated population and local economic development and quality of life. That is the brand that has kept and brought families and companies here.
If our governor and legislators want to build on that commitment and make dramatic improvements for students and families, they need to lead an agenda that will make a difference for teachers and students in their schools and classrooms tomorrow.
That’s where the party is.
J.B. Buxton is the former deputy state superintendent of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
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