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Scores should shake us to our common core

On the first day of school in 2011, the Observer’s editorial board wanted to celebrate teachers. We did so by sharing stories of unforgettable teachers from our own childhoods, and the moments with them that helped shape who we turned out to be.

A striking aspect of that exercise: None of us had a moment’s trouble recalling a teacher who made an indelible difference in our lives. We imagine most of you can quickly remember a teacher who knew how to connect and help prepare you for adulthood.

Today’s children need those same experiences, and new test scores released last week demonstrate how urgently they do. And yet we in North Carolina find ourselves with a justifiably demoralized teaching corps. Their pay is among the worst in the nation; their budgets are shrinking; their class sizes are growing; their help is vanishing; and the lack of respect for them from policymakers is baffling.

The need for North Carolina to hire and retain outstanding teachers was made evident again Thursday with the release of new test scores statewide. The math, reading and science scores were the first aligned to the Common Core standards the state adopted in 2010.

Educators knew the numbers would be low, because the standards are more rigorous than ones used previously. They are also probably more accurate about how well schools are preparing students for college and the workplace. “I do believe that the standards give you a much better reflection of readiness,” Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison said.

And how ready are kids today? Not very.

Fewer than half of students are where they need to be. Just 34 percent of N.C. eighth graders are proficient in math, and only 41 percent are proficient in reading.

The achievement gap – the difference in performance between low-income students and others, between black and white – widened and is disheartening. Less than 30 percent of low-income third- through eighth-graders are proficient in math and reading. Only a quarter of low-income high school students are proficient in math. More than 70 percent of white CMS students are proficient in each area compared with less than 30 percent of black CMS students in most areas. Twenty-eight low-income CMS schools failed to achieve overall pass rates above 25 percent on the new exams.

This is a call to arms. Voters and elected officials of both parties are recognizing that the legislature’s cuts to education last summer were too steep. Teachers are going to Virginia, Tennessee and other states where pay is higher and working conditions are better. The number of students choosing to be education majors is dropping at campuses such as UNC Wilmington.

North Carolina needs a recommitment to high-quality public education from legislators, parents, businesses and local communities. Schools need more money, yes, and they also need principals and teachers who will set high standards and hold themselves and their students accountable for achieving them.

The Common Core scores were a blow to the gut at a moment when teachers and students were already shouldering a long string of tough news. Maybe they can also be the alarm bell we all need to hear.

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