Gov. Roy Cooper said Tuesday that he was “surprised and appalled” that so many bright low-income students have missed out on rigorous and challenging classes that could lead them to college and higher-level careers.
“We have a treasure trove of hidden talent in North Carolina schools who we should be educating better and not overlooking,” Cooper said in an interview.
Cooper and others spoke in response to “Counted Out,” an investigation from The Charlotte Observer and The (Raleigh) News & Observer that found disparity in the treatment of bright students who come from low-income households.
The articles reported how high-achieving, low-income students across North Carolina are far less likely than their more affluent peers to be placed in advanced or challenging classes. The disparity starts with gifted programs in elementary school and grows in middle and high school.
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The stories found that lower-income students scoring above grade level on end-of-grade tests in math are less likely to get into advanced classes that put them on the road to college. The sorting starts early, it accumulates and it consistently works against children from low-income homes.
Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican, said he was disappointed that lawmakers have never received similar analysis from the State Board of Education.
“The discrepancy revealed in the data you’ve uncovered, about kids from low-income backgrounds not having the same opportunity to get into these programs early on, it’s troubling and it’s problematic and it’s something we need to address,” Berger said.
Berger said he wants to see better use of data by educators from the state board down to the classroom. He mentioned EVAAS, a data analytics program from the software giant SAS, that uses past performance to predict a student’s readiness to take advanced classes. Berger said he believes the program eliminates subjective measures, such as a student’s economic status or classroom behavior.
“The data is very accurate in predicting the capacity of the student,” Berger said. “Unfortunately, it appears that we don’t trust data as much as we should.”
Cooper, a Democrat in his first term as governor, said the first message from the mouths of CEOs is their need for a highly trained, well-educated work force.
“For our state, these are potentially high-skilled workers who show they have the smarts for higher-level careers,” Cooper said. “It’s important that they reach their own potential, and bring their families out of poverty with hard, challenging work.”
Cooper applauded the legislature’s actions to raise teachers’ salaries. But he criticized the General Assembly’s reduction in positions critical to helping bright students into the most challenging classes. He called for more gifted teachers and counselors, saying his proposed budget had called for $20 million in flexible spending for such positions.
“Where we’ve suffered is support personnel,” Cooper said. “It’s important that we make sure local systems can hire these gifted specialists and counselors.”
Berger said he’s open to more counselors. But he said he needs more detail on how districts are spending money that the legislature appropriates.
CMS on board
Legislators, school board members and other education experts offered a wide variety of possible fixes.
Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican and a lead education budget writer, said the legislature needs make sure the poorest students have the best teachers.
“Part of the reality is we don’t always attract our best and brightest teachers to the poorest areas,” Horn said. “We need to get well-trained, well-prepared teachers in the classroom with the neediest kids, whether they be rural or urban, the kids who are often prejudged because of race or color or ethnic origin. That’s just wrong.”
Clayton Wilcox, incoming superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, said the series highlighted an issue he had already vowed to remedy. Although he doesn’t take the top job until July 1, he is working on a per-diem basis and already brought in Reid Saaris, founder and CEO of Equal Opportunity Schools, to meet with his leadership team. Saaris founded the Seattle-based group after seeing his best friend in high school, who came from a lower-income home, get relegated to less challenging classes even though he was just as bright as Saaris.
Wilcox said four CMS high schools will do a pilot with EOS to identify students who have shown signs of potential they aren’t living up to and get them into AP and/or IB classes.
“To do less is almost criminal,” Wilcox said, “to convict kids to a life that’s less than promising.”
Linda Morris, a longtime educator of gifted students in Guilford County and CMS, said the series brings fresh attention to a problem that has plagued North Carolina since the 1970s. Both districts have tried programs to bring more low-income and minority students into gifted programs, she said, but they’ve eventually fizzled.
“Every time we tried to make it more nonbiased … what we ended up doing was creating an identification system that added more white, privileged kids,” she said.
Her conclusion is that there’s no single test or screening process that reliably identifies all the students with high potential. Instead, she said, it takes sustained, intensive work from educators who are willing to act as “talent scouts,” constantly keeping eyes open for students who show potential in various settings and getting past unconscious biases about what kinds of kids are high achievers.
Often, she says, students who are gifted nonconformists are overlooked, instead striking their teachers as slackers or troublemakers. She cites one example from her days in Guilford County, when a professor who was volunteering with a kindergartener suggested he be tested for giftedness. The professor and the child would get together on Sundays to read and discuss the editorial page.
But Morris said the child’s teacher was shocked at the suggestion. The boy hadn’t spoken all year, and the teacher thought he might have disabilities.
He was tested and outscored every other child in the district, Morris said. When she asked if it was true that he never spoke in class, he said yes: “I was just waiting for them to get to something interesting.”
State education officials say they’re trying to do a better job at identifying and serving low-income and minority gifted students. They work with the College Board to identify bright students in elementary school and get them on track to take advanced classes in middle school and Advanced Placement courses in high school.
Sneha Shah-Coltraine, North Carolina’s director of gifted education, says she reviews plans for all 115 districts, as well as charter schools, with an eye to ensuring they’re including all deserving students. But as a one-person department – compared with more than 50 who monitor programs for students with disabilities – there’s only so much she can do to track data and correct inequities.
State Superintendent Mark Johnson was out of the office through the end of May and couldn’t comment, according to a Department of Public Instruction spokeswoman. Deputy Superintendent Maria Pitre-Martin said many districts have good efforts underway. Yet none has proportionate representation of poor and minority students, she acknowledged.
“We’re not there yet,” Pitre-Martin said, “but a lot of effort has been made to get there.”
Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, said schools need more adults, such as counselors and parent advocates, in contact with students, especially in high-poverty schools. He said the data in the series was “startling.”
“It’s a wake-up call to all of us as educators that we don’t let our top academic students slip away from us,” Jewell said.
“I don’t think anything would be more tragic than having a talented, gifted kid not get the resources they need and end up dropping out of school.”