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From the dean

Changing the narrative to support public schools

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Bill McDiarmid

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I recently had the pleasure of attending Cary Band Day. Twenty-three marching bands from all over the state competed for awards. The performances were a terrific display of students’ discipline, talent, and teamwork.  The precision of the drills and the quality of music attested to the many hours the students invested in the pursuit of perfection.

As impressive as the students were, I was even more impressed with the dedication, caring, and investment of the adults – both the families who supported the bands and the educators who coached them.

As I watched the band directors and other educators who, like fretful parents, watched their charges perform from the sidelines, I wondered at the narrative that has come to dominate perceptions and discourse about our public schools and the educators who staff them. I searched in vain the next day for media coverage of the educators who had devoted hours of their own time to teaching the band members music, movement, discipline, cooperation, and character.

Meanwhile, journalists and commentators continue to lavish attention on a movie that castigates a selected collection of inadequate teachers.

The narrative that seems to have currently captured policymakers’ and the public’s attention is that public education has failed and the reason is that we can’t fire educators who aren’t performing well. The corollary seems to be if only we could fire those lousy educators, all would be well. We would soar once again to the top of the educational heap internationally and the children we have failed to serve would quickly become – like those in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegone – “above average.” 


Is firing teachers the best way?

Are there educators who aren’t performing well? Certainly. Do we need to make sure every student has well-qualified, knowledgeable, and caring teachers and principals? No question.

But what proportion of our educational work force is truly inadequate to the task? And, is the best way to deal with those who don’t have the needed knowledge and skills to fire them?

Overlooked is the fact that we have generated a wealth of valuable knowledge about teaching, learning, and students over the past decade or so to which many in the current teaching force have not been exposed. Many educators tell us they welcome our teaching, principal, and counseling interns precisely because they come with knowledge of the latest developments in research and interventions.

State budget cuts have wiped out the funding districts used to receive for keeping their professionals up-to-date. The timing could not be worse. Although Race-to-the-Top funds will provide districts some resources, the amount is relatively small – and will disappear in four years.

Also omitted from the popular narrative is the fact that we do not have a surplus of highly qualified teachers and principals waiting in the wings and chewing at the bit to rush in and take the place of those many believe should be fired.

North Carolina faces a substantial gap between the number of teachers the university system prepares and the needs of the schools, a gap that will only widen in the future given current trends. Moreover, schools in greatest need of the most highly qualified educators are the least like to get them.

As much as we want to place our graduates in schools in the northeastern part of the state, convincing young people to live and teach in communities remote from the amenities they expect – a Gap, clubs, workout gyms, etc. – is a major challenge, particularly if many come, as do our students, from suburban and urban backgrounds.  For them, rural and urban schools that serve children from low-wealth families are foreign territories.


Helping new teachers take rural school jobs

Thus, key questions for the School of Education are: How do we place and support our interns in low-performing schools that may be an hour or more from campus and how do we convince them to take positions in these schools after graduation?  To address the first, we are forging a new partnership with districts – Bertie, Halifax, Hertford, Northampton, Warren, and Weldon City – that comprise the Roanoke River Valley Educational Consortium.

Our new Distinguished P-12 Educator Martinette Horner is working with RRVEC educators to figure out how to bring our students to their schools as well as how to provide professional learning opportunities for current teachers.

The location of the RRVEC schools makes imperative the need to expand the use of technology to educate and support teachers and interns alike. We are fortunate to have the infrastructure, experience, and expertise of LEARN NC as we design new learning opportunities for teachers.

As we plan for placing our students in low-performing schools, we can also learn from the experience of Teach for America.

Very wisely, they make sure their new teachers are organized in cohorts that provide emotional and social as well as professional support. In addition, TFA assigns each new teacher a supervisor who frequently observes and debriefs lessons with the novice afterwards.

These are precisely the supports needed to help beginners achieve success in the classroom. Being successful in helping their charges learn is critical to keeping new teachers in the profession.

The price tag for this level of support is, however, hefty – on the order of $5,000 to $6,000 per teacher a year. The UNC system education schools, in contrast, receive no funding to support their graduates.

The popular narrative ignores these realities.

Firing current educators deemed ineffective does nothing to address the need to provide continuing education for teachers, recruit promising novices to work where they are most needed, and adequately support new teachers so they succeed early and choose to stay in the profession.


Courage and not-so-simple solutions

As I have written before, we have a history of searching for magic bullets to fix our low-performing schools. Such nostrums are, apparently, politically irresistible. Critics claim, typically with little or no credible evidence, that the problems that low-performing schools face have a simple solution – for example, fire the educators.

As H.L. Mencken pointed out, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

The political reality that policymakers and the public are reluctant to face is that addressing issues of teacher recruitment, distribution, support, and effectiveness all require new resources.

This is not a matter of “throwing money” at the problems. Rather, it is using resources to support approaches that we have evidence will make a difference in student learning.

This, in turn, requires advocates in key political positions with the courage to speak truth to power: There are no magic bullets and real solutions will require new resources. Facing, as we do, a daunting state revenue shortfall, it is unlikely (read: it won’t happen) anyone will step forward and do this at this time.

In a recent article in The News & Observer, Executive Editor John Drescher recalled the remarkable fortitude Terry Sanford displayed as a gubernatorial candidate in 1960 in running on a platform that called for raising taxes to improve schools.

Viewed in the context of today’s political climate and the narrative on our schools, the audacity of this is breathtaking. Sanford managed to sell his narrative about schools – that they were the key to the long-term health and progress of the state. And, he argued, however painful the cost, we as citizens were responsible for ensuring that progress into the future. Against the odds, Sanford won.

We need to revive that narrative and use it to argue for new resources at a time when these are depressingly scarce. The future of our state and children depends on it. We need to remember Mencken’s caution:  There are no magic bullets.