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From the dean

Worst or Best of Times?

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Bill McDiarmid

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At no other time in educational history has Dickens' oft-quoted opening, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ... " been so apt.

On the one hand, the introduction of the Common Core State Standards and new assessments aligned to these standards hold out the promise of more equitable education. Parents across the state can be confident that their children will have access to the same essential knowledge and skills regardless of their zip code. Students who move will encounter the same content and learning expectations no matter the school. Taxpayers will know that the knowledge and skills taught in schools have been thoroughly vetted and widely - although not universally - agreed upon as essential for future citizens and contributors to the economy.

At the same time, North Carolina has plummeted to 46th in teacher pay, schools have lost teaching assistants, tenure for teachers has been abolished, and class sizes are growing. In addition, the 10 percent salary increase for earning a master's degree has been eliminated. By one estimate, it will now take North Carolina teachers 15 years to begin earning $40,000.

Collateral damage for schools and colleges of education across the state is also substantial. The elimination of the master's salary bump will decimate master's programs for teachers - this despite solid evidence that the students of teachers with master's degrees score higher on standardized assessments than do students of teachers with bachelor's degrees. The U.S. Department of Education reports that, "in every year since 2005, students whose teachers hold master's degrees have scored higher on the NAEP math and reading exams than those whose teachers have only bachelor's degrees."

Despite this and other evidence, policymakers who control the purse strings continue to claim that the salary increment is not justified. Because state funds are allocated on the basis of enrollment, funding for UNC schools and colleges of education could decrease precipitously next year.

This will pose yet another challenge for the School. Including this year's budget cut, the School has trimmed its budget by more than one third since 2009. As a result, we have eliminated more than 30 staff positions and cut programs, not because these were less than stellar but because we have had little choice. We anticipate that enrollment in our Master's Program for Experienced Teachers - which constitutes roughly 20 percent of our enrollment - will dwindle to the point that we cannot continue to offer the required courses.

Hurt as much as anyone by the loss of funding have been our graduate students. Fewer courses and faculty teaching more courses together with reduced funding for the graduate school has translated into less funding for graduate students. While our competitors for top graduate students - Vanderbilt, Harvard, Penn, Stanford, etc. - continue to offer applicants four years of full funding (and, in some cases, paid summer internships!), we can manage funding of any type for only about 60 percent of our Ph.D. students. Coordinators of our Ph.D. strands come to me each Spring with lists of the promising students who wanted to come to Carolina but who took much more lucrative offers elsewhere.

Graduate students are the lifeblood of research universities such as Carolina. Not only do they provide essential support to faculty research projects, they also teach and work in schools. Just as important, they keep the faculty fresh and on our toes. They typically come to us from the classroom and bring a zeal for change, grounded understanding of issues, and perspectives that challenge the faculty.

At this point, you may be asking yourself, "So, how in the world could this be the ‘best of times' in the School of Education?" Let me count the ways:

Helping schools help students: Faculty, staff, and graduate students continue to make a difference in schools. Our research has spawned interventions aimed at improving the school success of students, especially those from marginalized communities. Virtually every day, we are helping teachers and school leaders:

  • turn struggling readers into competent ones
  • support students in making smoother transitions from elementary to middle school and from middle school to high school
  • transform curricula so that their students see connections to the world of work
  • collaborate more productively with parents from non-dominant cultures
  • understand math in ways that enhances their ability to help their students develop deep conceptual knowledge
  • build on the strengths that students from non-dominant cultures bring to the classroom
  • use digital technology to improve student learning
  • improve the learning of science for English Language Learners
  • learn strategies that have successfully turned around failing schools

Although not an exhaustive list, these are among the most important work we are doing. Budget cuts and dubious policies have in no way undermined our top commitment: To provide access to essential educational resources and improve school success for all our children.

Carrying out the research needed to improve learning and school success. Faculty, staff, and graduate students are pursuing external research funding as never before. More than 50 proposals for research funding have been submitted in the past year. Some of the research studies currently under way:

  • an eight-year longitudinal study of every child born in six low-wealth rural communities in North Carolina and Pennsylvania focused on the factors that contribute to school success
  • the factors that have contributed to the success of schools that have performed better than expected
  • determining why some children exhibit the self-control critical for school success while others don't
  • teachers' use of digital technology in teaching science and literacy and the impact on student learning
  • the effectiveness of research-based strategies for teachers to promote the smooth transition of 6th graders into middle school
  • the development of mathematical thinking in elementary teachers
  • the factors that contribute to the academic success of Latino males
  • the resilience of Latina female students in under-resourced minority-serving high schools
  • the role of African-American fathers in their children's school success
  • childcare options for low-wealth African-American families
  • the role of children's beliefs about what is knowledge in their learning in and out of school

Again, this is by no means an exhaustive list, but rather representative of the work being done in our School. And, again, the focus on students and families from marginalized communities is manifest.

Improved instructional programs: As important as are our outreach and research are our instructional programs. The faculty worked hard the past two years to revise the Ph.D. program to better align with the interests both of potential graduate students and new strengths in the faculty. In particular, the additions of Distinguished Professor of Experiential Learning Sharon Derry and Distinguished Professor in Educational Innovations Keith Sawyer add to our existing capacity in the learning sciences. Distinguished Professor Lora Cohen-Vogel who joined the faculty in 2011 has also bolstered our policy area, joining an internationally renowned group of faculty in leadership and policy.

Intent on improving our preparation of teachers, faculty have implemented the edTPA - a portfolio assessment tool widely used across the country and now required for licensure in four states. The data provide students and faculty with a fine-grained view of students' readiness to teach and information to guide program improvement work.

Our new education minor has been very successful. We launched it with the goal of enrolling 100 students in five years, but have surpassed that target after only two years. Faculty have developed ten new courses that typically attract more students than we can accommodate. Our other collaboration with the College of Arts and Sciences, UNC-BEST, now has more than 70 students enrolled.

These initiatives and accomplishments speak to the "best of times" side of Dickens' equation. We continue to benefit from creative, committed, and diligent faculty, staff, and students who are undeterred by decisions beyond our control. This is why I remain optimistic.

I know the intelligence, determination, and dedication these folks bring to challenges. We will find ways to compensate for the loss of enrollment, support our P-12 colleagues, expand our research, and continue to improve our programs. That's who we are.

Bill McDiarmid is dean of the School of Education at UNC-Chapel Hill.