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A panel on saving North Carolina's ruinous public education system

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Among public school reformers, scholar David Kirp observes, the "no excuses" camp is pitted against the "social context" camp. The first sees public schools as "fossilized bureaucracies" filled with time-serving teachers concerned with their own job security. It wants results—now! The second views the schools as our best chance to combat society's ills, starting with poverty, hunger and crime. It says: Send more help!

Kirp, who will be in Raleigh on May 3 for a major education forum, is a professor at the University of California-Berkeley. His newest book, Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools, focuses on the remarkable turnaround of the Union City, New Jersey school system.

But the battles Kirp describes in New Jersey and across the country have a harsh resonance for us in North Carolina. For many years—I think it's fair to call them the Democratic years—we based school policies on the social-context model. For the last three years—with Republicans in charge—we've made a radical shift to no excuses.

The differences are stark. Democratic policies included reducing class sizes, across-the-board increases in teachers' pay, adding teacher assistants, using incentives like the N.C. Teaching Fellows program to recruit and train better teachers, and rewarding every teacher with bonuses when students in a school met or exceeded achievement goals.

Republicans balk at paying all teachers more when, the GOP insists, too many teachers don't do much for their students. They want compensation tied to results, classroom by classroom—merit pay for the effective teachers, pink slips for the bad ones. They passed legislation last year tying small pay increases for a minority (25 percent) of "the best" teachers in a district to a prerequisite that all teachers forfeit their tenure protection.

Now, in political terms I'm over-simplifying, because teachers in North Carolina haven't had a decent raise in six years, and during the first three, Democrats were still in control. But the first three were during the Great Recession, when state revenues tanked and temporary tax-rate hikes were required just to keep from laying teachers off.

In the last three years, revenues have recovered, but Republicans haven't shared them with teachers. Instead, Republicans cut taxes by some $500 million a year for corporations and people with high incomes.

Meanwhile, they put the squeeze on public schools by voting to fund private schools with taxpayer money (vouchers) and to allow an unlimited number of quasi-public charter schools.

Put it together and we face a crisis in our schools. North Carolina's teachers are among the worst paid in the country—46th among the states and D.C. in average pay, according to the National Education Association, 48th for beginning teachers. Our per-student spending for K-12 education is above only Texas, Utah and Arizona. Predictably, good teachers are quitting, taking better-paid jobs in other states or leaving the profession entirely. Their resignation letters—cries from the heart about lack of pay and the disrespect with which they're treated by Republican leaders—are piling up on a website, ResignNC.org.

The May 3 forum is sponsored by Public Schools First NC, a group that defines itself as pro-schools and which falls squarely on the social-context side of the education wars. Spokeswoman Patty Williams says it's intended to "inform people about the threats surrounding public education in our state" prior to the short session of the General Assembly which begins May 14 and the 2014 legislative elections.

Panels will look at funding issues and the critical question of how to help teachers help kids. Kirp is the keynote speaker. Based on Improbable Scholars, here's what he's likely to say:

• Money matters. It's not the only thing, but New Jersey spends almost twice as much per student as North Carolina—$16,000 vs. $8,400—and gets much better results, especially in low-income districts like Union City.

• The N.J. Supreme Court ordered the state to pay for high-quality pre-school for all 3- and 4-year olds in low-income districts, based on strong evidence that it's vital for poor kids to do better in later years.

• Extra money pays for specialists in reading, math, the arts and music. It also allows teachers to work collaboratively, spending some class periods in their fellow teachers' classrooms to see what's working—and what isn't.

• "The organizations that are most successful are the ones where the system is the star," not a few teachers or a principal. (Kirp was quoting Malcolm Gladwell.) So, don't reward a few stars. Instead, reward staff collaboration that lifts the collective results.

• Teach to the test, yes. But not to tests of rote mastery. Teach to the National Assessment of Education Progress, the SAT and other problem-solving tests.

• Let teachers teach what they know and love. Don't turn their work into "drill and kill" pedagogy that they hate and their students detest. Instead, help them reach "the little explorers with open-ended and seemingly unlimited intellectual curiosity" who come to school wanting to learn.

Oh, and by the way, Kirp is fine with good private and charter schools. But they're in very short supply, especially for low-income kids, his data shows. Mostly, vouchers and charters cherry-pick the best students, leaving the public schools to educate the rest—while the politicians give them less money.

The May 3 forum at the McKimmon Center, NCSU, is free and the public is invited. It starts at 9 a.m. Copies of Kirp's book are available for a $50 donation ($25 for students and educators). www.publicschoolsfirstnc.org.

This article appeared in print with the headline "The Lowest Low."

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