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N.C. education chief Bill Cobey is on the right track—but his fellow Republicans are wrong

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I find myself in an awkward position defending our public schools against the depredations of right-wing Republicans. I distinctly remember, as a restless public high school student years ago, outlining my new and improved method of teaching American history without boring everybody to death—a method that called for casting aside the textbook, with its maddening muddle of facts, and plunging instead into an in-depth study of critical events and issues.

For example, what was this uproar over Vietnam?

I've never liked the factory model of K–12 education, which calls for children to be passive receptors of dogma and, above all, demonstrate their willingness to be quiet and follow orders. To quote Paul Simon, "When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all."

If the purpose of education is to prepare you for life, it should train you to analyze problems and question the status quo, not swallow it whole.

Thus, I found myself nodding as Bill Cobey, Gov. Pat McCrory's choice to head the State Board of Education, talked the other day about a transformative time in education and the need to cultivate children's innate curiosity.

Good schools channel the kids' energy into a love of learning, Cobey said. Bad ones beat it out of them.

Cobey, a conservative Republican but not—as another listener whispered to me—one of the crazies, was in Raleigh for an informal discussion with reporters. He's a former congressman, a former athletic director at UNC-Chapel Hill and a former cabinet officer under Gov. Jim Martin. He was also a substitute teacher once in Philadelphia. "It was chaos," he said under his breath.

Classroom technology, Cobey remarked, is helping teachers exit their traditional role as "sage on the stage" and embrace a better role as "guide on the ride." That is, fewer dreary lectures and more time helping students search out answers for themselves.

This was excellent, as were Cobey's top two goals of improving teacher pay (North Carolina is near the bottom) and equipping every desk with a networked computer.

Unfortunately, Cobey was stumped when asked how the current Republican legislative agenda might hasten this transformation. This is, after all, an agenda that slashes public school budgets, increases class sizes, dismisses teachers' assistants, eliminates professional development programs for teachers, allows uncertified teachers in charter schools, and shifts funds to private and parochial schools via vouchers.

Cobey, uncomfortably, fell back on the standard McCrory evasion: Medicaid spending is at fault. Oh, and North Carolina's unemployment rate is high—as if the unemployed were the only possible source of new tax revenues to pay teachers.

But then, the Republicans are cutting taxes on the wealthy.

I agree with Cobey that the public schools have improved since he and I were there. I agree with him, too, that they haven't improved enough. I don't agree with cutting state school aid to 48th in the country, or shifting funds to a separate network of private and quasi-private (charter) schools obviously intended to benefit the well-to-do.

Here's my list of the top 10 ways to transform public education:

1. Free pre-K programs in the public schools for all children whose parents want to enroll them. How can we close the achievement gap and help disadvantaged kids? It starts here.

2. Turn 11th and 12th grades into early college, with community college-level tuition and, where possible, paid internships. The main reason is that 17- and 18-year-olds have the intellectual capacity to take on serious, "college" work. Let them do it. A second benefit: They can perform community service, in lieu of tuition, by being teachers' aides for elementary grades.

3. A nutritious breakfast and lunch should be served free to every student, not just the poor kids. No need to slap a "free and reduced" label on children. They all need to eat to be alert and ready to learn.

4. Every school should have a garden and use it for lessons in math, nutritional science, the national epidemic of obesity—and how to pray for rain.

5. The study of religious beliefs is central to history and should be an integral part of the curriculum, not avoided because it's too complicated. Ditto gender.

6. Career teachers should be highly compensated—up there with principals—as professional managers of classrooms. Under their charge: Early-college students working as aides, other paid teachers' assistants, community volunteers including parents, and of course the students. And technology.

7. Reconceptualize teachers as coaches who prepare kids to be learners. How many assistant coaches does the football team have? Give each teacher the same.

8. Every child should be reading at grade level by the third grade. Everyone—even McCrory—says so. Now, put the resources in and make it happen. No excuses. Is it a poor rural community? That's what state aid is for.

9. Like Cobey, I think schools should be year-round. I also think the school day should be longer. The extra time can be used for theater classes, the arts, sports and physical exercise—all emerging growth sectors in a post-industrial economy.

10. Finally, with enough assistants, teachers can leave the building with small groups of students to visit a farm, a technology company, a law firm or the local hospital—so kids can see how the world actually works and what their future job could be.

Will this cost more? Probably. But in the long run, it should cost less to get kids started in school earlier and move them to college faster—with outstanding teachers able to lead larger classes because they have so many assistant coaches/teachers to help.

The rich don't want to pay for those "other" people's kids? I know they don't, which is why I find myself defending the public schools while knowing they need to be far better than they are.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Free the public school."

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