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Above and beyond the devilish details

The devil, as the saying goes, is in the details. And as with most such sayings, clichés, and aphorisms, there is a core of reality. How, for example, state legislators settle at last on the details of the state budget will matter for North Carolina schools, teachers, students, and parents.

And yet, to become consumed with the details often results in losing sight of the wide-angle picture, the trends, and issues that define the foreseeable future. As the General Assembly wraps up its work for 2015 and the state girds for the 2016 statewide elections, here is a short list of really big pressures bearing down on our schools.

Supply of talent

In North Carolina, as across the nation, schools can’t find an adequate supply of teaching talent. Our pipelines are showing signs of depletion. Enrollment in university schools of education has fallen off, in North Carolina down 26 percent between 2010 and 2014. National applications for Teach for America fell from a peak of 57,266 to 44,181 for the current school year.

The challenge isn’t simply having enough teachers to handle student-filled classrooms. It is also to produce more high-quality teachers in all subjects, but especially in math, science, and special education. The “teacher shortage’’ also isn’t only a traditional public school concern; it constricts the pool available to private, parochial, and charter schools, too.

Meeting the challenge requires a complex mix of responses – incentives for young people, especially men, to enter education schools, mentoring, and other measures to nurture teachers from neophyte to career professional, enticing credentialed former teachers to return to the classroom. And, of course, professional-level pay.

Supply of leaders

Schools are governed through multiple layers of power and leadership. Perhaps the most important decision local school boards make is hiring a superintendent. And, in turn, superintendents make critical decisions in hiring principals, whose leadership and management of schools go a long way to determining their educational effectiveness. Evidence, as well as common sense, make the case for a focus on leadership.

The most recent state working conditions survey asked teachers, “which aspect of your teaching conditions most affects your willingness to keep teaching at your school?’’ Three out of 10 teachers identified “school leadership,’’ cited by twice as many teachers as any other factor. Sharon Ritchie and Sam Oertwig, UNC scholars who lead FirstSchool, a preK-Grade 3 initiative in rural counties, have a two-page analysis that lists first among lessons learned: “Development of leadership is critical. Systemic change and support is needed at the teacher, principal and central office levels.”

In North Carolina, it’s up to voters, of course, to elect school boards. But state policymakers have the ability to bolster the supply of superintendents and principals with the special touch of leadership.

Kaleidoscope society

National Journal used that phrase this summer in the headline of an article wondering whether American society can sustain its unity as demographic and cultural changes accelerate. In his recent book, “Diversity Explosion,” William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institute, writes, “The United States undoubtedly is becoming more racially diverse than at any other time in the country’s history, and new minorities will be a welcome tonic to what would otherwise be a more slowly growing, aging population.”

North Carolina’s demographic profile supports Frey’s point and the definition of an increasingly “kaleidoscope society.’’ Among North Carolinians 50 years and older, roughly three out of four are white people. By contrast, among residents 15 and younger, barely more than half are whites, with 47 percent of the population consisting of blacks, Latinos, Asians, American Indians, and people identifying with two or more ethnicities.

Frey worries about a “cultural generation gap’’ in which older whites diminish or withdraw their support for public education. But, of course, public schools have long provided essential infrastructure in producing e pluribus unam. The health of North Carolina’s civil society and the strength of its workforce depend on its educating the ethnically diverse emerging generation.

Return of segregation

In the wake of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, Southern white resistance to school desegregation resulted in proliferation of segregationist “academies.’’ But as subsequent court rulings, federal enforcement and, here and there, enlightened local political and business leadership took hold, the South actually became less segregated than the rest of the nation in the 1980s and early 1990s. Two North Carolina cities stood out as national models: Charlotte for its response to the Swann busing ruling and Wake County for its school merger followed by a sustained effort through student assignments to assure first racial and then economic diversity in schools.

Now, re-segregation rules. In a recent State of the South blog, Alyson Zandt of Durham-based MDC, summarized recent research and wrote, “In the South especially, school quality follows patterns of residential segregation by economic status and race. A recent Urban Institute study examined concentrations of poverty in schools and found that a student from a low-income family is six times as likely as one from a high-income family to attend a high-poverty school. The study also found that students of color are far more likely to attend high-poverty schools—in the case of black students, six times more likely than white students to attend high-poverty schools.”

Three Duke scholars – Helen Ladd, Charles Clotfelter, and John Holbein – recently published a paper showing that charter schools in North Carolina have contributed to the return of a distinct pattern of racial separation. The initial burst of charter schools brought in a higher share of black students than in public schools. “Over time, however, that pattern changed,” the Duke professors found. “The white share of charter school students increased from 58.6 percent to 62.2 percent over the full period, while their share of traditional public school students declined from 64.1 percent to 53 percent.”

Race and class remain among the thorniest issues facing American society. From a pragmatic standpoint, it’s difficult for candidates and elected office holders to confront re-segregation head on, so much depends on local decision-making, parental attitudes, and shifting demographics. The population of some rural counties and small-cities contain so many poor people and minorities as to be difficult to desegregate anew.

And yet, as the research cited in Zandt’s State of the South blog indicates, a North Carolina whose modernization flowed largely from its investment in public education can hardly turn away from the significance of racial and income-class trends and conditions on its schools.

Here is the State of the South blog.

Here is the Duke paper on charter schools.

Here is the North Carolina demographic data.

Here is the National Journal essay on the “kaleidoscope society.”


Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.