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Failing schools legislation needs to account for the complexity of the problem of perennially low-achieving schools

This is the fourth in a series of five articles on expanding educational opportunity in North Carolina, culminating in the release tomorrow of the Public School Forum’s Study Group XVI final report — Expanding Educational Opportunity in North Carolina: Action Plan and Recommendations. The author served as one of the co-chairs of the Study Group’s Committee on Low-Performing Schools, along with Rep. Graig Meyer.

A recent study group, sponsored by the Public School Forum, explored the complexities and potential solutions to the challenges of perennially low-performing schools. The study group began with the understanding that the challenges of education are complex and school performance goes beyond student performance on tests. Three concurrent subgroups explored the problem of equal access to quality education from the perspectives of the effects of childhood trauma on learning, racial equity, and low-achieving schools. This approach placed equity and quality education at the center as drivers and focal points for exploring solutions to these persistent challenges while focusing on the driving question:

What would it take to give every child in North Carolina the opportunity to receive a sound basic education? 

The committee on low-performing schools framed an approach to quality education for all students by focusing on how North Carolina could support low-performing schools by recognizing the many factors that play in to low-school performance, including high concentrations of poverty, teacher and principal retention, and lack of community resources. The challenges and unfunded mandates for low-performing schools are part of an ecosystem converging to create a “perfect storm” of educational inequalities that can no longer be ignored. Addressing these challenges requires a systems approach and a commitment of resources. Unfortunately, North Carolina is treating the problem of low-performing schools as a communicable disease to be isolated or removed from the body-education as a whole.

North Carolina has jumped on the “failing schools” bandwagon and passed legislation to address the challenges of low-performing schools that better fits a medical model of disease treatment rather than a systems model of whole-body health. Currently, the state classifies “low-performing schools” as those that receive a School Performance Grade of D or F and do not exceed expected growth. The letter grade is based 80 percent on the school’s achievement score (primarily based on end-of-grade, end-of-course, or achievement test scores), and 20 percent on students’ academic growth (as measured by expected performance measures). “Low-performing districts” are those with over 50 percent of their schools receiving D or F grades. There are currently 489 low-performing schools out of about 2,644 charter and traditional public schools, and 10 low-performing districts out of 115 in the state. This is how the “disease” is identified – based on one annual test.

Instead of providing resources for supporting low-performing schools and their communities, state legislators have advanced policies and strategies of choice, siphoning off state funds to support private school vouchers and charter schools. The 2016 legislature also created an Achievement School District (ASD) whereby low-performing schools can be relegated to the authority of private for-profit or non-profit charter organizations. Even the more flexible “innovation zone (i-zone)” option for districts to run designated schools with more flexibility in hiring and scheduling fails to provide any additional funding or resources. All of these options are in lieu of funding support for low-achieving schools and their communities.

North Carolina has long recognized the challenges and mandated the vision of providing every child in the state with a sound education and equal educational opportunity. This emphasis is especially heightened by the Leandro Case findings in 1997¹. But substantial efforts over the past 20 years have fallen short, as evidenced by the ongoing Leandro Case lawsuits in the Court of Judge Howard Manning.

The low-performing schools committee recommendations took a systems approach, especially targeting strategies to attract and retain the highest quality and most effective teachers and school leaders as the core to instructional effectiveness and student learning. For example, the committee recommended providing 11-month contracts for teachers. These strategies set forth by the committee provide for focused and sustained professional development and time for team planning, program evaluation, data-driven decision making, and outreach engagement with parents and community businesses. Because many strategies employed nationwide address the challenges of low-performing schools in urban settings, the committee also recognized the added challenge of competing for, hiring and retaining quality teachers and school leaders in rural areas where many of our greatest school and social challenges are. A rural solution to the challenges of quality teachers and leaders includes recognizing personal lifestyle options may be limited for early career teachers in particular, and so the committee discussed the need for low-cost housing or other community resources to help attract and retain teachers.

Strengthening the teacher/leader pipeline, and retaining quality teachers and school leaders will require community resource investments as part of a systems approach. Schools need to become community resource centers of learning while teachers and school leaders are supported in their efforts to meet the variety of academic and non-academic needs of their students. For example, Finland has a model where all schools have medical, social, and community resources that provide a safety net for students and their families. Especially in parts of North Carolina where we have lost business and industry, many communities lack the infrastructure to provide basic social services and resources for families and schools.

Extended learning opportunities for students can also support teachers and families, many of whom cannot provide academic support or enrichment experiences for their children. The Wake County Communities in Schools (CIS) has a successful model where students receive after-school and weekend academic and enrichment support, and teachers receive additional compensation by being hired to teach in these programs. This model extends the student-teacher relationship by providing a continuum of services from school to after school academic and social support. Last year, the Wake County CIS provided over $1 million of additional funding to teachers who teach in their programs using grant monies for providing extended learning opportunities for children.

The problems of low-achieving schools are complex and addressing these challenges requires more than defining success by once-a-year test scores. We need to create a healthy ecosystem of education where all students have comparable resources and opportunities. We need to approach the problem from a systems perspective where teachers and school leaders are at the center of a quality education system. The current policy of assigning A-F grades to schools does little to address the complexity of factors that impact student performance. We have challenges in North Carolina and to address them will require more than labeling. At best, school performance indices offer a starting point for identifying where resources need to be expended and community strategies and resources need to be developed. Allocating appropriate and strategic resources is necessary to address the challenges beyond the test scores.

We need to encourage our policy makers to have the vision to invest in communities and schools as vital social systems that grow and achieve together, and in teachers and school leaders who are at the core of a learning ecology.

¹Leandro v. State, 488 S.E.2d 249 (N.C. 1997)

Jayne Fleener

Jayne Fleener is a research professor at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation and the former dean of the College of Education at NC State University. Dean Fleener has over 30 years of professional experience in K-12 and higher education, including teaching high school mathematics and computer science in Durham, North Carolina.  She has a Bachelor’s degree from Indiana University and three graduate degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, including her PhD in mathematics education. Before coming to NC State as Dean of the College of Education, she was a faculty member and administrator at the University of Oklahoma and the Dean of the College of Education at Louisiana State University.