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Groups, citizens gather to ‘WakeUp’ around public education in Wake County

About 10 years ago, a group of Wake County citizens met to share concerns about the challenges of rapid growth. From this meeting launched WakeUP Wake County, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that holds events to “WakeUp” decision makers. “The vision for WakeUP,” its site says, “was and remains to be a voice for people who believe we need to plan well for growth, development, and healthy, vibrant communities in Wake County.”

On Thursday night, voices spoke up about public education and the role public schools play in impacting economic productivity, healthy personal relationships, personal fulfillment, and democratic competence in Wake County.

“How do we get the public to engage in this community?” asked Tom Benton, a board member for WakeUp Wake County and former Wake County School Board member. “Because I do feel that we are losing the support of a strong public school system. And it’s just constantly being eroded and eaten away. How do we have these kinds of discussions so that parents and our community at large recognizes that there is more to schools than just taking tests?”

Helen Ladd, a professor at Duke and co-author of “Education Goods: Values, Evidence and Decision Making,” addressed the gathering of roughly 50 people to talk about her views on student achievement and how schools can make stronger decisions.

“What do we want our schools to do?”

Ladd spoke about the common refrain she hears, that schools should raise student achievement, and how this can be a myopic view on public education.

“That’s too narrow,” she said. “Clearly, we want our schools and our education system to do more than teach kids how to fill bubbles on standardized tests.”

According to Ladd, schools should bestow upon their students “educational goods,” a term she and her co-authors coined to cover knowledge, skills, attitudes, and dispositions. Which knowledge, skills, attitudes, and dispositions? Those, she says, that promote economic productivity in the labor market, personal autonomy, democratic competence, healthy personal relationships, treating others with dignity, and respect and personal fulfillment.

She uses the example of justifying art and music in schools, and talks about how she hears some try to justify the teaching of art and music by saying that art and music can help increase student test scores.

“If the only reason we’re teaching art and music or social studies is to improve test scores in reading and math, it would be much better just to have more resources in reading and math,” she said. “But there’s other values that are important … like personal skills and democratic competence.”

Rather than to make or justify decisions based on test scores, she says “good decision-making should be driven by values, but informed by evidence.”

Adequacy, equality and the less advantaged

In examining values, Ladd said she disfavors terms like “social justice” and “equity” — which she called too vague to be useful. She lays out three distributive principals as alternatives: adequacy, equality, and benefitting the less advantaged.

“We don’t want to just focus on the outcomes that are easiest to measure,” she said. “We need to step back and say, ‘What is it we value?’”

Using a set of principles, she says, avoids the temptation to find one outcome that advances “equity” and instead allows decision-makers to see how choices might disparately impact — say — equality and benefitting the less advantaged. One choice might raise up both the least advantaged and most advantaged students — doing little to advance equity but achieving a goal of bringing up the less advantaged.

“Not everybody’s going to agree on values and on which values are most important,” she said. “Or which values should be pursued primarily through schools rather than at home. People are going to disagree. But if we have the language to talk about it, we might be able to make some of those trade-offs.”

Thoughts from county superintendent

Wake County Schools Superintendent Cathy Moore also gave some insights into her viewpoints during the panel session. First, she raised the idea of alternative measuring sticks aside from grades.

“We need to dump the A through F grading system,” Moore said. ” … The skills that we need to build in the students — critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication — none of which are measured when you bubble in a sheet.”

Later, she addressed calendar flexibility — which was met with resistance in the legislature. Just on Wednesday, the House passed House Bill 79, which would allow local districts to adjust their school calendars to start and end with local community colleges. Amid debate, several representatives spoke out against the proposal because of the impact it could have on tourism season and small businesses dependent upon a part-time, school-aged workforce.

“It’s dead, by the way. Local calendar flexibility will not happen,” she said, pointing to the influence of the tourism lobby. “Let that sink in for a minute. What. Do. We. Value?”

Rupen Fofaria

Rupen Fofaria was the equity and learning differences reporter for EducationNC from 2018 through October 2023.