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Leandro commission discusses draft recommendations for the first time

The Governor’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education, which is attempting to lay out a plan to meet the state’s Leandro obligation, has met and heard presentations from outside individuals and groups for the last year on everything from school support personnel roles to balanced accountability systems to teacher preparation

Tuesday, for the first time, the commission shared glimpses of the recommendations its work groups have been creating in private sessions. Those work groups focus on different aspects of the educational system: funding and resources, teachers, principals, early childhood, and assessment and accountability.

The commission is tasked with figuring out how to bring to life the court’s three requirements in providing every child with “a sound basic education:”

  1. “A ‘competent, certified, well-trained teacher who is teaching the standard course of study’ in every classroom;
  2. A ‘well-trained competent principal with the leadership skills and ability to hire and retain competent, certified and well-trained teachers’ in every school; and
  3. The ‘resources necessary to support the effective instructional program’ in every school ‘so that the educational needs of all children, including at-risk children, to have an equal opportunity to obtain a sound basic education, can be met.’”

How does the state ensure those three things are true? Helen Ladd, a commission member and Duke University professor of public policy and economics, started Tuesday’s conversation with a question that is potentially just as complex: Why?

Ladd, using terminology and philosophy from a book she and other researchers wrote called “Educational Goods: Values, Evidence, and Decision-Making,” asked commission members what values they hold dear when it comes to creating an educational system.

Ladd defined ‘educational goods’ as: “Knowledge, skills, attitudes, and dispositions that enable an individual to flourish as an adult and to contribute to the flourishing of others.”

“The whole theme of the book is that policy should be driven by values,” Ladd said. “… Evidence plays a role to inform our decisions and to help us make choices, but values is the starting point.”

Ladd said the distribution of those goods, in the context of Leandro, can be seen as the distribution of educational opportunity. She proposed three main values in the distribution of goods or opportunity: adequacy, equality, and benefiting the less advantaged. Delving into each value, Ladd asked what that value means in reality. 

“So as we think about equality, and I like the term equality rather than equity, but then I have to be very precise in thinking about it,” she said. “Equality of what?”

Ladd went on to say some districts have higher costs and needs depending on varying factors like wealth.

“Equality of funding isn’t going to lead to equality of educational goods or educational opportunity,” she said. 

In setting this value-driven conversation up, some members challenged the priorities Ladd laid out. Commission chair Brad Wilson, former CEO of BlueCross BlueShield North Carolina, asked about how local supplements fit into the equation. Leslie Winner, commission member and former executive director of Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, questioned why there was not a value like “universal flourishing” that emphasized the success of children in the middle to high academic spectrum. Fouad Abd-El-Khalick, commission member and dean of the school of education at UNC-Chapel Hill, said it was important to him to keep equity, particularly racial equity, as a top value. 

“In my mind, let’s remember membership of certain groups has translated historically to systemic unfair treatment, and to move forward, by washing this away and sort of saying, ‘Equality is what we want.’ I love equality in the outcome. To get there, you need some kind of equitable thinking,” Abd-El-Khalick said.

He continued by responding to worries about how much wealthier counties raise for their schools: “I don’t think you can regulate on the other end how much districts should (give), they’re always going to find ways to give. That’s good because they have resources. I need to worry about the districts that don’t have the resources when they are taxing their property at… God knows what, and they’re still thousands and thousands of dollars short, not relative to the rich districts, just relative to getting those kids the resources they need.”

Let’s delve into each working group’s draft recommendations. For the embedded documents at the end of each section, use the plus sign on the bottom right to zoom into the text.

Finance and resources

The work group in charge of looking at how to finance the public school system kept things pretty high-level in comparison to other work groups. That is partly because what other groups end up wanting to fund related to teachers, principals, early childhood education, and accountability will affect the final recommendations for this group. 

The group, so far, wants to stick with an allotment system for divvying out state funds to school districts, which is how the financial system for public schools works now. 

“We feel like if you throw out the allotment system, then you’re having to start from square one,” said Jim Deal, commission member, attorney, and leader of the finance work group. “So we’ve got to start from something that is workable.”

Many of the group’s draft recommendations focus on adequacy of funding to meet the needs of all students and to account for diversity of needs and costs in different areas of the state.

“You can’t look at Watauga County in the far western part of the state where I live and compare it to Greene County in the eastern part of the state,” Deal said. “It’s apples and oranges, so we have to have some kind of state recognition that looks at the different communities across our state because we are a diverse state in many ways and particularly from economics.”

A minimum salary schedule is suggested for all teachers, but Deal said the group wants to differentiate pay depending on district need, and an attention to finding the right balance between state and local funding is mentioned in the draft document. Fouad Abd-El-Khalick, commission member and dean of UNC-Chapel Hill’s school of education, stressed the importance of not relying on local supplements to attract teachers to the lowest-wealth counties.

“The hardest problem we have is to get highly-qualified teachers, highly-qualified principals to go and stay in the most challenging areas,” Abd-El-Khalick said. “… We’re leaving it now to the local [districts] who have the least resources.” 

This idea came up throughout Tuesday’s meeting. In a later discussion, Greene County Schools Superintendent Patrick Miller suggested basing teacher pay on the three economic tiers across the sate. Those in the poorest counties would be paid 25% more than the existing schedule, those in Tier 2 counties would be paid 12.5-15% more than the existing schedule, and the Tier 3 counties — the wealthiest counties — would be paid based on the existing schedule.

Miller said this may not be the perfect method, but it is a start to think about pay schedules that incentivize teachers going to hard-to-staff places. He suggested basing the tier designation on an average of the past 10 years. 

“If a county is doing better and moves up in designation, it’s going to take them some time to catch up,” he said. 

The draft document suggests sufficiently funding specialized instructional personnel roles like nurses, social workers, psychologists, and counselors. North Carolina is behind on each nationally-recommended ratio of personnel to students. The draft priorities also stress giving local districts appropriate flexibility to meet student needs and help with capital costs — normally covered by local entities — when localities are unable to cover those themselves. 

Miller provided real examples in his school district of struggles covering capital costs. One of his high schools, Miller said, needs a $600,000 roof. His entire capital allotment is $700,000. Paying for the roof would mean not being able to replace a broken HVAC unit in another school or fix a pothole in a parking lot. Miller said he remembers a capital allotment that used to be given to schools and was cut as a result of the Great Recession. 

“There are just real, real needs that I think are part of adequate resources,” Miller said. “If the kids are sitting in a room trying to dodge leaks while their teacher’s trying to teach, you can’t learn. And so you have to take that into account. … The public school building capital fund would allow us to spend some money on projects that would have diverted some of our capital needs and allow us to put our capital dollars towards maintenance and not towards construction.”

It is unclear how funding recommendations from the group will ultimately impact the state legislature’s decision-making. Mark Richardson, commission member and Rockingham County Commissioner, ended the finance discussion by reminding members that “the devil’s in the details.”

“I’m suggesting as we proceed we think about how we’re going to do this if we’re going to make those suggestions,” Richardson said. “And I mean ultimately the legislature is going to do a lot of the ‘how’ in regard to funding because they have the purse strings at the state level.”

Teachers

Leslie Winner — commission member, former executive director of Z. Smith Reynolds, and lead of the teachers working group — said the teacher workforce needs about 8,000 new teachers per year. The work group led into its draft recommendations starting with the issue of recruitment.

“This recruitment is not an insubstantial thing to start filling this pipeline,” Winner said. “And by recruitment, we mean recruitment into teacher education, not recruitment into schools. Because that’s where you’ve got to start, is getting people into teacher education.”

The group’s first suggestion under recruitment is expanding the North Carolina Teaching Fellows program, which pays college tuition in exchange for a commitment to work in the state’s public schools. The program has been around since the 1980s and was cut from state funding in 2011. In 2017, the legislature funded the program again but with a specific focus on students going into STEM (science, education, engineering, and math) and special education, and offered the program at only five institutions of higher education.

The work group suggested expanding the program from 200 to 1,000 slots per year and changing some of its current limits, like accepting prospective teachers of other content areas and having more schools offer the program. Another change: the current program requires a teacher to teach for two years for every year the student receives the loan if the student does not start off teaching in a low-performing school. If the student does go to a low-performing school, that loan forgiveness speeds up — they have to teach one year for every year of college. 

“I don’t know too many 16-year-olds or 17-year-olds that are going to say, ‘I’ll take the scholarship with an agreement to go, and I want to go back home to Asheville, and therefore I’m going to have to teach for eight years to pay back my four-year scholarship,'” Winner said. “It seems really unrealistic.”

Not in the draft document but mentioned in discussion was the need for the program to partner with HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) to recruit more teachers of color into the educator workforce.

Also under recruitment efforts in the draft priorities is creating a statewide entity that would focus on recruiting, placing, and retaining teachers, starting efforts in high schools to recruit prospective education students and reaching into postsecondary institutions to place beginning teachers in school districts. Improving efforts with high school counselors, Winner said, would also be a task of the entity. The draft priority list also includes innovation grants for institutions of higher education who recruit students with non-education majors — especially ones in high-needs subject areas — into teaching. 

When it comes to preparing teachers, the document suggests a plan on how to invest in educator preparation programs doing good work and how to hold those programs accountable for the quality of preparation they provide students. In-state institutions of higher education, both public and private, were set as priorities, Winner said, because they are the most effective in preparing high-quality teachers. Differentiation is mentioned multiple times in this section as a key skill teachers should have before entering the classroom. Alan Duncan, commission member and State Board of Education Vice Chair, questioned if that was possible and how differentiation would be defined.

“No matter how much professional development you give, that’s a gift that doesn’t come easily to every educator,” Duncan said. “I hope I’m wrong.”

A pilot program is also suggested that would pay for an individual with an education degree to receive a master’s degree while working for three years in a low-wealth school. The student would be given a stipend and receive “additional support” during the residency. 

Two other programs in the draft recommendations would incentivize teachers to work in low-wealth schools. The first would provide yearly $10,000 bonuses to teachers who commit to teaching low-wealth districts for four years. The state would pay at least half of the bonuses, and up to the full cost, depending on the district’s resource level. This is an idea Winner said the work group got from Lenoir County.

“We’re trying to pay attention to the substantial number of kids that are concentrated in low-wealth schools in districts that are not low-wealth and those schools also have trouble retaining teachers because you can’t put a chain and ball around their ankle and say, ‘You have to stay in this school,’ and stop them from transferring to another school in the district.”

The second would be a loan forgiveness program, starting sophomore year of college, that would repay 20% of students’ tuition per year for committing to teaching in a low-wealth school or district for five years.

Under compensation, the group is suggesting a study that would determine what teachers should make in relation to other comparable fields that require as much education and effort. Winner said the idea is to move away from comparing teacher salaries to national averages and instead to other careers in the state. 

“We’re not really competing very much with people who are going to go teach in Minnesota,” Winner said. “We need to be competing with our workforce in North Carolina and providing a salary that will encourage people to think that if they go into teaching, they’re going to earn the same amount as their college peers who go into similarly difficult areas of work.”

The compensation draft recommendations encourage the state to then shift the teacher salary to what the study finds appropriate, as well as providing differentiated pay both to teachers with advanced degrees and to those who work in schools and content areas “in which there are severe shortages.”

There are more draft priorities around grow-your-own programs to encourage teaching in students’ hometowns, professional development efforts, and career pathway plans in high schools that promote teaching. Look below for the full list of draft priorities.

Principals

The work group focused on principals put forth draft recommendations around their preparation, professional development, and compensation.

When it comes to preparing principals, the work group suggested matching the state’s administrator preparation standards with the National Education Leadership Preparation standards, requiring paid year-long internships for prospective administrators, and including principal training information on early childhood learning, social-emotional student needs, and roles of specialized instructional support personnel like nurses, counselors, and psychologists. 

“If they go straight into high school, that would not be normal,” said Patrick Miller, commission member and Superintendent of Greene County Schools. “They would normally start out in an elementary or middle school and work up because a high school is the most demanding environment.” 

Melody Chalmers, commission member and principal of E.E. Smith High School in Cumberland County, said it is also important for principals to have skills for a full range of student ages so that districts can have the flexibility to move principals from high schools to elementary schools or vice versa if necessary.

The draft priorities also include creating partnerships between each school district and a principal preparation program, like the Northeast Leadership Academy (NELA) and the Transforming Principal Preparation Program (TP3), as well as creating a mentorship program between veteran and beginning administrators for support and coaching and expanding the Principal Fellows Program.

For a look inside N.C. State University’s principal preparation program, NELA, see below.

N.C. State’s acclaimed principal program assesses candidate character

The group also includes in their draft recommendations expanding state and/or federal funding for existing effective professional development opportunities and for the creation of new ones. Shirley Prince, executive director of the North Carolina Principals and Assistant Principals Association, explained one of the association’s professional development programs called Distinguished Leaders in Practice (DLP). Miller said DLP is an example of the kind of professional development program that needs more funding. 

“It’s very high quality,” Miller said. “I make all my principals go through it.” 

Prince said the program takes principals out of the classroom six times a year for a day and a half each to train them in the most effective ways to improve schools, based on something called improvement science. 

“We say to them, ‘If you apply this approach with fidelity, you will improve your school,’ and we believe that,” Prince said. She said it costs around $1500 per principal, which they cover through grant funding. The program is application-based and free to 114 of 115 school districts based on association membership. 

“After their face-to-face session, they have a series of online activities that they do back at their schools where they use their own data, their own students, their own teachers, and they actually apply a proven continuous improvement process to their school,” Prince said. “So during the course of a year, we guide them through, ‘This is what you do as a really effective principal to improve your school.'”

The group’s recommendations also address administrator compensation. The draft priorities suggest revising the principal salary schedule to weigh experience more than it currently does and to encourage administrators to pursue opportunities where they are most effective, “such as remaining as an elementary school principal or leading a low-performing school.”

“Right now, the current salary structure for principals does not incentivize going to a low-performing school,” Miller said. 

The group’s final draft recommendation is to increase the number of assistant principals funded by the state by revising the allotment formula for assistant principals.

Early Childhood

The early childhood work group’s draft recommendations are extensive, from strengthening the early childhood educator workforce to increasing access to early intervention and high-quality preschool to supporting the infrastructure that facilitates the early childhood system.

According to the National Institute for Early Education Research’s (NIEER) annual report, for the 2017-2018 school year, the average annual salary for early childhood lead teachers in public settings was $35,000. For lead early childhood teachers in private settings, the annual average salary was $24,510. 

Henrietta Zalkind, commission member and executive director of the Down East Partnership for Children (DEPC), stressed the need for higher compensation for early childhood educators. 

“They’re doing the best they can with what they have, but if you think about who’s taking care of our kids, these are often parents themselves who are stressed, working very marginal jobs, who aren’t all that healthy themselves, and they’re trying to promote healthy growth and development in kids,” Zalkind said.

Zalkind mentioned two bills, one in the House and one in the Senate, that raise education requirements for early childhood educators and study compensation.

“You can make more money working in a grocery store or in Target than a lot of folks make in child care,” Zalkind said. “So we want to stop the churn. We want to professionalize that. We want to continue building the skills and the knowledge base so that those folks choose to go into early childhood, that they stay in the programs that are high quality, and they launch our kids as effective life-long learners by the end of the third grade.”

The work group also suggests scaling up Smart Start, the statewide network of local early childhood partnerships, like Zalkind’s DEPC, that administer a variety of state, federal, and foundation funds to early childhood programs as well as support and monitor the program’s quality.

Under the Smart Start recommendation is expanding family and engagement support programs like home visiting, supporting early childhood programs, and increasing access to developmental screenings for children before they reach kindergarten. 

Zalkind said infant and toddler care — before kids reach preschool — is the most important time in brain development for children and the “biggest place of impact.” The highest return on investment, Zalkind said, would be supporting high-quality care for infants and toddlers.

“You’ll have less kids still at-risk at 4 going into NC Pre-K which will cost you the most,” she said.

When it comes to NC Pre-K, the working group suggests expanding access to reach all eligible children. In order to be eligible for the program, 4-year-olds must be “at-risk,” which is mainly based on family income, but includes other factors like limited English proficiency, special needs, and military status. The income cut off is 75% of the state’s median household income. A NIEER report from January found that 52% of all 4-year-olds in the state are eligible (62,287 children). In 2018, NC Pre-K served 47% of those that were eligible (29,509 children).

The report also found that 44 counties in 2017 and 34 in 2018 did not accept funding for more NC Pre-K slots due to factors like a lack of funding to employ qualified teachers, reach unserved communities, find new facilities, and provide transportation.

The draft recommendation would also increase the rates offered to centers that provide NC Pre-K and the administrative rates to cover “the true cost of providing NC Pre-K.” The recommendation says those rates “should factor in the cost of teacher salaries/benefits with parity to public school teachers, transportation, capacity building, program quality improvements, and child find.” While the draft recommendation suggests meeting that demand, Zalkind also said the program should be for children who are actually the most at-risk.

“They’re not going to have the [capacity] to do 62,000 kids,” Zalkind said. “… If you serve kids early you should have less kids still at-risk at 4 and that before you expand, you need to be able to change how the rates work serving the full cost of NC Pre-K and focus it more at the kids who are more at-risk.”

The recommendation also includes ensuring elementary schools are ready to meet the needs of all children in early years and improving data collection, quality, and analysis across sectors to inform data-driven decisions across the early childhood spectrum.

Assessment and accountability

When it comes to assessment and accountability, the Leandro working group is drafting recommendations around assessments used in class, how schools are graded across the state, how the state supports struggling schools, and how training for school resource officers could impact discipline outcomes.

As required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, schools must be graded. That does not mean states have to give letter grades, as North Carolina does. The state’s formula for determining if a school gets an A-F is based off of 80% achievement (test scores) and 20% student growth year to year. Besides changing the formula of those performance grades to “a more balanced ratio,” the group’s draft priorities suggest using other measures to look at school success: chronic absenteeism, school climate, student discipline, extended-year graduation rates, and college and career readiness. 

Schools that receive a “D” or an “F” in the A-F scale and do not exceed growth standards are considered low-performing. As the measures between achievement and growth shift, so do how many schools receive that designation. The label comes with pressure to turn things around and, at times and to varying levels, support from the state.

You can use the tool below, as Leandro commission members did Tuesday, to see how the 2017-18 school performance grades would change using different formula calculations.

Mapping the 2017-18 school report cards

Melody Chalmers, commission member and principal of E.E. Smith High School in Cumberland County, said the calculation impacts the designation and therefore the level of support the state is able to give to struggling schools. Another of the draft priorities suggests ensuring the Department of Public Instruction (DPI) has sufficient personnel and funds to provide support over multiple years that include: “a comprehensive needs assessment, school improvement planning with focus on continuous improvement, school leader and teacher professional development, school leader and in-school coaching, and engagement of the school community, including families.”

“How can a state provide support for those schools?” Chalmers asked. “… We want to provide support to schools that are struggling, but it has got to be manageable.”

The draft recommendations also address some in-class assessments, including the creation of a plan that provides assessments to teachers that are aligned to the state’s standards — some that are formative, like NC Check-Ins, and others that are summative for accountability purposes. 

In a separate recommendation, the work group suggests supporting the state’s focus on third-grade reading proficiency, specifically pointing to the NC Early Childhood Foundation’s Pathways to Grade-Level Reading Initiative. That initiative is led by NCECF but includes cross-sector and bipartisan support from stakeholders in health, education, business, and philanthropy. The initiative connects over 50 research-backed measures to third-grade reading proficiency. 

As part of this recommendation, the work group writes that K-2 literacy assessments should not be high-stakes but formative. Members had questions around what is being done to address the large percentage of students who are not proficient in reading by the end of third grade. 

Leigh Kokenes, a Wake County psychologist, emphasized the importance of early intervention for struggling readers.

“Don’t just look at what’s happening in fourth grade. You’ve got to look at what’s happening in kindergarten,” Kokenes said.

She said other support personnel, like psychologists, can also provide expertise in literacy training and work directly with students. Every teacher in an elementary school should have literacy training, she said, and especially kindergarten teachers.

“[Kindergarten teachers] need to be resident experts in reading,” said Kokenes. “They need to be able to talk about reading skills backwards and forwards and upside down. That’s what you need.”

This working group’s final suggestion asks the State Board of Education, with help from the Department of Public Safety, to define the roles and responsibilities of school resource officers and to provide them with training. James Moore, former Rocky Mount police chief, said he thinks school resource officers should not be involved in simple disciplinary incidents that should be handled by administrators. Their very presence creates the potential for arrest or charges and, Moore said, can lead to unnecessary criminal backgrounds for young children.

“The only authority we have is power of arrest,” he said.

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.