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Perspective | We have sold our kids too short

James Ford and Nicholas Triplett have compiled and synthesized a great deal of data on inequity in the delivery of education in North Carolina. This excellent report can form the basis for action by individuals and groups including teachers, administrators, and policymakers as well as the general public.

The key takeaway for many will be the data behind widely-held assumptions directly impacting the delivery of education. Unquestionably, most reporting of data around race and education has targeted achievement gaps with little mention of access and opportunity. Clearly, equitable access to quality instruction and educational resources are powerful determinants of achievement outcomes.

I am especially pleased to note that this report stresses quality and opportunity and does not continue to beat the worn-out drum of more money, more money. The report’s introduction clearly points out that money, albeit critically important, is not the key issue. Programs such as “No Child Left Behind,” “Race To The Top,” and now the “Every Student Succeeds Act” have appropriated nearly $25 billion over just the last 20 years, and still we struggle in this state and in this country to be in the top tier for education outcomes (based on recent PISA data).

This report considers the broad swath of racial diversity in our state and provides detailed data and analysis of how each of the six key racial groups (White, Black, Hispanic, Multiracial, Asian, and American Indian) are performing, what assumptions have been made about them, and perhaps why outcomes are so very different. These differences are stark but can be understood. This report provides an opportunity to enhance that understanding, but it must not be left to stand alone.

It is no surprise to anyone that we have inequities in the delivery of education nor that the education system is slanted toward the traditional white population; that applies both to the teaching corps and the student body. After all, white students comprise nearly half of the total student population in our public schools, almost twice the percentage of the next racial group, and white female teachers make up approximately 80% of all teachers in our state. Certainly, any effort to deliver a quality product or service will favor the bulk of the customer base. This would be true in any state, country, organization, or business.

The particular challenges for North Carolina become clear very early in the report detail. “Teacher quality has been consistently identified as the most important school-based factor in student achievement.” Although not a revelation, this point has been made over and over, but has not always been supported with the necessary data to drive it home. In her 2013 book, “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got To Be That Way,” Amanda Ripley clearly lays out the impact of access to high quality teachers as the primary key to success in education everywhere in the world. The question often is, however, what constitutes “high quality teaching.” As in life, there are several pieces to that puzzle: preparation, experience, retention/turnover, racial-ethnic match, support systems, and access; all are identified and considered throughout the report. Volumes are written on each of these factors and each factor inherently has its own nuance. Although it may seem logical that these factors are key, it has not always been apparent.

Frankly, I found some contradictory assertions in the report, but that should not be surprising; conclusions from data are often contradictory. However, the “takeaways” are especially cogent. Key among those are that students of color are overexposed to teachers that are not highly qualified. These students are systematically excluded from advanced placement and honors courses, disproportionally identified as either Exceptional (EC), or are covered under the federal definition of the Individual Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Students of color are also disproportionately absent or suspended and drop out from school. The message is clear, we must put our best resources against our most difficult challenges, especially in education. This report clearly points that out!

We are all a product of our environment: physical, social, economic, and ethnic. This state and this country share a difficult past with many other countries and regions of the world. We cannot nor should we rewrite history. As has been said, ignorance of the past can make us reckless in the present and irresponsible in the future. We must learn from our history, not live in it. We must study it to understand how we got here so that we can understand how to move forward and provide an opportunity for all students to benefit from a level playing field. We cannot guarantee future success, but we can provide a springboard. That begins by removing the barriers.

The report concludes that “North Carolina is clearly committed to staffing qualified teachers…” but also acknowledges that “different student groups of color encounter the educational system in different ways.” I believe it inarguable that there has been a “legacy of negative stereotypes and racism against Black children in the public education system.” It is my opinion that we have sold our kids, all of our kids, way too short. We must provide them with more stringent and rigorous academic challenges, and we must challenge ourselves in the same manner. Equitable access to the kinds of rigorous coursework and effective teaching necessary to ensure college and career readiness must be offered to all students. This will require both policy reform and personal commitment by teachers, administrators, parents, and policymakers. To do less is to forsake the future for us all.

Craig Horn

Hon. Craig Horn serves on the Board of Trustees of Wingate University and is a former member of the North Carolina General Assembly and chairman of the House Education Policy and Appropriations committees. He is a also board member of digiLEARN, a nonprofit dedicated to accelerating digital learning to increase personal learning options for students and expand instructional opportunities for teachers and instructors.