Manning and Easley are both half right

Manning and Easley are both half right

- in Fitzsimon File

Governor Mike Easley and Judge Howard Manning apparently have some disagreements about how well North Carolina schools are doing.  Manning has been presiding over the Leandro case for more than a decade and is now trying to make sure that the state provides the sound, basic education to every child that he has ruled the constitution guarantees.

Manning told the State Board of Education’s Testing Commission this week that the public school system is still failing many children and that the problem is largely with what he called instructional leadership in the classroom.

Manning said he is tired of hearing excuses from low-performing schools about their test scores and that schools need to fire teachers who are not doing their job.  There was nothing new in Manning’s blistering attack, but there’s still something missing in it, his recognition that many of the low performing schools have high percentages of poor students, as you read here last week.  

Manning deserves credit for demanding excellence from North Carolina schools and he is half right that education officials, principals and teachers ought to be doing more to help struggling kids. But that ought to include speaking out about the hurdles that poor children face when they arrive at school.

Governor Mike Easley said Manning’s comments were a little too harsh and that basing progress on scores from a testing program that has frequently been adjusted can lead to incorrect conclusions.

Easley’s half right too. The state’s standardized testing program has been plagued with problems and adjustments in the difficulty of the test make year to year comparisons tricky. Still, taking each year’s scores independently, schools with high percentage of poor children generally do not perform as well as schools with low percentages of poor children.

Easley has recognized part of this and his More-at-Four programs is designed to help at-risk kids get ready for school. The problem is that just helping the kids with extra attention isn’t enough. The ultimate solution is tackling the poverty of the families trying to raise the children. That means more support for affordable housing, child care subsidies, and health care for parents, as well as children.

One in five kids in North Carolina lives in poverty and until that number changes all the education reforms and angry speeches are not going to budge test scores too much.

A recent article by columnist Peter Schrag of the Sacramento Bee in Harper’s Magazine (a shorter version is available here) makes the case that schools are often asked to do the impossible. Schrag’s article is called “Schoolhouse Crock: 50 years of blaming America’s education system for society’s woes.”

There’s plenty to debate in Schrag’s take on education, but he points out that the various education reforms of the last 50 years have all been driven by the same thing, fear of falling behind other countries, though the countries change every so often.

He says that while American schools should do better, they are judged against many countries that provide far more social services, like universal preschool and health care and other services for children and families.

Schrag writes that “American schools are forced to serve as a fallback social-service system for millions of American children,” while teaching a much more diverse population of kids than many other countries.

It all adds up to schools being the “surrogate for all other social programs” in the eyes of many politicians who only want to talk about education.  Schrag says the mantra seems to be “if there is want, change the schools. If there is unrest or inequality, change the schools.”

He is not an apologist and says clearly that schools are not good enough, echoing Judge Manning’s refrain. But he adds what Manning and to some extent Easley and other state officials leave out, that most credible research shows that “social, economic and family background is a for more important predictor of academic success than are the schools themselves.”

That doesn’t mean education officials shouldn’t keep trying to do a better job teaching all children and especially poor kids. But if Manning and Easley want to help struggling kids make real progress in school, they also ought to start crusading for programs to help their families lift themselves out of poverty. 

About the author

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.