Will Pat McCrory’s real education agenda please stand up?

Will Pat McCrory’s real education agenda please stand up?

- in Progressive Voices

As inauguration day draws near, it remains unclear if the Governor McCrory who takes office in January will have more in common with Mayor McCrory, the pro-business moderate, or candidate McCrory, who appeared to take a hard turn to the right during the election.

Nowhere is this dichotomy starker than in McCrory’s seven paragraph education platform and the curiously short shrift it gives to the system of public education that is arguably the state’s most important function.

On the one hand, McCrory stresses controversial and ideological ideas like expanding virtual (i.e. online) education, especially virtual charter schools. His platform claims that “National studies show virtual learners make larger learning gains and have higher course completion rates.” One would be hard-pressed, however, to find these studies, unless the self-evaluations conducted by the for-profit virtual learning companies count. There is no education reform currently being seriously considered anywhere in the nation with a worse track record of academic achievement than virtual charter schools.

Studies from the National Education Policy Center and the states that have already allowed virtual charter schools demonstrate that students in virtual charters significantly lag behind their peers in traditional schools even when controlling for demographic factors and that graduation and course completion rates are shockingly low. Virtual charters have also posed serious financial accountability and oversight challenges.

Virtual charter schools are an illusory choice for families because they are frequently far worse than the struggling schools that families seek to escape. Instead, Governor McCrory should focus on expanding the publicly-run North Carolina Virtual Public School by promoting a blended model that combines online learning with in-person instruction. This would provide families with high quality choices while incorporating online educational resources into the traditional learning environment at far lower cost to taxpayers.

McCrory also recommends mandatory retention of third graders who fail end-of-grade reading tests (a policy already adopted during the 2012 legislative session and one that is popular with many conservatives).

Unfortunately, decades of research and experience have shown that students who are retained are far more likely to drop out of school and that the threat of retention does nothing to motivate students or improve student achievement. Struggling students are far more likely to benefit from increased instructional support than from being held back.

The Governor-elect also proposes a “pay-for-performance” scheme that rewards teachers “for the job they do instead of just the number of years they teach.” Putting aside the merits of this proposal, this is an idea whose time simply has not come because North Carolina is currently unable to measure teacher effectiveness. The General Assembly has passed laws that require school improvement teams to use the Education Value Added Assessment System (EVAAS) that measures student data based on a “value-added” model, but there is too much variability in different groups of students for this to be used to evaluate teachers or assess them in terms of pay.

Teachers in Pennsylvania that have been rated on this measure have been the best teacher in the school one year and the worst teacher in the school the next year based simply on the ability of students they receive in a given year. Any good model for measuring a teacher’s effectiveness includes classroom observations from master teachers, but North Carolina currently lacks a teacher observation or mentoring program due to budget cuts.

There is no way to pay teachers based on performance without the ability to measure that performance in a meaningful way.

A much more promising section of McCrory’s education plan is the “High School Reading and Math Guarantee.”

This proposal would test ninth graders for proficiency in reading and math at the beginning of the year and provide remedial courses and supports for any student who is not able to pass so he or she can get help before rather than after they fail. His interest in improving college and career readiness and aligning the curriculum in both K-12 and community college education with employer’s needs is also laudable.

It is encouraging to see Governor-Elect McCrory advance at least some proposals designed to support teachers and students and put them in a position to be successful, especially following the recent wave of measures designed to punish students and teachers while diverting resources and support away from public schools. Let’s hope that Governor McCrory sees the obvious educational and political benefits of focusing most of his efforts on supporting the teachers and students in the traditional public school system that educates more than 90% of North Carolina’s children and readies the future workforce of the state.

Matt Ellinwood is a Policy Advocate with the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education and Law Project.