There may be no profession more publicly and thoroughly second-guessed than educators. From parents to public officials to lawmakers, people believe they know better — or perhaps could do better — than those who educate our children.
Some of this drumbeat is borne from a genuine concern that student and school performance is not what it should be. Some of it, however, is grandstanding, and too much of it is the hubris of people believing they know more about what should happen in a classroom than the professionals certified and trained to work there.
In this legislative session alone, North Carolina Republicans have introduced a bill that would tell teachers how to navigate the choppy waters of history and race in their classrooms, and for good measure proposed another that would require teachers to use valuable time to publish all lesson plans, along with supporting instructional materials and information about how reviews of lesson materials can be requested, on school websites. But Republicans aren’t the only officials taking the wrong path with schools.
In Mecklenburg County, manager Dena Diorio — with the support of at least some Democratic commissioners — proposed withholding $56 million from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools until the district comes up with a detailed plan on how to close racial achievement gaps by 2024. Diorio said the money, which represents more than 10 percent of the county’s annual funding of CMS, would not come from day-to-day classroom needs, and commissioners suggested that the district has been less-than-forthcoming about how it wants to address the achievement gap. One commissioner told the editorial board this week that commissioners have had enough of the district’s unresponsiveness.
But in a Dec. 10 meeting with county commissioners and again this month, CMS officials offered substantial details about how they are addressing the needs of low-income and minority students. The most recent meeting included a 72-deck slide presentation of the district’s strategy and plans, school board chair Elyse Dashew told the Editorial Board.
This editorial board understands and shares the concern parents and community leaders have with gaps in student performance, and CMS has hurt itself in the past by too often taking a standoffish posture with parents and Mecklenburg municipalities. But despite Diorio’s assertion that the $56 million contingency is “a way to tie funding to accountability,” the county commission is not an oversight board of CMS. If the Board of County Commissioners believes it’s overpaying for what it’s getting, state law lays out a process for bridging the gap between what CMS wants and what Mecklenburg wants to provide.
Diorio’s contingency proposal isn’t part of that process. Nor should it be. Closing achievement gaps is a complex challenge that has vexed educators in North Carolina and across the country for decades. Withholding funding might bring short-term satisfaction, but it dismisses how hard districts and schools are working toward improvement, and it does little to help anyone get there. That takes experimentation and collaboration, the kind that N.C. Republican lawmakers happened to show earlier this year when they worked with educators and the state school board to craft the “Excellent Public Schools Act,” which aligned classroom instruction with a “science of reading” approach that includes phonics.
There’s legitimate debate over whether a phonics-based approach to reading is best, but lawmakers should be applauded when they take a collaborative approach to addressing a critical need in classrooms. We all want accountability. We all want results. We wish that we all wanted to pay teachers the kind of salaries that attract and keep more of the best teachers in classrooms. We’re certain, however, that a collaborative approach — not withholding funds or underfunding education or scoring political points about curriculum — is North Carolina’s best chance to move schools closer to the performance that everybody wants. That includes those who know better — and those who think they do.