By Michaela L. Duckett, Special to the NNPA by The Charlotte Post –
The nation’s education system is in crisis. A country that once outranked the world’s other industrialized nations, now trails significantly behind as school drop out rates continue to rise and proficiency scores in the core subjects of math, reading, and science are plummeting.
The problem is far worse for African American students, who continue to lag behind their White and Asian counterparts in achievement. As for black males, half are expected to drop out before completing high school.
Although statistics paint a dismal picture, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is optimistic about the future, and believes Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is “on the cutting edge of innovation," setting an example for the nation to follow.
“I am a big fan of (CMS) Superintendent Peter Gorman and his leadership team here. I think the school district here is making real and sustained and meaningful progress. It’s great to see so many high performing schools,” said Duncan. “As a country, as we think about turning around chronically underperforming schools and schools that for too long haven’t worked for kids and haven’t worked for the community. This school district is trying to do it at a scale and in a systematic way that, I think, is going to shape the national conversation.”
Duncan made those remarks during a recent trip to Charlotte, when he visited Sterling Elementary School with N.C. Governor Beverly Perdue and State Board of Education Chair Bill Harrison to see innovation in action.
Sterling Elementary School was chosen because of its participation in the district’s Strategic Staffing Initiative, which provides a mix of financial and hiring incentives to place strong principals in underperforming schools. The principals make a three year commitment and are allowed to choose an assistant principal, academic facilitator, and as many as five teachers to join them on their new assignments.
First year program results at Sterling showed end of grade reading test scores increased from 34.6 percent to 58.9 percent. Math scores increased from 52.4 percent to 83.7 percent, during the same time.
In fact, academic performance, as measured by proficiency on state tests, has risen at nearly every school participating in the Strategic Staffing initiative. More schools are being added each year.
“If we are serious about closing the achievement gap in our country, we have to close the opportunity gap,” said Duncan. That work, he said, begins with “figuring out how to get your hardest working, most committed teachers and principals in communities that need the most help.”
The problem, he said is that “there are far too many places where [people] in their heart don’t honestly believe that poor children or children of color can be very, very successful. And we need folks who are willing to challenge the status quo.”
Duncan believes initiatives such as CMS’ Strategic Staffing can be powerful in making a difference.
“We have to keep getting better year after year after year, and this district right now is doing that,” he said. “What I see happening here in Charlotte is pretty remarkable.”
Perdue said turning schools around is the responsibility of the entire community, not just that teachers and educators.
“America has one shot at changing the future,” she said. “It’s very incumbent upon all of us, as parents, as faith leaders, and as citizens to step up in a very powerful way for schools. We all have to be involved.”
Perdue said improving the quality of our schools will be to the benefit of all citizens because it is key in attracting the businesses that keep the region vital and make the nation as a whole more globally competitive.
“If we don’t make this happen now, it may never happen,” she said. “We are committed for the long haul. It’s not about more resources, but more courage.”
Duncan said it all begins with a child’s first and most important teachers – parents.
“The most important thing we can do is to be a good, full and equal partner with our children’s [school] teachers,” he said. “I think parents have to turn those TV’s off at night. They have to read to their children. They can’t just show up once a year at a parent-teacher conference to exchange home phone numbers with that teacher. They have to work through good times and bad.”
In the fiscal year 2011 budget, Duncan is asking that the amount allocated for parent communication be doubled to $340 million. “We think that it is just that important to invest in those places that are engaging parents in very creative ways,” he said.
After two consecutive years of deep budget cuts, CMS is expecting a larger shortfall next year when they will face a “funding cliff” as stimulus stabilization funding comes to an end. School board member Trent Merchant asked Duncan if he could provide any commitment, such as setting aside endowment type funds that are protected from the recession to help the district as they work on compensation reform.
Duncan replied: “The government is in this for the long haul, and our resources are helpful, but at the end of the day, I think that our resources are much less important than your courage, your commitment, and your capacity to deliver.”
Duncan said that although teacher compensation is a part of the equation, it is not the sole solution.
“If you pay teachers an extra $40,000 or $50,000 to go into a dysfunctional situation, they’re not going to do it. Great principals, great schools are hugely important in attracting and retaining great talent in tough communities.”
Duncan said that like CMS, the vast majority of school districts across the nation are being forced to do more with less. “These are just tough times… There are no easy answers. That’s reality, and it’s not going to change anytime soon. We can either cry about it or we can figure out how to use every single dollar wisely and how we can create innovative partnerships and bring in the philanthropic community, the business community, and how we engage parents in different ways,” he said.
Duncan believes the challenge will drive districts to be more productive and efficient. It will also force difficult conversations about programs and strategies that may look good on paper but do little in making a difference in improving the quality of education and changing lives.
“In education, we are very good at starting new programs, but we’re much less good at stopping things that aren’t working,” he said.