Fixing failing schools

By Tom Campbell - N.C. Spin

North Carolina has been talking for years about fixing failing schools, but so far it is mostly talk. It isn’t easy to discuss some of the underlying issues involved without sounding accusatory, discriminatory or harsh, but for the sake of all our children we must cut through the Gordian knot we have created.

Most failing schools have a preponderance of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, frequently single parent homes where the parent either isn’t able or willing to provide the encouragement needed for the child’s success in school. This often becomes a discussion stopper because schools can’t fix socioeconomic problems or force parents to do what is needed for their child’s success.

These children come to school unprepared and remain behind, unable to perform grade level work. Too many are minorities, making race the elephant in the room. No matter how well-intentioned diversity and racial parity have become almost as important as the education children receive.

Mainstreaming children already unable to perform grade level work merely continues the pattern of failure for them and presents a serious dilemma for educators. Does the teacher devote a disproportionate amount of time and instruction to helping these children, making it difficult to devote sufficient attention to those at or above grade level? Does she try to be Superteacher, attempting to divide time between those below as well as those at or above grade level? The outcome isn’t usually satisfactory to anyone and the teacher gets worn out trying. Or perhaps the teacher, largely evaluated by class test scores, focuses primarily on those students who can assimilate and learn. That just perpetuates the cycle of failure for those who need the most help.

Parents might value efforts for diversity, but they recognize their primary responsibility is to ensure their child gets a world-class education. Often parents become frustrated with what they consider insufficient challenges for their child to excel and vote with their feet, moving to charter or private schools. This prophesies further failure, as public schools become increasingly populated with average or under-performing students.

Just as Alexander the Great slashed the legendary Gordian knot with a sword, we need to stop fiddling with the rope and cut through excuses and inaction.

After dallying with Halifax County Schools since 2009, the State Board of Education finally stepped in to take over financial controls, but just controlling finances won’t fix their problems. More drastic action is called for.

Representative Rob Bryan’s solution is to establish a pilot project to force five of our worst performing schools to either close or be taken over by successful charter schools. Based on models in Tennessee and New Orleans this might have promise but results are inconclusive.

Let’s look at the problem from another viewpoint. Instead of concentrating on the whole school, why not place our focus on each child, where it belongs? We should devote our full attention to what will provide each with the highest and best education they can attain. Children who can and do achieve the most should be put in classes where they can move rapidly. Conversely, those children who need the most help will be put in classrooms where they get more specialized attention to help them succeed to higher levels.

It’s time for honest conversation and more action so as to stop failing our children.

Tom Campbell is the executive producer and moderator of N.C. Spin.

By Tom Campbell

N.C. Spin

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