Race to the bottom

, Lindalyn Kakadelis, Leave a comment

Here we go again. It may be a new school year, but the same old news is still trickling in: across the board – at the national, state and local levels – high schools are in the hot seat.

This week, the Washington-based Center for Education Reform (CER) released an action paper, The American Education Diet: Can U. S. Students Survive on Junk Food? According to CER, students across America are fed a steady diet of academic fluff, damaging our standing internationally and raising costs in the world of commerce. The report cites data that clearly back up their premise: In 2003, American 15-year-olds finished 19th out of 30 industrialized nations in science and 21st out of 29 countries in math. American businesses and colleges must now allocate $16.6 billion a year to provide remedial education to high school graduates who
lack basic skills, reports CER.

In North Carolina, Governor Easley has joined the chorus of leaders calling for high school reform. Last week, Easley proposed a statewide performance audit of each high school in the state. This $300,000 study (conducted by researchers from UNC) will review test scores and spending patterns. The study’s purpose is to find common practices from successful schools and then duplicate what works.

At the local level, Dr. Peter Gorman, new Superintendent of the Charlotte/ Mecklenburg School System, announced his comprehensive school reform plan on Tuesday evening. Dr. Gorman intends to turn around the four lowest-performing high schools in Charlotte and get pass rates on state tests up to at least 55 percent – the level that Wake County Superior Court Judge Manning is demanding.

Let’s hope Gorman is more successful than his predecessors – previous efforts have been largely unsuccessful and quite expensive. While numerous proposals have come and gone since the late 1990s, the most expensive initiative by far came in the form of the High School Challenge Grant. This 3-year, $18 million grant launched by county commissioners in 2004, targeted the same four schools Gorman has his eye on.

The first year of the grant kicked off more than 30 initiatives, with little real progress. The next year, although 15 – 20 of these initiatives continued, they never coalesced into a comprehensive plan. Now during this, the third year of implementation, the new superintendent has scrapped the plan entirely, and is asking the county for the remaining $4.9 million to implement new reforms. Is it any wonder taxpayers are frustrated?

At least Dr. Gorman’s plan is based on solid research affirming that the single most important factor in student achievement is the ability of the classroom teacher. Gorman’s plan to link pay to student performance and dismiss ineffective teachers would actually up-end current, ill-conceived policies. Gorman’s ideas may sound like no-brainers, but they’re not common practice in public policy. Current policies rarely link teacher pay with student achievement; teachers are also granted tenure after just 4 years, making it unbelievably difficult to fire those who don’t perform.

Let’s hope Gorman’s merit pay and dismissal proposals turn things around. After years of unrestrained, indiscriminate spending, it’s time for a little common sense.

Lindalyn Kakadelis heads the North Carolina Education Alliance, which graciously permits us to post these dispatches.