BRIAN DEATON: Education: Graduates Still Lacking Basic Foundation Skills
A strong public education system has long been a cornerstone in the social and economic development of our country.
Although there are legitimate frustrations with the current state of our public education system, we do not advocate using public funds to support alternative systems that cannot be reasonably accessed by all students.
The education process is not simply about educational achievement, it is also about social development, which includes productive interactions with people who differ -- by ethnicity, income level and academic prowess.
Still, there are problems that need attention.
In North Carolina, the number of dropouts has reached its highest level in six years and is trending upward. The dropout rate is also increasing; rates for minorities are significantly higher than for whites. The two major reasons students drop out of school, as reported by the Department of Public Instruction, are poor attendance and enrollment in a community college before completing graduation requirements -- both reflecting student boredom.
Too many students are "graduating" but still lacking the basic foundation skills needed to succeed at the next level. The North Carolina Community College System reports that 49 percent of students require some remediation coursework.
Teachers are frustrated by class sizes and student-to-teacher ratios that are too high and classrooms that lack the facilities for effective instruction.
Finally and significantly, the No Child Left Behind legislation has produced the unintended consequence of focusing the instructional process on "passing tests" rather than "knowledge and skill development."
There are several key elements to a good education process: teachers who are competent in subject-matter content and instructional process; students and parents who are committed to learning; and alternative paths to satisfying education requirements.
What can and should be done to restore these elements into public education? First, backing away from or underinvesting in the public school system is no solution; we must be willing to make the changes needed to get the results we want. Second, all parents and students must recognize that the responsibility of society is to provide the opportunity for a quality education. Acquiring that education requires a strong personal investment.
To address the dropout rate, curricula must provide a balanced focus between the college-bound and non-college-bound students.
Both non-college-bound students and the public school system would benefit by a stronger linkage with the local community college in creating integrated vocationally based instructional programs that start at the ninth- or 10th-grade level and proceed through two years of community college.
This reduces the need for remediation and builds a stronger credential that is more responsive to the skill sets needed by employers. Community colleges and public school systems must see themselves in a strong partnership to serve these students.
To ensure that instruction builds appropriate knowledge and skills in our students, qualified teachers need to be developed, valued, and retained. Teachers must be competent in their subjects and creative in their instructional methods.
We support competency testing of teachers, but more than testing and credentialing, often a superficial measure of competence, is needed. Good mentoring of new teachers by experienced ones is critical. Good teachers also need an incentive to stay in teaching. Salary increases and career advancement should not require movement into administration or management.
To evaluate teacher effectiveness accurately and fairly, administrators must be actively engaged with their teaching staff and the instructional processes. They must recognize that student performance results are a function of the total instructional system at the school and cannot easily be isolated to individual teachers.
The majority of students will perform well under traditional teaching methods. But a significant number will not. Building knowledge through experiential learning with the activities that young people enjoy (e.g., skateboarding, video technology) needs to be part of the instructional tool kit, and teachers who have the ability to employ these nontraditional instructional methods need to be recognized and rewarded.
Many of the problems that occur in the public school setting, including behavior problems, result from student-to-teacher ratios that are too high and the resulting inability of teachers to provide the individual level of attention that is often needed.
What is needed is not more rules and suspension standards, but school budgets that reflect more investment in the classroom, including the use of teaching assistants. More community volunteers are needed to help both inside and outside the classroom, particularly where the level of parental engagement is low or nonexistent.
Finally, state and federal funding formulas must give priority consideration to low-wealth areas with limited tax bases so that place of residence does not restrict someone's ability to acquire a good education.
A strong public education system is as important to our continued social and economic growth as other elements of the public infrastructure. We should continue the commitment made to it by every preceding generation of Americans.
Brian Deaton is chairman of the Moore County Democratic Party. Wilma Laney, president of the Democratic Women, and Bill Schmidt, chairman of the Political Action Committee, contributed significantly to this column.
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