Unruhe on the Issues
Attract and keep good teachers
I remained in the classroom for my entire career because that is where education happens. Durham’s quality of life, and the presence of NCCU and Duke, has brought us an unusual number of outstanding teachers. To keep these teachers in our classrooms, and to attract new, high-quality staff, Durham must pay at a level not just competitive with surrounding school districts, but competitive with non-educational jobs. North Carolina has dropped to the bottom for teacher pay nationally; Durham can’t afford to be mired down by the state pay plan. Perhaps even more importantly, Durham must look long and hard at teacher working conditions: the hours, especially non-instructional demands on time; the support, in terms of timely administrative responsiveness, training and provision of materials; and the quality of assessment of teacher work.
The current school board has rightly criticized the state “report cards” for our schools which declared “failure” even when students were achieving expected growth (i.e. students are gaining a year’s worth of learning each school year). Durham’s schools are much better than these designations would indicate. Still, in my experience, every school can do better. Our process of school improvement is often rigid and bureaucratic, lacking clear focus and direction. I do not trust “quick fixes” - schools get better by improving instruction and support, and this takes steady effort over time.
The battle over Common Core curriculum is the latest cycle of America’s long history of education controversies. I saw implementation begin in the last several years of my career. The curriculum itself, while sometimes developmentally inappropriate in the elementary grades, is for the most part an improvement over NC’s previous standard course of study. However, to the public and in the media, Common Core has become defined more by its insistence on a rigid testing program than by its curriculum. These high-stakes tests are given far too much weight in decisions about student promotion, teacher assessment and school ratings.
Fair, appropriate tests are an important part of education, providing students, parents and teachers with valuable information. It is clear, however, that right now in our schools there is too much testing, too many bad tests, and too much time spent preparing for and administering tests. I have seen hours devoted to tests that were not used in any way to improve students’ education. In my last several years in high school, over ten percent of instructional time was given over to standardized tests. We must return to using a small number of tests to supplement teacher judgement.
Suspensions and Discipline
There is no doubt that racial bias distorts school discipline decisions. Repeated studies have made this clear; my own journalism students regularly documented such bias. This is not an issue of individual prejudice, but of history and culture. DPS already provides some professional training to address cultural awareness - we can do more. At the same time, it is critical that students be taught appropriate behavior and be held accountable for such behavior. Alternatives to suspension must be combined with quick, meaningful intervention in cases of inappropriate behavior that minimizes disruptions to the classroom and school, otherwise we risk harming the education of many other students. Students must feel safe in our schools; parents must know that their children are safe.
It should not be a surprise that entrepreneurial Durham, the home of food trucks and the American Underground, would lead the state in the creation of charter schools. When charter schools were first proposed, they were described as “laboratories” to explore alternative approaches in education. I believed that they were, in fact, a smoke screen for efforts to re-segregate public schools. I continue to hold concerns about the lack of diversity in many charter schools, and the data seems to be clear that charter schools perform at the same level, or slightly below, public schools. At the same time, for parents, charters offer another set of choices in location, schedule and curriculum, that many find attractive. Our challenge is to provide high quality education for all of Durham’s children. Charter schools need to be part of this effort, held to the same level of accountability as Durham Public Schools.