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. 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. In my three and a half years we have substantially raised our supplement, begun paying teachers for covering other classes, expanded our pool of substitutes, and begun a program to assist teacher assistants with the training to become classroom teachers.
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). I do not trust “quick fixes” - schools get better by improving instruction and support, and this takes steady effort over time. Even by the distorted standard of state testing, Durham has made major strides in improving student performance, dramatically decreasing the number of so-called “F” schools, increasing the number of “A” and “B” schools, and most importantly, raising the level of learning in all of our schools.
Fiscal Support and Accountability
Durham is near the top of the state in terms of local funding of school operations. However, we have lagged in our support for construction and maintenance of our facilities. Over the course of my term, DPS has become a model for budget transparency and is finally moving forward to construct a new Northern High and a new elementary school in southern Durham. We still will need, soon, a second new elementary school and a new middle school, along with a major infusion of funds to address a backlog of maintenance needs throughout the system.
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. At the same time, it is critical that students be taught appropriate behavior and be held accountable for such behavior with quick, meaningful intervention that minimizes disruptions to the classroom and school. Students must feel safe in our schools; parents must know that their children are safe. DPS has reduced suspensions by 25 per cent while not lowering our safety standards. We have introduced alternatives to suspension and extensive staff training. There is more work to do, but our progress has been impressive.
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 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. My hope is that Durham can lead our state away from the current model of competition towards a model adopted by many other states in which charters are incorporated into local school systems.