An Open Letter to NC Lawmakers

An Open Letter to NC State Lawmakers and NC State Superintendent Mark Johnson:

I am a NC native, voter, and public school teacher. I am addressing you all today in regards to several key education policy issues contained with the Senate and House budget drafts that you are currently negotiating to a compromise final budget.

Arts Graduation Requirement

The House version of the budget includes a provision for an arts graduation requirement. I have 17 years experience as a visual arts teacher in NC including a number of years as a department chair for a large high school visual and performing arts department. An arts graduation requirement, especially without additional funding, could have negative unintended consequences. To ensure a quality arts education experience, a teacher is only part of the equation. Visual and performing arts courses require facilities and supplies well beyond the typical classroom supply costs. Running water, instrument storage, piano tuning, set pieces, sheet music…each specialty has major facility requirements, expensive required supplies, and often large start up costs.

Even more concerning is the pressure that a graduation requirement would put on existing arts programs. Many students thrive in the arts and take multiple arts courses throughout their high school careers. Outstanding arts programs get that way because of extended student study and leadership of experienced students. The pressure of a graduation requirement could mean that many arts teachers will be forced to offer more introductory level courses or seats at the expense of advanced courses and students. Lets do the math together. Lets say a high school has 1500 students and 4 arts teachers (band, chorus, art, and theater). On a 4×4 schedule those 4 teachers could offer 24 sections of courses a year. At an average of 30 students each, that is 720 students (less than half the student body) who could get an arts credit each year. In this scenario, the number of students who can take multiple arts classes is greatly reduced. As the provision was written, the credit could be earned in 6-12 grades, in theory relieving some of the burden on high schools. However, there is nothing to mandate that the middle school offer any arts courses nor are there established standards to ensure that the middle school course is the equivalent rigor of a high school course.

Frankly, I and other arts teachers are just puzzled by all this. There is no “whereas” section to the bill to enlighten us on the intent or objective of this legislation. I find no minutes or video of any discussion or debate of this issue or any name attached as a sponsor of the provision. Is the intent to show your support for arts education in our great state? That would indeed be most remarkable, considering in my 17-year career as an arts educator I don’t remember any such expression of support for the General Assembly. It is also a very mixed message as the impact of smaller class size mandates on arts teachers at the elementary level still goes unresolved. Is the intent to move arts instruction from the elementary to the secondary level? If so, can you please point to the research that supports that students benefit more from arts learning in higher grades? Who was consulted in the development of this policy? The NC Association of Art Educators? The NC Music Educators Association? The NC School Boards Association? The NC Board of Education? A handful of superintendents or principals? Anyone?

If we the people of NC are to be governed in good faith, then these are the conversations that need to happen. If the goal is ensuring a quality arts experience for all of North Carolina’s students, then approach the people who have expertise on the topic to understand what smart policy should look like. The same can be said of elementary class size issue. Instead of engaging in what frankly looks like an ego fueled game of brinksmanship and accusing districts of bad faith, accept the fact that school funding is insanely complex. Educators all across this state leave our egos at the door every day in order to focus on the needs of our students, perhaps our lawmakers and district leaders can as well.

NCFE and ASW

This fact is simple and obvious and I know you have heard from numerous constituents who agree: there is too much standardized testing in NC. The call is coming from all over the political spectrum from both parents and teachers. I seem to recall that our recently elected State Superintendent, Mark Johnson ran on a platform of reducing standardized testing. Amazingly, there is an incredibly simple and easy way to accomplish that goal. Get rid of the NC Final Exams (NCFE) and Analysis of Student Work (ASW).

These assessments were developed in response to the Race to the Top federal funding program that no longer exists. They were developed to generate data for teachers related to standard six of the teacher evaluation instrument, a standard that no longer exists. They were solely designed to evaluate teachers, as they are optional for teachers who already have data based on an EOG test. They are also optional for charter schools. A blue ribbon task force recommended that they be eliminated. House Bill 90 to eliminate them was passed with only one opposing vote. When that bill went nowhere in the Senate, the House included an elimination of ASW funds in their budget. Eliminating these assessments would save the state money in developing and conducting them and would save districts money by reducing the staff needed to support testing. Why on earth do we still have these assessments? I can’t think of a single justifiable reason.

The new Federal Every Student Succeeds Act gives our state even more freedom in establishing accountability policies. In fact, it was passed in part specifically to answer parent and teacher complaints about over testing. There is a great opportunity to further reduce unnecessary testing and to make student assessments more authentic and meaningful. It is also an opportunity for NC to join dozens of other states in providing policy in regards to parents’ wishes to opt out of standardized testing. The Department of Public Instruction, under Mr. Johnson’s leadership, is in charge of this plan. Despite a final draft being due in September, the current draft is nowhere near complete with the questions of accountability left unaddressed: http://www.ncpublicschools.org/docs/succeeds/draft-state-plan.pdf

NC Teaching Fellows

I am very pleased to see the General Assembly moving towards reestablishing a program similar to the NC Teaching Fellows program. The details of this program, however, matter greatly. The original Teaching Fellow program (that I was luck to be a part of) was not just about maintaining a flow of quality teachers; it was about building the foundation of our public school system. Students were chosen as high school students because the goal was to find young people who wanted to dedicate their whole careers to education. The goal was not only to find the best and brightest, but also to diversify our classrooms by drawing in teacher candidates from groups underrepresented in our teaching force. The Teaching Fellows program did not just prepare teachers, it prepared leaders. Fellows had more enriched experiences and more rigorous expectations than their peers in the same degree programs. Today a vast majority of former Teaching Fellows are still involved in education and many are teacher leaders, school and district administrators, and teacher educators. A program to replace Teaching Fellows should not be a quick fix to address teacher shortages in a few areas but should be a long-term investment in the people who will form the supporting architecture of our public schools. I challenge our lawmakers to design a program with this bolder vision instead of the more limited approach that has been proposed.

Thank you for taking the time to listen to these thought. I appreciate your service to the people of North Carolina.

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