Low-performing leadership on helping schools


Sunday, October 1, 2017

We can certainly understand Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools officials’ efforts to put a smiley face on an otherwise dire situation following release of school performance grades last month. Who, after all, wouldn’t want to say “we’re moving forward and we’re moving upward,” as Board of Education member Virginia Houston put it, when the observable data suggest otherwise?

That data unfortunately indicates that last year, four of ECPPS’ 12 schools dropped a letter grade on the latest performance report; one school — P.W. Moore Elementary — saw its grade fall from a D to an F, becoming the first school in the region to get an F grade; and the entire school district, because five other schools scored Ds, is now considered “low-performing” and will have to submit an improvement plan to the state.

One can argue — and we certainly have — that the school-grading system Republican state lawmakers adopted several years ago is unfair, that it’s a better predictor of high poverty than it is of what kids are actually learning in the classroom. Indeed, one estimate shows 93 percent of schools that received either a D or F grade have enrollments where at least half the students are from low-income families. Moreover, other school districts in eastern North Carolina that are considered low-performing because of their high number of schools with D-or-worse grades — Washington, Edgecombe, Halifax, Nash-Rocky Mount, Hertford and Northampton — are in high-poverty counties.

The fact remains that more students in these low-performing schools are not scoring at grade level in reading, math and other subjects than are scoring at grade level. And any description of that as “forward and upward” is not a credible assessment of how our kids are doing in school.

Even less credible, however, are the claims by those who say they’re advocates for helping low-performing schools improve when in fact their actions seem designed to do the exact opposite. 

State Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, recently told Staff Writer Reggie Ponder that, while the responsibility for improving the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools lies with local school officials, there is state assistance available from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction to help. Steinburg specifically mentioned DPI coaching for teachers and other educators as one assistance tool, calling it a “resource to the local school district.”

What Steinburg didn’t mention is that he and other GOP lawmakers have voted to cut DPI’s operating funds, cuts that directly affect the types of coaching programs he says EC-Pasquotank officials can use to help P.W. Moore and other low-performing schools improve student performance.

According to The News & Observer, state lawmakers voted to cut DPI’s operating funds this year by 6.2 percent — a total of about $3.2 million — and 13.9 percent — a total of about $7.3 million — for 2018-19. That’s on top of another $12 million lawmakers have slashed from DPI’s budget since 2009. GOP lawmakers claim these cuts are necessary to reduce what they consider a bloated bureaucracy at DPI. They claim those funds would instead be better spent in the classroom.

Because of this mandate from the Legislature, the State Board of Education this summer was forced to approve $2.5 million in cuts, including $1.6 million to personnel. According to the N&O, these cuts eliminated the jobs of seven full-time DPI employees and three temporary employees. Also cut were eight positions, six in what DPI describes as “district and school transformation,” the others in areas that help improve teacher effectiveness. Also cut were the salaries of 19 instructional coaches who saw their status changed from 12-month employees to 10-month employees.

Bill Cobey, chairman of the State Board of Education and former chairman of the N.C. Republican Party, has candidly acknowledged that the cuts were in areas that directly affect low-performing schools and teacher training. Cobey has also acknowledged that the board’s hands were tied on where the cuts were made. That’s because in addition to demanding the spending reductions at DPI, lawmakers also told the state school board where cuts couldn’t be made. The off-limits areas included 10 new positions lawmakers approved for Superintendent Mark Johnson’s office — at a cost of $700,000. 

Republicans’ reaction to the state board’s cuts has been telling. Johnson, the state’s first-ever Republican schools chief, called the cuts “challenging,” but hasn’t opposed them. Neither have any other Republicans. To the contrary, Johnson suggested the cuts were overdue, saying lawmakers were “clearly frustrated with the lack of accountability” they saw with the state education board. That’s why Johnson said he’s spending another $1 million lawmakers gave him for a “top-to-bottom, third-party” audit of DPI’s operations. Johnson said the audit’s goal is a “stronger, more efficient, and more effective at supporting public schools in NC.”

One wonders, however, why Johnson and other Republicans would allow the cuts at DPI to go forward before this “top-to-bottom” review takes place. Typically you find out what’s wrong before you take action, such as cutting staff needed to fix low- performing schools. 

Improving low-performing schools is obviously a serious challenge, particularly in a county where one out of every fifth person lives in poverty. We know Elizabeth City-Pasquotank officials are up to this challenge, and will do all they can to ensure our kids are learning what they should know and need to know for the grade level they’re in. Indeed, they’ve already taken steps in this direction, implementing reform models at four low-performing schools, including P.W. Moore.

We question our state leaders’ commitment to this goal, however. Cutting the kind of extra help schools like P.W. Moore desperately need, just for the sake of cutting bureaucracy, or for whatever reason it’s being done, is low-performing leadership. It deserves a D grade, maybe even an F.