SBE CHAIRMAN PHILLIP J. KIRK, JR., DISCUSSES PUBLIC SCHOOL PROGRESS AND CHALLENGES IN SPEECH TO WINTER LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE
Thank you for that introduction.
I appreciate the opportunity to be here tonight and to be in Asheville for the next several days.
The past two months have been very exciting to me personally, you might say very challenging and eye-opening.
I am pleased to be a member of a hard-working, effective, dedicated State Board of Education. There is a wealth of knowledge and experience on our Board, which will serve our schools well.
It is also a plus that we have a Superintendent who shares our commitment to dramatically strengthen our public schools. Mike has the integrity, the enthusiasm, and the practical experience from the classroom through the local superintendency role to make our schools better.
After my first two calls on the subject of abstinence curriculum in the public schools, I wondered what I had allowed myself to become a part of.
As I promised in November - when I was so very privileged and honored to be sworn in as Chairman of the State Board of Education - I have done a lot of listening, which is sometimes difficult for a former politician.
I have listened to former chairs of the State Board, a former State Superintendent, several members and former members of the State Board, many legislators, Governors, DPI employees, superintendents, principals, teachers, business people, and even a few parents, students, and some who no longer have children in school.
I have not finished with my listening-tour, and I pledge to you that I never will. For example, next week I will be meeting with Dallas Herring, Jay Robinson and David Bruton - three outstanding former chairmen of the State Board of Education. Listening is a great art. It is something we all must practice, but it is very important and extremely helpful.
Tonight I want to share with you some of the gems of wisdom, gleaned from conversations based on literally hundreds of total years of experience, which I have learned during the past couple of months.
And I will share with you some of my opinions which I reserve the right to change based on additional reading, listening, talking, and visiting in our schools.
Many of you are members of local boards of education. All of you have been on the firing line for education much longer than my two months' service. Most of you have been willing to run for public office - indeed a very visible, very challenging office.
You get many phone calls as, I do. In fact, I'm going to start referring my calls on abstinence to you. Maybe you can handle them better than I do.
First, let me share with you some personal habits and also some peeves since many of you do not know me....yet.
Because of parents who enjoyed reading and because of many fine teachers in Rowan County who encouraged and motivated me, I love to read. I read a lot and I read fast. Just wish I could learn fast and remember all I read.
Reading the stacks of material which come across my desk every day - some solicited and some unsolicited - causes me to pen many notes asking questions and seeking more information.
Rest assured, the members of the State Board and I are not interested in micro- management of the Department and local schools. I learned long ago that I have to work extra hard to know enough to ask the right questions.
Those questions may often cause some discomfort...and that's not always bad.
For example, for the past 30 years I have felt that government at every level wasted millions of dollars on contracts - often based on tradition, history, friendships, and blind, unquestioning loyalty.
Of course, I am not against outside contracts which are actually a form of privatization - a concept the business community strongly supports. Because we often need an independent voice, or because we simply do not have the experience or the expertise to deliver the product, and because DPI has been downsized from 1200 to under 500 employees in the past 10 years, we have needed and will continue to need to do a considerable amount of outside contracting.
But I want to be sure each contract is closely reviewed for appropriateness, for need, and for ability to produce a product which will actually be used to improve teaching, learning, and student achievement.
Just because it's the way we've done business in the past is not justification for the future. And if you really want to upset me - just tell me - "Don't worry about that. It's federal money!"
Also I believe in returning every telephone call or at least having someone who understands the subject do so. All letters - or at least the overwhelming majority - deserve a response. If the writer felt the issue warranted his or her time to write, then an answer is called for. I wish my children's principal believed in that concept.
Another area we need to improve upon is the follow-up to conferences and meetings which we all go to on a regular basis. A great conference with terrific speakers which results in an impressive report is practically worthless without an organized follow-up. So another pet peeve of mine is a lack of action after a conference or meeting. Of course, sometimes I feel I'm in meetings so much that I have very little time to follow-up or to practice what I've learned!
Unreturned surveys sent out by the State Board or the Department also cause me a problem. Hopefully, if a survey is important enough for us to design it and send it to you, it is also important enough for you or someone else to send it back to us. Often the General Assembly asks us for this information, which we do not always have readily available in Raleigh.
As I said on the day of my election and swearing-in as Chairman of the State Board, I am firmly committed to the full implementation and full funding of The ABCs and the Excellent Schools Act. As the Chair of the Education - Everybody's Business Coalition, I worked very hard - along with many others in education and business - to secure passage of these two pieces of legislation.
These forward-thinking laws, which are bringing national attention and recognition to North Carolina, are the product of strong leadership by the Governor, the bipartisan support in the House and Senate, and the people in this room. Educators are very frustrated - and rightly so - at Raleigh's record in the past of enacting a new reform program as the flavor of the month, not fully funding it, and then abandoning it before it had time to work. We must not let this happen again.
No law is perfect. Both can be fine-tuned and strengthened. However, nothing we do must be open for interpretation as lessening any accountability measures. That will be the quickest path to the loss of the bipartisan support public education now enjoys in the legislature.
The State Board and the Department are committed to improving The ABCs program. The high school model is a work-in-progress. It's far from perfect but it is the product of at least two years of hard work by many bright minds. To delay implementation yet another year is simply not an option.
Working with you, we will seek ways to put a meaningful growth factor in the model. We will seek ways to put some weight on the learning which takes place during the last two years of high school.
The timing of the suspension of principals, testing of teachers, lack of emphasis on the non-3 R's, the growth standards, the appeals process, and assistance teams are all issues we will be addressing in The ABCs program.
Clearly we need to come up with a list of incentives to attract and retain good teachers and administrators in low-performing schools. Low-performing schools need more resources for materials and technology, perhaps a loosening of the regulations concerning class size and other organizational matters. The Governor is very interested in this challenge and will help us to receive support in the legislature. The Department and State Board seek your ideas in this important area.
We need to continue to look at specific strategies for improving minority and at- risk student achievement. I understand a very good conference was held on this subject, and a follow-up one will be presented on March 30-31. I have read the proceedings from the initial meeting, and I have asked for a report on what has happened in the interim. This is a big challenge, and we must continue to work together to meet the needs of every student.
The State Board is aware of the many challenges you are facing with the English as a Second Language issue. We will seek funds from the General Assembly to help you with meeting these needs. We will be visiting with teachers in a local school tomorrow afternoon to discuss the issues they face in dealing with ESL.
Safe schools continue to dominate much of our time. It's an issue of concern not only to educators, but to parents and the public in general. According to a study done by the Public School Forum, the lack of discipline, respect, and safety is one of the top three reasons why so many educators are leaving the profession. It is also a motivating factor in many parents removing their children from the public schools. Granted, part of this is a perception problem, but in far too many cases, the fear is real.
I heard of a student the other day who is afraid to go to the restroom at his school. What kind of learning is taking place in that climate?
We are making progress, but much remains to be done to solve this societal problem.
Retention and recruitment of teachers and administrators will continue to be a very high priority for the State Board. The Teaching Fellows Program and the Principal Fellows Program are models for the country and perhaps it's time to expand both of them. I look forward to interviewing prospective Teaching Fellows next month at Meredith College.
I believe the key factor in improving student achievement is a knowledgeable, skillful, caring teacher. That is a view shared by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future.
We will continue to work with President Molly Broad and Charlie Coble in the UNC system and the deans of our public and private colleges and universities in an effort to strengthen our teacher education program. I was pleased to visit the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching at Western Carolina University recently, and I hope that more of our educators can take advantage of this program.
The University is re-organizing its efforts in this area, and we hope to see a continued improvement in these programs, as well as their giving a higher priority to working with public schools. Certainly I have noticed an improvement in recent years.
Testing continues to be an issue of concern. We must continue to look at what we test and what kind we use. There is strong support for testing of students and teachers in the General Assembly and with the public. Frankly, with all its problems, I do not know of a viable alternative to measure student progress at this time. Certainly there are other measures we should use in addition to testing.
The news media focus on SAT scores because they seem easy to understand and put in a headline. That's a fact we cannot change and we need to continue on drastic improvements in this area. The frustrating thing is that our nation-leading gains in math and science go largely unnoticed. Of the 1.2 million students in our public schools, fewer than three percent are involved with the SAT on a yearly basis! Ninety-seven percent of all students are not.
Charter schools present some additional challenges for all of us. Superintendent Ward, Weaver Rogers, and I are in the process of actually visiting charter schools. Remember these are public charter schools. A minority of public school people are being perceived as anti-competition and anti-charter schools, and that is not helpful with legislators who control the funds we receive. We realize the financial impact that charters cause in your budgets and will seek ways to reduce any unfair impact on the public schools.
And I would respectfully remind those who are critical of our charter schools legislation that the State Board of Education strongly urged legislators that they should keep the number of charter schools small until we see evidence that the effort is worthy of expansion.
The business community is supportive of charter schools as a "potentially" reasonable way to improve our public schools. They oppose tax credits and vouchers, as I do, but we believe competition and experimentation within the public sector can and should lead to improvements in public schools.
Charter schools can be considered as laboratories for learning. If student achievement goes up in charter schools, we will analyze the reasons and seek legislative and regulatory changes in those areas which require it so that these lessons learned can be applied to other K-12 public schools. We also need to recognize that most, if not all, charter schools have waiting lists, and that may send us a message we are not too comfortable hearing.
I was disturbed by a comment in the news media by a superintendent last week which showed a shocking misunderstanding of the purpose of charter schools. This superintendent complained that all he wanted was a level playing field with charter schools. As I said, the main purpose of charter schools is to provide a laboratory for learning or experimentation. Then we can hopefully transfer those successes in public charters to public schools. If public charters and public schools were operating on a level playing field, there would be no purpose for charters! Going one step further, if we had better satisfied our customers in the past, there would likely be no charter schools and there would not be waiting lists for admission to the ones which exist.
In another area, we must give a renewed emphasis to the implementation of much of the report of the Standards and Accountability Commission.
The Governor will soon name his selections to the Standards and Accountability Committee and hopefully this will help to move the process along.
A high school diploma must actually mean something, both to the graduate and to the higher education and business communities. This is not the case at the present time. We must end social promotions and we must require a high school exit exam before diplomas are awarded. A senior project, similar to those in Charlotte- Mecklenburg and Winston-Salem/ Forsyth, should be strongly considered.
Nationally, 41 percent of first-time freshmen at two-year, public institutions took at least one remedial reading, writing, or mathematics course in 1995. At 54 percent of public, two-year institutions, high school graduates take remedial courses for a year or more. The North Carolina figures are equally as shocking.
Not only must our students know course content at a higher level, but they must know how to use what they learn.
We also must be fully committed to the belief that all students can learn and most of them can learn at higher levels than we are currently expecting. High, rigorous standards for students, teachers, and administrators must be at the heart of all we do.
In a potentially controversial area, we are now seeing a national movement to destroy school-to-work or school-to-career programs come to North Carolina. Our N.C. House has a committee which is attacking the JobReady program and many other programs funded by federal monies.
I have entered the debate and very forcefully challenged the influence of right- wing extremists on this House committee. We are seeing previously unheard of tactics in our legislature.
My message is that we not be defensive. We have nothing to be ashamed of in our plans to provide real work opportunities for our students through Job-Ready, apprenticeships, internships, and co-op programs. We must not let a few misinformed, but well intentioned legislators intimidate us from pushing ahead with a more meaningful school curriculum.
On issues for the future which have not received much attention me mention just a few.
Smaller schools. Many of us are the products of a time when consolidation of small high schools in particular was the rule, not the exception. The reasons for consolidation were valid in the past, but with the increased use and availability of technology, we need to give school organization another look. Smallness often results in better discipline, stronger parental support, and more of a feeling of community.
Leasing facilities. This should be considered as an alternative to the expensive, time-consuming process of designing and building every new building which you need. The General Assembly has agreed with this approach being used at the discretion of school boards and county commissioners.
Privatization. While schools are different from other government entities, I believe there are possibilities for real cost-savings and efficiencies by contracting out some services. This is something which should be carefully considered. We need to expand the purchasing off state contract pilot programs statewide. We must reduce the burdensome paperwork compliance and increase the dollar amount for eligibility in the program.
We must look for ways to work more with such effective groups as Communities in Schools and Junior Achievement. Many of our school systems are involved with one or both organizations, but we need Communities in Schools and Junior Achievement in more schools across the state. The public sector and the private sector both have strengths which are needed in our work.
Parental Involvement. Many of you have excellent parental involvement programs in your schools. I do not need to spend any time convincing you of the importance of having parents involved in your schools and providing support at home.
If I were not convinced of the importance and impact of parental involvement before I started reading the reports from the school assistance teams, I would be sold on it now. Almost without exception, low-performing schools have parents who are not as involved as they need to be.
There are many ways to increase effective parental involvement, and they are not always easy. Long work hours, illiteracy, substance abuse, misuse of drugs, and just plain "I don't care" attitudes make the challenge a tough one in many ways. But I'm convinced that this is one of the main keys to improving student performance.
Governor Hunt has given me the responsibility of developing a stronger, more effective parental involvement program. Clearly the success or failure of this project rests at the local level. We will try to be helpful, but you are the key to increasing parental involvement. Please drop me a note and let me know what's working in your schools so we can share it where help is needed.
With my business hat on, I am pleased at the increased quality and quantity of business involvement in our schools. While money is still needed, we also could use more volunteer time from the business community.
Communication in this area - as well as in so many others - is of extreme importance. I was so pleased to hear from Brent Kincaid, the CEO of Broyhill Furniture, the other day about the high level of cooperation and communication business and industry receives from the Caldwell County Schools and the Community College. Hopefully, that is true in all 117 school districts.
I have been bothered during the past couple of years about the focus on what's wrong with our schools. Test results, dropout rates, and national recognition have all improved, but too few people know about it.
The State Board and Department are determined to work harder to get the positive message out. While we are still a long way from having our schools where we want them to be, there are good things happening across the state.
At the beginning of our State Board meeting on Wednesday morning, we will highlight a collaborative effort among K-12, community college, and university, which is guaranteeing every at-risk student in the seventh grade in Jackson County, not only a free education at the community college, but at the university. And the good news is, the business community is footing the bill.
We will be looking at creative ways to call attention to the good news, but we need your commitment to do the same.
In closing, let me say that we need to work hard to maintain the momentum which is clearly with public education in our state. Recent bond votes and public opinion polls show there is a lot of support for what we're doing.
However, there are also a lot of challenges. We appreciate the partnership which exists between local school boards and the State Board of Education. The involvement of your state association with the Education - Everybody's Business Coalition is very much appreciated.
I look forward to visiting with you as often as my schedule allows. Since it's been too long since I've been to a local board of education meeting, I will go to the Johnston County Board meeting on April 14. I will be attending the national meeting of your association and state board chairs in August, and I am looking forward to that.
Thank you for all you do for public education in our state - but most importantly what you do for the boys and girls whose lives we are influencing every day.
I'd like to close for real this time by reading you some brief comments I read recently about the importance of a good, positive attitude.
Attitude has much to do with whether we are happy or not. The late William Lyon Phelps, famous professor of English at Yale University, used to say that "he is the happiest who thinks the happiest thoughts." It is true that our thoughts determine whether we are miserable or happy. Our thought patterns create the world in which we live. If we are to achieve happiness, we have to cultivate the thoughts that produce happiness. If we permit ourselves to nurture critical thoughts, hateful thoughts, and mental attitudes other than those of good will and generosity of spirit, we will be unhappy. We are like, to a great extent, the thoughts we habitually think.
About the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction:
The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction provides leadership to 115 local public school districts and 126 charter schools serving over 1.5 million students in kindergarten through high school graduation. The agency is responsible for all aspects of the state's public school system and works under the direction of the North Carolina State Board of Education.
For more information:
NCDPI Communication and Information Division, 919.807.3450.