A Crossroads in Public Education
July 22, 2011

As we prepare to begin the 2011-12 school year, we are standing at a crossroads for public education in North Carolina. There is no doubt that schools and school districts are facing significant financial challenges. Yet, amidst these challenges is an opportunity to make this upcoming school year a game changer for our state's schools and our nearly 1.5 million students. So let's take a moment to survey the current landscape so we can see where we are now and where we are headed.

There is no question that we are seeing many significant shifts the foundation of public education in North Carolina and across the country. For example:

How, where and when students learn is changing.

  • Technology is creating new challenges, new opportunities, new ways of thinking and new ways of supporting the learner in the classroom and beyond.
  • There is an explosion of students enrolling virtual online courses; not only in our state but all over the nation. Last school year, 32,349 students enrolled in 40,932 virtual courses through the North Carolina Virtual Public School (NCVPS) – a 20 percent increase over the previous year's enrollment. The virtual University of Phoenix enrollment stands at nearly 300,000 students.
  • North Carolina students will soon be spending more time in school since the General Assembly increased the number of instructional days in the school calendar from 180 to 185. While many districts will get a one-time waiver from the new requirement this year, the 2012-13 school year will be five days longer for most students across the state.

The role of the teacher is changing.

  • With school administrator and other support positions are being eliminated and we are moving to a place where teachers once again become the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker – the person who must do everything.
  • At the same time, there is an increased focus on teacher evaluation and effectiveness. I have seen more articles in newspapers, journals, and other media about this topic than I have ever seen before in my career in education.

How the state supports public schools is changing.

  • There is increased competition among universities, community colleges and K-12 public schools for a very limited amount of state resources.
  • The number of students being homeschooled in our state is at least 90,000. This number represents an all- time high. This record comes at a time when new legislation has opened the door for tax credits for parents who would take their children out of public schools and put them into private schools.

All of these changes have the potential to cripple public education. Or we can use these shifts to accelerate our capacity to provide a higher quality of education that will prepare every student for a future in the global economy. So what path will we take? Do we shy away from what is new and different and stay in our cocoon of what is comfortable and familiar? Or do we alter some traditions that no longer help children and the practices that just don't make any difference?

When you consider how many great things are already happening in public education in North Carolina, the answer is clear. It is time to embrace opportunities, use the many assets we already have in place and move forward. For example:

  • For the first time in over 40 years, every subject taught at every grade level in North Carolina will have a new Standard Course of Study starting in 2012-13. Thousands of educators and curriculum experts have given feedback about these new Essential Standards and the Common Core State Standards in mathematics and language arts and reading. This new curriculum focuses on application and relevance and will finally provide a clear answer to our students' question "When will I use this stuff?" This summer, teams of educators from every school district are participating in Summer Institutes that will help them lead their schools and district through the transition to these new standards.
  • Next, as a part of our Race to the Top initiative and as a continuation of the State Board of Education's work to revise our accountability system, we are at the edge of having a comprehensive, balanced assessment system. This system of testing will focus on how students are doing on a daily basis, rather than only on how students are performing at end of the year on an end-of-grade or end-of -course test. Race to the Top funds also will allow us to build a formative assessment system filled with diagnostic and benchmark assessments that can be delivered online.
  • Our Race to the Top funds also enable us to use technology to offer professional development focused on these new standards and assessments in which teacher learning can be customized and embedded in the work they are already doing.
  • And speaking of technology, we will also begin looking at technology in a way that is very different from keyboarding classes and computer labs. We are shifting to a BYOD approach. This means teachers and students will be encouraged to "bring your own device to school." Race to the Top funds will allow us to provide some resources to schools that need them so every student has the opportunity to pick up technology skills so learning can happen anywhere, at any time.
  • And finally, as the role of the educator continues to evolve under a spotlight, we will boost our efforts to use the teacher and principal evaluation instruments and all the educator standards we have in place to make sure every classroom has a strong teacher and every school has a great leader.

Public education is at a critical juncture, but the work we are doing as a part of Race to the Top and some other new initiatives all represent positive changes that will pave the way for a beautiful metamorphosis to take place in education in North Carolina.

We know we must deliver much higher graduation rates. We know we must graduate all students career and college ready. And we know we must gain more support for public education by being flexible and willing to embrace changes that will help us better serve our students. With an innovative spirit and momentum on our side, I know we are ready to embrace all the changes and challenges ahead and move forward on this exciting journey together.




June St. Clair Atkinson
State Superintendent