The Work Continues
September 5, 2013

New beginnings can be very exciting. The first day of school last month was a clear indicator of that.

The sights, sounds, colors - and palpable energy - that a new school year brings is much the same as when you or I were in school. The anticipation of attending a new school, getting to know a new teacher, making new friends - an all-encompassing sense of renewal and the realization that anything is possible.

How reassuring it is to know that students, teachers and parents in the 2,600 schools across North Carolina still consider that kind of experience a welcome one. Even though we have fewer resources while serving more students, we know that we have hard-working teachers who are still answering the call, dedicated to continually elevating their craft and making a positive difference in students' lives.

This remains our goal in North Carolina's public schools. Helping students learn. Preparing them for the next level - whether it be fifth grade, high school, college or a good job for which they need solid and relevant skills.

Another kind of new beginning for our state occurred five years ago. A Blue Ribbon Commission set forth a vision that resulted in the State Board of Education's list of key recommendations for a Framework for Change - key steps to significantly improve North Carolina's Standard Course of Study. This work was known as the Accountability and Curriculum Reform Effort (ACRE).

In short, the recommendations involved a critical look at student learning, assessments and the creation of a model that would give parents and teachers more meaningful information around students' preparation for college and work. From the Framework for Change came the state Board of Education's adoption of the Common Core State and NC Essential Standards, along with a focus around a balanced assessment system, including formative, benchmark and summative assessments. It also has led to the development of what we now know as Home Base, our suite of technology tools that provides teachers, parents and administrators a wealth of instructional resources and a new student information system.

While we were busily working to implement these changes, a wonderful opportunity came along - Race to the Top. Our ACRE planning dovetailed beautifully with Race to the Top's criteria, and we were very fortunate to receive funding from this initiative to bolster and expedite our work.

Last month, a group of ACRE external stakeholders who helped us shape our efforts from the beginning of this work came together to discuss our progress. These included NCDPI officials, plus superintendents and curriculum leads in the field.

Essentially, the group was asked to weigh in on the integrity of our work. In essence, at this half-decade point, have we done what we said we would? And where should we go from here?

After a very lively and forthright discussion, this is what they found:

  • We are on the right track. We are in the second year of teaching to the new, higher standards, and the support for our work is building. Our expectations for making so many changes so quickly were high, but we have made the necessary adjustments along the way and continue to do so.

  • Teachers need our support. Many teachers have been excited about the new standards, but many also have questions about the new assessments and the impact those assessments will have on their own performance evaluations. We continue to work with teachers and principals to ensure that they have good information and feel confident in their work.

  • Professional development is a good thing. We need more. The NCDPI's Summer Institutes have been a big hit among our teachers and principals for three years running. These two-day sessions held in July provide a wealth of information for educators to take back to their schools and share with colleagues. Follow-up PD must happen throughout the year to ensure the highest level of effectiveness.

  • Collaboration is abundant. Teachers are working more closely together than ever before, and they like it. Parents have more avenues for communication with - and overall access to - their children's teachers, making them feel more engaged and encouraging them to play a more active role in their child's education.

  • Continuous improvement for assessment systems must happen. The NCDPI will continue to work with local districts and schools around striking the right balance on testing. We know we must assess what students have learned and we must know how effective teachers are in this work. Making this happen within a reasonable time frame must be our goal.

  • As always, communication is key. And it's a two-way street. While we tout our good news, such as the highest graduation rate in our state's history, we must also continuously update parents - and educators - on what we are doing and how it is working. We also must listen to what educators in the field are telling us regarding their trials and triumphs.

Excitement is in the air. Not just because it's a new school year, but also because we - the teachers, principals, support personnel and parents of North Carolina, are forging ahead with the great work of educating our students and preparing them for college, career and life. It is the highest calling, and we invite you to be a part of it. Anything is possible!

June St. Clair Atkinson
State Superintendent