The Chamber has an epiphany: We need better teachers | Citizen | Indy Week
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The Chamber has an epiphany: We need better teachers 

click to enlarge 2014 infographic issued by N.C. Budget & Tax Center and Public Schools First NC.

2014 infographic issued by N.C. Budget & Tax Center and Public Schools First NC.

The kids will be off to school next week—the ones attending traditional-calendar public schools, anyway. See if you agree with the following propositions, gleaned from a recent North Carolina Conference on Education:

• Schools should train students to think and address real problems, not just regurgitate facts.

• True problem-solving requires a thoughtful assessment of information from different fields or "courses."

• Schools should "de-compartmentalize," with interdisciplinary classes that tackle questions involving, for example, science and history and math.

• Instead of more mindless "bubble" tests, let's focus on a student's ability to write, compute, reason and learn—the so-called competencies.

• Instead of more seat time, let's have more field trips, more group projects, more internships, anything to relieve the boredom.

• Some kids will progress faster than others. Slow learner or fast, both are good.

• The most important trait for students to develop: grit.

What's grit? It's the ability to persevere, to "try, try again." Grit, according to research by Angela Lee Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania psychology professor, is the best predictor of academic and professional success—more so than IQ or family income.

Raj Ramachandran, vice president of the for-profit Apollo Education Group, said that teaching grit means persuading students "that failure is not a permanent condition." Convince them they can improve, he said, and they'll be eager to start over after a flop, "applying lessons learned."

All this was bracing, and indeed, the conference was full of good ideas for turning our public schools upside down, dumping bad practices and replacing them with others shown to work better—which would be demonstrating some grit of our own.

And that brings me to the point. Two points, actually.

First, the key to any of the above things happening is having good teachers with greater autonomy in the classroom. If anyone at the conference didn't say that, I missed it.

Second, the North Carolina Chamber organized the conference. That's right, the Chamber, which represents the views of business and which, since the Republicans gained control of state government, has been all about cutting taxes to the detriment of teachers, says that our No. 1 need to improve education is "dedicated teachers."

Chamber CEO Lew Ebert commented, too, that an educated and talented workforce is the key to North Carolina achieving economic growth.

Perhaps Ebert and his Chamber employers have had an epiphany? Or maybe they will, after listening to Joydeep Ganguly, vice president and general manager of the 1,400 Biogen employees in Research Triangle Park.

Ganguly said Biogen, a global biotechnology corporation headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, chose to put a major facility in RTP 20 years ago based primarily on our state's "skilled, educated workforce." He then pointed to data that he called "a little bit sobering ... data we can't ignore." That data showed that school funding here has dropped, and teacher pay—even after last year's raises—is down to an estimated 42nd in the country. Just one-third of our students rate proficient on standardized tests.

"It's important to center the dialogue around the truth," Ganguly added quietly, noting that Biogen's most recent expansion was in Switzerland, not here.

I came to the conference expecting to hear a lot of backward thinking about public schools, given the Chamber's anti-tax stance. Instead, it was forward-looking to the point of almost complete conflict with state policies that treat our teachers as disposable and struggling students as if we'd rather do without them.

We know, for one thing, that pre-K education is critical for kids coming from impoverished backgrounds. Yet, according to Caroline McCullen, director of education initiatives at SAS, just 21 percent of eligible North Carolina children are enrolled in pre-K programs; in Florida, which offers free universal pre-K thanks to a constitutional amendment passed in 2002, it's 80 percent.

Teaching a struggling kid to persevere—to have grit—isn't possible if the schools don't have grit, too, meaning a teacher or teacher assistant who stays with him or her for as long as it takes. Yet we're decimating our ranks of teacher assistants while testing the kids incessantly so they know for sure that they're failing.

And we assign grades of "F" to schools where poverty, not grit or extra resources, is the prevailing factor. Why would anyone want to teach there?

We know there's a digital revolution happening. Teachers should be talking with their students about how to collect information, not talking at them with facts for the test. Yet, we test, test, test on minutiae. And it gets in the way of teachers and students exploring the world together and finding out what they don't know—but need to know.

No matter how dedicated the teacher, it's a stultifying atmosphere.

Sam Houston is president of N.C. STEM, a nonprofit that assists schools with science, technology and math programs. Teaching kids to be independent, "thoughtful" learners should be our highest priority, Houston said. But our policies discourage that and penalize teachers who deviate from the established curriculum in search of more challenging fare. "You can be totally thoughtless in our schools today and be very successful," Houston said.

Speaking of thoughtless, school starts next week, and we still don't have a state budget. But we do have tax cuts. Discuss.

This article appeared in print with the headline "True grit"

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