Miseducating our children

Published November 14, 2019

By Tom Campbell

“Insanity,” said Albert Einstein, “is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” What we are doing in public education isn’t working for many of North Carolina’s children. Our leaders and educators obviously didn’t get Einstein’s message.

If you want proof, read the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the “nation’s report card.” Our country spends more money on education than any in the world, yet after peaking in 2009, scores in reading and math have actually declined over the past eight years. North Carolina’s results mirror those of the nation. Since 2011, student scores among the 1.5 million k-12 public school students have declined. 

This is not just discouraging, it is alarming. Our state spends $9.5 billion on k-12 education, 40 cents of every tax dollar. The response to these tepid scores is that the declines are statistically insignificant. What is significant is that we are not making gains.

Eva Moskowitz, founder of Success Academy Charter Schools says education is the largest domestic crisis in our nation and these scores demonstrate we are miseducating too many students. The chances for future success, either economic or academic, pivot on whether a child can read at grade level by third grade, yet North Carolina’s Read to Achieve initiative isn’t working. 

These report cards always bring traditional responses. One group, usually Republicans, seems to have given up on traditional schools; their solution is for more school choice, like charter schools or vouchers. At the other end, largely educators and Democrats, is the chorus saying the problem is we just aren’t spending enough money, especially on teacher pay. Both overlook the simple mandate that dramatic changes are needed.

Moskowitz says we need to redesign our schools from top to bottom to make sure our children are guaranteed an excellent education. Money helps, but won’t guarantee excellence, she says, adding it isn’t fair to primarily blame teachers. Teacher training must change, however, for today’s environment. The curriculum needs improving, returning to the core of science, math and reading. Teaching phonics worked for generations and needs resurrecting, as does teaching multiplication and division tables. Remember the flash cards we all memorized?  And does anyone know parts of speech well enough to diagram a sentence? 

One of the foundation blocks at Success Academy charter schools is that education is not democratic. We are not demanding enough rigor and discipline, from parents, students, teachers, administrators or regulators. For a child to be a student in her school the parent must attend teacher conferences, ensure their child does homework and gets proper rest. Children can’t spend up to six hours a day on electronic devices and excel in the classroom. Students need to learn there are consequences for not doing homework, for disruptive and disrespectful behavior and for not applying themselves. But lawmakers, regulators and administrators also need more discipline by not constantly changing education priorities, policies and frequent distractions. 

This column isn’t intended to be an unqualified endorsement of Moskowitz’s methods, but her schools demonstrate diversity in race and sex, ethnic backgrounds, income ranges and geography; their results are impressive. They can be lifted up as examples where people were not satisfied with static to declining results.

The big question that North Carolina needs to answer is whether we have the political or collective will to do what is needed to make our schools excellent.