Campbell: The wrong and right in education reform

Apr. 12, 2013 @ 12:22 PM

Once again we hear calls for education reform and like many issues there is some right and some wrong in what is being discussed.

It is wrong to say our education system is broken. It is right that there are enough problems that we should seek education reform. Our students prove this need. With their hand-held games, smart phones and computer smarts today’s children learn, communicate, and experience the world in very different ways from what they experience in our schools. It’s like the cartoon character who said, “Where did they go, I’ve got to find them. I’m their leader.” Digital and distance learning isn’t the future – it is the current best practice and our approach to education hasn’t caught up with our students.

It is right to demand accountability in education, but too often those demanding it are wrong in their search for who should be accountable. The most important person in the classroom is the teacher, and it is true we have teachers who should not be in the classroom. We have not developed good ways of objective teacher evaluation, even though most parents and administrators know the good ones from those not so good. Tenure is a system that protects ineffective teachers and makes it difficult to remove them. Good teaches don’t need tenure. But we cannot stop just with teachers.

We must also evaluate principals. I will never forget Don Stedman, the former dean of the UNC School of Education, who pointed out that a school with outstanding teachers and a mediocre principal will likely result in a mediocre school, while a school of mediocre teachers and an outstanding principal often produces an outstanding school.  We haven’t paid nearly enough attention to principal accountability.

While it is right to demand accountability from education professionals it is too simplistic to point the finger of blame at the teacher, the principal or even the system itself while giving parents an excused absence for not meeting their responsibilities in a child’s education. If we are going to open the can of worms of education accountability we must address this issue. Regardless of their socioeconomic situation parental support is essential. The parent or caregiver must set the tone for the importance of education, establish a supportive learning environment, ensure their child gets proper nutrition, rest and healthcare, and check to make sure homework is done, confer with teachers and advocate for their child.

Look at those countries currently beating us in education outcomes and you quickly discover societal and cultural differences. The church, the neighborhood and the community in which the child is raised constantly emphasize the importance of education and the child is raised knowing that not only his or her future, but the very success of their state and country are dependent on their getting a good education. Not too many years ago we had that understanding but in too many instances we have lost that imperative.

The call for education reform is right but we are wrong not to tackle the whole subject. Educating our children is the most important task the current generation undertakes and we must lay aside partisan and defensive responses and have these hard conversations. We cannot have true education reform without a top to bottom examination.

Tom Campbell is former assistant state treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a discussion of state issues airing Sundays at 6:30 a.m. on WRAL-TV and at 8:30 a.m. on WRAZ-TV FOX50.  Contact him at