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Yesterday, N.C. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) unveiled the Excellent Public Schools Act of 2013.  The legislation is a comprehensive package that extends the education reform efforts initiated by last year’s version of the Excellent Public School Act.  This week’s CommenTerry takes a look at the bill.

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Senate Bill 361: Excellent Public Schools Act of 2013 has six parts.  Part I would grant leave time to state employees who volunteer in a literacy program in a public school for up to five hours each month.  This proposal should be met with little resistance.

Part II requires all final exams for courses to be administered within the final 10 instructional days of the school year (for year‑long courses) or within the final five instructional days of the semester (for semester courses).  More importantly, the legislature will require the State Board of Education to report to the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee "prior to the purchase and implementation of a new assessment instrument to assess student achievement on the Common Core State Standards, including the Common Core Smarter Balance Consortium Assessments."  The bill would also require the State Board of Education to obtain approval from the General Assembly for the adoption of a testing program.  In other words, the State Board of Education would not have the authority to unilaterally adopt Common Core tests

Why is this important? Three years ago, the State Board of Education adopted Common Core standards in English and math, largely without the knowledge of the General Assembly. The NC Constitution gives the State Board of Education the authority to set policy for our public schools.  Nevertheless, climbing aboard the Common Core bandwagon will not be free.  The legislature may be compelled to spend tens of millions of dollars to meet the instructional and assessment demands associated with participation.  Educational concerns aside (and there are many), the financial commitments required by the Common Core are reason enough for state legislators to keep a close eye on how the State Board of Education proceeds with the implementation of common standards and tests.

Licensure standards and teacher education programs are addressed in Part III.  The authors of the bill direct the State Board of Education and the Board of Governors of the UNC system to raise standards for licensure and teacher education programs.  I would have preferred the bill to focus more attention on teacher education programs and less on useless licensure standards.  But the provisions in the proposed legislation would start a long overdue conversation about ways to improve teacher education in North Carolina.

Part IV is where things get interesting.  The bill would set up a system of assigning school performance grades.  The system would award points to schools based on their ability to meet certain performance goals.  For elementary and middle schools, three factors will be taken into account — math, reading, and science performance on standardized tests.  High school grades will be based on seven elements — math, English, and biology performance; students who complete a math course beyond Algebra I; students who meet four benchmarks of college readiness; students who meet standards for workplace readiness; and four-year graduation rates. 

Without a doubt, this system favors high schools.  Unlike high schools, elementary and middle schools have little room for error, that is, they cannot compensate for low pass rates on state tests by performing well in other areas.  On the other hand, performance goals for high schools differ in fundamental ways from elementary and middle school goals.  For example, high school metrics are both annual (test scores) and cumulative (graduation rates).  In other words, part of the high school grade will reflect the success or failure of the previous four years. 

I have three recommendations for improving the grading criteria in this section.  First, add additional metrics to the elementary and middle school criteria, such as the performance of certain subgroups, e.g., low-income children, on standardized tests.  Second, add an eighth measure for high schools — community college and university remediation rates.  Finally, change the grading scale to add pluses and minuses.  There will be a great deal of variation in performance within each ten-point interval (see Facts and Stats below).  This may produce misleading conclusions about the performance of schools.

Part IV of the bill also directs the State Board of Education to add the points awarded in each of these areas and convert the total to a 100-point scale.  A separate indictor, Education Value‑Added Assessment System (EVAAS) scores, will also be included.  EVAAS scores, which measure student growth from one point in time to another, will be used to determine if a school meets or exceeds expected growth.  The bill does not permit the State Board of Education to use value-added scores in the grade calculation.

Part V is a brief section.  It outlines a prudent approach to performance pay.  The bill’s authors recognize that the NC Department of Public Instruction (DPI) is in the process of developing a teacher evaluation instrument for all public school teachers in the state.  If DPI develops a trustworthy evaluation system, then the state should use it as the basis for a system of performance pay.  (Coincidentally, the John Locke Foundation recommended this approach in our book, First in Freedom.)

Public school advocacy groups will make the most noise about the final section, which deals with teacher employment and due process procedures.  The bottom line is that the bill would eliminate tenure (also known as career status).  Teachers employed for fewer than three years would be retained on one-year contracts.  Teachers employed for more than three years would be retained on contracts that ranged from one to four years.  Ideally, school districts would award four-year contracts to their top-tier teachers and one-year contracts to struggling teachers.  Middling teachers would receive two- or three-year contracts. 

In the area of teacher employment, I think the bill establishes a good compromise.  It addresses the performance concerns of those who contend that all teachers should be placed on annual contracts, as well as those who are concerned about job security for high-performing educators.  In addition, the proposed system provides flexibility to local school districts by allowing them to determine the criteria used in awarding multi-year contracts.

Overall, I am impressed.  The Excellent Public Schools Act of 2013 is a much more focused and thoughtful bill than the legislation proposed by the NC Senate leadership last year.  I like many aspects of the proposed legislation, but I have two favorites.  First, I am thrilled to see that someone in the legislature is finally beginning to ask questions about the Common Core State Standards.  Second, the performance pay plan outlined in the bill is, by far, the best available approach.  While some parts of the bill may be tweaked as it works its way through the General Assembly, I hope that these two provisions remain intact.

Facts and Stats

From the Excellent Public Schools Act of 2013:

(e) Calculation of School Performance Scores and Grades. — The State Board of Education shall calculate school performance scores by totaling the sum of points, as provided in subsections (c) and (d) of this section, and weighted proportionally, as provided in subsection (b) of this section, earned by the school and converting the sum of points to a 100‑point scale. The school performance score shall be used to determine the school performance grade based on the following scale:

(1) At least 90 performance grade points for an overall school performance grade of A.

(2) At least 80 performance grade points for an overall school performance grade of B.

(3) At least 70 performance grade points for an overall school performance grade of C.

(4) At least 60 performance grade points for an overall school performance grade of D.

(5) A school that accumulates fewer than 60 points shall be assigned an overall school performance grade of F.

Education Acronym of the Week

EVAAS — Education Value‑Added Assessment System

Quote of the Week

"The days of accepting a broken education system in North Carolina are over.  We must continue to demand better and positive change for our kids." 

– Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger on the Excellent Public Schools Act of 2013, March 19, 2013

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