The most important function of state government is education, as evidenced by the fact that North Carolina spends 57 cents of every tax dollar on primary and secondary education. Better-educated citizens earn more, are more productive and generally more fulfilled.
Too often, we see evidence that we aren’t doing our very best and it is easy to become pessimistic, but if you want to change that attitude to optimism, spend a day, as we did, at UNC Wilmington’s impressive Watson College for Education.
The first moments in the modern facility convince you of the dedicated and innovative approaches being employed to teach students and train teachers. Dean Van Dempsey and his faculty demonstrated a passion for making public education in our state the best. We saw collaborative partnering of best practices with nearby public schools, learned about an elementary school classroom without desks that allowed creativity and saw online resources and lab techniques that break down barriers to learning.
In this era of laptops, smartphones and Internet access, far too many classrooms across our state still deliver instruction the way it was done 100 years ago. When we asked why educators had been unable or unwilling to adapt to innovative learning techniques, we were taken to school by one after another of these dedicated educators. Their responses shed new light on many issues.
In our efforts to ensure accountability, we instituted testing programs that stifle, rather than promote innovation, modern technology and techniques. Regulations, piled on top of one another, restrict flexibility and creativity. The predominant culture neither embraces nor demonstrates a structure to share new approaches between schools within a given district, much less across other districts. Instead of being rewarded for innovation and creativity, any failure is punished.
We’ve taught educators to color within the prescribed lines, avoid risks, teach to the tests and not challenge the status quo.
A day at the Watson College of Education is proof that we won’t meet 21st-century expectations with 20th-century learning methods. We know how to educate our young people in more innovative and collaborative ways than we are employing.
North Carolina cannot regulate and restrict our way to better education outcomes. And while more money is not always the answer, neither can we get better results by failing to properly fund new technologies and methodology. We must competitively pay professional teachers, principals, counselors and yes, arts and music instructors, especially those teaching science and math.
Too many schools have inadequate facilities for today’s requirements. It is imperative that we return to a system to incentivize college students to go into education and then do a better job of supporting them in early years.
Now is the time to loosen the shackles in education, replacing restraints with flexibility, building trust and changing the narrative to celebrate the good instead of looking for fault. Our administrators must become better managers, encouraging educators to succeed, while replacing those who cannot or will not meet greater expectations.
Finally, we must erase boundaries, sharing with others new solutions, while challenging all to find even better methods
North Carolina has the talent. We have the knowledge and the resources to make dramatic improvements. It is essential for the future of our state that we implement them now.
Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina state treasurer and is creator/host of “N.C. Spin,” a weekly statewide television discussion of state issues.