Friday, April 27, 2007

Questions for the education panel

After the presentations from the four panelists, the audience took part in a lively Q&A session. Frankly, Chairman Lee got hammered pretty hard by the group, and he handled their questions very well. I have to hand it to him for coming to a venue which might be expected to be pretty skeptical about the public school system he helps oversee.

Student interests

In answer to a high school student's question [unfortunately I didn't catch it], Lee said he wants to promote online self-study and more relevant course material even at very young ages. He is also in favor of more peer collaboration and peer tutoring. "One of the things we miss is what really we should be doing to hold and enhance the attention of students," he said, and asked the student for her ideas. She said "maybe not as much books" -- Lee says "Yes!" -- "and shorter classes, since the ADD students are mixed in with the regular students." She said her sister goes to the John Locke Foundation's lunchtime Shaftesbury Society lectures and they are much more interesting than the books the schools use.

An older gentleman disagreed with this sort of concern, saying "Our heads are in the sand and the tail is wagging the dog, worrying about keeping the students happy. We need to be focused on giving them what they need to learn. She needs to be made to do the work she needs to achieve and be successful, and not asked 'What do you want to do today, dear?'

"The highest percentage of kids on grade level [in the counties I researched] was Cumberland County 57%, Robeson 27%. How in God's name do you expect kids to do anything if you socially promote them and you can't hire them to do anything? I was a business owner and I hired high school graduates who couldn't fill out the application forms. I believe you are trying to do your job, Mr. Lee, but I'm just telling you like it is."

Dropout statistics

A man on the front row seconded Stoops' call for better statistics, saying that DPI reported 95% graduation rates until last February, when it suddenly dropped to 68%. "What bothers me," said Lee, "is whether that dropout rate is real either. If that kid leaves the school and enrolls in the community college, he's counted as a dropout but I don't think so."

A recent relocation to the state said he is substitute teaching in the local schools and said in his view, "Chaos in the schools starts at the top." Lee expressed concern that the problem is with local boards which are not performing. Stoops immediately disagreed, referencing the Teacher Working Conditions Survey, saying that the governor, SBE, and DPI, focus on pay and benefits rather than the teachers' stated concern about incompetent administration and leadership. Lee had already stated that until we can make teaching more attractive, safe, decently paid, people are going to make another choice and teacher turnover would remain high.

"At the same time, you're completely wrong saying we don't prioritize this," said Lee. "We cannot ignore the fact that teacher pay is an important part of what we do. Keep in mind this is an initiative for Governor Easley and he said it will be a priority for the state board."

Lee challenged the questioner why he was substituting instead of full time; the listener said he tried but was told there was not a high need for history teachers, like he was in West Virginia. Lee said, "You contact my office; you've been given bad information."

Support for charters but not those charters

"When the charter school movement started in North Carolina, the state board threw out charters like apples coming off a tree, because they were under pressure from the legislature," said Lee. "What I want to do is have a methodical approach, not a blue ribbon commission ..." He said again that he didn't care how many charter schools there are if they are done the way he envisions. He was asked then why not support removing the cap on charters now? He said the commission is a six month project only but left the question somewhat open.

Item: Howard Lee said he purchases a lottery ticket every week. Lee said the legislature's current education budget is "ugly!" and the board is looking to help them "pretty it up".

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