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As North Carolina Goes, So Goes the U.S.

It's always risky to take what one state is doing to reform teaching and assume other states will follow, but I think an argument can be made in the case of North Carolina. On Jul. 26, the state eliminated teacher tenure and automatic pay increases for earning a master's degree ("North Carolina Ends Pay Boosts for Teacher Master's Degrees," The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 27).

Although both issues have been hotly debated since the accountability movement gained traction, no state has simultaneously axed them until now. Taxpayers are angry and frustrated by the performance of our students compared with those of students in other countries. They have been led to believe that teachers are to blame, despite evidence showing the inordinate importance of out-of-school factors on achievement.

I'm not an apologist for the appalling record of some schools. But these schools are almost always populated by poor students from chaotic backgrounds. I'm fully aware of the few instances of what are known as high-flying schools. These are schools that have managed to improve student performance in the face of daunting obstacles. For example, Jordan High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District was taken over by a nonprofit in 2011 after years of abject failure ("Jordan High's staff shakeup puts students on better track," Los Angeles Times, Jul. 24). The first step was to require all 75 teachers to reapply for their jobs. Half did, but only nine were rehired.

Since then, students have posted the highest gains in test scores among all traditional high schools in the district. At first glance, the evidence suggests that maybe North Carolina is on the right track. However, the vast majority of students at Jordan are still way behind. I believe that there will always be a gap between the performance on average of these disadvantaged students and students elsewhere. Conditions in the neighborhood explain why. As evidence, the city's Housing Authority has started a $600-million experiment to try to transform the neighborhood, which has long been beleaguered by poverty and violence.

Then there's the matter of sustainability. I take my hat off to the teachers who have helped students at the school. Yet I seriously wonder if they will be able to continue at the same pace for the rest of their careers. No matter how talented and dedicated, they are only human. Compassion fatigue, which I've written about before, affects professionals in ways that are hard to understand for workers in other fields.

What does this all have to do with North Carolina? Reformers cheer the elimination of tenure because they believe that it is responsible for protecting incompetent teachers. But tenure means only that teachers are guaranteed due process before they are fired. It is not a guarantee of lifetime employment in K-12. North Carolina is delusional if it believes that abolishing tenure will improve educational quality. Requiring teachers to reapply for their jobs each year may boost test scores, but for how long and at what price?

By the same token, getting rid of automatic pay increases for teachers earning a master's degree is not likely to do much for students. I think it's important to look more closely at the specifics of the practice. What classes do teachers take to earn the master's degree? Are the classes directly related to the subject teachers are teaching? Finland, for example, requires all teachers to have a master's degree, and the government pays for their acquisition. Moreover, most master's degrees are in education ("Why Are Finland's Schools Successful?" Smithsonian, Sept. 2011). Further, because teachers in Finland are 96 percent unionized, it's unlikely that they would stand for what is slated for North Carolina.

Recruiting and retaining effective teachers, as North Carolina is attempting to do, has great intuitive appeal. But as the Hamilton project of the Brookings Institute concluded in its study "Thirteen Economic Facts about Social Mobility and the Role of Education" that was released in June: "While social mobility and economic opportunity are important aspects of the American ethos, the data suggest they are more myth than reality. In fact, a child's family income plays a dominant role in determining his or her future income, and those who start out poor are likely to remain poor."

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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