Comments, responses on the Manning article

June 1, 2014

Our May 15 article, “Judge Manning issues a report on ‘the reading problem’ ” prompted a few inquiries after a shorter version of it was published on the Viewpoint page of The Charlotte Observer on May 20.

We’ll share those inquiries and our responses below. None of the inquiries, however, even took notice of what we thought was the primary conclusion of the piece. That may have occurred because the Observer used its headline to focus on money. So we’ll try again in this space in a bit.

One response was not for publication, but it castigated us for being all wrong about the damage done by testing. It included the assertion that “many schools that sat at the heart of low-income neighborhoods have been closed as a direct result of this test-and-punish routine.”

A lawyer wrote, “I see so many clients who I believe would not be in the courtroom if their education had been better.”

There was a possibly snarky comment on the Observer site that read, “Tell me again, what was NC’s achievement gap before teacher pay dropped from 27th?” Snark is fine, but perhaps data is finer. Here’s the response we shared online at the Observer site:

The oft-quoted teacher pay ranking appears to be from Chart C-9, Average Salaries of Public School Teachers, in the annual “Rankings of the States” series published by the National Education Association. The NEA website offers six years’ worth of reports, so here is that data:

2013 (11-12 data) – NC 46th

2012 (10-11 data) – NC 41st

2011 (09-10 data) – NC 35th

2010 (08-09 data) – NC 28th

2009 (07-08 data) – NC 26th

2008 (06-07 data) – NC 24th

For data from the same years, let’s set aside the changes in the N.C. tests that occurred during this period, and use, from the site, the math/reading composite score for CMS 3rd-graders, percentage of whites and blacks on or above grade level, and compute the gap:

11-12 White 87.9 Black 51.7 – Gap 36.2

10-11 White 87.1 Black 49.4 – Gap 37.7

09-10 White 87.5 Black 51.0 – Gap 36.5

08-09 White 87.0 Black 47.2 – Gap 39.8

07-08 White 78.5 Black 34.4 – Gap 44.1

06-07 White 88.4 Black 48.8 – Gap 39.6

Apologies for any data collection or computation errors.

This gap data may suggest that as teacher pay declined in rank, the test-score gap also declined. But let’s point out the gyrations during the period as a cautionary warning, along with the reality that North Carolina test administrators control the gap, and the scores, by defining each year what will be considered at or above grade level.

As for the general point about connections between teacher pay and student outcomes, we’ve been following test-score data for more than 30 years and in most of that time the white-black gap has remained at 30-some points, irrespective of test, cut scores, test difficulty and other factors.

We as citizens of North Carolina have long ignored the number of kids not leaving childhood with the skills that they should have mastered in K-12. Teachers alone cannot succeed in that venture. Parents alone cannot. Children alone cannot. Taxpayers alone cannot. Uniting all those groups around a relatively easily understood goal, like giving every child a sound basic education, might succeed but it will not be easy or cheap.

The most intriguing conversation created by the article was with a fellow who once lived in Charlotte. The exchange began predictably enough: “Education outcome is based NOT on the politicians, or political parties, or whatever petty squabbles (over power and money, NOT the kids) that are presented. Rather, it is based on the health of the community that they serve. Talk to any teacher, and they’ll tell you.”

We agreed, and soon began to learn about the teachers who made a difference in his life, and encouraged him as a child to stretch beyond the limited expectations for him that many in his small Midwest town had for him.

At one point, he said, “Unless/until we change the values of the communities that kids grow up in, we’re just grabbing at money and power.”

Good teachers. Committed parents. Students eager for the counsel of mentors. Resources commensurate with the task. These are all part of the answer.

– Steve Johnston