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North Carolina’s Schools Chief Promotes New ‘Operation Polaris’ Initiative, Calls For New Focus on ‘Careers For All’

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt speaks at the second meeting of the House Select Committee on An Education System for North Carolina’s Future. (Elizabeth Ouzts / EducationNC)
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A committee with the goal of reimagining the state’s K-12 public school system met for the second time and heard from the state’s top education leader, Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt.

During the meeting, Truitt promoted her initiative, Operation Polaris, named after the Latin word for the North Star.

“My North Star is that every child in North Carolina must have a highly effective and excellent teacher in every classroom,” Truitt said.

‘We need to redefine school accountability’

The Polaris plan has four “satellites”: literacy, student support, teachers, and accountability. Truitt concentrated most of her remarks Tuesday on the latter, arguing that the state’s current measures of student success are too weighted toward “high stakes, one-and-done, end-of-grade tests,” the outcomes of which arrive too late for a teacher to do anything about them.

“It’s summer when the teacher gets the result,” she said.

Truitt said that these end-of-grade tests are not good tests during a question-and-answer session. About the ACT, the college entrance exam every North Carolina public school student is required to take by law, she said, “As someone who did not do a good job on the ACT, it is not a good predictor of success.”

Schools in North Carolina are graded on an A-F grading system. To determine the school grade, the state uses a formula that emphasizes student performance on end-of-year testing. The formula is 80% academic achievement and 20% academic growth.

Truitt wants new metrics for accountability that include testing, parent satisfaction and their access to teachers and school leadership, the rate of chronic absenteeism, and the presence or absence of various afterschool programs.

“We need to redefine school accountability and rethink what student testing looks like,” she told the committee.

Truitt emphasized the role of public education in preparing students to enter the workforce, saying that education is needed for economic mobility and a pathway to the middle class.

But Truitt also suggested the definition of education needed to be expanded beyond that developed by “educators at Harvard” more than a century ago. Too many North Carolina students, she said, lack a “credential of marketplace value — in other words, a credential they can get a job with.” Under a third of graduating high school seniors in the state have obtained such a credential by the age of 24, she said.

“If we continue to say we’re so proud of our 87% of high school graduation rate,” she said, “and yet, only 31% of students are obtaining a credential of marketplace value, then that diploma does not have the integrity that we want it to have.”

Truitt also stressed that graduates too often lack “durable skills” that would help them in a career.

“I’ve been hearing for years that employers are frustrated because employees can’t count change,” she said. “They don’t show up for work on time. They can’t pass a drug test. All kinds of challenges.”

High schools, Truitt believes, should focus on providing employer-sought credentials, especially in computer science, and not just preparing students for a four-year residential college experience.

“We need to make sure that our students are introduced to the notion of a K-12 career path early on,” she said. “The ‘college for all’ cry from the 90’s and the 2000’s needs to become ‘careers for all.’”

See Truitt’s presentation here.

Lawmakers react

The remark didn’t sit well with Rep. Rachel Hunt, D-Mecklenburg, the only lawmaker on the committee with professional education experience.

“As a college counselor, that’s very concerning when it comes from the Superintendent of Public Instruction,” Hunt said in an interview after the committee. “To say that starting at kindergarten we should take the idea of the college out of the minds of certain children is something that used to happen many, many years ago. We need to make sure there is equity and opportunity for everyone, and then if that person or family decides on a career path, that’s fine. But language really matters, and so does the person saying it.”

At the meeting, Hunt also told Truitt teachers in her district were struggling with a new science of reading requirement adopted last year.

“Teachers are having a really hard time in Mecklenburg County,” Hunt said.

Other lawmakers on the panel who spoke up Tuesday were positive, offering their own anecdotes that reinforced Truitt’s themes.

Rep. David Willis, R-Union, bemoaned the reality voiced by Truitt that many high school students endeavor to play a “GPA-game” designed to boost college applications. He echoed her assertion that schools should make students employable.

“If we’re handing a child a diploma and they don’t have the skills to get a job,” he said, “we’re failing that child.”

Rep. Pat Hurley, R-Randolph, said she worried not about percentages but about actual students.

“I’m concerned that many of them can’t write their names,” she said. “I know we’ve got to get back to basics: reading, writing, and arithmetic. There were so many good things that worked great years ago and would work great right now.”

Later, Hurley pressed the superintendent to make sure students were learning to write in cursive, a requirement of a 2013 state law she helped author.

Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, a chair of the committee, said that Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson will present before the committee next week.

See the video of Superintendent Truitt speaking before the committee below. Below that, listen to audio from the committee.

This article first appeared on EducationNC and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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