James Barrett for NC Superintendent

WRAL voter guide responses

If elected, what are your top 3 priorities?

1) Eliminate the testing regime that is stressing out our students and teachers and painting a narrative of failure with the public. I would work immediately, collaboratively with all stakeholders, to change from high-stakes to lower-stakes tests that give useful measures of learning and guidance for adjusting instruction. This likely means focusing assessments on standards-based grading—a major change project that would make a positive difference for everyone.  The current tests have no benefit—the data we get from the tests isn’t useful for students or teachers, and the only thing they tell us at a policy level is which schools have high numbers of students living in poverty.  In fact, there is a negative benefit because we know there are schools that are doing great things but are still labeled as failures because the students started the year so far behind.  That stigma creates hopelessness in both teachers and families

 When a policy has such clear high costs and zero benefit, we need to throw it out and start over.  I support immediately removing all high stakes from our testing—no bonus pay for teachers, who have never been incentivized by false measurements to do things differently, and no retaining students based on tests that are not culturally relevant and have secret formulas for measuring students. 

Teachers have always given tests to students.  Students need assessments to know where they are against learning goals; teachers need assessments to know how to adjust their instruction.  Since No Child Left Behind, we’ve agreed that policymakers need some data, but I believe it is the least important reason that we test, because the most important work is done by students and teachers.

Standards-based grading is the best assessment mechanism I’ve seen that delivers immediate, concrete, actionable results to students and teachers.  No longer do we have scale scores that barely show what a student has learned versus what they did not.  No longer do we have complicated growth metrics—instead, with standards-based grading, we can count the number of standards that a student masters in a year and determine how much they’ve learned.  I’ve done large-scale change work through my entire career, and with my understanding of school policy and constraints, can guide this change.

2) Focus on state-level policies that can restore respect for the teacher profession. There’s much we can do even within the constraints the legislature continues to put on schools. Two examples: I will work with the State Board of Education to put into policy work that we’ve done in Chapel Hill-Carrboro that restores protections for teachers from at-will firing and supports teachers’ free speech. I would also find the money in DPI’s budget to offer paid parental leave immediately, to model what districts should do for all educators.

3) Focus on school safety, with an immediate budget push on physical security (for example, quick locks on interior doors) and emotional safety, with proper levels of mental health funding as we face a multifaceted student mental health crisis. I would also focus DPI on providing excellent training to all districts on using school resource officers in a positive manner including in support of Chief Justice Cheri Beasley’s School-Justice Partnerships, and on other ways we can improve safety, such as investing in restoring relationships through restorative practices instead of just using punishment when confronted with discipline issues. In all three of these priorities, I have the background and training, uniquely among the candidates, in effective leadership of very large teams and budgets and change management; policy; and effective advocacy to be ready on Day 1 to repair the damage done by the current superintendent and lead/rebuild DPI and partner effectively with the State Board of Education.

Does North Carolina spend enough money on public education? If not, what areas would you like to see focused on?

No. When the court recently adopted the WestEd report as the remedy for the Leandro case that has been hanging over our schools for the past 26 years, we received a clear roadmap of changes that are needed in funding (and policies) in order to meet our constitutional obligations, from a high-quality teacher in every classroom to support resources like nurses and mental health professionals to meet the basic needs of all students.  I will continue to work with pro-public education legislators to explain to the public the benefits of providing a sound, basic education with equal opportunities for all so that we get adequate funding, and I will rally the public to highlight and put pressure on those in the legislature whose votes have harmed our public schools.  I will also work immediately and cooperatively with the State Board of Education on policy changes that we can make without waiting for the legislature.  Two-thirds of the report falls into this category, and while I understand it will be a change for North Carolina to have such leadership from the State Board, it is the mandated constitutional responsibility of the state board to create our state education policy, and it is a much better place to get educator input on the work and minimize unreasonable mandates that often come from the legislature.  I have the best track record of positive change in this race and will ensure that we succeed for all students across our state. 

We also need help from the state to meet the needs of our school buildings.  There is at least an $8 billion backlog of work to renovate our older buildings.  The bond Governor Cooper has proposed is a great start and allows the work to begin immediately, before additional construction inflation causes higher prices down the road.  Not only will our students and teachers benefit from better facilities, but we will also be able to address inefficient energy usage at the same time to reduce our carbon footprint and save operational dollars paid to utilities.

Should the state do more about bullying in our schools?

Yes, the state can provide guidance and professional development on better ways to handle bullying, such as by using restorative practices. Restorative practices focus on using discipline issues as an opportunity for student learning and the building of relationships so that issues are not repeated. Their use minimizes lost instructional time that now happens because of suspensions and expulsions and other out-of-class time—punishments that hurt children’s education, set them up for further trouble (including the school-to-prison pipeline) and fail to teach them how to get better. DPI can also guide districts in creative means to provide support to both perpetrators and victims, such as through co-located mental health services, in which districts provide school campus space for mental health professionals, so they can assist students on-site without costing the district any money and with less disruption to students’ school day, as we’ve done in Chapel Hill-Carrboro.

What additional steps, if any, should the state take to keep students safe at school?

Again, the first thing is the state superintendent should be advocating for the state to provide proper funding of mental health and other support positions, to help keep students safe by addressing student trauma and root causes of violence in our schools.  And we should be seeking out student voices on this issue—research is beginning to show the harm of too-realistic lockdown drills on students and teachers; it’s important to understand how our current efforts to keep students safe affect them, and give them some say in what now is thoroughly imposed on them.

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