Who undermines public education in North Carolina?

It’s strange for me to rebut someone who shares my first and last names. Except, however, for this coincidence and that I, too, was a college professor we probably have little in common—at least politically. I disagree with Professor Robert W. Smith’s warning to our state legislators that their policy proposals “undermine teachers,” in a recent Wilmington StarNews article (“submitted with the support of 16 education faculty members” at UNCW’s Watson School of Education). (link)

Prof. Smith attempts to discredit the efforts of the North Carolina state legislature to reform public school education and cut wasteful spending. Predictably, Smith and other UNCW faculty support status quo education policies in this state. It’s in their entrenched self-interests to do so.

Smith begins with agreeable statements: “public schools play a key role in helping produce an educated citizenry”; good teachers can have a positive influence on students; we want to “attract the best and brightest teachers.” He proceeds with assumptions that state education policies (based on previous political influences) all support the above statements. But, I believe, he ignores the real problems with our public schools.

First, he criticizes the elimination of the state Teaching Fellowships program. I’m not familiar with the details of this program, but I’m sure this is another cash subsidy fund. People who have a strong desire and ability to teach will find the means of achieving their goals. What other private or public employment opportunities offer taxpayer funded “fellowships” to “attract highly qualified” people to the field?

Smith writes that 50 percent of this state’s teachers leave after five years and that our schools face “a tremendous challenge of hiring and retaining” teachers. Further, he claims that state “policies and proposals” demoralize public teachers. I suggest that more fundamental things lurking within our generally inefficient and misdirected public education system cause these problems.

In the past people didn’t go into public employment for high pay and big benefits. We went into our fields of interest because we enjoyed the work and got satisfaction from it. Actually, we never thought of it as “work,” but most of us put our all into it.

Most of the teacher benefits “proposed” to be curtailed by the State legislature are available to few private and public employees. Tenure based on time spent on the job, reduced workloads, fewer assistants, several months’ vacation and other time off, and extra pay for taking easy college courses (euphemistically referred to as “professional development”) have nothing to do with good teaching and a desire to help students learn vital subjects such as English, math, science, civics, history and social studies.

Instead of lobbying to prop up unions and teacher benefits with more public money, Prof. Smith and other faculty in our schools of public education should look inward to politics within the public school system for answers to help teacher retention and to boost morale.

Such concerns as self-serving union policies; student discipline problems; dumbing-down the curricula; time wasted in nonacademic subjects; lack of administrative support for teachers; incompetent teachers given tenure and promotions; rejecting subject-matter qualified people from teaching because they haven’t spent four years in a college program and aren’t “certified,” and a host of other problems that plague our public schools should be corrected.

Then, we should discuss merit pay for excellent teachers with proven results.

I agree with Prof. Smith that much is “at stake for our children,” but I believe his assumptions that legislative reforms (justified by what he calls “economic necessities”) are “short sighted…undervalue teachers” and “undermine public education in North Carolina” divert our attention. These political smoke-screen words hide the education insiders who actually undermine public education in this State.

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About R. E. Smith Jr.

Mr. Smith writes essays and commentary on politics, American history, environment, higher education and culture. He's been published in print media and at blog sites for about 25 years. Smith's formal education includes B.S. and M.S. degrees from the State University of New York and Syracuse University. He has earned a 21-credit hour Certificate in Professional Writing from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Training/work experience: NYS Ranger School; U. S. Army, Corp of Engineers; soil scientist and forester with USDA; Assoc. Professor at SUNY; real estate agent; small business owner.
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