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Good schools -- The one magic answer?

By D. G. Martin
Posted Tuesday, March 24, 2009

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Siler City, NC - What really makes for good schools?

At a recent conference organized for North Carolina Editorial Writers, the organizer, Ferrel Guillory, Director of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Program on Public Life, presented this question for discussion. To help, he brought several top education experts, including J.B. Buxton, the former deputy school superintendent in charge of day-to-day operations at the Department of Public Instruction; Judith Rizzo, Executive Director of the Hunt Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy; and Bill McDiarmid, Dean of UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Education.

Their discussion of the enormous challenges currently facing North Carolina schools took me back to the times when I monitored the education committees in the state legislature. My job was to look out for the 16 Campus UNC System, but the education committees also had responsibility for public schools.

Thinking backward, I remembered that various people at different times had many different answers to the “What makes for good schools?” question.

For instance, the committees often heard that smaller class size was the most important one thing that could be done to improve schools.

On another day, the key would be technology: computers and other devices were the missing link to good results.

Without better accountability, including regular student testing and teacher performance evaluation, others said that there could be no pathway to progress.

Some urged standardization; others were persuasive in asserting that local schools needed great flexibility to meet the special challenges in their areas of responsibility.

A case for emphasizing the basis of reading and math in one season would be met the next with the critical importance of the arts, science, and physical education.

Always, the advocates for improved education emphasized the importance of increased funding.

My mentor, the late Jay Robinson, emphasized the importance of the leadership qualities of the school principal. “Give me a great principal and I’ll show you a great school.”

The experts that Guillory assembled for the editorial writers also emphasized the leadership role as one of the keys. But they cautioned that no one thing by itself is going to be a magic fix for the schools. Only sustained efforts to improve across many areas can bring about meaningful progress.

At the end of the discussion, J.B. Buxton brought up an example of one of the tough problems the state schools face. “We cannot recruit enough science teachers to give adequate classroom instruction to the students in many Northeastern North Carolina schools. So we are going to have to serve them with virtual instruction over the Internet.”

That report reminded me of how important to me the classroom teachers at North Mecklenburg High School had been to my educational development. Their caring, hands-on approach to teaching and mentoring overcame our lack of some of the “critical” resources I later heard about in the legislature.

But then I remembered that one of the best classes I ever had was not unlike the virtual classes planned for some Northeastern schools. A young teacher named Joe Foster taught my physics class. It might have been a tough task for him to teach it by himself. But thanks to funding by the Ford Foundation, he got the help of a set of excellent filmed 30-minute lectures and demonstrations by Dr. Harvey White, an experienced University of California professor.

Highly organized and articulate, White made complicated physics understandable. Then, Mr. Foster, freed from the rigors of preparing a daily lecture, gave full attention to hands-on help and follow-up discussion.

Back then, I thought this effective method of teaching, with an on-site teacher and off-site lecturer, would be the wave of the future.

It wasn’t. And it might not be a magic answer for Northeastern North Carolina.

But I am glad it is going to get another try.


D.G. Martin is the author of “Interstate Eateries,” a guide to family owned homecooking restaurants near North Carolina’s interstate highways

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