I didn’t want to be a teacher until I was sitting in a college auditorium listening to Jonathan Kozol speak of the need for teachers to change the world for underserved students. “That’s it!” I thought. “Forget journalism. I will single-handedly improve the lives of thousands by becoming a teacher!” I acquired my teacher certification and planned to teach at an impoverished school in New Jersey.
But I got hired at a top-performing, wealthy school. Then when I moved to North Carolina, people made me think I couldn’t handle the “bad” schools, so I told myself that all kids need an education — even the healthy, privileged ones. So now I teach a very small percentage of the students in North Carolina — some of whom have few resources, and some whom have more resources than they need. Despite my lofty goals, I haven’t yet single-handedly improved the lives of thousands.
Still, while it is my duty to educate the ones I have in my keep, it is also my duty — and yours — to ensure all students receive their constitutional right to a ‘sound, basic education.’ “That quality – not equal opportunity or funding — should determine whether [a child’s constitutional right to an education] has been violated,” said Judge Howard E. Manning in the 1994 Leandro Case.
The case may be decades old, but it is still used as the basis for many recent debates about equality in NC education.
Manning remains at the helm, and scheduled a hearing at the end of January to determine whether the state is trying to weasel its way out of its educational responsibility. At issue is North Carolina’s move to change the achievement levels on end of grade and course tests. This change would create a mid-level where students can pass on to the next grade, but would need additional help from a teacher in reaching college and career readiness.
Manning said “that the new level three means that children are NOT solidly at grade level and are NOT well prepared for the next grade level, which is the Leandro definition of obtaining a sound basic education at grade level.”
It seems Manning had his mind made up before the hearing; something about his comment, “If it looks like a pig and smells like a pig,” tipped me off and I admire his passion.
However, there is a bigger issue than the state changing the grading scale. Why does one test given only in certain grades and certain courses determine a sound education for students in our state?
We already know that these tests are ineffective in “grading” our schools, and that they do little to measure student growth. We also know that schools with higher levels of poverty traditionally do worse on the tests, so I’m not sure what Manning’s findings will change.
The Leandro case continues to be relevant today, and I applaud those who use it to make large reform safeguarding our children. It also reminds me why I became a teacher — in part, to fight for the rights of students who can’t fight for themselves.
No matter Manning’s ultimate findings, the issue of inequity in our schools does not end with how to grade a test. Teacher, lawyer, judge, or not, we all need to pay attention to what is happening with education in our state, how we evaluate it, and what can be done to improve it.