On Thursday, Nov. 12, Friday Institute Executive Director Hiller A. Spires, Ph.D., had a virtual conversation with Catherine Truitt about her upcoming role as North Carolina State Superintendent of Public Instruction. See highlights from their conversation below.
Hiller Spires (HS): Tell us what your vision is for North Carolina education, and particularly in the first 100 days as you’ll be superintendent.
Catherine Truitt (CT): The data shows us that there are some things that we’ve been doing that are not working for students. I’ve talked a lot about our proficiency data for fourth grade and eighth grade math and reading in North Carolina and how 67% of eighth graders in North Carolina are not reading and doing math proficiently when they start high school. This data has been stagnant along with the 30 point achievement gap we have between our low income students and their wealthier counterparts. So while I am interested in looking at where our funding inequities are, especially the inequities in county level funding, I’m also interested in looking at best practices in places like Polk County, for example. They’ve got very high numbers compared to other counties of kids who are enrolled in NC pre-K, and their kids are doing markedly better than other students in the same socio-economic bracket.
One of the things that we need to do in order to keep students at the center is we need to make sure that the department has a mechanism for engaging with educators, and that means, to me, anyone who works in a building and serves a child. I’m going to build a team that does that. So there must be a continual feedback loop that allows for those in the trenches, both teachers and administrators and parents, to provide feedback to the department, the legislature and the board. I am going to make sure that I have a team that’s doing that, as well as a person who is dedicated to the work of myFutureNC. We’ve got to have externally facing people at the department who are engaging with educators, engaging with business leaders and the initiatives that are going on in our state in such a way that it actually informs policy and statute.
HS: In the context of North Carolina’s Leandro case, what do you see as the immediate steps to ensure that all students in North Carolina, especially those who have been marginalized, have a sound basic education? Secondly, what do you think will be the gauge for progress?
CT: Leandro, pure and simple, is the most significant judicial decision since Brown v. Board of Education. It is imperative that we coalesce around the WestEd report and that the board and the agency are aligned in their approach to Leandro. I was very excited to learn that Dr. Bev Emery will be serving as the executive director of Leandro for the board and that there is, in fact, money to fund an office of equity within the department that will work with the executive director of Leandro because we have a lot of equity issues that are not necessarily related to the recommendations in Leandro.
For me, the early literacy piece, which is, quite frankly, the fact that the research has been there for as long as it has and we still have pre-service teachers who are not grounded in the science of reading going off into teaching in K-3, is problematic at best. I am looking forward to kind of wrapping my arms around Leandro and ensuring that there is a team in place who has what it needs to do this work and that is able to communicate with the legislature what we have to have.
HS: So we’re about nine months into remote and hybrid learning and teaching due to the pandemic. From where you sit right now, what do you think has gone well and what has the crisis revealed about our weaknesses within our system?
CT: I think what it revealed is something that’s not surprising to those of us who work in state government and in public schools and in higher education, which is that it’s difficult to pivot quickly, and we had teachers who literally left their classrooms, never to return, so to speak, and kids who still had things at school. I mean, it just happened so suddenly. I think we have a handful of districts that were incredibly prepared for this, but it also revealed a need for digital inclusion.
But there will be some positive things that come from this—the need for innovation and the need for mobility within public education. One of the things that amazed me, when I got to WGU three years ago, was how agile we are and how quickly we move. I think that COVID may allow for this to happen for us just to do things a little bit quicker.
HS: There has been a great deal of deliberation about when and how to open schools, and there are a variety of different plans in place with different districts right now. Now, I have heard you say that one size does not fit all. Whose voices need to be prioritized and what data needs to be considered in order to make these decisions?
CT: I really like what I’ve seen lately, which is local health officials informing local school board’s decisions in a lot of counties. I think that the data [of local infection rates] should inform these decisions. We have seen data that suggests that with schools that have been open for a while, like Mount Airy, for example, we’re not seeing outbreaks at schools. We’ve had a couple of localized cases of adults who’ve had COVID but have not spread it to children. There’s not been any super spreader events.
I wish that both parents and educators had a choice about whether or not they were going to return to school. I totally understand that there are educators who are not in a position to return to school and that there are families who do not want their children to return to school. I mean, if you read anything nationally, so far, remote learning has not been a success in most places because we weren’t ready. Not for lack of trying. I mean, we’ve got teachers all over the state who have just moved heaven and earth to try and provide a quality remote learning experience for their students. But they’re running classroom out of their hallway because their kids are in the dining room doing remote learning and their spouse is in the next room working from home, and it’s an untenable situation. I do think that we can solve for this, but it’s not something that can come from top down from the department.
HS: Currently, North Carolina is one of the fastest growing states, yet we are ranked 30th in teacher pay and 42nd in terms of teacher wage competitiveness. What can North Carolina do to address teacher pay and elevate the teaching profession in North Carolina? And what do you think the impact of COVID is on teacher recruitment and retention from North Carolina?
CT: We actually ranked No. 3 in the nation for teacher pay increases, and we ranked No. 1 in the Southeast for teacher pay increases. We are No. 4 in the Southeast for teacher pay, and I have said many times I would like to see us being No. 1 for teacher pay because I think it’s easier to compare us to a smaller group of states. We have to think about what the total compensation package is for teachers when we’re looking at where we figure in teacher pay rankings. Not all states contribute to retirement the way that we do and not all states provide free health care the way we do. We have the fifth best funded teacher pension system in the country. It’s very healthy, and even during the pandemic has grown 6.9%, which is just unheard of. So we have been the fastest growing state for teacher pay increases for a while, and I don’t know that anyone would agree that it’s enough. We need to keep moving.
I plan to continue to prioritize not only across-the-board teacher pay raises, but I also want to continue, as we must, looking at restructuring licensure in the department for many reasons. I love plans that are already in the works to align not just years of experience but also leadership roles with more pay for teachers through the advanced teaching roles program and just other ways that we can provide teachers with opportunity for growth and the opportunity to earn more pay along with more responsibility. I think that’s absolutely crucial.
Hear Truitt’s thoughts on questions from webinar participants on veteran teacher pay, standardized testing, teacher self-care and more in the video of her conversation with Spires above.