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Empowering Students to Learn, Grow, and Succeed: A Conversation with State Superintendent Catherine Truitt

Empowering our students, our future workforce, is essential for ensuring North Carolina’s rank as the best state to live and work. As North Carolina rebounds from the pandemic, the NC Chamber is working to identify the ways in which job creators can collaborate with education leaders to enhance efforts that set up every student for success and unite North Carolinians with meaningful jobs that fulfill business demands. The ongoing advocacy of the NC Chamber’s Government Affairs team for legislation that advances education continuity, addresses learning loss caused by COVID-19, and assesses the unique academic needs of every student, as well as the NC Chamber Foundation’s focus for securing a skilled talent pipeline statewide, are key actions for achieving a competitive, diverse, and world-class workforce.

The months ahead mark a significant time for our students and our schools. North Carolina’s K-12 public school districts will start opening schools for in-person learning options, as our teachers receive their vaccines. The NC Chamber values the opportunities to engage with the state’s education leaders to learn about their plans and priorities for the challenging year ahead. We were pleased to conduct the following Q&A with State Superintendent Catherine Truitt. The NC Chamber looks forward to continuing the conversations with other education stakeholders as job creators champion our students through their academic journeys and along their paths to rewarding careers. Read Q&A with UNC System President Peter Hans to discover how our public universities are advancing access to higher education and preparing North Carolinians with the skills that achieve business needs and rewarding careers.

NC Chamber: As North Carolina recovers from the pandemic, we must put students first. Will you discuss how your top three priorities of literacy, human capital, and testing and accountability will ensure public education is centered around our students?

CT: We have an obligation to ensure that North Carolina public schools are preparing students to transition into the post-secondary plans of their choice. To do this, we must start with early childhood literacy. We must ensure that students are proficient in reading and math, as these are basic skills they need in order to truly be prepared for life after K-12.

Student preparation and readiness is highly impacted by the teachers they have, the principals who lead the school, and the school support personnel in the school buildings. These people are critical to shaping, molding, and preparing students for the workforce.

Finally, reforming the way we test students and the way we grade schools, so that growth is more heavily emphasized, is a better way to understand how a child and a school have progressed. These three priorities will be what allows for students to learn, grow, and transition seamlessly into the 21st century workforce.

How do you reach consensus with other leaders in education when priorities do not align?

We have a workplace culture belief at the department that includes the phrases “trust generously” and “assume positive intent.” I take this same position into my everyday meetings, conversations, and discussions with other leaders across the state. Trusting generously means we believe another’s point is well-intended and meant in good faith. Consensus is about finding common ground and remembering why we’re in this to begin with. In the department’s case, it’s to put students first.

Studies show that 67 percent of North Carolina’s students are not proficient at grade level reading as they head into the high school years. How will the science of reading method prepare children?

Reading and math proficiency have been a decades-long struggle in North Carolina, and it’s a challenge that pre-dates COVID. These statistics tell us that if we want to improve reading proficiency and really change the outcome for students, we need to start doing things differently.

The science of reading is a body of research that shows us how the brain learns to read. When children aren’t taught to decode (sound out) words, they are not building the foundational skills needed to learn how to read and comprehend text. Prioritizing a “phonics-based” approach to early literacy instruction stands in opposition to decades-old reading programs that are categorized as “balanced literacy” approaches to literacy instruction. Ensuring our teachers—both new and veteran—can teach reading using methods that are grounded in the science of reading is key to student success.

Our students have experienced nearly one year of remote learning. Each child’s learning loss is unique. How do we quantify the learning loss so that we can address it? Also, do you think there will be changes to the state’s accountability and assessment model in response to these challenges?

As we move beyond COVID and forge the path ahead, we must recognize that testing is going to play an essential part in understanding where knowledge gaps exist for students. While there has been a big reduction in testing in the last few years, the reality is that we are still giving EOG tests to students which only provide a snapshot in time. Those results – as is the case with many standardized tests—do not define a child, the teacher, and do nothing to help parents understand where their child is in their academic development. As a former high school teacher, I know that testing must be student-centered. It must allow teachers to make data-driven instructional decisions and provide timely communication to parents regarding their child’s performance.

The fallout of the pandemic has also underscored the limitations of the current school accountability system in place. We need to reform the accountability model so that it better reflects the ways schools are working to transform teaching and learning. There are other items that need to be considered when discussing how to evaluate a school: student surveys, parent surveys, teacher satisfaction surveys, absenteeism rates, and opportunities for students to grow in other ways than just academics. These measures are more inclusive and can better help parents understand what is going on at their child’s school.

How can we identify and best support the thousands of students who have “fallen off the grid” because they have not participated in virtual school since remote learning began last spring?

While we are focused on addressing learning loss, we are also dedicated to those who we call “lost learners.” We see districts doing so many things to reengage students, including identifying students who have entered the workforce during this time and working with them to help them achieve certificates that match their work skills needs. Many districts are working to develop alternative pathways to graduation, like Guilford County Schools which has a twilight program to help students who cannot make traditional school hours. We know this is a challenge of a post-COVID era, and the department is committed to helping all NC public school students find a path to enrollment, enlistment, or employment.

What efforts are underway to ensure students’ mental health needs will be met, particularly for those students who attend schools without school psychologists on staff?

Knowing the challenges we face as students transition back to in-person instruction, the SBE and department included budgetary requests for students’ mental health and well-being. Included in this priority is increased funding for student support personnel positions, particularly school psychologists, nurses, social workers, mental health specialists, and counselors, whose continued commitment to identifying and supporting our students will be even more critical as we begin the 2021-22 academic school year. To hire these professionals, we need to create pipeline development programs that lead individuals to choose these pathways and provide compensation and other incentives to attract them to areas that are historically difficult to hire.

What are your plans for securing a pipeline of skilled teachers, principals, and school support personnel in every North Carolina school?

Teachers are the difference-makers for students’ success. The single greatest thing the state can do to improve education in North Carolina is to focus on keeping great teachers in the classroom and encouraging more to enter the profession. North Carolina has the opportunity to bolster its ability to attract, develop, and reward the best educators by implementing a clear, sequential pathway for NC teaching professionals to enter and progress in the profession. North Carolina can reimagine teachers’ licensure and professional career paths in a way that invites a more diverse population into the profession, offers individual advancement and growth opportunities, encourages the best teachers to lead from the classroom, and provides commensurate compensation that grows as teachers expand their professional impact and student academic growth.

We are excited to support and partner with NC Education Human Capital, a multi-sector coalition of NC education leaders and the Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission (PEPSC) to design and create pathways to excellence for NC teaching professionals. This same dedication will be applied to developing the principal pipeline and creating opportunities for principal leadership, as well as programs to support and coach turnaround principals. As we know, a well-qualified and engaging teacher in every classroom leads to student success as does an inspiring and empowering school leader in every building.