Editorial: Crunch time for district

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Dr. Judy Grissom knew when she took the job of Rowan-Salisbury Schools superintendent that improving the system would be an uphill climb.

But she didn’t expect to face Mount Everest.

That’s the way school improvement looks from the foot of the mountain that the state Department of Public Instruction has directed local officials to. By the standards of No Child Left Behind, Rowan-Salisbury is in the bottom 10 or 11 of the state’s public school systems, and it must do better.

This decline didn’t happen overnight. Though Grissom’s predecessor and the school board never mentioned it publicly, this past year was the fourth year in a row in which the system as a whole has not made adequate yearly progress. School officials talked plenty over the years about which individual schools failed to make adequate yearly progress, but the fact that the entire system was on “district improvement status” never came up in public session. And the rest of us were not vigilant enough or smart enough to figure it out.

That lack of openness and accountability is appalling, but the real story here is the state of Rowan-Salisbury Schools. No Child Left Behind is a flawed accountability plan. It identifies students by dozens of subgroups and makes reaching Adequate Yearly Progress an all-or-nothing feat. Nevertheless, the federal program is proving its worth by bringing to light critical weaknesses in the local public schools — No. 1 being that some teachers don’t follow the state’s required Standard Course of Study. What ever made them think that was optional, and how could the entire chain of command have allowed it to go on?

Grissom says she doesn’t believe the quality of education here is as poor as the accountability program’s ranking makes it appear, but she has known the schools should be doing much better. “The thing I look at more than anything else is, how proficient are the students?” Grissom says, and on that measure, the system “definitely is not where it should be.” She has already instituted some changes, such as adding literacy tutors, but the system may need cultural change as much as anything. This is a call to action.

The knee-jerk political reaction to this news will be to accuse the public schools of wasting the millions of dollars taxpayers have poured into their coffers. That would be taking the news to the extreme — this is No Child Left Behind, not No Child Learned Anything. Clearly, though, the schools failed to produce the results taxpayers were promised or that school officials hoped for. Hope is not a strategy, but it appears to be the only system former Superintendent Wiley Doby put into place to turn the situation around.

The fact that the school board forced Doby out shows board members knew the system was in trouble; only now are we learning how deeply. Grissom has to go into crisis mode, because reaching adequate yearly progress is only going to get harder when the state raises the goals next year. She will put the heat on teachers and principals, with the presence of a state-appointed assistance team providing both firewood and matches. As much as they don’t like No Child Left Behind, educators cannot afford to ignore or resist it, and the time for whining is definitely over. This is an embarassment to Rowan County. We’re better than this.