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To improve schools, listen to our teachers

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We know that teachers matter more to student achievement than any other school-related factor, including services, facilities and leadership. Yet for years we’ve forced teachers to work in a broken system without including them in efforts to reform and fix it, and student achievement is suffering as a result.

This decline in achievement is abundantly clear with last week’s release of the North Carolina 2017-18 school performance grades. The picture is not good:

• Fewer public school students passed state exams this year: only 58.8 percent passed state reading, math and science exams, down from 59.2 percent last year.

• The passing rate on third grade reading exams continues to decline – down to 55.9 percent from 57.8 percent in 2016-17 and 60.2 percent in 2013-14.

• High school graduation rates declined slightly to 86.3 percent, down from 86.5 percent the prior year.

Yes, these declines are small. But they represent thousands of North Carolina students who are not achieving to their full potential, and that is not acceptable.

As a former teacher and policymaker who now works with educators across the country, I’ve spent my career advocating for teachers. I believe now more than ever, we must listen to our teachers, empower them to lead and give them the resources and professional development they need to help their students achieve, including real-time data personalized to each student’s learning. Because an investment in teachers is an investment in our students, and our future depends on it.

At digiLEARN, the Raleigh-based nonprofit I co-founded, we’ve met, surveyed and spoken with more than 1,300 teachers about what they need to thrive in their profession. We’ve heard over and over that teachers do not feel their voice is represented when it comes to education policy, despite the fact that they want to be included alongside administrators and policymakers in the decision-making process.

On top of what we’ve learned at digiLEARN, there’s an abundance of national research that shows that teachers want their voices heard, but they do not feel their perspective is represented, especially at the state and federal level. Teachers also want to lead while remaining in the classroom, but they don’t feel there are enough opportunities to do so.

Teachers want to lead, and they want the support and resources they need to help their students succeed, so much so that they were willing to take to the streets in protest this spring and are considering more protests this fall.

The stakes are incredibly high. Thanks to the diversity and complexity of technology, teachers must prepare the majority of their students today for careers that don’t yet exist, which means teachers need the skills to be effectively develop the higher order thinking skills their students will need for college and their careers. That’s a tough challenge, and it’s one that requires policymakers and district leaders to lift up and support teachers to allow them to effectively guide our students and future workforce.

We can do this in two ways:

• Offer professional development opportunities that allow teachers to learn and grow while remaining in the classroom. Teachers need meaningful professional development opportunities that give them the skills to explore new teaching practices without fear of failure, and they need the chance to learn and lead while continuing to teach. That’s why I’m particularly excited about digiLEARN’s Digital Scholars Initiative, a unique program that offers teachers invaluable leadership roles at their school and district levels while remaining practicing classroom teachers. Digital Scholars receive release time, personalized professional development and extended employment so they can learn how to lead other educators and use their classrooms as learning labs for other teachers to observe and learn new instructional practices. After a successful pilot with Rowan-Salisbury Schools and an upcoming pilot in Durham, digiLEARN will begin expanding the program nationally, and I encourage district leaders to consider the opportunity. 

• Empower teachers to lead. Teachers are on the front lines with their students. They know what their students need and how they best learn. Therefore, it’s no surprise that students perform better when they have empowered teachers, especially when teachers play a significant role in school improvement planning. Beyond the school building, I urge policymakers and district leaders to seek to actively include teachers in policy conversation and creation, so the policies we make at a school, district, state and federal level are based on knowledge from and collaboration with those who are working directly with students.

In the News & Observer, state superintendent Mark Johnson said “When you use status quo strategies, you get status quo results. We have been trying the same thing in our public education system for a number of years. Our system was designed a hundred years ago to fit a society in the Industrial Age.”

We’ve come a long way with modernizing the system, including becoming the first state in the nation to connect every single public classroom to high-speed broadband. But our policies haven’t caught up to our infrastructure, and teachers will be invaluable in creating policies and processes that actually work in the classroom.

We need to listen to teachers about the data and resources they need to reach and lift up every single child in our state so that all students can succeed. There’s too much at stake not to.

Bev Perdue is a former governor of North Carolina and the co-founder of digiLEARN, a nonprofit dedicated to accelerating digital learning for all ages with the goal of increasing personal learning options for students and expanding instructional opportunities for teachers and instructors.