RALEIGH — As the conversation with State Superintendent Catherine Truitt continued in this second part of NSJ’s exclusive interview, Truitt discussed establishing the Office for Learning Recovery (OLR) to help implement her vision for the state’s schools. This office will oversee “Operation Polaris,” which is her long-term plan to transform North Carolina’s public schools with the goal of having “a highly-qualified, excellent teacher in every classroom.”
“I created what’s called the Office of Learning Recovery to not just be a compliance arm of DPI, because we’re a pass-through for that money, but also to provide technical support and assistance to some of our smaller more, rural districts who might not have the capacity at their central office to put together a plan and might want some assistance around the best way to spend this money,” said Truitt.
Operation Polaris also aims at “district and school transformation,” which Truitt said involves input from individuals who are in the field and who are education experts, former teachers and principals.
“We have an incredible amount of money coming to us from the federal government that has a shelf life of about four years. And the vast majority of that money is being distributed, according to Title I population, to our districts,” Truitt said. “And districts, by law, have to submit a plan to the department of how they’re going to use that money. And 20% of that money must be used for learning recovery.”
Truitt indicated that various groups involved in central offices, those supporting principals and central office leadership, weren’t connected and communicating effectively. By rearranging organizational charts and roles, anything that’s happening in supporting teachers will now make its way “all the way up to the superintendent and vice versa.”
The satellite topics around the OLR including literacy, human capital, accountability and testing, and student support services represent both the policy and legislative changes that Truitt said the Department of Public Instruction wants to make over the next two years.
“Human capital goes direct to my North Star, which is that every single child in the state must have a highly qualified and excellent teacher in every classroom,” Truitt said. “And this is going to involve changing the way that we recruit and retain and compensate teachers, who, right now, are solely paid, for the most part, based on years of experience. We need to give teachers more opportunities to be leaders and to be paid for outputs not just input.”
The focus on literacy in Operation Polaris speaks to the crisis in K-12 literacy both in North Carolina and nationwide.
“This is a crisis in our nation,” said Truitt. “Sixty-seven percent of eighth graders in North Carolina are not reading or doing math proficiently when they start high school; and that statistic is average in the U.S.”
She noted that North Carolina can make changes in the way literacy is taught through the recently signed Excellent Public Schools Act.
The measure, Senate Bill 387, was signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper in mid-April. The bill directs the Department of Public Instruction to establish literacy interventions and an early literacy program that utilizes the Science of Reading. The law defines Science of Reading as “evidenced-based reading instruction practices that address the acquisition of language, phonological and phonemic awareness, phonics and spelling, fluency, vocabulary, oral language, and comprehension that can be differentiated to meet the needs of individual students.”
“The brain learns to read not through visual activity, but through language activity. Reading is actually not a visual endeavor,” said Truitt.
Truitt said that states that have done something similar to the North Carolina’s Excellent Public Schools Act have seen “incredible rates of proficiency increases in reading, across all groups, including low-income children.”
The state’s top education official said she “inherited an agency that had a lot of challenges” and one major issue has been a lack of procedures and processes related to posting materials on the DPI website, which was redesigned under her predecessor, Mark Johnson.
“We have been going through our policies and procedures around curriculum materials being shared, around the posting of trainings, and we’ve been working with staff to put those policies in place,” said Truitt. “And we are finding that there were things in place that do not reflect the mission of the Department of Public Instruction, and we’re making those necessary changes.”
Some of the items on the website that have been altered or removed include training and materials related to “Culturally Responsive Teaching.”
Culturally Responsive Teaching, generally, is supposed to mean teachers to gain a broader understanding of their students in order to better serve them.
“Understanding that perhaps they are homeless and might not be able to turn in their homework, because they didn’t have a place to sleep last night,” Truitt said as an example, adding that the terminology and purpose of Culturally Responsive Teaching has in some ways been “hijacked.”
“It’s [Culturally Responsive Teaching] absolutely been hijacked,” said Truitt. “It doesn’t mean grouping your students into affinity groups and stereotyping them, and saying, ‘Well, because you’re Hispanic you’re going to read Hispanic poetry.’ That’s what it doesn’t mean.”
Truitt mentioned another phrase that’s been co-opted in a few ways, Social Emotional Learning or SEL.
“Social Emotional Learning should mean looking out for the mental health welfare of children and considering how to teach soft skills,” Truitt said.
Truitt noted that her deputy superintendent of the Office of Equity had pointed out issues with a program called “Transformative SEL,” which was given the go-ahead under Johnson.
“Social and emotional learning is one thing, but if the organization that we are supposedly partnering with is using SEL as a way to get at affinity groups and identity groups, you know, we’re not going to do that,” Truitt said.
Across the state, there have been examples of districts giving surveys to students in the name of SEL education or SEL policies. These surveys are often privacy invading and ask students for personal information, such as sexual orientation, political beliefs and include questions about mental health.
Wake County Public Schools had multiple incidents of such surveys over the last four years, including a “Social, Emotional, and Behavioral assessment” called the “BIMAS-2 Inventory.” The BIMAS-2 required teachers to rate students on certain behaviors in order to rate their threat levels. Students were automatically opted into the survey unless their parent or guardian provided a written objection.
“I would say that this agency, despite the fact that it’s leader is elected, is an apolitical agency, which is why we are instituting a policy where we don’t provide curriculum resources to districts that we cannot vet,” said Truitt. “As an elected official, I don’t just serve conservatives. I serve all people; I serve all voters; and I serve students.”
Truitt said she has met with parents and various groups about concerns, finding that many of those concerns stemmed from actions taken or, in some cases, inaction, by her predecessor.
“As things have arisen, I’ve been able to pull things down from NC Wise Owl that were inappropriate,” said Truitt.
NC Wise Owl is a repository of research, e-journals, magazines and other materials maintained by the Department of Public Instruction that teachers in the state can draw from if they choose.
“The only time that the State Board of Education can step in is when there is an issue with the local board of education,” said Truitt.
She reiterated that districts control their local instructional and curricular materials, and when that content is questions by parents, she said that “teachers should always provide an alternate assignment when asked by a parent. And if they don’t, then there are processes in place for parents to seek some recourse.”