Ten Takeaways from a Case Study in NC
by Angela Scioli, Wake County Teacher
I have taught high school social studies for the last 27 years at Leesville Road High School in Wake County, NC. It is a large suburban public high school in a district with a robust economy. Since North Carolina’s constitution tasks the state government with providing all children in the state with an adequate public education, state policies are still the driving force behind what we teach, who teaches it, and what materials are available for our students.
In the past two years, on May 16, 2018, and May 1, 2019, North Carolina educators have shut down dozens of school districts to hold marches in the state capital. Not an easy task in a right-to-work state. Nevertheless, even a casual observer might rightly assume that teachers are unhappy with state policy to a significant degree. A quick visual scan of the signs teachers carried at the marches clearly showed the many ways state education policies have vexed our state’s most committed teachers, slowed our once robust teacher pipeline to a trickle and led many great teachers to retire early or leave the profession altogether.
The question we should ask is, how? How does bad education policy happen? What political and social forces are at work that allow policy to be so out of step with what educational professionals know to be in the best interests of children, and therefore our state?
Collective Curricular Amnesia and a False Narrative Takes Hold
A careful study of a curriculum revision policy that shape shifted into several iterations including Senate Bill 134/House Bill 473, and, ultimately, House Bill 924 is instructive. It is a policy that unnecessarily revamps social studies curriculum on a false premise that students are not taught personal financial literacy skills, cuts in half American History instruction, significantly disincentivizes students from taking Advanced Placement US History, and squeezes out elective offerings as schools struggle to implement two different graduation tracks over the next four years.
Given the State Board Policy SCOS-12 (passed in 2018) that requires any changes to the curriculum to be research-based, data-driven AND built on feedback from stakeholders in the field, one would assume that a policy this disruptive must be really necessary and predicated on a mountain of valid data. It is not.
To fully understand the travesty that is currently unfolding in North Carolina requires a little background.
In 2010, after the Great Recession and during the height of the Tea Party movement, our social studies curriculum was revised. State leaders in the Tea Party movement, like Sen. Jerry Tillman (a former principal, now Senate Education Committee Chair) insisted we needed to greatly expand the study of the founding principles, the Constitution, and America’s other founding documents. They also wanted to add a much larger focus on personal financial literacy.
The curricular changes that resulted were significant and sweeping. We added personal financial literacy standards to the K-12 curriculum. For twelve years, students would have a steady diet of concepts like credit, markets, supply and demand, and an understanding of financial tools like debit cards. We increased the number of social studies courses required in high school from three to four. We doubled American History instruction. A new course was created (henceforth to be officially named “American History: The Founding Principles, Civics, and Economics” but practically called Civics and Economics by practitioners) with half of the course being civics and half being economics and personal finance. New state tests, called Measurements of Student Learning, then revamped as North Carolina Final Exams (NCFEs), were devised and administered statewide for each of the four courses required for high school graduation.
Unfortunately, the changes were not accompanied by any additional resources or training. At my school, the number of teachers teaching American History doubled, but we had the same number of textbooks from 2005. We switched from teaching “Economic, Legal and Political Systems” in 9th grade to teaching Civics and Economics to seniors, but to this day we still have a textbook at a 7th grade reading level.
Despite the lack of resources or professional development, the revised curriculum did meet some of the stated goals. We created new pacing guides, lessons, and assessments in the coming years. With twice as much time to teach history, we abandoned the “mile wide and one inch deep” “coverage” approach to history instruction and began using primary sources and investigative lessons that encourage students to think like a historian. Teachers created elaborate budgeting simulations and discovered a free digital learning platform created by BB&T called Everfi that walked students through ten different modules related to personal finance, assessed their proficiency, and awarded them a certification. Seven thousand students earned certification last year.
You can imagine our surprise when we heard Lt. Governor (and supposed candidate for Governor in 2020) Dan Forest state in this radio interview that “we don’t teach personal finance” in North Carolina and that he was proposing a whole new graduation requirement - a stand alone course in personal finance and economics. Here’s the catch: this new course would be one of the four currently required for graduation. Interpretation – one of the courses we currently teach would be cut.
My first take on that claim and proposal was “bless his heart.” The Republican majority in both houses of the part-time state legislature, and the new Republican superintendent Mark Johnson (having only two years of classroom experience as a Teach for America recruit), have a reputation for not having a very deep “education bench.” They do not consult with the largest teacher association, the North Carolina Association of Educators. Most of the members of the Republican caucus have backgrounds in business and industry and tend to want to run schools on that vein. So, it seemed entirely possible that they just didn’t know what we are teaching and assessing. Surely Senator Tillman and others who led the 2010 “social studies curriculum revolution” would set the Lt. Governor straight? Tillman instead just joined Forest’s team.
An Unexpected Bipartisan Wrinkle
You can imagine my surprise when I heard that a bill was birthed requiring this new course be taught. Senate Bill 134. Oddly, Senator Tillman was a primary sponsor. Even more curious, so were two prominent Democrats – Jay Chaudhuri and Terry Van Duyn (who is running for Lt. Governor in 2020). A bipartisan bill. This is a new wrinkle and a phenomenon I had not seen since I began my advocacy work in 2013. The Republicans had enjoyed a supermajority since the 2012 elections, and it had only recently been broken in 2018. The governor’s veto could now “stick.” So, Republicans and Democrats were negotiating a new space where they would need to work together, to a degree, to get things passed.
The Red4Ed Board of Advisors (five of us social studies teachers) quickly surmised we needed to inform Chaudhuri and Van Duyn and all bill sponsors and co-sponsors of their error in signing on to this legislation. We were a little vexed that they had signed on at all without giving us a call for consult. Several of us know them personally and our emails and phone numbers are accessible in seconds. I met with Jay Chaudhuri in February, confident we could infuse the policy atmosphere with some severely lacking context and peel away the support for the now nascent bill.
I thought the meeting went great. Sen. Chaudhuri asked great questions, and we met for well over an hour. At one point he called down Rick Horner, the Senate Education Chair, and we had a productive conversation. I asked Sen. Chaudhuri how he got himself onto this bill, and he said the Lt. Governor asked him to help sponsor it, and he obliged. It seemed that once Sen. Chaudhuri signed on, and participated in a variety of press events related to the proposal, a cadre of other Democrats came on board too. I advised him that the bill was built on a set of flawed assumptions, lacked any supportive data or research (they did not even have the data of how NC students were performing on NCFEs in personal finance) and serious amendments were in order that would recognize that personal finance was being taught, tested, and perhaps teachers could finally provided with the training, materials and resources to do that work. He agreed to get work on amending. I left satisfied that we had diverted a runaway train and trusted that Senator Horner and Chaudhuri would get the bill amended; I communicated that to my fellow advocates.
Imagine my surprise when I read that the bill passed the Senate Education committee without a single comment in opposition. I was startled and confused and immediately called Sen. Chaudhuri. He seemed simultaneously surprised by my anger and bewildered by my assumption that he could wave a wand and make this bill change form.
I realized a more effective communication strategy needed to be employed to help inform a larger circle of policymakers. A statewide network of teachers and advocates had been communicating on this matter, and we decided to produce a special report that could be distributed widely to both policymakers and activists. We wanted to use the report to inform legislators to encourage them to take their name off the bill. We would “go public” with the report to create a groundswell of pressure to amend the bill or kill it.
Just the sending of the report to Democratic sponsors of the bill led some to start to peel off. Many Democrats communicated that they didn’t actually know much about the bill and they just signed on in blind faith. At this point, Sen. Chaudhuri and Marge Foreman, the full time lobbyist for NCAE, advised that we slow down and give a chance for behind the scenes negotiations to proceed. They feared our tactics could lead to a hardening of hearts and undermine efforts to amend the bill with Republicans. We consented and did not “go public” with the report. It was now April.
Imagine our surprise when I learned that not only had the Senate bill not been amended but an identical House version had been written. Senator Chaudhuri, sensing a growing frustration and sense of panic from not only our group but others (now including the teachers at Raleigh Charter High School) arranged a conference call on April 30th. He informed us that efforts to amend the bill were not going well. The sticking point was the insistence that a stand alone course on personal finance be created. We worked with him to create a compromise solution that would move some of the more historical Civics content to the American History I, double the amount of personal finance content being taught, and yet prevent major disruption and protect AP US History as an acceptable alternative to the two American History courses. He said he would work on gaining support for the compromise.
A Budget Surprise and Charter Allies Gain Relevance
Imagine our surprise when the bill was included, en masse, in the Senate budget, without the amendments suggested by social studies teachers. And a few weeks later it appeared, word for word, in the House budget. This curriculum revision via the budget process now created a whole new range of challenges. We could not longer hold sponsors’ feet to the fire because they weren’t sponsors of a specific bill anymore. Also, budgets, once returned from the conference committee, are not amended. They are given an up or down vote on both floors. And this curriculum revision was buried in hundreds of pages of other provisions.
The teachers from Raleigh Charter High School then arranged a series of meetings with key decision makers. Being a charter school, we felt they might have greater influence with Republican lawmakers who support school choice and see charter schools as innovators. In their subsequent meetings with Craig Horn, House Education Chair, and casual discussions with other people “in the know,” it became evident that all roads were leading back to Lt. Governor Dan Forest. This was his baby, and no one was touching it without his permission.
The Devil is in the Data
The Red4Ed Advisory board during this time focused on what data was being used to justify this proposal. The most logical data to use was at the NC Department of Public Instruction. Twenty-two percent of the questions on the Civics and Economics NC Final Exam were about economics. That assessment has been given to hundreds of thousands of NC students that have been taught the NC curriculum and is therefore the highest standard of data available. Teachers receive individual reports that state what % of the Civics, Personal Finance and Economics questions students answered correctly. At the bottom of each report page it states that statewide data would be available soon. That is the data we needed.
Different members of the Red4Ed advisory board emailed no less than seven people at NCDPI : Curtis Sonneman (Section Chief, Analysis and Reporting), Tom Tomberlin (Director of Human Resources), K.C. Elander (Education and Policy Consultant), Tammy Howard (Director, Accountability Services), Kevin Wilkinson (Legislative Director) and two state board of education members (JB Buxton and James Ford) and no one was able to provide the statewide data we were seeking and felt certain existed. If it exists at the individual teacher level, we reasoned, it must exist on an aggregate level. Tammy Howard stated otherwise in an email, stating, “DPI has not conducted a data analysis on the items on NCFEs related to economics and personal finance. Unfortunately, there are not enough items to support the reporting of a proficiency score on such a subset.“
NCDPI was claiming that they could tell a teacher that their students answered 78.8% of the questions on personal finance correctly, but could not average those results together statewide? When personal finance questions make up 21% of the test and have been taken by tens of thousand of NC students? It just seemed unfathomable. We investigated making a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, but seasoned journalists informed us that there was no time limit for that information to be provided, and we would not likely receive that information in a timely fashion to inform policy.
Meanwhile, some other data sources/studies popped up that, at first glance, seemed relevant. In the end, all were flawed. For example, there was a Wake County Study that surveyed 11th graders and found dismally poor knowledge of personal finance. The catch? 64% of Wake students take personal finance in 12th grade.
There was this study by the National Council for Economics Education that wrongly reported that we don’t standardize test personal finance, when we emphatically do in NC. This is the organization that will get over $1 million dollars in grants if the bill passes, making a false claim to support passage of a bill.
There was the PISA test, a problem solving test that partially focuses on personal finance. It was last given to 15 year olds in 2015 - students too young to have been exposed to the NC curriculum typically taught in 12th grade.
We did find some data that countered the claim we needed a stand alone course in economics and personal finance. One report was put forth by Champlain College’s Center for Financial Literacy, which assigned North Carolina a grade of “B” in this area. Less than 10% of states earned an A.
All Roads Lead to the Forest
Armed with our research studies, and allied with charter teachers, we set up a meeting with Lt. Dan Forest’s policy expert, Jamey Falkenbury, on June 4th. There were four teachers in attendance, two traditional public schools educators and two charter school ones. In the course of the meeting, a few things became evident. Representatives from the financial sector were the driving force behind this initiative, and their interest was based on largely anecdotal evidence. There was no systematic or widespread consultation with teachers. The only research used to justify the proposal in the meeting was the PISA scores. Officials did not understand the difference between a .5 and full credit course. Mr. Falkenbury seemed surprised to hear that personal finance was tested on a North Carolina final exam and that data existed related to student performance.
We met for about an hour. At the start of the conversation, Mr. Falkenbury attempted to counter our statements. I noticed by the end of the meeting the pattern had shifted, and he was listening and writing things down to follow up on. I took that as a good sign that we had convinced him that this policy was hard to defend, and a “win-win” compromise was in order.
Lt. Dan Tries a New Plan
Imagine our surprise when we find out, the very next day, that a bipartisan bill clarifying terms for multi-year teacher contracts (HB924) had been amended in the Senate to include the stand alone personal finance course. They were going to ram it through before opposition could grow and as an insurance policy in case the budget did not pass.
Also, the Lieutenant Governor’s social media posts indicated he had received the data about student performance on NCFE tests from DPI that we had been seeking for months. He posted that students score “in the 50s”, selectively omitting that that was raw data, not the final score average, and students score similarly in history and civics. We emailed Tammy Howard for an explanation of why he seemed to have data and we did not get the same information. As of 7/1/19, we have not received a response from Tammy Howard.
In a panic, I contacted Sen. Jay Chaudhuri. He was not aware of the amendment at first, but quickly got up to speed. We began a public grassroots campaign to educate Senators about the complications this amendment brought to a bill that had been NCAE endorsed. HB924 was heard on the Senate floor on June 17th. Sen. Chaudhuri attempted to amend but was voted down. He then joined 41 of his colleagues to vote for the bill, a 42-3 vote and later posted proudly about it on social media. It would go to the House next for an up or down concurrence vote.
Hustle in the House
Rep. Graig Meyer (Dem., Orange County), a friend to teachers (perhaps because his wife is one), informed us on Friday,June 21 that the bill would be on the calendar on Monday, June 24th at 7pm. It seemed likely that Rep. Jeff Elmore, a Republican and middle school arts teacher, would make the motion to concur. I tried all day to speak with him, and headed down to the General Assembly at 5pm to see if I could catch him in his office. I succeeded and we met. While he indicated there was little that could change his mind, he did hear me out. By 6pm I heard that the bill had been removed from the calendar and might reappear on Wednesday or Thursday. We had the gift of time to try and educate members before the vote.
The next day, we created a comprehensive handout and made 120 copies. We visited the offices of every member and spoke to as many legislative assistants and members as possible. Our efforts were significantly aided by the fact that NCAE had decided to join us in opposing the bill, understanding that the benefits of the contracts adjustments would be outweighed by the significant negative consequences of the disruptive and prescriptive curricular change. After 4.5 hours and 7000 steps, we were content that we had done everything we could to educate elected officials.
The vote was held on June 27th. House Education Chair, Craig Horn (R., Union County) spoke for the bill. In his statements, he wrongly stated that the policy would not lead to fewer students enrolling in AP US History, and he erred in saying that the semester long personal finance elective taught in the Career and Technical Ed. departments would not be affected. Two Democrats, Cynthia Ball and Graig Meyer spoke against it. One Democrat, Derwin Montgomery, spoke in support. In the end, 38 Democrats opposed, 12 supported. All but one Republican voted for the bill. It passed 73-38. We had basically “moved” 38 people through our lobbying efforts.
Vetting the Idea of a Veto Campaign
Being social studies teachers, our immediate knee jerk reaction was to launch a veto campaign. Upon reflection, we realized the futility of that position. It just so happened that on the same day HB924 passed, the House and Senate passed a budget to send to Democratic Governor Roy Cooper. He was preparing his veto message for that legislation, and was expending a lot of political capital in the process. If a budget doesn’t pass, last year’s budget becomes the default budget, and it was crafted with a Republican supermajority and no Democratic input. But, the governor was holding out for Medicaid expansion so 500,000 more North Carolinians could get health insurance. Muddying that narrative with a veto of bill that, on the surface, sounded like a good thing (cue the campaign ad of his opponent in 2020, most likely Lt. Gov. Dan Forest - “He EVEN vetoed teaching kids financial literacy and extending teachers multiyear contracts”) just wasn’t in the cards. And if he DID veto, given the vote tallies in both houses, there was no guarantee his veto would not be overridden. I went to the press conference and stood behind the governor during his veto message, knowing that, in just a few days, he would likely sign a bad education bill into law. This was truly a demoralizing moment in my advocacy work.
What have we learned here about how bad education policy happens?
1 . Uninformed elected officials are common. Lt. Governor Dan Forest clearly knows little about what we teach, what we test, and what processes should guide curriculum development. Elected officials in our part-time legislature are generalists, and even those who lead committees (and claim to be specialists) have a limited understanding of the details related to education practice and policy.
2. Inclusion of industry representatives and exclusion of expert educators is prevalent. It is evident that non-educators had much more influence in envisioning and crafting this policy, despite the fact that educators are the experts in the field.
3. False narratives flourish in echo chambers. Lt. Dan Forests’s claim that “we don’t teach personal finance” was factually in error, but since he relied solely on his own social media platforms and conservative talk shows (without editorial processes) to pitch his idea, his claim was accepted without question and took root.
4. Prescriptive bills are common despite limited knowledge. The less you know about a subject, the less prescriptive you should be in policymaking so that civil servants in the bureaucracy can consult with experts in the field and create nuanced, rational, and appropriate administrative law. Yet, this law was extremely prescriptive and as a result created lots of unintended consequences.
5. Elected officials’ individual desire to be relevant in a bipartisan environment can undermine traditional interest group loyalties. Since Democrats are in the minority in both houses, the only way to be relevant is to compromise. Elected officials may find that giving up their blind loyalty to reliable interest group supporters may be necessary, much to the surprise of those groups.
6. Herd mentality can break out quickly in a fast-moving and time-starved part-time legislature. Once a couple of well-known Democrats signed on as sponsors, many more did so despite having limited understanding of the bill and little time to investigate. Poor form when it comes to creating state laws, no?
7. The bureaucracy serves elected officials or they are so underfunded and understaffed that they cannot adequately respond to emails or conduct adequate research. The ability of the Lt. Governor to get basic testing data on request, when educators could not, speaks volumes about who the NC Department of Instruction serves, by design or by default.
8. The nature of teaching makes effective advocacy very difficult. Teachers are in their classrooms all day. They do not “do lunches”, they do not network, go to Kiwanis meetings on Fridays, and they cannot run down to the legislature at a moment’s notice to testify at committee meetings. While summer affords them some flexibility, they are often primary childcare providers, working summer jobs, or dispersed due to travel, trainings and squeezing in delayed doctor, dental and financial appointments.
9. Momentum can be a monster. Once a simplified false narrative forms, takes root, and is carried forward by a herd mentality, it is almost impossible to stop. And if the counter narrative is the least bit complicated, nuanced, or dependent on expertise, the odds are even worse.
10. Dynamics are destiny. A myriad of uncontrollable variables such as who holds majorities in each house, who controls the executive branch, what is the legislative calendar, who has intention to run for higher offices in the future, etc. will have much more influence on your success than the validity or rectitide of your cause.
What other social and political forces are at work to create bad education policy? Please provide insights in the comments here or in the post of this blog on our Red4EdNC Facebook page.