No matter your age I'm betting you remember those annual late-summer trips to Roses "dime" store (or a similar one) to purchase back to school supplies. Must-haves included a new three-ring binder, a big pack of Blue Horse or Write Right loose-leaf notebook paper, course dividers, No. 2 lead Ticonderoga pencils, ballpoint pens and any other supplies you could beg your parent to buy. Once completed, we were ready for the start of the new school year. There was always a bit of excitement to learn who our teachers would be and what friends would be in our classes. O.K., so maybe you are not THAT old.
To learn what back-to-school is like today I went to a big box store this past weekend and when I got to the large special section of the store designated for school supplies it resembled the aftermath from a hurricane. Many shelves were empty as parents (mostly moms) read from lists of needed supplies (provided by teachers), while students tried to find the items. The attitude was more of resignation than excitement.
Last year was pretty much a lost educational year for many of North Carolina's 1.5 million students. The report cards prove it. 53 percent of students in grades three through eight were graded "not proficient" in grade-level reading skills. End-of-year tests given to 86 percent of our high school students last fall (delayed due to COVID at the end of the previous school year) showed more than 50 percent of students failed math 1, math 3, biology and/or English exams. It might be even worse because some 14 percent opted not to take the tests. No wonder our legislature is considering eliminating end-of-grade tests.
There are additional causes for anxiety this school year, beginning with the resurgence in the Delta variant of coronavirus, especially among young students. Once again, we are battling over whether masks will be required - in 87 of the 115 school districts they are. Those not requiring them are mostly in rural counties. But the larger concern is whether we will be able to complete the school year with in-class instruction. We know virtual learning didn't work.
Add to this uneasiness is the question of how history will be taught. Will teachers be able to discuss slavery, the 1898 Wilmington race riot, Eugenics, Jim Crow laws and other historical events or will those who wish to deny those things happened be allowed to dictate curriculum?
Is there any doubt why we have a teacher shortage? A large cohort have reached retirement age, but many teachers worry about their own and their family's health. They're tired of frequent policy changes and interference, the lack of respect, discipline problems and less than stellar compensation. Our state ranks 43rd among the states in teacher pay. Compounding the teacher shortage, enrollments in college teacher prep programs have declined sharply in recent years. Last Monday a new agreement between community colleges and our universities was announced, whereby students would take the first two years of teacher preparation at local community colleges, then complete their degrees at universities. Shortages are acute among math and science teachers and especially in rural areas. To fill the immediate gaps, we are now allowing lateral entry teachers with only one course in teacher prep coursework.
Here's my spin: This is a pivotal year for education in North Carolina. We can ill afford another like last year, which is why so many parents, teachers, administrators and the rest of us are holding our collective breaths as school bells ring in the new year. This is not a year for continued contention and tensions. For the sake of our children's future, we need to support education like we haven't done for decades.
And, unless you are ready to suit up and go into the classroom yourself, be thankful for teachers willing to accept the challenge.
Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina Broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. He recently retired from writing, producing and moderating the statewide half-hour TV program NC SPIN that aired 22 1/2 years.
Contact him at email@example.com