Common Sense

By Drew Lindsay — August 11, 1999 6 min read
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The testimony rang of desperation. For weeks, North Carolina’s board of education had been drafting a blueprint for a massive shake-up of schools to improve the state’s anemic academic performance. Now, on this warm spring evening in 1995, they were gathered in a stuffy room of the red-granite state education building known as the “pink palace” to hear the fears of educators eager to ditch the plan. Indeed, there was a lot to be anxious about: Under the plan, nearly half the state education department staff would be fired, and key job protections for teachers would be shredded.

Throughout the nearly two hours of testimony, Jay Robinson, the bespectacled, graying chair of the board, sat impassively at the center of the room’s horseshoe-shaped table. Born in the Depression- era Appalachian mountains of western North Carolina, Robinson spoke to the petitioners with a twang that kicked like a slug of hillbilly moonshine. To each, he offered assurances that the board had heard their concerns. But to all, he delivered this warning: The plan would go forward.

Five years later, that plan is now law, and North Carolina’s education system is a shadow of its former self, just as Robinson promised. Once a state whose regulations put educators in straitjackets, North Carolina is now dabbling in laissez-faire management of its schools. And in an era when lots of states are devising carrot-and-stick systems to hold schools accountable for student achievement, the Tarheel State has become a model of tough love that works.

None of this would have happened without Robinson. He came to the board in 1994 after a 36-year career as a math teacher, three-sport coach, and administrator. He was best known for steering the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system through the tense period in the 1970s and 1980s that followed court- ordered busing. More recently, he had worked magic in the legislature as a lobbyist for the University of North Carolina system. With such credentials, Robinson commanded respect from educators and lawmakers. “He is a genius in common sense,” says James Watts, an education analyst who worked in the legislature when the board’s plan was conceived. “He’s a master at what works and doesn’t work in schools, and he understands what works and doesn’t work in politics.”

Although Robinson is hailed as the architect of North Carolina’s new K-12 system, he had to be cajoled into taking his seat on the board. In 1994, he was 65 and heading off to a retirement of fishing, golfing, and walking the beaches of Wilmington with his wife (his childhood sweetheart) when Governor Jim Hunt phoned. “He said, ‘We’re going to close all the schools if you don’t come take this job,’” Robinson recalls. “It was a ridiculous argument--I wasn’t the only one who could do it--but Jim Hunt is a very persuasive man.”

Robinson was soon meeting with lawmakers to quell a rebellion in the legislature, which was controlled by Republicans for the first time in a century. The most recent national and state tests had revealed huge gaps in achievement across North Carolina; some schools were doing well, but others were producing students who couldn’t read or write. Citing these test scores, newly elected conservatives were championing vouchers and tuition tax credits. Leaders in the House and Senate, however, weren’t ready to give up on the public schools. They told Robinson they would give him one chance to revamp the state’s education system.

The plan that the board rolled out in the spring of 1995 was one of the first of its kind. “Accountability” had been a buzz word nationally for some time, with many states issuing report cards to grade schools on student performance. But Robinson’s board moved to institute a system with consequences, one in which success would be rewarded and failure punished. Under this scheme, the state would pay salary bonuses to teachers and administrators at schools where student test scores improved dramatically. It would also send SWAT-like assistance teams to schools where test scores lagged. And for persistently troubled schools, the plan carried a threat: Improve, or the state will take control, fire the principal, and strip teachers of tenure.

The board’s plan had roots in Kentucky’s pioneering program begun in the early 1990s, but it was not without new wrinkles. The state, for example, would set targets for test scores at each of North Carolina’s 2,000 schools and dole out rewards or assistance based on whether the goals were met. This ignored tradition-most states compared school scores to statewide averages-but it permitted North Carolina to measure progress and insist that all schools improve every year.

Robinson, the former ace lobbyist, also put a few political sweeteners in the plan to ensure its legislative success. He agreed, for example, to legislators’ demands that teachers at low- performing schools take competency tests to keep their jobs. “We weren’t too excited about that,” he explains, “but we had to sell the plan to the legislature. It was more a political idea than an educational idea.”

In the end, Robinson’s down-home demeanor won the day in the legislature. He was the perfect general for an education revolution whose complexity could have scared off lawmakers, explains Tom Houlihan, Jim Hunt’s former education adviser. “He had an uncanny ability to put some country spin on some very complicated issues. He would just slip into this country brogue and use mountain analogies that were funny-and effective.”

Whether the fledgling plan will leverage big improvements in learning is not clear. But experts think it will. A recent federal report concluded that North Carolina’s improved performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress-the state, along with Texas, posted the largest average gains on the tests between 1990 and 1997-was fueled in part by the new accountability system.

Others contend that the accountability plan has helped restore public confidence in the schools- confidence that helped win passage of a $1.8 billion state bond for school construction in 1996 as well as several teacher pay raises. “I had high hopes for the program,” Robinson says, “but it’s exceeded all my hopes. It’s changing attitudes; people now see good things going on in the schools and think education is on the right track.”

Some in the state, however, argue the opposite. The plan had a rocky start with teachers: The teacher-competency test was tabled after the state teachers’ union rebelled, and assistance teams sent to low-performing schools met with resistance from faculties. Now, critics say, school morale is low, with many teachers claiming that they are being forced to teach to the test-a common complaint in states with accountability systems.

Watts, now an official with the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta, says North Carolina’s accountability system is one of the best in the country. But nagging details remain. “The key to North Carolina is the extent to which they refine and improve the system they’ve got,” he says. “If they don’t, there’s potential for serious problems.”

Whatever problems arise, the state will have to deal with them without Robinson. He’s retired-again- to the Wilmington beaches, and he’s keeping a low profile. “He set the perfect example of what a leader should do,” Houlihan says. “He came in, did what he had promised, and when he was done, he left.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1999 edition of Teacher as Common Sense

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