CANDLER — N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson has rolled out an education plan to make North Carolina the “best place to learn and best place to teach in America by 2030.”

On a swing through Western North Carolina, Johnson told Haywood and Asheville Chamber of Commerce board members and leaders about his vision to transform learning from an education system designed 100 years ago and tailored to an agrarian and manufacturing society into one focusing on personalized learning in a digital classroom.

“Every classroom in North Carolina is connected with high-speed internet,” Johnson said. “So far we’re the only state to do that.”

“... We have all the ingredients and are on the right track.”

While the vision is bold, he said, it’s achievable.

There are schools in North Carolina already using the personalized system — one where students in small groups use digital tablets to assess progress and allow students to move on once a task is mastered.

Cell phones and other electronic devices have revolutionized many aspects of modern life, allowing information to be tailored to the needs of each user, Johnson said. It’s time for education changes that can do the same thing.

The system, as envisioned, will greatly reduce state testing as student proficiency is tested along the way, he explained.

“Now we have state standards based on what the average student should know,” Johnson said. “But there’s no such thing as an average student. Some learn faster than others, while others fall behind. With personalized learning, it’s easy to identify where students are struggling, or which students are ready to move on.”

Johnson spoke of deficits in the state’s current education system, noting that just 39 percent of North Carolina’s fourth-graders show proficiency in reading at the required level.

For the new system to shine, learning needs to begin at an earlier age.

There is overwhelming evidence on the effectiveness of early childhood education, he said, and he said there’s a need to begin career counseling as early as middle school.

“There are multiple pathways to success, and not all require a four-year degree,” he stressed.

He spoke of a 10-week course available to high school graduates that can fetch them a $50,000-a-year job with benefits with Duke Energy, which he said needs 800 workers a year for the next five years.

The new system will also be necessary to focus less on standardized tests and more on providing teachers needed resources.

Johnson rolled out his plan last week, one that’s receiving a mixed reaction.

In a “Carolina Journal” news story, Terry Stoops, vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation, said the plan contains conventional mainstream reforms, but that doesn’t mean it won’t cost a lot to enact.

Republican lawmaker and appropriations committee member Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, told The Carolina Journal the announcement contained few new ideas and offered scant details on ways to achieve the goals.

“At the end of the day, I don’t know what else to say as far as those are laudable goals, but what is the plan?” Horn said.

Johnson’s plan recommended providing all teachers with a salary increase of at least 5 percent, an action that will add $310 million annually to the state budget, Horn said.

School reaction

Buncombe County School Superintendent Tony Baldwin said there’s much to like about Johnson’s plan.

Baldwin, who was present at the Chamber event, said the vast majority in education will be strong advocates for the big-picture goals.

“He’s advocating for the teaching profession and wants to do things beyond just a salary increase,” Baldwin said. “His pre-K proposals will be championed by kindergarten and first through third grade teachers, especially.”

Baldwin said the 2030 plan’s emphasis on reading proficiency by grade four is extremely worthwhile, and is something both chambers understand from the standpoint of economic development and workforce development.

The Buncombe County schools system is already making a concerted effort to introduce more career exploration opportunities at the middle school level, and Baldwin’s vision is to provide internship and apprenticeship opportunities for students, something the business community could benefit from as well.

“The ideas are not necessarily new, but are certainly ones all of us will champion,” he said. “The details of how we get there is another matter. As they say, the devil is in the details.”

Cory Atkins, vice president of public policy, leadership for the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, said the two chambers felt if was important to bring the state superintendent of public instruction to Western North Carolina.
"For the business community, education is No. 1 because it's the foundation of  the future workforce," Atkins said.  "Anything to educate the business community and the community at large about the initiatives to improve education is worthwhile."
Atkins said the goals set forth by Johnson are laudable, but it will come own to finding the resources to implement them.

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