For years, educators and elected officials have struggled to improve the low-performing schools in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County system. Efforts to do that have stretched from the school system offices to the legislative chambers in Raleigh. The local debate was roiled last month when the system removed and reassigned the principals at several underperforming elementary schools. 

Winston-Salem State University’s Center for the Study of Economic Mobility (CSEM) has been exploring equity issues in local public education since its inception three years ago, including through the work of CSEM fellows James Etim, Alice Etim and Charity Griffin. CSEM research manager Zach Blizard picks up the torch in a research paper recently published on CSEM’s website, which explores a longstanding question: How to get the best teachers in the lowest-performing schools, where they’re needed the most?

Blizard, who joined CSEM last spring and was educated at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, grew up in Winston-Salem and has a keen understanding of its public school system and its history. In his summary, he places that knowledge against the context of how the county ranks nationally for economic mobility and what that means to education:

Forsyth County, North Carolina, has one of the lowest rates of upward economic mobility in the entire United States. Researchers find that one of the strongest correlates of upward mobility is the quality of schools in the local system. Analyzing Forsyth County elementary school data, I find that the percentage of experienced teachers at a school is a significant predictor of performance. At high-performing schools, a much larger share of their faculties consists of highly experienced and educated teachers, compared to low-performing schools that predominately serve economically disadvantaged children. High-quality teachers can have significant long-term impacts on elementary school children, especially those from underprivileged families. Yet in Forsyth County, schools with greater shares of disadvantaged children have lower percentages of teachers with these characteristics. 

In his paper, Blizard reviews studies on low-performing schools, presents highlights from his analysis, and discusses the implications of his findings.

“Research regularly demonstrates that disadvantaged children have the greatest need for high-quality teachers,” he writes. “Having an effective schoolteacher, as early as kindergarten, can result in significant increases to lifetime earnings.”

He writes that,

“There is a suboptimal mix of highly experienced and educated teachers at Forsyth County’s low-performing elementary schools. These schools, however, need faculties where the majority of teachers are highly experienced and educated because they predominately serve disadvantaged children.” Blizard writes that, “the school system should continue to pursue plans, and expand existing ones, to draw more experienced and educated teachers to low-performing schools and shrink the share of novice teachers there.” 

Incentives programs have been tried, but haven’t been that successful, and that’s not only because money for such programs has been limited. Incentives are a viable strategy, Blizard indicates if carefully carried out. “The more effective incentives include opportunities to participate in school-level decision making, work for supportive administrators, and join faculties that foster collegial relationships.”

There are programs that try to provide that, he writes, including the Teacher Leadership Academy, established in 2017 with a grant from The Winston-Salem Foundation.

Ensuring that low-performing schools have good supplies is also important. For example, in 2018, CSEM fellows Alice Etim and James Eitm found that while students have Internet access in schools, many teachers expect them to have it at home as well and assign homework accordingly. But often, students do not have that access. 

CSEM fellow Charity Griffin has also studied inequities in the local school system. In a recent column in the Chronicle of Winston-Salem, she wrote that the shifts in leadership in several low-performing schools “demand we have a larger discussion about equality and equity, and how acknowledging the distinction between these concepts is important for student success in” the local school system.

By putting its research before the public, CSEM is helping drive the public dialogue on the many issues involved in striving for equity in local public education.

For more information about CSEM, go to www.wssu.edu/csem.

John Railey is the senior writer and community relations consultant for CSEM. He can be reached at raileyjb@gmail.com.

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