Friday, April 18, 2014

Charter pay disclosure: Resistance continues

The state's education leaders now say charter schools,  like other public schools,  must disclose what they pay their employees.  But some leaders of the charter movement say they disagree.

Richard Vinroot,  a lawyer and charter pioneer who works with Sugar Creek and Lincoln charter schools,  says those schools will provide salaries to the Observer but will withhold the names of all but the highest-paid employees.  He says that's because the charter schools,  which aren't bound by the state teacher salary schedule,  pay teachers based on performance.

"I don't want Sally to know what Jimmy got paid,"  Vinroot said.  "It would create disruption within our school."

As Superintendent Heath Morrison noted when I mentioned that argument,  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools also has a number of teachers who receive merit-based bonuses,  which we've reported every year.  It may or may not create tension among colleagues,  but it tells the public more about how those pilot systems are playing out,  at a time when performance pay is one of the biggest public policy issues in education.

Chris Terrill, head of Pine Lake Preparatory School,  sent a salary list with all names and even specific job titles withheld.

"I believe that the data shows a high level of fiscal responsibility and a stewardship of public tax dollars.  We have tried to provide salaries that are high enough to recruit and retain an excellent faculty and staff,"  wrote Terrill, who is presumably the administrator listed at $115,360 a year.  "Pine Lake is a model for openness and transparency," he added,  citing the school's compliance with the state's Open Meetings Law.

Baker Mitchell,  a Wilmington charter school operator who serves on the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board,  has been blogging against disclosure since I raised the issue in March.

"Although charter schools are subjected to the same accounting standards and annual auditing that govern traditional schools, they are not required to invade the privacy of their employees by publishing their salaries,"  Mitchell wrote in March.  He contends that the tax forms filed by nonprofits provide enough information,  and noted that many other nonprofits receive public grants or subsidies without being required to disclose salaries.

This week he suggested that test scores should provide what taxpayers need to know about their investment in charter schools.

"We frequently measure costs in terms such as dollars per gallon of milk, or dollars per foot of fence,"  Mitchell writes.  "We don’t need to how much the farmer pays his helpers or how much the fence contractor pays his carpenters – we want to know the final cost of the product.  Similarly, we should ask,  'How much are we paying for each test passed by the students of a school or district?'  What is the taxpayer’s cost per successful test?  Individual salaries give no information whatsoever about how well students are being taught."
And in a comment on an Observer charter-salary story,  Mitchell noted that private vendors get public money from traditional public schools:  "Pearson, Inc. receives hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for their student testing software.  Thomas Bus Company received hundreds of millions for their school buses.  McGraw-Hill receives hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for textbooks.  Duke Power, Xerox, Apple, Microsoft, etc. all receive huge amounts of taxpayer money.  Why would invading the privacy of their workers' personal salary information help improve their products?"
Mitchell, Terrill and Vinroot are omitting a key point:  Charter schools agree to abide by the state's open meetings and public records laws when they accept the public money.  That law protects many parts of personnel files for employees of school districts,  the state,  cities and counties  --  there's no specific protection for employees of charter boards  --  but it says that names, salaries and many other specific items remain a public record.
It's possible that these folks told state officials when they accepted their charters that they'd only follow the parts of the law they agreed with,  but I doubt it.  The boom in charters means those schools are starting to get the kind of scrutiny other public schools receive,  and that can be uncomfortable.  (The Observer doesn't cover Mitchell's schools,  but his Roger Bacon Academy charter management company has faced public questions about enrollment,  personnel decisions and an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education.) 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

PowerSchool and NC schools: Work continues

A North Carolina blogger known as Lady Liberty 1885 turned up an interesting letter from big-district superintendents taking Pearson to task over problems with the start-up of the PowerSchool data system.

"Delays in report cards,  transcripts and attendance data have generated considerable negative attention from media,  resulting in districts being blamed for poor implementation,"  says the Feb. 21 letter from 10 superintendents,  including the leaders of CMS, Wake, Union and Gaston county schools.  "... Public goodwill has been severely damaged.  We need Pearson to accept responsibility for the challenges as we continue to address issues."

The superintendents ask Pearson to provide PowerSchool to N.C. districts at no charge next year,  saying the product will eventually be a good one but the one-year rollout,  which many of the district leaders predicted would fail,  has been a mess.  "We want a productive relationship with Pearson since the data system will be with us for many years,"  they say.

"Lady Liberty"
Neither the problems nor the frustration of district leaders is surprising.  T. Keung Hui of the News & Observer and I were among those giving  "negative media attention"  about the time that letter was written.  But Lady Liberty,  aka A.P. Dillon of Holly Springs,  a conservative/Libertarian blogger,  got some good details as part of a public records request related to PowerSchool.  She reports that she's still digging through four big boxes of documents.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Heath Morrison said this week that Pearson's follow-up has been  "very good,"  including a visit to Charlotte last week to meet with him and Chief Learning Services Officer Valerie Truesdale.  (An email to the Pearson communications department has gotten no response.)  "They acknowledged many of the issues we have discussed all year and have promised to help with issues we continue to have, such as not being able to print report cards recently,"  Morrison said in an email.

Philip Price,  chief financial officer for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction,  agrees.  "While I would not state that the larger school districts are completely happy at this time,  I will state that we have addressed the items outlined in the posted letter (most prior to the date of that letter).  As we progress through the implementation year, new issues do arise; but we are pleased that we are not experiencing repeat issues."

But don't hold your breath for that year of free service.  The previously reported cost is $7.1 million a year.  While Pearson may be forced to provide some type of refund if it fails to meet agreed-upon levels of service,  the state Board of Education is asking for $6 million to cover the cost that would otherwise fall to districts and charter schools next year,  Price said.

Here's Price's detailed explanation,  for those who can follow it:

The request to have the software to be free for another year relates to the $4 per ADM charge to sign-up for the Home Base suite of products.  There continues to be confusion as to what the $4 charge is based on.  The software, maintenance, support, data conversion, and training are all free to the school districts and charter schools for all parts of Home Base (including PowerSchool).  We subscribed to some Pearson content that strengthened the Home Base tool with Science and Social Studies material for teachers.  This content is charged to the State based on the number of systems that access the content.  We are charged on a sliding scale based on use.  If 20% of the State sign-up to use the content, the charge is $8.30 per ADM.  If 95% sign-up, the charge will be $4.00 per ADM.  The General Assembly authorized the Department to make-up any shortfall from collections by using possible reversions (with authorization from the State Budget Office).  Therefore, we could stabilize the LEA and charter price at $4.00 for the length of the contract (5 years).

Since this content is based on use, it is difficult to eliminate the charge.  The State Board has requested that the Governor recommend and the General Assembly appropriate funding ($6 million) to cover the subscription content costs.  If funded, there will be no cost to the LEA or charters to participate in Home Base.

Our contracts do include service level agreements (SLAs) that set an acceptable level of service.  If those targets are not met, we do receive credits to our maintenance and support costs.  We are currently determining the amount of those credits.  We plan on refunding Home Base participating LEAs and Charters a portion of their $4 per ADM charge (if it is not appropriated), based on the amount of credits received.

There are several incorrect statements included in the write-up around the letter.  PowerSchool was designed and is supporting the entire State (the comments state that it was never intended to support the whole state). CEDARS has nothing to do with PowerSchool other than the fact that data will come from PowerSchool to CEDARS.  The contract w/Pearson does cover all the costs for implementation.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Teacher pay gets hot-potato toss

I didn't make it to Raleigh for the final meeting of the General Assembly's teacher compensation task force,  but the report is online and it's pretty much as predicted:  This panel is tossing the topic back to legislators and asking them to tap the state Board of Education for another round of study.

The recommendations are broad and fairly obvious:  Focus on a pay system that benefits students,  raise pay for newer teachers as a short-term goal  (a tactic already proposed by Gov. Pat McCrory and GOP leaders) and make across-the-board hikes and  "modernization"  a long-term goal.  Just how long isn't clear,  but a draft proposal suggests giving the state board another year to study teacher compensation,  with a goal of putting something in place in 2016-17.

The report indicates that the task force was intrigued by career-ladder approaches such as that being piloted with Charlotte-Mecklenburg's  "opportunity culture"  program,  and by the IMPACT teacher evaluation model in use in District of Columbia Public Schools.

"There are no examples of state-centered comprehensive compensation models that have positively impacted student achievement and have been sustained,"  the report notes.  "Reform models that emphasizes (sic) local flexibility within evidence-based parameters may be a more promising and sustainable strategy."

The lack of specifics on how to raise salaries and modernize the pay plan drew fire from some of the educators and legislators who served,  the AP's Gary Robertson reports.  "We've heard a lot of presentations and propaganda but there really hasn't been a whole lot of meaningful discussion going forward,"  said Timothy Barnsback, president of the Professional Educators of North Carolina.


Judy Kidd, president of the Classroom Teachers Association,  said the task force was  "playing kick the can."

"The report could have been written in January, frankly," said Kidd, a CMS high school teacher. She said it may have been naive to think a real plan could be drafted after four meetings, but she said lack of information isn't the real challenge.  "They know what they need to do. They know they need to do it."

State Rep. Tricia Cotham, D-Mecklenburg,  posted a critical synopsis on her Facebook page:  "I called the committee report 'fluff' and argued that many teachers are hurting NOW. Teachers across NC are trying to make ends meet as we speak. I challenged my colleagues to 'put their money where their mouth is' and send the message that we as a state value our teachers, our children, and education."

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Wake on suspensions: It could be worse

Wake County Public Schools are under fire for high suspension rates for African American students.  Superintendent James Merrill recently acknowledged that it's an issue that needs dealing with, but at least things aren't as bad as in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

"Putting things in perspective,  in 2012-13 a similarly sized North Carolina district had 35,800 suspensions when Wake was at less than half that at 15,000,"  Merrill said,  as quoted in a blog post by reporter T. Keung Hui.  As Hui notes,  Merrill didn't name CMS,  but he didn't need to.  Wake and CMS are the only two districts in the same size league,  and as I reported recently,  CMS' numbers are down but still much higher than Wake's.

I've heard that the CMS board will get a detailed report on racial inequities in suspensions and discipline in the near future.  Meanwhile,  read the state report on crime,  violence,  dropout rates and suspensions here.

Read more here:

Monday, April 14, 2014

Still no plan for teacher pay reform

A task force created by the General Assembly last summer to study teacher pay and effectiveness will hold its final meeting in Raleigh today to wrap up a report for state lawmakers.

So will we finally get a look at North Carolina's long-range plan for identifying and rewarding the best educators?



"It's heavier on goals and principles and thin on specifics,"  said state Rep. Rob Bryan,  a Mecklenburg Republican who co-chairs the task force.  He said the state is still early in the process of working through an issue that has challenged politicians and educators across the country.

Watching North Carolina and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools slog toward pay reform feels a bit like watching  "Groundhog Day,"  without the assurance of a happy ending.  Over and over,  study groups convene and conclude that the issue needs more study.

The big picture is the easy part.  Is it essential to identify the teachers who make the biggest difference for kids?  Absolutely.  Should they be rewarded for excellence?  Of course.  Do N.C. teachers deserve a raise and a better pay system?  Most would say yes.

The stumper is how to identify those teachers,  how to distribute the rewards and above all how to pay for it.  Last summer the state legislature created the much-reviled 25 percent plan as a first step and charged the task force with taking a longer view.

Bryan said his group is interested in getting local districts to create their own pay plans,  perhaps with a state fallback for those that can't or won't.  That's in line with what CMS is seeking as an alternative to the state-mandated four-year contracts and $500-a-year raises for 25 percent of qualified teachers.

But it was just over a year ago that the state invited local districts to submit performance pay plans for consideration.  CMS was initially gung-ho,  appointing  (of course)  a teacher task force and hiring consultants to study the issue.  But ultimately the district missed the deadline and said there was little point creating a detailed plan without state money to make it happen.

What we've seen so far is a series of pilots and experiments that fizzle when the money runs out.  The conclusion is inevitably that the effort needs more study  --  and more money.

Today's meeting will at least bring a new visual device:  College students putting 10-foot ladders outside the legislative building to illustrate the need to  "rebuild the ladder"  to the teaching profession.  Lynn Bonner of the News & Observer wins this week's round of  "identify that advocacy group;"  click here to see what she found out about who's behind Students For Education Reform-North Carolina and who's footing the bills.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Standardized tests: Opt out or buckle down?

As the testing season nears, the debate over the value of those exams is heating up, locally and across the country.

On April 21,  a group of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools parents are holding a forum on  "How did testing get so out of control and what can we do about it?"  Sparked by Selwyn Elementary parents concerned about the testing demands imposed by North Carolina's Read to Achieve program,  the event will be from 7-8:30 p.m. at Alexander Graham Middle School,  1800 Runnymede Lane.  Panelists will be UNC Charlotte literacy professor Bruce Taylor,  state Rep. Rob Bryan and Pamela Grundy of Mecklenburg ACTS.

Grundy's group is taking part in the national  "Testing Resistance and Reform Spring" movement,  which encourages parents to opt their students out of exams.  You may have seen the recent opinion piece by Grundy and her husband,  Peter Wong,  about why their seventh-grade son won't take state exams.

"During nearly a decade of experience with high-stakes testing, we have become increasingly appalled at the damage we have seen it do to schools and children,"  they wrote.  "... Elected officials from both parties have failed us.  It is time for parents  –  who have the biggest stake in high-quality public education  –  to just say no."

Michelle Rhee,  former chancellor of Washington, D.C, schools, recently weighed in on the opposite side in the Washington Post.

"Opt out of measuring how well our schools are serving students?"  Rhee writes.  "What’s next: Shut down the county health department because we don’t care whether restaurants are clean? Defund the water-quality office because we don’t want to know if what’s streaming out of our kitchen faucets is safe to drink?"

Read more here:

N.C. Deputy Superintendent Rebecca Garland recently sent a memo to superintendents reminding them that the state does not allow opt-outs.  Students who refuse to take state exams will receive failing grades,  the memo says,  and those who stay home on testing day will be given a makeup exam when they return.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Push is on to change N.C. grading scale

If a North Carolina high school student scores a 92, it's a high B.  In some other states it would be a low A.

Leaders of some of the state's largest districts,  including Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Wake,  are urging the state to allow districts to adopt a 10-point scale that they say would help N.C. students compete for spots in good colleges.

"We met with the state superintendent in January and have continued to advocate for this change,"  CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison says.  "It is consistent with most school districts and states across the nation. The current grade scale puts our NC students at a competitive disadvantage with their peers in other states."

The Wake school board's policy committee recently discussed the 10-point scale,  Keung Hui of the News & Observer reports.  The current seven-point scale,  in which 93 to 100 is an A,  85 to 92 is a B and so on,  was locked in to get transcript consistency across the state, he reports.

Under a 10-point scale, 90 to 100 would be an A, 80 to 89 a B, etc.  (I'm not sure if the failing point is universal,  but under this scale recently approved by Henrico County  (Va.)  schools,  a D is 65 to 69 and anything below 65 is failing.)

"Supporters give reasons such as how a 10-point scale might cause more students to get As and Bs and could result in an increase in student self-esteem and confidence,"  Hui writes.  "Critics say a 10-point scale might diminish student motivation to achieve higher standards."

Read more here: