Thursday, July 24, 2014

Study: N.C. charters get better results for less money

Students in N.C. charter schools earned higher reading and math scores in 2011 than their counterparts in traditional public schools,  while the charter schools got less money for doing it,  according to a new study from the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform.

The latest study,  "The Productivity of Public Charter Schools,"  piggybacks on an April report that compared per-pupil spending on charters and other public schools.  It compares scores on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress eighth-grade reading and math exams for the two groups and links those to spending.

The report,  which looks at all states that had charter schools in 2011,  shows that N.C. charter school students averaged 13 points higher in reading and nine points higher in math than students in N.C. school districts.  Meanwhile,  charter schools averaged $8,277 per charter student compared with $9,999 per district student.  The study does a lot of other number-crunching but that's the gist:  Higher scores for less money.

Skeptics may assume that's because charter schools are working with the students who tend to score higher.  But according to this study,  the N.C. charter schools averaged slightly higher percentages of low-income and disabled students than public schools across the state.

Of course,  there are plenty of caveats to consider,  and the 43-page report explores many of them.  This is one year's performance  (a year that precedes North Carolina's charter school expansion)  for one grade level.  As the study notes,  those students may have experienced a mix of charter and traditional public schooling  (and,  for that matter,  private and home-schooling),  all of which contributes to eighth-grade scores. The report uses that data to extrapolate a  "return on investment"  based on lifetime earnings.  I'm skeptical of that technique,  which is used to turn small data points into huge savings by any number of educational groups,  including traditional public schools.

The researchers note that the overall analysis leads to one clear national finding:  "Charter schools tend to exhibit more productivity than traditional public schools."

You can bet that will come up as North Carolina debates how to balance its investment in various forms of public education.

Update: A reader steered me to a University of Colorado National Education Policy Center review of the April report on charter inequities. Reviewer Bruce Baker of Rutgers University says the University of Arkansas study  "displays complete lack of understanding of intergovernmental fiscal relationships."  For instance,  he writes,  money that is passed through school districts for distribution to charters is counted as school district revenue in per-pupil calculations  (CMS passed through about $23 million in 2013).

"In addition, the report suffers from alarmingly vague documentation regarding data sources and methodologies, and it constructs entirely inappropriate comparisons of student population characteristics,"  Baker writes.  "Simply put, the findings and conclusions of the study
are not valid or useful."

As some of you have noted,  and as I pointed out in the post about the April report,  the University of Arkansas research is part of the university's School Choice Demonstration Project,  which is funded by the Walton Family Foundation.

Read more here:

Read more here:

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Can grants make CMS schools safer?

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is seeking a little more than $7 million in federal money aimed at making schools safer,  and that launched some interesting discussion about risks and strategies.

The school board approved a $2.5 million request to the U.S. Department of Education to "expand the district’s capacity to assist schools in high violence communities in breaking the cycle of violence,"  the summary presented Tuesday says.  "The 13 CMS Project Prevent schools serve a total of 11,035 students. A position will be developed that relieves school counselors and social workers from the non-specialized duties that frequently monopolize their time. In addition, student services staff will receive training and consultative support in the delivery of evidence-based counseling methods to support children who have experienced trauma."

The 13 schools are Garinger High in east Charlotte,  Harding High in west Charlotte and the elementary and middle schools that feed into them.  Board member Joyce Waddell asked why Hidden Valley Elementary and Martin Luther King Middle School weren't included,  given that the Hidden Valley neighborhood in northeast Charlotte has been notorious for gang activity.  (She didn't mention it,  but Hidden Valley Elementary was the site of the state's only at-school homocide in 2012-13,  when police shot a teenager in the school parking lot during a drug sting gone bad last summer.)

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police reviewed crime in high school zones and found that the highest rates were in the West Charlotte,  Garinger,  Harding and Vance zones,  in that order,  according to the staffer making the report  (I think,  but am not certain,  it was Karen Thomas,  who is retiring as executive director of student support services.)  West Charlotte High already gets support from the public-private Project LIFT,  she said,  so the grant focuses on the Garinger and Harding areas.  Note that this refers to crime in the neighborhoods the schools serve,  not to crime in the schools themselves.

Hidden Valley is in the Vance zone.  The staffer said Vance and its feeder schools will be part of another request approved Tuesday,  for almost $4.6 million from the Department of Justice to "develop knowledge about the specific programs, activities and interventions that improve school safety in a sustainable and cost-effective manner. The researcher will collect evidence and evaluate intervention approaches that enhance school safety,"  the summary says.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Another round of the miracle-gains game

While reporting a recent article on Sugar Creek Charter School's plans to add high school, I was dismayed to see the test-score reporting by UNC Charlotte's Urban Education Collaborative.  A 37-page report from the collaborative,  which is part of the College of Education,  bases its claims for  "extraordinary outcomes in public education"  on the school's proficiency gains between 2008 and 2012.

Not surprisingly, you don't see that number plunge to 40 percent in 2013.  And if the researchers had included that shocker,  they'd certainly have explained that North Carolina introduced new exams with a higher bar for passing.  They'd have noted that most schools across the state saw pass rates plummet,  with the biggest drop among schools such as Sugar Creek that serve mostly low-income and minority students.

Yet nowhere do these researchers, who are part of a partnership with Sugar Creek known as Schoolwise,  explain that scores also plunged statewide in 2008,  when North Carolina introduced a tougher reading exam. And that they rose sharply in 2009,  when the state started giving students a second chance to pass.  The curve depicted for Sugar Creek is common to most N.C. schools  --  again,  with the biggest plunge-and-rise among schools serving kids who traditionally struggle to reach grade level.

I've called Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools out on playing the same game in the past.  I shudder to think how many national experts believe schools and programs across our state are successful based on big gains since 2008.  Charts like this are a great marketing tool,  if not exactly a testament to integrity in reporting.

When testing changes,  year-to-year comparisons carry little meaning.  At that point,  the best bet is to see how a given school,  district or group of schools compares with similar students.  As I noted in my article,  such comparisons indicate Sugar Creek is doing well compared with state and CMS averages,  though the latest numbers are unlikely to inspire breathless praise. (For careful readers,  the numbers I cite,  from N.C. school report cards,  represent the percent of students who passed both reading and math tests;  that's different from the composite score based on reading,  math and science exams.  Both are legitimate ways to measure proficiency.)

CMS used to do a good job of this when officials evaluated programs such as strategic staffing.  The studies were sometimes buried online,  but they existed.  Unfortunately,  a reader recently pointed out to me that the CMS research link,  which I'd kept in the rail at the right of this blog,  is now dead.  If there's a new one I can't find it.

Chance Lewis,  director of the Urban Education Collaborative,  says he's working on just such a comparison for Sugar Creek,  which is the collaborative's partner.  He and I agree that the challenge is figuring out the fairest comparison for the charter school,  which serves grades K-8.  Do you look at CMS neighborhood schools or at magnets?  Focus only on other K-8 schools,  or on elementaries and middle schools?  Do categories such as "African American" and "economically disadvantaged" give a true apples-to-apples look?

Results for 2014 are due out later this summer.  We already know they'll be up,  because the state changed the scoring system to allow more students to pass.  With all the uncertainty about Common Core,  it's hard to tell what we'll get in coming years.  Here's my forecast:  By 2017,  we're going to see lots of charts showing that schools have made amazing gains since 2013.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Mission Impossible: Keep up with General Assembly

Last summer I kicked myself for paying too little attention to the legislative session.  Like many others, I struggled to figure out changes to tenure,  teacher pay,  charter school rules and other developments in public education after lawmakers had gone home and everything was a done deal.

This year I vowed to make sure readers knew about education proposals in time to react.  But I'm no longer sure that's possible.

I set out with good intentions,  dutifully trying to keep up with the education bills being introduced.

In June I spent a week in Raleigh covering the General Assembly.  Mostly I learned that not being there isn't as big a disadvantage as I'd thought.  The legislative web site has a lot of great information,  including audio links to key discussions.  After scurrying around to grab a seat in the chambers,  I discovered that the more experienced political reporters often stayed in the press room following the discussions on audio.

So it's great that we can do that from Charlotte.  But I've concluded that the volume and complexity of this system makes it nearly impossible to keep up,  even in this ostensibly short and simple off-year session.

A search for education bills in the 2013-14 session gets 532 results.  I'm pretty sure that only those in the lighter typeface are active in 2014,  but that's still a long list.

Sometimes the content changes dramatically as it moves through the system.  House Bill 1224,  for instance,  began life in May as  "an act to modify the job maintenance and capital development fund provisions."  But when it went to the Senate Finance Committee last week it morphed into a bill that could kill the Mecklenburg County commissioners' plan to hold a referendum on a sales-tax hike to boost Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools salaries.

I've paid especially close attention to Senate Bill 793,  which has been through five versions, 11 proposed amendments and 39 actions since it was introduced in May.  It's the one that,  depending on the day,  either ensures that charter schools will follow the same personnel disclosure and privacy laws as other public schools,  removes all references to said topic or blocks disclosure of charter school employees' names.  (Meanwhile,  the Observer finally completed the database of Charlotte-area salaries last week,  when Lincoln Charter provided its information.)

Because I was dogging that bill,  Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg,  realized that his protect-the-names amendment has consequences far beyond his intentions.  He says he asked the conference committee to delete the amendment he got the House to pass.  Best I can tell,  there's been no action since that committee was created July 1.  What will emerge is anyone's guess.  Meanwhile,  a search for charter school bills turns up 47 other options to keep track of.

In my efforts to serve as a better watchdog,  I've ended up feeling like a mutt trying to chase a forest full of squirrels.  Even with the state's press corps doing their best,  I can't help wondering what  surprises may emerge after the last gavel bangs.  (Public Schools First NC is doing the best job I've seen of tracking education proposals.  Last week's summary filled nine pages.)

I voiced my frustration to Tom Tate,  the CMS board's senior member,  when we were talking about something else.

"I don't know how anyone is keeping up with it at this point,"  Tate sympathized.  "Even the legislators themselves."

Friday, July 18, 2014

Olympic's support squad keeps growing

Almost six weeks before the kids report back to school,  dozens of business people,  faith leaders and educators gathered at a southwest Charlotte church Thursday to plot strategy for Olympic High and its eight feeder schools.

I've been hearing about Olympic's partnerships for several years,  since the school split into five smaller schools with career-focused themes in 2006.  Almost everyone talks about collaboration,  but this effort has grown into something that's making a tangible difference for a growing number of students.

Rucker-Shivers in 2013
I've written about how Olympic leaders have worked with nearby businesses to develop internships and apprenticeships to prepare students for high-paying jobs.  It was fun to see 2013 graduate Maceo Rucker-Shivers,  whom I interviewed as a high school student and intern,  at Thursday's event as a CPCC student and Bosch Rexroth apprentice.

Those efforts continue to pay off and expand.  In August,  Olympic's new advanced manufacturing school opens,  supported by an $80,000 grant from the German machine-parts company.  So does Pallisades Park Elementary, a new neighborhood school that will get the youngest children focused on the math,  science and technology themes that can carry through to graduation.

Mike Realon,  Olympic's career development coordinator,  has been leading seven years of summits like the latest one at Central Steele Creek Presbyterian Church. Last year he and his band of partners expanded the effort to include area elementary and middle schools.  They patterned their  "Alignment Southwest Charlotte"  effort and its  "cradle-to-career" theme on similar efforts in Nashville,  he said.  First-year results ranged from reading buddies in elementary schools to donations for teacher grants that helped start a robotics program at Southwest Middle School.

Realon likes to talk about  "finding the happy space,"  where school needs and the interests of businesses and faith partners intersect.  Dozens gathered around tables to talk about needs ranging from literacy tutors at Berewick Elementary to Hispanic family engagement at Southwest to male mentors at Olympic.

That kind of partnership network,  which links elementary,  middle and high schools and gets a community deeply invested in its schools,  is something Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools hopes to cultivate across the district.  LaTarzja Henry,  the assistant superintendent in charge of partnerships, said the Southwest Charlotte group is a success story but not necessarily a model that can be replicated for every area.  The needs and resources are different in,  say,  the Governors Village schools in the UNCC area or the McClintock Middle/East Meck zone,  which she cited as other areas leading the way.

The key is finding the right people,  inside and outside of schools,  to locate those happy spaces.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Study cites CMS for reshaping principals' role

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is among six school systems cited for innovative leadership in a recent study of the changing role of principals.

Cotswold Principal Alicia Hash
The Center for American Progress,  a progressive think tank based in Washington, D.C., says the changing demands on school leaders has created a stream of early-career departures and early retirements, especially at the most challenging schools.  "The Changing Role of the Principal:  How High Achieving Districts Are Recalibrating School Leadership" looks for ways to make the job more meaningful and manageable while providing better support from central offices.

"Attrition due to resignations and early retirements, along with a shortage of qualified candidates for open principal positions, is leading toward a crisis of leadership in American education,"  the report says.

CMS has had its share of principal churn lately,  but the Southern Methodist University researchers who did the work looked to CMS;  Gwinnett County, Ga.;  Denver;  Washington,  DC;  Uplift Education in Dallas-Fort Worth and the Northeast Leadership Academy at N.C. State University for promising strategies  (read the CMS case study here).  CMS gets credit for creating  "super standards"  that go beyond the required state principal evaluations,  for working with nearby universities to help develop leadership and for providing supports such as  "opportunity culture"  classroom leaders and deans of students,  who can keep principals from being spread too thin.

In an aside following up on my recent post about cumbersome school names,  the STEM/STEAM acronym popped up for discussion on the Education Writers Association email list Wednesday.  An EWA staffer shared this New York Times essay urging writers to shun the "didactic and jargony" term for science,  technology,  engineering and math  (with or without art).  A Florida reporter noted the emergence of B-STEM,  adding business.  I figure with the local enthusiasm for entrepreneurship,  it's only a matter of time until we have Education in Science,  Technology, Engineering,  Entrepreneurship and Math,  or ESTEEM schools.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Summer student shuffle gets serious

This week's word that Carolina STEM charter school doesn't have enough students to open this year illustrates a challenge facing Charlotte-area schools and families:  More choice brings more uncertainty.

The state approved 11 new charter schools to serve about 3,200 Mecklenburg and Cabarrus county students in 2014-15.  A court cleared the way for the Opportunity Scholarship program to proceed,  offering low-income families tax-funded scholarships to switch from public to private schools. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools countered with more magnets and other options.

This spring,  families interested in a change could put their kids' names in for various schools, see where they got in and make a choice. Now,  with a little less than six weeks remaining until most students go back to school,  everyone's trying to figure out what those choices are.

For the folks who have spent the last four years trying to make Carolina STEM Academy a reality,  that meant realizing that 170 applications translated to only 66 confirmed enrollments,  according to a letter sent to families and posted on the school's website.  That was 40 to 60 short of what the board believed was necessary to open,  so rather than push things to the wire they called it quits for this year.

Carolina STEM was the second Charlotte-area charter school to drop out of the 2014 opening;  Stewart Creek High had earlier gotten a one-year deferral because of problems getting its building ready.  The question is whether it will be the last.  Many are still recruiting students,  working on facilities and holding information sessions.  The state is monitoring readiness of the remaining schools,  and could defer or revoke charters for those that don't seem to be set for a successful opening.

CMS,  meanwhile,  is trying to staff its schools appropriately.  Last year the district underestimated charter growth and overestimated its own enrollment.  This year planners project that most of the county's enrollment growth will be in charters.  We can only hope that the state's PowerSchool data system works better this year,  allowing everyone timely information about where students land.

In an unrelated nugget,  Wake County Schools Public Relations Director Renee McCoy left that job Tuesday and word is she's coming to CMS,  presumably to fill the gap left by Tahira Stalberte's departure for Union County Schools.  According to her LinkedIn profile, she's a former TV journalist who has also done PR for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.