Friday, April 29, 2011

Listen to legislators debate CMS bill

For those who are interested in the debate over performance pay in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Thursday's legislative discussion of the controversial House Bill 546 is available in audio archive. Select 04-28-2011; the issue comes fairly early in the session.

The bill, of course, is the one that would grant the CMS school board authority to sidestep state requirements for teacher evaluation and pay in order to launch performance pay, which Superintendent Peter Gorman plans to do in 2014. Unlike a 2007 bill authorizing performance-pay pilots, it doesn't require teacher approval.

Five members of the local delegation weigh in. Sponsors Ruth Samuelson and Ric Killian, both Republicans, and Martha Alexander, a Democrat, urge colleagues to approve the bill, with the understanding that it will be "parked" before going to the Senate. Samuelson says CMS leaders "need time for the community in Charlotte to rally around it" and says district leaders haven't done well so far at getting teachers and parents on board. Alexander notes that some of the emails legislators have gotten from local opponents contain "misinformation," such as saying CMS plans to take $5,000 from all teachers to reward the top 25 percent.

Democrats Tricia Cotham and Beverly Earle urge defeat. Cotham, who is on leave as a CMS assistant principal and was once the district's teacher of the year, is the most vocal opponent. She says she met repeatedly with Gorman and others to talk about performance pay and doesn't oppose the concept. But she says Gorman has reneged on his promise to "do performance pay with teachers, rather than to teachers."

"They need the legislature to do the dirty work and to be the bad guy," she says. She also argues that it's hypocritical for legislatures to green-flag extra testing in CMS while scaling back on state testing.

The bill passed 72-42, so the ball is back in CMS' court. So what comes next?

I'm still trying to get word from Gorman on that. My guess is performance-pay goes on the back burner until the 2011-12 budget gets through Mecklenburg County commissioners, with large numbers of parents and community leaders gearing up to push for more money. By then, the pilot version of the new tests will have been given in May. Best case for Gorman: They go smoother than the April "field tests" and some of the opposition dies down. Worst case: Parents and teachers are incensed once again about the time and energy that go into all these new tests, which will be taking place about the time layoff notices go out.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

CMS payroll corrected

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools payroll data we posted last week contained incorrect annual salary information for about 1,250 hourly workers who were cut from 40-hour to 37.5-hour work weeks as part of this year's cost-cutting. CMS ran the numbers on the old 40-hour basis; the Observer's online database has now been corrected, thanks to an employee who noticed his listing was wrong and spoke up.

Most of the 18,202 listings, including all the highly-paid staff, were correct in the original listing, so the errors did not affect the analysis done for Sunday's article based on payroll data. The employees working 37.5-hour weeks are mostly assistants, according to CMS.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Cheaper way to do pre-K?

Is Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools spending too much for administration of its Bright Beginnings prekindergarten centers? School board member Rhonda Lennon raised the question last night, as the board discussed asking county commissioners for millions more to preserve the program.

Lennon noted that centers with fewer than 300 children had administrative payrolls of $200,000 or more. A look at the latest payroll data shows she's right. Tryon Hills Preschool, with about 250 students, is paying about $210,000 for a principal, assistant principal, senior administrative secretary and secretary. Amay James, which is about the same size, pays about $246,000 a year for the same staffing combination.

The board already voted last fall to close Amay James at the end of this school year, merging its students into new preK-8 schools. Superintendent Peter Gorman's budget proposal would close the remaining four centers as the federal stimulus money that kept the program at its current size, with about 3,100 4-year-olds, dries up. Under his plan, the remaining 90 Bright Beginnings classrooms would be located in high-poverty elementary schools that qualify for federal Title I aid.

Seven of the nine board members said last night they support asking county commissioners for about $10 million to cover the stimulus gap and keep the program intact (the county had been footing a bigger share of the preK bill before the economy crashed). Lennon said she'd support maintaining the same number of classes, "but not in the current format."

Lennon made no motion, and agreed to cancel a budget meeting scheduled for today, saying she didn't think it was realistic to ask Gorman to draft a new pre-K plan in less than 24 hours. So it remains to be seen whether he'll find a way to save classes while streamlining costs before the board's May 10 vote, or whether the majority of the board expects him to do so.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

CMS teacher-pay bill moves forward amid criticism

The controversial teacher performance-pay bill crafted by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools staff and introduced by state Rep. Ruth Samuelson moved another step toward approval today in a 25-17 House committee vote. But some legislators were wary, noting the huge amount of criticism they've heard from constituents. One called it "an example of ready, fire, aim."

Superintendent Peter Gorman told the committee what he's been saying here in Charlotte: The performance-pay plan is a good one, but he and his staff haven't communicated it well. MecklenburgACTS, a local parent group that opposes the bill, countered with an open note to Gorman on their Facebook page: "The problem here is not ineffective communication. The problem is that parents do not support the massive expansion of high-stakes standardized testing that pay-for-performance, as currently conceived, will require."

Reporter Jane Stancill of the Raleigh News & Observer was there; here's her report from the Under the Dome blog:

A House education committee gave the OK to a bill to allow Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools to create a new program to pay teachers according to their performance.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg is the only N.C. district that has been approved to alter the state pay schedule under a 2007 performance-pay pilot bill that would require approval of a majority of teachers. The current House Bill 546, which applies only to CMS, would grant the district freedom to change the way teachers are evaluated and paid -- without teacher approval.

The bill, which was drafted by CMS staff, has been greeted by outrage from teachers and some parents, who object to the dozens of new tests the district is rolling out to help generate teacher ratings, reports Ann Helms of the Charlotte Observer.

The bill passed the committee 25-17, largely on party lines. One of the bill's sponsors, Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Charlotte Republican, urged passage Tuesday but said the district had work to do to win support from the community before a final version is approved. That will take time, she said, but in the meantime the bill needs to pass one chamber to stay alive before a key deadline next month.

Several lawmakers said they were uncomfortable moving forward with a problematic bill on an issue that is so heated.

Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Durham Democrat, said it had been years since he received so much e-mail on any one issue. Rep. Ray Rapp, a Mars Hill Democrat, said he was surprised at the intensity and the volume of the e-mails. He suggested a study committee be formed to look into the issue further. "I think this is an example of ready, fire, aim," he said. "It just seems terribly premature to go ahead with this."

Rep. Tricia Cotham, a Matthews Democrat and former teacher, said a third grader had called her during Easter weekend to oppose the bill. There are serious trust issues in the school district, she said. "You cannot do this to teachers, you must do this with teachers."

Teacher performance pay is a major part of Superintendent Peter Gorman's plan to improve student performance; he believes rewarding teachers for results, rather than longevity and credentials, will help attract and keep good teachers.

Speaking to the committee Tuesday, Gorman said he wanted to work with teachers to smooth out problems, and stressed that various measures other than tests would go into the evaluation of teachers.

"We have not done a good job of communicating," Gorman said. "We are committed to do that."

Pastors, politicians join in prayers for students

As state and local officials plan for layoffs of hundreds of local teachers, Charlotte-area houses of faith plan to band together this weekend to pray for the community's children. Officials at Covenant Presbyterian Church and the Council for Children's Rights say this weekend, many congregations will devote specific times during their worship services or space at their facilities to observe a weekend of prayer for children.

The weekend will culminate with a Christian prayer service on Sunday May 1 at 6:30 p.m. at Covenant Presbyterian Church, 1000 East Morehead St. Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board chair Eric Davis and Mecklenburg commissioners' chair Jennifer Roberts will speak. Glenn Burkins, editor of the website, will lead a conversation about how Charlotte can respond to the needs of local children. Details: call Courtney St. Onge at 704-804-7565 or

Monday, April 25, 2011

CMS payroll update

Lots of people have been checking the 2011 CMS payroll since we posted it late last week. Apologies to those who couldn't get data for some schools; there was a glitch that we fixed this afternoon.

Every year, I hear from a few CMS employees who think the pay we've listed for them is too high. I'm checking on a couple of issues, but so far CMS says they ones they've reviewed are correct. As some commenters have noted, there hasn't been much change in teachers' pay in the last three years because the promised bumps for experience have been frozen.

As usual, I've gotten a question about why Edward Ellis, assistant principal at Vance High, is making more than most CMS principals. At $142,874 a year, he's outearning his own principal by more than $30,000. Ellis was principal at Waddell High until 2006, when Superintendent Peter Gorman reassigned him to be an assistant at Providence High. Ellis kept his principal's pay and works a 12-month contract, unlike most assistant principals. Principals with less experience tend to be lower on the pay scale.

I haven't gotten the Sue Gorman question yet, but given the persistence of the rumor that the superintendent's wife is making big bucks, I'll go ahead and deal with that. Sue Gorman doesn't show up on the payroll because her role with Parent University, an effort her husband created to help families support their kids' education, is as a volunteer.

Gorman: CMS layoffs begin

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employees started their Monday morning with a letter from Superintendent Peter Gorman notifying them that layoff notices are going out. It didn't offer specifics, but he has been talking about cutting about 1,500 jobs, including roughly 600 teachers. Some of those will be vacant jobs, and notices are usually spread out over the spring, with teachers getting theirs about the time final exams conclude. We're seeking more details. Meanwhile, here's the letter:

From: Peter C. Gorman

Sent: Monday, April 25, 2011 7:12 AM

To: cmsmailall

Subject: Budget Update

Dear CMS employees,

We have given our proposed budget to the Board of Education. In what has become a grim rite of spring, we will begin sending out letters to employees affected by the reduction in force. Our expected budget cuts have made this necessary.

The budget deadlines do not align well with the funding process, so we build a budget each year not knowing how much money we have. In earlier years, we have been able to rescind some of the letters to teachers and other employees when our funding exceeded our estimates. We hope that will be the case this year. But we won’t know for a while.

These cuts we have to make are large and they are painful. We will lose some good teachers and employees during this reduction. It’s not something we want to do but it is something we must do. We need our teachers. We need our teacher assistants. We need our media specialists and our campus security associates. But our expected funding requires us to reduce the number of employees. As always, we will make cuts in the central office first.

The reduction in force affects us all. Even if you are not among those receiving a letter of non-renewal or dismissal, you are touched by it. We lose colleagues and associates we have known and worked beside for years. It lowers morale and makes everyone anxious. It is upsetting for those directly and indirectly affected, which includes our students and their families.

The cuts will also affect our ability to educate our students. With such large reductions, I can’t ask you to do more with less or to maintain the same level of service. But I can ask you – and I am asking you – to continue to do your best every day so that our schools suffer the minimum of disruption. We still have a tremendous responsibility to provide the best education we can to every student. Thank you for your work and your commitment to this shared goal.


Peter C. Gorman
Government Center
600 East 4th Street
Charlotte, NC 28202
980-343-6270 -- phone
980-343-7135 -- fax

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Top 20 salaries: CMS and Wake

Here's how the 20 highest-paid people in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Wake County schools compare, based on payroll requests delivered last week. Wake has 143,289 K-12 students , compared with 135,638 K-12 students and about 3,000 prekindergarteners in CMS.

As you'll see, CMS pays its top folks better than Wake. Wake, however, pays its teacher slightly more -- very slightly. The amount varies based on experience and credentials; see the Wake pay scales here and the CMS scales here. Both districts start with the state's teacher pay scale but add money provided by the counties.

Unless otherwise noted, the CMS folks received no raises or bonuses in the past year (I do not have background information on the Wake crew).

1. Superintendent Peter Gorman, $267,150 salary plus $30,000 supplementary retirement pay.
2. Chief Operating Officer Hugh Hattabaugh, $169,900.
3. Chief Academic Officer Ann Clark, $169,638.
4. Chief Financial Officer Sheila Shirley, $169,363.
5. Chief Information Officer Susan Johnson, $165,428. The title can be confusing; she's in charge of technology, not public relations.
6-7. Chief Strategy and Accountability Officer Robert Avossa, $160,000. Avossa is the only finalist for superintendent of Fulton County Schools in Georgia, so will probably leave CMS soon.
6-7. Chief Human Resource Officer Daniel Habrat, $160,000. Habrat was recently hired at $21,082 more than his predecessor made, but another highly-paid HR job was eliminated.
8. South Meck High Principal Maureen Furr, $155,677.
9. General Counsel George Battle, $152,000. Battle was recently hired at $8,452 more than Deputy General Counsel Andre Mayes earned while she held the top job on a temporary basis. Mayes took an $18,548 pay cut, to $125,000 a year, when she returned to her normal duty.
10. Associate Superintendent Guy Chamberlain (building services), $148,813.
11. South Charlotte Middle School Principal Christine Waggoner, $145,981.
12. Area Superintendent Joel Ritchie, $144,230.
13. Edward Ellis, assistant principal at Vance High, $142,874. Ellis was principal of Waddell High and did not lose his pay when he was made an assistant. He works a 12-month contract, unlike most assistant principals.
14. Myers Park High Principal Thomas Spivey, $142,086.
15. Assistant Superintendent Mary Rhyne (exceptional children, or students with disabilities), $141,294.
16. Berry Academy of Technology Principal Curtis Carroll, $139,803.
17-20. Area Superintendents Scott Muri, Katherine Rea, Tyler Ream and Denise Watts, $134,859. Rea received an $18,257 raise when she was promoted from executive director. Watts (she's listed as Sharmel Watts if you look her up in the database) received a $41,031 raise when she was promoted from Spaugh Middle School principal.


1. Superintendent Anthony Tata, $255,164.
2. Chief Academic Officer Donna Hargens, $148,965.
3. Chief Business Officer Daniel Neter, $150,831.
4. Chief Facilities and Operations Officer Don Haydon Jr., $150,666.
5. Chief Area Superintendent Danny Barnes, $145,072.
6. Principal Beulah Wright, $141,757.
7. Area Superintendent Lloyd Gardner, $134,760.
8-9. Principal William Crockett Jr., $130,969.
8-9. Principal Rodney Nelson, $130,969.
10. Principal James Hedrick, $128,945.
11. Area Superintendent Ann Hooker, $128,343.
12-13. Area Superintendent Julye Mizelle, $127,246.
12-13. Assistant Superintendent David Holdzkom, $127,246.
14-15. Chief of Staff Terri Cobb, $126,149.
14-15. Chief Communications Officer Michael Evans, $126,149.
16. Principal Dana King, $125,984.
17. Principal Tina Hoots, $124,816.
18. Assistant Superintendent Marvin Connelly Jr., $123,955.
19. Principal John Williams, $123,514.
20. Principal Gregory Decker, $123,080.

Friday, April 22, 2011

New CMS payroll data is online

The 2011 update on what people earn in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is online now. Look for a story in Sunday's Observer, as well as a blog report comparing the top 20 salaries in Wake and CMS.

We posted the first CMS payroll list in 2008, and have updated it every year since (updates to the city and county databases are coming, too). It was hugely controversial at first, and I know some educators still believe this violates their privacy. I feel for them, but my sense is that most people now see this as valuable public information. These days I get more queries seeking payroll data for public schools in surrounding counties than questions about why we publish CMS salaries.

Some readers have chafed at the limits of the online database. If you'd like the Excel version, email me at with "spreadsheet" in the header. Be patient, please; I won't get to this until Monday.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

New twists in CMS performance-pay bill

State Rep. Ruth Samuelson, who recently introduced a controversial bill that would give Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools authority to break free from the state system of evaluating and paying teachers, is emailing constituents an update today.

I'm no expert on legislative process, so I'm mostly going to give you all the raw material she sent me. But here's my understanding of what she's saying in a nutshell: She's gotten a lot of feeback on this bill, pro and con. She's going to try to get it passed by a House committee on Tuesday and approved by the House soon afterward. But she's then going to "park" it before it goes to the Senate, which gives legislators, CMS officials and other interested parties months to work out revisions to the plan.

"By taking this course, all parties have a vested interest in continuing to participate in improving the proposed (pay for performance) project," Samuelson writes. "If we let the bill 'die' then it isn't fair to the folks at CMS and others who believe in the program. If we move the bill too quickly, then the folks most impacted will not be vested in it and the program will fail."

What follows is Samuelson's new email, which includes the latest amended version of the bill, followed by an email she sent last week summarizing the concerns she's been hearing. I'm off tomorrow so will have little time or ability to field questions about this, but figured folks who are interested in CMS's push toward performance pay would want to know the latest.

Here's the email Samuelson sent out today:
I know this is Spring Break week for CMS but the legislature is in full swing in spite of the hay fever! So, based on some of the responses I received to my previous email, I thought I would start with a brief explanation of how the legislative process works and then update you on the current plan regarding H546. Please be patient with me if this is all familiar to you.

The NC General Assembly meets in a two year cycle. The first year is called "long session" and runs from January until July, usually. The second year is called "short session" and runs from May until July, usually. Members may introduce new bills only at the beginning of the long session. Each idea for a bill must meet a drafting deadline and then a filing deadline. If you miss a deadline, the bill must wait two years for a new session. (The filing deadline for H546 was March 30 which is why H546 was submitted on that day. There are a few exceptions to these rules but they are complicated and don't really apply to this bill.)
Once the bill is filed, it most go through one or two committees before it goes to the House floor for a vote.

If it passes the House committees and floor vote, it crosses over to the Senate where it goes through the same process again; committees and then voted on the Senate floor.

IF there are NO changes to the bill on the Senate side, then it goes to the governor for her approval or veto.

If there ARE changes to the bill, it comes back to the House for us to accept or reject those changes. If we accept, the bill goes to the governor.

If we reject the changes, then a new committee is appointed with members of the House and Senate to negotiate the differences. At that point they come to agreement or the bill dies.

You can see that this is a long process with numerous twists and turns. Please hear me though; At any point in this process the bill can be stopped by the sponsors or a majority vote of the members.

As if the process wasn't enough of a hindrance, there are deadlines all along the way that can also derail a bill for the two year session. The next one coming up is called "Crossover" and it is currently set for May 12. Any bill that has not crossed over to the Senate by May 12 is dead for two years. That means it must have passed through committee and the House floor by May 12. This deadline has committee chairs scheduling lots of bills between now and May 12.

H546 has received input from a number of opponents and advocates and has received numerous drafting changes to address those concerns. It is now tentatively scheduled for the first committee stop in this long process for this coming Tuesday, April 26. At that time, the new version will be "adopted" and then debated. Additional changes can be offered and if accepted, they become part of the bill. If the bill passes committee, then within a few days it will be sent to the House floor for a vote.

Here is my pledge to you and a request for understanding. Given the sensitive nature of this bill AND the time constraints, I believe the best course is to move H546 through committee and the House vote so that it meets the "crossover deadline" on May 12. Then I pledge to "park" the bill until there is more progress between CMS and the concerned parties on the details of the Pay for Performance program. "Parking" it means that the bill will not be heard in a committee or on the Senate floor until the bill sponsors agree that is it ready. The bill can be parked until late June, 2012 if it takes that long.

By taking this course, all parties have a vested interest in continuing to participate in improving the proposed PfP project. If we let the bill "die" then it isn't fair to the folks at CMS and others who believe in the program. If we move the bill too quickly, then the folks most impacted will not be vested in it and the program will fail. "Parking" the bill is the fairest way to give both sides a voice and it can only be "parked" if we meet the crossover deadline.

Thank you for understanding and PLEASE stay engaged.

P. S. The text of the proposed draft is copied below. Please understand that this is a work in progress and will likely receive correction, additions and deletions as things progress.


The General Assembly of North Carolina enacts: 

SECTION 1. The State Board of Education shall establish a pilot program authorizing the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to develop and implement alternative salary plans for instructional personnel and school administrators designed to improve student performance and increase teacher effectiveness by financially rewarding instructional personnel and school administrators through a performance-based compensation system. Under this pilot program, the value of each of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' instructional positions will be funded in accordance with the then-current State method for funding such positions, but the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools shall have discretion in determining how funds are allocated among such positions. Such funds may be used to develop and implement a compensation system for instructional personnel and school administrators that provides differentiated levels of pay based on student achievement gains, evaluations, and observations. Notwithstanding anything to the contrary herein, in no event shall the amount of funds received by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools be less than the amount it would have received under the then-current State method for allocating such funds. 

SECTION 2. As part of its performance-based pay structure, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools shall adopt a performance salary schedule that accomplishes the following:

(1) Aligns annual salary adjustments for instructional personnel and school administrators with documented student growth in learning. 

(2) Evaluates instructional personnel and school administrators on the local level in order to measure the degree to which students have shown academic growth.

(3) Substantially incorporates input from instructional personnel and school administrators in devising evaluation systems upon which compensation is based. 

(4) Ensures that no amount paid in base salary for any instructional personnel or school administrator declines below the amount of base salary paid to such instructional personnel or school administrator from the date of implementation of any performance salary schedule. Notwithstanding anything to the contrary herein, nothing in this act shall be deemed or interpreted to require any increase in base salary from the date of  implementation of a performance salary schedule.

SECTION 3. The evaluation system shall do the following: 

(1) Support effective instruction and student achievement, and the results must be used to inform district and school level improvement plans. 

(2) Provide appropriate instruments, procedures, and criteria for continuous quality improvement of the professional skills, and the results must be used to inform the professional development of instructional personnel and school administrators.

(3) Include a mechanism to examine performance data from multiple sources to measure teacher effectiveness and drive instructional practices that can lead to improved levels of student achievement.
(4) Differentiate among levels of performance, which are tied to differentiated levels of pay based on student achievement gains.

(5) Allow instructional personnel and school administrators to be evaluated by multiple measures. 

SECTION 4. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools shall ensure that some percentage of the evaluation for instructional personnel is to be based on data and indicators of student learning growth assessed annually by State assessments or, for subjects and grade levels not measured by the State assessments, by district-developed assessments. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools may use State-adopted measures of student growth or select comparable district-developed measures of student growth for grades and subjects by taking into account the student's prior performance, grade level, and subject while considering other factors, including, but not limited to, student attendance, student disciplinary records, student disabilities, and student English language proficiency.

SECTION 5. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools shall annually submit to the Department of Public Instruction an implementation and outcome evaluation of the performance-based compensation system, including the aggregate performance results of instructional personnel and school administrators. In addition, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools shall provide consistent periodic updates to its employees concerning the development and implementation of a performance-based pay structure plan. Notwithstanding anything to  the contrary herein, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools shall make the details of any proposed  performance-based pay structure plan public prior to the adoption of such plan.

SECTION 6. The State Board of Education shall grant waivers of laws, rules, policies, procedures, and practices to enable the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to implement and sustain its performance-based compensation system. In addition, the State Board of Education shall allow Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools flexibility in allocating all mandated State-funded compensation, including but not limited to salary increases, longevity compensation, and bonuses for all of its employees. 

SECTION 7. This act applies to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools only.

SECTION 8. This act is effective when it becomes law.

Still reading? Here's Samuelson's April 14 email to constituents:

Thank you for taking the time to share with me your concerns regarding the proposed bill allowing a Pay for Performance pilot project involving CMS. I have heard from both teachers and parents and have been encouraged that folks are thinking seriously about this serious do we best educate our children.

While I certainly don't have answers to all of the concerns expressed, I do want to give you some idea of what I am hearing;
· Testing already takes too much time and interferes with the learning process.

· The field tests were especially disruptive, removing instructional personnel from the classroom and interrupting schedules, causing stress on staff, students and parents.

· Tests alone are inadequate measures for evaluating students and teacher performance. Additional measures must be in place and they must be fair.

· Therefore, these tests and the PfP program are a waste of time and money, especially in a tight budget year.

· Teachers were promised a vote in the original pilot project. The new pilot project proposed by CMS would not include a vote and erodes teacher trust.

· Low morale is a growing problem and the PfP project only makes it worse. (Some emails referred to the system being "under siege".)

· There hasn't been adequate teacher involvement in the process.

· The plan creates a salary structure just for CMS that is different from the rest of the state.

· The CMS Board does not support the plan and Gorman rushed it to the legislators "secretly". (I must comment here that the CMS legislative agenda was voted on by the CMS board and then brought to the entire Mecklenburg legislative delegation. The direction for H546 was the second item on that list.)

There were additional concerns expressed but most of them fit within these categories. If I have failed to highlight your specific concern, it may simply be that the list was getting rather long and I am trying to focus on the most common concerns in this email. I do have a master list of them all.

Please be assured that Rep. Martha Alexander, Rep. Killian and I will be working hard to see that these issues are addressed before we move the bill forward. As legislators we are called to both enable the locally elected CMS board to accomplish its objectives AND to represent the will of our constituents. When those concerns are at odds, we proceed carefully and try to find the best path.

Thank you for your patience and understanding. I will be back in touch as we receive answers and work through the process. Please feel free to continue to let me know what you are seeing and hearing regarding this issue or any others we may be discussing in Raleigh.

Representative Ruth Samuelson
District 104
Room 419 B, Legislative Office Building
Raleigh, NC 27601

CMS to name merged schools

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has come up with a plan for which school names will survive and which will disappear with the closings and consolidations coming up next year. A list of the new names is up for a vote at Tuesday's meeting, which will be dominated by a hearing on the 2011-12 budget.

The names of Spaugh, Wilson and J.T. Williams middle schools will be gone when their students disperse to eight preK-8 schools, which will keep the names of the existing schools but change the label from "elementary" to "academy" or "school." Smith Language Academy will become E.E. Waddell Language Academy when the K-8 foreign language magnet moves into the current Waddell High, which is named for the late husband of school board member Joyce Waddell.

The Irwin Avenue building will keep its name when the magnet program now located at Villa Heights Elementary moves in. Lincoln Heights Elementary is closing and will be renamed Lincoln Heights Academy. CMS hasn't decided how the building will be used but is holding onto it for some future school-district use, said spokeswoman Lauren Bell.

The list of buildings that will close and be put up for lease is available here.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Testing lessons and the coal-mine quiz

Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools are closed for spring break, but the testing folks are analyzing results of the district's recent field tests in hopes of having valid questions selected by the start of next week. As you probably recall, CMS is rolling out 52 new tests, designed partly to help officials rate teacher effectiveness as part of a move toward performance pay.

The one-on-one tests for grades K-2, which outraged some parents and teachers because they were so time-consuming, will survive with some revisions, said Chris Cobitz, the CMS official in charge of the new exams. Instead of asking children to do 15 tasks for each of four subjects (reading, math, science and social studies), the tasks will be limited to 10 to hold testing time to 15 minutes per subject. Cobitz said his staff is talking to the elementary schools that had the fewest problems with field testing to set up guidelines for all schools.

The "best practices sheet" isn't ready yet, but one thing has been decided: Only school staff will be allowed to administer the real tests in May. Parent volunteers, who did some of the field testing this month, will still be encouraged to monitor the testing, Cobitz said.

Despite some requests for a shift to multiple-choice answers for the youngest kids, Cobitz said CMS will continue with open-ended questions, which require the adult tester to judge whether the child's answer is worth full, partial or no credit. CMS is looking at technology to streamline the testing, but that won't be available in May, he said.

Cobitz's crew is also poring through feedback from the schools about bad questions in the field tests. People administering the tests are supposed to preserve testing security, but we've all heard reports of everything from typos and faulty numbering to questions that just don't make sense.

If you listened to Charlotte Talks last Monday, you heard host Mike Collins challenge CMS officials Ann Clark and Andy Baxter to answer a question that a listener had sent in after seeing it on a third-grade test. The question involved a coal-mining town, and none of the three options sounded sensible. Clark and Baxter didn't even try, and Collins acknowledged it was possible he didn't have the precise question (I was listening from home, and I was stumped, too).

Cobitz, who wasn't on the show, later looked up the question: In a town built around a coal mine, which is most likely to be true? The options: All women work in the mine, most men work in the mine, the mine never lays people off, or the mine is the safest place to work.

The correct answer is "Most men work in the mine," Cobitz said. It's not so much about gender roles but about the relationship between a community and its dominant industry, which students should have learned in third grade, he said. The question was solid, according to Cobitz -- but it won't be used because it has been made public.

He said he's also hearing complaints about the new high-school chemistry exam (it replaces a state exam that N.C. officials recently discontinued). But Cobitz, a former chemistry teacher, said so far the CMS test seems to match what students should be learning.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Greensboro, CMS differ on teacher pay cut question

As Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools struggle to close an estimated $100 million budget shortfall, everybody's been lobbing suggestions at CMS officials about how they can prevent the planned layoffs of roughly 600 educators. One popular idea has been to give all teachers an across-the-board pay cut rather than laying so many off.

CMS has said that's a non-starter. Under state law, the district argues, cuts to the salaries of certified personnel (e.g., tenured teachers) are regarded as demotions, which would trigger appeal and hearing rights. With some 10,000 teachers and instructional support staff, that could obviously prove cumbersome. Plus, CMS leaders say teachers have had no pay raises for the past three years, and have had to take on extra work. Together, that's a pay cut in itself.

Commissioner Bill James recently pointed out in an e-mail to the newspaper that the Greensboro school system apparently sees the issue a little differently than CMS Superintendent Peter Gorman. Guilford County Schools Superintendent Maurice "Mo" Green, a former Gorman protege, recently submitted his own budget plan to his school board. It does include, as a last option, a pay cut equal to two days salary. It would apply only to employees making at least $35,000. Green's chief of staff, Nora Carr, told me in an e-mail: "Employees will work the same number of days and hours, just receive less pay to do so. We’re trying to save as many jobs as possible for our hard-working employees."

Which, of course, is the exact logic used by folks asking for a pay cut here in Charlotte. So, why is a pay cut a valid option for saving Greensboro teachers' jobs, but invalid for CMS? When I asked Greensboro's attorney, Jill Wilson, about all this, she said a pay cut would indeed be a demotion and a reduction-in-force for career (tenured) and contract employees, and would trigger the same procedures as layoffs. All pretty straight-forward, in her estimation.

I've asked CMS leaders to respond on this issue. I'll post the answer here when I get it. I'll also have some more in-depth questions and answers about Gorman's 2011-12 budget proposal in a story that's slated to run in Sunday's Observer.

Stay tuned...

Friday, April 8, 2011

Test week wrap-up

After a week of vigorous commentary and complaints about CMS's "field test" of new exams, I sat down today with Chris Cobitz, the CMS official in charge, to get his take on the issues. Despite a lot of resistance and some obvious glitches, Cobitz says he's "very confident" that CMS is on track to get the results it wants: A set of exams that will size up student knowledge and help measure teacher effectiveness.

 A story running Sunday will provide more info, but here are highlights:

*Yes, the K-2 tests took a lot of time. Cobitz says the field tests, which were supposed to run no more than 50 minutes per child, contained more items than the real test will, including some questions that were intended for the grade lower and/or higher. Because the kids were taking only one subject this week, CMS used the opportunity to try out a longer list of questions. By May, they'll be doing about 10 "tasks" per subject, with a target time of 15 minutes per subject (reading, math, social studies and science) per child.

Cobitz says faculty reports convinced him that asking young children to read a passage and write even a short response was too time-consuming. So those exercises will be eliminated for the math, science and social studies tests (they're essential for reading).

Is the time demand still going to be too much? Cobitz says he's hearing a lot of concern from principals. Superintendent Peter Gorman said today it's too early to say if CMS will look at any revisions based on this week's concerns.

*Yes, there were mistakes, though Cobitz says most were minor. He says out of about 3,500 questions, he's identified "three dozen" with mistakes that shouldn't have gotten past the CMS staff that screened them -- things like repeated words, numbering errors or answers that didn't match the instructions. Those will be corrected or eliminated by May, he said.

I skimmed some K-2 tests, and they didn't look as sloppy as I'd expected from reading the critiques. There was one second-grade math question that confused me; I approached the question about someone who "wants to make a prism" as a sort of engineering question (how is this guy making it?). It wasn't until I looked at the answer that I understood it was just asking for the two-dimensional shapes that formed the surface of the prism. I can't say if that was a bad question, or if it just wasn't aimed at middle-aged reporters.

The kindergarten social studies exam was heavy on holiday questions, as several commenters noted. That's because one of the N.C. goals for kindergarteners is to "explain celebrated holidays and special days in communities." The kids are supposed to be able to "explore how families express their cultures through celebrations, rituals and traditions; identify religious and secular symbols associated with famous people, holidays and special days of diverse cultures; and state reasons for observing special, religious and secular holidays of diverse cultures."

I saw the question about Christmas symbols; baby Jesus and the star of Bethlehem were listed as acceptable answers, but so were trees and ornaments. There was a question asking how Americans could celebrate Memorial Day, one asking for two holiday traditions "you enjoy with your family during winter," and one asking the name of the February holiday celebrating love. Cobitz says his staff scrapped several proposed questions about the Mexican Cinco de Mayo.

*The amount of paper that went into this is mind-boggling. I walked in to see a stack maybe two inches high of tests Cobitz had pulled for me to look at. That was one version of each of the K-2 tests, or 12 tests. There were actually four field versions of each test. Each test contained the version the student used and the guide for the person doing the test, with explanations of how to present the question and a key to the answers. So if a teacher gave 10 versions of the same test, she got 10 identical copies of the teacher guide. That will be streamlined in May, Cobitz said, when there will be individual tests for students and one or two copies for the adults giving the test.

Expect to hear more about this at Tuesday's school board meeting. Parents, teachers and students (including high-schoolers wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the number of tests they're taking) are planning to pack the chamber -- which will already be crowded with people interested in Gorman's budget proposal -- and let the board know what they think of the tests.

And WFAE's Charlotte Talks will feature a panel of parents and CMS officials talking about the tests at 9 a.m. Monday.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Results still patchy on CMS school turnaround plan

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has completed its second study of the Strategic Staffing school turnaround plan, and the results aren't any rosier than they were when I reported on the program in December.

Strategic staffing is Superintendent Peter Gorman's effort to improve student success at low-performing, high-poverty schools by enticing top principals with bonuses and giving them money and freedom to bring in teams of teachers with a track record of success. He describes it as a three-year process. The first batch of schools -- Briarwood, Bruns, Devonshire, Reid Park, Sterling and Westerly Hills elementaries and Ranson Middle -- are in their third year now.

The latest report looks at test scores, student attendance and discipline, teacher surveys and other measures of progress for the two complete years that those schools have been in the program, along with the first year's results for a second group: Allenbrook, Ashley Park, Druid Hills, Paw Creek and Thomasboro elementaries and Albemarle Road and Spaugh middle schools.

Bottom line: There aren't a lot of clear-cut victories so far, though there are bright spots. In many cases, a comparison group of struggling high-poverty schools outperformed strategic staffing schools.

I give Gorman, Chief Accountability Officer Robert Avossa and the staff credit for being willing to scrutinize a pet project and release results, even when they're not glowing. Those who care about the schools in question or the strategic staffing plan in general may find it worth working through 78 pages of detailed analysis.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Resistance builds as CMS test week continues

At East Mecklenburg High last night, parents swapped strategies for resisting CMS's push for more testing, as kids take "field versions" of dozens of new exams. Take your kids late or keep them home altogether so they'll miss the test, some parents suggested. Tell them to sign their name and leave it blank in protest, said another.

One man, who didn't identify himself, noted that the exams for older kids use a multiple-choice "bubble-in" format and urged them to choose one consistent answer: "Let them bubble E for 'Enough' and send a message to Dr. Gorman."

Someone else said each question has only four possible answers.

"Mark B for 'Bull!' " another man called out.

That's the mood among some parents, who are outraged at the time kids are spending on tests designed to rate teachers. Students in kindergarten through second grade were tested Monday and Tuesday. In calls, emails and comments on yesterday's blog, numerous teachers and parent volunteers said the one-on-one tests that officials had described as taking 15 minutes per child were taking up to an hour.

Many also raised questions about the quality of the test items, noting subject matter that seems too advanced and questions with spelling and punctuation errors. Some asked who's getting paid to put these tests together.

Chris Cobitz, the CMS official who's overseeing the new tests, said this week's field tests showed that asking young children to read and answer some of the questions was taking too long. That's something CMS will take into account in creating the final version, to be given in May, he said.

Cobitz said Measurement Inc. of Durham is being paid to submit questions, which his staff reviews. Putting them in front of real kids this week helps CMS staff winnow out questions. If some questions seem too advanced, he said, that's intentional. It not only lets teachers see how high-fliers do, it may indicate a question that is too easy -- if, for instance, most first-graders end up correctly answering a question that was designed for second-graders.

"We pay for items we accept," Cobitz said. "One of three we fully intend to reject. We don't pay for the ones we reject."

He acknowledged there are typos, a result of the rush to get some 400 tests ready for this week. Yes, that's larger than the number of subjects (52) discussed earlier; there are four versions of each test, he said.

"Punctuation is something we can fix," he said.

Now it's time for the older kids to start field-testing, everything from third-grade social studies and science to a raft of high school electives. That poses its own challenges, especially when parents are urging their children to resist.

Courtney Kramer, a German teacher at Smith Language Academy, says she sent home letters with her sixth-grade home room explaining the field tests, which don't count toward student grades or teacher ratings.

"When I passed out the letters and we started to talk about the tests, one student raised his hand," Kramer wrote. "He said, 'Why don't we just fail it on purpose? It doesn't count for a grade and they will have to make the real tests easier.' Of course the rest of the students in the class agreed. If this reaction was immediate in my class, I can only imagine how many other students all over CMS have decided to purposefully fail."

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

CMS test week: One teacher's view

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is doing a "field test" of its new exams this week. Parents and teachers are buzzing about whether this is a good use of time, and whether the tests themselves are any good.

An elementary school English as a Second Language teacher sent this "snapshot of what has happened in one day, at one school" Monday evening. She identified herself to me, but asked that I not publish her name for fear it will cause problems for her or her principal. I'm sharing it to start the discussion; if any of you who are seeing this first-hand are willing to share your observations for publication, please get in touch ( or 704-358-5033).

Here's the teacher's report, edited slightly for length and clarity:

*Tests did not arrive at school until Friday, April 1. School administration did not have time to train test administrators enough to feel confident about giving the test.

*Special area classes (music, art, PE, etc) and ESL classes are cancelled this week so that those teachers may assist with testing. This is to ensure that classroom instruction can continue. However, students will miss those special area classes. Most teachers at my school have some planning time during the special area class time. They will not have planning time this week.

*I have 50 kindergarten students to test this week. That is about 20-30 minutes per test, times 50 students. It's mentally exhausting for me. I am wondering how much time the final summative tests will be. We have to administer those next month. We are looking forward to having to cancel instruction for a week then as well. 10 days of instruction lost, out of 180 instructional days. That's a lot.

*The second-grade test has been taking more than 50 minutes. 50 minutes is supposed to be the upper limit of the test. This is only for one portion of the test (like, just math, or just social studies).

*I could write about 5 pages about how poorly constructed the test itself was but I'm not sure how much that would fall into breaking test security. I can say anecdotally that I have administered many different types of tests and this is about the worst test I have ever seen, as a "standardized" test. I don't know how much CMS spent just getting this field test version, but it appears to have been a complete waste of money, at the same time we are decreasing services and planning to lay off hundreds of teachers. The wording of the questions, the graphics that go along with the questions, the instructions for assessing the student's answers... It's not good. That is worrisome since these will (perhaps) eventually be used for Pay for Performance. How can we respect a PfP model if it is built on faulty testing data?

*I am giving the kindergarten science test. It is 34 pages long, so 17 sheets of paper. That times an average of 25 students per kindergarten class at my school. If each K-2 test is about that long: There are 21 K-2 classes in my school. So, 17 sheets of paper x 25 students x 21 classes x the number of elementary schools in CMS. That's a lot of paper. We usually have to ration paper to make copies at school. We would love to have that amount of paper to use to support instruction.

*I work with a lot of highly-educated, very intelligent teachers. We are all terrified of these tests being used to judge our "performance" because they are not indicative of what goes on in the classroom. They do not represent the interesting and innovative teaching that goes on across CMS. They are wasting our instructional time and it will be wasted again in May. These tests will not be used to "drive instruction" unless we begin teaching to the tests. And it's sad because we are convinced that the CMS central office has decided that this is going to happen TO teachers and TO students, not matter what anyone on the ground, in the classroom has to say about. Downtown knows best and no teacher is going to be able to tell them otherwise. They will ram these tests down our throats until we give up and quit.

Friday, April 1, 2011

So many tests, so little time

Parents are asking so many questions about the latest batch of tests that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools this week released a new explainer on all the tests kids take.

Schools will give a trial version of the new "summative assessments" next week. Those are year-end exams designed by a CMS contractor to size up student mastery of academic subjects, as well as teachers' effectiveness. Students will take a full version of those tests at the end of this school year.

CMS hasn't finished creating all the new exams that will be a foundation for performance pay in 2014. Coming next school year are tests in music, physical education, dance, visual arts and other subjects that require more than pencil-and-paper multiple-choice questions. Teachers are helping with those, and the cost is included in the $1.9 million currently budgeted for test design.

Superintendent Peter Gorman used his weekly news briefing to try to assure parents that their children aren't spending excessive time on testing, even with the new ones. Kids in K-2 spend a total of 4 hours and 15 minutes on testing, including the new ones, he said. That's out of 1,035 hours of class time -- a number that jumps to 1,170 with the longer school day next year.

In grades 3, 4, 6 and 7, students take state reading and math End of Grade exams and will add CMS social studies and science tests. That will be a total of 17 hours of testing, Gorman said. In grades 5 and 8, students take the state science exam, which brings the total to 19.5 hours. That's because the state requires four hours for its tests, while CMS' take 90 minutes.

High school testing is harder to calculate. The new plan calls for all courses to have a final exam designed by the state or CMS. But students also take a variety of other tests, including Advanced Placement, IB, PSAT and SAT.

While the total hours may not be overwhelming for students (I suspect parents would say that's open to debate), K-2 teachers are grappling with the demands of testing their kids one at a time -- 15 minutes each for reading, math, science and social studies. Because teachers' effectiveness ratings, and eventually their pay, will ride on results of these tests, they're supposed to either have a proctor watching or swap students, so they're not testing their own kids.

Which brings me to a final point: If you're a parent or school volunteer, expect to be begged to help with proctoring. And if you're a retiree or someone else with time to spare, you'd endear yourself to local educators if you'd call your nearest school or get in touch with the CMS volunteer office to step up.