Wednesday, February 29, 2012

CMS won't snoop teachers' tablets

Rumors that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will demand access to all data on teachers' phones and tablets have been flying since the district announced it will launch wifi at all schools in 2012-13 and encourage teachers to  "bring your own technology."

The concern is that teachers who want to use their own iPad or other device in class will have to give CMS a password that provides access to everything on it.

Not so,  says Chief Information Officer Scott Muri: "Students and staff will have the same level of guest access, similar to the Starbucks experience.  Users will be directed to a CMS web site where they will accept our use policy and then proceed through our filtering system to the Internet.  We will not have access to personal devices."

At this point,  CMS hasn't budgeted to buy iPads and provide technology training for teachers,  the way it has for school administrators.  A key thing to remember is that by the time this actually begins,  a new superintendent will be in place,  so most of the practical details remain to be crafted.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

CMS budget cuts, shifts and adds

The early version of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' budget for next year has plenty of moving pieces, as always.

The 3 percent raises interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh proposed earlier remain.  But instead of the $25 million to $30 million he said he's need from Mecklenburg County commissioners,  he's seeking $18.6 million for a 2 percent bump,  with the remaining 1 percent coming from $7.5 million he can "redirect" from other parts of the budget.

Rising costs for 2,000 more CMS students and about 1,000 more Mecklenburg charter students (CMS must pass county money to those independent public schools) would bump the budget up by $13.1 million even without the raises,  the plan indicates. Hattabaugh and Chief Financial Officer Sheila Shirley also presented $4.7 million for new efforts.  An earlier $1 million plan to expand Communities In Schools was scaled back to $100,000;  CMS officials said the nonprofit dropout-prevention group will ask county commissioners to directly fund the expansion,  rather than having the money go through CMS.

Some of the cuts and shuffles include a $1.3 million reduction in central offices that eliminates 12 jobs and a $3.9 million reduction that Shirley said came from reducing the salary averages used in budgeting to match actual salaries.  Almost $3 million is freed up because a federal performance-pay pilot program expires next year;  this year CMS had to use $2.9 million in county money to match the federal grant.

Some teacher jobs will be eliminated,  but Hattabaugh said they're either one-year contracts or people who can almost certainly find jobs elsewhere.  That means no layoffs looming,  for the first spring since 2008.

Hattabaugh noted that other districts may be going through layoff trauma this year as federal stimulus money runs out.  He said CMS avoided that by spending most of the money on one-time improvements,  such as adding wireless internet access and fixing up schools,  rather than paying for jobs that would disappear when the short-term aid went away.

Hattabaugh may still revise the plan before it's formally presented March 13.  And board members can still make their own proposals.  One that's sure to be closely watched:  Hattabaugh is sticking with the four-tier  "bell schedule"  that saves money on busing but has left some families frustrated by late start and dismissal times.  Board members could override him,  but they'd have to find a way to offset about $600,000 in transportation savings.

CMS year-round school plans advance

The school board will hear the latest on CMS efforts to create a complex year-round school calendar for the merged First Ward/University Park elementary arts magnet tonight.

The change is slated for 2013-14,  a year later than originally planned,  because Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has found it so challenging to create a four-track schedule, with staggered schedules of 45 days on and 15 days off.  There's no summer vacation,  but all students would be off for  "traditional holidays"  and winter break.

The board isn't scheduled to vote on the year-round school, which would be the only one in CMS.  The report will be part of the regular meeting at 6 p.m. in Room 267 of the Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St.  The board will also talk about the 2013-14 budget in a special session at 3 p.m. today in the same location.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Students rating CMS teachers

Want to know who the best teachers are?  Just ask students.

It's a comment that comes up frequently when people talk about crunching numbers to calculate teacher value.  On Tuesday, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board will hear teachers talk about both approaches:  Using student survey data and revisiting the controversial "value-added measure" to gauge teacher effectiveness.

Some of the teacher study groups reported enthusiastically on their  "talent effectiveness project"  work at the Feb. 14 meeting (see the video here;  the report starts at about the 1:50 mark).  Tuesday's follow-up promises to be even more interesting, as the remaining groups report on using student surveys, trying to make value-added ratings useful and dealing with the subjects and schools that are hardest to find teachers for.

The meeting starts at 6 p.m.  Read the agenda here, and go to the video link above to watch it live online.

Update:  At a news conference after the last presentation,  a teacher involved in studying classroom management invited reporters and the public to sit in on upcoming focus groups for teachers.  However, when I asked for specifics, I was told CMS has decided to keep those sessions closed.  "There will be community engagement events later in the semester,  however,  that will be open to the public,"  says David Pollack,  the communications coordinator for the talent effectiveness project. 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

CMS gets kudos on data

The folks who think Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools makes up its numbers might want to skip this one, because a couple of interesting, complex national reports on CMS and data have come out recently.

The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation spent 2010-11studying the district's efforts to create a "data-driven culture."  Researchers saw the turmoil of school closings,  the data overload some teachers face and the battle over testing and performance pay,  but still came away impressed by much of what was going on.  The 18-page report is worth a read for anyone trying to get a handle on how CMS can move forward.

About the same time, an article in EdWeek cited CMS as a district making sophisticated use of data to identify which students are at risk of dropping out, using risk factors that show up as early as elementary school.

Given CMS' recent data woes,  particularly the erroneous public report that purported to track students on track for graduation, that may sound like a setup for saying EdWeek got duped.  But I don't think that's the case.  The irony of the simplistic graduation-track calculation is that CMS does use a complex set of factors to identify and work with at-risk kids.

What strikes me about both of these reports is the tangle of moving pieces that makes up the CMS data picture.  For every spreadsheet I peruse,  there are reams of internal reports.  Some are almost certainly helpful to kids and teachers;  other internal data systems are so flawed or cumbersome that they fuel employees' skepticism.

For better or worse,  the CMS accountability department has lost so many key players in the past year that rebuilding it is going to be a front-burner task for the new superintendent.  The CMS data machine needs some repairs,  but as these articles make clear,  "scrap the whole thing" isn't a realistic solution.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Who pays CMS' $1 million legal loss?

News that a jury ordered Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to pay more than $1.1 million to a teacher whose career was ended by a rushed resignation had people asking who foots the bill.  Taxpayers?  An insurance company?

The verdict came in too late Friday to get an answer from CMS,  but I'll work on that Monday.  The budget includes about $2 million for the CMS legal department,  but I'm not sure whether that includes money set aside for settlements.

Some online commenters suggested that the verdict would wipe out teacher raises.  I don't think that's likely.  However it's handled,  CMS' financial folks know legal expenses are part of the cost of running a school district.  The award won't bust the $1 billion-plus budget.  Raises are much more likely to be torpedoed by the reluctance of county officials to raise taxes or slash services to come up with the $30 million interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh is seeking for a 3 percent across-the-board bump.

The federal courthouse,  where I spent most of last week covering the teacher's suit,  is a digital desert (even cell phones aren't allowed in),  so I fell behind on blogging.  Here are some catch-up items.

* The target for hiring a superintendent has been pushed back from mid-March to early May.  Chair Ericka Ellis-Stewart says that allowed for three new members to take part in crafting a profile. The search firm will stop taking applications March 8;  after that there will be background checks, screening, narrowing the list and eventually a chance for the public to meet finalists.

*Chris Cobitz,  the CMS administrator who recently resigned after erroneous graduation-track data was included in the district's school progress reports, is now a senior associate with edCount, a Washington, D.C., firm that works with states and the U.S. Department of Education on assessment and accountability.

*Finally, I have learned that disabling the annoying "Prove you're not a robot"  CAPTCHA log-in does indeed allow computers to create comments about hot Latin girls, real naked celebrities and "galerie erotyczne prezeznaczone."  But since they're almost all landing in the spam filter, that's no skin off my (human) nose. I'm happy to let the robots slug it out.  Come to think of it, I suspect those strangely garbled words that cause so many of us to flunk the humanity test are actually created by computers. Sounds like the start of a science fiction movie ...

Thursday, February 23, 2012

CMS posts its construction needs online

With talk of a 2013 school bond vote floating, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has posted its assessment of schools that need improvements, relief from crowding or both.  The planning staff gave board members a paper copy of the Capital Needs Assessment last month, and now it's online for the public.

Officials are still in the early stages of figuring out construction priorities and how to pay for them.  The school board is focused in the 2012-13 operating budget,  and expects to move on to long-range building plans after that.

Construction and renovation stalled after voters approved $516 million in school bonds in 2007,  just before the recession hit.  Twenty projects from that plan remain to be launched,  but planners say it's time to start planning next steps.

P.S. for those who complained about the undecipherable "prove you're not a robot" prompt for posting comments, I think I figured out how to disable it. We'll see if robots take over the comments now.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

You might be a journalist if ...

If you've ever posted a comment about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools on this blog or any online forum, you're apparently among the "thousands of bloggers, journalists and correspondents" currently covering CMS,  according to a pitch PR chief LaTarzja Henry made to the school board Tuesday.

Board member Tom Tate raised an eyebrow at the notion that those "thousands" are comparable to the "approximately 10 full-time reporters" Henry tallied as being on the beat in 2000.  Posting a comment,  or even creating a blog,  is not the same as being a journalist who covers education,  he said.

Tate is right,  and no one appreciates his making the distinction more than I do.  But Henry is also right in saying the 24-hour interactive nature of digital coverage and commentary changes the game for CMS (as well as those of us who do cover the beat for a living).

We got a perfect illustration just a few hours later.  At 6 p.m. Tuesday, CMS hit send on an email from interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh to all employees outlining plans to discard controversial CMS end-of-year tests and value-added ratings in favor of similar measures being designed by the state.  Hattabaugh planned to make that public in his report to the school board at the tail end of the meeting that started at 6.

At 6:12, someone posted anonymously on this blog: "CMS Teacher Effectiveness project will be disbanded and so will CMS created summative assessments (except fine arts and world languages) in favor of using state measures. Just emailed to CMS employees ahead of tonight's meeting."

That two-sentence post contained both a major inaccuracy  --  the "talent effectiveness project" that involves teachers and other employees remains in place  --  and enough solid, breaking news to help me produce a front-page story for Wednesday's paper (and Tuesday night's online report).  While the school board meeting was in progress, Henry scrambled to get me a copy of the email and help me track down Hattabaugh in the back halls of the Government Center.

The next morning,  broadcast news jumped on the story.  By the time CMS sent out a news release shortly after 5 p.m. Wednesday,  it served mainly to elicit chuckles from reporters who were all over the story -- thanks to an anonymous "correspondent" who broke the news.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

NAACP opposes CMS split

The Charlotte NAACP has come out against an effort launched last week to split Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools into three districts, calling it a racist ploy to separate urban and suburban schools (read the statement here).

A group of north and south suburban residents launched a petition drive last week, hoping to persuade state legislators to create three new school districts. Their proposed "central district" would encompass the territory inside the I-485 loop, which includes a swath of schools where most students are from African American or Hispanic low-income families.

"Public education is designed to uplift and to help all of our children not just a chosen few but all," the NAACP statement says. "Splitting up CMS will only guarantee one thing that is the poor will be more
neglected and more thoroughly disenfranchised."

As of Wednesday evening, the online petition had 235 signatures, with a goal of 10,000.
Update on the battle of the bells:  Vice Chair Mary McCray says she and Amelia Stinson-Wesley, the newly appointed District 6 representative, are trying to set up a meeting between CMS transportation staff and parents unhappy with late hours.  It's unclear, though, whether McCray is willing to ask interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh to revise the 2012-13 schedule of opening and dismissal times he announced recently.

Parents have been lobbying the board for a change, saying the later bell schedule introduced this year cut into time for homework, after-school activities and family togetherness.  Hattabaugh has said the later hours let buses make an extra run,  saving hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"I don't understand all the intricacies that go along with the bell schedule and feeder areas,"  said McCray,  who was elected in November.  "My hope is we can come to some amicable agreement and a better understanding of why the district has done this."

It's a digital whirl ...

The Observer recently ran one installment of the New York Times series on "Grading the Digital School," focusing on how the nearby Mooresville Graded School District has emerged as a national model for digital learning.

For those who are trying to make sense of the technology revolution, the whole series is well worth a read. The Mooresville article focused on the benefits of the widespread use of MacBooks, but the series shows just how complex the decisions facing educators and families are.

There are serious questions about whether the benefits justify the expense (see the first and second stories in the series). There are companies that stand to make huge profits doing their best to wow educators. There are schools resisting the notion that young children need digital devices, and educators worried about the tradeoffs that come with a surge in technospending.

Meanwhile, I'm working my way through "From Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom,"  a collection of essays by education/technology writer Marc Prensky,  who introduced the idea that today's young people speak the native language of technology in a way that we older  "immigrants"  can never fully master.  Prensky argues that until educators drop their focus on the past,  stop fretting about short attention spans and create a radically new way to prepare young people for their future,  schools will function more like jails than like beacons of enlightenment.

"For 21st century students,"  Prensky writes,  "the classroom is a dark,  dark place,  compared to what they already know and can find out  --  and its contents provides no more useful light to them than would a tiny 10-watt flashlight on a sunny beach."

And on Tuesday, LaTarzja Henry, head of communications for CMS, gave the school board a quick tour of the changes in technology a high school senior has experienced in her 13 years of school.  Henry is  making a pitch for two multimedia specialists who can keep the district up to date on social media, webstreaming, video production and monitoring what people are saying about CMS.  (I couldn't help noticing that in CMSworld, there is apparently no daily newspaper covering education in 2012.  Wishful thinking?)

It's a fascinating time to be engaged with education,  and more than a little daunting.  Among the over-50 crowd,  I feel like I'm doing a better-than-average job of keeping up.  Unfortunately, that's a lot like being a pretty good reader for a 4-year-old.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

CMS teacher ratings: What's the buzz?

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board will get an update on the talent effectiveness project tonight, with a target of making decisions this spring about how to pilot new teacher ratings in 2012-13.

It was just about a year ago that news of the district's expanded testing program broke. Anxiety among teachers was high, as CMS official Andy Baxter visited schools trying to explain new value-added ratings based on test scores. Then-Superintendent Peter Gorman fueled further outrage when state representatives introduced a bill his staff had helped draft that would allow CMS to launch performance pay without teacher approval.

Since then Gorman has departed, the bill is on hold and the folks who remain are trying to hit  "reset"  on the effort.  CMS is still using the additional tests,  and leaders still plan to replace the current pay scale,  based on experience and credentials,  with one based on student results and other measures of performance.  But they're trying to do a better job of listening to teachers and building buy-in for the changes.

Is it working?  I'm not hearing the angst that I was this time last year.  But it's hard to know if that's because teachers are happier,  or just because it's not a front-burner item.

At tonight's meeting,  teachers who have been working with CMS to craft better measures of effectiveness will report. The board won't take action,  but anyone who's interested can attend the meeting, turn on CMS-TV 3 or watch online.  (There's a budget meeting beforehand,  and if experience is any guide,  that could mean a late start to the 6 p.m. business meeting.)

As always, the electronic floor is open for discussion.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Will school turnarounds take?

The number of  "urban turnaround schools"  is on the rise,  the U.S. Department of Education announced late last week.

That would be truly exciting if that meant those schools had turned around failing performance.  In this case, though, it's much more preliminary.  A study by the Council of Great City Schools looked at the options being chosen by districts getting federal School Improvement Grants,  and found that 54 percent have chosen the "turnaround model,"  which requires replacing the principal and at least half the faculty.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg is getting almost $13 million in SIG money for three schools:  West Mecklenburg and West Charlotte high schools and Billingsville Elementary.  Those schools are using the "transformation model,"  which requires replacing the principal and changing instruction (in cases where a principal is relatively new, that doesn't necessarily mean they'll be ousted). Nationwide 36 percent of schools are taking that approach.  CMS originally planned to use "transformation" with Waddell High,  but in the back-and-forth over school closings last year,  Waddell landed among the 5 percent taking the "closure model"  --  close the school and move students to a higher-performing one (in Waddell's case,  Harding High).

If you're doing the math, another 5 percent nationwide closed traditional public schools and reopened them as charters,  which hasn't been tried in Charlotte.

Turnarounds and transformations sound great.  But as anyone who has bought a weight-loss or hair-growth product knows,  the label doesn't guarantee results.  The Education Department's news release acknowledges it's too early to know what's working,  but notes that the study found school leaders expressing optimism that the options prescribed by the grants provide a “strong chance of significantly improving student achievement in these persistently low-achieving schools.”  

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Dropouts vs. grad rate: More confusion

The recent state report on 2010-11 dropout rates may have added to confusion over how many Charlotte-Mecklenburg students are staying in school.  As one person who emailed me noted,  the CMS dropout rate of 3.57 percent seems way out of whack with a 2011 graduation rate of 73.5 percent.

It's not as crazy as it sounds.  The annual dropout rate tallied the percent of all high school students who left school in 2010-11.  The on-time graduation rate is the percent of students who started ninth grade in 2007-08 and graduated four years later.  During those four years,  CMS' cumulative dropout rate was 18.6 percent  (the rate has been dropping every year).

That's still short of the 26.5 percent who failed to graduate in four years.  Some of those no doubt came back this year,   neither dropouts or on-time grads.  In 2010-11,  454 CMS students who should have graduated with the Class of 2010 got their diplomas,  bumping up the total graduation rate for that class by 4.6 percentage points.

I can't swear that there are no mistakes in CMS' drop-out or on-time graduation rates,  but there has been no indication that either is faulty.  The error that created a stir and led to the resignation of a data administrator had to do with a completely separate measure created by CMS,  which tallied the percent of students who had never been retained and used that as a gauge of being on track to graduate.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Bells may be below the line

Parents from Crestdale Middle School are petitioning the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board to revisit the 2012-13 bell schedule announced last month.  Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh signed off on changing the start and dismissal times for 10 schools;  Crestdale's moved 30 minutes later,  to a 9-4 school day.  The move is designed to save more than $600,000 on busing costs.

Parents are upset that CMS made changes that affect their family life and students' after-school opportunities without giving them a chance to weigh in.  Those who have older kids in high school,  with a 7:15 a.m. start time,  say the change is especially stressful.

Katy Ridnouer,  one of the parents urging CMS to reconsider,  says she's heard nothing specific from board members.  I emailed board members on Wednesday,  asking them to let me know if they plan to propose revising the bell schedule.  I've gotten no replies.

It's possible that someone could ask Hattabaugh to try again.  The board is likely to discuss transportation costs as part of ongoing budget talks.  But this is a classic example of a dilemma that faces this school board and others:  The temptation to micromanage.

At their recent retreat,  CMS board members said they're committed to sticking to their role as policy-makers.  Setting school hours is "below the line"  for board intervention,  but it's also the kind of decision that affects people's lives and inspires pleas for help.

Boards that try to do the superintendent's job are generally studies in bad leadership, writes Gene Maeroff,  an education researcher and New Jersey school board member, in  "School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy."

"Democracy does not mean that the people's representatives  --  the school board  --  take over and operate the schools any more than it means that the board members of a symphony play the violins,"  he writes.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Suspension factories

Every year I've looked at the state's school report cards and wondered:  Why are so many kids suspended in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools?  As the latest report on crime,  violence,  suspensions and dropout rates shows,  last year CMS high school students were more than twice as likely to get short-term suspensions  (up to 10 days)  as counterparts in Wake and Guilford counties.

Database reporter Gavin Off got state suspension records for the last four years. We're just starting to tease out what they mean,  but the school-by-school map he created gives a glimpse of schools where suspensions have been consistently and startlingly frequent.

Some are the ones CMS closed this year,  an issue I touched on in an earlier article about how those high levels of suspension are spilling into the schools that took those students.  In the four years before J.T. Williams Middle School closed,  Gavin's numbers show it averaged almost 162 suspensions per 100 students.  That's not a typo  --  it means some students were suspended so frequently they drove the average up.  Spaugh Middle averaged almost 147 suspensions per 100 in the four years before it closed, and Wilson Middle was at 97 per hundred.

Numbers only provide a starting point for serious discussion.  What combination of student behavior and faculty response are turning some CMS schools into suspension factories?  Which schools,  neighborhoods and volunteer organizations are finding better ways to squelch trouble and keep classrooms focused on learning?  Will closing hotspots and/or moving students improve behavior,  or just relocate problems?

As always, insights from those of you on the front lines are appreciated.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Suburban secession talk returns

A group of north and south suburban residents have launched a petition asking the state legislature to carve Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools into three districts: North, south and central.

The group calling itself SPARK Educational Performances unveiled the plan at a Tuesday night meeting of frustrated south suburbanites that drew about 30 people to talk about schools and other issues. Tom Davis, a Huntersville resident who has served on several education advisory boards and is now running for the state House, made the pitch.

"Everybody's got burning issues with CMS," he said. He was joined by Christine Mast,  a CMS parent from Huntersville who has been vocal about CMS issues recently,  and Scott Babbidge, a self-described "south Mecklenburg troublemaker" who,  like Davis,  filed to run for school board last year but later withdrew.

The night before,  more than 100 people came to the Matthews Town Hall to meet newly appointed District 6 school board member Amelia Stinson-Wesley.  Many of them voiced a sense that suburban schools are being shortchanged in a system that spends more on high-poverty center city schools, those who attended say.

Seven years ago,  suburban frustrations led to "split the district" rallies that drew hundreds.  A specific proposal never emerged,  though,  and the state legislature showed no interest in breaking up CMS.

It remains to be seen whether the latest effort will spark the same emotional energy,  let alone gain  practical traction.  (As of 2:30 p.m., this post had about 2,000 page views and 58 people had signed the petition, so it appears there's more interest than buy-in at this stage.)  But Davis said the Republican-dominated legislature will be more receptive to a pitch based on cost savings and local buy-in.

The petition calls for the north district to encompass Huntersville,  Cornelius,  Davidson and the Mountain Island community.  The south district would stretch from Steele Creek in the southwest to Mint Hill in the southeast,  covering territory south of I-485.  Central would cover the territory inside 485 -- a swath that includes the district's highest-poverty schools,  where CMS spends far more per pupil than it does in large suburban schools.

Tim Timmerman,  organizer of the South Mecklenburg Alliance of Responsible Taxpayers (SMART), showed off the group's logo,  a taxpayer shoveling money down "a black hole called center city."  Davis agreed suburban taxpayers pump too much into urban schools,  but noted that  "the big buildings uptown"  also provide a healthy chunk of the Mecklenburg County tax base.

Davis also referred to the question of  "diversity, the NAACP,  all the other stuff,"  and noted that most of the 32 percent of CMS students who are white are concentrated in the north and south suburbs.  A white Ballantyne resident,  who declined to give her name afterward,  talked about "people being bused all over freakin' creation,"  and said black students are crowding into suburban schools in hopes of getting a better education while white families flee to private schools "because they don't like the intrusion of gangs and drugs that's coming out of these other areas."

But both said afterward race isn't motivating the talk of suburban districts.  Davis said the county's six townships deserve the chance to take charge of their schools and have their neighbors make decisions about taxation.  The Ballantyne woman,  who said she has no children,  said it's about protecting neighborhood schools where parent involvement is stronger.  "It's got nothing to do with race. It's all down to parents,"  she said.  And if lower-income parents can't get as involved,  that's not her problem:  "I'm not paying to raise your kids."

Monday, February 6, 2012

Dropout success: Hard to gauge

The headline on the national Communities in Schools press release last February was eye-catching: "Evaluation Ranks Communities In Schools as Most Effective Dropout Prevention Organization in America."  The ranking,  it said,  was based on  "the largest and most comprehensive evaluation of dropout prevention programs ever completed."

The attached 34-page report was much less dramatic. There was no independent entity doing long-term tracking of participants in various dropout-prevention programs.  Instead, CIS had commissioned ICF International to look at how well the schools participating in the program are carrying out its work and suggest ways to improve the system.  The group also pulled in some effectiveness data,  including randomized controlled trials in three states  (only two involved high schools)  and effects on dropout and graduation rates from four other groups listed on the federal What Works Clearinghouse.

For those of you who want to delve in and draw your own conclusions,  a description of the data sources in on pages 4-5 of the report.  The comparison with four other programs is on pages 12-13,  and data on  differences between CIS schools and comparison schools not using the program is on pages 22-23.

My conclusion:  There was nothing clear enough to justify a  "best in the nation"  headline,  or even to grab the attention of general readers.  I didn't loop back to this until Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools repeated the claim as part of its 2012-13 budget pitch.  At that point,  I was surprised to discover that the What Works Clearinghouse does do effectiveness ratings on dropout prevention programs, but Communities in Schools isn't among them.

Talking to folks in the U.S. Department of Education,  which runs the clearinghouse,  led me to Mark Dynarski,  a former clearinghouse director who developed the dropout-prevention effectiveness tracking.  Now a consultant,  he was quick to tell me he has "a financial relationship"  with ICF and with the philanthropy that paid for the CIS study.  But he wasn't complimentary about what he saw:  Small numbers,  "cherry-picking" of findings and a marketing spin on the conclusion.  He said you might expect a group that started in 1974 to have extensive long-term studies:  "They sure don't study themselves a lot, do they?"

Not that it's unusual to find a dropout prevention group with sparse data.  Dynarski agrees with the journal  article by John Tyler and Magnus Loftstrum saying such data is "woefully inadequate,"  even though boosting graduation rates is a top priority for public schools across the country.  "The Dropout Prevention
Center/Network lists hundreds of dropout prevention programs in its online database of  'model programs.'  Only relatively few of these programs,  however,  have been rigorously evaluated for effectiveness," they write.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Preparing for LIFToff

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools'  new Project LIFT Zone officially opens on Feb. 27,  but Zone Superintendent Denise Watts reported to work this week.  The zone is the offspring of a union between CMS and Project LIFT,  designed to see what $55 million in private money can do to turn around nine struggling schools.

Yes, the earlier reports said eight schools.  That's the first news out of the new administrative office: Ashley Park PreK-8 School had been left off the list of schools that feed into West Charlotte High, so the new total is nine.

This kind of public-private partnership to run public schools is unique for CMS and rare in the nation, so the new zone (Project LIFT Zone is the official name) will be watched closely.   Here's what I've learned so far:

Watts will make $150,000 in her new job, with private money covering the cost (she was earning just under $135,000 a year when she left a similar position with CMS last summer to lead LIFT).  She's a CMS employee, reporting to Chief Academic Officer Ann Clark, but she'll also continue her fund-raising and partnership work with donors as executive director of LIFT.  CMS will hire an executive director (paid with public money) to handle the day-to-day oversight of the schools.

Christian Friend will also be a LIFT zone executive director,  with his $100,000 salary paid by private money.  Friend moves from the CMS accountability office  (where he earned $83,600) and will handle evaluation,  strategy and project management,  Watts said.  Part of the plan is that LIFT will require all groups that get grants to set aside 5 percent to cover the cost of independent third-party evaluation,  she said.  Donors want to be sure they've got a good handle on what's working and what's not.  Board members told the school board they expect some of their efforts to fail,  and it's important to be able to identify and replicate what's really working.

The LIFT Zone plans to have its offices in the Beatties Ford Road corridor,  amid the neighborhoods and schools the staff is working with.  But the building isn't available yet,  so for now the staff will work from the old Villa Heights Elementary,  along with the two central administrative zones that oversee CMS' high-poverty Title I schools.  Clark says CMS does not plan to relocate or reduce staff in those zones,  which currently have the nine LIFT schools on their roster.

The administrative mechanics will no doubt spark debate,  as people puzzle over an arrangement that gives private donors a previously unheard-of role in running public schools.  But the most intriguing part remains to come,  as we see what LIFT can do with schools, families and neighborhoods.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

South suburbs buzzing about CMS

Public education looms large on the minds of south suburban residents who have created the South Mecklenburg Alliance of Responsible Taxpayers,  or SMART  (you can find it on Facebook). The group organized last month with about 35 people, and they'll be following up next week with talk about education in general and the new alliance between Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Project LIFT in particular.

At least a handful of north suburbanites are watching closely and attending meetings as well.

For those who have been around awhile, this evokes echoes of the 2005  "secession"  movement that drew hundreds of people to talk about splitting CMS into smaller districts.  The movement eventually fizzled,  defused in part by the 2006 hiring of Superintendent Peter Gorman,  who promised to make the district more responsive and less Charlotte-centric.

Fast forward seven years:  CMS is looking for a successor to Gorman.  There's a new board majority that riled some suburban folks by appointing a little-known Democrat,  Amelia Stinson-Wesley,  to a vacant seat representing the Republican-leaning District 6.  Bill James,  who represents that southern district as a county commissioner,  grabbed a lot of interest with a recent email suggesting the Ballantyne area should split off as its own town.

Where is all this heading?  For those who want to find out,  there are a couple of opportunities next week.  On Monday,  Matthews Mayor Jim Taylor and Mint Hill Mayor Ted Biggers have invited residents of those towns to meet Stinson-Wesley at the Matthews Town Hall, 232 Matthews Station St., from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

And SMART meets from 6:30 to 8 Tuesday at Raintree Country Club Clubhouse, 8600 Raintree Lane.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Wifi in mobile classrooms?

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools'  push toward a wireless "Bring Your Own Technology" environment is generating buzz and questions. Among them:  Will the wifi connections being installed in all school buildings reach the mobile classrooms that house hundreds of students in crowded schools?

I posed that question to Chief Information Officer Scott Muri,  and got this answer via spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte: "We are working through a solution for our mobile environments."

That's going to be an issue to watch.  Schools ringed with mobiles are often in booming, relatively affluent areas where families are in tune with technology and engaged with education.  Sometimes that enthusiasm is tempered with a sense that their neighborhoods have been shortchanged on school construction and/or classroom spending.  If CMS plans to ask families to buy the tablets,  smart phones and/or e-readers that are now being described as essential for 21st century learning,  there's bound to be blowback if some are told the kids in mobiles won't be part of the district's wireless transformation.

Another comment came from an elementary school teacher who's eager to incorporate the latest learning technology.  Her efforts so far have been hampered by a lack of tech support, she said, because her school expects a science teacher to tack that work onto his regular duties.  If CMS wants teachers to delve into the latest apps and software  --  and make them work with an array of devices brought from home  -- she wants to see full-time tech support in each school.

At a recent budget session,  interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh outlined a $1.3 million plan to add tech facilitators at 23 high schools in 2012-13 (read it here, starting on page 53).  He said adding tech staff to elementary and middle schools will have to wait until future budgets.

I asked Muri for clarification of what support would be provided in lower grades next year. The answer, again via Stalberte: "Each elementary and middle school has a tech contact in place today, and these folks will continue to meet the needs of these schools next year.  In addition, technical support will be provided by district-level staff as well as third party vendors.  Professional development for teachers will be provided by the district as well as individual schools."

Finally,  an interesting note from a newsroom mom whose third-grader has been told his school reports  should be typed.  Typing isn't taught that early,  she said,  and she wondered whether a push to get kids producing material on a keyboard (or touch pad) will collide with a lack of basic typing skill.  She's solving the immediate problem by typing her son's reports while making him responsible for the content,  but she knows not all parents can do that.

Somehow I had assumed that learning to type was part of a basic education for today's young digital natives.  But while the state has technology objectives that start in kindergarten and include learning about research and ethics,  those standards don't include the drudgery of memorizing where the letter keys are.  Hmm ... sounds like there might be a business opportunity in offering Typing for Tykes!