Friday, October 19, 2012

Pinewood principal: Rookie no more

Five days before Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools announced its principal of the year finalists, I had a voice mail from Diane Collins, a teacher assistant at Pinewood Elementary. It's time to do an update on Trish Sexton, she insisted.

I met Sexton in 2009,  when she was a 35-year-old first-time principal taking on one of the district's toughest assignments.  A prize-winning veteran leader had just left the high-poverty school in south Charlotte,  pulled out to turn around another struggling school.  Sexton,  who had been an assistant principal at the affluent Providence Spring Elementary,  was tapped to take over a school where more than three quarters of the students live in poverty and many families speak Spanish better than English.

I profiled her for a series on  "The Year of the Principal,"  as then-Superintendent Peter Gorman emphasized the importance of the school leader and shuffled his staff.  After spending time with Sexton,  I had no doubt of her passion and dedication.  But I wouldn't have bet my paycheck on her success.  The district was in the midst of teacher layoffs.  Pinewood wasn't getting some of the extra support that Gorman was pumping into other high-poverty schools.  It's test scores were dropping,  fueled partly by changes in testing and partly by genuine weakness in student skills.  And as the subsequent years have shown,  CMS can be a tough place for principals to work.

That's why Sexton's staff was so excited when they got word that she was the principal of the year nominee for the zone that covers 37 high-poverty elementary schools.  "She is a special leader,"  says zone superintendent Tyler Ream.

Pinewood students had an overall pass rate on 2012 exams of almost 74 percent,  up from 57 percent just two years earlier and well above most other high-poverty schools.  Math scores were particularly strong,  with 87 percent on grade level.

Sexton says she's spent the last three years building a strong team  --  not only on her faculty but among parents,  who are invited to school events once a month.  "You can't carry the weight of the school by yourself,"  she said.

Ream says that team-building approach yields lasting benefit for students.  "She wasn't afraid to do it right and take a few lumps in the beginning,"  he said.

When I visited Pinewood in 2009,  one of the things teachers liked about their new principal was her youthful enthusiasm for technology.  This week Sexton spoke gleefully about a recent  "iPad speed-dating"  event,  in which teachers rotated partners and shared apps to help their kids learn.

It's fun to cover a beat long enough to see people grow and succeed.  In fact,  when I first inquired about Sexton,  Tahira Stalberte in the public information office urged me to hang on to see the full list of finalists.  I had to smile when it came out.  Over the years all of them  -- Maureen Furr at South Meck,  Tonya Kales at Ashley Park,  Sheila Ijames at Hawthorne,  Rick Parker at East Meck and Terri Cockerham at Hough  --  have helped me and my colleagues explain some of the tough issues of CMS,  from teachers' concerns about testing to the quest to help disadvantaged kids.  Principals have a tough job,  and doing it in the public eye adds to the challenge.  I salute all the principals who are willing and eager to help the public understand why their work matters.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

School ratings: Numbers rolling in

Dylan Marshall,  English chair at Northwest School of the Arts,  just sent me a link to SchoolDigger,  a website that lets people search the 2012 N.C. testing results and get schools in ranked order.

Marshall is understandably proud that Northwest landed at the top in his subject,  with more than 95 percent of students passing the English I exam.  Granted,  there are so many schools tied for first on that list that you have to scroll through several pages of alphabetical listings to get to Northwest,  but there's something about rankings that's hard to resist.

If you want to go into more depth on any given school, the N.C. Department of Public Instruction has posted detailed breakdowns,  by school and race,  of 2012 test data.  And the state report cards,  which display an even wider range of data,  will be updated for 2012 later this month.

I had to laugh at myself on another count.  For two months,  I've been trying to get Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to release results of the ACT,  a college readiness exam given to all N.C. 11th-graders for the first time last year.  Turns out the state had released the data on Sept. 7,  while I was in a Democratic National Convention haze  (for details on districts and schools,  click the link at the end of the news release).

Meanwhile,  state education officials are working on a system to give all schools letter grades at the end of the current school year,  as mandated by state legislators.  Expect some fireworks when those come out next fall.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Vision for CMS future

What should Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools look like in the future and how can leaders get it there?  The school board will hold a special work session at 6:30 p.m. today to follow up on its planning retreat with exercises on envisioning the future.

The two-day retreat in September brought a mix of practical and theoretical talk.  I'm watching the First Ward/University Park merger in hopes of seeing a before-and-after case study of one of the key issues.

Board members, Superintendent Heath Morrison and facilitator Nancy Broder talked about doing a better job of spelling out the reasons,  goals,  costs and anticipated benefits of board actions.  That's not exactly a  groundbreaking idea,  but so many decisions are made in a cycle of deadlines and pressure that the big-picture questions tend to get lost.

Case in point:  Turning the two elementary arts magnets into one multi-track year-round school.  The plan came as part of a flurry of closings,  mergers and other changes rushed through in fall 2010,  with the prospect of budget cuts and teacher layoffs being touted as the driving force for change.  For the past two years,  staff have been working intensely with faculty and parents to carry out the highly complicated mandate launched by then-Superintendent Peter Gorman and the 2010 board.

At the Oct. 9 meeting,  the board was slated to push the "start" button on the 2013-14 merger by approving a year-round calendar,  with parents starting their paperwork later in the week.  Superintendent Heath Morrison,  board Chairman Ericka Ellis-Stewart and Vice Chairman Mary McCray were not part of the original decision,  and zone superintendent Tyler Ream struggled to explain the rationale to parents who still aren't sold on the change.  The "fiscal implications" listed on the agenda boiled down to, essentially,  "yes, there are some,"  with no details provided.

As the meeting approached,  I was pushing the trio of new leaders on whether they could answer the questions being posed by parents:  Why do this?  Is it still the right decision two years later?  How much will it save,  and what are the ongoing costs?  The morning of the meeting,  Morrison, Ellis-Stewart and McCray decided to postpone the vote until they can answer.

"We've crossed the threshold for me to say, 'These decisions were made before I got here.'  Now the decisions are mine,"  Morrison said at a news conference the next day.

Of course,  any follow-up action will be second-guessed.  There's a reason school reform is often compared to fixing a plane while it's flying.  Parents and faculty at both schools,  but especially University Park,  have lived with uncertainty and stress for two years,  and any delay or change in plans would relieve some and frustrate others.

Still,  I'm eager to see how the new crew does at laying out the scenario.  Maybe we'll eventually take it for granted that the board and the public will have a full understanding of important votes.  Or maybe the crush of deadlines and mandates will squeeze out the best intentions.

Monday, October 15, 2012

New report cards for youngest CMS kids

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is rolling out a new report card for students in K-2,  complete with some  corporate-sounding labels for classroom skills.

Back in the day,  I occasionally got marked down for having messy handwriting or chatting in class.     Today's kids will get a rating on GLO 4:  Quality Producer  ("strives to complete work neatly and correctly")  and GLO 5:  Effective Communicator  ("listens attentively to gain understanding").

The General Learner Outcomes include one with no equivalent for us old folks: GLO 6: Effective/Ethical User of Technology.  I can't help chuckling at the idea of a 5-year-old being rated on how he or she  "uses various technologies to responsibly find information and create new products."

The new report cards can also be emailed,  which seems like a thrifty and green approach.   But what will these kids dig out of the attic for their own children and grandkids to laugh at?

CMS will be rolling out more information about the new report cards this month.  For now,  here's a sample of the new GLO section,  and here's the explanation sent to the school board  (go to Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark's report).

I'm also intrigued by the new Urban Education Academy courses being offered  (keep reading in Clark's report).  If any of you educators take part,  let me know what they're like.

Friday, October 12, 2012

What's Morrison reading?

If you want to keep up with the discussion about public education,  you might want to check out the reading list on Superintendent Heath Morrison's web site.

The books on Morrison's mind include "The World is Flat,"  "The Death and Life of the Great American School System,"  "Other People's Children"  and  "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People."  There's also a list of articles that are shaping his thoughts.

What a great way to engage people on a deeper level than fly-by conversations allow.  The people who care about education here have a tradition of book talk.  A few years ago,  leaders of MeckEd and the Council for Children's Rights brought a large group of advocates together to discuss Paul Tough's "Whatever It Takes,"  about Geoffrey Canada's efforts to break the cycle of poverty and academic failure in Harlem.  It was the start of a path that has led to Project LIFT and the Reid Park Project,  local efforts to create a network of support for students and families.

I've read and enjoyed the first two books,  and just ordered  "Other People's Children."  What would you suggest that Morrison add to his list?  (How he finds time to read is a mystery.)

As noted in yesterday's blog,  Morrison is big on improving communication.  And even before he arrived,  the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools public information staff was looking at ways to connect through the web and multimedia.  I have to give Morrison and the staff credit for his page:  They've been adding some useful information,  from summaries of Morrison's town hall meetings to video of his media briefings.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Principals' guide to 'power words'

There's a new superintendent in Dallas,  and improving communication is one of his top priorities.  So Mike Miles has sent his principals a brochure full of  "power words"  and  "acknowledgement phrases"  to use in talking with parents.  It includes suggestions such as “District leaders are student-focused in their decision making”  and  “The superintendent’s plan brings stability and a clear direction to the district,”  reports Matthew Haag of the Dallas Morning News.

There's a new superintendent in Charlotte,  and improving communication is one of his top priorities as well.  In fact,  some of you may recall that Heath Morrison was one of three finalists for the Dallas job but opted for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools instead.

For the sake of CMS principals,  I'm hoping Morrison is less heavy-handed in whatever communication strategy he comes up with.  I'm thinking a lot of them would be insulted by being handed such phrases as  "It depends,"  "That's true,"  and "Thank you for coming to the school."  Yes, the Dallas district actually hired a consultant to come up with this stuff.

As a reporter with a sense of humor, though, I can only pray that Morrison lobs us a softball like this. How much fun do you think Haag and the Morning News' data guy had creating the button that lets readers generate their own catch phrases?

Just in case Morrison is trying to come up with a list,  maybe we can help him out and save money on consultants. I'm sure  "every child,  every day, for a better tomorrow"  and  "passport to a better future"  are already on his list.  What else have you heard,  from him or others in CMS?  What would you add to a list of  "power words"?

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

CMS forced out more teachers last year

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools forced out 173 teachers last year,  a five-year high.  That's one of the nuggets revealed by the N.C. teacher turnover report for 2011-12, released last week.

Previous CMS force-outs ranged from 122 in 2007-08 to 32 in 2010-11 (find reports for previous years here).  The category includes teachers who were fired, forced to resign or didn't have their interim or probationary contracts renewed.

I always say data poses questions rather than providing answers,  and the annual turnover report from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction is no exception.  But the report is worth a look as Superintendent Heath Morrison,  who started in July,  ponders ways to keep more of the top teachers while getting rid of the weakest ones.

It's worth noting that the force-out numbers may look high,  but they're a small percentage of a CMS teacher corps that has ranged from about 8,200 to 9,200 over the last five years. Last year they accounted for about 15 percent of 1,177 total departures.

Departures considered beyond the district's control spiked past 700 in 2009-10 and 2010-11,  almost certainly because that category includes layoffs,  along with retirement,  family relocation,  death and disability.  Those were the years that CMS saw massive teacher layoffs.

The number of teachers leaving CMS for other N.C. public schools has grown steadily over the last five years,  from just under 100 in 2007-08 to 220 last year.

Last year 334 CMS departures,  or 28 percent of the total,   fell into the category of turnover that  "might be reduced."  That includes teachers who resigned out of dissatisfaction,  switched careers or took teaching jobs outside North Carolina or with in-state private schools.

Overall, the CMS turnover rate for 2011-12 was 14.36 percent,  higher than the previous three years but below the pre-recession rate for 2007-08.  The state average was 12.13 percent.

So,  what's the human story behind the numbers?  I'm guessing some of you have up-close views to share.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Hearing on CMS teacher assignment

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board will hold a public hearing tonight on a revised policy governing how the superintendent will assign teachers so that students get  "the best education available anywhere."

The policy requires the superintendent to set up a framework  "that ensures that all students are taught by effective teachers,"  and report at least once a year on how his initiatives are shaping student achievement.  It eliminates some of the reporting details required under the current policy.  Former Superintendent Peter Gorman and some board members said that policy,  which focuses on teacher experience and credentials,  reflected the best thinking at the time but produced reports that said little about the quality of teaching.

One thing that doesn't change is the sentence allowing the superintendent to transfer or reassign teachers for the good of the school system.  And that highlights the big point:  The real meaning of this policy will be demonstrated in Superintendent Heath Morrison's execution.

CMS policy has long given the superintendent authority to assign teachers against their will.  Soon after Gorman arrived in 2006,  he began asking the board whether they'd back him up if he did so.  The answer boiled down to no.  Gorman adopted a policy of  "pull,  rather than push,"  with bonuses and other incentives to attract teachers to schools he deemed in need of help.

Teacher placement is one of the most sensitive and important decisions that district leaders make.  People who care about the issue may want to check out the policy and the public hearings  (if I remember correctly,  the final hearing and vote will be in November).  As always, you can attend the meeting,  watch it on CMS-TV Cable 3, or catch it online.  And then stay tuned to see what Morrison does with it.  Remember,  there are still six more town hall meetings for employees and the public to talk with him as he's figuring out his 100-day plan.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Union County schools top list

Union County's Marvin Ridge and Early College high schools topped this year's Charlotte Magazine list of best public high schools, with Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Providence High in third place.

The magazine used an array of data to rank high schools in Mecklenburg, Union and Cabarrus counties.
The highest Cabarrus school was Jay M. Robinson High at No. 11.

As the article notes,  any list based on number-crunching provides a less-than-perfect portrait of schools.  "We offer these rankings not as the final word on school quality, but as a single tool in the decision-making and evaluation process for parents, students, and educators,"  the article says.

One of the biggest challenges is timely data.  For instance,  the magazine used 2011 SAT scores  (2012 results came out in mid-September, too late for the October issue).  That eliminated Rocky River and Hough high schools,  which didn't have senior classes in 2011 but did last year.  Data on class sizes,  teacher qualifications and enrollment in advanced classes come from the state report cards,  which are also a year out of date.

Still,  if you care about local high schools,  it's hard to resist checking where your school landed.  At the bottom are West Charlotte and Garinger  (listed as five small schools, though it has reconsolidated).  Unfortunately,  there's nothing in the latest data to suggest that has changed.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Honorable Arne

North Carolina's swing-state status is giving us local reporters a glimpse of the wacky world of national politics.  The Democratic National Convention was the full immersion,  of course,  but today's visit from Arne Duncan was another trip down the rabbit hole.

The Honorable Arne Duncan
You probably know Duncan as the U.S. secretary of education.  But because he came to Amelie's to campaign for President Obama,  and because it's against the law for federal employees to use their official position to influence elections,  the Obama campaign went to great lengths to assure the audience and media that he was not here as the education secretary.

"Please note: The Honorable Arne Duncan will be attending and speaking at this event in his personal capacity on behalf of Obama for America," a press release said. "Please refrain from using his official title at the event and in related press reports, and note that we will not be taking questions concerning his official responsibilities.

I told my editor they wanted us not to call him education secretary in coverage. We both laughed.

When I arrived at Amelie's, an Obama staffer intercepted me.  The campaign had been calling our two political reporters,  Jim Morrill and Tim Funk.  Although I was welcome to stay,  the staffer said, it didn't really make sense for an education reporter to cover this event since it was about the middle class, not education.

I told her I'd stick around.

Meanwhile,  the educators,  parents,  students and activists who had been invited were getting the same  message,  repeatedly.  At one point a campaign staffer standing on a chair asked the group what they were supposed to call Duncan.  "The Honorable Arne Duncan,"  they chorused.

The crew from Generation Nation  --  Providence senior Arjun Gupta,  North Meck junior Sarah Kerman and adviser Amy Farrell  --  asked if I knew what this was all about.  Would they get in trouble if they asked the education-related questions they'd prepared?  Did they need to come up with new ones?  I said I wasn't sure,  but encouraged them to ask their original questions.

Duncan arrived,  accompanied by guys in suits with wires in their ears.  He spent a couple of minutes talking about his Chicago ties to the Obama family,  then segued into  ...  you guessed it.  Education.

Duncan talked about his administration's cradle-to-career agenda,  the North Carolina reforms being fueled by the federal Race to the Top program,  the Obama administration's increased spending for Pell grants and the need to invest in education.  He fielded questions from the audience,  including the Generation Nation students.  Every single one was about education.  Duncan's a pretty down-to-earth guy,  and no one seemed to feel a need to use any kind of title.

The event had been billed as a  "What's at Stake for the Middle Class Roundtable."  After Duncan finished,  Obama campaigner Leah Hill made the only clear reference to that theme:  "This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class."

I came back to file a story  --  and go back to life as a local education reporter.

Crazy grades and failing parents

Friends and readers shared a couple of thought-provoking pieces with me this week,  so I thought I'd pass them along.

In response to Monday's post about "no zero" grading policies,  former colleague Ken Soo steered me to a Chronicle of Higher education piece laying out the case for revamping the traditional 100-point scale.  Douglas Reeves,  a Colorado education consultant and author,  argues that the way most professors  (and teachers)  award grades defies logic and mathematics:

"If the grade of A represents a score of 90-100, B is 80-89, C is 70-79, and D is 60-69, then the interval between each letter grade, A to B to C to D, is 10 points," he writes. "But if a student fails to submit an assignment and receives a zero, then the interval from D to zero is 60 points, a sixfold penalty compared with the other grading intervals."

"Let us stipulate that work receiving a D is wretched, and that the failure of a student to submit work at all is abysmal. The use of the zero, however, requires us to defend the proposition that abysmal is six times as bad as wretched."

Reeves takes a complicated path that veers through acquiescence and achievement, race and gender roles, video games and sports.  But his conclusion is a simple one:  Educators should act now to create grading systems that are  "accurate,  fair and effective."

Meanwhile,  CMS parent Amy Wlodyka sent a link to this column by John Kuhn,  a Texas superintendent,  on  "The Exhaustion of the American Teacher."  The central tenet,  that parents are escaping blame for student failure while teachers take a beating,  is hardly original.  But the writing is so vigorous I couldn't stop reading.

"Like many educators, I’ve smelled on my students the secondhand drugs that fill too many of their homes with bitterness and want,"  Kuhn writes.  "There is sometimes a literal pungency to low academic performance that remedial classes won’t scrub from our kids."

Or consider this:  "We were all told that a mind is a terrible thing to waste, and we all became adamant about education; but no one told us not to waste kids’ hearts or weaken their spines or soften their guts, and we long ago abandoned our traditional cultural expectations for children’s formation. I’m not calling for picket fences and Leave it to Beaver; I’m calling for childhoods that aren’t dripping with pain and disenchantment and a huge chasm where there should have been character-building experiences from the age of zero to five. That aren’t marked by an empty space where there should have been a disciplinarian. And a gap where there should have been a rocking chair and a soft lap waiting when the child was hurting."

I'm not taking sides on the ideas in these two opinion pieces.  But I do admire the authors' way with words,   and suspect theses essays will stir up some lively responses.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Morrison wants more magnets

Magnet schools got a vote of confidence from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Heath Morrison when he spoke to the Hood Hargett Breakfast Club this week.

In response to an audience question,  Morrison said his staff is thinking about themes and locations for CMS to add magnets  (presumably in 2014-15 or later).  Morrison,  whose son attends the magnet Northwest School of the Arts,  cited the Morehead STEM Academy as an example of a school that combines strong demand and an academic theme that will prepare students for college and careers.  Morehead,  a K-8 school specializing in science, technology, engineering and math,  filled all its seats and had a wait list of 685 this year  (see magnet lottery results here).

Morrison told the business networking group that magnets have potential to prepare students for high-demand careers,  such as nursing and other health occupations.  He also talked about doing a better job of  "teaching to the top."  In Reno,  Nev.,  Morrison created new middle school magnets for gifted students.

Morrison did caution that he's not a fan of  "boutique magnets"  that are more about parent popularity than academic benefits.  He didn't elaborate on examples.

An array of public-school offerings can make CMS the  "option of choice"  for the community, the superintendent said.  He said he has no quarrel with families who choose private schools,  but  "I want to make it a difficult decision."

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Clarity in CMS boundary skirmishes?

Superintendent Heath Morrison will get a live demonstration of one of the sources of frustration with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools next week.

Jeremy Stephenson and his neighbors from the Crown Colony neighborhood in southeast Charlotte will come to the school board to make their case for being rezoned from East Meck to Providence High School,  which is closer  (click here for a map of the neighborhood and the two schools).  They'll talk about how the number of students is so small it won't make a difference to either school,  and how no one can give them a clear explanation of a boundary drawn many years earlier.

The board will listen without comment or reactions,  standard procedure for public comment time.  Later in the meeting,  they'll hear a staff update on student assignment that will focus on the boundaries for a new elementary school opening in 2013-14.  Almost certainly,  the board won't take up the Crown Colony question,  and the families who want a response before the Nov. 15 deadline for 2013-14 boundary changes will leave angry.

To longtime CMS-watchers,  this is a familiar dance.  The board and planning staff hold a hard line on boundaries,  lest they by nibbled to death by time-consuming and emotional pleas to move the lines one neighborhood at a time.  Families who believe they've got a logical case feel like they're batted between staff and board members,  with no one giving a better answer than,  "That's the way it is."  The subtext is inevitably the quest to get into  "better"  schools,  and all the racial and class tension that carries with it.  I've never seen families push to get zoned for a closer school with higher poverty levels and/or lower academic results.

Let's be clear:  None of this is unique to CMS.  Boundary battles are universal in public education,  though the fact that CMS encompasses a mix of urban,  suburban and so-called middle-ring schools may intensify the jostling.

After a long and difficult student assignment review in 2010,  the board adopted a set of guiding principles that say the board will consider a districtwide review every six years.  Parents like Stephenson counter that nothing in those principles eliminates the possibility of smaller changes between reviews.

Morrison took the corner office at CMS this summer,  and is scoping the scene before crafting his long-term plan.  He has repeatedly said one of CMS'  problems is a lack of clear processes for difficult decisions.  Spokeswoman LaTarzja Henry says Morrison has been asking staff and board members how neighborhood rezoning requests are handled,  and he'd like to be able to give better answers than people get now.  "It is a healthy conversation to have,"  she said.

But next week,  she said,  is probably too early to have it.

Monday, October 1, 2012

CMS to mull 'no zero' plan

Should a student who does no work get 50 percent credit?  "No zero" policies have been stirring up buzz in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and across the country.

The goal of such policies is to remove barriers that can cause students to give up on a class  --  and eventually on their education.  On the traditional 100-point grading scale, anything below 60 percent is an F,  while the point ranges for passing grades are much narrower.  That means two or three zeros  (or very low grades)  can make it almost impossible to pull the average up to passing.

Some schools and teachers in CMS give no score lower than 50,  but it's not a districtwide practice,  says Superintendent Heath Morrison.   He said Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark had created teacher and principal work teams last year to talk about a  "no zero"  approach,  but he wants to wait and get more feedback from educators,  parents and students.

The objection,  of course,  comes from people who say giving half credit for no work coddles slackers and gives an unrealistic picture of the scene students will face when they graduate.  Under a  "no zero" plan,  a struggling student who worked hard to get half of the answers right would fare no better than one who didn't bother.

Ideally,  teachers using the revised grading scale encourage students to make up missed work.  If they've tried and failed,  the aim is to get them to loop back to the material and keep working until they master it.

But what about students who just won't work?

Morrison says schools need to work with their parents  --  "when schools and parents work together there's very few times when I've seen unsuccessful children" --  and look at what schools can do better to engage students.  For instance,  he said,  if students refuse to do homework,  is that because the assignments are tedious  "skill and drill"  exercises?

"I want us to own the things that we can own and change those things,"  Morrison said.  "After we've done our part, then we can say,  'OK, what else would you expect us to do?'  But I'm not sure we've done our part as well as we could yet."

Morrison isn't endorsing a  "no zero"  plan.  What he does want,  he said,  is a grading practice that's sensible and consistent from school to school.

An exchange on the Education Writers Association listserve last week showed many other districts are grappling with the same issue.  Washington Post education writer Jay Mathews says "no zero" plans are common in the Washington area.  The Montgomery County,  Md.,  district where Morrison got his start as an administrator switched about 10 years ago,  Mathews says.

"It was briefly controversial, but people came to realize that mathematically giving a zero for a failure to turn something in gave way too much weight to that one mistake, and setting a higher floor  --  I think they use 50 percent  --  did not represent an end to civilization as we know it,"  Mathews emailed.