Friday, December 20, 2013

What's real message of urban district scores?

Before we all break for the holiday, I wanted to pass along some interesting posts on this week's "nation's report card"  tally of how 21 urban districts fared on national reading and math exams.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools rated high compared with the other districts on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress,  though proficiency rates remain frustratingly low across the country,  especially for low-income and minority students.  As I noted in my article,  CMS' large numbers of white and middle-class students compared with most other districts contributed to its high rankings.

Paul Hill of the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education elaborated on that issue in a Friday blog post.

"It is tempting to squeeze the urban NAEP scores for evidence about what city is doing better or worse than other cities. But the big messages are that everyone's scores are very bad, and that cities with the highest concentrations of low-income and minority kids do the worst,"  Hill writes.  "Some cities have gotten unstuck from the bottom and are regressing a little bit to the mean. That's better than staying stuck, but unless those cities increase a lot faster, and keep improving for a long time, most of their disadvantaged students will not be ready for higher education or good-paying jobs."
"The deep message here is that nobody knows how to educate large numbers of disadvantaged kids successfully. A new curriculum or teacher training initiative can move the needle for a while, but results then level out. A great school can do wonders for a few kids, but efforts to replicate are seldom as successful. As a country, we still haven't accepted the core fact that this problem remains unsolved."
Andy Smarick of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute also took a dim view of the results and the cheerleading that ensued. He blogged that  "today is a day to be sad for millions of disadvantaged kids,"  not to celebrate.  He also noted that winners and finalists in the Broad Prize for Urban Education competition fared poorly  (though he didn't mention CMS, the 2011 winner).
Robin Lake of the CRPE called for expanding the data,  especially on cities that have some of the most innovative approaches to urban education,  including extensive use of charter schools. 
"The NAEP TUDA has effectively focused our attention on cities, where reforms are most urgently needed, but the data don’t tell us what mayors and civic leaders across the country need to know: which cities are most quickly and equitably increasing students’ access to high-quality public schools,"  Lake wrote.  "Our cities have long since moved past the notion of districts as the sole provider of public education. It’s time that our assessment and evaluation systems do, too."

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

No NC winners in district Race to the Top

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and the other 14 N.C. districts that applied for millions of dollars in federal Race to the Top money all fell short,  the U.S. Department of Education announced Wednesday.

The five winners,  who got $10 million to $30 million each,  include a coalition of four rural districts in Clarendon County, S.C.

Race to the Top is the Obama administration's signature program to drive education reform. North Carolina got almost $400 million in 2010,  when the education department awarded grants to 12 states. That money has supported the state's new testing program and the push to use those scores to rate teacher effectiveness,  leading some to argue that the money creates as many problems as benefits.

The feds have held two rounds of competitions for school districts,  with the focus on personalized learning strategies.  In 2012,  Iredell-Statesville Schools was awarded $20 million and Guilford County got $30 million.

The 2013 round,  with less money available,  drew 194 applications.  According to the rankings released this week,  Winston Salem-Forsyth Schools actually outscored two of the five winners,  coming in fourth in total points.  It's not clear from anything I could find why Clarksdale,  Miss.,  and Kentucky Springs,  Ky.,  edged them out.

CMS ranked 83rd,  right behind Wake County  (read the ratings and commentary for all applications,  or go straight to the CMS report).  Cabarrus County fared the best of the Charlotte-area applicants, at No. 16.  That was good enough to make the finalist list but didn't bring money.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Teachers cite techbook challenges

After a recent article about the move toward digital  "techbooks,"  I heard from a couple of teachers who talked about challenges they're facing.

Sherri Garside,  a history teacher at Alexander Graham Middle,  said the social studies digital programs created by Discovery Education remain incomplete.  Sixth-graders have a full curriculum,  but whole centuries are still being developed for seventh- and eighth-graders,  she said.

"To say teachers are frustrated is an understatement!"  she said.  "What they have is great, but useless unless it is updated."

I also heard from a teacher at a high-poverty middle school,  who asked not to be named for fear his principal would take offense.  I visited Community House Middle,  a low-poverty school in the southern suburbs,  for the article.  This teacher said his students are far less likely to be able to do the techbook work from home.  They may have smartphones,  he said,  but they're not likely to have laptops or home computers that are conducive to moving among multiple items and doing online work.

Both teachers said a shortage of classroom devices poses challenges.  Unlike Mooresville Graded Schools,  which provides each student with a MacBook they can use in class and take home,  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools relies on classroom laptops or carts of devices that can be rolled between classrooms.  The teacher at the high-poverty school said that doesn't provide enough consistent access for students to get comfortable with the digital programs.

"The more you use Discovery Education,  the better you get with it,"  he said.  "Discovery Education itself is great."

Monday, December 16, 2013

Academic growth formula: Not secret, just complex

I recently referred to the EVAAS formulas used to calculate North Carolina's school growth and teacher effectiveness ratings as secret. Turns out I'm behind the times.

The Cary-based software company SAS,  which created the formulas and markets them across the country,  initially kept the specifics a proprietary secret.  That's probably why Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials have voiced wariness about having teachers' careers and school reputations depend on a formula they can't review.

It's because of such concerns that SAS released the formulas,  which have been tested by groups such as RAND Corp. and UNC Chapel Hill,  says Jennifer Preston of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

But that doesn't mean most educators, citizens and journalists can run the numbers themselves. I'm comfortable with Excel spreadsheets, education data and basic calculations.  But when I see lines like  "KTb + MTu is BLUP of KT + MT provided KT is estimable,"  I'm out.

The calculations turn each student's performance on prior exams into a prediction about how they'll do on the next ones. The actual score is compared with the projection.  Teachers'  "value-added" ratings compare their students' progress to that of other teachers across the state. Those ratings form part of the state's teacher evaluation;  persistent low ratings jeopardize a teacher's job,  while strong ratings may someday lead to performance pay.

Schools are labeled as meeting, exceeding or falling short of growth targets based on how their students did compared with projections.  For many,  2013 growth ratings provided a counterpoint to the bleak picture painted by low proficiency rates on new exams.  In 2014, proficiency and growth will combine to create a state-issued letter grade for all public schools.  For charter schools,  growth ratings are a key factor in determining whether a low-scoring school stays open.

There are,  of course,  people who say no formula can turn student test scores into meaningful measures of school quality and teacher effectiveness.  But given that our state legislators and many national policymakers believe otherwise,  it's important to be able to check the validity of those ratings.

Anyone who works with data,  even on a much simpler scale,  knows how easy it is to make a mistake -- and for that mistake to be compounded as you run it through further calculations.  I've caught plenty of errors  (my own and those of institutions I cover)  by seeing that numbers don't jibe with what I know of reality.

It worries me that such crucial numbers aren't subject to an obvious  "smell test."  But Preston said the state is building in backstops.  For starters,  teachers get a chance to review the roster of students being used in their ratings,  to make sure they're getting credit or blame for the right kids.  Schools and districts review the raw data before it's sent to SAS.  And the state has been reviewing dozens of questions that came in after the release of ratings,  Preston said.

Preston,  a former high school teacher,  says the real value of EVAAS numbers comes from teachers who use student data to craft teaching strategies and principals who use them to make good use of their faculty.  She said her numbers showed she was helping low-scoring students make big gains,  while the students who came in strong stayed flat.  Her principal assigned her to a low-performing class the next year,  while a teacher who got better gains from higher-level students took that group.  "We were both teaching to our strong points,"  she said.

Friday, December 13, 2013

CMS watching the clock, making its list

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials are hustling to name the 25 percent of teachers who qualify for small state raises by the June deadline,  but they say they expect  --  even hope for  --  last-minute changes.

This summer,  the state legislature ordered school districts across North Carolina to select 25 percent of the teachers who meet experience and proficiency standards and offer them four-year contracts and $500-a-year raises.  It's part of a plan to phase out teacher tenure,  or career status,  by 2018.  (Read the CMS presentation here.)

CMS recently polled teachers on options for making the selection and plans to analyze the results before winter break.  In January,  Superintendent Heath Morrison will bring the school board his plan for making the cut,  and in May he'll bring them the list of names as required by law.

Meanwhile,  CMS lawyer Jonathan Sink said he's been talking with legislators about some of the unintended consequences of the mandate,  and they may be willing to tinker and clarify in 2014. But the session doesn't start until May,  which means any state changes would come as local districts are wrapping up their process.

For teachers there's another time pressure:  If they're offered the four-year contract,  they have to decide whether to sign away their rights to career status.  The law passed this summer says that protection will go away for everyone in 2018,  when those four-year contracts expire.  State lawmakers have appointed a task force to look at performance pay and other compensation and recruitment issues. But for now,  nobody knows what will replace the current system.

"I've seen many programs come and go.  This is going to come and go just like the others,"  said board member Joyce Waddell,  a retired teacher.

Several teachers have said it would be foolish to sign away career status protection for an uncertain future.  The N.C. Association of Educators is reportedly planning a lawsuit to challenge the elimination of tenure.

Morrison acknowledged the likelihood that a significant number of teachers who get the contract offers will say no.  He said the district's interpretation of the state mandate is that once the teachers who make up the 25 percent are chosen,  the list can't be expanded.  That means the actual number getting contracts and raises could end up well below 25 percent,  he told the board.

CMS has more than 10,000 employees who qualify as teachers under the state definition  (which includes licensed support staff such as counselors and librarians),  and almost 6,000 who meet the state eligibility standard of proficient job ratings and three consecutive years of employment.  According to this week's presentation,  that means CMS will be able to offer contracts to about 1,500 people.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

N.C. 25 percent law: Headaches, costs and questions

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board spent an hour last night hashing through the state law that phases out teacher tenure.

The gist boils down to three words:  What a mess.

The law,  passed this summer,  requires school districts to offer four-year contracts that include $500-a-year raises to 25 percent of teachers who have worked three consecutive years and earned  "proficient" job ratings.  Teachers who accept those contracts have to voluntarily sign away their  "career status"  rights,  which will disappear for all teachers in 2018.

Districts across the state have spent the ensuing months grappling with how to put that into practice,  looking at everything from who qualifies as a teacher to how you choose one in four without getting sued,  Superintendent Heath Morrison and CMS lawyer Jonathan Sink told the board.  (Read the presentation here.)

"It is one of the most complicated pieces of legislation I have ever seen,"  Morrison said.

" 'Complicated' is being very nice,"  responded board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart.

Ellis-Stewart is a Democrat,  and the 25 percent law is a creation of the Republican-dominated state legislature.  But frustration on the local board was bipartisan.

Vice chair Tim Morgan,  a Republican,  noted that teachers have vowed to fight the law in court.  "I hold no animosity toward the teachers who are going to be bringing the lawsuit,"  Morgan said,  looking at a handful of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators officers in the audience.

Morgan noted that CMS will likely be forced to spend county tax money defending a system that local officials didn't create and don't support  --  "dollars that would be better spent in the classroom."

Morrison repeatedly told the board he believes lawmakers'  intentions were good,  but said the plan is rife with confusion and unintended consequences.

Sink said several lawmakers have told him their intent was to reward and motivate classroom teachers.  But the state attorney general has ruled that the legal definition of  "teacher"  includes other certified people in instructional roles,  such as counselors,  social workers,  media specialists  (aka librarians)  and deans of students.  In CMS that's more than 10,000 people.

Once you rule out those who haven't worked three consecutive years,  you're looking at more than 6,000.  CMS currently has 5,789  "teachers"  who meet the three-year requirement and have no rating lower than proficient,  HR Chief Terri Cockerham said.

The district calculates that 25 percent of eligible teachers will come to about 1,500 people who will be offered the contract and raise.  And that poses the central question:  How do you sort the 25 percent who get the offer from the 75 percent who don't?

The obvious method,  taking those with the highest ratings,  won't work.  The district calculated that 45 percent of teachers have no rating below  advanced  or  distinguished,  which are higher than proficient.  Morrison noted that a literal reading of the law,  which says no teachers can get the contract offer unless they've shown effectiveness  "as demonstrated by proficiency on the teacher evaluation"  might eliminate those who are above proficient,  though the legislators clearly intended proficiency to be the minimum.

CMS administrators and teachers are looking at other criteria,  such as National Board Certification,  attendance records and the difficulty of filling the positions.  Morgan,  who is on the board of the N.C. School Boards Association,  said some districts have considered offering the contracts to the most experienced eligible teachers,  while others say it makes more sense to offer them to the newest and lowest-paid in hopes of enticing them to stay.

Board member Tom Tate captured the general sense of confusion and frustration when the discussion began.  "My question is how is this helping us?"  Tate asked.  "How much time and energy are we putting into this that we ought to be putting into other things?  Is it going to be a net gain or a net loss?"

So what comes next?  This post is running long, so come back tomorrow for a look at the race against the clock.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

CMS introduces Grade 13

Four college-based high schools that are expected to get school board approval tonight introduce a concept that's new to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools:  Grade 13.

Students at middle college schools on three Central Piedmont Community College campuses and an early college high at UNC Charlotte will be able to stick around for a fifth year of high school in order to build up two years worth of tuition-free college credits.  Because that's part of the structure of those schools,  the CMS on-time graduation rate won't take a hit if those students graduate a year later than their peers.

All high school students can take community-college courses for free,  and Cato Middle College High introduced the concept of campus-based high schools to CMS.  That school always promised that successful,  highly motivated juniors and seniors could earn an associate's degree along with their high school diploma,  but the reality was very few found time to accumulate that many college credits.

When the 2014-15 application season opens Jan. 11,  rising 11th and 12th graders with at least a 2.5 GPA will be able to apply for middle college high schools at CPCC's Cato, Levine and Harper campuses.  Rising ninth-graders can sign up to pioneer the district's first early college high school at UNCC's Energy Production and Infrastructure Center.

UNCC EPIC building
CMS is still working on 2014-15 admission requirements for magnets and other choice schools, but the UNCC-EPIC school won't be  "highly selective,"  said Akeshia Craven-Howell,  executive director of CMS' new transformation office  (it incorporates magnets,  career-tech and virtual learning).  The goal is to recruit first-generation college students and female and minority students who have traditionally been underrepresented in high-tech and engineering fields, she said.

Students at all four schools with grade 13 will have the option to graduate at the end of 12th grade,  but Craven-Howell expects most to be motivated to stay for more free college classes.

Some are bound to see the extra year as a CMS bid to game the numbers and boost graduation rates.  I'm as skeptical as the next person,  but I don't think that will be the case.  Cato has consistently logged four-year graduation rates at or near 100 percent,  hardly surprising given that it caters to highly motivated students who are on track to graduate when they're accepted.  These small college-based options aren't likely to become a place where CMS can hide low-performing students while they take an extra year to master basic requirements.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

How will CMS magnets screen students?

If CMS sticks with the test-score requirements that are posted on the web site,  a whole lot of students could find themselves shut out of IB,  math/science and world languages magnets next year.

Those magnets require grade-level scores on end-of-year state exams.  In years past,  that screened out a relatively small percentage of students who weren't ready to keep up with advanced academic programs.

This year a whole lot more students, in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and across North Carolina,  fell below grade level on new tests designed to measure more complex skills. If the 2013 trends hold for 2014,  about three-quarters of black and low-income students could find themselves ineligible for some of the most popular and rigorous magnets.

There's no way CMS will let that happen.  Some cities have highly competitive academic magnets,  but CMS magnets have always been designed as an open system, serving the largest possible number of students who can do the work.

The new iMeck Academy magnet at Cochrane plans to give students who fall short on the state exams the option to be admitted with high grades in core subjects,  technology facilitator Kim Leighty told me.  I'm guessing other magnets will have similar backstops,  but I couldn't confirm that Monday.

CMS seems to be scrambling to get ready for the Jan. 11 start of the 2014-15 application period.  The school board,  which normally has its work done by November,  gave itself an extra month to approve new programs for the coming school year,  and will vote on 12 of them Wednesday.

Magnet director Jeff Linker retired this summer and has been replaced by Akeshia Craven-Howell, executive director of the CMS transformation office.  She didn't respond to my request for information about the admission requirements Monday.

Best I can tell,  some families in southwest Mecklenburg will get letters in January telling them their kids are assigned to an unnamed elementary school.  The board normally names new schools before the application season begins,  but there's nothing on the agenda to name the "Winget Park relief school"  in the Palisades area.  There's an engineering magnet at that school up for a vote, and it's unclear how that will be described on the menu of options.

It's not clear whether CMS will have school data online on time for parents to do their research,  and some schools may be glad of that.  The lower scores on the 2013 exams pose a marketing hurdle for schools like Cochrane  (17.6 percent overall proficiency)  and McClintock  (23.1 percent)  that will be trying to persuade high-performing students to apply for seats.  And yes,  all of us in the public are still waiting for enrollment numbers,  poverty levels and demographic data,  which has been delayed by PowerSchool problems.

We'll soon see how some of these issues are handled.  CMS has promised to have magnet lottery instruction letters in homes the first week of January.

Monday, December 9, 2013

CMS: Much teacher turnover is out of our hands

I figured Superintendent Heath Morrison and his crew would be teed up and ready to respond to the state's teacher turnover report released last week.

It was surely no surprise to district leaders that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' 2012-13 turnover rate of 15.99 percent was a 10-year high,  topping the state average.  And since I had taken a personal day when the report was made public at a state Board of Education meeting,  I figured Morrison's crew would be more than ready to talk about CMS challenges and solutions when I called Thursday.

After all,  Morrison has consistently identified teacher morale and retention as a key issue since he was hired in 2012.  I figured he or his top staff would be quick to note that he brought in a national consultants to talk to principals about ways to keep their best teachers,  that he convened advisory groups to talk about improving teacher compensation and school working climate,  that Mecklenburg County commissioners in 2012 spent $18.5 million to bump up the state's 1.2 percent raise to 3 percent for CMS teachers and other employees.

Instead, you may have noticed we ran a front-page story on Friday with no comment from CMS administrators.  The public information office tried to get Human Resources Chief Terri Cockerham to talk to me on Thursday,  but I heard nothing that day.

It wasn't until late Friday afternoon that the PIO emailed this response from Cockerham:

"The retention rate of quality teachers is an issue we will always focus on in CMS.  The turnover rate released by the State for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is 15.99% for the 2012-13 school year.

A large percentage (44% of the 15.99%) of teachers are listed as leaving as a result of turnover beyond control (retirees, deaths, health, family responsibilities and family relocation) and reasons initiated by LEA (low performance). Another percentage of this total number includes promotions to central office.  

Recent legislation and a lack of pay raises over numerous years has and will continue to have an impact on teacher retention as well.  Teachers have received one raise within the past five school years.  The superintendent is working extremely hard to help correct this issue both on the state level and local level.  We are concerned with any teacher that leaves and want to be sure that we do all we can to maintain quality teachers within the district. The newly released Strategic Plan 2018: For a Better Tomorrow, helps us lay out a plan to create an environment that rewards and encourages teachers to stay in CMS."

Recruiting,  retaining and rewarding  "a premier workforce"  is one of that plan's goals.  In October the school board approved a list of targets for 2018 that includes increasing the retention rate for employees rated "accomplished"  or  "distinguished."  However,  neither the baseline nor the target has been set yet.

Friday, December 6, 2013

McCray and Morgan make a popular team

It's looking like CMS board chair Mary McCray and vice chair Tim Morgan will cruise to re-election at Wednesday's board meeting.

From Republican member Rhonda Lennon:  "They brought out the best in everyone."

From Democratic member Joyce Waddell:  "They complement each other and they complement the community."

From unaffiliated member Eric Davis:  "I think Tim and Mary have done a fine job."

All three were emphatic about their desire to return the McCray/Morgan team to the leadership spots. And Morgan said he and McCray are eager to accept:  "I feel very good about the working relationship between us and with fellow board members.  Mary and I feel very comfortable with the work the board has done."

As Coach Joe White,  a former board chairman,  used to say,  you can't be sure what will happen until the hands are raised.  But I'm not hearing the usual caginess that I get when board members are wrangling over who will get the leadership posts.

I used to think the selection of a chair and vice chair had little impact beyond board members' egos. But I'm starting to rethink that attitude after seeing the difference between the 2012 board and the 2013 version,  which had the same members but different officers.

In December 2011,  Ericka Ellis-Stewart was elected chair and McCray was vice chair.  They were the top finishers in the November at-large election.  Neither had board experience and both were Democrats.  Partisan rifts flared,  especially when the Democratic majority appointed a Democrat to the District 6 seat,  where voters consistently choose Republicans.  Ellis-Stewart,  who had been a powerhouse candidate with widespread support,  built a reputation as a chairman who made decisions without consulting other members.  Tension among board members went public when Ellis-Stewart found herself unable to cover travel costs for a Charlotte Chamber trip to London, which was ultimately cancelled.

In December 2012, the board paired Democrat McCray with Republican Morgan.  Ellis-Stewart stepped into a different leadership role, representing CMS on the national level as a steering committee member for the Council of Urban Boards of Education.  I've been hearing good things about the new team from board members and the community. Lennon noted that McCray talks to her even when she knows they're going to be on opposite sides of a vote,  something that she seldom experienced in her first three years.

The current good feelings stand in contrast to the board's old reputation for bickering.  And, for that matter, to the drama over electing a chairman for the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners or the Wake County school board.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Education advocates get ready for Raleigh in 2014

The 2014 legislative session may be six months away,  but it's very much alive in the minds of people who care about education in North Carolina.

If you missed it during the holidays,  be sure to read John Frank's piece on the prospects for a teacher pay raise.  Frank reports that Republican legislative leaders say it's needed but don't agree on how to go about it.

Meanwhile,  the League of Women Voters of Charlotte-Mecklenburg will hold a forum this Saturday on how the state budget affects education close to home.  Titled  "What happens in Raleigh matters in Mecklenburg,"  the session is from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Dec. 7 at the YWCA, 3420 Park Road.


Speakers include Ann Clark,  deputy superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools;  John Dornan,  former director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina;  and Tazra Mitchell, a budget and tax policy analyst for the N.C. Justice Center.

For details or to RSVP, contact Mary Klenz, or 704-542-9858.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Will Santa bring CMS demographic data?

About once a week someone asks if they've missed the story on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools demographics,  poverty levels and school-by-school enrollment.

Nope.  I haven't written that story because CMS hasn't produced those numbers, even though the school year is more than one-quarter over.

As they've explained and I've reported,  the delay is tied to the ongoing problems with PowerSchool, a new data system the state rolled out this school year.  But really  --  we still can't get enrollment and demographic numbers that were tallied in September and poverty numbers from October?

Just before the Thanksgiving break I badgered Scott McCully,  the CMS administrator in charge of that data:  Are you saying CMS doesn't yet know how many students are in each school?

McCully said that CMS does indeed track enrollment on a daily basis.  Those numbers are used for teacher allotments and other decisions.

What CMS doesn't have is the ability to generate the Principals Monthly Report,  at least not at all schools.  Despite weekly requests and multiple  "patches,"  some schools still can't make that system work,  McCully said.  And until they can all generate those reports,  CMS can't produce a districtwide report on the enrollment and racial composition at each school.  The poverty report,  which is based on eligibility for federal lunch subsidies, uses enrollment numbers from the Principals Monthly Report to do the calculations,  he said.

"We're all a little frustrated,"  added Tahira Stalberte from the public information staff.

It's not the most burning issue in public education,  but the delayed details do compound a serious challenge:  At a time when families are facing more choices than ever,  it's unusually difficult to get good data about schools.  Test scores that normally come out during the summer were deferred to November,  and changes in the testing system pose new questions about what the numbers mean.  School-by-school data reports from CMS and the state may not be out by the time the 2014-15 application season starts in January.

Meanwhile,  the PowerSchool problems are starting to seem like more than start-up glitches.  I checked the ongoing list of  "known issues"  the day before Thanksgiving,  and while I don't understand most of the techspeak,  it looks daunting.  I put in a request for an update from the Department of Public Instruction on Nov. 19 and haven't yet gotten a response from Chief Financial Officer Philip Price.

Here's hoping a new month brings some new answers.  McCully wasn't willing to make any predictions, though. "I think I've said  'next week'  for the last two months," he said.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Could new exams close N.C. charters?

North Carolina charter schools will get a one-year reprieve from academic standards that could lead the state to revoke charters. But the tougher new tests that debuted last year,  leading to a dramatic plunge in pass rates across the state,  could spell trouble for many schools moving forward.

Seventy-five of 108 charter schools that reported scores for 2013 fell below the 60 percent composite pass rate that can trigger a label of  "academically inadequate." That's not a surprise,  given that fewer than half of all public-school students (including traditional public schools and charters,  which are operated by independent boards) passed last year's math and reading exams.  And it's actually better than schools run by local districts:  By my tally, 86 percent of North Carolina's district schools and 69 percent of charters had pass rates below 60 percent.  (See results for Mecklenburg schools in the school data listing at right.)

Charlotte's Sugar Creek Charter had low proficiency but high growth
State law defines charter schools as academically inadequate if they have composite pass rates below 60 percent on state exams and  "no growth in student performance"  for two out of three consecutive years.  One charter has been closed since those standards were set in 2011 and several others have been  "put on notice"  that they're at risk,  Joel Medley,  director of the N.C. Office of Charter Schools,  said in a recent letter to charter operators.

But a 60 percent pass rate on the old tests isn't the same as 60 percent on the new exams,  which are designed to test the more complex skills demanded by national Common Core academic standards.  In fact,  I'm still puzzling over how anyone can accurately calculate year-to-year student growth,  given that the testing has changed so much. School growth ratings are now tallied by the Cary-based SAS, a private company that uses a secret formula to determine whether N.C. schools met, exceeded or fell short of acceptable progress.

The state Board of Education decided not to penalize anyone for 2012-13 scores,  Medley said,  but this year's results will count and could combine with earlier years to label a school inadequate.  By Dec. 19,  Medley said,  he'll notify operators if their school is at risk.

Eighteen of the charters that fell below 60 percent also failed to meet the state growth targets.  Those included four in the Charlotte area:  American Renaissance School in Statesville (38.7 percent overall proficiency),  Carolina International School in Harrisburg  (50.2 percent),  Community Charter in Charlotte  (17.8 percent)  and Crossroads Charter High in Charlotte (less than 5 percent).

Closing of  inadequate charters is not automatic. Update/correction: Medley called Monday and said under the current system, revocation is automatic for schools that fail to meet the standards for two of the most recent three years (which will not include 2012-13).

My guess is there's going to be a lot of discussion among charter advocates, state education officials and lawmakers about the definition of the label.   After all,  if falling below 60 percent proficiency and failing to make growth targets are indicators of academic failure ,  many traditional public schools also fell short last year,  including Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Hopewell  (33.7 percent),  Independence  (45.3 percent)  and Myers Park  (58.5 percent) high schools.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Grading the boss: Superintendent scorecard

The school board Monday released the scorecard they used to evaluate Superintendent Heath Morrison on his first year as head of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.  It asks each member to rate him on 13 items using a 1-5 scale  (read about their decision to extend his contract and beef up his retirement benefits here).

Morrison and board member Tom Tate
Evaluation items include Morrison's ability to develop effective strategies,  communicate with the school board,  develop a budget, recruit and retain principals and top administrators,  and build relationships with key decision-makers.  Because N.C. law makes personnel actions confidential,  the board released the form but not the ratings given by members.

The new evaluation system looks a lot more practical than the 93-item checklist a previous board used for Superintendent Peter Gorman,  with items ranging from test scores to personal grooming.

Morrison's contract called for his goals and objectives to be set by Sept. 30,  but board Chair Mary McCray said he agreed to the delay.  It also calls for the board and Morrison to agree on goals for the coming year between Aug. 1 and Sept. 30 of each year.  I'm still trying to get answers about whether this set of goals will apply to 2013-14 or whether there are revisions.

The contract also says that two-thirds of Morrison's bonus eligibility will be based on achievement of CMS goals.  That wasn't a factor this time around,  given that the board awarded retirement increases instead of a bonus.  I'm pretty sure those goals going forward will be the ones approved in October with a whole lot of blanks left to fill in as data becomes available. Update: McCray confirms that this is correct.

Morrison to get overdue evaluation, bonus

Update: I guessed right about the things the board would say about Morrison, but they voted for retirement benefits instead of a bonus. Read the story here. Hope to get the standards posted soon.

The school board will hold a special meeting this morning to vote on Superintendent Heath Morrison's first evaluation and performance bonus.

Board chair Mary McCray said the standards used to rate him will be released after the vote. They're long overdue.  The contract signed when Morrison came to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in 2012 called for the board to  "discuss and agree upon"  his first-year goals by Sept. 30, 2012.  By Sept. 30 of this year,  they were supposed to have set his 2013-14 goals,  and by Oct. 31 they were due to vote on his 2012-13 bonus.

McCray says Morrison agreed to the delay,  as the district awaited the delayed results of new and tougher 2013 exams.  She said those results,  which plunged statewide,  won't be counted against Morrison but will serve as a baseline moving forward  (see results in links at right).

Morrison's contract makes him eligible for a bonus of up to 10 percent of his $288,000 base salary,  with two-thirds of that based on achievement of CMS goals and one-third based on individual goals or any other criteria the board might set.

On Friday,  McCray wasn't willing to talk about what the board is looking for,  or even say whether changes to his base salary are being discussed.  "All of that will be done on Monday,"  she said.

My prediction is Morrison will get high marks for creating an entry plan and a five-year strategic plan.  He's bound to get credit for strong community engagement,  including creation of 22 task forces,  with the payoff seen in a record 74 percent of voters saying yes to CMS bonds.  Few would say employee morale is high,  but many people I've talked to give Morrison credit for listening to them and trying to do the right thing in the face of discouraging state actions.

Morrison's predecessor,  Peter Gorman,  faced a 93-item evaluation checklist that ranged from the obvious  (test scores and graduation rates)  to the eccentric  (rating him on "poise and emotional stability"  and being  "customarily attired and well groomed"). If the current board wants to carry on that tradition,  they might want to add an item for dance skills.  I think it's a safe bet to say Morrison is the first CMS superintendent caught on video doing hip grinds and air splits:

Friday, November 22, 2013

No second chance on 2013-14 exams

N.C. students won't get a second chance if they flunk state exams this year, Vanessa Jeter of the Department of Public Instruction told me this week.

Before the new exams rolled out in 2012-13,  students who fell short were required to take the tests again  (different questions on the same material). If they passed on the second try,  it counted toward school proficiency rates, a significant bump for many struggling schools.

This year,  the only students who will be retested are those who fail third-grade reading exams.  The state's new Read to Achieve program spells out a series of actions that are triggered by failure on those tests,  starting with retesting and potentially leading to summer school and retention. (See the process on page 4 of this guide.)   Based on this year's results,  a lot of children aren't clearing the bar at the end of third grade.  See elementary school proficiency rates,  including the percent who passed third-grade reading,  on this new results map.

A second year of one-shot testing could be bad news for schools facing state-issued letter grades in 2014 (see 2013 results for all Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools and Mecklenburg charter schools in the rail at right).  The same goes for CMS high school students,  who will see 25 percent of their final grades in math I, English II and biology shaped by their score on the state tests.

But Superintendent Heath Morrison argues it will be good news for people trying to monitor how much progress schools make this year.  Before the state made it clear whether retesting would be revived this year,  he argued against it for the sake of having two consecutive years of comparable results.  In 2014-15,  the state is slated to switch tests again,  introducing Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium exams designed to reflect national Common Core standards and provide a consistent testing system among participating states.

"We would prefer to keep the testing as similar as possible,"  Morrison told the school board.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

How did Meck middle schools fare on exams?

Middle school performance on the 2013 N.C. exams shows some stark differences among schools, but the numbers provide few easy answers about what's working. (To see at-a-glance 2013 exam results for Charlotte-Mecklenburg middle schools and charter schools in the county, go to this map.)

Twelve of 51 middle schools had overall pass rates below 25 percent, while four topped 75 percent.

The new exams, which are designed to give a more realistic picture of college and career readiness than the old ones,  brought dramatic drops across the state. The patterns are predictable, with the biggest setbacks at the schools serving large numbers of low-income and minority students,  but still tough to see.

Last year I made regular visits to Ashley Park, a preK-8 school that's part of Project LIFT,  for a series on the eighth-graders and the faculty who were trying to get them ready for high school.  According to the new exams,  about 31 percent of those eighth graders ended the year proficient in math and just under 16 percent in reading.  The school's overall proficiency rating,  for all grades and subjects,  was 26.5 percent.

Ashley Park students at year's end

And that was far from the worst.  Most of the preK-8 schools created when CMS closed troubled high-poverty middle schools landed at the bottom of the pack as they finished their second year in the new structure.  Berryhill was the highest performing of the eight neighborhood preK-8 schools created in that move, with a 40.9 percent proficiency rate and a top growth rating. Reid Park Academy was the lowest, at 11.1 percent proficiency --  and an eighth-grade math pass rate below 5 percent.

Of course,  it's impossible to know how students would have fared if the old middle schools had remained.  And K-8 magnet schools such as Collinswood Language Academy (69.5 percent overall proficiency),  Waddell Language Academy (66.2 percent) and Morehead STEM (63.6 percent) performed much better.

Comparing CMS and charter middle schools provides a mixed bag as well.  Metrolina Regional Scholars Academy,  a K-8 charter,  topped the list with a 94.6 percent overall proficiency rate  --  hardly surprising since it serves highly gifted students.  CMS results for gifted students were also very high.  Kennedy School,  a K-12 charter for at-risk students,  was near the bottom.

In the south/southeast suburbs,  CMS neighborhood schools such as Robinson (82.7 percent),  South Charlotte (78.1 percent) and Community House (77.4 percent)  outscored nearby charters such as Socrates Academy (74.3 percent)  and Queens Grant (50.5 percent).  In the northern burbs that was reversed,  with Community School of Davidson (74.6 percent)  and Lake Norman Charter (73 percent)  topping CMS' Bailey (67.8 percent),  Bradley (55.2 percent) and Alexander (47.2 percent).

KIPP and Sugar Creek,  both charter schools known for success with disadvantaged students,  logged overall proficiency rates of 36.1 percent and 39.7 percent,  respectively.  Those aren't the kind of scores that will look good when the state starts issuing letter grades, but they're well above the nearest CMS middle schools,  Cochrane (17.6 percent) and Martin Luther King (22.8 percent). CarolinaCAN,  a new reform advocacy group, recently profiled Sugar Creek Charter as part of its video series on successful charters.

I'm working my way through the data, which was released earlier this month.  Mecklenburg high schools are already mapped,  and I'll get to the elementary schools as soon as possible.  If you'd like an Excel version of the middle and/or high school results, email me at

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Learn-at-home charter holds sessions

Supporters of North Carolina Connections Academy,  a proposed virtual charter school, will hold information sessions in Charlotte and Monroe on Wednesday.

The virtual school is one of 170 that filed letters of intent in September to apply for permission to open in 2015-16. By Dec. 6 we'll see how many follow through with a detailed application that could lead to being approved as an alternative public school.

Traditional public schools already offer online classes through N.C. Virtual Public School,  but there's teacher supervision and some required seat time.  The proposed statewide charter school,  which would be part of the Maryland-based for-profit Connections Academy chain, would use individual learning plans created with a teacher.  Students then learn from home,  with parents as  "learning coaches."  The approach is pitched as especially good for students who are far ahead of or behind classmates and can thrive on the individual approach.

The in-person information sessions will be from noon to 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Hampton Inn Monroe, 2368 Roland Drive, and from 6-8 p.m. at the Charlotte Mariott SouthPark, 2200 Rexford Road. There's also a video explaining how Connections Academy works.

Virtual charter schools have sparked debate across the country. A study by the University of Colorado's National Education Policy Center found that students in cyberschools led by K12, a different for-profit chain, didn't perform as well as counterparts in more traditional schools. In Charlotte,  Superintendent Heath Morrison has raised questions about such schools,  saying he wants Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to create its own virtual schools to ensure quality.

Connections Academy is a spinoff from Sylvan Learning tutoring company,  according to its website. There are academies in 22 states,  including South Carolina,  and Connections Education was launched in 2011 to further expand the online schools. 

"In Fall 2011, Pearson, the world’s leading learning company, acquired Connections Education establishing a leading position in the fast-growing virtual school segment and the opportunity to apply Connections Education’s skills and technologies in new segments and geographic markets," the site says.

That may bring a gulp from families and educators facing a host of start-up problems with Pearson's PowerSchool/Home Base data system.  Since the system debuted statewide this summer, CMS and other districts have faced delays in class schedules, enrollment reports,  transcripts and first-quarter report cards.  After the delay in report cards was announced last week,  education junkie and recent school board candidate Bolyn McClung clued me in to this ongoing list of "known issues"  with the system.  Looks like there's quite a bit of work left to do.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Staying Ahead Carolina? What's that?

Ever been to a great party where no one seems to know the host? Saturday's panel on the future of public education felt a bit like that.

I made the rare choice to cover a weekend event based on the timeliness of the topic and the quality of the speakers. The focus was on choices, challenges and change in the Charlotte region,  landing at a tumultuous time when the 2014-15 school choice season is on the horizon.  Ellen McIntyre, dean of the UNC Charlotte College of Education, moderated a panel consisting of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison; state Rep. Rob Bryan, co-sponsor of the N.C. voucher bill and co-chair of a panel on teacher compensation; Eddie Goodall of the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association and Bill Anderson of MeckEd.

The turnout was big enough that the event was shifted from a 100-seat conference room to a bigger auditorium.  I saw many of the usual movers and shakers in the education scene,  plus new faces.

So I was feeling kind of dumb:  Why hadn't I heard of Staying Ahead Carolina, the host organization?

But when I mingled and chatted before the event, I couldn't find anyone else who was familiar with the group.  One person speculated that it was part of CarolinaCAN, a recently-created North Carolina spinoff of a national education reform group.  Someone else said it was  "a front for MeckEd."  Even McIntyre was confused.

None of the theories were correct.  Sabrina Brown,  who works in marketing,  started the social networking group seven years ago.  There was always a theme of learning more about Charlotte,  she said,  but at first it was mostly about meeting people, making contacts and exploring the city.  Staying Ahead started getting sponsorships to do forums on such topics as arts,  entertainment and health.  It now has more than 500 members and an advisory board,  Brown said,  and the education panel was its first foray into a wider community outreach.  Carolina STEM Academy,  a charter school that has been approved to open in 2014,  and Melange Health Solutions sponsored the Saturday forum.

The discussion was lively and informative enough that I didn't regret giving up a sunny Saturday morning.  I'll look forward to any other contributions Staying Ahead might make to the local scene.

Monday, November 4, 2013

After walk-in, what's the plan?

After a day of signs and cheers and red clothes and pancake breakfasts for teachers, I bet I'm not the only person wondering:  Is anything going to change for N.C. teachers? If so, what's the plan and who's making it?

The Walk-In/Walk-Out day has tapped into what seems to be a widespread sentiment that our state's teachers deserve a better deal,  as teacher pay and per-pupil spending slump toward the bottom of national rankings and the state throws challenges and changes at public educators.

Parents and students at Elizabeth Lane Elementary

But sentiment isn't action.  The build-up to Nov. 4 illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of social media organizing.

It started when the pseudonymous  "Mike Ladidadi"  created a Facebook event called  "Nov. 4th NC Teacher Walkout."  The call for action was couched in broad terms:  "We want more respect for teachers.  Specifically a fair balance between workload, expectations and compensation for our teachers.  Help needs to come from both the state government and from unengaged parents who need to take an active role in their child's education."

As the idea circulated among teachers, administrators, journalists and others,  it morphed into the notion of a  "walk-in,"  bringing parents,  students and community members together to show support for teachers.  While the tone of frustration with recent legislative action was present,  there didn't seem to be any clear agenda here, either.

Things took some odd twists as the event neared.  I had assumed  "Ladidadi"  was a teacher worried about protecting his job.  But last week a conservative/Libertarian N.C. blogger known as Lady Liberty posted that she traced the name to a Wilmington real estate broker who,  "as far as I can tell,  has no horse in the teacher grievances race other than he himself thinks they aren’t being treated fairly."  (The irony of a pseudonymous blogger unmasking a pseudonymous organizer isn't lost on me,  but Lady Liberty identified herself to me as A.P. Dillon,  a Holly Springs mom who says she doesn't want her school-age child to get caught in the political crossfire.)
Lady Liberty 1885

That's not all:  A group called Organize 2020 emerged as a voice pushing for walk-in events on Nov. 4. You'd be hard-pressed to identify that group from its web site,  but the @Organize2020 Twitter profile describes it as "a member-led group within the NCAE advocating for teachers."  Organize 2020 appears to be the source of a statement saying the North Carolina Association of Educators "affirm(s) the desire and right of educators to use tactics like a walkout or strike,"  which prompted Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger to call for the state's attorney general to intervene.  The NCAE,  which had already publicly declined to endorse the walk-out, removed the link to that statement.
So why does a teacher advocacy group need a subgroup to advocate for teachers,  and why are the ties between the two entities obscured?  I've got a call in to NCAE President Rodney Ellis (who came to Charlotte today to speak at a "walk-in" rally at Ranson Middle School)  seeking an explanation.

Bottom line:  The GOP majority in the state legislature translated some prevailing sentiments  (accountability and choice improve education,  the teacher pay system is a failure)  into plans.  The question is whether the folks who don't like those plans have a strategy of their own.  As Superintendent Heath Morrison often notes,  public officials and advocates who say teachers deserve a raise need to be prepared to talk about where the money will come from.

The coming weeks and months will tell whether this was a step toward a real movement  -- and if so, what that movement means.  

Friday, November 1, 2013

Brace yourself for new test scores

There's a wild week ahead for supporters of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, with a bond vote, school board election and release of state test scores coming.

We'll get election results Tuesday night. My guess is that backers of the education bonds for CMS and Central Piedmont Community College will be celebrating.  I went to the North Regional Library in Huntersville Tuesday to talk to early voters,  then got pulled off for another story before I could flesh out a full report.  But that small sample was consistent:  The people I talked to knew little or nothing about the bonds going in,  but voted yes because they support education.

"I always support anything to do with the schools,"  said Tara McAlinn of Huntersville,  the mother of a 4-year-old.  It's a sentiment I heard repeatedly,  from young parents to retirees.

However the election goes,  Thursday morning will dash a bucket of cold water in people's faces when the N.C. Department of Public Instruction releases long-awaited results from 2013 end-of-grade exams.  State officials have made it clear that there's going to be a big drop in proficiency rates  --  not because kids got dumber or teachers got less effective,  but because there are more rigorous new tests, new  "cut scores"  for passing and no second try for students who fell below grade level.  Many schools will see hard-earned gains disappear.  If past changes in testing are any predictor,  gaps between the highest- and lowest-performing groups of students will widen.  (One interesting feature:  For the first time,  the state will break out performance for academically gifted kids.)

CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison said this week that he supports tougher tests that are designed to more accurately reflect students' readiness for college and careers.  "Every time we set the bar higher,  our kids respond, our teachers respond."  But he worries that critics who tout the failure of public education will use the new results to say  "See,  I told you it was broken."

There are actually three phases of the test-score release.  Teachers have already started getting  "value-added"  ratings based on the new exams,  which is bound to be a source of some stress.  "You get this information and it's really confusing,"  said one caller,  who had just gotten her report and declined to give her name.  "It's hard to read and it's hard to understand."

Proficiency and growth for schools and districts come out Thursday.  And within 30 days of that,  families are supposed to get reports on how their own children did last year.

If you want to get prepared for the testing data,  DPI has a background brief posted.

If you want to prepare for Tuesday's election,  you can find details about the bonds and the candidates on the Observer's voter guide.

And if you've still got energy left at the end of that crazy week, you can turn your gaze to the future at a Nov. 9 forum on "What's next for public education in Charlotte metro?"  From 10 a.m. to noon at UNC Charlotte Center City,  panelists from CMS,  charter schools,  the state legislature and higher education will talk about choices,  challenges,  changes and coordination.  The session is sponsored by Staying Ahead Carolina and UNCC.  There's no charge,  but registration is required.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Walk in, walk out or neither?

The Nov. 4 date for a N.C. teacher walk-out and/or community walk-ins to support public education is near. So what's going to happen?

I'm not getting any sense that there will be a big wave of "blue flu"  (or whatever the educational equivalent might be),  let alone an actual walk-out.  As I've written before,  it's risky business for teachers to take such a step,  and a lot of them are as unwilling to deprive their kids of classroom time as they are eager to make a point about pay and working conditions.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools decided not to join Iredell-Statesville in holding a districtwide  "walk-in"  to show support for educators.  CMS will hold educator appreciation events later this month,  while letting individual schools decide whether to mark Nov. 4,  spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte said.

I've heard that parents at Elizabeth Lane Elementary in Matthews are planning a festive welcome and breakfast for their teachers on Monday,  and that Ranson Middle School,  the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators and Project LIFT are planning events at the north Charlotte school.  And I'm guessing plenty of people will go with a  "wear red for public ed"  show of support.

Update: Teachers at Northwest School of the Arts are planning a day of silence. "Teachers will still be at school and will perform their duties, but they will do it without a voice,"  says a post on a Northwest protest Facebook page.  "On Monday many teachers will be using worksheet packets to help students review. They hope to show the public that (1) their voices are not being heard, (2) classrooms will be silent when the teachers leave the profession, and (3) we must support our highly qualified teachers."  The teachers are also asking parents and other supporters to join them outside the school before and after school hours  "to show support and unity."

Another update:  My colleague Tim Funk just shared a statement from the offices of N.C. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and Sen. Neal Hunt calling on state Attorney General Roy Cooper to  "protect our children's safety" during this  "planned teachers strike."

The Berger/Hunt statement says that  "the North Carolina affiliate of the national teachers’ union has stated on record they  'affirm the desire, and right, of educators to use tactics like a walk-out or strike' – a clear violation of North Carolina law."  The link leads to the N.C. Association of Educators site,  but with an  "Oops ... Page Not Found"  message.  Meanwhile,  the only thing I can find on the NCAE site is the statement they posted several weeks ago saying the group does not endorse the walkout.

What else are the rest of you hearing?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

District 1 won't be part of WTVI debate

WTVI's televised school board debate won't include north suburban District 1,  and incumbent Rhonda Lennon isn't happy about that.  Fifteen-minute segments on each of the other four contested races will air from about 4-5 p.m. Sunday,  after the Charlotte City Council debates.

District 1 challenger Christine Mast told me she couldn't make today's scheduled taping because she has  "other commitments with parents."

Lennon says she offered to adjust her schedule to fit with Mast's,  but instead the sponsoring League of Women Voters pulled the District 1 segment.  "The policy is that if one candidate in a 2 candidate race is unable or unwilling to participate there will be no debate,"  emailed Amanda Boo Raymond,  the league's executive producer.  "I appreciate your understanding and best of luck in your campaign."

"I am very disappointed I will not be allowed to participate since my opponent cancelled," Lennon told me. "I would have loved the opportunity to talk about my record and my priorities going forward for CMS."

The league's voter guide has been released, with 15,000 print copies going to libraries and other locations, but there are a lot of gaps from candidates who didn't reply. There's no school board race with all candidates responding, and neither contender for Charlotte mayor replied. I'm not sure what this says about this year's campaign and the way candidates are trying to connect with their voters. But check the right rail on this blog for links to the Observer's voter guide and other sources of more complete information.

And an update on campaign finance: The pre-election reports, which were due Monday, are still trickling in as the mail arrives and the Board of Elections gets them posted. Lennon says her total is more than $4,000. And I just plain messed up on Bolyn McClung in District 6: He reports having $11,337, including $10,800 in loans. We've corrected it online, but the print story is off.