Friday, August 30, 2013

Will charters dwindle in 2015?

Anyone who wants to open a charter school in North Carolina in 2015 must file a letter of intent by noon Sept. 6.

Eddie Goodall, executive director of the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association,  worries that the "little-known cutoff date" will eliminate prospective operators.  The letters for 2014 applications weren't due until January 2013.

Joel Medley,  director of the N.C. Office of Charter Schools, disagrees.  The deadline has been posted on the web site and publicized to anyone who has inquired about opening a school since last November, he said.

If there's a drop in applications,  Medley said he's more likely to blame a new application fee.  Lawmakers set a range of $500 to $1,000; the state Board of Education will soon decide what the fee will be.  Medley said he doesn't know how the money will be spent: "We did not propose that."

Bottom line:  North Carolina is still trying to sort out a system for granting large numbers of charters every year.  When the state authorized charter schools -- public schools run by independent nonprofit boards,  rather than school districts -- in the late 1990s,  it capped the total at 100.  For years, the only openings were for a handful of spots that came open when an existing school closed.

Two years ago legislators lifted the cap,  creating a surge of new schools, especially in the Charlotte region. Twenty-three opened this summer, six of them in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties.

Applicants must work their way through an evolving process.  Those who file letters of intent follow up with full-fledged applications that detail their plans for education, spending and governance.  Those are reviewed by an advisory panel  --  legislators just created a new board to handle that work  --  and sent to the state Board of Education for final approval.

Last time around,  the charter office got 156 letters of intent and 70 actual applications.  The old advisory council recommended 26 for approval, and the Board of Education voted in August to consider six more.  The board is scheduled to vote on the final list next week.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Morrison a bargain at $2.06 per student?

Raleigh TV station WRAL has created a fascinating database of contracts for all the state's superintendents. The list includes salary, bonuses and perks,  as well as a "pay per student" calculation.

Not surprisingly, James Merrill in Wake County and Heath Morrison in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have the highest salaries.  But they land at the bottom on a per-student calculation, with Merrill at $1.83 and Morrison at $2.06  (Morrison's would  be lower if the tally had included about 3,000 prekindergarten students in CMS).

Morrison's $288,000 base pay is a combination of $151,413 in state pay and $136,587 in local money. Merrill gets $116,000 from the state and $159,000 from Wake County,  for a total of $275,000.  According to the WRAL article,  the state portion is based on number of students,  longevity and advanced certifications.  Districts use local money and perks to attract the leaders they want.

Morrison tops the list for base pay and potential bonus (10 percent of his base pay,  or $28,000).  But his benefits don't stand out as unusual.  The WRAL article notes that Currituck County provided its superintendent a rent-free house and agreed to fence the yard for her dogs. Superintendent Allison Sholar decided to move out about a year later,  the article says,  and the board amended her contract to give her an additional $1,200 a month  (while turning the house into office space).

Mooresville Superintendent Mark Edwards got 20 extra vacation days so he can visit out-of-state family, the article notes.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Dads can be rock stars at school

It's easy to be cynical about absentee fathers,  but watching men come to school with their kids Monday morning was inspiring.

Jamison Smith with nephew and son

"You have to be in a child's life,  especially in school,"  said Rahim Nash,  who brought his 9-year-old son Arkivius to Allenbrook Elementary.  Nash said his own father never showed up at school,  but he wants things to different for his son.

"Both parents need to be involved,"  agreed Michael Strong,  who brought 7-year-old Donovon even though he knew he'd have to rush to get to work across town.

The  "Million Father March"  movement focuses on low-income minority communities,  where dads are more likely to be missing from the family and academic struggles are endemic. Project LIFT,  which made a big push to get men into schools on Monday,  serves that kind of community.

But I'm willing to bet schools from Cornelius to Ballantyne would like to see more dads in schools.  Women still tend to take the lead role in parenting and school volunteer work,  regardless of race or income.  And whether we like it or not,  that means men get extra attention from the kids when they show up to have lunch or read with a student.  A male presence at school sends a message  --  and it's a very different one than kids get from pop culture.

It can be tough for working parents,  male or female,  to break away during school hours.  But think of it this way:  Where else can you count on being looked up to,  literally and figuratively?
Anthony Gardner documents his daughter's first day
(These photos are shot by Jeff Siner; click here to see the Observer's "back to school" slide show.)

Monday, August 26, 2013

Full-time teacher and student: Race for a master's degree

Elizabeth Cranfill wants to devote her energy to the children with autism she teaches at W.M. Irvin Elementary in Cabarrus County.  But she's also taking five graduate courses this semester at UNC Charlotte's College of Education, in a desperate effort to earn her master's degree in time to collect the 10 percent raise the state had promised when she enrolled.

I caught up with Cranfill shortly after I finished a recent story on how legislative actions,  including the elimination of the bump for advanced degrees in 2014,  are affecting teachers.


Under normal circumstances,  it would be nuts to take on 12 credit hours and defend a thesis while working full time.  That's a heavy load for a full-time student.  But earning her degree at the end of fall semester provides her only guarantee of being grandfathered into the current pay scale.

So Cranfill,  25,  got permission from UNCC,  her principal and her district to cram in the classwork and research to earn a master's in working with autistic students.

"I love school.  I like being a student as much as I like being a teacher,"  she said last week.  But she's taking on a load that means everything else  --  including planning her June wedding  --  will be pushed to the sidelines.

Cranfill says she followed her big brother into teaching because she loves kids.  But that doesn't mean she's not concerned about earning a living.

She and her brother both got N.C. Teaching Fellow scholarships, designed to entice top high school students to become teachers and stay in state.  Cranfill also got a grant to cover her grad school tuition because she's working in a field where teachers are desperately needed.  Special-ed teachers are among the hardest posts to fill.  Cranfill teaches children who have the capability to work at grade level,  but it takes special skills to help them cope with their autism.

Cranfill says her brother has fulfilled his required teaching stint in North Carolina. He's working on a graduate degree, too  --  a business degree that will let him find another career.  She wants to stick with education,  but she's not sure.

"It's not a good time to be a public school teacher right now,"  she said.  "I wish I didn't have to say that."

Lawmakers who eliminated the supplement for master's degrees say it makes more sense to reward teachers for classroom results.  But so far there's little money for that.  The 2013-14 budget sets aside money to give $500-a-year raises to 25 percent of teachers starting in 2014-15,  with a state task force studying a more comprehensive performance-pay plan.

Ellen McIntyre,  dean of UNCC's education college,  is trying to get as many students as possible across the finish line in time to get a raise this year. That means adding extra sections of classes for fall semester and counseling students about how to juggle their obligations.

Long range,  she says,  schools like hers will doubtless have to adapt what they offer teachers who want graduate education.  She worries that eliminating an incentive for higher education will not only discourage  teachers who want to add to their skills but erode North Carolina's reputation for valuing education.

"The long-term effect?"  McIntyre said.  "It could possibly be devastating."

Friday, August 23, 2013

Parents buy classroom supplies in bulk

When CMS gave the grand tour of Grand Oak Elementary,  I was struck by the sight of PTA volunteers unloading crates of Lysol,  copy paper and other classroom supplies.

PTA president Marissa Gilbert said the parents and kids weren't just helping with heavy lifting.  They bought the goods in bulk,  an approach that ensures teachers and students will have all the supplemental supplies they need.  I've heard of parents getting individual "wish lists"  from teachers seeking such items as Kleenex and hand sanitizer,  but this was the first I'd heard of bulk-buying.

Sloan Lorino, 12, hauls supplies at Grand Oak

Apparently this is old hat at many schools,  including Torrence Creek Elementary,  where most of the Grand Oak students and families came from.  But for folks like me who haven't bought supplies in the 21st century,  here's how it works:  Teachers at each grade level prepare lists of classroom needs,  such as hand wipes and reams of paper,  and items students will need,  such as markers,  glue sticks and pencil bags. Families have the option of making a bulk purchase,  with prices ranging from $50 to $75,  depending on the grade level,  Gilbert said.  They can also choose to buy their own items,  but Gilbert said well over half the 600 students at Grand Oak went the bulk route.  This year the PTA decided to  "round up"  on the price to raise money for buying books for the library and classrooms,  she added.

I've heard parents gripe about being asked to pay for supplies in schools that are already funded by their tax dollars.  But Gilbert says the bulk-ordering plan is popular.  "I haven't heard anything but,  'Thank you for doing this again,' " she said.

Here's another surprise for me:  In some struggling districts,  schools solicit parent donations to hire staff and pay teacher stipends  (read education writer Emily Richmond's blog about that topic here).  I've never heard of that happening in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools or nearby districts.  I asked CMS lawyers if there's a legal reason for that.

"I am unaware of any statutory or policy limits,"  responded General Counsel George Battle III.  "At the risk of speculating way outside my lane, as a  practical matter,  it seems that it would be difficult to fund personnel out of parental gifts due to sustainability, variance by school and other issues."

Thursday, August 22, 2013

CMS breakfast details fall to schools

Starting Monday,  we'll see how Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools'  new  "free breakfast for all"  program plays out.

Each school is crafting its own strategy for getting food into the hands of hundreds of students,  then getting them to quickly shift gears to learning.  At Elizabeth Traditional Elementary,  where the bus drop-off is nowhere near the cafeteria,  a breakfast kiosk will be in place so kids can grab their food and head to class,  said Amy Harkey,  assistant director of child nutrition.  Some schools will use variations on that  "grab-and-go"  approach,  while others will have children eat in the cafeteria.

The district acknowledges there will be challenges,  from the trash that's generated to the demand on teacher time,  especially now that there are fewer assistants to help with the youngest kids.  One teacher emailed to say he'd been told everyone had to report 15 minutes early to handle breakfast,  but the principal later rescinded that order.

The school board approved the plan in hopes that kids who start their day with a nutritious meal will be better learners.  In the past,  CMS provided free breakfast for students who qualified for income-based lunch aid.  The national No Kid Hungry campaign urges districts to provide breakfast for everyone to eliminate the stigma.  At this week's back-to-school briefing,  Harkey noted that some students go hungry because their families are in a hurry,  not because they can't afford food.

"Students do show up to school hungry,  and hungry students can't learn,"  she said.  "Breakfast is part of the educational day."

Research on the benefits of free school breakfasts is squishy,  in part because no district uses biscuits and bagels as its only strategy to improve education. But CMS leaders hope the new program will get almost 148,000 preK-12 students off to a good start.

CMS has enough students who qualify for federal lunch and breakfast subsidies that it can afford to provide breakfast to all students at no charge,  without dipping into local or state money.  The child nutrition budget is separate from the CMS operating budget,  which means money can't be pulled from teachers,  supplies and other operating costs to cover food  --  or vice versa.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Calling dads for first day of school

Project LIFT hopes to join the Million Father March in a big way,  summoning fathers and male stand-ins to walk 7,500 students to school Monday morning.

The march is an effort led by the Chicago-based Black Star Project,  designed to boost academic achievement among African American and Latino students by getting fathers involved in their education. This won't be the first time local groups and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools parents have taken part, but LIFT has extra money and energy behind the push.

Parent engagement is a key part of the five-year, $55 million quest to turn around West Charlotte High and its eight feeder schools.  Those schools have high poverty levels and a large number of students being raised by single moms or grandmothers,  so Project LIFT is also recruiting local fraternities and members of Men Who Care Global and 100 Black Men of Charlotte to escort students on the first day.  While the first-day walk is symbolic,  the real goal is lasting involvement by fathers and male mentors.

LIFT staffer Christian Friend posted on the project blog about the impact of having a loving but distant father and losing him too early.  "For years I resented by father," he writes.  "I resented not having more time with him. I resented the lack of attention and emotion I got from my father. As I approach 40, I really appreciate my father.  ...  His work allowed him to provide a great life for my brother and I. More importantly than that, my father blessed me immensely because I did see him and I knew he loved me.

Click here to read more about the Project LIFT effort or to register.  Of course,  dads at any school can take part by showing up with their child on Monday  --  and staying involved afterward.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Rosh Hashanah will be a school day

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools tries to take religious holidays into account when it crafts school calendars.  But this year Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year,  runs from sundown on Wednesday,  Sept. 4,  to the evening of Friday,  Sept. 6.  That's the second week of school,  so it wasn't practical to schedule teacher work days.

Charlotte's Jewish Community Relations Council recently emailed families to note "the hardship this poses for many of our families with school-aged children."  The council forwarded letters from CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison and Union County Superintendent Mary Ellis spelling out how the district will deal with the holiday.

Morrison's letter notes that Jewish students and teachers may be absent to attend services,  and asks that families let school officials know in advance about such situations.  Schools have been reminded to avoid scheduling field trips,  major tests and project deadlines during Jewish holidays, Morrison says.

Both districts say students will be given excused absences to meet religious obligations,  and teachers will make  reasonable accommodations  for makeup work.

Yom Kippur,  the Day of Atonement,  runs from sundown Friday, Sept. 13,  to the evening of Saturday,  Sept. 14,  so it doesn't conflict with school hours.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Teachers with 'bad' attitude

Last week I got a Facebook notice that I'd been added to a group called  "North Carolina BATs." A scan made it clear this was a teacher page,  and it didn't take me long to guess the rest of the acronym.

BAT logo
Fordham University Professor Mark Naison and self-described education activist Priscilla Sanstead of Tulsa, Okla., created the Badass Teacher Association as a Facebook group in June.  According to Naison's write-up,  membership skyrocketed like nothing he'd seen in his history of social media activism.  "The key may lie in the statement we wrote describing our reason for creating the group: 'This is for every teacher who refuses to be blamed for the failure of our society to erase poverty and inequality, and refuses to accept assessments, tests and evaluations imposed by those who have contempt for real teaching and learning,' " he writes.

What gives this yet-amorphous group its energy,  according to Naison, is teachers' anger over high-stakes testing,  micromanagement of their classrooms and  "the campaign of demonization directed against them." The name was intended to be  "half-humorous and extremely provocative,"  Naison writes, though it's not a hit with all potential supporters. But the organizers are eager to seize the moment.

"We are Badass. We are legion. And we will force the nation to hear our voice!"  the web site says.  "In terms of what policies or organizing strategies will emerge from this group,  only time will tell.  But it is significant that there are clearly thousands of teachers in this country who are fed up with polite, respectful appeals to policy makers who hold them in contempt and are ready to fight fire with fire."

The North Carolina page displays links about state and national teacher issues,  humorous videos and teacher-related merchandise.  If there's an action agenda,  it's not clear here,  either.  But don't be surprised to see some BAT members at today's Moral Monday protest in Charlotte.  Now you know what the BAT signal means.

And to state what I hope is obvious:  The fact that I've been added to the Facebook group doesn't mean I've joined the cause,  any more than I'm allied with the folks across the spectrum that I follow on Twitter or have as Facebook friends.  For me,  it's another way to keep up with developments in the world of education  --  and to help readers do the same.

Friday, August 16, 2013

What if NC leaders used teacher pay scale?

Apparently it takes a lot more money to hire advisers for our leaders in Raleigh than to recruit teachers for the children of North Carolina.

My eyes were drawn to an AP story in the morning's Observer about two 24-year-olds who worked in Pat McCrory's campaign for governor and are now making salaries of $85,000 or more in advisory posts with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.


I had just finished talking with a 25-year-old Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher who's bright and energetic enough to help Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark with some of her research.  He's making about $37,400 a year  --  but only because CMS provides a supplement with county money.  The state scale would put him at $30,800.

The state's teacher pay scale starts at $30,800 and tops out at about $65,520,  for a teacher with a master's degree, National Board certification and at least 35 years of experience.  That made me curious:  How do advisers to the people who approve that scale compare?

The state government salary database lists 60 employees of the governor's office.  On a quick scan,  I counted 22 making more than any teacher can.  Eric Guckian,  a member of the Charlotte education scene who was recently hired as McCrory's education adviser,  came in at $120,000.  Three of the six administrative assistants earn more than $50,000,  a level teachers crack at 32 years on the bachelor's degree scale.

Only one member of the governor's staff makes less than a starting teacher.  Gregory Anthony Steele is listed as press secretary at $28,000.  He's listed as a 21-year-old hired in June,  which makes me suspect it's a summer job.

What about the legislative staff?  I came up dry.  Turns out the General Assembly has its own payroll system,  which we don't have online.

I've sent a request to our data guy.  I think people might want to know.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Plea for patience: Will PowerSchool be ready?

Heath Morrison made  "an impassioned plea to our community for patience"  at this week's school board meeting.

Why?   School starts in less than two weeks.  And all the data,  from student schedules to bus routes to employee information,  will be controlled by the new PowerSchool system being adopted statewide.

Anyone who's been part of a system transition knows how crazy that can be. Now imagine the conversion of all school data for the state of North Carolina in less than a year,  with the operation of all public schools at stake.

"There are going to be hiccups,  bumps and unexpected issues that arise,"  Morrison said Tuesday.

He and other CMS leaders were grim about the conversion prospects last fall.  Now they're trying to be optimistic and make things work.  But technology chief Valerie Truesdale acknowledged that some student schedules may be delayed,  especially for those registering after July 1.  "Each day is a new set of odd things that can occur,"  she said.

Why is North Carolina doing this?  Pearson School Systems,  a private educational information company,  bought the old NCWISE data system in 2010 and phased it out.  State officials said a two-year transition to the new Pearson product would have cost more,  so they opted for the quick switch.

Families who have used Parent Assistant to track their kids'  grades and   attendance online will convert to PowerSchool's Parent Portal.  CMS will open a new PowerSchool parent hotline on Monday:  980-343-9420.

As always,  I'm eager to know what those of you on the front lines are experiencing.  I'm still trying to figure out the terminology.  Best I can tell,  PowerSchool is part of a new state system called Home Base,  which combines the data system with school improvement programs.  Read the CMS presentation to the school board here and the state's explanation of Home Base here.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Teacher wants Wednesday walks of support

After reading one teacher's open letter to legislators,  Marie Calabro,  a fourth-grade teacher at Beverly Woods Elementary,  came up with her own plan to keep educators'  plight in legislators'  minds:  Walk to the Sidewalk Wednesdays.

"Every Wednesday beginning on Aug. 28 and continuing until legislation has changed, every concerned teacher,  administrator,  parent,  student and citizen will walk to the sidewalks in front of every public school at precisely 5 p.m. and stand in solidarity and concern,"  Calabro proposes.  "Numbers and names will be collected,  tallied,  and sent to  (Gov.)  Pat McCrory,  (House Speaker Thom) Tillis,  and other state representatives along with a letter of concern. We will roar with a silent,  peaceful,  but forceful message that we love the children of North Carolina,  that we appreciate and revere the noble teaching profession,  that we are committed to higher levels of education for ourselves,  our students and our society.  However,  we are embarrassed to be teachers,  administrators,  parents,  students and citizens in the state of North Carolina in the year 2013, and we would like our state to move in the opposite direction in which it is going."

Like many other educators, Calabro is dismayed by the state's falling national ranking for teacher pay and by changes such as eliminating tenure and extra pay for advanced degrees.  Like many,  she thought about staging a walk-out from work.  But organizing a walk-out in a right-to-work state isn't a smart career move.  So she decided to follow Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools colleague Justin Ashley's approach to helping legislators see teachers as respectful and respectable neighbors.

"We will not be protesting during school hours or on school property,"  she said.  "We will not be screaming or yelling.  We will be peaceful,  hold signs, and stand firm in our belief that North Carolina can be,  once again,  at the top of the list for student achievement as well as teacher and parent satisfaction."

It's not a highly organized event.  Calabro encourages others who want to take part to contact her on Facebook.  She's hoping sidewalk Wednesdays will spread from her south Charlotte school to become a wider movement.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Report on buses and bells coming

A report on CMS busing options and bell schedules by a visiting team from the Council of the Great City Schools should be ready for release in September,  says Earnest Winston, chief of staff for Superintendent Heath Morrison.

The battle of the bells has been brewing since 2011, when then-Superintendent Peter Gorman created new "late bell" schedules and added 45 minutes to the elementary school day to save money on busing. As soon as Morrison was hired last summer, he started hearing concerns from parents and teachers. Based on reactions to the council visit a couple of weeks ago, it seems unlikely that the outside experts' report will end the conflict.

The goal is for the council team to combine their expertise in transportation and their knowledge of how other districts handle busing schedules with info provided by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and local interviews.  They'll assess alternatives that have been crafted by CMS staff, parents and teachers to see whether any are financially feasible and practically desirable. CMS is spending  "up to $18,000"  on the study, Winston said.

Plaza (L) and Thorsland (R)
But Susan Plaza and Sharon Thorsland,  twin sisters and CMS parents who have been among the leaders of the bell schedule group,  say their experience left them skeptical.  They asked Judy Kidd, a high school teacher who's president of the Classroom Teachers Association,  to join them in their meeting with the visiting team.  Plaza said Kidd has helped her group poll teachers about the impact of the schedules and they wanted her to help present the case.

Plaza and Kidd say Winston denied Kidd the chance to take part in the discussion with Plaza, Thorsland and other parents,  and wouldn't let her join a later session with teachers. Both said afterward they question the sincerity of the district's effort and don't think enough teachers who oppose the late bell schedule and the longer elementary day were interviewed.

"We just kind of feel like it was all done for show,"  Plaza said this week.

"I think it's going to be status quo,"  Kidd said.

Winston,  replying to an email from Plaza,  said he had set aside 90 minutes for the council team to talk with Plaza,  Thorsland and other volunteers who had spent months working with CMS staff to explore options.  Kidd wasn't part of that work,  he said,  noting that the group actually got two hours to make their case.  Winston said a number of teachers met with the council team,  not all of them supporters of the late schedule.   "In fact,"  he wrote,  "feedback compiled by (the Superintendent's Teacher Advisory Council)  highlighting an array of teacher concerns about the late-bell schedule was shared with the CGCS." Update: Winston says Kidd showed up part way through the session with Plaza and other parents and was allowed to stay for that, but was not allowed to attend the teacher session.

And so,  the debate seems likely to go on,  even after the Council of the Great City Schools weighs in.

Monday, August 12, 2013

118 pages of CMS reading

After a crazy stretch last week,  I just got a chance to track down the full reports from 22 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools task forces.

Well,  make that full reports from 21.  After a brief and confusing presentation from the compensation task force at last week's event at West Charlotte High,  I was told the report from months of work on a "strategic compensation" plan for teachers would be released as part of this report.  In fact,  there's a one-page timeline from that group that concludes in July 2013:  "Sent a memo from Dr. Heath Morrison to Compensation Task Force thanking them for their efforts."  So I guess we'll have to wait for a report from another compensation task force that started meeting in June. I've been assured those meetings will be public,  but I haven't yet found a schedule.

But the reports from the 21 other task forces are detailed,  with references,  costs and timetables.  I'm going to wade through them as I have time,  but I'm also hoping for a little crowd-sourcing.  If you've got an interest in one or more of the areas,  check out the reports and let me know what's interesting and what raises further questions.  It's 118 pages of reading,  so it's going to take awhile.  If you're a speed reader,  you can move on to 212 pages of supplemental reading from the  "closing the achievement gap"  group.

'Burger King' teacher launches petition for McCrory

Apparently I wasn't the only one who was impressed by fourth-grade teacher Justin Ashley's letter to House Speaker Thom Tillis.

On Wednesday morning,  I posted his letter talking about his dedication to teaching and his fear that legislators'  action would discourage future teachers.  Within 48 hours,  "Burger King vs. teaching:  One man's choice" became the most-read item I've ever had on this blog.  By the end of the weekend,  it had been viewed more than 34,000 times.

Teachers,  parents and advocates around the state shared it on social media.  Superintendent Heath Morrison included a link in his Friday email to more than 18,000 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employees.  The Public School Forum of North Carolina copied the letter to more than 4,000 education supporters around the state.

Ashley,  who teaches at McAlpine Elementary in south Charlotte,  says he got dozens of messages of support and congratulations.  But by week's end,  he hadn't gotten a reply from Tillis,  a Mecklenburg Republican who was once an active CMS parent.

So he launched something new:  A petition on asking Gov. Pat McCrory to spend a day teaching his class. He had 670 online signatures Sunday afternoon.

"After you walk my kids to dismissal, you and I could have a conversation in my classroom about your experiences:  what you enjoyed, what was difficult, what you learned,"  Ashley's request concludes.  "In social studies, we teach our students a lot about revolutions.  Maybe it's time we start one.  Let's begin a new conversation about public education with you walking in my shoes.  Let's trade shoes for a day."
A little more about how this got started:  Like many teachers around North Carolina,  Ashley was dismayed by some of the actions taken in this summer's legislative session,  and he put his thoughts in writing.  Unlike many of them,  he decided to sign his name and go public.
Ashley said Friday that friends and colleagues advised him to make his letter anonymous or get a group to sign.  But his personal experience and credibility are what's grabbing people's attention, I believe.
It's one thing to cast teachers as  "unions and special interests"  who are interested in  "lining their pockets,"  to quote from Sen. Phil Berger's opinion piece in Sunday's Observer.
It's another to engage with a 28-year-old guy trying to support a young family on $39,500 a year.  Especially when that guy is the kind of teacher you'd want your children and grandchildren to have.  Ashley has been named the state teacher of the year in history and social studies.  He has dressed up as James Madison to do a rap video about the Bill of Rights. His kids re-enact Revolutionary War battles with water balloons. When he teaches about the three branches of government,  his students set up their own government.  "The kids pass laws like 'Don't pick your nose in class,' " he says.  Ashley is thinking how cool it would be to have the real governor show up for that one.
One theme goes through his lessons:  Regular citizens have a voice in democracy.  By writing respectful,  constructive letters and signing his name,  Ashley hopes to demonstrate that lesson for his kids.  "I just hope it raises some questions and opens some eyes,"  he said.
Some of his fellow teachers have been inspired to build on his example.  More on that to come.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Lake Woebegon and grad rates

Astute readers looking at the graduation rates for Charlotte-Mecklenburg's 28 high schools may notice something odd:  24 of them list rates above the district average of 81 percent, including 13 above 90 percent.

That may call to mind Garrison Keillor's mythical Lake Woebegon, where all the children are above average.  Worse, it may raise questions about whether the numbers are valid.

In this case,  the seeming impossibility is due to the way school and district rates are calculated.  It's not a CMS thing;  I'm willing to bet you'll find the same pattern in virtually every district.

North Carolina,  like other states,  tracks the students who start high school and calculates the on-time graduation rate by the number who get a diploma four years later  (Superintendent Heath Morrison says our state is unusual in not including summer-school grads).  But students who switch schools after falling behind don't count toward school calculations.

Take,  for instance,  a student who starts ninth grade at School A but doesn't get enough credits to be promoted.  Sometime in his second year of high school he moves to School B.  School A doesn't get blame for his failure to graduate  (or credit if he does)  because he left.  But School B also isn't held responsible because he was behind when he got there.  As long as that student stays within one district,  though,  he still counts toward the district rate.

As you can imagine,  students who fall behind and move around are at special risk for failing to graduate.  So you see those students bringing down the district and state numbers without dragging down schools.

Morrison and his crew are well aware that plenty of people,  including me,  scrutinize CMS numbers closely  --  and with good reason.  The district has gotten black eyes for bad data,  including flawed graduation rates reported in 2006,  when the current tracking system debuted,  and error-filled school progress reports posted last year.  The skepticism started flowing as soon as we posted a story on this year's gains.

John King of Harrisburg quickly emailed me questioning why CMS couldn't quantify the impact of a change in graduation requirements,  from 28 credits in previous years to 24 starting with the Class of 2013.

"Given any level of competent statistical tracking,  it should require very little time or effort to produce dual graduation numbers, one assuming 28 required credits and one assuming 24,"  King wrote.  "I do something similar almost every day in my job!  It’s a key step in evaluating the effectiveness of the decision to make the change.  The failure to do so simply proves that there is more interest in managing the perception than the result and that there is no more transparency under this Superintendent than under the last!"

I requested exactly that calculation Tuesday afternoon,  when I heard that graduation rates would be released Thursday.  I agree with King that it's valuable information,  and I'm disappointed it wasn't available right away.  But Morrison and Chief Accountability Officer Frank Barnes have repeatedly said they're going to check and recheck anything they release,  rather than take another credibility hit by giving out something they have to retract.  They say they'll give me the numbers when they're confident of them,  and I'll report on that information when I get it. 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

No-zero plan: CMS will keep talking

Don't look for a districtwide mandate this year on the controversial question of whether Charlotte-Mecklenburg teachers should hand out grades lower than 50 percent.

Questions and concerns about "no zero" grading systems have been simmering here and nationwide.  I talked to Superintendent Heath Morrison about the issue last fall,  a few months after he started in CMS.  He said then that the debate had started well before he arrived and he wanted a consistent practice at all schools.  But first,  he said,  he wanted to hear from students,  teachers and parents.  (Grading was not among the 22 topics flagged for task force studies.)

Controversy bubbled up again this spring,  when Mallard Creek High piloted an approach calling for students to get at least a 50,  as long as they made an effort.  Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark said in May that the district was still gathering feedback,  with no final recommendation sent to Morrison.


I thought the start of a new school year might be a logical time to get all schools on the same system.  But Clark told me recently that this year will be spent on professional development,  talking to principals and teachers about  "mastery learning."

"What we felt like we needed to do was back up and have a conversation about grades:  What are the purpose of grades?"  she said.

Here's my unofficial take:  Many of us grew up with a sense that grades were used for sorting students.  If you worked hard for top grades,  you got into good colleges.  If you didn't do well,  too bad.  There were always manufacturing jobs that paid a decent wage without requiring much formal education.

Mastery is more about supporting students.  The thinking is that we can no longer consign big groups of students to failure if we want to have a healthy economy.  So teachers are now encouraged to keep working with students  --  allowing them to retake tests or try again on homework,  for instance  --  if that's what they need to master essential academics.

Clark says the conversation about grades,  involving parent leaders as well as employees,  will take place this fall.  I'm sure CMS officials will do a better job of explaining the approach than I have.  Any districtwide mandates would come out after that,  Clark said.

But just because there's no official decision doesn't mean teachers aren't getting marching orders.  Right after I spoke with Clark,  a CMS high school teacher who requested anonymity sent me a detailed email about mixed signals on grades.

"CMS is concerned about grade inflation and is going to hold teachers accountable when a student has an A in a class, but gets a C on a state assessment,"  this teacher wrote.  "Of course, teacher are not permitted to look at the tests and have no input into how the tests are designed.  ...  In direct contradiction to CMS's concern for grade inflation, it will be encouraged that no assignment ever be scored lower than a 50%.  While not required, 'encouraged' in CMS means required."

This teacher says he's also been told that students must not get a semester grade lower than 60 percent,  to ensure that the student can pull the grade up and pass by year's end.  And any test grade lower than 80 percent  (which is generally considered the  "mastery"  mark)  requires reteaching and retesting,  he said.

"I don't even know where to begin to laugh at this,"  the teacher wrote.  "My class sizes last year ranged from 40-43 students per class.  I don't see how this kind of policy is possible to implement without holding most of my students back while I reteach material."

It looks like CMS has some challenging conversations ahead.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Burger King vs. teaching: One man's choice

I've seen a lot of back-and-forth about the education changes in this year's state budget. But an email from Justin Ashley, a fourth-grade teacher at McAlpine Elementary, to House Speaker Thom Tillis, stands out.

I am impressed that Ashley signed his name and told his personal story with power.  I admire the fact that Ashley approached Tillis,  a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools parent,  as a respectful neighbor,  rather than treating him like some distant enemy.  He made his point so well that I am reprinting his letter in its entirety,  with Ashley's permission:

Mr. Tillis,

I wanted to first thank you for your service to our state.  I can't imagine how difficult it must be to make so many decisions that impact so many people.

I'm sure that being a politician can be a lot like playing the part of Batman:  people are always questioning whether you are a hero or a villain when all you really want is to protect Gotham City.  I appreciate the sacrifices you have made for the Tar Heel state.

Secondly, I would like to tell you my story:
Choosing a career path is frightening, especially when you're 17.  I weighed my options between Burger King manager and the armed forces.  My options were few and far between,  as I was residing in a low-income,  single parent home at the time.

My career perspective widened when my school counselor informed me of a possible scholarship opportunity.  We decided to give it a shot.  I wrote an essay,  filled out some paperwork,  and participated in a scholarship interview at UNC Charlotte.

A few weeks later,  I ripped the  letter open from my mailbox:

"Congratulations.  You have been awarded a full scholarship to a North Carolina University."

I will never forget reading those words with water-filled eyes.  For the first time in my life,  I felt fully empowered to overcome mediocrity.

I opened that letter ten years ago.  In that defining moment,  I accepted the full scholarship as a North Carolina Teaching Fellow and graduated from UNC Charlotte in 2007.

Currently,  I teach 4th grade in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.  I have been a father to boys and girls at school who don't have them at home . I have helped raise test scores and created a fun learning environment for kids.  I love my job.

In February, I was even fortunate enough to walk across a stage in Greensboro and accept the award for the North Carolina Social Studies Teacher of the Year.

And even though my salary would be higher as a Burger King manager,  I'm grateful for the door that was opened for me,  for the founders of the scholarship program,  for the General Assembly (years ago) that allocated funding for my scholarship,  and for the taxpayers who provided the investment in the first place.  I've been able to change lives because these people changed mine.  And I'm just one of the thousands of stories,  stories that represent better teaching and better learning because of of our great state's dedication to our public education system.

A few weeks ago,  our state legislators passed a budget that eradicated the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Scholarship.  They also terminated teacher tenure and additional pay for teachers with master degrees,  along with a host of other public education cutbacks that total approximately 500 million dollars.

With these sweeping changes,  I can't help but wonder:

How many state teacher of the years did our current General Assembly just eliminate from the classroom?

How many doors were just shut in the face of so many talented teacher candidates?

My heartfelt message to our current General Assembly and Governor:

As you create bills and budgets involving education,  please don't marinate on the massive numbers of educators and students.  Instead,  visualize your favorite teacher as a child, the one who spoke words of vision and hope into you.  The one who invested her time,  energy,  and love into your life so that you could become the leader you have grown to be.  Do you see her?  Now, use your resources to enable teachers just like her to do for others what she did for you. 

Great teaching is the golden ticket for our schools.  Teachers are the solution.  Help us help our kids.  Hold on to great teachers right now before it's too late.  Create opportunities and incentives that attract new teachers for the future.  You have the keys to the door.

And closed doors can quickly be reopened...

Justin Ashley
2013 North Carolina Social Studies Teacher of the Year
2013 North Carolina History Teacher of the Year
2011 CMS East Zone Teacher of the Year

That last line is important:  Closed doors can be reopened.

There's a lot of anger and frustration about what happened in Raleigh this summer.  But the folks who cast those votes are people we elected from our own communities.  And now they're back.

In the coming weeks,  I hope to get the members of Mecklenburg's legislative delegation to share their thoughts about what their actions mean for education and to talk about what comes next.  Meanwhile,  remember that you can find contact information for members of the House and Senate at the General Assembly web site.

The public discussion about the future of education in North Carolina shouldn't fade with summer.  If you manage to open any doors,  let me know.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

CMS principals, Apple crew talk transformation

Charlotte-Mecklenburg's principals will meet with a team from Apple on Wednesday and Thursday to launch a school year that's focused on turning each school into a  "school of choice."

Kate Kemker,  Apple's Southeast education development executive and a former technology official with the Florida Department of Education,  will lead the first day's  "Challenge for Change"  session at Hopewell High. She's one of 12 Apple staffers the company is sending at no cost to CMS,  Chief Communications Officer Kathryn Block says.  The second day will include sessions by another Apple executive,  Stephanie Hamilton;  Jonathan Travers of Education Resource Strategies;  Block and local leadership consultant Mike Whitehead.

The two-day  "transformation summit"  is central to Superintendent Heath Morrison's vision for long-term academic success,  in which principals lead faculty,  families,  students and community partners in creating schools with individually tailored academic programs,  teaching strategies and schedules.

But every time Morrison and his staff enthuse about the Apple-led sessions, I scratch my head.  Isn't Apple in the business of selling computers,  digital devices and software?  Wouldn't any vendor leap at the chance to lead a planning session for the nation's 17th largest school district?

In a 2011 series on  "Grading the Digital School,"  the New York Times noted Apple's savvy at  "wooing and wowing"  educators.

"The demand for technology in classrooms has given rise to a slick and fast-growing sales force. Makers of computers and other gear vigorously court educators as they vie for billions of dollars in school financing. Sometimes inviting criticism of their zealous marketing, they pitch via e-mail, make cold calls, arrange luncheons and hold community meetings,"  reporter Matt Richtel wrote.
"But Apple in particular woos the education market with a state-of-the art sales operation that educators say is unique,  and that,  public-interest watchdogs say,  raises some concerns. Along with more traditional methods,  Apple invites educators from around the country to  'executive briefings,'  which participants describe as equal parts conversation,  seminar and backstage pass."
This week's session follows a trip by Morrison and four other CMS administrators to Apple headquarters in July.  But Block said the exchange of visits isn't tied to a CMS purchase.  "We have no idea if it's going to translate into the use of Apple products,"  Block said.

Monday, August 5, 2013

CMS task force reports coming

The folks who served on Superintendent Heath Morrison's 21 advisory task forces over the last few months will gather at West Charlotte High this afternoon to celebrate the end of their work and offer brief highlights of their recommendations.  The full reports will be posted on the CMS task force web site on Wednesday,  says Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark.


Today's get-together is mostly to thank the 300-plus citizens and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employees who delved into such topics as early childhood,  technology,  gifted students,  magnets and choice,  public trust,  parent engagement and cultural competence.  After the release,  Clark said,  CMS will sort all the recommendations into action categories,  from those that can and should be put in place right away to those that require more money,  more study or changes in policy/legislation.  The suggestions will shape discussions as Morrison and the board revise the district's strategic plan in coming weeks.

Most of the task forces have wrapped up their work,  though some may continue to meet occasionally.  But one is just gearing up,  and it's a hot topic:  Compensation.  When Morrison launched his list of 22 task forces in November,  there was already a group of educators working on a  "strategic compensation"  plan for teachers  tied to a state request with a March 1 deadline.  That group didn't include outsiders and was never listed among the task forces whose meetings were open to the public.  Instead,  Clark said,  a new task force has been formed with a broader goal of looking at compensation for all 18,000-plus employees,  not just teachers.  Members of the previous panel have been invited to join.  Clark said the new group's roster and meetings will be posted in the next few days.  Anyone may attend,  including interested CMS employees who aren't on the panel,  she said.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Master's degree pay: Nasty surprise ahead?

We know the N.C. legislature has eliminated extra pay for teachers who earn advanced degrees after 2014.  But like so many things coming out of this summer's rapid-fire session,  details are still being sorted out.

It's not even clear what the deadline is for completing a master's degree to qualify for the 10 percent pay hike that's now part of state's teacher pay scale.  The state budget bill says teachers are grandfathered into the old pay scale if they earned the salary supplement  "prior to the 2014-15 school year."  Currently,  the deadline for earning master's pay in 2013-14 is April 1,  2014.

But Tom Tomberlin,  a human-resources official with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction,  said today that his department will ask the state Board of Education to consider pushing that back "to accommodate those teachers finishing their masters in the spring of 2014."

The bigger question,  Tomberlin says,  is what happens after 2014,  when everyone converts to one pay scale.  Teachers who are grandfathered into the current master's scale have been assured their pay won't be cut,  he said,  but it's possible they'd be frozen in coming years until their pay comes in line with the new scale. For instance,  a teacher with 10 years' experience and a master's degree made $40,820 on the 2012-13 state scale  (many local districts supplement state pay),  compared with $37,110 for a teacher with only a bachelor's.  The bachelor's scale doesn't hit that level until Year 17.

 "We don't know the answer to that,"  Tomberlin said.  "It's a point we've got to get clarity on from the legislators."

Meanwhile,  teachers in grad school and the universities that serve them are scrambling to figure out how to meet the new deadline  (whatever it turns out to be).  One teacher who had been enrolled in UNC Charlotte's graduate program forwarded an email sent Friday by Dean Ellen McIntyre.  The College of Education is  "strategizing to find ways to help as many of you as possible complete your programs with integrity by December 2013," the email says, adding that more information will arrive in the coming week.

Teachers are resorting to dark humor to cope with what Annie McCanless,  a veteran teacher at Providence High,  dubs "the summer of misery for education in North Carolina."  Shortly after the budget passed last week,  she sent me her Ten Reasons Why Teachers Don't Need an Advanced Degree in North Carolina.  Among them:  "If teachers get an advanced degree they will leave NC so they can work in a state that rewards the educational achievement,"  "Paying all teachers the same salary simplifies the salary charts"  and  "Teachers don’t need the knowledge and skills learned in an advanced degree. All they needed to know they learned in kindergarten."

There's one bright spot for teachers:  Legislators didn't touch the 12 percent supplement for those who have earned National Board Certification.  "I think  'for now'  is the operative word,"  cautioned Tomberlin.

N.C. tenure change: Questions remain

Next summer one in four N.C. public-school teachers will be asked to sign away their traditional tenure in exchange for a four-year contract that includes a $500-a-year raise.

But state education officials are still trying to figure out how the transition will work.  Among the questions:  How will superintendents identify the top 25 percent in their districts?

"It gets a bit confusing,  even if you're deep into this stuff,"  said N.C. Department of Public Instruction spokeswoman Vanessa Jeter.  She put me in touch with Tom Tomberlin,  a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools administrator who's now the state's human resources liaison with school districts.

Here's what Tomberlin knows so far:  Based on evaluations for the coming school year,  superintendents and boards of education will be required to designate their top 25 percent in 2014.  Those teachers will be offered a four-year contract and the $500 annual raise in exchange for giving up career status,  the current job protection.

Can they refuse?  Tomberlin says probably so,  since the legislation says it's a voluntary change.  But there wouldn't be much point,  he said,  since everyone's career status goes away in 2018,  when the four-year contract would end.

To be eligible for the top 25 percent,  a teacher must have been employed by the district for three consecutive years.  A quirk in the language of the budget bill  (the section on teacher contracts starts on page 97)  makes it unclear whether legislators expect value-added ratings based on student test scores to be used for determining the top 25 percent,  Tomberlin said.  The superintendent is responsible for identifying the top teachers,  but the school board can modify that list,  as long as teachers offered a four-year contract and raise have  "shown effectiveness as demonstrated by proficiency on the teacher evaluation instrument."

I wondered what happens in coming years:  Will additional teachers be eligible for the four-year contracts and bonuses based on evaluations in 2015 and beyond?  Tomberlin said that's not clear.  The state Board of Education and DPI will be working on details of this plan,  with guidance from legislators.

Meanwhile,  teachers who don't already have career status will be hired on one-year contracts.  In 2018,  all career status ends.  Teachers will be offered one-,  two- or four-year contracts.  Only those with at least three years'  experience and proficient job ratings will be eligible for more than one year.

Jonathan Sink,  the CMS legislative liaison,  adds that if the district doesn't want to renew a teacher's contract,  the teacher may petition the school board for a hearing "but the local board does not have to hear the matter."

"The decision to fire a teacher during the term of his or her contract must be for one of 15 'just cause'  reasons, which are identical to the 15 just cause bases that public school employees have always known,"  Sink adds.  Read Sink's recap of all education-related legislation here.

Update:  Gov. Pat McCrory's proposal to reward 1,000 top teachers with $10,000 stipends gives a new twist to the performance-pay discussion.  The state has more than 97,000 teachers,  so you're talking roughly 1 percent.  One CMS teacher on Facebook has already dubbed the plan "Hunger Games: NC Teacher Edition."

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Making sense of an education whirlwind

Reaction to the budget N.C. legislators passed last week has been flooding social media and inboxes this week.

For most of the 11 years I've covered education, educational change at the state level has moved at glacial pace. This year it swept in like a summer thunderstorm, and some educators feel like they got soaked.

Plenty of teachers have penned and posted letters expressing dismay. I thought this  "Dear North Carolina"  letter from first-grade teacher Kayla Moran was a nicely written example of the first-hand emotional reaction.  "North Carolina,  you're breaking my heart,"  she begins.  "I wish you could see the faces of my children,  but they're just numbers to you."

Julie Kowal of the newly-formed advocacy group CarolinaCAN posted a three-part (so far) series of budget briefings.  She says the state's first steps toward tenure reform replaces one meaningless reward,  career status,  with a $500 annual raise for top performers that is "just insulting,"  and says the legislature's compensation task force has serious work ahead.

Jo Ann Norris,  president of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, offers a detailed analysis of changes in staffing,  teacher pay,  tenure and the N.C. Teaching Fellows program in a piece titled  "What a Difference a Year Makes."

 "I do not envy principals, personnel directors, or other administrators seeking to hire teachers in the 115 school systems in North Carolina in the coming years,"  Norris writes.  "It will be a state in all likelihood that will drop to the last ranks in both average teacher salary and per pupil expenditure."

Bill Anderson,  executive director of the local advocacy group MeckEd,  pulled together a data-based report on changes in the state's education scene since 2006,  looking at staffing,  teacher salaries,  enrollment growth and academic performance.   Anderson,  a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools principal,  challenges the notion that legislators are fixing a  "broken"  public education system.  Instead,  he contends,  teachers have helped students make gains despite hurdles imposed by spending limits.

"Reduced funding will only continue to damage our local schools,  reduce diversity,  divide communities,  force more cutbacks in classrooms and extracurricular activities,  and fail to provide each and every child with the education necessary for success in life,"  Anderson writes.

I did find one rave review for the legislature  --  let me know about others I may have missed  --  from Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, which called the budget a victory for low-income and working-class students and families.  That's because it provides opportunity scholarships  based on income and disabilities to help families send their children to private schools.

"Make no mistake about it that this legislative session, North Carolina’s voice was heard loud and clear around the nation that she intends to chart a more comprehensive educational course in how we will educate our neediest children,"  wrote president Darrell Allison.  "Passage of these two scholarship measures amid continued public charter school expansion means parents will have more options within the K-12 process regardless of their income or zip code.”