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.
Friday, December 20, 2013
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.
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
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
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.
Monday, December 16, 2013
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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|
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
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.
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
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.
It wasn't until late Friday afternoon that the PIO emailed this response from Cockerham:
Friday, December 6, 2013
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 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."
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
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, email@example.com or 704-542-9858.
Monday, December 2, 2013
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?
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.