Saturday, July 31, 2010

CMS Teach For America study

Some of you have been peppering me with questions about the costs and benefits of Teach For America in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, concerns that have grown in urgency as CMS lays off teachers.

Here's an article on some of the costs, benefits and issues. For those who want more detail, CMS has produced a 64-page report on its Teach For America experience.

Read the report here.

The report, done by CMS's Center for Research and Evaluation, looks at test scores, classroom observations, principal assessments and interviews with TFA recruits who were in CMS in 2007-08 and 2008-09.

As some of you have noted, research can be used to argue almost any position. Sure enough, there's fodder here for TFA boosters and detractors alike.

My blog readers are as pesky as reporters, so I can anticipate your next question: If this came out in August 2009, why haven't I reported on it before?

Keeping up with CMS can be like drinking from a firehose, so it's possible I saw some reference to it that got washed from my brain in last year's back-to-school deluge. But I've also just discovered that CMS apparently "releases" some of its most intriguing research by quietly posting it on the CRE website. I've got some catching up to do -- while gearing up for back-to-school 2010.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Kindergarten payoff

Reader Lindsay Merritt shared a link to a fascinating New York Times article about the long-term value of good kindergarten teachers.

It's especially intriguing as districts across the country, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg, try to figure out whether early education makes a lasting difference. Locally, gains from Bright Beginnings prekindergarten fade as officials track test scores over the years, a pattern that's nearly universal, according to the article.

But a Harvard economist and his team of researchers decided to track adult outcomes, using a group of Tennessee students first studied as kindergarteners in the 1980s. Those children had been randomly assigned to kindergarten teachers. Some classes showed much bigger gains than others, a result attributed to high-quality teachers.

Predictably, those differences faded on test scores in later grades. But the research presented this week found that kids in the most successful kindergarten classes, now adults in their 20s, were more likely to have gone to college, less likely to be single parents and earning more than peers who had less effective kindergarten teachers.

"The economists don't pretend to know the exact causes," writes Times reporter David Leonhardt. "But it's not hard to come up with plausible guesses. Good early education can impart skills that last a lifetime — patience, discipline, manners, perseverance. The tests that 5-year-olds take may pick up these skills, even if later multiple-choice tests do not."

Wow. I feel like I should write a thank-you note to Merry Deely, who did a great job of teaching my son in kindergarten 16 years ago.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Advising CMS

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board didn't actually pull the plug on its Equity Committee last night, but it's clear last rites are in order.

A 2001 policy made the citizen oversight panel mandatory; last night's revision makes it optional. A majority of board members said they want to create a new advisory board to monitor educational opportunities, but the existing committee isn't what the district needs today.

CMS has long relied on citizen advisory groups, dating back at least to the desegregation struggles of the 1970s. In the past decade, there have been board-appointed panels on student assignment and school construction, as well as a 2005 task force pulled together by business and political leaders who feared that CMS leaders were losing public support.

The Equity Committee lasted eight years, a lengthy lifespan as such things go. Members crunched data, visited schools and often chided the board for failing to provide equal opportunities.

But no one is left from the school board that, facing the end of court-ordered desegregation and an upheaval in student assignment, created this group. It's hardly surprising that a new board wants to define a new mission.

But what will it be? Most members were vague. Rhonda Lennon talked about a student achievement advisory committee that could look at what other districts are doing to help disadvantaged kids succeed.

My guess is the board won't get serious about redefining its advisory group until it gets through its own review of assignment, achievement and other issues (if you're following that from home, keep up with drafts of guiding principles and other updates here).

So here's your chance: What kind of citizen advice does CMS need? How could such a panel make the district better?

Yeah, I know this is pitching a softball to wisecrackers. But I also know some board members and district leaders are reading this blog. So serious answers just might get some traction.

Update 1:15 p.m. Kathy Ridge with MeckEd suggests an interesting alternative: Instead of having one group of appointees monitor equity, build on the public forums that have drawn hundreds to talk about student assignment. She'd have the board decide what criteria they're going to use to gauge educational quality and make that information public for each school (which Superintendent Peter Gorman already plans to do). Then, a couple of times a year, people with knowledge of the schools could be invited to weigh in on how CMS is doing and offer suggestions.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Greed gone wild

Imagine the outrage here if Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools decided to more than double Superintendent Peter Gorman's $300,000-a-year compensation. Or if school board members traded in their $12,240-a-year pay for a blank-check plan that let them grab more than $90,000 a year.

If you didn't see the story in Saturday's Observer about exorbitant public salaries in Bell, Calif., it's well worth a read. The chief administrative officer of the town of 40,000 -- that's less than one-third of CMS's enrollment -- was making $787,637 a year. Part-time council members were getting between $90,000 and $100,000 a year for what is almost certainly a lot less work than the CMS board puts in. Bear in mind this is not some millionaire enclave, but what the story describes as a blue-collar Los Angeles suburb with significant poverty.

"The city of mostly small homes is like many American cities and towns: No newspaper covers them regularly, and the citizens spend what little free time they have with family and recreation," the Associated Press story says. "A few who kept tabs on City Hall said they were suspicious because the officials were secretive, brusque and quick to act without explaining themselves."

If you've ever wondered why newspapers request and report on public pay, there you have it. Now that the Bell salaries have been exposed, apologies and resignations are rolling in.

Here at home, I understand why rank-and-file folks making much smaller paychecks often bristle at the public exposure. But if we only ask for information on a certain list of jobs, fishy deals can go unnoticed. If everything's on the table, not only journalists but citizens can check to see how public dollars are being dished out.

And we won't have to find out just how far greed can go when no one's looking.

Friday, July 23, 2010

One superintendent, 19 years

Neil Pedersen announced this week that he'll retire as superintendent of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools in 2011, leaving after 19 years in the job. That's the second-longest tenure among current N.C. superintendents, the district says, and an almost inconceivable stretch among bigger districts, where turnover every three to five years is the norm.

In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which was formed by the merger of city and county school districts in 1960, Jay M. Robinson holds the record, leading from 1977 to 1986.

The separate districts had been led by long-timers: Elmer Garinger led Charlotte City Schools for 11 years, plus another two as the first CMS superintendent, while James Wilson led the county district for almost 16, according to a list compiled by retired administrator Chris Folk. But since then, everyone but Robinson has cycled through in three to six.

Peter Gorman is starting his fifth year with CMS. There's plenty of speculation about how much longer he'll stay, both from people who are afraid he'll leave and those who hope he will. He's gotten a lot of national attention; it seems likely he could step into a high-profile job if wanderlust strikes. But he said when he came he hoped to stay through his daughter's graduation (she's in middle school now). I haven't heard anything to the contrary, but I'm not sure I would. High-level job negotiations tend to be closely guarded.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Schools close to work

A parent at this week's student assignment forum had a suggestion for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools: Instead of just looking at schools close to home, why not let parents choose schools close to work? This dad lives in Huntersville and works in uptown Charlotte; he talked about how tough it is to have lunch at school or get back for after-school events.

It's fitting that the discussion was at Martin Middle School, a former workplace magnet. The whole "governors village" complex -- Martin, Vance High and Morehead and Nathaniel Alexander elementary schools -- was designed partly to serve parents who worked at IBM and other companies in the northeastern University City area.

CMS's Scott McCully refreshed my memory on why that concept died: The 2002 "choice plan" let parents apply for a wide array of magnet and neighborhood schools. Workplace magnets became redundant when parents could select a school near work without giving any reason.

But the choice plan ran aground within a few years. Among the lessons learned: A school that has space one year may soon get more crowded. By admitting students from outside the zone and promising to let them stay, CMS created schools that sprawled into "trailer parks" of mobile classrooms.

McCully cites Eastover Elementary as an example: When the choice plan debuted, it had seats to spare and students opted in. Last year the board scrambled to draw new boundaries to ease crowding, infuriating many neighborhood families.

In 2003, CMS leaders talked about creating a workplace magnet at Billingsville Elementary, just east of uptown in a large, new school. I don't know why that plan died, but I can guess. Billingsville is a gorgeous, light-filled building, just across from the Mint Museum. It's also a school where the overwhelming majority of kids are poor and academic performance seems stuck among the district's lowest.

There are other schools like it near uptown, and CMS already offers seats to students outside those zones. There aren't many takers.

That's not to say the idea of schools close to work is dead on arrival. Board Chair Eric Davis has also voiced interest in the concept.

It's just that, like everything connected with student assignment, it's more complicated than it appears at first glance.

And I can't help thinking there's a new twist: These days, how many of us feel secure that our jobs will last through a school year, let alone provide a stable base for several years of school?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The CMS hidden agenda

One of the recurring questions about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' "comprehensive review" is whether there's a hidden agenda. Skeptics suspect the hours of meetings and public forums are for show, crafted to create a cloak of public buy-in for whatever has already been plotted.

Board Chair Eric Davis opened Tuesday's meeting with the observation that if the board had a predetermined plan, the process would surely be moving more quickly and smoothly than it has.

He's got a point. While any given board member may have an agenda, it's pretty clear the board as a whole is far from agreement, in public or behind the scenes. It's telling that there's even debate about exactly what is being comprehensively reviewed. Student assignment? Student achievement? Spending? All of the above? The official introduction on CMS's website says the review is "intended to help the Board align decision-making in multiple areas with the goals of the district's strategic plan as well as take a consistent, strategic approach to individual issues." All clear now?

Much more likely is that Superintendent Peter Gorman has an agenda that will shape what plays out over the next few weeks. When Kaye McGarry asked about it, he made no bones about the fact that he and his staff are working on options without waiting for the board to approve guidelines.

But Gorman's agenda isn't particularly hidden. Last year he laid out a five-year plan with much fanfare and a series of public meetings. He's been talking for months about closing schools in 2011-12, and given some hints about how he plans to do it.

What remains a mystery, and what people are dying to know, is specifics. Remember, the 2010 opening of new high schools in Cornelius and Mint Hill was no secret. It wasn't until officials rolled out plans that affected nearby schools -- and eventually spilled across most of the county -- that things got hairy.

At Tuesday night's forum, Debbie Duniec, a parent at Smith Language Academy, asked Gorman and the board to let the public see plans as they're being crafted. And she urged them to make sure proposals include price tags; after all, many of these changes are being driven by budget cuts.

"I think we need to already have those (preliminary plans) out on the table," she said.

Davis told her plans will start coming out next month. "We want to do it in a way that doesn't inflame or anger," he said.

And there's the sticky part. If CMS ends up closing 10 schools, officials will likely look at 20 as possible targets. Some will be eliminated before the proposals go public. So is it better to spare those families the angst of being publicly identified? Duniec and others like her would say parents and faculty have so much knowledge to contribute that they should be looped in early, possibly steering CMS leaders to different conclusions than they'd reach in their offices.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Get your school board tickets here ...

In another reminder that things could always be crazier, the News & Observer's T. Keung Hui reports that people will be lining up in the heat to get tickets to the Wake County's school board meeting Tuesday, or trying to squeeze into overflow space.

Protests continue over that board's recent decision to toss out a student assignment plan that promoted economic diversity in schools. Bear in mind that all this is going on while Wake launches a search for a new superintendent.

By contrast, Charlotte-Mecklenburg's ongoing study of student assignment, which resumes this week, seems serene.

Friday, July 16, 2010

CMS assignment talks: What's next?

Round 2 of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board's student assignment review begins Tuesday, with a special meeting and a public forum at Martin Middle School (the location was changed from an earlier announcement).

What should people expect from the forum? That's still a work in progress. Board Chair Eric Davis said this afternoon that the two forums (there's another July 29 at Crestdale Middle) will be "idea-generating" sessions but "we're still refining exactly what these topics will be."

The flier posted at the CMS Web site tells participants to come prepared to give feedback on 13 topics the board has ranked by priority. Those listings remain vague, such as "Diversity: Respect for people of all cultures" and "Effective use of facilities: Operating costs, age and condition of buildings." But Davis said he and Vice Chair Tom Tate are working on discussion topics that will spur more specific proposals for board members and staff to consider.

See the flier for details on meeting times and locations.

There's also a special board meeting scheduled for 2 p.m. Tuesday in Room 267 of the Government Center. Will the board be ready to vote on guidelines for decisions on drawing boundaries and closing schools, as Davis and Tate expect? Stay tuned. They've been working on a draft, but haven't released anything yet.

Update at 4:20 p.m.: Davis says they aren't ready to vote Tuesday, and instead will devote that three-hour session to discussing a draft. The vote could come as early as July 27, he said.

Test scores coming: Time to cheer?

The summer storm of school data is starting. Wake County Public Schools released their results from 2010 state exams this week, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg will follow on Monday. Statewide results will come over the next couple of weeks.

It's safe to predict some celebrating in Charlotte, based on Wake's results and the big fat hints that local parents, faculty and officials have been dropping since the district scored the tests in June.

It's also safe to predict controversy over what the scores mean. I'm hearing buzz about some great results in high schools, driven partly by a new state requirement that students who fall just short of passing the first time try again (they take a different version of the same test). In Wake, the biggest gains came from retesting. Some, including CMS Superintendent Peter Gorman, argue that's a bogus gain.

There's also valid debate about how well test scores (or any other data) gauge real education, let alone identify who's responsible for success or failure. Barring miracles -- and certain cranky reporters are always skeptical of "miraculous" gains -- there will still be profound and painful gaps between schools and groups of students. Inevitably, teachers who have poured their hearts out working with the most disadvantaged kids will feel battered by the public release of "failing" scores.

In our fast-paced, competitive society, it's easy to view the results like sport scores: Identify winners and losers, cheer the folks you like and boo the ones you don't. That may be fun, but it's not terribly helpful.

I'm a certifiable data geek, but I've always told parents that numbers never give you the answer. They just help you ask better questions.

So if you're hoping to make sense of the data storm that's coming, start by reading up on what's to come. Scores on the end-of-year exams will be sorted into passing (grade level or above) or failing (below or well below), with the overall pass rate used as the broadest marker of school achievement. The state also calculates student growth during the school year; a school that started with well-prepared students can end up with a high pass rate but subpar growth. The reverse can be true as well.

The state then applies ABC ratings, which range from "Honor school of excellence" to "low performing."

The federal No Child Left Behind Act parses results into "AYP ratings," based on whether a school makes adequate yearly progress toward complex and changing targets. I've spent years trying to understand and explain those ratings, and I've concluded they carry very little value for families. You essentially end up with a pass/fail label that requires 10 pages of footnotes to clarify, with sanctions for failure that apply only to the highest-poverty schools.

If all that's not enough, there will also be a report on how many of the students who started ninth grade in 2006-07 got diplomas this year. CMS's below-average graduation rate of 66 percent was the bug in the punch bowl of a mostly positive report for 2009. I haven't gotten any strong signals about what to expect this year.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Computerized car-pooling

As thousands of Charlotte-Mecklenburg magnet families figure out how to cope with the loss of neighborhood bus service in August, parents at Northwest School of the Arts think they've found an answer: Paying for an online carpool-coordination service.

When the school board voted to cut busing, district officials suggested families could carpool their kids to and from the new "shuttle stops" that could be miles from their homes. But when you've got more than 1,000 kids scattered over 545 square miles of Mecklenburg County, lining up connections becomes a gargantuan task.

Carolyn Allison with Northwest's PTSA researched three Web sites that offer carpool coordination.

The group's leaders settled on Carpool To School because it offers the most automation and demands the least work from volunteer coordinators, says PTSA President Ginny Brien.

"It's so automated that when it's your turn to drive, you can get an e-mail reminder," she says.

There's a start-up fee of about $1,000, plus $60 a month, for a cost of just over $1,700 a year. But Brien and her crew think that's worth it to preserve students' access to a specialized school they love.

"If we lose a significant number of students it could kill the program," she says, but adds that Northwest has a strong waiting list to pull from.

Ten other magnets are in a similar situation, and Brien suggests their parent groups look into similar options. She suggests checking the Carpool To School link for details; if there are still questions, you can get her e-mail from the Northwest PTSA site.

Meanwhile, CMS has asked parents to notify them by July 22 if they need to withdraw students from any of the magnets because of transportation problems. It's not a rock-hard deadline; students can return to their neighborhood school at any time. But that should give some gauge of how hard the busing changes are hitting families and schools.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Worst schools in America

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is in the running to be named America's best urban district by the Broad Foundation. But who's the worst?
The Wall Street Journal's national education reporter, Stephanie Banchero, posed that question to the Education Writers Association listserve this afternoon (old-timers may remember Banchero as an Observer reporter in the early 1990s).
The inbox immediately lit up with an overwhelming consensus: Detroit. After all, how can you beat a school district where the board president resigned after fondling himself in a meeting with the female superintendent? As one reporter said, "If soap operas took place in school districts, the story lines would be based on Detroit."
Leadership isn't the only problem: On the "nation's report card" math and reading exams, Detroit's students land dead last among large urban districts.
For a more in-depth take on Detroit's educational woes, Education Week's Dakarai Aarons offers this "district dossier."
While no one took issue with Detroit's dubious distinction, Milwaukee, Chicago and Los Angeles also got some dishonorable mentions.

"Market shares" for schools

Last week I wrote about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools competing for "market share" with private and charter schools. A document posted as part of CMS's student-assignment review gives a snapshot of another phenomenon: How schools within CMS compete for students.

The chart (which can be confusing; stay tuned for technical notes) shows how many students within each school zone actually attended that school last year. It tallies only students enrolled in CMS, so you won't see who left for charters, private schools or home-schooling. What you will see is which neighborhood schools are popular and which saw kids flocking to magnets or other alternatives.

Of 132 schools with neighborhood zones, 21 enrolled at least 90 percent of the CMS students who lived there. All are suburban schools with white majorities and low poverty levels. Davidson and Providence Spring elementaries and South Charlotte Middle topped that list at 95 percent or more.

On the flip side, 19 schools lost at least half the students in their zone to other public schools. With the exception of Eastover Elementary, they have high poverty levels and few white students (10 are at least 95 percent nonwhite). Several have been required to let students transfer to higher-performing schools because of repeated failure to meet No Child Left Behind targets, a penalty that applies only to the very high-poverty schools that get federal Title I aid. Irwin Avenue Elementary, which drew 35 percent of the students in its zone, and Shamrock Gardens Elementary at 38 percent had the lowest participation from their zones. Both include magnet programs that attract students from outside the zone.

These patterns will shock no one who's been paying attention. But they highlight a serious tension when it comes to sorting out priorities.

Board members who represent the suburbs hear from constituents who are mostly happy with neighborhood schools. Those folks see magnets as a great extra, in case they want their kids to learn Chinese or earn an IB diploma. In areas with popular neighborhood schools, the public focus is likely to be on reducing such drawbacks as illogical boundaries, large classes and crowding.

On the other hand, board members who represent Charlotte's urban belt hear from people who are desperate for better schools, whether that means getting kids into magnets or making big changes at neighborhood schools. There's some real bitterness floating among those who believe the community's "haves" are willing to herd the "have-nots" into resegregated schools and accept lower standards.

Board members and many speakers at recent public forums have voiced willingness to get past their own perspectives and work for all kids. We'll see how that plays out as the board moves toward specific school-by-school decisions.

Now for the geek notes: The chart I linked to is fascinating but hard to use. CMS doesn't offer it online in a searchable, sortable format. I requested a copy in Excel; if you want one, e-mail me at

The chart divides students into three groups. "EC" is students with disabilities who are assigned to special classes. "Magnet" is pretty obvious. Full magnet schools have no "home school" zone, but many neighborhood schools include magnet programs. "General education" is students who are neither in magnets nor special-ed classes. I calculated the percent of in-zone students attending each school by adding the general education students going there (column H) and the students attending a magnet at their neighborhood school (column P, which is blank for schools with no magnet program) and dividing it by all students living in the zone (column C). That tally includes only the appropriate grade level; that is, an elementary school's total doesn't include middle- and high-school students.
If you're new to CMS, some of the labels may prove baffling. "Home school" refers to nonmagnet schools with an attendance zone, aka neighborhood schools; it has nothing to do with parents who teach their kids at home. "Choicing" in or out is a strange construction that evolved from the much-touted "choice plan" of several years ago. If you're a grammatical purist, mentally substitute "choosing" or "opting."

There's no tally for the number of students living in the Garinger and Olympic zones because CMS listed them by the five small schools located on each campus. Officials say they'll run a campus total in the future. A home-zone tally for the new Berewick Elementary is also missing.

Monday, July 12, 2010

State to study school diversity

The N.C. legislature has authorized a study committee on school diversity, charged with figuring out whether the racial, ethnic and/or socioeconomic composition of schools makes a difference in achievement, parent involvement and discipline. It'll be made up of five state senators, five representatives and five members of the public appointed by the governor, charged with reporting to the General Assembly in 2011.

My counterpart at the Raleigh News & Observer, T. Keung Hui, says Sen. Charlie Dannelly, D-Mecklenburg, is the senate sponsor. Hui will be filing a story on the study commission soon.

Diversity is a hot-button topic in the state's two largest districts. The Wake school board recently voted to dismantle a student assignment plan that balanced school poverty levels. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is reviewing its student assignment plan, and diversity is one of the issues sparking the most debate.

To read the authorizing legislation, go to this link and skip to page 17, about halfway down the page.

School PR crowd comes to Charlotte

The National School Public Relations Association is holding a national meeting in Charlotte this week, drawing about 500 people who speak for schools.

Folks from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will make presentations on several subjects, including "How to get positive media coverage for schools with bad reputations." There's another session outlining how one 15-year-old student wandering off and passing out at a party in 2007 escalated into an athletic eligibility scandal that dominated CMS's agenda for most of a year.

On Tuesday, a few of us from the Observer, WSOC-TV and WBT radio will give the PR crew a chance to turn the tables and lob questions at us.

I suspect some conventioneers may hoist a few stiff drinks after hours. This has been a tough year. CMS surely isn't the only district that has seen communication staff cut -- and heard harsh remarks from taxpayers who see school PR staff as spin doctors paid to boost their bosses' careers and egos.

The relationship between education reporters and school PR people tends to be thorny, and I've had my share of throwdowns with CMS. But I've also come to respect the communications staff as professionals with goals similar to mine: To keep the public informed about and engaged with public education.

The best of them work from within to promote public access and discourage stonewalling. They coach jargon-loving educators in speaking plain English and give deadline-crazed reporters crash courses in the complexities of education. Ideally, they help people understand what's going on in classrooms where children's futures are shaped.

So welcome to Charlotte, everybody. If you're looking for a city where schools make a lot of news, you've found it.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Stealth segregation?

At recent forums on student assignment, several black high school students complained of being reassigned from the racially diverse Hopewell High to the virtually all-black West Charlotte. They and their families saw it as a sign that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders are actively working to segregate schools, a concern picked up by school board members Richard McElrath and Joyce Waddell.

McElrath, a retired teacher who was running for school board when the boundary decisions were made last year, noted that his family lives in the area being switched. No one he knows was told about the possible school swap, he says.

The lingering angst over 2010-11 high school boundaries illustrates some of the challenges in student assignment.

A look at the 2009 boundary map is enough to spark head-scratching in a reasonable person. West Charlotte's zone jutted up toward the north suburbs. That's because the northeastern Vance High got way too big several years ago. CMS carved off part of the Vance zone and reassigned it to West Charlotte.

Meanwhile, the zone for Hopewell High in Huntersville had a "foot" that practically stepped on West Charlotte.

That's how West Charlotte got sucked into the boundary shuffle sparked by a new high school opening in Cornelius, some 17 miles to the north. When CMS officials launched boundary talks in March 2009, with automated phone calls to families, media coverage and contacts with PTSAs and town officials, they made it clear West Charlotte was in the mix.

Yet somehow the news of changing boundaries slipped by a number of people until it was too late. It wasn't just the area moving from Hopewell to West Charlotte that got bushwhacked. Many who live farther north -- including former North Mecklenburg Principal Jimmy Poole, a respected and knowledgeable voice in the area -- were shocked to realize belatedly that the board had voted in June 2009 to draw lines that will dramatically boost the poverty level and eliminate the white majority at North Meck starting this August.

Communication is one challenge. I can attest that CMS publicized the boundary options and held public meetings. I remember writing articles and being surprised that there wasn't more outcry from up north.

But there's a difference between hearing about abstract changes and realizing how those changes will affect your child or your school. As CMS goes through the current round of highly-publicized student assignment talks, complete with multiple public forums, I'm willing to bet there will still be folks showing up in the fall to protest specific changes, saying they had no warning.

Drawing lines is an even bigger challenge. The new high-school boundary map looks more logical. The new Hough High carves off the northern portion of the county, and will open with a mostly white and middle-class student body. West Charlotte has a more compact zone; it's expected to remain mostly black and mostly poor. Students in that northern "jut" that moved from Vance to West Charlotte a few years ago will now go to North Meck (which will serve a strip of north/northeast Charlotte). The kids moving from Hopewell to West Charlotte will be at a school closer to home.

So is everyone happy? Not a chance. As board member Joe White likes to say, "schools close to home" are only desirable if you like the school close to your home. And as members weigh their commitments to nearby schools, diversity and equity, they're going to find a lot of collisions.

Dropouts, billionaires and summer reading

When I launched this blog, reader Adrian DeVore urged me to "broaden my educational reporting palate" by looking beyond Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and paying more attention to the national scene.

It's an excellent suggestion; it can be tough to watch the forest when the trees of breaking local news keep falling on me. But this stretch is as slow as it gets on the CMS beat, so I thought I'd share a couple of things I'm delving into, in case any of you have an urge to fill your summer leisure time.

First, the Hechinger Report and Washington Monthly have teamed up to produce an in-depth report on national efforts to cut dropout rates, with close-ups on successes and failures in New York City, Philadelphia and Portland, Ore.

That couldn't be more timely. North Carolina's report on 2010 test scores and graduation rates is due later this month. As you may recall, CMS logged an anemic 66 percent four-year graduation rate for 2009, with even lower levels for low-income, black and Hispanic students. Superintendent Peter Gorman assigned top staff to craft a plan for improvement. That report, originally expected this spring, is now slated for August.

Next, Kathy Ridge of Mecklenburg Citizens for Public Education has passed along a copy of Diane Ravitch's "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education."

Ravitch is an education researcher who helped promote No Child Left Behind when she worked as an assistant secretary of education. The book chronicles how and why she soured on the promises of choice and accountability to improve public schools.

That alone is interesting. I've seen a similar progression in many local education leaders, who applauded No Child Left Behind when it debuted but now seem sympathetic with Ravitch's conclusion that "Good education cannot be achieved by a strategy of testing children, shaming educators, and closing schools."

Most intriguing, though, is a chapter on "The Billionaire Boys' Club," which I'm still working my way toward. It analyzes how foundations powered by billionaires such as Bill Gates and Eli Broad are gaining significant control over public education by pumping big bucks into reform efforts. That's clearly playing out here in Charlotte, and I'll admit it's something I've had a hard time getting my head around. I'm looking forward to reading Ravitch's take, and discussing it with other folks who know the local scene.

Let me know what you think -- and feel free to share your own suggestions for "must-read" books and articles.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Flight from CMS?

During the recent round of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools student assignment talks, "white flight," "bright flight" and CMS's "market share" came up.

Every summer, I get tips that people are fleeing CMS in droves because of something the district has done wrong ("bright flight," the trendy term, refers to the notion that it's not just white families who opt out). At the same time, others assure me that students are flocking back to public schools because of something CMS has done right -- or, more recently, because the recession is making it tougher to afford private school.

Some neighborhoods or schools may see shifts in any given year, but overall, CMS's market share seems to be holding pretty steady at just over 80 percent of Mecklenburg's school-age kids.

That's a rough estimate calculated from CMS's official enrollment tally (133,664 last year) and the tallies of private, charter and home-schooled kids kept by the state. It's not a perfect measure; some reports are slow to update, and students can cross county lines for private and charter schools. But I come up with 81 percent in CMS for 2009-10, 11 percent in private schools and 4 percent each in charter and home schools.

The U.S. Census Bureau lists 85 percent of Mecklenburg kids in public schools (that would include charters) and 15 percent in private. That, too, is an estimate based on a 2008 sampling that includes a significant margin of error.

Update at 12:30 p.m.: I had noted in the original post that Superintendent Peter Gorman told the school board that the 2010 census will provide better details about who's opting in or out of CMS. He probably based that assumption on data that came from the 2000 census; I, too, had been looking forward to getting detailed breakdowns for this year. But as a commenter pointed out and a Census Bureau spokesman confirms, this year's census did not include the "long form" that asked more detailed questions of many households in 2000. Because of that, information about public and private choices will continue to come only from the American Community Survey sampling cited above.

Meanwhile, board member Tim Morgan made an interesting observation: A focus on winning back families who have chosen private or charter schools might drive a different approach to student assignment than focusing on equity and student achievement, the priorities the board ranked highest.

The board didn't explore his comment in any depth. But I suspect that's exactly the kind of deeper thought and analysis that looms when the assignment talks resume July 20.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Layoff list: Is it cruel?

For the second year in a row, I'm posting with mixed feelings a list of laid-off Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employees.

As a journalist, I think it makes sense to pursue and publish public information.

As a person, I know how much pain is swirling when people lose their livelihood. One of my friends is on this year's CMS list. Many friends and colleagues have been hit by Observer layoffs.

So I understand why people send e-mails like this:

"It seems to me that these teachers already feel ashamed and upset enough by losing their jobs in this tough economy, but then to see their information printed in the paper is even more humiliating. Why is it that the Observer feels that these people do not deserve privacy and a level of common decency so that they can maintain some dignity?"

On the other hand, I also got this voice mail from a CMS employee:

"Thanks for pushing for the information on the CMS layoffs. That is public information that we know who they were and where they came from."

The caller went on to note that a CMS employee bulletin sent this spring had said there were no plans to cut teacher assistants (I can't confirm that). The list told her that more than 120 teacher assistants, most working with young or disabled children, got laid off.

Another caller notes that CMS is currently advertising 202 jobs, many of them teachers. Do laid-off employees have priority, she wondered, and if so, why is CMS posting them for the public? It's a great question, one I'll try to get answered when officials return from their holiday break.

That's one vital function of the list: It lets us all truth-squad and analyze public decisions.

But that could be done by listing jobs without names. So what's the value of naming individuals?

I go back to last spring, when the superintendent and school board started moving toward laying off hundreds of teachers and other employees. To my surprise, the public responded with a big ho-hum.

That is, until the pink slips got handed out. As word about who was leaving got around, first through school grapevines and later through the Observer's list, the picture changed dramatically. Parents, students and colleagues rallied to defend people they described as wonderful educators.

With names and faces, the layoffs became real. I think that changed the nature of this year's discussion.

To anyone who feels like publication of the list deepened your pain, I'm sorry. But I think by now we all know there's no shame to losing a job in this environment. And I think we all need to recognize that cuts are about real people, not just costs, resources and numbers.