Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Free lunch fraud debate still going strong

The perennial debate over fraud in the free- and reduced-priced lunch program flared once again at last night's Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meeting. Board members have been discussing the issue for years. Back in 2008, they moved towards auditing a random sampling of applications for the federally subsidized lunch program to see how many families were cheating. But they dropped that idea after being told some $34 million in lunch subsidies could be taken away if they didn't follow federal rules stipulating that they "may do no more" than the checks prescribed by Washington. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture tells school systems to check 3 percent of applications filed by families whose yearly income falls within $100 of the cutoff levels for aid).

Anyway, the debate popped up again last night after Cindy Hobbs, head of CMS' child nutrition program, briefed the board on the latest audit results, which showed 236 applications had been checked, and 66 didn't supply verification documents matching the income reported on the application. In another 36 cases, the families didn't respond. Board members Rhonda Lennon, Kaye McGarry and Tim Morgan said if potentially 43 percent of those applications had flaws, there must be thousands of similar cases of ineligible students receiving subsidized lunches. By Morgan's math, about 11,000.

All of which prompted the same round of debate that's been going on for years on the school board. Coach Joe White, Richard McElrath and others suggested there's probably no way to find out how many people are cheating, so just feed the kids. Lennon took offense, stressing that she wasn't suggesting letting kids go hungry. She said her main concern is the fact that CMS uses the free-lunch figures to determine lots of other things, including who gets exemptions from Advanced Placement test fees and sports fees, and figuring how many additional teachers to assign schools. That prompted Superintendent Peter Gorman to repeat what he always says: the free-lunch figures, whatever their flaws, are the best tool CMS has for predicting which students will struggle and need extra help.

Lennon was undeterred.

"You're going to hear way more about this from me," she said. "That's not a threat. That's a promise."

Monday, May 23, 2011

Influential senator thinks CMS is hoarding money

During a meeting this morning with editors and reporters at the Observer, N.C. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Rucho offered an eye-opening observation about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. CMS, the Matthews Republican proclaimed, is "sitting on" $26 million in federal stimulus money. If the district has such a dire budget problem, he said, why aren't CMS leaders spending the money?

School board members, who have said they intend to press for more money out of Raleigh to help overcome a $100 million budget shortfall, might want to get on the phone with Rucho. CMS has made no secret of the fact that it received $25.7 million in stimulus money in August, then decided to save most of it till this year's budget process to help offset an anticipated $66 million drop in federal support, due largely to the stimulus program's disappearance. Superintendent Peter Gorman and School Board Chair Eric Davis say as much in an open letter to the public on the very first page of the school system's official 2010-11 budget document. And the 2011-12 budget Gorman unveiled last month outlines plans to spend the money this year.

Those messages apparently haven't made it to Rucho. Asked who told him CMS was hoarding stimulus money, he cited "private" sources out of Raleigh.

Friday, May 20, 2011

More on CMS testing

The testing frenzy in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is winding down, though state-ordered retests for those who fail state exams will drag things out.

CMS officials will soon be crunching results from the 52 new end-of-year exams the district created for everything from kindergarten science to high-school calculus. Each school will get a report on how its kids fared, says Chris Cobitz, the CMS official in charge of the tests. By identifying where kids soared and where they floundered, CMS hopes schools can refine teaching tactics to help students learn more.

Individual students will not get results, with one exception: The tests that CMS designed for Advanced Placement classes can be used in place of a teacher's final exam for grading, Cobitz says. The AP exams given by The College Board aren't used toward grades because the results aren't available in time.

Cobitz said CMS hasn't yet decided whether to report results for individual teachers. As you may recall, the push to generate "value-added" ratings of teacher effectiveness is driving development of the new tests. This year, Cobitz says, principals are under orders not to use the new exams to evaluate teachers.

We also talked about the test-security issues that are creating a buzz. Cobitz says the state and district codes of ethics specify that teachers can lose their jobs and licenses if they disclose "secure information" from tests. That definitely includes revealing a question, whether that's in an online post, an email or a conversation in the grocery store, Cobitz said.

When there's an allegation that someone has breached test security, CMS investigates and, if a state exam is involved, makes a report to state officials. Cobitz said he's done one investigation in connection with the new CMS exams and concluded there was no violation.

Cobitz says teachers who think questions are flawed should discuss their concerns with the school test coordinator, who can relay it to him. They're not supposed to put specifics into an email because emails may be subject to public disclosure. Once specific questions are public, they're no longer considered valid.

Some people have urged me to get a copy of "the test" and print it in the Observer. While Cobitz let me look at the early versions of the K-2 tests, he's not about to hand them over for publication, for the reason just cited. And if he did, publication wouldn't be practical; there's not one test but a mountain of them. The various versions of the K-2 test alone created a phone-book sized stack.

So, will CMS work out the kinks and create a testing system that makes sense to families and faculty? That remains to be seen.
p.s. I'm going on vacation next week. The timing coincides with the departure of some Observer employees (no reporters) because of our own "reduction in force," but it's just that -- a coincidence. Like it or not, I'll be back soon!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A laid-off CMS employee speaks out

We get lots of e-mail from readers on our stories. Some want more information, or want to offer it. Others want to take issue with something we've written. But often, people just want to express how they're feeling. With so much discussion and debate brewing over teacher layoffs and possible property tax increases, I thought I'd pass along this e-mail below, from one of the 739 CMS employees notified last week that their jobs are gone. The writer didn't want to be identified, but this seemed to give a glimpse of the emotions those folks are feeling:

"I just finished reading your article about teacher layoffs, in particular, media specialists, and I feel the need to inform you of my own current layoff within CMS. I am a licensed school psychologist as well as a provisionally licensed school counselor who has just recently been given my non-renewal packet for employment. In other words, I am out of a job.
What's even more devastating is I was informed last January that I would need to return to graduate school to complete the Master's in School Counseling in order to remain employed within CMS. Not only would I take a pay cut, I was expected to pay for graduate school on my own, which is currently up to $8,000. Since January 2010, I have completed 9 semester hours through Lenoir-Rhyne University with a 4.0 and somehow find myself unemployed starting the next school year. How can someone overly qualified for the position be out of a job? I would like to know. Not only are the budget cuts affecting teachers and media specialists but the main support staff for students, staff and parents the school provides. My list of responsibilities within the school are endless, from legal paperwork (504 plans, McKinney-Vento, Intervention Team and suicide risk protocols) to working with students both in whole classes, small groups and individuals. I regularly assist teachers with various academic and social/emotional needs of their students and provide a bridge for outside resources in the community for the entire school community. As mentioned earlier my roles and responsibilities are vast and to think they will be expected to be taken over by teachers is astounding. Teachers have enough on their plate between larger class sizes and the addition of these summative tests to be able to effectively meet all students' needs, especially the social-emotional needs that help to develop the whole child. Our district is in a crisis and all the necessary supports for our students to help develop the leaders of tomorrow are disappearing. The community needs to realize, this is much bigger than they know.
Thanks for your time!
A concerned professional

What do you think about CMS' budget dilemma, and what's happening with employees like this one?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

How many teachers would $26 million save?

County Manager Harry Jones' newly unveiled budget proposal is good news for CMS, even if it's not everything they asked for. It's not the final word, of course. The commissioners get that. But if they stick to Jones' script, CMS will get $26 million more than last year, which school board chair Eric Davis calls a welcome step in the right direction toward closing the school system's $100 million budget shortfall.

So, what exactly would CMS do with the additional $26 million? The school board has long said it would follow the four tiers of reductions outlined in Superintendent Peter Gorman's budget plan. (Some commissioners and a few school board members have questioned whether the board will truly stick to that plan). Be that as it may, the general expectation seems to be that they'll follow the tiers.

According to the tiers, $26 million would allow CMS to add back 260 teaching positions in grades 4-12 (cost: $15.4 million). Gorman has said CMS needs $10 million from the county to cover next year's projected student enrollment growth and sustaining current operations. That ostensibly would need to be handled even before you get to the tiers. So, as best as I can tell, those two items would pretty much consume the $26 million.

Falling just short of restoration would be the next priority item -- 146 teaching positions allocated under the "weighted student staffing" formula that assigns additional teachers to help low-income students. And just beyond that in the tiers would be 164 positions that include media specialists, guidance counselors and academic and literacy facilitators.

School board member Joe White told me yesterday that he's hoping the state will follow the county's example and give CMS more money. Like other school advocates around the state, he wants the General Assembly to extend the one-cent temporary sales tax. Republicans have said they want to end it, and the House version of the budget does so. With the Senate working feverishly toward finalizing its version of the budget, the true size of CMS' budget hole -- and the fate of hundreds of educators' jobs -- is slowly coming into focus.

Friday, May 13, 2011

CMS testing: Shhh ....

A Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher passes along this story about administering one of the new CMS exams to a first-grader. The new tests require the teachers to read questions aloud and record the children's answers.

Teacher: "Name a place where you might find ... (type of landform)."

Student: "Name a place?"

Teacher: "Yes. Name a place where you might find...."

Student: "Name it?"

Teacher: "Yes."

Student: "Uh...I would name it...Brianna."

It's a cute story, and you might wonder why I'm not naming the teacher who shared it -- or for that matter, why the question itself is related in such a vague manner.

If you're a teacher or parent who's been involved in the new testing, you know the answer: Testing security.

And it's no laughing matter. "The team of teachers and assistants who are administrating the test were informed that any information that is leaked to the outside would result in the loss of our teaching licenses," one teacher wrote.
Here's the dilemma: CMS has created 52 new tests (with more to come next year) as part of its quest to size up teacher effectiveness. With the stakes so high, officials don't want the questions circulating, for fear some teachers could prep kids on specific items.

But a significant number of educators and parents say the tests are deeply flawed, if not worthless. It's important for the public -- and the taxpayers footing the bill for new exams -- to know if they're right. So ... how do we have a good discussion about the validity of the tests if the tests are secret? And how do teachers weigh in if they're afraid they'll be accused of unethical conduct and potentially lose their jobs?

If you have first-hand knowledge of how this is playing out in schools, let me know. And I'll try to find out more about how CMS plans to rebuild confidence and answer questions as the district moves ahead with a testing/performance pay plan that even the biggest boosters say has hit a rocky stretch.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

What's "urban"?

Talk about The Broad Prize for Urban Education always sparks questions about what they mean by "urban," and what kind of students can get scholarships from the Broad Foundation.

Some people say Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools shouldn't be labeled an urban district because it includes majority white, low-poverty suburban schools. And I did a double-take when Gwinnett County Schools landed last year's prize; I've always thought of Gwinnett as an Atlanta suburb.

After mulling some of those questions, the foundation redefined its eligibility standards this year, narrowing the field from 100 to 75. Spokeswoman Erica Lepping said even some of the past nominees have been taken aback by the "urban" label. The new requirements are based on size and demographics -- generally, at least 40 percent nonwhite and at least 40 percent who qualify for lunch subsidies. CMS is plenty big enough, 67 percent nonwhite and has a 53 percent poverty level.

Districts that make the finalist list, as CMS has three times, win significant scholarship money. I've heard rumblings that those scholarships are limited to low-income or minority students, or to those who attend "urban" schools. The student eligibility guidelines online don't say anything about the student's race or school demographics; it does specify financial need, as many scholarships do. The 13 who won scholarships Wednesday included white students, as well as four from the majority-white Myers Park High, which has relatively low poverty levels but includes a significant number of disadvantaged students.

CMS will find out Sept. 20 whether the third time's the charm. This time around, the big prize has shrunk a bit -- reduced, Lepping says, because philanthropist Eli Broad wants to make sure the endowment of around $40 million lasts longer. In 2010, Gwinett claimed $1 million in scholarships, while the finalists got $250,000 each. The foundation still touts the "$1 million Broad Prize," but now that's the total for the winner ($550,000) and three finalists ($150,000 each).

Sorting out CMS teacher performance-pay dollars

At last night's school board meeting, Kaye McGarry sparked debate when she unsuccessfully tried to use the board's 2011-12 budget request as a vehicle for shelving Superintendent Peter Gorman's controversial teacher performance-pay plan. She asked that local dollars supporting performance-pay be diverted to save teaching jobs.

But along the way, the question of what exactly CMS spends on performance pay became a bit confusing. McGarry gave the Observer and other board members a copy of her motion. It had attached to it several budget charts she said she got from the staff. One chart said CMS' performance pay effort will cost $1.26 million in 2011-12, including $451,879 in local money.

When Rhonda Lennon asked if that was the right number for local performance-pay dollars, Gorman said it didn't include local money being spent on another performance pay project, the federal TIF-LEAP pilot. McGarry pointed to another chart accompanying her motion. That one listed $3 million as the amount of local dollars CMS will spend on TIF-LEAP in 2011-12. After a few minutes of back-and-forth questioning in which Gorman struggled to make sure he understood what McGarry was defining as performance-pay, the superintendent said TIF-LEAP and the $451,879 project were part of performance-pay. He said they together would cost about $3.5 million in local dollars.

Got all that straight? I didn't last night. I used the $1.2 million figure in my story, accidentally conflating it with both McGarry's chart and a $1.25 million figure in CMS' formal 2011-12 budget plan. (That figure's actually tied to the new performance-pay tests the school system is creating. Confusing, indeed).

CMS is running a number of projects focused on increasing teacher effectiveness and testing the concept of performance-pay. Many are supported by separate grants, separate pots of money. It gets pretty hard, even for board members and reporters, to stay on top of it all.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Teach For America and The Observer

I've been writing about connections between donors and public education lately, so I figured I should put this on the table: The Charlotte Observer was one of the sponsors of the Teach For America luncheon that drew more than 900 people yesterday, and which I covered.

I don't know details of the sponsorship; such decisions are made by Publisher Ann Caulkins and the business side of the Observer. I know what I read in the program: Bank of America and Wells Fargo were the biggest sponsors of the first-time event to raise awareness and support. Piedmont Natural Gas was listed as "green sponsor," and the Observer was one of three "event sponsors," along with Hendrick Motorsports and

Given the strong feelings that swirl around TFA, pro and con, some will probably wonder whether the connection affects news coverage. The publisher invited me to attend, and yes, that does boost the odds that I'll show up for an event in this hectic season. But I got no coverage directives from the publisher or my upper-level editors. My immediate supervisor, Mike Gordon, and I decided it was worth an article, given the crowd size, the interest in TFA and the prominence of the speaker. No one else weighed in on how to present the information, or on TFA coverage in general.

None of this is stop-the-press news. The Observer sponsors a number of public events that get news coverage. I just figured this is a good way of making sure everything's in the open with readers of this blog, who are a lot like reporters in ferreting out connections and asking questions.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Teachers and testing: Tune in Tuesday

If you're following the ongoing drama over Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' quest to roll out lots of new tests and use them to size up teacher effectiveness, you might want to watch Tuesday's school board meeting. The board is scheduled to get a report on "feedback received; lessons learned; and process activities/doings" related to teacher effectiveness. It's fairly late on the agenda, after the budget vote. Remember you can watch the meeting, which starts at 6 p.m. Tuesday, on CMS-TV Cable 3 or on the web.

Meanwhile, rumors about performance pay are flying. School board candidate DeShauna McLamb emailed Friday saying four board members had agreed to vote Tuesday to rescind support for the controversial House Bill 546, which would grant the CMS board authority to launch performance pay without a teacher vote. There's nothing about the bill on the agenda, and board Chair Eric Davis said late Friday afternoon he'd gotten no request to add it. But the board can revise its agenda before meetings.

The N.C. House approved the bill last week. Rep. Ruth Samuelson, who introduced it, and CMS leaders, who requested it, agreed to "park" the bill -- in other words, keep it from moving through the state Senate -- until CMS can make another stab at garnering support from teachers and parents, who flooded representatives with protests.

On Friday, a reader asked about another email circulating, saying state Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican, planned to rush the bill into the Senate. Not so, Rucho said: "I don't have any plans to do anything with it. As far as I know, it's going to be sitting in Rules until there's some discussion."

So, are the bill's backers planning to pull a fast one and sneak it through the Senate? Are opponents exaggerating that threat?

Short answer is I don't know; neither side is consulting me on strategy. But here are some reasonable observations: It is technically correct to say that neither Samuelson nor CMS can control what the Senate does. Opponents probably want to keep the protest momentum going, so they're motivated to urge people to contact senators immediately.

Supporters of the bill would seem to benefit more from letting things cool down. The school year is drawing to a close, the budget is demanding attention and parents will be less focused on testing after this year's exams end in June. Rushing the bill to a vote would draw attention and scream bad faith. Waiting until  summer would seem to be a much smarter plan.

Maybe we'll know more about what CMS leaders are thinking after Tuesday's report.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Broad barrage

If only I could have cloned myself, I'd have been out front on the Eli Broad story.

Last summer, in writing an application for a seminar at Columbia University, I outlined the involvement of the Broad Foundation in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and discussed my interest in exploring how private philanthropy is shaping public education. When I got there, it turned out a lot of us were asking similar questions.

Now that I've finally broken off time and gotten some information on grant money from CMS, everyone's buzzing about Broad. Readers have been sending me great links. So, for those who want to delve deeper than the print article can go, here's more.

The nudge that finally got me focused on Broad was a recent article in the Raleigh News & Observer about how Broad might influence their new superintendent, who is being mentored by fellow Broad Superintendents Academy graduate Peter Gorman. There's also a WakeEd blog item that explores that issue.

Newsweek just published an investigation of whether investments by Broad, Gates and other education philanthropists have had the desired results. The conclusion: Not usually. The magazine looks at 10 school districts, none in the Southeast.

If you're trying to sort out the Broad/CMS connection, one of the biggest challenges is figuring out the "performance management" project that's gotten big bucks from Broad, Gates and Dell. CMS officials have been talking about this for years, and I've never quite gotten my head around a way to describe it in a newspaper article. When I asked CMS folks to help me with a clear, concise description, they sent me a four-page report. Here it is. The condensed version, from Chief Accountability Officer Robert Avossa: It's about providing educators with data to make decisions and creating systems to hold people accountable for results. Testing and performance pay are part of performance management, but it's a broader effort that includes CMS's school progress reports and school quality reviews.

The Broad Foundation Web site contains some details about the CMS connection, but it takes some hunting (again, thanks to readers who got me started). Here's a description of the Broad approach to investing, and here's where they list CMS as one of the foundation's investments in "redesigned, high-performing institutions." Here's information about the academy that trained Gorman and Wake's Anthony Tata, and the residency program that has placed other administrators in CMS.

An astute reader noted that Gorman is a member of the Broad Center's board of directors, and questioned whether that makes it a conflict for CMS to be a finalist for the Broad Prize for Urban Education. Foundation spokeswoman Erica Lepping said it would be if Gorman were a foundation board member. But the center is a separate nonprofit group that's funded by the foundation, she said, and is not involved in awarding the prize, which brings national prestige and hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships.

On the anti-Broad side, "How to tell if your district is infected by the Broad virus," orginally posted on a Seattle education blog, is getting a lot of circulation. And here's the Parents Across America "guide to the Broad Foundation." Those who are interested in the perspective of Diane Ravitch, a PFA founder and national education writer/researcher, can find more about the role of philanthropists in her book "The Death and Life of the Great American School System."

I cringed when I saw that the "virus" checklist includes "Local newspaper fails to report on much of this." I'll take the blame for putting Broad below the breaking news about school closings, performance pay and such. If Broad has a strategy for squelching news coverage, the only part I saw in action was that the school board's Broad-sponsored retreats were often too dull to generate stories.

Got more recommended reading? Post links in comments. The spam filter may snag them, but I'll check periodically to retrieve them. Be patient, though; it is Mothers Day.

Friday, May 6, 2011

CMS central staffers as classroom subs?

As the saga of CMS' $100 million budget shortfall unspools, readers regularly send us their questions about why it's happening and their suggestions about what they'd do if they were in charge. One recent e-mail seemed interesting, given the toxic relationship of late between the school system's top brass and many of its teachers.

A reader named Jean Tate e-mailed the following note:

"A friend shared that in a system she once worked in ( I think it was in Texas), all central office staff ( including the superintendent) had to sub at area schools for 4 days per year. The system saved a ton of money on subs and the "ivory tower" got a dose a reality that helped everyone. I think this is a great idea for CMS. They could assign people different weeks, so no one department was overburdened at any given time -- and it would save a lot of money. I think it would improve relationships and maybe open the eyes of some of those gone from the school building for a little too long."

To be sure, CMS administrators and central staff personnel are in the schools daily. Asked about Tate's idea, CMS spokeswoman LaTarzja Henry responded:

"CMS central office staff is actively engaged in functions at each of the 178 schools in the district. In fact, area offices have moved to school-based locations to better serve their school populations. On any given day, you’ll find central office staff on school campuses coordinating programs, proctoring exams, conducting walk-throughs, providing training, supporting school staff, volunteering and documenting school events. It is our direct service to schools and active participation in school functions that allows central office staff to better understand and serve the needs of the district."

Thoughts, anyone?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Your assignment: Write your teachers

We've heard it a million times: Teacher morale is in the toilet. Stress is soaring, money is tight and pink slips are about to fly.

Here's something you can do: Let teachers know how much difference they make.

It happens to be teacher appreciation week, and I normally react to official awareness events like they're spiders in my bathtub. But in this case, it's a good reminder that a very tough school year is winding to a close. So:

If you're a student, take a minute, use an old-fashioned sheet of paper and write your teacher a thank-you.

If you're a soon-to-be-grad, think over your time in school and the teachers who stand out in your memory. Let them know. Include specific memories. Funny is good. Most teachers have a sense of humor.

If you're a parent, you may empathize with a friend who posted this note on Facebook:
"Teacher Appreciation Week should not require eighty eleven emails with multiple step directives and a spreadsheet. (Signed), She Who Does Not Enjoy Buying Flowers at 6:30 a.m. Before School." I'm willing to bet that if your child hands over a personal note it will mean more than all the official hoopla. And if your child attends a school that doesn't do flowers and festivities, it will mean even more.

And if you're an adult, parent or not, remember that it may not be too late to say thanks to the teachers who shaped your life. Social media and the Internet make it easier than ever to track folks down. My high school closed long ago, but I found my journalism teacher just before he retired from another district and let him know I remembered him fondly and had gone on to earn a living in the field.

Over Christmas break, longtime Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher Glenda Blaisdell-Buck told me what a great time she'd had talking to a former student from Independence High in the 1990s. "He's one of those kids that you feel privileged to have taught," she said. Like many CMS teachers, she's often felt exhausted by the challenges of urban education. Hearing the young man enthuse about what she'd taught him infused her with energy.

"You just think, 'Why am I doing this?' " she said. "That's why."