Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Cochrane turnaround tale ... really?

The contrast between Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools'  glowing national image and the controversy that surrounds it at home is a source of much discussion.

I suspect those of us in the thick of things do tend to fixate on problems.  Up close,  bumps in the road can look like mountains.

But if problems get exaggerated locally,  I've also seen success exaggerated nationally.  Most recent case in point:  The Edutopia package on Cochrane's  "turnaround"  that's been widely circulated.  I first saw it on the ASCD Smartbrief,  a national roundup of education reporting,  early this month.  CMS officials played the video portion at the conclusion of a Dec.  13 report on schools in transition.

My first reaction was confusion.  Cochrane,  an east Charlotte middle school that's starting to add high school grades this year,  hasn't been on my  "success story"  radar.  Had I missed something?

A look at my data sheets said no.  Cochrane ended 2011 with a composite pass rate of 58 percent on state exams.  Of 35 CMS middle schools,  only four scored lower  --  and two of those,  Spaugh and Williams, closed this year.  More telling,  only two middle schools earned a lower growth rating,  a measure designed to make sure schools are judged on how much their students gain,  not just how well prepared they are when they arrive.

So why is one of the district's weakest middle schools being highlighted as a school that  "beats the odds every day"?  David Markus,  Edutopia's editorial director and the writer of the main article,  hasn't responded to my message asking who suggested the story.  In another part of the package,  an endnote thanks The Broad Foundation for sharing research about top urban districts.

The package focuses mostly on Cochrane's significant gains in pass rates from 2008 to 2011.  What's not  mentioned is that the same can be said for most struggling schools in North Carolina,  thanks to a change in testing that took effect in 2009.  In 2008,  students took the test once.  Starting in 2009,  those who fell below the "passing" line were required to try again,  and be counted as passing if they met the mark on the second test.  Generally,  the more failing students a school had,  the bigger the  "retest"  bump it showed.  As CMS superintendent,  Peter Gorman frequently blasted the retesting system as giving schools an artificial inflation in pass rates.

Gorman, who left CMS in June to work with education technology for Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.,  is featured in a dramatic opening to Markus'  story.  It describes Gorman visiting Cochrane in 2006,  the year he started as superintendent: "Known for his no-nonsense determination to turn around the district's failing schools, Gorman minces no words in describing Cochrane: 'This may be the worst school I have ever seen.' "  Gorman is later quoted as saying, five years later, "There was no instructional focus. It was the most disheartening school visit of my career."

Terry Brown,  Cochrane's principal in 2006-07,  called me after reading the first version of this post.  While I had noted that Gorman certainly wasn't saying such things publicly at that time,  and that administrators tend to give their most vivid  "bad schools"  accounts in hindsight,  Brown, who retired in 2007, says this goes beyond dramatic reconstruction.

"Gorman never visited Cochrane the first year he was there.  Not one time,"  Brown said.  "He was scheduled and canceled.  I'm appalled.  None of this is true."

Bottom line:  Edutopia, a publication of the George Lucas Educational Foundation,  is dedicated to highlighting academic solutions that include technology, teacher development and "comprehensive assessment."  CMS is well known for those approaches,  and Cochrane,  as noted prominently in the story,  is working with Texas Instruments to use technology in math instruction.  One sign that it's helping,  from my spreadsheets:  CMS reported that last year only 49 percent of Cochrane sixth-graders were proficient on math exams,  while 65 percent of eighth-graders were.  One troubling signal:  That's down from 75 percent of Cochrane eighth-graders proficient in math the previous year.

I don't want to detract from the hard work and high aspirations of the faculty and students at Cochrane.  I'd love to write their turnaround story sometime down the road,  when I see solid evidence that it's justified.  All this is just to say that improving education is complicated business,  and it's wise to scrutinize naysayers and cheerleaders alike.


Anonymous said...

This is really a telling story you have uncovered. This story was not inspired by some distant reporter who has little to no real knowledge about Cochrane. Odds are that much of the Cochrane story was written by CMS staff with public relations spin doctor degrees. This story was planted! The same approach as Enron corporate finance reports before Enron fell to the truth.

How can the next superintendent turn CMS around when she will be provided ample amounts of remanufactured reality by CMS brass? Even worse, most of the information provided the new superintendent will be internal without any form of external review.

One has to admit the same thing happened to Pete Gorman. After Pete was in town a while his tune sure changed.

The only hope for CMS is the new Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education leadership who must show change is imminent from the very top. No more glossing over the truth, no more fudging numbers, no more backward planning after the fact.

The Board should know the lineage of this story so that it may better discern truth on behalf of our children and community.

CMS' Own Reality said...

There are some in CMS leadership that believes perception is all that matters. Truth is not relevant when those in power can simply create their own reality in unchallenged fashion. CMS is full of experienced educrats who are not held accountable for bad decisions, bad numbers or wasting money. Truth is at minimum this bread and circus story was filtered through CMS senior staff who knew exactly what it was going to report. Is CMS central office part of the responsible community anymore? Does CMS central staff have any obligation to be real among the people? Is truth flight a tracked category?

Wiley Coyote said...

And all this is news to some people?

Ladies and gentlemen, this has been the mindset of public education for four decades.

It's like Bright Beginnings. No one dares to say it doesn't work, except Gorman and he was blasted for it. Same thing for his blasting retests. He got blasted for stating the obvious.

Don't you know everything in CMS is just lovely?

"Edutopia", short for "education utopia". Something that will never happen in public education as long as educrats and politicians control it.

DistrictSix said...

Gosh..... I mean, Gosh, Ann!

Anonymous said...

During the time frame of this data, the principal, I believe, was Valarie Williams. Who was then promoted to Vance High School, where she was billed as an expert.

Maybe someone should do some research into "Dr." Valarie Williams' credentials. I'm not sure how she still has a job as a principal.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately this is becoming a trend. Fishy figures on school performance and how our dollars are spent are all too common. The simple fact of the matter is that in many cases these stories, reports, and rigged test results are bald faced lies.

Poor standards, no standards, or just outright corruption appears to be on the rise. Cheating scandals are erupting at an ever faster rate. If this is due to more reporting or the fact that we are just uncovering what is common practice is not clear yet.

As a student of CMS schools I can say that the level of educational content was sadly lacking. It's only seen further deterioration since I was there (too many years ago). Honestly as a kid I even figured this out myself and pestered my parents to send me to private school for the last two years. Thats the only way I got through college. I was left feeling that if I continued on in the CMS system I would never make it through.

This is a shame. Our educational dollars are being squandered and in this case it's especially insidious since this is our future we are training here.

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Anonymous said...

Some comments are so ignorant... Do some research... Cochrane went from about 40% to an unbelieveable 75% proficient in math and just as much in reading under the so called "Dr. Williams". Both of my students went to Cochrane and I have a third on the way... I wish they would send her back!

Wiley Coyote said...

Anon 4:15....

I must be missing something in the NC Report Card Data, as Ann's data seems to reflect what she stated and yours does not.

Cochrane also did not meet AYP requirements, hitting 13 out of 25.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Hard work is going on in most schools,as teachers struggle with new mandates (such as the famous Common Core training fiasco - can't believe you didn't write about that Ann), indifferent and overwhelmed parents and the ever increasing bullying from Uptown. In the end the new Boss will still blame teachers for not working hard enough, just like Pete always did.

Anonymous said...

@Anon 4:15

Terry Brown(05-06) Reading 69.2%
Math 36.1 %

Valarie Williams(06-07) Reading 67.4%
Math 36.5%

Valarie Williams(07-08) Reading 31.7%
Math 34.1%

By my math you don't even reach the 75% level if you add her two years of scores for math together.

Anonymous said...

Now, How's that for "Research"?

Anonymous said...

Those figures are in the realm of Ralph Taylor's numbers. Reality of numbers? CMS? Enough said.

CharMeck is Better Than This! said...

As an upstanding member of the community how should CMS be expected to correct this national falsification? Is the falsehood being used to advance one person's career or more generally add to the national buzz around CMS? In either case, how the Board of Education addresses this blatant misuse of our schools to bolster a career or philosophy will give indication of what we can expect from CMS over the next couple of years. We can expect that this falsehood will be referenced in many more stories as underlying truth, however, it is not. Will the new Board leadership turn this into an opportunity to initiate change or just let it be swept under the proverbial CMS stinky carpet?

Anonymous said...

Falsehoods about CMS have abounded for years in the national (and Wake County) media. Even international media jumped on the bandwagon. What was the story?--that CMS was a magical golden place until we had to give up busing. (never noticed local reporters fact checking these stories).

Anonymous said...

We're being lied to on so many levels about so many things (the economy being one of the most obvious), that it should be no surprise that we are being lied to about our schools.

And, I think this is exactly the America some people have been hoping for.

One which accepts lies without question as long as they come from an "authority".

We're almost there...