Friday, September 28, 2012

Teachers on fire

Talking to Rob Leichner and Joanna Schimizzi after they returned from the NBC Education Nation summit this week was like gulping a 5-Hour Energy drink with a chaser of espresso.  The two Charlotte-Mecklenburg high school teachers were so jazzed from spending a few days with some of the nation's top educators that they practically crackled.

Leichner, 30,  teaches math at West Meck.  Schimizzi, 28,  teaches science at Butler.  Both were chosen by America Achieves,  a New York-based group that works to tap the expertise of front-line educators,  to join about 60 teachers and 40 principals for a televised town hall and a series of discussions and workshops.

Their big takeaway:  Teachers need to push to get their voices into policy decisions and to share their energy and ideas.  Elected officials who attended the sessions said they'd love to be invited into classrooms, but acknowledged their time is tight.  The solution?  Make videos illustrating important classroom work and share them with officials.

Schimizzi would like Mecklenburg County commissioners to see how she's using her CMS-purchased iPad to create  "blended lessons"  that combine videos with personal instruction.  She followed the controversy when CMS spent county money to buy the tablets.

"The public perception was that the iPad money was a waste,"  she said.  "We're not using it to look up things on YouTube."

Before she left for the summit,  she used her iPad to create five video lessons for her substitute to use.  "A good instructional teacher is not going to leave Bambi for them to watch,"  she said.

Leichner would like officials and the public to see West Meck's math department leading high-level problem-solving discussions with their students,  using the Paideia method to lead groups in solving advanced mathematical challenges.  He knows the stereotypes people hold about students and teachers in high-poverty schools like West, and he wants to explode them.

The two batted ideas back and forth:  What if there was a teacher exchange day,  where all the Butler teachers went to West and vice versa?  What if CMS held professional development sessions where successful teachers talked about what they were doing, rather than listening to experts talk about what they ought to do?  What if North Carolina or CMS created their own versions of Education Nation to bring dynamic teachers and interested community members together to solve problems?

At the summit,  Schimizzi said,  the president of the National Education Association talked about turning campfires of excellence into wildfires of excellence. She and Leichner came back ready to fan the flames.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Civil rights, school choice and closing plans

Tuesday's report on some of the first-year results of the 2011-12 Charlotte-Mecklenburg school closings is bound to provide fodder for some lively discussions around town this week.  Here are some of my observations:

* The report reminded me that several complaints were filed with the U.S. Education Department's office for  civil rights,  alleging that the closings discriminated on the basis of race and national origin.  A spokesman told me Tuesday that the case remains under investigation.  The department doesn't discuss ongoing investigations,  but offers this general information about how complaints are handled.

* CMS officials say one reason that enrollment outstripped projections at the new preK-8 schools is that the closings eliminated  "Title I choice"  for some families.  No Child Left Behind guaranteed the chance for students to opt out of some high-poverty,  low-performing schools,  including the closed Spaugh, Wilson and Williams middle schools.  But they didn't get that option at some of the preK-8s.  In 2013-14,  that opt-out guarantee vanishes in all schools because North Carolina got a waiver from No Child Left Behind.  That's likely to cause serious consternation in neighborhoods where the assigned school is considered unacceptable.

* Superintendent Heath Morrison says some of the questions and resistance to the closings,  which were approved after nine months of talks in 2010,  arose because CMS has no policy on closing schools.  He said he plans to bring a proposal to the board soon,  at a time when there's little likelihood it will be needed,  so the board and staff can plan a process without being under pressure.

* There was quite a bit of talk about expanding the combined elementary/middle model.  Morrison says he likes it in general because research shows transitions can create academic loss.  Board member Rhonda Lennon said Mountain Island Elementary in her district is eager to add grades 6-8.

* Are any other old-timers amused to see all the underfilled schools listed in the report?  (See pages 7 and 12.)  In past years, when CMS was trying to pass bonds for construction and renovation,  leaders took umbrage at talk of half-empty urban schools,  insisting that was a myth.  Now that there's a new crew looking at the cost-effectiveness of closing urban schools,  it appears there were plenty of unused classrooms.

* I think Morrison and Chief Accountability Officer Frank Barnes are wise in cautioning against trying to draw quick conclusions about what caused gains and losses.  But it is interesting to note that Reid Park,  which saw the biggest academic setbacks,  also got walloped by the biggest unanticipated surge of students last year.  The report shows Reid Park Elementary was 89 percent full with 434 students in 2010-11.  Reid Park PreK-8 was projected to have 536 students last year.  Instead it ended up with 714, and had to bring in 15 mobile classrooms.  That jibes with what Principal Mary Sturge told me in August,  when she talked about the difficulty of finding good teachers after classes began.

* I give Morrison and his crew props for crunching a lot of data and trying to make it clear and meaningful.  Barnes noted that the comparison of Harding's academic results in 2010-11 and 2011-12 didn't mean a lot,  since the student body had changed so much.  He's right.  But if CMS wanted to get some gauge on whether students were helped or harmed by the Harding-Waddell merger,  it would have been more enlightening to compare Harding's 2011-12 IB magnet students with the same magnet the prior year,  and to compare Harding's 2011-12 neighborhood students with Waddell's performance.

What are the rest of you thinking?

Today's meeting: Big test for new CMS crew

Don't let the vague agenda item fool you:  Tonight's school board meeting offers the first chance to see how the new Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leadership team handles a really thorny issue.

"Report on reflections on school redesign"  sounds like a bunch of architects musing on how to improve lighting and aesthetics.  In fact,  it's an update on the school closings and mergers that have rocked Charlotte for the past two years.

Superintendent Peter Gorman and much of the administrative crew that launched the plan are gone now.  Superintendent Heath Morrison,  his team and new board leadership  --  including Chairman Ericka Ellis-Stewart,  who was a leading parent critic when these changes were being hashed out  --  have promised to examine how well the district prepared for enrollment shifts,  how the costs and savings tallied up and how the students fared academically.

They're playing things close to the vest so far.  As of Tuesday morning,  there's no advance data posted.  I don't even know how many schools will be examined tonight:  For sure the preK-8 schools created to take students from three closed middle schools,  but maybe more.

Parents, community leaders and reporters will be watching to see how candid and detailed the new crew will be about these changes.  I've already reported on some pretty dismal test scores at many of the preK-8 schools and Harding High,  which lost magnet students and took neighborhood students from the closed Waddell High.  I'll be curious to see whether Morrison's folks have figured out a way to determine whether the closings simply relocated unsuccessful students or whether those students gained or lost academic ground in their new schools.

Likewise,  many of us know there were discipline problems and crowding issues at some merged schools.  This report should quantify that.

But the most important thing is:  If this team acknowledges past problems,  how do they plan to address  them this year?

Seating is limited in the second-floor conference room where tonight's meeting takes place.  But the meeting airs live on CMS-TV Cable 3 and can be watched live online.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Knock, knock. Heath who?

Superintendent Heath Morrison and other Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders plan to start knocking on doors of potential dropouts this week, a move modeled on the  "door to door for student achievement"  campaign Morrison launched in Reno, Nev.

"The community came together for this great initiative and literally walked door to door in local  neighborhoods to get our at-risk youth back in the classroom,"  Morrison wrote in a final letter to families in Washoe County before leaving for Charlotte.

The goal is to get families of students who didn't return to school to make appointments to talk about ways they can return to CMS and get diplomas.  In Reno,  Morrison had school board members and community leaders join him,  in hopes of calling attention to the dropout problem and helping leaders see the individual stories behind the numbers.

CMS spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte said Monday that details of the Charlotte program,  including how many homes will be visited and who will make the visits,  are still being worked out.  An announcement is expected Wednesday,  when the door-to-door campaign launches.  Thanks to the commenter who got wind of this  --  y'all do seem to stay a step ahead of the game!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Performance pay guru goes regional

Andy Baxter,  who played a lead position in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' controversial performance-pay push,  has left CMS to work for the Southern Regional Education Board.  He'll be vice president of educator effectiveness for the board,  a nonpartisan group created by Southern governors to push educational improvement in 16 Southern states.

In his 4 1/2 years with CMS,  Baxter got an up-close look at the challenges of using test scores to rate teacher effectiveness.  He was something of a human lightning rod as he went school-to-school in 2010-11,  trying to explain a system that calculated  "value added" teacher ratings.  The goal was to test all students in all subjects so that all teachers could be rated.  Then-Superintendent Peter Gorman had laid out a timetable for moving all 18,000-plus CMS employees to a performance-based pay system,  and the ratings would be a key part of teacher performance pay.

Rolling out a change in pay during the depths of a recession tends to incite skepticism,  and Baxter faced plenty of that.  The system was a work in progress,  and his  "we don't know yet"  answers were sometimes seen as evasive.  Ultimately Gorman left CMS,  the CMS tests were pushed aside and performance pay was recast as the CMS Talent Effectiveness Project.  Now the focus has shifted to the state's Ready program.

As the point person for an unpopular project,  Baxter took plenty of lumps in online comments.  But I found him to be patient,  good-natured and earnest in his belief that this kind of work will ultimately benefit kids.  The quest to find better ways to rate teacher effectiveness is sweeping the nation,  so Baxter will find plenty to delve into across the region.

The Chicago teachers strike highlighted the controversy over changing teacher evaluations.  For those of you trying to keep up with the debate,  this month alone has brought a Manhattan Institute report on using value-added ratings to identify ineffective teachers, a CALDER conversation on test-based measures of teacher effectiveness and a report on how various states are handling performance evaluation from the Center on Reinventing Public Education.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A simple solution for CMS board?

I'm wary of simple solutions to complex education problems,  but one of the ideas facilitator Nancy Broner offered the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board last week was a forehead-slapper.

At their retreat, board members unanimously agreed they often fail to consider the downside of actions they vote on.  Broner's suggestion:  When you introduce an item, always list the challenges,  as well as the expected benefits.  Someone  --  I don't recall whether it was Broner,  Superintendent Heath Morrison or another CMS staffer  --  later fleshed that out by saying proposals should also spell out expected results, short-term and long-range.

I've covered a lot of board meetings in the last 10 years,  and the superintendent's proposals have almost always been presented as slam-dunk good ideas  --  or at least the clear-cut best response to a tough situation.  That sort of makes sense.  The board expects CMS staff to do the legwork and come back with the strongest possible recommendation.

But it makes you wonder if the last couple of years might have been different with deeper and more public acknowledgement of challenges that divided the community.

When then-Superintendent Peter Gorman and the board talked about such things as teacher performance pay and school closings,  I recall hearing them urge the public to look at facts, not emotions  --  as if the facts would lead any reasonable person to the same conclusions CMS leaders had reached. What if they had talked more about the costs,  in money and classroom time,  of rolling out dozens of new tests,  or of the potential pitfalls of closing high-poverty middle schools and rushing students into preK-8 settings?

On Tuesday,  Morrison plans to give the board a report on the academic and financial results of some of the most challenging school mergers.  He said his first task was to track down what had been promised and projected when those plans were laid.  I'm guessing he had a tough time.  Did anyone spell out that the newly merged schools might see big academic and discipline challenges the first year,  or detail the expenses of transforming elementary schools into buildings that could accommodate 4-year-olds and hulking adolescents?  If so,  it wasn't shared with the public.

Since Morrison was hired in April,  he's been talking about doing a better job of helping the public understand the decisions CMS makes.  Based on the board's self-evaluation last week,  members believe they need to do a better job of understanding their own decisions.

So we'll see.  Old habits can be hard to break.  But Morrison is eager to make his mark.  And the fact that the board acknowledges shortcomings would seem to be an important step toward improvement.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Another courageous conversation

Superintendent Heath Morrison has been talking up the need for courageous conversations about race.  But the recent school board retreat got me thinking about another courageous conversation many are confronted with:  The conversation with your child's teacher or principal when something goes wrong.

The board was talking about how to handle questions and complaints that should be resolved by staff.  Sometimes parents turn to elected officials as a last resort,  when they've been stymied by a complex system or denied the result they believe is right.  But sometimes they go up the chain first.

Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark,  who spent years as a principal before moving into central offices,  talked about how deflating it was to hear a complaint from a superior when she could have resolved it if the parent had talked to her directly.   "I told parents,  'Go to the person who can solve your problem,' " Clark said.

I listened with interest,  because reporters often find ourselves in a similar situation,  as the court of last resort for some frustrated parents and the first place some turn.   When I ask people why they would call me before confronting the people at school,  the answer is generally,  "I'm afraid they'll retaliate against my child."

Let's stipulate a couple of obvious things:  Good, professional educators don't take their frustrations with parents out on kids.  And in a system this big, they're not all good.

I asked Morrison afterward about the concerns with retaliation.  His take:  Administrators can't resolve a complaint without identifying the family involved.  So ask yourself which is more likely to create anger and resentment:  A direct conversation seeking solutions,  or a complaint that someone took over your head without talking to you?

To my mind,  Wendy Hawkins should be canonized as the patron saint of parents in tough situations.  I wrote about her and her family several years ago.  With both sons afflicted by a progressive, incurable and eventually fatal disease  (read more about Brandon and Jeremy Hawkins and Batten disease here and here),  she faced almost unbelievable frustrations and roadblocks trying to get them help in CMS.  Long past the stage when most of us would have turned into raging dragon ladies,  she stayed calm,  never assumed the worst about others' motivations and carefully documented her contacts.  Because of that,  she won state and court rulings in a system where parents seldom prevail.  Even the people who fought her on legal issues acknowledged she was a model of grace under pressure.

So here's my advice:  Remember the difference between venting and problem-solving.  Vent to your best friend if you need to,  preferably out of earshot of your kids  (remember that what you say at home in anger can color their attitudes about school).  Then keep it concise, calm and solution-focused when you go to the teacher or principal  --  and when you go over their heads if that proves necessary.

As the Hawkins family can attest,  email can be a great way to communicate clearly and document your  efforts and results.  But again:  Blow off steam before you sit down at the keyboard.   Once they're in writing, insults and exaggerations live on forever and hurt your cause.

Just remember:  If you start with "I'm sure we can resolve this,"  you can always escalate to  "This is an outrage!"  But if you go in with a verbal flame-thrower and find out you're wrong,  the damage is done.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

CMS: There'll be an app for that

Mobile-phone apps are the cutting edge of school district communication, according to an article in the latest issue of School Administrator magazine.  With a growing number of students and parents relying on their phones for news,  Cody Cunningham,  chief communications officer in the McKinney, Texas, Independent School District,  said it's a shame more districts aren't creating apps.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools plans to do that in the coming year,  says chief spokeswoman LaTarzja Henry.  That's hardly a surprise,  given the district's push for multimedia communication.

I downloaded the McKinney app  --  it's free,  so check out misdGO if you're curious  --  and played around.  It offers news,  photos,  videos,  menus,  job listings,  a school directory,  sports scores,  arts events and alerts on weather closings.  It also lets parents log in to check their kids'  homework and grades,  similar to the CMS Parent Assist online program.

I found it intriguing,  though the combination of aging eyes and small screen leads me to prefer a computer for anything complicated.  But I'm not the target demographic here.  I'm curious:  Would the parents out there like to see their school districts create an app?  If so, what would you most like to see in it?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Will new exams make the grade?

Bubbling in multiple-choice answers doesn't give a sophisticated picture of students' skills, most would agree.

But North Carolina's new exams,  which include open-ended questions,  are raising plenty of questions.

Last week,  after the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board got a briefing on the new "measures of student learning"  tests,  state officials announced they'd give districts a little more time to hash out answers.  The state will not require high school students to take the new tests at the end of first-semester courses,  Rebecca  Garland,  the state's chief academic officer,  told me Friday.

The multiple-choice exams North Carolina has relied on for years have one big advantage:  They're cheap and quick to score with computer scanners.  Items that require students to solve a math problem or write an answer require human eyes.  And that's where things get complicated.

Superintendent Heath Morrison and new Chief Accountability Officer Frank Barnes told the CMS board last week that teachers will be trained to score the new tests in a process similar to that used for grading Advanced Placement exams.  That requires getting skilled teachers to volunteer,  training them to do consistent scoring and then putting them to work on the actual exams.  Teachers will be paid for their after-hours work,  Morrison said,  but the cost is unknown because CMS leaders haven't seen the tests and don't know how many open-ended questions will be included.

Garland said Friday that local officials won't see the tests until it's time to give them to students.  That's standard testing security,  so no one can unfairly coach students to success.  But she said no test will have more than six open-ended,  or "constructed response,"  questions.  And she said those questions will require one-paragraph answers at most,  not a full essay.

In the next couple of weeks,  Garland said,  teachers will start getting more specifics about the tests.  And she said the state will provide training for teachers who will score the exams.

The tests are not just designed to gauge student skills but teacher effectiveness.  And that makes things a whole lot stickier.

CMS has decided to make the new exams count for 25 percent of a student's grade for that class  (for a list of classes involved,  read the CMS presentation).  That's to motivate students to take the exams seriously,  so teachers won't be penalized for kids who just aren't trying.  But Morrison says he's still wavering on whether that's fair to seniors,  whose graduation could be sidetracked by a test that's new and unproven.  North Carolina has a history of rolling out new tests that turn out to be flawed  (I suspect other states do, too).  The new state tests will take the place of teachers' finals to avoid overtesting.

Teachers who give any of the new state tests this year will get a  "growth score"  on their evaluation,  though it will be  "for information only,"  CMS Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark said.  She said the state has assured CMS  "they have the tools to make that calculation,"  even though the ratings will be based on brand-new tests.  After three years of test-score data pile up,  those ratings will start to count toward evaluations and could ultimately cost persistent low-performers their jobs.

Garland said the growth ratings, which are generated by the SAS analytics company headquartered in Cary, will be similar to what teachers are already seeing if they give end-of-grade and end-of-course exams.  Teachers will get a numerical score and a label of met, exceeded or did not meet expectations.

Garland noted that some states getting federal Race To The Top money are requiring each district to come up with its own program for rating teachers on student growth.  As CMS can testify,  that's expensive, complex and politically explosive.  Garland said North Carolina is taking on that task, but  "we have tried to be as flexible as we can with the districts."

Meanwhile,  no matter how the details are worked out,  some believe the whole testing-and-rating path is the wrong one.

"As a teacher,  I want to know what my weaknesses are so that I can improve,  but the value-added assessment currently in vogue doesn't do that.  No matter who claims it does,  no matter how inevitable it feels,"  S.C. teacher Kay McSpadden wrote in a recent guest column in the Observer.

Friday, September 14, 2012

CMS board flunks itself

OK, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board didn't give itself a letter grade in the self-assessment discussed at Friday's retreat.  But the consensus was pretty clear:  Members think the board has a lot of work to do  (see story here).

As Superintendent Heath Morrison and moderator Nancy Broner with the Center for Reform of School Systems noted,  there's a certain irony involved in such self-ratings.  In an attempt to become a better board,  the board has to publicly air its weaknesses, which can add to the image of a dysfunctional board.

But Broner said the goal of improvement is worth the discomfort.  Before the retreat she had all nine members fill out a 29-point questionnaire based on Eugene Smoley's  "Effective School Boards."  All members did so,  though the totals don't always add up because some apparently did not answer all questions.  And  --  cue up the punch lines  --  one member both agreed and disagreed that the board works to reach consensus on important matters.

Here are the results.  I'm paraphrasing many of the statements to make this more readable. Categories are mine, not Broner's.

*All nine members said the board fails to examine the downside of important decisions it makes.
*All nine say the board does not set aside time to learn more about important issues in other districts.
*Seven said the board does not usually receive  "a full rationale"  for recommendations it acts on.
*Five said administration recommendations are usually accepted with little questioning.
*Five said the board often requests additional information before making decisions.
*The board split 4-4 on whether it is  "a rubber stamp board."

*Seven said members are not consistently able to hold confidential items in confidence.
*Five said members say one thing in public and another thing privately.

At least they aren't splurging on food ...
*Five said the board does not reverse its positions based on community pressure.

*Eight agreed that  "at times this board has appeared unaware of the impact its decisions will have within our service community."
*Seven disagreed that  "this board spends a lot of time listening to different points of view before it votes on an important matter."
*Six said the board is outspoken in its views about programs.
*Five say members fail to get the views of an affected group  "if our board thinks that an important group of constituents is likely to disagree with an action we are considering."
*But five agreed that  "before reaching a decision on important issues,  this board usually requests input from persons likely to be affected."

*Seven disagreed that all members support majority decisions.
*Seven disagreed that board members work together to make sure decisions are accepted and carried out.
*Seven said members are sometimes disrespectful in their comments to each other.
*Seven agreed that  "a certain group of board members will usually vote together."
*Six said they fear they will be ostracized by other members if they speak their mind on key issues.
*The board split 6-4  (remember that double vote)  on whether it works to reach consensus on important matters,  with the slim majority disagreeing.
*Five agreed and four disagreed that  "the board's decisions usually result in a split vote."  As Broner put it,  "you were split on the split vote question."
*All nine disagreed that the board often discusses where CMS should be headed five or more years in the future.
*Six members agreed the board is more involved in  "trying to put out fires"  than preparing for the future.
*Five agreed that the board has reviewed its strategies and long-term goals within the past year.

*Six said they've participated in board discussions about mistakes the board has made and what could be done differently.
*Five say they've participated in board discussions about the effectiveness of its own performance.
*Five agree that the board has a retreat at least once every two years to examine its own performance as a board.
*Members split 4-4 on whether they've ever received feedback on their performance.  The item did not specify the source of feedback.

*Seven said members provide constituent services without crossing the line into management.

Celebrity principal and 'swashbuckler' superintendent

It's a safe bet nobody left yesterday's MeckEd community breakfast yawning. The education and advocacy group brought in a speaker whose style is as much smackdown as uplift, quite a jolt to those accustomed to Charlotte's "bless your heart" style.


Steve Perry is a working principal in Connecticut,  having founded a magnet school that prides itself on sending African American and low-income students off to college.  Several teachers who attended the $50-a-person fund-raising breakfast as guests of MeckEd told me that gave him more credibility than your average research/policy/political type.

Perry is also very much a public figure,  appearing regularly on CNN,  writing books and preparing to launch a TVOne show called "Save My Son."  According to the Hartford Courant,  he spends a good bit of his time on the road doing speaking engagements like the one in Charlotte,  and has a minicam and studio lighting in his principal's office.

So yes,  Perry knows how to grab an audience's attention.  He raised plenty of deep,  thought provoking issues about the community's responsibility for all children,  the need to stop tolerating failure and the importance of loving the students you teach (read the news article here).  He also waded right into racial and gender issues and took pokes at almost everybody involved in education:  Interfering administrators,  principals who don't know how to lead,  excuse-making teachers,  lazy custodians and parents who come to school dressed in pajamas.

That made it particularly interesting when he shared a stage with Heath Morrison,  who started as Charlotte-Mecklenburg's superintendent July 1.  Morrison embraces his role as communicator-in-chief and has been on a whirlwind speaking tour since he was hired in April.  Most people I've talked to say he's very good at it,  but he's still in his honeymoon here.  Thursday's appearance gave a glimpse of what it may be like when things get a bit thornier.

An audience member's question about dealing with all the regulations that encumber public education led Perry into a long riff on his disdain for central-office staff.  He talked about how he ignores directives and ducks meetings.  "The problem with central offices is they exist to serve the central office,  not the community,"  Perry said.  "They don't seem to find solutions.  They only create more problems."  He went on to lament the distraction created by a series of superintendents bringing new programs:  "They come in and they're a swashbuckler and that stuff makes our job very,  very,  very difficult."

When Perry finished,  Morrison reached for the mike.  He said he wasn't going to disagree with Perry.  Instead,  Morrison talked about his  "loose/tight"  supervisory style that gives leeway to successful schools while keeping a tighter rein on those that aren't working.  He said he's listening to his employees and the community,  rather than charging in with his own agenda.  And he talked about  "one of the most frustrating things in North Carolina,"  the calendar law that requires most public schools to operate between Aug. 25 and June 10.  At-risk kids need more time in school,  Morrison said,  and if he can't pay teachers to work longer school years he at least needs the latitude to spread the 180 days out so there's not such a long summer break for learning to slip away.

On the racial front,  Perry left the audience with an interesting conversation-starter to take away from the session.  While he was talking about the importance of loving and motivating African American students,  he offered an observation he said the black folks in the crowd would understand:  "You know when a child is loved with one word:  Vaseline."  There were chuckles from many African Americans and blank looks from many whites.  "They'll explain it to you later,"  Perry said,  and moved on.

Actually,  the first four African Americans I asked  --  two who were there and two colleagues back in the newsroom  --  said they were stumped, too.  Reporter Celeste Smith offered the likely explanation:  Moms and grandmas rub Vaseline on their children's skin to avoid the dry,  pale  "ashy skin"  that can be seen as a sign that kids aren't well cared for.

My colleagues who had been stumped countered that most families just use lotion now.  Vaseline is an old-school approach,  as confirmed by this tweet from Perry I encountered while trying to google the answer:  "My grandmother used to think rubbing alcohol, epsom salt and vaseline was all we needed to cure us of everything."

Thursday, September 13, 2012

PTA socialism? Not in CMS

I keep seeing comments on this blog suggesting that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools forces its affluent PTAs or booster clubs to put part of their fund-raising proceeds into a pool for poorer schools.

That's not true.

I've been covering CMS for 10 years and they've never had such a policy.  Harold Dixon, current president of the Mecklenburg PTA Council, has been active in such groups for 15 years and says he has never encountered a mandate to redistribute money.  CMS says those rumors are false.

CMS does have a SchoolMates program  --  thanks to reader Bill Stevens for sharing this link -- that pairs stronger PTAs with weaker ones.  That program, which is voluntary,  involves sharing volunteers, doing joint activities and helping the less affluent schools develop parent leadership.  It's not about a wealthy PTA writing a check to a poorer school.

In a recent comment, Stevens talked about "an aggressive plan that any non urban school PTA that raised money had to submit a portion of it back to CMS for the so called effort of redistributing it to the urban schools."

I'm not sure where that's coming from.  The board has had vigorous discussions about per-pupil spending,  and I recall that some individual members have suggested pooling PTA and booster club money for equal distribution.  I don't have notes and names in front of me,  but I can say that it's not uncommon for members to air ideas that don't get much support,  and this was one of them. To my knowledge,  and in the memory of the folks I checked with,  there has never even been a formal motion.

"I think that's an urban legend," said board member Eric Davis, who joined the board in 2009.

When I asked Davis about the persistent  "forced to share the wealth"  rumors,  he repeated an argument he has made in board talks:  Even if you believe it's the right thing to do,  it doesn't make sense.  A really strong PTA might raise $120,000 a year,  enough money to make a difference for an individual school,  Davis said.  But if you divide it among all schools,  it's not even $1 per student.

CMS provides much more significant help to high-poverty schools,  which tend to have little or no PTA money,  through the federal Title I program and local spending decisions.  Forcing parents to put all their PTA money into one pot would generate a lot of ill will while bringing little benefit,  Davis said.

"My prediction is people would stop giving,"  he said.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

CMS, Union, Gaston ready to race

Get ready for another round of Race to the Top, the federal grant program designed to spur policymakers to shake up schools that are failing students.

After a state competition that is shaping North Carolina's testing and teacher evaluations, the federal government has invited individual school districts to compete for a total of $383 million. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Union and Gaston are among 32 districts in North Carolina and 893 nationwide that have filed an  "intent to apply"  form with the U.S. Department of Education.

Superintendent Heath Morrison says the CMS board will start working on the application this month,  with a due date at the end of October.  One thing that may surprise people,  he said in a recent interview,  is that the proposal won't just target the high-poverty,  low-performing schools that often draw extra money.

"We are also looking at schools that are doing very well compared with other schools in our district and our state and around the country,"  Morrison said.

It's part of his push to make sure people understand that making CMS better means boosting achievement for top students and high-performing schools, too.  He said he keeps hearing that the district has focused mostly on the weakest schools and students,  though he said he's not yet sure whether that is reality or a failure of  "messaging."

"When we get kids who are well ahead,  are we keeping them ahead?  We've got to be very thoughtful about projects and opportunities for children who are extremely bright,  who are going to go on and have amazing careers and amazing opportunities in higher education,"  Morrison said.  "I want to be as focused on our children who come to us well ahead as students who come to us well behind."

Morrison hasn't offered any specifics yet.  In Reno,  Nev.,  he opened new middle school magnets for gifted students.  His grand plan for CMS is expected in early December,  but the Race to the Top application may provide a sneak peak at some strategies.

The competition for school districts requires a focus on four big areas:  Rigorous standards and exams,  data systems that measure student growth,  recruitment and retention of effective educators,  and  "turning around the nation's lowest-achieving schools."  Applicants are expected to lay out plans for  "personalized learning environments"  that use teachers and technology to tailor lessons to students' needs.

CMS has indicated it plans to seek a grant in the $20 million to $30 million range  (Wake and Guilford counties,  the other big N.C. districts,  also plan to enter the race).  The feds only plan to award 15 to 25 grants,  in amounts ranging from $5 million to $45 million.  As the Public School Forum of North Carolina puts it,  "competition will be very stiff." 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

What's Democratic ticket for reform?

Education may be a big theme for Democrats, but there are sharp differences of opinion in the party about how to improve it.

In his acceptance speech in Charlotte Thursday, President Obama asked people to rally around a set of goals  "in manufacturing, energy, education, national security and the deficit."  Those goals would lead to "new jobs, more opportunity and rebuild(ing) this economy on a stronger foundation,"  he said.

The president didn't get specific.  But two days earlier, Democrats for Education Reform held a panel discussion at Knight Theater to lay out a vision that includes access to high-quality prekindergarten,  parent choice,  charter-school expansion,  teacher accountability based on test scores,  mayoral takeover of urban school districts and closure of low-performing schools.

"I believe this decade will be the great period of change for the education reform movement,"  said moderator Jonathan Alter,  a longtime reporter and analyst who writes for Bloomberg View.

Legislators from Colorado, Ohio and New Jersey spoke about reform bills Alter described as  "real success,"  while he said panelists promoting DFER's reform vision in North Carolina and Indiana are  "still in the wilderness."

Colorado Sen. Michael Johnston,  who was an education adviser to Barack Obama's 2008 campaign,  talked about helping pass a law that revamped teacher and principal evaluations.  Under the new law, at least 50 percent of their ratings must be based on student growth in test scores,  he said.  He also talked about ending tenure and  LIFO,  or  "last in, first out."  Performance,  not experience,  should determine who keeps their job,  Johnston said.

Johnston is co-founder of New Leaders,  a group that's working with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and the public-private Project LIFT to improve struggling schools in Charlotte.

N.C. Rep. Marcus Brandon of Guilford County said he supported the Republican-dominated legislature's decision to lift the cap on charter schools but wanted that bill to include provisions that charters must provide transportation and meals,  making the alternative public schools accessible to more low-income families.  He said that provision failed because most Democrats and the N.C. Association of Educators dug in against charter-school expansion.

"Education has been our bread-and-butter issue,"  Brandon said.  "It looks like that's going to slip away because we have been so out of the mainstream."

The presidents of the nation's two big teacher unions,  Dennis Van Roekel of the National Education Association and Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, took part in a second DFER panel about technology and innovation in teaching.  Both were in Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention,  but Van Roekel said their willingness to talk with DFER doesn't mean they endorse that group's vision.

Van Roekel and Ellis in Charlotte
Van Roekel crossed the street to an NEA reception at Aquavina, where state President Rodney Ellis was already talking to me about DFER.  "We disagree fundamentally on a lot of what they call reform,"  Ellis said.

Van Roekel said his group prefers to talk about transformation and responsibility,  rather than reform and accountability.  Their vision involves school boards,  administrators,  teacher unions and families working together,  he said,  while the other view devalues teachers and their unions.  And he says value-added ratings calculated from test-score data do not create a valid picture of teacher performance.  "Use that data,"  he said.  "It just should not be for high-stakes decisions."

Grundy (left), Sawyer (right) and supporters
Meanwhile, Pamela Grundy and Carol Sawyer of MecklenburgACTS,  joined by a handful of supporters,  stood outside the DFER event and Monday's screening of the upcoming movie  "Won't Back Down" carrying oversized foam pencils and taking a stand against  "high-stakes testing, relentless charter school expansion, school closings which disrupt families and communities and parent trigger laws."  (Read a previous blog about the movie and accompanying events.)

Grundy and Sawyer were denied admission to both events,  even though the DFER session was billed as a "town hall."  They had been allowed to register but,  after getting mixed signals about whether they'd be allowed in,  were turned away.  Grundy said they were told they might create a disruption and/or were trying to discourage people from entering.

A DFER spokesperson hasn't responded to my email asking why they were denied admission.  It wasn't a matter of capacity;  I saw plenty of empty seats in the theater.  And the women had been urging people to attend,  even if it was to express an opposing view. (Correction: Found a response in my inbox. DFER says it was an invitation-only event, and even though the MeckACTS folks found a web link to RSVP they had not been invited.)

As reporters well know,  being barred can create a better story than the event itself.  Grundy blogged about her experience after being turned away from Monday's screening,  and posted on the national Parents Across America website after the second denial,  asking "What are DFER and Students First afraid of?"  That got enough coverage that MeckACTS has a DNC 2012 media page

"We were loyal Democrats who were not challenging the Democratic party as a whole,"  Grundy said in an email Saturday,  "just the education policies espoused by DFER and Students First, which the current administration has unfortunately adopted in large part."

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

In the FLOTUS pool

I'll be among a handful of  "pool"  reporters covering First Lady Michelle Obama's speech at a luncheon today honoring lesbian,  gay,  bisexual and transgendered elected officials.  It's another first for me in a week that has seen Charlotte  --  and the Observer  --  turned upside down.

I'd like to say my editors hand-picked me to track the First Lady of the United States  (or FLOTUS, as we insider-wannabes like to say).  But actually,  they picked reporter Elizabeth Leland.  As you may have heard,  she has fallen ill with West Nile virus.  So I stepped in.

I'd like to say the White House admired my work from afar and requested me for the pool.  Yeah, right.  They actually offered John Frank,  one of the (Raleigh) News & Observer's political reporters,  the chance to be the local pool reporter.  (Raleigh, local?  Do these people have a North Carolina map?)  He had moved into our newsroom for convention duty and happened to be standing next to my cubicle when the email arrived.  He bemoaned the time demands of being a poolie.  I said,  more or less,  "Gimme that!"

Frank has warned me there is nothing glamorous about pool duty.  I've seen the sample reports the White House sent along,  and yeah,  it's pretty dry stuff.  (I did request a personal interview.  Mrs. Obama's staff was kind enough to send their prompt  "no"  without adding "ROTFLOL").

But you know what?  It's new and different for me.  And that's been the great thing about the Democratic National Convention.  I've been seeing a whole new world of journalism and politics.  (I did veer off to do some education reporting in the middle of an 8 a.m. to midnight shift Tuesday,  and will file on that as soon as I get time.)  For the most part,  this is making me appreciate the relative ease of dealing with local education folks.  I hope I will not be nabbed by the Secret Service for disclosing that most of the pool communications come with the header "OFF THE RECORD."

I haven't garnered any big bylines or broken any big news this week.  But after 31 years in the newspaper business,  I am reminded that I'm still getting paid to have fun.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Students getting DNC experience

Student editors from the East Meck Eagle and the Providence Prowl came to the Observer today for the UNC Chapel Hill journalism school's forum on Southern presidential politics.  They got to hear PBS NewsHour reporter Judy Woodruff introduce academic experts who talked about race,  poverty,  immigration and political trends.

Sydney Greene (left) and Anna Talarico
And that's just the beginning for Anna Talarico,  co-editor of the Prowl,  and Sydney Greene, managing editor for the Eagle online.  Both will be involved with an array of events connected with the Democratic National Convention,  including a just-announced appearance by political analyst Juan Williams at East Meck this week.

Sydney said she left with three pages of notes,  and was especially intrigued by talk of the re-emergence of Southern poverty.  Several speakers pegged education as vital to the region's economic future.

Anna,  whose family moved here from Columbus,  Ohio,  when she was in first grade,  loved hearing about  how Southerners differ from the rest of the country.  Both young journalists are especially psyched about seeing President Obama's speech on Thursday night.  And both got a close-up look at the changes the convention is bringing:  When participants left the Observer,  the streets outside were lined with police awaiting the arrival of the protest parade.

Bill Allen, Candace Brandt and Anna
Kudos to Eagle adviser Bill Allen and Prowl adviser Candace Brandt  for getting their students involved,  and to the N.C. Scholastic Media Association,  which operates out of UNC Chapel Hill,  for letting them know about the opportunity.  It's always good to see young people getting engaged in local events,  and this week they get to play their role on the national stage.