Friday, March 22, 2013

Glimpse of CMS tech future

Want a sneak preview of what the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools construction plan might include? Check out Miami-Dade's iPrep Academy, an urban magnet school that uses technology and internships to prepare students for careers.

CMS officials will present a 10-year capital plan at Tuesday's school board meeting. They've made it clear that equipping old and new buildings for digital technology will be a significant part of that plan,  in part because new online testing requires far more internet access than most schools have now.  And they've said some plans for new magnets and choices will be part of that presentation.

iPrep Academy in Miami
At Monday's budget work session,  technology chief Valerie Truesdale reported on a February visit to iPrep Academy, a 320-student magnet housed on the top floor of the Miami-Dade central office. Students work on Macbook Airs that they can take home,  in classrooms where some of the furniture is on wheels for easy regrouping when they work on projects. Some walls are coated in IdeaPaint,  which allows writing and erasing.

The original academy,  which has the superintendent as principal,  has expanded to magnets located within several high schools. While Truesdale didn't come out and say  "We're doing this,"  she cited the academies as an example of how school buildings and technology can set the stage for a newer and more relevant classroom experience.

Truesdale also offered a tip on the latest CMS lingo. Old-timers will recall that some former superintendents referred to big projects as  "big rocks."  Truesdale said Morrison likes to call his new projects  "big bets,"  emphasizing the notion of investing in a future payoff.  Appropriate,  perhaps,  for a superintendent hired from the casino city of Reno.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Testing makes strange bedfellows

Diane Ravitch and Heath Morrison form an unlikely mutual admiration society.

Ravitch, an author and advocate who was in town Wednesday for lectures at UNC Charlotte, is wary of leaders trained by the Broad Superintendents Academy.  She views philanthropist Eli Broad as part of the  "billionaire boys club"  pushing a reform agenda that's demoralizing teachers, weakening public schools and handing over public education to corporate interests.

Peter Gorman,  a Broad graduate and former superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,  is a case study in the kind of things Ravitch doesn't like.  He rolled out lots of new tests,  planning to use them to rate teacher effectiveness.  He closed several high-poverty schools,  citing low performance and the pressure of the recession. Then he resigned to take a job with the new education division of  Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. Ravitch contends that such testing and technology companies are the only real beneficiaries of Broad-style reform.

Ravitch says she met Morrison,  also a Broad graduate,  when she spoke at an American Association of School Administrators meeting about a year and a half ago.  Morrison,  who was superintendent in Reno, Nev., approached her afterward to tell her  "we're not all like that."

"He pretty much said,  'Watch me,' "  Ravitch said Wednesday.

After Morrison was hired to lead Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,  he posted a recommended reading list.  Ravitch's  "The Death and Life of the Great American School System"  was featured prominently. But what persuaded Ravitch that Morrison was really different was a December article in the Observer reporting his strong criticism of North Carolina's testing program.  In her education blog,  Ravitch hailed  "wonderful news from Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina,"  and said that because of his comments,  she would  "happily add Heath Morrison to the honor roll as a champion of American public education."

Meanwhile,  the struggle over testing in North Carolina continues.  MecklenburgACTS,  which fought Gorman's testing push,  has launched a new petition drive to get the state to postpone and rethink its latest round of testing,  which is tied to national Common Core standards.  UNCC students have created United to End Standardized Testing,  or UnTEST.  Mooresville Superintendent Mark Edwards,  recently named national Superintendent of the Year,  is working with Morrison to try to persuade state officials that while some testing is helpful and appropriate,  the current plans go too far.

Rebecca Garland,  chief academic officer for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction,  says opponents are exaggerating the scope of new testing.  In the December article,  Morrison referred to 177 new state tests,  a number that  MecklenburgACTS leaders Pamela Grundy and Carol Sawyer repeated in an opinion piece on the Observer's editorial page this week.

"Never, at any point in time, has NCDPI planned to implement 177 new tests across the state,"  Garland writes in a rebuttal submitted to the Observer today.  "In 2012-13, there were 35 new tests, but for many different subjects that have not been traditionally tested.  We will add an additional nine next year."

Here is Garland's description of the new tests, which is the most detailed I've seen:

Of the 35 added this year, six are specifically to meet the needs of students in the Occupational Course of Study, which is designed for students with disabilities.  Within the 35, there also are exams designed for various implementation plans for the new standards.  For example, a typical high school junior would only take one math Common Exam.  The district will select from four options (Algebra II, Common Core Math III, Common Core Integrated Math III, and Common Core Algebra II) based on decisions they have made locally about transitioning to the new standards.  

At the high school level, new tests should REPLACE current tests that teachers are using during the regular final exam schedule. For example, a World History student who previously spent 90 minutes taking a teacher-made final exam will now spend that time taking a Common Exam in World History. No additional testing time is required.

At the middle school level there will be five new assessments -- two in science (grades 6 and 7) and three in social studies (one each for grades 6-8).  This ensures no students are left out when we look at the picture of teacher impact on student growth.  For example, a seventh-grade teacher may teach English to 25 students and social studies to 60 other students.  Should we ignore those 60 students when we look at how students are growing?  The answer, of course, is no.

At the elementary level, there are three new exams – fourth-grade social studies and science and fifth-grade social studies – that schools may use if they need to or if they choose to use them. A school would need to use these only if they had elementary school teachers who do not teach English Language Arts or mathematics. For example, if a fifth-grade teacher were to teach only science and social studies, their school would need a way to measure the impact of that teacher on their students. That’s where these new exams would be used.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Big costs to change bells and buses

Board member Rhonda Lennon called it the elephant in the room during budget talks:  What will Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools do,  if anything,  to address parent and teacher concerns about bell schedules?

Parents and CMS administrators have been meeting since last summer to talk about three big issues: Some people don't like late schedules that end at 4:15 p.m.  Some think the 7:15 a.m. start for high schools is too early.  And some think previous leaders made a mistake extending the elementary day from 6 hours and 15 minutes to 7 hours,  especially since it brought no extra compensation for teachers.

At Monday's budget work session,  Morrison didn't directly answer Lennon's question. But he did refer to a recent update he sent board members outlining eight scenarios for shifting bell schedules and making the busing changes it would take to accomplish those revisions.

"The models project financial implications ranging from a savings of about $100,000 to a cost of $14.5 million to our operating budget in the first year,"  Morrison wrote.  "The models show that many students across CMS would be affected by these changes. Some students would have new bell schedules. Some students would have to shift to shuttle stops. Some students would have new lengths for the instructional day. And some students and their families would have all three of those changes at once."

The scenarios involve various combinations of actions:  Shortening the elementary day by 15, 30 or 45 minutes;  moving high schools to a later time slot;  moving up the last dismissal time to 3:45 or 4;  and making all magnet students use shuttle stops.  All scenarios are potentially expensive.  They require CMS to add 79 to 250 buses,  and even the version that saves $100,000 the first year by reducing the total miles driven is projected to add $1.6 million in county costs the following year because it reduces the state efficiency rating.

Lennon,  who represents the north suburbs,  and Amelia Stinson-Wesley,  who represents the south,  said they'd like to see earlier dismissals to keep buses out of evening traffic jams.  But I'm looking at those numbers and thinking about the teachers,  technology or pay raises that a few million dollars would cover.  I don't make many forecasts,  but I'm sticking with what I wrote in January:  Don't hold your breath for bell schedule changes. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

CMS Teach for America fee: $510,000

We won't see Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' spending plan for another three weeks, but some interesting bits are coming out as the school board start planning. Among them:  CMS is paying $510,000 to Teach For America this year to support the 216 teachers the group has placed in local schools.

That may sound like a lot,  especially for those who aren't fans of the program that recruits college graduates and sends them into high-need schools for two-year stints.  But it's a far cry from the $10,000-per-teacher figure cited by Mecklenburg County Commissioner Vilma Leake at a meeting with the school board last week.  Leake,  a retired teacher and former school board member,  said she doesn't think paying the Teach For America fees is a wise use of money as CMS prepares to ask the county for more money.  "That's going to be a major issue and problem for us,"  Leake said.

Fees go to the organization to pay for recruiting, training, administration and ongoing support for TFA cadets. Those teachers are paid like any others, based on experience and credentials.

School board member Joyce Waddell asked for an update on the TFA fees at Monday's budget session.  Chief Financial Officer Sheila Shirley said the fees aren't calculated on a per-teacher basis.  But several of us whipped out our calculators to do the math:  It's more like $2,361 per teacher than $10,000.

Board member Rhonda Lennon asked how CMS can correct false statements that are made in public meetings,  whether they come from officials or members of the public.  Superintendent Heath Morrison said he plans to email all commissioners with the accurate TFA fees.  CMS is also keeping budget info posted on its web site.

Stay tuned here for more budget nuggets,  including the latest on the cost of changing school hours,  or bell schedules.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Understanding Common Core

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has launched a web page to help parents understand the Common Core standards that are supposed to transform education across the country.

That's good, because I'm having trouble getting my head around it.

I know the standards are supposed to make sure students across the country get more rigorous lessons, with a testing system that allows for good comparisons from state to state and country to country. I know there are a whole lot of new tests coming to North Carolina,  starting this spring,  and that we're likely to see some pretty grim results the first time out.

But I haven't yet had that moment where the light bulb flashes over my head and I say, "OK, now I get it!"  I thought last week's school board report might flip the switch. Nope.

My confusion comes partly from the fact that curriculum is not the kind of thing that's easy to translate into newspaper writing.  Another big issue is that the answer to a whole lot of questions seems to be  "We don't know yet."

I know North Carolina is among 24 states working with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium to create new online English and math tests based on Common Core standards, and that some CMS classrooms will pilot those exams this spring.  Other states are working with a group called PARCC to do the same.  Superintendent Heath Morrison said last week that there has been talk of 10-hour tests,  based on an estimate by PARCC,  but no one seems to know how solid that is or exactly what it will mean for local students, teachers and schools.

The good news is that CMS leaders seem to want to explain this as much as I want to understand it.  I'm meeting with them later this week.  Here's how you can help:  Readers with close ties to schools  often know the key questions and issues before I do.  So let me know what you're hearing, wondering and worrying about.

For instance,  a reader shared this example of what's supposed to be a state-issued bubble sheet for this year's exams,  illustrating the difficulty of bubbling in open-ended math answers  (the top row is correct,  the bottom row wrong). Board member Tom Tate asked last week about how CMS plans to deal with potential confusion on answer sheets.  That's exactly the kind of thing we all need to understand.

Friday, March 15, 2013

White flight ... from private schools?

Private school enrollment has been declining nationwide over the past decade,  especially among white students,  according to a new U.S. Census Bureau study.

The working paper concludes that that national downturn,  which began earlier in the decade,  isn't likely to have been caused by the recession.  Instead,  it found a link between charter school growth and private school decline,  suggesting that families who aren't happy with traditional public schools may be switching to a tuition-free alternative.

The Census study inspired me to check North Carolina's private-school reports. They show enrollment growing steadily in Mecklenburg County and statewide from 2000 to 2009, with both slumping in 2010.

But the numbers don't show a dramatic decline.  Mecklenburg's private enrollment began ticking up again in 2011 and 2012.  The latest report shows a total of 19,545 students in Mecklenburg's private schools,  accounting for just over 20 percent of all N.C. students in private schools.  That's just barely below the 2009 peak of 19,733.  Statewide, the 2012 total of 96,096 in private schools is about 2.5 percent below the 2009 peak.

The national report raises interesting questions about the dynamics of change, especially with a surge in charter schools statewide and in the Charlotte region. Leaders of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Mecklenburg's charter and private schools have held two meetings to talk about the balance between competition and cooperation.

Nobody's ready to issue a public plan or agenda yet, but CMS spokeswoman Kathryn Block said they're discussing potential for common ground in  "teacher professional development,  transportation,  grants and community messaging."

Speaking of the charter boom:  N.C. Senators Jerry Tillman and Dan Soucek filed a bill Thursday that would create a new governing board for charters. Here's what the N.C. Alliance for Public Charter Schools had to say about it.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Reid Park Project: Pass, fail or incomplete?

A lively debate over the success or failure of the Reid Park Project flared up at Wednesday's joint meeting of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board and Mecklenburg County commissioners.

The project centers on Reid Park Academy,  a preK-8 school in west Charlotte. CMS, Mecklenburg County's Department of Social Services and various private partners are trying to rebuild a fragile neighborhood and the school that serves its youth, uniting educational efforts with family services and other supports.

School board member Eric Davis cited that project as the kind of joint effort the two bodies ought to seek as they move forward with a 2013-14 budget.

County commissioner Vilma Leake, whose district includes the Reid Park neighborhood, cut him off.

"It sounds good, but the end results are not there,"  Leake said.  "The kids are still performing low."  She told Davis that parents are frustrated that it took half the year to launch a PTA,  and that "K-8 is not working for that community or those children."

Joint meetings are strange affairs.  If either body were reviewing the project as part of its business agenda,  staff would have come with data and a framework for measuring results.  But joint meetings tend to be more free-floating,  so no one came prepared to settle the question.

It's an important one.  Large amounts of public money and community energy are focused on improving the prospects of children in neighborhoods like Reid Park.  The school itself has been involved in major CMS turnaround efforts, including strategic staffing and the creation of preK-8 schools (it's not part of Project LIFT because it feeds to Harding, not West Charlotte High). Many civic leaders hope the neighborhood-focused approach,  based partly on the Harlem Children's Zone, proves to be a model for life-changing transformation.

I've reported on the major challenges the school faces,  as well as ongoing efforts to turn things around.

So who's right?

The final word went to Richard McElrath,  the school board member who represents Reid Park.  He said he voted for the preK-8 conversion because it meant students who advance to middle school with weak reading skills will still have access to reading teachers,  something that's lacking in traditional middle schools.  The school isn't a success yet,  McElrath said,  but neither is it a failure.

"A year is not enough time to say something has failed,"  he said.

A personal note:  Your Schools topped 1 million lifetime page views Wednesday, so I've celebrated by updating my photo. I figure if it's been seen a million times, it's time for a new one.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Magnet results in: Morehead stands out

Results from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools magnet lottery are in,  and if there were a prize for most popular,  Morehead STEM Academy would take it.

Students at Morehead STEM Academy
The K-8 math-science magnet in the UNC Charlotte area has just over 1,100 students placed,  with another 927 on the waiting list after the first lottery. After last year's lottery the school had just under 1,000 students,  with an overflow of 624.  (See results from previous years here.)

The second-longest wait list is for perennial favorite Park Road Montessori,  which has 397 wait-listed for a school with just under 500 students.  Montessori schools,  unlike other magnets,  accept students in prekindergarten.  Park Road had 279 pre-K applicants,  and only 45 got in.

Overall demand for magnets is up this year,  as Superintendent Heath Morrison,  the school board and a citizens task force mull whether future expansions and revisions are needed.  The number of students placed for 2013-14 is just under 19,000,  little changed from the current year.  But the waiting list is up by more than 20 percent,  from 3,547 after the 2012 lottery to 4,348 this time.

As usual,  lottery results show that in magnet schools,  as in real estate,  the key is location,  location,  location.  The International Baccalaureate magnet at East Mecklenburg High pulled 845 students and had 71 on the waiting list.  None of the others had waiting lists. North Meck's IB magnet drew 583 students,  Harding's 393 and West Charlotte's 229.  (Myers Park,  as you may recall,  still has an IB program,  but it's no longer considered a magnet because it doesn't take students from outside the attendance zone.)

Harding's numbers hint at an ongoing challenge for the school,  which was a popular and high-performing magnet school just a couple of years ago. At its peak, Harding's IB magnet pulled more than 700 students,  with a math-science magnet comprising the other half of the westside school.  Then the school board closed Waddell High,  a struggling high-poverty neighborhood school,  and sent most of those students to Harding,  while moving the math-science magnet to Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology.  Interest in the IB magnet quickly slumped,  as academic and disciplinary challenges rose. Last year's lottery saw 451 IB students placed at Harding;  this year's report shows a significant decline in students moving on to the next level there.  However,  ninth-grade placements are up from 77 to 162,  so if Harding can hold onto those students that could signal a revival of its IB magnet.

There's still a second lottery coming up for students who didn't register in time for the first one or who want to try for schools that still have seats available.  Check here for dates and details.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Shooter drill and CMS-TV school

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is working with county officials to plan a safety drill simulating an armed attack.

Superintendent Heath Morrison would like to see a high school partner with the newly-revived CMS-TV station to air student-produced programs.

And the cultural competency task force is exploring what an expanded diversity office might do to help students.

Those are a few of the tidbits I picked up at Butler High last night,  at the last of three CMS town hall sessions designed to give the public a voice in budget planning and a chance to check in with the district's 22 advisory task forces.

Plenty of CMS officials and task force members were on hand,  but there wasn't much public.  Attendance has been light throughout,  several people said,  and Monday's was so anemic that everyone went home 20 minutes early.

Some people may have opted for more convenient outlets,  such as a recent online budget poll that got more than 11,000 responses.  And most of us know that the public seldom mobilizes on a big scale until specific proposals are on the table,  especially proposals that upset people.

"Compared to 2009-10,  the crisis mentality isn't there,"  CMS magnet director Jeff Linker said,  referring to school-closing plans that drew big crowds and angry protests.

On Monday,  his task force on magnets, choice and alternative schools drew one parent unhappy with his middle school options.  They'd gotten about a dozen visitors at an earlier town hall held at Waddell Language Academy.

Joel Gilland,  a Mountain Island Elementary parent who co-leads the group with Linker,  said the task force has talked about ways to help neighborhood schools work with their communities to become schools of choice.  They're thinking there should be a way for CMS staff and people with ideas to work together to explore academic specialties,  partial magnets or alternative structures  (such as turning Mountain Island into a K-8 school)  that might boost interest.

Morrison's mention of creating a video-production academy,  which would give students experience that could translate to a career,  ties in with a push to explore stronger career-tech programs throughout the district.  Linker said the task force is also looking at areas with  "pent-up demand"  for magnets  (the suburbs have mostly been left out)  and new themes that might serve new needs.

At the session to talk about cultural competency Monday,  it was just me and three staffers there to lead the discussion.

"It's been a little bit disheartening,"  said co-leader Maria Petrea,  interim East Zone superintendent and former principal of Collinswood Language Academy.  "For whatever reason,  I don't think the public has seized the opportunity to be involved."

Reports on Morrison's interest in working with racial equity consultant Glenn Singleton have stirred plenty of online commentary,  but apparently folks who love or hate that idea aren't turning out to talk in person.  Petrea said the task force has been asked to explore options for a diversity office that would recognize the district's cultural and linguistic diversity and encourage a staff pool that reflects that diversity.  She said the group hasn't been asked to weigh in on whether CMS should work with Singleton's Pacific Educational Group and doesn't expect to make recommendations for the 2013-14 budget.

The budget overview that launched the meeting had the biggest crowd,  with all the task force members and other staffers in the audience.  Morrison's comment about staging an  "active shooter drill"  sometime this year came in response to a question about mental health and school safety.

The town halls are over,  but there will be two more public sessions to comment on the budget after Morrison presents a plan:  April 16 at West Charlotte High and April 22 at Rocky River High.  You can keep up with budget developments on the district's web site.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Testing and construction: Tune in Tuesday

Tuesday's school board meeting includes two hot topics:  An update on 2007 bond spending and a report on new state standards and exams.

The report on how CMS has spent the $517 million in school bonds that voters authorized is a lead-up to updating the district's long-term construction plan.  The board is slated to discuss how it will set those priorities Tuesday,  with rankings of specific projects presented March 26.  (March 26 is also when Superintendent Heath Morrison says his staff will give the board a revised school safety plan,  after realizing belatedly that the $33.7 million plan approved last month would delay other 2007 projects.)

Staff will also fill the school board in on how the new state exams that debut this spring will affect technology and teacher training (read the presentation here).  The new exams will feature more open-ended questions,  and will eventually be given online.  The old EOG and EOC tests were all multiple choice. The conversion promises to be complicated;  I've been hearing horror stories about the complexity of bubbling in and scoring the new tests.

So Tuesday's session might be worth tuning in,  either on CMS-TV 3 or online. The meeting starts at 6 p.m.,  and it will open with public comments.  Last month's comments revealed concerns among many faculty and parents at Albemarle Road Elementary School about the district's plans to bring in more mobiles to cope with crowding.  Morrison told me recently that finding a better solution is high on his priority list for new projects.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Teacher pay sparks angst but no action

Emotions ran high when the N.C. Board of Education got a report on the state of teacher pay this week.

WCNC reporter Stuart Watson,  who covered the Raleigh meeting,  told me about a young teacher weeping as she talked about colleagues being forced to leave the profession to earn a living.  Board member John Tate of Charlotte was stewing as he drove home.

"We're just not treating our teachers right. We're going to lose them,"  Tate said shortly after the meeting closed.

Among the facts presented by Alexis Schauss,  director of school business for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

* Four years of frozen teacher pay means that 14,550 teachers  --  almost one in five  --  are now at the lowest pay level.  In 2008-09,  a teacher with five years' experience made $35,580 in base pay.   Today,  because experience-based  "steps"  were frozen during the recession,  five-year teachers make $31,220.

* North Carolina's teachers are falling ever further from the national average,  with the state currently ranked 46th.

* N.C.  teachers'  average pay has increased only 8.3 percent from 2002-13 to 2011-12.  All other Southeastern states have seen gains between 16 and 38 percent during those years.  Currently only West Virginia and Mississippi rank below North Carolina in the Southeast.

*It would cost about $420 million to restore the state's 95,000 teachers to the pay levels they should have reached during the frozen years.

Tate noted that not only are teachers getting pinched in the pocketbook,  but they're feeling the burden of jobs cut to save money. Tate voiced his frustration at the large number of young teachers who are being driven out,  not because they're failing to teach children but because they're failing to earn a living.

So what did the state board do?  Nothing.

"We could pass a resolution saying,  'We're screwing our teachers,'  "  said Tate, who has never been one to mince words.  "But the power of the purse string lies in the General Assembly."

Leaders of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have voiced much the same frustration.  Superintendent Heath Morrison and several board members say they want to pay teachers more,  but the district gets its money from county,  federal and especially state government.

Decision-makers in Raleigh are talking about ways to revise teacher pay  (see the end of the presentation linked above).  They're talking about accountability and flexibility for local districts.  But a tax hike to boost teachers'  paychecks?  Not something I've heard.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Diane Ravitch coming to Charlotte

If you care about education,  chances are you have a strong opinion about Diane Ravitch.

She certainly has strong opinions about education.  And she'll be sharing them in Charlotte on March 20,  when UNC Charlotte brings her to town.  A community conversation with Ravitch is open to the public at no charge, from 4:30 to 5:15 p.m. in McKnight Auditorium, Cone Center, main campus. Register here to attend.  Later that evening she'll give the TIAA-CREF lecture for an invitation-only crowd that. It's titled "The Death and Life of the Great American School System," echoing the title of one of her best-known books.

 Ravitch is a professor, researcher, author and former official in the U.S. Department of Education, under President George H.W. Bush. She has emerged as one of the nation's most vocal critics of test-driven accountability,  the privatization of public education and the influence of philanthropists and foundations she dubs  "the Billionaire Boys' Club."

And at 74,  she has embraced digital communication and social media with zeal.  She tweets prolifically  (@DianeRavitch),  posts on her blog and contributes to many others.  So even if you miss her appearance,  chances are you can keep up with what she thinks of her visit to a city where all of her favorite issues are alive and vigorously debated.   

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Stop waiting for Superman?

You don't know if school transformation has taken root until the third principal.

That's one of the intriguing statements Eric Guckian,  executive director of Charlotte's New Leaders office,  tossed out when he filled me in on the group's latest thinking.  He was quoting Jennifer Henry from the national office,  and the comment represents a shift in strategy for a group that was founded to recruit principals for urban schools.

We all know the  "heroic principal"  scenario, which is a staple of the reform movement:  A charismatic leader charges in to turn around a failing school.  Sometimes that person founders quickly and quietly departs.  But sometimes,  when all goes well,  that leader energizes the staff,  inspires the students and creates a  "beat the odds"  school.

Then,  inevitably,  the successful leader is promoted or moves on to a new job outside the system.  And almost as inevitably,  the school slips back toward mediocrity or worse.

That's why Guckian says his group is shifting from what he calls  "the insurgent model"  --  an individual jumping in to shake up the school  --  to an approach based on  "flooding the zone" with a team of like-minded leaders committed to a long-term change. The Emerging Leaders program offers two years of leadership preparation for teachers who may go on to become principal interns,  academic facilitators or informal school leaders,  part of a school team designed to carry on a vision even if the principal departs.  Developing talent from within is now emphasized over finding stars from outside.

"We believe that the unit of change is the school,"  Guckian said.

Principals remain important to New Leaders' work with Project LIFT and other high-poverty Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. But there's a growing acknowledgement that they can't do the work alone,  and that life-changing results don't come quickly.

CMS features prominently in a recent Wallace Foundation report on cultivating the kind of principals that urban schools need.  Much of the report reinforces the notion that there's more to the task than hiring an outstanding individual.  It outlines efforts in CMS and elsewhere to evaluate, coach and support principals.

"In successful schools, leadership and authority don’t reside in any single person or position," the report concludes.  "The most enduring improvements occur through the consistent, shared exercise
of leadership by many in the school community and the district central office."

But the Wallace Foundation report also uses bad information to support the "principal as savior" model,  citing an article that CMS Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark wrote on the CMS strategic staffing plan for the August School Administrator journal  --  a cover story illustrated by an image of principals literally parachuting in to save schools.  The Wallace report quotes Clark on the importance of a great leader,  and sums up strategic staffing: "The results so far: Nearly all 24 of the participating schools have been successfully turned around, with single-year state test scores up as much as 20 points."

It's just not true to say all,  or even most,  strategic staffing schools have been successfully transformed by the principals then-Superintendent Peter Gorman brought in for three-year turnaround efforts.  As I reported in August,  actual results are mixed and often discouraging.  Early gains have  proven tough to sustain,  especially after principals move on.

Three years seemed like a long time to wait when Gorman rolled out strategic staffing.  Now that he has left CMS and most of the original principals have moved on,  it's starting to look like the "three principals" standard might be the real test.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Recruiting tool for charters?

The surge in Charlotte-area charter schools means competition not only for students, but for teachers.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has long been trying to craft a new type of pay scale that would entice and keep talented instructors.  Project LIFT is taking the lead, rolling out new classroom leadership posts next year in four of the westside CMS schools it encompasses. Teachers tapped for those positions will earn up to $23,000 a year extra for continuing to teach while overseeing colleagues.

But one charter school director says the emphasis on testing in traditional public schools,  particularly as it is used to rate and pay teachers, gives her a better shot at recruiting faculty.

Joy Warner, executive director of the Community School of Davidson, told the audience at a recent MeckEd forum on charters that she created her school because she hates the testing craze. She said CMS schools in her part of the county have excellent teachers,  but they're hobbled by a system that puts far too much emphasis on test scores.  The push to create "value-added" ratings,  using students' year-to-year progress on those tests to calculate each teacher's effectiveness,  is "bad math,"  Warner told the group,  which included educators and advocates from a range of backgrounds.

"With the pendulum where it's going,  great teachers are going to fly out of the classroom,"  she predicted.

North Carolina's charters are required to give students the same state exams as other public schools,  and they get the same school ratings based on those scores.  Warner said she doesn't have a problem with that,  but believes those tests shouldn't be allowed to dominate the school year.

Unlike other public schools,  charters don't have to use the state's teacher pay scale.  That could mean higher pay,  though charters have to work with roughly the same public money that other schools get.  Warner said at her school the paycheck isn't the draw.  "I think every teacher deserves to make at least $60,000 a year,"  she said.  "We're at about half that."

Charters also aren't bound by tenure,  a move the state legislature is considering for all public schools.  "Great teachers don't need tenure,"  said Warner,  "and bad teachers don't deserve it."

Meanwhile,  CMS leaders say they're eager to work with the state on crafting better ways to evaluate and pay teachers.  The teachers who have been advising them are enthusiastic about creating classroom leadership jobs that bring extra pay for extra leadership and proven skills.  But Superintendent Heath Morrison and the board said part of the problem is that base pay in North Carolina is just too low.  Unless there's more money to work with,  some said,  performance pay and career ladders won't be enough.  Morrison said CMS will by lobbying for  "strategic compensation"  coupled with an overall pay hike.

That last part may be a tough sell to cost-conscious legislators.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Sequester sparks no panic in CMS

Budget gridlock may be tying Washington in knots,  but don't expect the sequester to bring massive layoffs or school cutbacks at home.  Federal money for 2012-13 is already in place and won't be cut off by any automatic federal cuts,  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools advised employees in a Friday newsletter.  The district is bracing for federal cuts as officials plan for 2013-14, the newsletter says.

In a related note,  the Washington Post's Fact Checker blog called BS on U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan's talk that the sequester would trigger immediate and massive teacher layoffs. "There is little debate that across-the-board spending cuts in education funding will cause pain for some schools and states. But there is no reason to hype the statistics  --  or to make scary pronouncements on pink slips being issued based on misinformation,"  the blog concluded

Meanwhile,  if you're trying to keep up with the blizzard of education proposals swirling around Raleigh,  the Public School Forum of North Carolina is posting a "bills to watch" feature in its weekly reports.

If you missed it in Sunday's Observer,  House Speaker Thom Tillis of Mecklenburg County wrote about some possible changes afoot.

"We should examine North Carolina’s tenure law with a goal of allowing district flexibility in personnel decisions, while maintaining due process for teachers,"  Tillis wrote after meetings with numerous teachers,  principals and superintendents.  "We should discuss giving school districts the authority to implement compensation models based on teacher performance. Lastly, we need to encourage (school districts) to drive out inefficiencies – and reward them by allowing them to reinvest savings in their own schools."

Read more here:

And close to home, Superintendent Heath Morrison and his 22 task forces are holding the second of three town hall meetings today, from 6-8:30 p.m. at North Meck, 11201 Old Statesville Road, Huntersville.  I didn't make it to the first one last week.  I'd be curious to hear from those of you who did;  was it helpful?

Friday, March 1, 2013

The people speak: Technology tops budget list

Getting better technology into schools is the top priority for more than 11,000 people who responded to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' online budget poll, according to results presented this week.

Enhancing school safety was a close third,  after two tech-related items.  When asked to rate specific security items,  buzz-in entry systems were the most popular with employees, parents, community members and students who responded.

Superintendent Heath Morrison,  County Manager Harry Jones and top staff members are meeting today to make another run at a plan for school safety improvements, which include buzz-in systems and 8-foot chain-link fences around campuses and mobile classrooms.  The school board voted unanimously Tuesday to ask commissioners for approval to spend almost $34 million.  But some members now say they might have voted differently if they had realized that spending would require delays in other projects promised during the 2007 bond campaign, including construction of two new elementary schools.

At the other end of the public-opinion spectrum,  expanding prekindergarten and diversity efforts got the lowest priority ratings in the survey,  though a majority still rated those efforts important.

The survey is designed to inform Morrison and the school board in shaping a 2013-14 budget.  Ninety percent of respondents called for increasing teacher salaries,  even if it limits other investments.  The CMS board has limited power over that decision,  with the state picking up most of the tab for teacher pay.

Opinions were split on whether CMS should spend millions to reduce class sizes.  The wording of that question seemed slanted toward a negative result,  with people rating their agreement or disagreement on  "class sizes should be reduced despite the cost, even if that reduction comes at the expense of programs that drive academic achievement"  and  "class sizes should remain unchanged given the cost tradeoff,"  which was introduced as $9.6 million to add one teacher per school vs. $130,000 to build one classroom.

To keep up with budget developments, check the CMS budget web page.