Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Could new exams close N.C. charters?

North Carolina charter schools will get a one-year reprieve from academic standards that could lead the state to revoke charters. But the tougher new tests that debuted last year,  leading to a dramatic plunge in pass rates across the state,  could spell trouble for many schools moving forward.

Seventy-five of 108 charter schools that reported scores for 2013 fell below the 60 percent composite pass rate that can trigger a label of  "academically inadequate." That's not a surprise,  given that fewer than half of all public-school students (including traditional public schools and charters,  which are operated by independent boards) passed last year's math and reading exams.  And it's actually better than schools run by local districts:  By my tally, 86 percent of North Carolina's district schools and 69 percent of charters had pass rates below 60 percent.  (See results for Mecklenburg schools in the school data listing at right.)

Charlotte's Sugar Creek Charter had low proficiency but high growth
State law defines charter schools as academically inadequate if they have composite pass rates below 60 percent on state exams and  "no growth in student performance"  for two out of three consecutive years.  One charter has been closed since those standards were set in 2011 and several others have been  "put on notice"  that they're at risk,  Joel Medley,  director of the N.C. Office of Charter Schools,  said in a recent letter to charter operators.

But a 60 percent pass rate on the old tests isn't the same as 60 percent on the new exams,  which are designed to test the more complex skills demanded by national Common Core academic standards.  In fact,  I'm still puzzling over how anyone can accurately calculate year-to-year student growth,  given that the testing has changed so much. School growth ratings are now tallied by the Cary-based SAS, a private company that uses a secret formula to determine whether N.C. schools met, exceeded or fell short of acceptable progress.

The state Board of Education decided not to penalize anyone for 2012-13 scores,  Medley said,  but this year's results will count and could combine with earlier years to label a school inadequate.  By Dec. 19,  Medley said,  he'll notify operators if their school is at risk.

Eighteen of the charters that fell below 60 percent also failed to meet the state growth targets.  Those included four in the Charlotte area:  American Renaissance School in Statesville (38.7 percent overall proficiency),  Carolina International School in Harrisburg  (50.2 percent),  Community Charter in Charlotte  (17.8 percent)  and Crossroads Charter High in Charlotte (less than 5 percent).

Closing of  inadequate charters is not automatic. Update/correction: Medley called Monday and said under the current system, revocation is automatic for schools that fail to meet the standards for two of the most recent three years (which will not include 2012-13).

My guess is there's going to be a lot of discussion among charter advocates, state education officials and lawmakers about the definition of the label.   After all,  if falling below 60 percent proficiency and failing to make growth targets are indicators of academic failure ,  many traditional public schools also fell short last year,  including Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Hopewell  (33.7 percent),  Independence  (45.3 percent)  and Myers Park  (58.5 percent) high schools.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Grading the boss: Superintendent scorecard

The school board Monday released the scorecard they used to evaluate Superintendent Heath Morrison on his first year as head of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.  It asks each member to rate him on 13 items using a 1-5 scale  (read about their decision to extend his contract and beef up his retirement benefits here).

Morrison and board member Tom Tate
Evaluation items include Morrison's ability to develop effective strategies,  communicate with the school board,  develop a budget, recruit and retain principals and top administrators,  and build relationships with key decision-makers.  Because N.C. law makes personnel actions confidential,  the board released the form but not the ratings given by members.

The new evaluation system looks a lot more practical than the 93-item checklist a previous board used for Superintendent Peter Gorman,  with items ranging from test scores to personal grooming.

Morrison's contract called for his goals and objectives to be set by Sept. 30,  but board Chair Mary McCray said he agreed to the delay.  It also calls for the board and Morrison to agree on goals for the coming year between Aug. 1 and Sept. 30 of each year.  I'm still trying to get answers about whether this set of goals will apply to 2013-14 or whether there are revisions.

The contract also says that two-thirds of Morrison's bonus eligibility will be based on achievement of CMS goals.  That wasn't a factor this time around,  given that the board awarded retirement increases instead of a bonus.  I'm pretty sure those goals going forward will be the ones approved in October with a whole lot of blanks left to fill in as data becomes available. Update: McCray confirms that this is correct.

Morrison to get overdue evaluation, bonus

Update: I guessed right about the things the board would say about Morrison, but they voted for retirement benefits instead of a bonus. Read the story here. Hope to get the standards posted soon.

The school board will hold a special meeting this morning to vote on Superintendent Heath Morrison's first evaluation and performance bonus.

Board chair Mary McCray said the standards used to rate him will be released after the vote. They're long overdue.  The contract signed when Morrison came to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in 2012 called for the board to  "discuss and agree upon"  his first-year goals by Sept. 30, 2012.  By Sept. 30 of this year,  they were supposed to have set his 2013-14 goals,  and by Oct. 31 they were due to vote on his 2012-13 bonus.

McCray says Morrison agreed to the delay,  as the district awaited the delayed results of new and tougher 2013 exams.  She said those results,  which plunged statewide,  won't be counted against Morrison but will serve as a baseline moving forward  (see results in links at right).

Morrison's contract makes him eligible for a bonus of up to 10 percent of his $288,000 base salary,  with two-thirds of that based on achievement of CMS goals and one-third based on individual goals or any other criteria the board might set.

On Friday,  McCray wasn't willing to talk about what the board is looking for,  or even say whether changes to his base salary are being discussed.  "All of that will be done on Monday,"  she said.

My prediction is Morrison will get high marks for creating an entry plan and a five-year strategic plan.  He's bound to get credit for strong community engagement,  including creation of 22 task forces,  with the payoff seen in a record 74 percent of voters saying yes to CMS bonds.  Few would say employee morale is high,  but many people I've talked to give Morrison credit for listening to them and trying to do the right thing in the face of discouraging state actions.

Morrison's predecessor,  Peter Gorman,  faced a 93-item evaluation checklist that ranged from the obvious  (test scores and graduation rates)  to the eccentric  (rating him on "poise and emotional stability"  and being  "customarily attired and well groomed"). If the current board wants to carry on that tradition,  they might want to add an item for dance skills.  I think it's a safe bet to say Morrison is the first CMS superintendent caught on video doing hip grinds and air splits:

Friday, November 22, 2013

No second chance on 2013-14 exams

N.C. students won't get a second chance if they flunk state exams this year, Vanessa Jeter of the Department of Public Instruction told me this week.

Before the new exams rolled out in 2012-13,  students who fell short were required to take the tests again  (different questions on the same material). If they passed on the second try,  it counted toward school proficiency rates, a significant bump for many struggling schools.

This year,  the only students who will be retested are those who fail third-grade reading exams.  The state's new Read to Achieve program spells out a series of actions that are triggered by failure on those tests,  starting with retesting and potentially leading to summer school and retention. (See the process on page 4 of this guide.)   Based on this year's results,  a lot of children aren't clearing the bar at the end of third grade.  See elementary school proficiency rates,  including the percent who passed third-grade reading,  on this new results map.

A second year of one-shot testing could be bad news for schools facing state-issued letter grades in 2014 (see 2013 results for all Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools and Mecklenburg charter schools in the rail at right).  The same goes for CMS high school students,  who will see 25 percent of their final grades in math I, English II and biology shaped by their score on the state tests.

But Superintendent Heath Morrison argues it will be good news for people trying to monitor how much progress schools make this year.  Before the state made it clear whether retesting would be revived this year,  he argued against it for the sake of having two consecutive years of comparable results.  In 2014-15,  the state is slated to switch tests again,  introducing Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium exams designed to reflect national Common Core standards and provide a consistent testing system among participating states.

"We would prefer to keep the testing as similar as possible,"  Morrison told the school board.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

How did Meck middle schools fare on exams?

Middle school performance on the 2013 N.C. exams shows some stark differences among schools, but the numbers provide few easy answers about what's working. (To see at-a-glance 2013 exam results for Charlotte-Mecklenburg middle schools and charter schools in the county, go to this map.)

Twelve of 51 middle schools had overall pass rates below 25 percent, while four topped 75 percent.

The new exams, which are designed to give a more realistic picture of college and career readiness than the old ones,  brought dramatic drops across the state. The patterns are predictable, with the biggest setbacks at the schools serving large numbers of low-income and minority students,  but still tough to see.

Last year I made regular visits to Ashley Park, a preK-8 school that's part of Project LIFT,  for a series on the eighth-graders and the faculty who were trying to get them ready for high school.  According to the new exams,  about 31 percent of those eighth graders ended the year proficient in math and just under 16 percent in reading.  The school's overall proficiency rating,  for all grades and subjects,  was 26.5 percent.

Ashley Park students at year's end

And that was far from the worst.  Most of the preK-8 schools created when CMS closed troubled high-poverty middle schools landed at the bottom of the pack as they finished their second year in the new structure.  Berryhill was the highest performing of the eight neighborhood preK-8 schools created in that move, with a 40.9 percent proficiency rate and a top growth rating. Reid Park Academy was the lowest, at 11.1 percent proficiency --  and an eighth-grade math pass rate below 5 percent.

Of course,  it's impossible to know how students would have fared if the old middle schools had remained.  And K-8 magnet schools such as Collinswood Language Academy (69.5 percent overall proficiency),  Waddell Language Academy (66.2 percent) and Morehead STEM (63.6 percent) performed much better.

Comparing CMS and charter middle schools provides a mixed bag as well.  Metrolina Regional Scholars Academy,  a K-8 charter,  topped the list with a 94.6 percent overall proficiency rate  --  hardly surprising since it serves highly gifted students.  CMS results for gifted students were also very high.  Kennedy School,  a K-12 charter for at-risk students,  was near the bottom.

In the south/southeast suburbs,  CMS neighborhood schools such as Robinson (82.7 percent),  South Charlotte (78.1 percent) and Community House (77.4 percent)  outscored nearby charters such as Socrates Academy (74.3 percent)  and Queens Grant (50.5 percent).  In the northern burbs that was reversed,  with Community School of Davidson (74.6 percent)  and Lake Norman Charter (73 percent)  topping CMS' Bailey (67.8 percent),  Bradley (55.2 percent) and Alexander (47.2 percent).

KIPP and Sugar Creek,  both charter schools known for success with disadvantaged students,  logged overall proficiency rates of 36.1 percent and 39.7 percent,  respectively.  Those aren't the kind of scores that will look good when the state starts issuing letter grades, but they're well above the nearest CMS middle schools,  Cochrane (17.6 percent) and Martin Luther King (22.8 percent). CarolinaCAN,  a new reform advocacy group, recently profiled Sugar Creek Charter as part of its video series on successful charters.

I'm working my way through the data, which was released earlier this month.  Mecklenburg high schools are already mapped,  and I'll get to the elementary schools as soon as possible.  If you'd like an Excel version of the middle and/or high school results, email me at

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Learn-at-home charter holds sessions

Supporters of North Carolina Connections Academy,  a proposed virtual charter school, will hold information sessions in Charlotte and Monroe on Wednesday.

The virtual school is one of 170 that filed letters of intent in September to apply for permission to open in 2015-16. By Dec. 6 we'll see how many follow through with a detailed application that could lead to being approved as an alternative public school.

Traditional public schools already offer online classes through N.C. Virtual Public School,  but there's teacher supervision and some required seat time.  The proposed statewide charter school,  which would be part of the Maryland-based for-profit Connections Academy chain, would use individual learning plans created with a teacher.  Students then learn from home,  with parents as  "learning coaches."  The approach is pitched as especially good for students who are far ahead of or behind classmates and can thrive on the individual approach.

The in-person information sessions will be from noon to 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Hampton Inn Monroe, 2368 Roland Drive, and from 6-8 p.m. at the Charlotte Mariott SouthPark, 2200 Rexford Road. There's also a video explaining how Connections Academy works.

Virtual charter schools have sparked debate across the country. A study by the University of Colorado's National Education Policy Center found that students in cyberschools led by K12, a different for-profit chain, didn't perform as well as counterparts in more traditional schools. In Charlotte,  Superintendent Heath Morrison has raised questions about such schools,  saying he wants Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to create its own virtual schools to ensure quality.

Connections Academy is a spinoff from Sylvan Learning tutoring company,  according to its website. There are academies in 22 states,  including South Carolina,  and Connections Education was launched in 2011 to further expand the online schools. 

"In Fall 2011, Pearson, the world’s leading learning company, acquired Connections Education establishing a leading position in the fast-growing virtual school segment and the opportunity to apply Connections Education’s skills and technologies in new segments and geographic markets," the site says.

That may bring a gulp from families and educators facing a host of start-up problems with Pearson's PowerSchool/Home Base data system.  Since the system debuted statewide this summer, CMS and other districts have faced delays in class schedules, enrollment reports,  transcripts and first-quarter report cards.  After the delay in report cards was announced last week,  education junkie and recent school board candidate Bolyn McClung clued me in to this ongoing list of "known issues"  with the system.  Looks like there's quite a bit of work left to do.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Staying Ahead Carolina? What's that?

Ever been to a great party where no one seems to know the host? Saturday's panel on the future of public education felt a bit like that.

I made the rare choice to cover a weekend event based on the timeliness of the topic and the quality of the speakers. The focus was on choices, challenges and change in the Charlotte region,  landing at a tumultuous time when the 2014-15 school choice season is on the horizon.  Ellen McIntyre, dean of the UNC Charlotte College of Education, moderated a panel consisting of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison; state Rep. Rob Bryan, co-sponsor of the N.C. voucher bill and co-chair of a panel on teacher compensation; Eddie Goodall of the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association and Bill Anderson of MeckEd.

The turnout was big enough that the event was shifted from a 100-seat conference room to a bigger auditorium.  I saw many of the usual movers and shakers in the education scene,  plus new faces.

So I was feeling kind of dumb:  Why hadn't I heard of Staying Ahead Carolina, the host organization?

But when I mingled and chatted before the event, I couldn't find anyone else who was familiar with the group.  One person speculated that it was part of CarolinaCAN, a recently-created North Carolina spinoff of a national education reform group.  Someone else said it was  "a front for MeckEd."  Even McIntyre was confused.

None of the theories were correct.  Sabrina Brown,  who works in marketing,  started the social networking group seven years ago.  There was always a theme of learning more about Charlotte,  she said,  but at first it was mostly about meeting people, making contacts and exploring the city.  Staying Ahead started getting sponsorships to do forums on such topics as arts,  entertainment and health.  It now has more than 500 members and an advisory board,  Brown said,  and the education panel was its first foray into a wider community outreach.  Carolina STEM Academy,  a charter school that has been approved to open in 2014,  and Melange Health Solutions sponsored the Saturday forum.

The discussion was lively and informative enough that I didn't regret giving up a sunny Saturday morning.  I'll look forward to any other contributions Staying Ahead might make to the local scene.

Monday, November 4, 2013

After walk-in, what's the plan?

After a day of signs and cheers and red clothes and pancake breakfasts for teachers, I bet I'm not the only person wondering:  Is anything going to change for N.C. teachers? If so, what's the plan and who's making it?

The Walk-In/Walk-Out day has tapped into what seems to be a widespread sentiment that our state's teachers deserve a better deal,  as teacher pay and per-pupil spending slump toward the bottom of national rankings and the state throws challenges and changes at public educators.

Parents and students at Elizabeth Lane Elementary

But sentiment isn't action.  The build-up to Nov. 4 illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of social media organizing.

It started when the pseudonymous  "Mike Ladidadi"  created a Facebook event called  "Nov. 4th NC Teacher Walkout."  The call for action was couched in broad terms:  "We want more respect for teachers.  Specifically a fair balance between workload, expectations and compensation for our teachers.  Help needs to come from both the state government and from unengaged parents who need to take an active role in their child's education."

As the idea circulated among teachers, administrators, journalists and others,  it morphed into the notion of a  "walk-in,"  bringing parents,  students and community members together to show support for teachers.  While the tone of frustration with recent legislative action was present,  there didn't seem to be any clear agenda here, either.

Things took some odd twists as the event neared.  I had assumed  "Ladidadi"  was a teacher worried about protecting his job.  But last week a conservative/Libertarian N.C. blogger known as Lady Liberty posted that she traced the name to a Wilmington real estate broker who,  "as far as I can tell,  has no horse in the teacher grievances race other than he himself thinks they aren’t being treated fairly."  (The irony of a pseudonymous blogger unmasking a pseudonymous organizer isn't lost on me,  but Lady Liberty identified herself to me as A.P. Dillon,  a Holly Springs mom who says she doesn't want her school-age child to get caught in the political crossfire.)
Lady Liberty 1885

That's not all:  A group called Organize 2020 emerged as a voice pushing for walk-in events on Nov. 4. You'd be hard-pressed to identify that group from its web site,  but the @Organize2020 Twitter profile describes it as "a member-led group within the NCAE advocating for teachers."  Organize 2020 appears to be the source of a statement saying the North Carolina Association of Educators "affirm(s) the desire and right of educators to use tactics like a walkout or strike,"  which prompted Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger to call for the state's attorney general to intervene.  The NCAE,  which had already publicly declined to endorse the walk-out, removed the link to that statement.
So why does a teacher advocacy group need a subgroup to advocate for teachers,  and why are the ties between the two entities obscured?  I've got a call in to NCAE President Rodney Ellis (who came to Charlotte today to speak at a "walk-in" rally at Ranson Middle School)  seeking an explanation.

Bottom line:  The GOP majority in the state legislature translated some prevailing sentiments  (accountability and choice improve education,  the teacher pay system is a failure)  into plans.  The question is whether the folks who don't like those plans have a strategy of their own.  As Superintendent Heath Morrison often notes,  public officials and advocates who say teachers deserve a raise need to be prepared to talk about where the money will come from.

The coming weeks and months will tell whether this was a step toward a real movement  -- and if so, what that movement means.  

Friday, November 1, 2013

Brace yourself for new test scores

There's a wild week ahead for supporters of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, with a bond vote, school board election and release of state test scores coming.

We'll get election results Tuesday night. My guess is that backers of the education bonds for CMS and Central Piedmont Community College will be celebrating.  I went to the North Regional Library in Huntersville Tuesday to talk to early voters,  then got pulled off for another story before I could flesh out a full report.  But that small sample was consistent:  The people I talked to knew little or nothing about the bonds going in,  but voted yes because they support education.

"I always support anything to do with the schools,"  said Tara McAlinn of Huntersville,  the mother of a 4-year-old.  It's a sentiment I heard repeatedly,  from young parents to retirees.

However the election goes,  Thursday morning will dash a bucket of cold water in people's faces when the N.C. Department of Public Instruction releases long-awaited results from 2013 end-of-grade exams.  State officials have made it clear that there's going to be a big drop in proficiency rates  --  not because kids got dumber or teachers got less effective,  but because there are more rigorous new tests, new  "cut scores"  for passing and no second try for students who fell below grade level.  Many schools will see hard-earned gains disappear.  If past changes in testing are any predictor,  gaps between the highest- and lowest-performing groups of students will widen.  (One interesting feature:  For the first time,  the state will break out performance for academically gifted kids.)

CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison said this week that he supports tougher tests that are designed to more accurately reflect students' readiness for college and careers.  "Every time we set the bar higher,  our kids respond, our teachers respond."  But he worries that critics who tout the failure of public education will use the new results to say  "See,  I told you it was broken."

There are actually three phases of the test-score release.  Teachers have already started getting  "value-added"  ratings based on the new exams,  which is bound to be a source of some stress.  "You get this information and it's really confusing,"  said one caller,  who had just gotten her report and declined to give her name.  "It's hard to read and it's hard to understand."

Proficiency and growth for schools and districts come out Thursday.  And within 30 days of that,  families are supposed to get reports on how their own children did last year.

If you want to get prepared for the testing data,  DPI has a background brief posted.

If you want to prepare for Tuesday's election,  you can find details about the bonds and the candidates on the Observer's voter guide.

And if you've still got energy left at the end of that crazy week, you can turn your gaze to the future at a Nov. 9 forum on "What's next for public education in Charlotte metro?"  From 10 a.m. to noon at UNC Charlotte Center City,  panelists from CMS,  charter schools,  the state legislature and higher education will talk about choices,  challenges,  changes and coordination.  The session is sponsored by Staying Ahead Carolina and UNCC.  There's no charge,  but registration is required.