Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Something for veteran teachers: Longevity pay

Experienced teachers in North Carolina are understandably worried about being left out of the push to increase salaries.

The plan proposed by Gov. Pat McCrory and other GOP leaders provides raises only for teachers in the first 10 years of their career.  Long term,  many talk about the need to shift the pay scale toward higher early-career pay,  potentially at the expense of teachers at the top of the experience scale.  (See one such plan,  outlined by Duke University economics professor Jacob Vigdor, in a 2008 EdWeek article that's still getting attention in Raleigh.)

Veteran teachers note that they, too, have been hit by five years of pay freezes and rising costs.

Once teachers hit 10 years of N.C. service,  they do get one boost that I hadn't known about until recently:  State longevity pay.  Starting at 10 years,  state employees get an annual payment of 1.5 percent of their base salary.  That rises to 2.25 percent at 15 years,  3.25 percent at 20 and 4.5 percent at 25 years,  according to a presentation to the state's teacher compensation task force.

For a teacher with 10 years experience who is making the state minimum of $35,800, the 1.5 percent payment would bring $537. For a teacher at the top of the CMS pay scale  --  36 years' experience, being paid for a master's degree and National Board Certification and getting the Mecklenburg supplement  --  4.5 percent of $77,697 comes to almost $3,500.

Both state and county money go toward these payments. For instance, a teacher making $40,000 in state base pay and a $5,000 county supplement would get the appropriate percentage of $45,000,  says Lanier McRee of the state's fiscal research division:  "The State funds the portion of longevity due on the $40,000 and the locals pay the portion earned on the $5,000."

This is nothing new,  and it applies to all state employees,  not just teachers.  It's just a perk that those of us in the private sector tend not to be familiar with.  And it's a reminder that with teacher compensation,  as with so much in education,  nothing is simple.

And if you want to hear more about what the coming weeks might bring for teachers,  come hear the discussion at the Observer/PNC Bank forum May 5,  titled  "Teaching in North Carolina:  Low pay,  high stakes."  Click here to reserve a seat and suggest questions for the panel.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Pay flexibility and public scrutiny

Forget, for a moment, the legal questions about public disclosure of charter salaries.  Richard Vinroot and Eddie Goodall,  local leaders in North Carolina's charter school movement,  have raised the argument that pay flexibility makes it essential to protect teacher salaries from disclosure  --  to their colleagues.

"Common sense suggests that we value the delicate balance by which charter operators and employees, who together, negotiate just the appropriate wage to satisfy each other,"  Goodall,  head of the N.C. Public Charter School Association,  wrote recently.  "Charters don’t mind if the public knows what everybody makes!  They only care about the third grade teacher, Tim, learning what Sally, the other third grade teacher, is making. The whole issue is about poisoning the chemistry of the charter team, adding an ingredient that might alter the flavor of the whole dish."

Vinroot contends that performance-based pay,  unlike that of teachers on a traditional salary schedule,  would cause disruption in two charter schools he works with if colleagues knew each other's pay.
Bertrand: Performance pay does create pressure ...
It's true that on the state pay scale,  you can figure out what your colleagues make if you know how many years they've worked and what kind of credentials they hold.  That locked-in schedule evolved from a time when pay discrepancies were often based on gender and race.  Some experts call it a good solution to yesterday's problems.

Charters are hardly alone in seeking better options.  The quest for a smarter teacher pay system is a national obsession,  with North Carolina and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in the thick of it.  One of the few points of near-universal agreement is this:  Done right,  performance pay doesn't just boost teachers' paychecks,  it improves the quality of teaching.

That means teachers who earn richer rewards should be doing so for reasons that people who cut the paychecks can explain.  Maybe it's because of test scores or classroom management or leadership skills.  Maybe it's because they're qualified to teach high-level math or science and it's hard to fill those jobs.  You can argue whether the standards are the right ones,  but they shouldn't be a mystery.

Those of us outside the classroom can argue theory all day long.  Reality can be a different matter.  So I asked Kristin Cubbage and Romain Bertrand,  two teachers who have been publicly identified as getting hefty raises based on their skills,  to discuss the question of working with colleagues after that disclosure.

Cubbage: Salary report didn't cause strife
Cubbage and Bertrand are part of the CMS/Project LIFT  "opportunity culture"  experiment.  Since more than 700 teachers applied for 19 jobs with greater responsibility and higher pay,  it's reasonable to suspect that some of their colleagues wanted the jobs they got.

Cubbage,  a first-grade teacher at Ashley Park PreK-8 School,  is blunt:  If it were up to her,  individual salaries, bonuses and incentive payments wouldn't be disclosed.  And when she agreed to be featured in an Observer article as one of the people receiving higher pay,  "I was a little nervous because money is a touchy subject within education."

"However, I did not feel any 'strife' at my school. In fact no one mentioned the salary portion of the article at all,"  she wrote. "I have only heard comments such as: 'I would not want your job because of all of your different responsibilities each day.'  ... If the teachers at my school are aware of the extra pay, they are also aware of what my role entails and the responsibility that what comes with it."

Bertrand,  a Ranson Middle School math teacher,  said the pressure doesn't come from the knowledge that he's making more money but from the need to prove he's earning it.  He's now responsible for six other teachers and more than 800 math students.  Not only will he be judged on year-end test scores,  but he feels a need to prove himself to his colleagues daily.

"They need to see how this position brings added value to the team: what is this person doing to make us all better?"  Bertrand wrote.  "They need to understand what they need to do to get a shot at such an opportunity in the future.  How does this ladder work?  What are the skills required to move up the ladder and be given a chance to hold such a role?  What is the equitable process in place to give everyone a chance to get there?"

Under the traditional system,  a teacher like Bertrand would have had to leave the classroom to earn a good raise.  Now he remains  "in the trenches,"  where his colleagues can judge whether his work makes a difference for kids.

When this year's CMS salaries are posted,  the additional pay for Bertrand,  Cubbage and the other opportunity culture teachers will be on display. I'll wager those schools will have bigger salary differences than charter schools do.

As the effort expands,  we'll see how other schools select and reward their high performers.  Private donations are paying for the consultants who help schools define the duties for those teachers,  and public jobs are being rearranged to cover the higher salaries.  Eventually,  the work of these individual teachers will determine whether this was just another idea that sounded good in theory or a real breakthrough in reforming the profession.

That's a lot of pressure.  But these folks are stepping up to show they can handle it.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Renaissance West chooses CMS over charter

This week's announcement of a new  "partnership school"  being developed on West Boulevard highlights a new twist in the CMS/charter dynamic.  It's a model Superintendent Heath Morrison says we'll see more of in the future,  in the suburbs as well as inner-city neighborhoods.

Renaissance West senior center
The preK-8 school,  which Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools plans to open in 2017, will be part of the Renaissance West revitalization project rising from the site of the old Boulevard Homes public housing.  As Hilary Trenda reports,  that project has been years in the making,  with the Charlotte Housing Authority winning a $21 million federal Hope VI grant in 2010.  At that time, the plan called for a CMS school to be part of the project.

But the recession hit and construction money dried up.  The Renaissance West Community Initiative,  a nonprofit created by the housing authority, shifted to planning a charter school.  If the application had been approved,  the nonprofit board would have gotten public money to open a preK-8 school in 2015. The group was scheduled for an interview with the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board in May.

Renaissance West is a "cradle to career" community,  which seeks to break the cycle of poverty with a mix of high-quality child care,  public education,  health care and support services.  Charter schools are a crucial piece in such national models as the Harlem Children's Zone and Atlanta's East Lake revival.  The latter spurred creation of the Purpose-Built Community Network,  which RWCI is working with.
Site for Renaissance West Neighborhood Academy charter

In 2013,  Mecklenburg voters approved a $290 million bond package that included $30 million to build a school that would relieve crowding at Reid Park and Berryhill preK-8 schools.  It would have gone near the proposed charter,  potentially competing for students.

Meanwhile,  Morrison and Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark were talking with the RWCI crew about merging their efforts. Executive Director Laura Clark said her board saw two big advantages to working with CMS:  The nonprofit board won't have to raise construction money,  and CMS can draw boundaries that ensure the Renaissance West community is served by the school.  Charter schools take applications and,  if there's overflow demand,  have to admit by lottery.  If the community charter school had proven successful,  she said,  neighborhood students might have been turned away on luck of the draw.

RWCI won't have the clout of the Project LIFT board,  which got joint power over academic and personnel decisions at nine westside schools by merit of a $55 million, five-year pledge.  But CMS and RWCI say the partnership will be a serious one,  with both groups and other community partners represented on a school leadership council.

At a Wednesday news conference,  Morrison said he's talking to other existing and prospective charter boards about the advantages of working as part of CMS.  He noted that some of the state-authorized schools,  which aren't part of local districts, are struggling:  "So many individuals think they know how to run a school,  only to learn there's so much that's so complicated."

I'm guessing some will see this as a CMS bid to squelch competition,  while others will see a perfect example of how competition can improve the broader system of public education.  One question I felt certain would arise:  Will CMS be equally receptive when a more affluent suburban neighborhood wants to develop a partnership school for its community?

Absolutely,  Morrison said.  He anticipates a similar relationship with south suburban Ballantyne residents when the district starts working on the K-8 neighborhood/magnet school authorized for that area.  That school,  budgeted for a bit over $31 million,  is expected to open in 2020,  the last item in the 2013 bond package.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Teacher's blog shares passion, heartbreak

Normally sharing a well-written blog by a passionate teacher is a joyful task. Today's discovery comes with an overlay of sorrow.

I met Vivian Connell,  a former Providence High teacher with strong views on the fate of the profession,  at the Emerging Issues Forum in Raleigh in mid-February. I enjoyed her way with words,  and we exchanged emails afterward.


If you read Jane Stancill's recent story,  you know that about a month later Connell was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's syndrome.  She's a few years younger than me, facing a relentless and fatal illness.

I was tempted to feel sorry for her. Then I read her blog, "finALS."

"Well, hello there, Death! I was not expecting you, yet, here you are,"  she writes of getting her March 12 diagnosis. She moves quickly on to her plans for the years she has left:  "I want to join my fiery, righteously indignant, kick-ass colleagues in education blogging as we defend the essential civic institution of public education against an onslaught, a wrong-minded and dangerous take-over by private interests that threatens the nature of American democracy."

Not much hand-wringing there.  I get the sense she'd much rather face a good argument than a dose of pity  --  and someone who describes Diane Ravitch as her hero is likely to spark plenty of good arguments.  You can read more about her path from teacher to lawyer back to teacher,  as well as get her take on all that lies ahead for her.  That include not just her illness,  but her plans to take her students to the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington.

And while I'm sharing good writing,  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has posted a piece about International Baccalaureate life by East Meck student journalist Hannah Lieberman,  titled  "I think, therefore IB."   CMS spokeswoman Stacy Sneed said as far as she knows,  it's the first piece of student reporting posted on the district's site.  I think it's a great idea and hope to see more student work. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Let's talk about teacher pay

Education looks like the hot topic for this year's legislative session,  with a special urgency about teacher pay and treatment.  The Observer and PNC Bank are hosting a  "Solving It Together"  forum on May 5,  the week before the session starts,  to talk about teacher compensation.

Panelists are Eric Guckian,  the governor's senior education adviser;  CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison;  state representatives Rob Bryan (GOP) and Tricia Cotham (Dem); and Erlene Lyde of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators.  WBTV anchor Paul Cameron will pose questions suggested by the audience and press for answers that go beyond sound bites.

Meanwhile,  I'm working on a package that will try to move the discussion past wheel-spinning and broad generalities to get some discussion going about real options,  what they might cost and where we can find the money.

The forum is from 7-9 p.m. at CPCC's Pease Auditorium.  Click here to register and suggest questions.  I'll be there covering the discussion,  so I hope to see some of you there.

In a separate event,  the N.C. Association of Educators and the Tar Heel Alliance of Classroom Teachers are sponsoring a showing of the documentary  "American Teacher"  at 7 p.m. Thursday,  April 24,  at the CMAE office at 301 S McDowell St., Suite 1200.  The film,  narrated by Matt Damon and sponsored by the Teacher Salary Project,  is part of a national effort to increase teacher pay and respect  (read the list of supporters here).

In North Carolina,  the showing is part of a  "Moral Movies"  series that will run in Charlotte and other cities over the next four months.  The state NAACP and the Wilmington-based Working Films are co-sponsoring the series.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Charter pay disclosure: Resistance continues

The state's education leaders now say charter schools,  like other public schools,  must disclose what they pay their employees.  But some leaders of the charter movement say they disagree.

Richard Vinroot,  a lawyer and charter pioneer who works with Sugar Creek and Lincoln charter schools,  says those schools will provide salaries to the Observer but will withhold the names of all but the highest-paid employees.  He says that's because the charter schools,  which aren't bound by the state teacher salary schedule,  pay teachers based on performance.

"I don't want Sally to know what Jimmy got paid,"  Vinroot said.  "It would create disruption within our school."

As Superintendent Heath Morrison noted when I mentioned that argument,  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools also has a number of teachers who receive merit-based bonuses,  which we've reported every year.  It may or may not create tension among colleagues,  but it tells the public more about how those pilot systems are playing out,  at a time when performance pay is one of the biggest public policy issues in education.

Chris Terrill, head of Pine Lake Preparatory School,  sent a salary list with all names and even specific job titles withheld.

"I believe that the data shows a high level of fiscal responsibility and a stewardship of public tax dollars.  We have tried to provide salaries that are high enough to recruit and retain an excellent faculty and staff,"  wrote Terrill, who is presumably the administrator listed at $115,360 a year.  "Pine Lake is a model for openness and transparency," he added,  citing the school's compliance with the state's Open Meetings Law.

Baker Mitchell,  a Wilmington charter school operator who serves on the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board,  has been blogging against disclosure since I raised the issue in March.

"Although charter schools are subjected to the same accounting standards and annual auditing that govern traditional schools, they are not required to invade the privacy of their employees by publishing their salaries,"  Mitchell wrote in March.  He contends that the tax forms filed by nonprofits provide enough information,  and noted that many other nonprofits receive public grants or subsidies without being required to disclose salaries.

This week he suggested that test scores should provide what taxpayers need to know about their investment in charter schools.

"We frequently measure costs in terms such as dollars per gallon of milk, or dollars per foot of fence,"  Mitchell writes.  "We don’t need to how much the farmer pays his helpers or how much the fence contractor pays his carpenters – we want to know the final cost of the product.  Similarly, we should ask,  'How much are we paying for each test passed by the students of a school or district?'  What is the taxpayer’s cost per successful test?  Individual salaries give no information whatsoever about how well students are being taught."
And in a comment on an Observer charter-salary story,  Mitchell noted that private vendors get public money from traditional public schools:  "Pearson, Inc. receives hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for their student testing software.  Thomas Bus Company received hundreds of millions for their school buses.  McGraw-Hill receives hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for textbooks.  Duke Power, Xerox, Apple, Microsoft, etc. all receive huge amounts of taxpayer money.  Why would invading the privacy of their workers' personal salary information help improve their products?"
Mitchell, Terrill and Vinroot are omitting a key point:  Charter schools agree to abide by the state's open meetings and public records laws when they accept the public money.  That law protects many parts of personnel files for employees of school districts,  the state,  cities and counties  --  there's no specific protection for employees of charter boards  --  but it says that names, salaries and many other specific items remain a public record.
It's possible that these folks told state officials when they accepted their charters that they'd only follow the parts of the law they agreed with,  but I doubt it.  The boom in charters means those schools are starting to get the kind of scrutiny other public schools receive,  and that can be uncomfortable.  (The Observer doesn't cover Mitchell's schools,  but his Roger Bacon Academy charter management company has faced public questions about enrollment,  personnel decisions and an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education.) 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

PowerSchool and NC schools: Work continues

A North Carolina blogger known as Lady Liberty 1885 turned up an interesting letter from big-district superintendents taking Pearson to task over problems with the start-up of the PowerSchool data system.

"Delays in report cards,  transcripts and attendance data have generated considerable negative attention from media,  resulting in districts being blamed for poor implementation,"  says the Feb. 21 letter from 10 superintendents,  including the leaders of CMS, Wake, Union and Gaston county schools.  "... Public goodwill has been severely damaged.  We need Pearson to accept responsibility for the challenges as we continue to address issues."

The superintendents ask Pearson to provide PowerSchool to N.C. districts at no charge next year,  saying the product will eventually be a good one but the one-year rollout,  which many of the district leaders predicted would fail,  has been a mess.  "We want a productive relationship with Pearson since the data system will be with us for many years,"  they say.

"Lady Liberty"
Neither the problems nor the frustration of district leaders is surprising.  T. Keung Hui of the News & Observer and I were among those giving  "negative media attention"  about the time that letter was written.  But Lady Liberty,  aka A.P. Dillon of Holly Springs,  a conservative/Libertarian blogger,  got some good details as part of a public records request related to PowerSchool.  She reports that she's still digging through four big boxes of documents.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Heath Morrison said this week that Pearson's follow-up has been  "very good,"  including a visit to Charlotte last week to meet with him and Chief Learning Services Officer Valerie Truesdale.  (An email to the Pearson communications department has gotten no response.)  "They acknowledged many of the issues we have discussed all year and have promised to help with issues we continue to have, such as not being able to print report cards recently,"  Morrison said in an email.

Philip Price,  chief financial officer for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction,  agrees.  "While I would not state that the larger school districts are completely happy at this time,  I will state that we have addressed the items outlined in the posted letter (most prior to the date of that letter).  As we progress through the implementation year, new issues do arise; but we are pleased that we are not experiencing repeat issues."

But don't hold your breath for that year of free service.  The previously reported cost is $7.1 million a year.  While Pearson may be forced to provide some type of refund if it fails to meet agreed-upon levels of service,  the state Board of Education is asking for $6 million to cover the cost that would otherwise fall to districts and charter schools next year,  Price said.

Here's Price's detailed explanation,  for those who can follow it:

The request to have the software to be free for another year relates to the $4 per ADM charge to sign-up for the Home Base suite of products.  There continues to be confusion as to what the $4 charge is based on.  The software, maintenance, support, data conversion, and training are all free to the school districts and charter schools for all parts of Home Base (including PowerSchool).  We subscribed to some Pearson content that strengthened the Home Base tool with Science and Social Studies material for teachers.  This content is charged to the State based on the number of systems that access the content.  We are charged on a sliding scale based on use.  If 20% of the State sign-up to use the content, the charge is $8.30 per ADM.  If 95% sign-up, the charge will be $4.00 per ADM.  The General Assembly authorized the Department to make-up any shortfall from collections by using possible reversions (with authorization from the State Budget Office).  Therefore, we could stabilize the LEA and charter price at $4.00 for the length of the contract (5 years).

Since this content is based on use, it is difficult to eliminate the charge.  The State Board has requested that the Governor recommend and the General Assembly appropriate funding ($6 million) to cover the subscription content costs.  If funded, there will be no cost to the LEA or charters to participate in Home Base.

Our contracts do include service level agreements (SLAs) that set an acceptable level of service.  If those targets are not met, we do receive credits to our maintenance and support costs.  We are currently determining the amount of those credits.  We plan on refunding Home Base participating LEAs and Charters a portion of their $4 per ADM charge (if it is not appropriated), based on the amount of credits received.

There are several incorrect statements included in the write-up around the letter.  PowerSchool was designed and is supporting the entire State (the comments state that it was never intended to support the whole state). CEDARS has nothing to do with PowerSchool other than the fact that data will come from PowerSchool to CEDARS.  The contract w/Pearson does cover all the costs for implementation.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Teacher pay gets hot-potato toss

I didn't make it to Raleigh for the final meeting of the General Assembly's teacher compensation task force,  but the report is online and it's pretty much as predicted:  This panel is tossing the topic back to legislators and asking them to tap the state Board of Education for another round of study.

The recommendations are broad and fairly obvious:  Focus on a pay system that benefits students,  raise pay for newer teachers as a short-term goal  (a tactic already proposed by Gov. Pat McCrory and GOP leaders) and make across-the-board hikes and  "modernization"  a long-term goal.  Just how long isn't clear,  but a draft proposal suggests giving the state board another year to study teacher compensation,  with a goal of putting something in place in 2016-17.

The report indicates that the task force was intrigued by career-ladder approaches such as that being piloted with Charlotte-Mecklenburg's  "opportunity culture"  program,  and by the IMPACT teacher evaluation model in use in District of Columbia Public Schools.

"There are no examples of state-centered comprehensive compensation models that have positively impacted student achievement and have been sustained,"  the report notes.  "Reform models that emphasizes (sic) local flexibility within evidence-based parameters may be a more promising and sustainable strategy."

The lack of specifics on how to raise salaries and modernize the pay plan drew fire from some of the educators and legislators who served,  the AP's Gary Robertson reports.  "We've heard a lot of presentations and propaganda but there really hasn't been a whole lot of meaningful discussion going forward,"  said Timothy Barnsback, president of the Professional Educators of North Carolina.


Judy Kidd, president of the Classroom Teachers Association,  said the task force was  "playing kick the can."

"The report could have been written in January, frankly," said Kidd, a CMS high school teacher. She said it may have been naive to think a real plan could be drafted after four meetings, but she said lack of information isn't the real challenge.  "They know what they need to do. They know they need to do it."

State Rep. Tricia Cotham, D-Mecklenburg,  posted a critical synopsis on her Facebook page:  "I called the committee report 'fluff' and argued that many teachers are hurting NOW. Teachers across NC are trying to make ends meet as we speak. I challenged my colleagues to 'put their money where their mouth is' and send the message that we as a state value our teachers, our children, and education."

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Wake on suspensions: It could be worse

Wake County Public Schools are under fire for high suspension rates for African American students.  Superintendent James Merrill recently acknowledged that it's an issue that needs dealing with, but at least things aren't as bad as in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

"Putting things in perspective,  in 2012-13 a similarly sized North Carolina district had 35,800 suspensions when Wake was at less than half that at 15,000,"  Merrill said,  as quoted in a blog post by reporter T. Keung Hui.  As Hui notes,  Merrill didn't name CMS,  but he didn't need to.  Wake and CMS are the only two districts in the same size league,  and as I reported recently,  CMS' numbers are down but still much higher than Wake's.

I've heard that the CMS board will get a detailed report on racial inequities in suspensions and discipline in the near future.  Meanwhile,  read the state report on crime,  violence,  dropout rates and suspensions here.

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/2014/04/14/3782468/wake-county-superintendent-jim.html#storylink=cpy

Monday, April 14, 2014

Still no plan for teacher pay reform

A task force created by the General Assembly last summer to study teacher pay and effectiveness will hold its final meeting in Raleigh today to wrap up a report for state lawmakers.

So will we finally get a look at North Carolina's long-range plan for identifying and rewarding the best educators?



"It's heavier on goals and principles and thin on specifics,"  said state Rep. Rob Bryan,  a Mecklenburg Republican who co-chairs the task force.  He said the state is still early in the process of working through an issue that has challenged politicians and educators across the country.

Watching North Carolina and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools slog toward pay reform feels a bit like watching  "Groundhog Day,"  without the assurance of a happy ending.  Over and over,  study groups convene and conclude that the issue needs more study.

The big picture is the easy part.  Is it essential to identify the teachers who make the biggest difference for kids?  Absolutely.  Should they be rewarded for excellence?  Of course.  Do N.C. teachers deserve a raise and a better pay system?  Most would say yes.

The stumper is how to identify those teachers,  how to distribute the rewards and above all how to pay for it.  Last summer the state legislature created the much-reviled 25 percent plan as a first step and charged the task force with taking a longer view.

Bryan said his group is interested in getting local districts to create their own pay plans,  perhaps with a state fallback for those that can't or won't.  That's in line with what CMS is seeking as an alternative to the state-mandated four-year contracts and $500-a-year raises for 25 percent of qualified teachers.

But it was just over a year ago that the state invited local districts to submit performance pay plans for consideration.  CMS was initially gung-ho,  appointing  (of course)  a teacher task force and hiring consultants to study the issue.  But ultimately the district missed the deadline and said there was little point creating a detailed plan without state money to make it happen.

What we've seen so far is a series of pilots and experiments that fizzle when the money runs out.  The conclusion is inevitably that the effort needs more study  --  and more money.

Today's meeting will at least bring a new visual device:  College students putting 10-foot ladders outside the legislative building to illustrate the need to  "rebuild the ladder"  to the teaching profession.  Lynn Bonner of the News & Observer wins this week's round of  "identify that advocacy group;"  click here to see what she found out about who's behind Students For Education Reform-North Carolina and who's footing the bills.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Standardized tests: Opt out or buckle down?

As the testing season nears, the debate over the value of those exams is heating up, locally and across the country.

On April 21,  a group of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools parents are holding a forum on  "How did testing get so out of control and what can we do about it?"  Sparked by Selwyn Elementary parents concerned about the testing demands imposed by North Carolina's Read to Achieve program,  the event will be from 7-8:30 p.m. at Alexander Graham Middle School,  1800 Runnymede Lane.  Panelists will be UNC Charlotte literacy professor Bruce Taylor,  state Rep. Rob Bryan and Pamela Grundy of Mecklenburg ACTS.

Grundy's group is taking part in the national  "Testing Resistance and Reform Spring" movement,  which encourages parents to opt their students out of exams.  You may have seen the recent opinion piece by Grundy and her husband,  Peter Wong,  about why their seventh-grade son won't take state exams.

"During nearly a decade of experience with high-stakes testing, we have become increasingly appalled at the damage we have seen it do to schools and children,"  they wrote.  "... Elected officials from both parties have failed us.  It is time for parents  –  who have the biggest stake in high-quality public education  –  to just say no."

Michelle Rhee,  former chancellor of Washington, D.C, schools, recently weighed in on the opposite side in the Washington Post.

"Opt out of measuring how well our schools are serving students?"  Rhee writes.  "What’s next: Shut down the county health department because we don’t care whether restaurants are clean? Defund the water-quality office because we don’t want to know if what’s streaming out of our kitchen faucets is safe to drink?"

Read more here: http://obsdailyviews.blogspot.com/2014/04/why-our-son-wont-take-eogs.html?showComment=1396400619199#storylink=cpy

N.C. Deputy Superintendent Rebecca Garland recently sent a memo to superintendents reminding them that the state does not allow opt-outs.  Students who refuse to take state exams will receive failing grades,  the memo says,  and those who stay home on testing day will be given a makeup exam when they return.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Push is on to change N.C. grading scale

If a North Carolina high school student scores a 92, it's a high B.  In some other states it would be a low A.

Leaders of some of the state's largest districts,  including Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Wake,  are urging the state to allow districts to adopt a 10-point scale that they say would help N.C. students compete for spots in good colleges.

"We met with the state superintendent in January and have continued to advocate for this change,"  CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison says.  "It is consistent with most school districts and states across the nation. The current grade scale puts our NC students at a competitive disadvantage with their peers in other states."

The Wake school board's policy committee recently discussed the 10-point scale,  Keung Hui of the News & Observer reports.  The current seven-point scale,  in which 93 to 100 is an A,  85 to 92 is a B and so on,  was locked in to get transcript consistency across the state, he reports.

Under a 10-point scale, 90 to 100 would be an A, 80 to 89 a B, etc.  (I'm not sure if the failing point is universal,  but under this scale recently approved by Henrico County  (Va.)  schools,  a D is 65 to 69 and anything below 65 is failing.)

"Supporters give reasons such as how a 10-point scale might cause more students to get As and Bs and could result in an increase in student self-esteem and confidence,"  Hui writes.  "Critics say a 10-point scale might diminish student motivation to achieve higher standards."

Read more here: http://www.newsobserver.com/2014/04/02/3750488/wake-county-may-try-to-change.html#storylink=cp

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Are charter schools safer?

At Lake Norman Charter School,  where almost 1,600 students in grades 5-12 went to school last year,  the only criminal or violent acts reported in 2012-13 were two cases of weapons other than guns.

At the nearest Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in Huntersville,  Alexander Middle School had four weapons incidents.  North Mecklenburg High reported eight students caught with drugs,  three with alcohol,  three assaults on school personnel,  one gun,  one other weapon and one assault resulting in serious injury.  Lake Norman's rate was 1.3 incidents per 1,000 students,  according to the state tally released Wednesday,  compared with 4.5 at Alexander and 10.6 at North Meck.

In east Charlotte,  KIPP Charlotte charter school reported one assault on school staff and Sugar Creek Charter reported one sexual assault  (touching private parts against the person's will).  That put Sugar Creek,  which had 858 students in grades K-8,  at 1.2 acts per 1,000 students and the smaller KIPP,  which serves grades 5-8,  at 3 acts per 1,000.  Both charters serve mostly African American students from low-income families.

Sitting right between the two charters is CMS' Martin Luther King Middle School,  with similar demographics.  It reported 11 students caught with alcohol, five with weapons other than guns and four with drugs.  There were three assaults on personnel, two assaults with weapons and one sexual assault,  for a rate of 27.6 acts per 1,000 students.

That pattern plays out over and over when you look at the 2012-13 state crime and violence report.  I calculated an average for 16 charter schools in Mecklenburg or just across county lines.  Half of them  --  Carolina International School, The Community School,  Metrolina Regional Scholars Academy,  Queens Grant,  Crossroads High,  Community School of Davidson,  Socrates Academy and Corvian Community School  -- reported no crime or violence last year.  All totaled, the 16 schools served a total of 11,659 students last year and averaged 1.8 acts per 1,000.

That compares with an average of 9.9 in CMS  (which had 27 of 160 schools with no criminal/violent acts), 5.1 in Cabarrus, 3.5 in Gaston, 7.5 in Iredell-Statesville, 5.8 in Lincoln and 8.2 in Union County.

So what does that mean?  I didn't hear back after leaving messages at Lake Norman and Queens Grant.

The CMS response was skeptical.  "I certainly wouldn't say that charter schools are safer than CMS,"  said Chief Communications Officer Kathryn Block.  "We have to remember that this is self-reporting."  She noted that CMS takes the state mandate seriously,  though  "I can't speak for what other entities may or may not report."

It's possible that some schools underreport.  Several years ago CMS logged remarkably low numbers on this very report.  One of my colleagues delved into police reports and showed that those numbers were far below reality.  CMS acknowledged the flaws and started reporting much higher tallies.

And among supporters of traditional public schools,  there are always rumblings that charters force out troublemakers.  The suspension/expulsion section of the crime/violence report doesn't seem to support that  --  I counted 10 long-term suspensions and two expulsions from the Charlotte-area charters  --  but it's possible that some students are  "counseled out"  and return to district schools.

Still,  this seems to be one of the intriguing questions about what charter schools bring to the mix.  I've heard parents say they opt for charters because they consider them safer and more orderly.  These numbers seem to bolster their belief.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

N.C. moving toward online charter schools

The state Board of Education will get a report Wednesday on virtual charter schools, a venture other states have tried with mixed results.

The report suggests that the state legislature clarify rules for charter schools that have no physical location,  and that the state consider starting with a pilot authorizing about three virtual charter schools.  It also suggests a different funding formula than that used for most charter schools. While counties are required to pass along per-pupil funding for those schools,  the report suggests making it optional for online charters.

State education officials,  Public Impact consulting firm and advisers from charter schools, districts,  higher education and homeschoolers crafted the plan,  which will go to the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee if the state board approves it.

Virtual education is hardly a new concept,  as the report notes.  The state has already created its own Virtual Public School,  and several districts,  including Charlotte-Mecklenburg,  Iredell-Statesville and Union County,  also offer their own online courses.

"This trend is quickly growing across the state, even attracting homeschoolers in some districts and being used for dropout recovery in others. These locally based digital academies are largely using a
blended model, which provides education both virtually and in-person,"  the report says.

The question is whether North Carolina can ensure quality,  which has been a challenge in states that moved more quickly to let other providers offer online education at public expense.

Providers are eager to jump in.  Connections Academy,  a Baltimore-based virtual school company that is part of Pearson,  is holding meetings around North Carolina this month to drum up support for an eventual online charter program for grades 6-12.