Still searching: CMS board ponders key to creating real opportunity in all schools

Kristin Cubbage, a teacher at Ashley Park K-8 School, is part of an ongoing CMS effort to create effective instruction in all schools.
Kristin Cubbage, a teacher at Ashley Park K-8 School, is part of an ongoing CMS effort to create effective instruction in all schools.

On one level, Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members spent Thursday morning trying to lay groundwork for a new superintendent.

On another, they re-enacted a drama they play out year after year: Seeking the right combination of data and decisions to break the cycle of school failure.

CMS already uses a range of strategies to support struggling students and schools. But board members and top staff acknowledge they have yet to figure out the formula that would give all students a fair shot at a top-notch education.

On Thursday, board Chair Mary McCray, policy committee Chair Tom Tate and member Ericka Ellis-Stewart completed each other’s thoughts as they discussed yet another educational equity policy.

How do we take this from words on paper to action?

CMS board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart

Tate: “How long does it take us to get to a point where we’re actually going to do this stuff? We’ve had equity in our policy for years.”

Ellis-Stewart: “Amen.”

Tate: “Here we are ...”

McCray: “... still searching.”

Tate: “It does get frustrating.”

The latest proposal would expand a policy that requires equitable distribution of instructional materials and supplies to cover such things as “high quality teaching” and “rigorous instructional tasks.”

The board is close to hiring a new superintendent, who will take office in 2017. Chief Accountability Officer Frank Barnes told the six board members gathered Thursday that the policy will help set priorities for a new leadership team: “It says that teaching matters. Rigor matters.”

The panel took no action, but discussed several questions that cut to the heart of the board’s work.

How do you create great teaching?

Board members asked whether the push to ensure high-quality teaching would entail training for existing teachers or reassignment of top performers.

“The intent was to focus on the improving of instructional practices, rather than the moving of people,” Barnes said.

But providing professional development is hardly a new idea. Neither is looking at the distribution of teachers, though the CMS board has always stopped short of forced reassignment.

Still, board members noted that some schools are hobbled by high teacher turnover and over-reliance on inexperienced teachers.

When you get a school that is overpopulated with teachers that are very novice ... teachers are your greatest resource.

CMS board member Ruby Jones

Do some schools need more classes?

Board members discussed adding “course offerings” to the equity checklist. Large, high-performing schools often offer a wider array of advanced classes and electives.

Barnes suggested that’s partly because there’s not as much demand at some schools. That drew a sharp rebuke from Tate, with other board members chiming in. If courses aren’t offered, they said, CMS has no way of knowing whether students want them.

The most intense debate centered on the high-poverty preK-8 neighborhood schools that were created in the wake of 2010 school closings. The number of middle-school students at each school is small to start with, which leads to fewer elective courses and extracurricular activities than traditional middle schools offer. And because many students score below grade level on state exams, such advanced offerings as high school Math 1 classes for eighth-graders may be absent.

Do all schools need librarians?

Board member Thelma Byers-Bailey revived an ongoing discussion about Superintendent Ann Clark’s decision to let principals give up school librarians (known as media specialists) in exchange for other positions. Schools that do so may have teacher assistants running the school media centers.

“We’ve given them that flexibility,” Byers-Bailey said, “but I think we have compromised the equitable access.”

How do you measure equity?

CMS used to generate detailed equity reports, tallying all sorts of material resources, along with teacher experience and credentials at each school. Those reports were abandoned as leadership changed and board members questioned the value of the data being collected.

Tate said Thursday the board now has insufficient information to gauge school conditions, though he acknowledged the new guidelines won’t be easy to measure: “I’m not sure how you allocate something like rigor.”

It’s imperative that we get to the root cause of low performance and address it.

CMS board member Paul Bailey

Board member Paul Bailey called for deeper analysis of the challenges at each school. Otherwise, he said, “we’ll just keep throwing resources and money into this, and if it works it works and if it doesn’t it doesn’t. ... It’s imperative that we get to the root cause of low performance and address it.”

Countered board member Ruby Jones: “We’ve been root-causing and data-crunching ad nauseam.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms