Group wants all kids to get a fair chance

Teacher assignment, math performance and gifted students will get scrutiny from a volunteer panel charged with making sure all kids get a fair shot at education in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Members of the Equity Committee hope narrowing their focus will help the group make a difference, rather than just conveying what one school board member described as “a general feeling of dissatisfaction.”

The group outlined its plans in a meeting with the school board and Superintendent Peter Gorman on Friday. As usual, the question of getting talented, experienced teachers into struggling schools generated debate but not consensus.

Carol Sawyer, a CMS parent on the committee, praised Gorman's recent decision to put new principals in seven low-scoring schools and let them choose teams of high-performing teachers. But she raised concerns that CMS's patchwork of bonuses and incentives, some offered at just a handful of schools, could encourage teachers to move from one fragile school to another – or penalize those who stay in difficult settings.

Gorman and some board members acknowledged that CMS hasn't figured out how to measure staff quality. Board policy calls for high-poverty schools to match top-performing schools on six measures of faculty experience and credentials. That's not happening, and Gorman noted that plans to put 150 more rookie Teach For America recruits – a move he and the board believe is good for those schools – will make the numbers worse.

“Some of the worst teachers I know are the teachers with the most years of experience,” added board Chair Joe White, a retired educator. “It's a matter of fit.”

Patsy Burkins, another CMS parent on the committee, handed out a list of school “failure rates” on state math exams – the flip side of the pass rates that are widely reported. She noted that at least 25 percent of students fail at about two-thirds of CMS's elementary and middle schools, and failure is even more common on high school algebra.

School board member George Dunlap called the list inflammatory because it lacks context. “Let's talk about what's behind the failure rate,” he said. “The implication is CMS is just leaving these kids out to dry.”

“Frankly, it is alarming,” Burkins said. “We would hope it does raise some concerns.”

Ellen Martin, a committee member whose kids graduated from CMS, said she's talked to several current and former teachers who work with gifted children. She said they tell her CMS is shortchanging its top students. At some schools, she said, principals use talent-development teachers for other duties, including as substitutes, rather than letting them focus on gifted students.

The committee will study these issues – plus education strategies at the charter KIPP Academy that opened in Charlotte this year – and offer recommendations later.