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CMS/Wake rivalry: Surprise winner, serious challenge

CMS Superintendent Ann Clark (center) and Wake Superintendent James Merrill (right) talk weekly. Both were finalists for the Wake job in 2013 (show here with Dana Bedden, the third finalist).
CMS Superintendent Ann Clark (center) and Wake Superintendent James Merrill (right) talk weekly. Both were finalists for the Wake job in 2013 (show here with Dana Bedden, the third finalist).

Frank Barnes, the chief accountability officer for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, got chuckles at last week’s news conference when he acknowledged that Wake County had outperformed CMS on all state exams, but warned that “we’re coming for you.”

The rivalry makes for social-media fun, but the relationship between North Carolina’s two largest districts is actually a supportive partnership, said CMS Superintendent Ann Clark. She said she and Wake Superintendent James Merrill confer weekly by phone.

When you look at district averages, Wake does top CMS. And the seeming gap is highlighted by the state’s list of low-performing schools. CMS has 25, compared to 13 in the larger Wake district.

But let’s be blunt: Wake has more white students and fewer from low-income homes. You’ll seldom lose a bet anywhere in America by predicting that such a demographic edge will translate to stronger scores.

Last week’s state data release makes it possible to compare performance group by group – white CMS students with white Wake students, low-income CMS students with low-income Wake students, etc.

When you do that, CMS consistently comes out ahead.

For instance, white CMS students, who made up 29 percent of enrollment last year, were more likely to pass state reading, math and science exams than their white counterparts in Wake, who made up 47.5 percent of enrollment. The CMS edge holds when you look at “college and career ready” scores, a higher bar. CMS white students were more likely than Wake’s to graduate in four years and more likely to earn ACT scores that would get them into UNC schools.

In both large districts, performance for white students was strong and well above state averages. If that were the case for other groups, this could truly be a fun race for bragging rights.

But it’s not.

All groups have seen graduation rates rise in CMS and Wake, yet black, Hispanic and low-income students in both districts are about half as likely as white classmates to earn a college-ready ACT score. Likewise, those groups are far less likely to earn passing or college-ready scores on the state’s elementary, middle and high school exams. (North Carolina no longer reports a separate category for non-poor students.)

There are exceptions to the CMS advantage as you drill down. For instance, Hispanic and low-income students in Wake tie or slightly top counterparts in CMS on reading and English 2 exams, while falling behind on math and science. And Asian students, a small minority in both districts, perform better in Wake than CMS.

But the message is clear: Based on the data North Carolina uses to evaluate education, Wake has done no better than CMS at providing a path to success for its disadvantaged students.

That’s true despite the fact that Wake not only has lower poverty – 34 percent in Wake vs. somewhere between 55 and 60 percent in CMS – but has done more to avoid the concentrations of poverty that mark the CMS list of low-performing schools.

The comparison is both important and politically charged because CMS is working on student assignment changes that will use socioeconomic status to break up racial and economic isolation. That’s the approach Wake used to promote school diversity during the years after CMS was forced to abandon race-based assignment. That’s when CMS saw the number of high-poverty schools with few white students skyrocket.

Daoshan Sun, a CMS parent who ran a comparison of the two districts over the weekend, says he believes diversity has benefits. But he says the numbers raise a caution for any who think reassignment will provide the solution for struggling groups of students.

“The data tells us that by making more of our schools look like Wake’s in terms of social-economic or racial composition, we are unlikely to get where we want to be,” Sun wrote.

Supporters of a plan that breaks up poverty contend the numbers also reinforce their view: High-poverty schools hobble equal opportunity on a number of fronts, from recruiting and keeping strong teachers to creating a culture of success. They see student assignment changes as a step toward making equity possible, not as a fix for the problems of public education.

I won’t step into the crossfire on student assignment, but I’m solidly with Sun on one point: “I hope more objective analysis helps making better decisions.”

CMS v. Wake: By the numbers

These numbers show the percent of students earning a grade-level score on all state exams, the percent of juniors who earned an ACT score that would qualify for admission to the UNC system, and the percent who graduated in four years. The state released 2016 results last week.






Passed state exams


85.2 percent

46.4 percent

50.5 percent

45.5 percent


82.7 percent

44.1 percent

48.7 percent

42.9 percent


70.3 percent

39.5 percent

47.6 percent

43.7 percent

On-time graduation


94.6 percent

89.5 percent

79.8 percent

85.2 percent


93 percent

81.1 percent

73.6 percent

75.6 percent


88.6 percent

82.9 percent

80.1 percent

80.6 percent

ACT proficiency


88.3 percent

41.1 percent

46.1 percent

41.3 percent


85.7 percent

40.8 percent

46.8 percent

38.2 percent


73 percent

36.9 percent

46.5 percent

41.6 percent

Source: N.C. Department of Public Instruction