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CMS tackles equity challenge: Can the district ensure great teaching in all schools?

Thomasboro Academy teacher Kenyatta Davenport helps students with an assignment.
Thomasboro Academy teacher Kenyatta Davenport helps students with an assignment. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

About 12 hours after a unanimous vote on student assignment, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board started work on an even tougher task: making sure all students have great teachers and lessons, wherever they go to school.

“This is what makes our schools successful or not,” board member Ruby Jones said Thursday, as a board committee began work on policy revisions aimed at equitable learning.

One of the biggest criticisms of the plan approved Wednesday night, which creates a diversity-driven magnet lottery and gives students a new escape route from low-performing schools, is that moving students doesn’t necessarily improve their education.

The response of Superintendent Ann Clark and the board amounts to: Yes, we know that.

The board plans to broaden a policy that calls for equal access to books, technology and other educational materials. The new version would also look at rigorous instruction and “overall high quality teaching.” And it changes the focus to equity, rather than equality, a term that opens the way to more support for schools and students with the greatest needs.

Neither the equity mission nor the focus on teachers is new. Years ago CMS produced annual equity reports that compared experience and credentials of the faculty in all schools, trying to ensure that high-poverty schools weren’t shortchanged.

But district leaders came to agree that those measures didn’t really gauge success with kids. Chief Accountability Officer Frank Barnes said Thursday the district needs to measure the ability of teachers to set high expectations and create challenging, engaging lessons for all students.

A recent accreditation review echoed what CMS studies have found: Not only are there disparities in the quality of classroom experiences among schools, but within schools. In other words, even low-performing schools have great teachers, but not enough of them. And even top-scoring schools may have weak ones.

This is so true, and so not new.

CMS board member Ruby Jones, on the importance of teacher quality

Barnes also highlighted numbers that are well known to those who track CMS performance, but alarming nonetheless: At the lowest-scoring CMS elementary school, only 17 percent of students have reading scores that show they’re on track for college success. At the top school, that’s 87 percent. About 75 percent of white students hit that mark, but only 33 percent of black students.

“We cannot continue to do business as usual,” said board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart, who cited the saying that repeating the same action and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. “It’s also the definition of failure for kids,” she said.

Revising policy will be the easiest part of the task. Measuring the quality of teachers and lessons is tough – and placing teachers where they’re most needed could be even thornier. CMS has tried an array of incentives to entice top educators to struggling schools. Previous superintendents have talked about forced transfers, but board members have balked, fearing that would only drive the best teachers out of CMS.

Our money has to follow our priorities or else it’s not going to happen.

CMS board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart

Ellis-Stewart said the board needs to have new strategies ready when it prepares the 2017-18 budget this spring: “Our money has to follow our priorities or else it’s not going to happen.”

Barnes said cultural competence training, which can be expensive, is vital. Teachers not only need to believe that students of color and poverty can excel, but must communicate that confidence in ways the students understand. Differences in background and culture can undermine those messages, he said.

Research has shown that “African-American students are three times more responsive than their white peers to what they think we think of them,” he said.

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

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