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VOL. 126 | NO. 243 | Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Charlotte Leaders Address Student Achievement

By Bill Dries

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The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools system was consolidated in 1960, years before the schools in the North Carolina system were racially integrated.

And the school system’s former superintendent, who resigned earlier this year, told those involved in the Shelby County schools consolidation process that Charlotte-Mecklenburg still has an achievement gap.

“Progress has been painfully slow and, at the rate we are moving in Charlotte, it will still be 15 years before those achievement gaps are completely closed,” Peter Gorman told members of the consolidation planning commission, the countywide school board and leaders of both local public school systems. “You are talking about children who are not even yet in preschool if we continue at that pace. And we are the national leader.”

Gorman and several Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board members were part of a panel discussion Monday, Dec. 12, moderated by The Hyde Foundation.

Gorman and the others advised those combining the Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools to expect the work to be hard and the process of improving education for students in both school systems to be ongoing.

They all also used the word “context” to define how standards for education reform will change over the years it will take to first merge schools and then improve the performance of students in the combined system.

“The route to accomplish that and do that doesn’t have to be just one path to get there,” Gorman said.

The result in Charlotte was a reform plan that rewarded schools showing improvement in performance with more flexibility to make changes to further improve performance from where it had been.

“We found some people that we thought that were doing really good work weren’t,” he said, adding some students who did well in reaching a certain level of achievement weren’t necessarily showing growth. “They were still so far above the bar, we thought they were superstars.”

Meanwhile, other students remained “below the bar” but showed more growth or improvement.

“The work to move from there to there was heroic and phenomenal,” Gorman said, holding one hand a good distance above the other.

Gorman’s point is central to local discussions by both school systems about state education reform efforts.

Leaders of Memphis City Schools, in particular, have been vocal in their concern that standards for student effectiveness don’t give schools enough credit for the improvement students show in national and state testing compared with where they were previously – even if those students remain below state and national benchmarks.

Eric Davis, chairman of the CMS board, said a milestone in education reform in Charlotte was a “fundamental shift” in philosophy just before Gorman was hired in 2006.

“It was a shift from not just providing an opportunity for an education … but to actually teaching and learning – not asking ourselves does the same child get the same lesson in every school every day, but how well are students learning,” Davis said. “It’s a shift from compliance to performance.”

Davis said the specific concept of performance did not resonate well with parents once it was better defined. He was surprised.

“When you really start pushing on what it’s going to take to raise the performance of the system, you find a lot of resistance,” Davis said. “I think it’s because we have different definitions of success in Charlotte of what the school system needs to do for us.”

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