February 20, 2014
Tracking the gap
Achievement gaps in Wake County are evident as soon as students enter kindergarten, remain stubbornly stable through the years and are nearly identical across many different tests.
Those observations, offered during a two-day school board retreat last week, were part of several wide-ranging discussions about what it will take to improve achievement for all students in North Carolina’s largest school district.
The achievement gaps are hardly unique to Wake County, but the willingness to publicly dissect them is much less common. The full presentation tracked students across multiple years and tests. A separate study looked at how many students go to college divided by ethnicity and income. While the two presentations are lengthy, the three graphs below illustrate the basic nature of the challenge.
The first shows how entering kindergarten students fare on their initial assessment of simple print concepts, such as knowing the front of the book from the back. It’s an assessment given to all students and it’s obviously better to have a small percentage of students in the red – optimally 5 percent or less.
Also In This Issue
Creating a profession of teaching
Western Wake struggles to handle growth
Book drive aims to collect 40,000 books
Snow fooling: Spring break is saved
Voucher challenge allowed
In Context: The next chapter
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Note: LEP is Limited English Proficient. SWD is Students with Disabilities
One striking observation is the gaps by ethnicity are immediately obvious in kindergarten. By grade school, as seen below, only Asian students have eliminated the gap on standardized statewide exams.
It helps in the graph below to know a standard deviation of .50 equals roughly a year or more of schooling. So students who are black, Hispanic and from “economically disadvantaged” families (EDS) are roughly one to two years behind white and Asian students throughout grade school.
When high school juniors take the ACT college-entrance exam, an almost identical pattern emerges. The practical difference defines students who can apply to a prestigious private college from those who might be accepted at a public university.
Race, tests scores and income do not define individual students. But taken together, they define the challenge of ensuring all students have a chance to reach their potential. There is no single solution, but the job for public schools obviously starts early and never really ends.
Creating a profession of teaching
The wonder of the 21st century has faded for many school teachers in North Carolina. Instead of an ascent toward world-class performance, the past 14 years produced more work, stagnant pay and decreasing control over classrooms.
It was against that backdrop that the Institute for Emerging Issues gathered 1,300 people in Raleigh last week from almost every county in the state. Many were public school educators, but others came from the business world, politics and civic groups.
Three dozen speakers offered their thoughts and findings for the better part of two days. And despite their differences, a common thread emerged. In short, we value our teachers, but we do not respect their profession.
If we did, several speakers pointed out, we would not pay them so little and provide only minimal training in college and after graduation. We would not support career paths that reward teachers financially only if they leave the classroom.
By design, the speakers extolled, prodded and provoked with views that were at times conflicting and even uncomfortable. Here are a few of their observations:
• At some point good schools understand that fewer, more comprehensive standards are better. It is hard to imagine this is not a pre-requisite to a world-class system. – Amanda Ripley, author and investigative journalist who has traveled the world looking at different education systems.
• Competition and choice do not increase overall student performance in any country. Every country that has successfully improved the general education of its citizens did so by strengthening the public schools. – Pasi Sahlberg, an educator and policy advisor in Finland who studies education systems worldwide.
• North Carolina today is a lesson to the nation about how to destroy public education and how to dismantle the teaching profession. – Diane Ravitch, historian and research professor of education at New York University. (Those remarks and other similar opinions drew a standing ovation from most in the audience.)
• Policy is not a subtle tool, but teachers have not done a good job of stepping forward with other options. – Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
• A great teacher in every classroom is possible. Pay increases of 20 percent – even 100 percent – are possible. The increased skills of graduates would boost the economy. But we must think differently about how we deploy teachers to achieve these goals. – Bryan Hassel, co-director of Public Impact.
For more information, videos of the speakers and a link to online classes where the public is invited to participate in conversations about the role of world-class teaching and economic development, visit the Institute’s web site.
Western Wake struggles to handle growth
Proposals to cap enrollment and add classroom trailers to schools in western Wake County have triggered a flurry of complaints and suggestions from parents recently. This week, school board members agreed to take a closer look at those suggestions in the hope of finding better solutions.
While parents seemed generally pleased by the school board’s willingness to consider other options, everyone involved understands the real problem is a lack of seats. Despite voter approval of $810 million in school construction bonds this fall, there simply aren’t enough seats to keep up with the growth.
The problem isn’t a lack of money. The primary problem is developers can complete a subdivision before builders can construct a school. Current plans call for roughly 750 new single-family homes in the Highcroft Elementary school area alone. Highcroft is already at 114 percent of capacity thanks to temporary classrooms built on a school playground.
A request to build a new school in the area by 2016 is currently pending before county commissioners, but the process is plodding along. As stewards of the tax dollar, commissioners have repeatedly questioned whether the school district is stretching its construction money far enough. The county commissioners could grant final approval as soon as next month.
In the meantime, school board members are weighing competing proposals that try to balance enrollment caps, more classroom trailers, reassignments and even conversions to a staggered year-round calendar.
But unlike years past, it is now parents who are asking if the board has considered such approaches. The current school board has tried to avoid reassignments and year-round calendars in an effort to increase stability.
At some point, however, the schools in western Wake will simply run out of room. More than a third of the students are in classroom trailers and modular units at the elementary schools of Cedar Fork, Davis Drive, Highcroft and Weatherstone. Most of those schools have added students during the year and all are on a proposed list for enrollment caps next year.
A decision is expected by early March about how to handle the enrollment next year. That will be followed by a new elementary in 2016 and another new school in 2017. The question isn’t whether those schools will fill. The question is whether they will open soon enough.
… Numerous community groups and the Wake County school system are working together to collect 40,000 books in four weeks to distribute free to low-income children in Wake County. The book drive, part of a community-wide literacy effort known as WAKE Up and Read, will run from March 2 through March 29. The long-term goal of WAKE Up and Read is to have all Wake students reading at grade level by third grade. A list of drop off locations will be posted at the WAKE Up and Read website, but are expected to include local book stores, non-profits, area businesses, churches and library branches. The Partnership is one of the lead partners in WAKE Up and Read. Volunteers will be needed to help collect, sort and distribute the books. See the website or contact the Partnership for more information.
…Students in Wake County can still enjoy a full week of spring break this year despite two rounds of winter weather that cancelled seven days of class. The school district preserved spring break thanks to a new state law that says students must attend 185 days of class or a minimum of 1,025 hours of instruction per year. District leaders already knew schools were scheduled to provide more than 1,025 hours of instruction, so during last week’s storm they started looking very closely at how much more. It turned out to be 2.5 days worth. Combining those 2.5 days with four previously scheduled make-up days brought the total to 6.5. The last half day will come from replacing an early release day on March 7 with a full day. So your mother was right after all. Sometimes it pays to do more than the absolute minimum. Enjoy the break. The new calendar can be found here.
…A Superior Court judge refused this week to dismiss a challenge to a new state law that provides parents with taxpayer money to defray the cost of private or religious schools. He scheduled a hearing Friday to determine whether the state could issue any vouchers until the case is resolved. The new voucher law is being challenged by the NC School Boards Association, the NC Association of Educators and dozens of local school boards. The $10 million program would provide up to $4,200 per child for low-income families that want to use that money to pay for private school tuition. It is widely seen by opponents as a first step toward a broader statewide voucher program.
…This publication, In Context, began in November, 2008. A lot happened since then and we hope the summaries helped you understand and track the changes that affected your children and our community. I wrote each of those issues, but that is about to change. I am leaving the Partnership next month to become the chief communications officer for the Wake County school system. In Context will continue, but its format will change. Please keep reading it. Stay informed. Tell others what you know. You are the public in public schools, which means we have the public school system we are willing to accept. Best to all — Tim Simmons
Wake Education Partnership is a 501(c)(3) non-profit created in 1983 to support public schools, in part by educating the community on current school issues and serving as a strong advocate for student achievement and world-class academic standards. Most of its financial support comes from individuals and local businesses. Please send comments or questions to Tim Simmons, VP of Communications,or visit our website .