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The Educate! Archive

Click above for archived editions of Educate!, the community journal on education in Charlotte-Mecklenburg published by the Fellowship between September 2000 and September 2005.

The Swann Fellowship
1510 E. 7th St
Charlotte, NC 28204

Are all the 'great' educators just alike?

Nov. 27, 2015

Here’s a question you can ponder while you’re sitting quietly digesting the turkey leftovers:

Do you remember having a teacher you really connected with and learned so much from? Were there others in the class that did not have such an experience? Or were you the one who didn’t think much of that teacher, but you could see that other children really did?

Such personal stories might help us put a different spin on last month’s spat over teacher professional development spending.

A study titled “The Mirage” was published by TNTP, the Brooklyn based organization founded in 1997 under the name The New Teacher Project. (The group has done contract work for CMS in reshaping its professional development department.)

“The Mirage” called into question much of what is in place today that’s designed to grow teachers’ skills. Districts are spending 6%-9% of their annual budgets on professional development. Teachers spend the equivalent of one year out of every 10 on these activities. The cost per teacher in the studied districts was $18,000 per year per teacher. But teachers’ skills are not improving with the investment, according to the study:

“Most teachers’ performance does not appear to improve substantially from year to year, especially after their first few years in the classroom. Too many peak before they master core instructional skills. And when teachers do improve, we could not trace that growth to systemic development strategies.”

Nonprofit executive Andy Smarick wrote in Education Next that his first reaction was to call for a full re-examination of professional development. “But now I’m not so sure, because I don’t think we’re clear about the target at which it should be aimed – what it means to be that great, improving educator.”

That brought a reply from Daniel Weisberg, who heads the group that published “The Mirage.”

“The root of the problem here,” Weisberg wrote, “is our collective failure to even try to measure the impact professional development has on teacher performance in the first place…. We still need school systems to ask the basic questions that these measures could help answer: Is the professional development you’re providing actually helping teachers improve?”

Former students who remember the impact of real teachers on their lives should be forgiven if they think this kind of analysis is narrow and self-serving.

There is no single definition of a great teacher. And there is no dataset that will necessarily predict the outcomes that real teachers have on real students.

Of course there are many skills and baskets of knowledge that will be useful to a teacher. But let’s go back to our personal recollections. The same teacher may connect with some students but not others. Perhaps that tells us something important about the peril of creating a single definition of “what it means to be that great, improving educator” – much less depending on a single dataset to identify what helps teachers improve.

One of my favorite standards in this regard is to celebrate and reward the teacher who can reach the student who chooses to sit in the dark, or in the back of the room. Can that gift be nurtured through professional development?

–  Steve Johnston



Test results in one CMS kindergarten classroom of 5-year-olds in spring 2015, in a regular elementary school described as having a range of students in terms of socioeconomic status. Raw scores have been translated into skills levels generally exhibited by children of different ages. Results in this one classroom range from 2 years 3 months to 5 years 9 months. Source: CMS.

What's known about reading, and when

Nov. 9, 2015

There has been much talk about reading by third grade, and about reading readiness.

What members of the Swann board, meeting Oct. 8, wanted to know was: What does CMS already know about how its students are prepared for reading? When does it know what it knows? And with whom does it share the information? And on the biggest issue, here’s what we’ve learned:

Whether a child enters CMS at kindergarten or second grade or anywhere in between, CMS knows within no more than nine weeks a great deal about each child’s readiness to learn. Many teachers would probably say that THEY know within a matter of days.

The tools

The tools include both state-mandated assessments and other tests CMS uses on an optional basis. All data is available to the teacher, principal and administrators, both on an individual, classroom and school basis. All of the state-mandated test data is reported to the state, though most of it is not publicly released.

A project now underway by North Carolina and some other states would create a dataset for research purposes of all student data for years pre-K through 20. Critics worry that the project could allow a return to tracking – preventing students from taking advanced classes, for example.

Before Pre-K

Children are screened for pre-K during the spring before classes begin. Screenings are done at the Smith Family Center. They result in a report that assesses children as below average, average or above average on motor development, language development, academic development, self-help and social-emotional development.


Teachers are gathering impressions about pre-kindergarteners from their first day in the classroom. But the testing that leads to state reports begins at the end of the year for pre-kindergartners.

Both North Carolina Pre-K and Bright Beginnings children are assessed using the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT) and the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS) at the end of the year. The PPVT measures receptive language and the PALS focuses on early indicators of reading proficiency, such as naming upper- and lower-case letters, recognizing beginning sounds, producing letter sounds, rhyming, name writing and concepts about print.

Both of these tests offer a good assessment of readiness.

Both tests are given to all students, but test results are collated in two or three lists. Why? The reasons are embedded in North Carolina’s two different programs for this age group, made even more complex by CMS operating a third group of pre-Ks:

– The N.C. pre-K program is based on family size and income and prioritizes children who have never had any formal child care or preschool experience. Classes are in mostly private child care and some nonprofit preschool centers.

– Bright Beginnings students are in programs at mostly Title 1 schools. Title I eligibility for children younger than kindergarten age is based on educational need, not income. Children whose screening results indicate the greatest need are placed first in Pre-K.

– Four CMS Montessori schools also operate pre-K classrooms, filled by lottery. The students do not take the screenings test. Results are kept separate for the N.C. pre-K students and the Bright Beginnings students because the eligibility criteria are different. N.C. pre-K students do not have to demonstrate an educational need, the results may not be comparable.

The three programs reach about 25%-30% of the age group countywide.

Are the results reliable? Probably. Exactly right? Unlikely, for at least two reasons:
Time is short: Two full-time staffers and several part-timers screen about 5,000-6,000 pre-K children each year, meeting one-on-one with the students.

And as any parent will tell you: Four-year-olds may vary from child to child and from day to day in their willingness to fully display their knowledge to a stranger in a one-on-one assessment.


The Kindergarten Entry Assessment is new in fall 2015. It includes assessments of “book orientation” – how to hold a book, which way is right side up, that text goes left to right, etc. A fair number of kindergartners have not yet absorbed these book awareness issues. The entry assessment also covers object counting.

First, second grades

Many of the skills tested in pre-K and kindergarten are tested again and again as children get older. Currently, CMS is using Reading 3D (known to older students as DIBELS) that tests for awareness of the names of letters, the sounds that letters or some combinations of letters make, reading comprehension and word recognition.

The tests also include ways to sniff out false positives. An example: Something called DORF Retell attempts to pinpoint what a child may be able to read, but can’t really understand.

As a general rule, teachers guide their own students, in the classroom, one-on-one, over a 15-day period. The tests are given three times per school year.

The three-times-per-year regimen gives staff some assurance that students develop a relationship with the adult doing the test, if not initially, then over the course of the year. Results should show progress over time and display each child’s proficiency with the basic building blocks of reading.

CMS has also opted into the Measures of Academic Progress tests.
The tests are given three times a year. Each of the two tests are given on separate days, and a whole classroom will take the test in a computer lab, each test taking about 45 minutes.

The Measures of Academic Progress is a nationally normed program, allowing CMS to check its progress not only against N.C. students but the national cohort.
The test results for each student include a list of “skill deficits,” allowing a teacher to put children needing similar remedial work into a group to focus on that skill.

For the first time this year, principals in K-2 have the option not to use the Measures of Academic Progress. Many such principals chose to give the math, but not the reading, believing that they already had sufficient information about reading progress.

Areas for further discussion

(1) It’s clear that, for many of the children least ready for the classroom, CMS knows about their readiness level months before they even enter a pre-K classroom. So any claim that children later fall through the cracks is a leaky argument.

(2) Parents of three-quarters of the children in the pre-K age group are either not applying for the various pre-K programs, or are not being placed due to lack of funding. Shame on us for not ensuring that all children who need this boost toward school success have access to it.

(3) A graphic published in this space earlier reported on the distribution of readers, Levels 1 through 5, at schools throughout the county. The graphic showed that there were Level 1 readers at every single elementary school.

(4) For parents and others who doubt that classrooms full of below-average readers will create many success stories, even this abbreviated synopsis makes it clear that CMS has the information to create mixed classrooms in which above-average readers can help below-average readers catch up. Lawyers knowledgeable about student assignment believe that using reading as a basis for assignment to schools, to prevent concentration of high-needs students, would be “unassailable” from a legal point of view.

(5) With the exception of pre-K screening results, all of the test data discussed above already is shared with the state. Little of it is shared with the public. If sharing information on a public problem would help galvanize public support for improvements, perhaps more, not less, testing data should be aggregated and reported.

(6) Testing takes time away from teaching. Striking the balance is subject to debate. The debate should continue.

(7) Classroom disruptions are often cited by parents as creating unhealthy learning environments. In discussing the testing, there was some discussion about the impact of mental health problems, but also about drug abuse, in all schools, and the part that drugs and mental health play in classroom management; and that teachers are really not trained to deal with these issues; and that even most school counselors are not so trained; and that four private companies now have staff operating in 30 schools, but funds for this purpose have been being cut by county commissioners.

(8) The role that trauma plays in classroom management was discussed. Trauma among students may include not just physical abuse out of school or at home, but also destabilizing family events like eviction. And the labels used for such children can be discriminatory: Poor children tend to be labeled oppositional or defiant and are disciplined; middle class children tend to be labeled ADHD and receive treatment.

(9) Teach for America was not discussed, but there was general agreement that first-year teachers, whether from education programs or lateral entry or other sources, are mostly unprepared to deal with management of students from backgrounds different from their own.

(10) The following were offered as statistically real, and significant: Given two comparable low-income students in a high-needs school, if one stays in the high-needs school and the other moves to a lower-needs school, the one who moves will progress more rapidly. Students thrive when they have highly effective teachers three years in a row. A student who has an ineffective teacher for a year can be set back two grade levels.

(11) There was a comment that one school put its teachers on a bus for a tour of the neighborhoods in which their students live. Fair enough. But some others commented that there was a time when all teachers were expected to visit the living rooms of every one of their students each fall.

– Steve Johnston




Our national Race to the Bottom

Aug. 21, 2015

From “The Condition of Education 2015,” published by The National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Dept. of Education, NCES 2015-144, May 2015.

Returning our eyes to the prize

Feb. 18, 2015

Last week’s school board meeting included an update on literacy efforts within CMS. The CMS chart below at right details the crisis: At most grade levels, fewer than half of CMS students are college or career ready in reading proficiency.

Chief Academic Officer Brian Schultz showed great verbal command of the process CMS is now deploying to move toward its North Star of literacy. Video of his presentation is here, beginning at 1:50:30. A copy of the PowerPoint from his presentation is here.

“There is absolutely no silver bullet,” Schultz said about the literacy challenge, “but we are going to take our best stab at it here in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools along with the support of our community.”

Taking their best stab at literacy has been the goal of educators for eons. It’s not like literacy was just invented. And teacher in-service training, designed to sharpen teaching skills, isn’t new either – except, of course, that it’s a rarity these days since the N.C. legislature obliterated funding for that purpose during the Great Recession.

So what is different today from the school days experienced by older folks in this community? Many older people who went to Charlotte or Mecklenburg County schools before the 1960 merger were prepared by their teachers not only to be literate, but to take the plunge and be the first in their families to graduate from college. What’s different now? Two examples of the gulf that has developed between school and home:

– Teachers once lived and worked among the children they taught. If you go back far enough in the history of N.C. public schooling, you’ll find that teachers took rooms in homes in the school’s community. More recently, teachers were neighbors. They knew their students’ families. And there wasn’t much, particularly about inappropriate behavior, that did not pass quickly from schoolhouse to home.

As one young man said recently about attending West Charlotte High in the late ‘80s, “If you got caught skipping, somebody knew you. We lived in the neighborhood. We walked to school…. It was on.”

Thirty years ago, principals might encourage their teachers to visit each of their students’ homes as school began. For teachers who voluntarily undertook the project, it was a once-a-year effort – a far cry from living down the block from your charges. Today’s parental engagement efforts appear to be focused exclusively on making parents responsible for bridging any school-home gaps. That works well for some parents, but not well at all for others. The CMS trek toward that North Star does not appear to go through students’ homes.

– A recent news story about middle schoolers getting laptops noted that the laptops don’t leave school. The story also said CMS was buying digital versions of some textbooks. So that means textbooks won’t be going home at night. Think about that.

Without getting into the current debate over the value of homework, is it healthy to create yet another chasm between school and home? Decades ago, perhaps parents could not even read what their children were being taught. But they could, and did, monitor that their children were reading their textbooks, and ask them about what they had read.

Yesterday’s schooling was not nirvana. Many children were left behind and got little by way of an education. Low-tech industries were built on the sweat of poorly schooled workers. Today, young people face a very different world in which literacy in its many forms is mandatory.

A Project LIFT staffer said recently: “I tell the parents I work with on a daily basis, you have to fight for your children. You have to say something, you have to get up and you have to let the school board know that you’re not going to stand for it and it’s not OK…. Don’t curse and yell. Document. Talk. And start talking to the school board and tell them what you’re about…. We have to talk to people who can actually change something.”

Wouldn’t it be nice if that comment became an appendix to CMS’s Literacy Update?

As the comment points out, parents are vital in helping to improve education. Big issues come up at home that parents need help with. But this issue of low literacy rates involves more than half the children in CMS, and that means we’re not talking about barriers to education created by a few parents’ bad attitudes or lack of support.

The big barriers to literacy are the ones created by us, the citizens of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and our representatives on the Board of Education. The barriers include low expectations; employers paying their workers wages that leave the workers and their children in poverty; environments unlinked to each child’s learning needs or aspirations; the creation of schools that no member of the Board of Education would send a child of their own to. That no parent, given a workable choice, would choose. That few staff members and teachers would or do choose.

So speak to the school board. “Document. Talk.... We have to talk to people who can actually change something.”

 – Steve Johnston




A time for contemplation

Feb. 19, 2015

So you arrive at the Pearly Gates. Saint Peter is squinting at his ledger. He looks up.

“Old Man Thrugbottom, your business competitor. He came by here awhile ago.

“It says here he paid his people dirt. He fired them when they had to take care of sick kids. He cared about his business, but not about his people.

"I sent him down that long, long stairway over there. Perhaps in a few hundred years that old fish will warm up a little bit.

“Now, what should I do with you?”