Talk about perceptions, then guiding principles

July 12, 2010

Here’s hoping that the good people of Charlotte-Mecklenburg can talk out some guiding perceptions before they need to decide on guiding principles.

For it is perceptions that have long shaped the principles of CMS school assignment policy. And created the massive separations by race and by economics that are embodied in the attendance numbers below.

I was reminded to start with perceptions by an aphorism long connected with former chair and current CMS board member Joe White.

People want to go to their neighborhood school, he often says, as long as it is a good school. By extension, even the most rabid neighborhood-schools advocate will exercise other options if the neighborhood school does not have a reputation of being a good school. So what factors contribute to a school’s reputation?

Any school’s reputation is composed of truths and falsities – along with stories about one-time realities, both good and bad, that no longer apply. Example: A school can suffer from a reputation for bad plumbing long after the problem is fixed. So what are the realities and the perceptions that mix together to create a reputation? Your thoughts? Here’s the list so far.

Test scores. That’s a reality, right? Only, we all know that school-wide averages on the state achievement tests are a blunt and misleading instrument. I am reminded of the principal of a high-flying CMS school who realized that the cause for a huge reported school-wide achievement gap was a group of six students. Three of those were fine. The other three were way behind but making progress in self-contained classes for the hearing-impaired. The test scores of the three students gave the school a reputation for “bad” test scores.

Schoolhouse condition. We all have stories about children thriving in unattractive circumstances. But adult perceptions are deeply important in attracting and retaining both staff and parents. For decades in CMS, adults with choices shunned run-down schools. The CMS building program of the last 30 years has largely removed building conditions as an issue. But any parent visiting a schoolhouse who sees unkempt conditions has every reason to be suspicious that the neglect goes deeper.

Neighborhood condition. Adults are highly sensitive to crime statistics, visual neighborhood conditions, what their neighbors say about the neighborhood surrounding the schoolhouse, the potholes in the streets, you name it. Some or absolutely none of these pieces of information may be good cues to a school’s classroom learning environment. But that will not stop adults from pre-judging a school’s excellence based on neighborhood conditions.

Poverty statistics. For the non-poor of all ethnicities, children of poverty appear to be the default guide to whether a school is good or bad. If this were not so, why do boundary lines sort out the poor so carefully from their wealthier immediate neighbors? If this were not so, and when the statistics on poverty and race track each other so well, why would the numbers below look the way they do?

Supt. Peter Gorman has written these words:

“Too many of our kids come to school not ready to learn. It might be because they’re hungry. Or maybe they have not had medical care, or immunizations. Or maybe they’re frightened because the family is troubled or homeless. These social conditions come to school with too many of our students every single day – and although CMS works hard to overcome the barriers these conditions represent, we can’t do it alone. We need more family and community support to help solve the underlying problems that are causing some students to struggle in school.

“We still have an achievement gap linked to poverty and race. Many of our schools lack racial or economic diversity, based on housing patterns in the community. Our current student-assignment plan follows those housing patterns. This results in less diversity in individual schools. We want to close the achievement gap, and we’re working to close it – but the unfortunate fact is this: No large school district in America has yet closed the achievement gap for all students.

“So how will we do it? We are putting more of our resources – both financial and human resources – into struggling schools, because we believe every child deserves a great teacher. We’re giving teachers and principals substantial incentives to work in these schools and help them improve – but is that enough? Can we do more to close the achievement gap – can we do more as a district and as a community?

“We know the achievement gap is linked to poverty and difficult family circumstances. We still have a dropout rate that is far too high, and that is linked to the same factors that we see in the achievement gaps.

“All of these things are barriers to learning. All of them affect achievement. So I believe that as a community, we must ask ourselves: Are we doing everything we can for our children? Are we involved enough in our schools? Are there ways we can do more to help all children?

“These are substantial challenges for CMS and for our community as a whole. They will require substantial commitments of time, energy and money from all of us. Many are linked to complex social issues with no easy, one-step answers.

“Do we want our community to prosper? Do we want a unified school district that offers every child an equal opportunity? Or do we want schools that lack racial and economic diversity? Do we want schools of widely varying quality? Or do we want our children to have the opportunities we have had, and more?

“As a community, we must rise to these substantial challenges.”

In the years since 2008 when he included the comments above in his State of the Schools address, most of Gorman’s time has been spent slashing budgets. Perhaps he hasn’t had time to mobilize Charlotte-Mecklenburg leaders to answer his challenge. But he also hasn’t risked the wrath of well-connected parents by doing what every police and fire official does every day – assign personnel to where they are needed most. That would mess with another key perception of this age: that my child deserves the best, irrespective of other community needs.

Readers not steeped in North Carolina history may not know that the writers of the N.C. Constitution created a mandate that every child should have access to a sound basic education. A Superior Court judge, Howard Manning, oversees a long-running court case on this topic. In previous sessions of that case he has accused CMS of inflicting “academic genocide” on low-income children. Manning has the support of the N.C. Supreme Court, and will not shut up or go away.

My own perception is that CMS will forever fail this constitutional mandate so long as it isolates its highest-needs students. That’s in large part because adults with choices, both teachers and parents, will shun those places, and so the children will not have what they need to get a sound basic education. But it is also because children learn from each other. And we have cut high-needs children off from the children who can teach them, and learn themselves in the process. We do none of the children a favor by doing so.

Adult perceptions are getting in the way of educating our children. Delivery of education is effectively controlled not by guiding principles but perceptions, most of which boil down to adult fears of “the other,” the “not like me,” the “less than me,” the “not my kind.”

So let’s talk through those perceptions. If they were discussed at length in public forums, held up to the light of day, who would champion them? They would fall away of their own weight.

Then we could talk about guiding principles.

– – –

CMS enrollment ’09-’10
Schools in descending order of white enrollment at the end of the first month of the school year, fall 2009. Source: N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

Providence Sp 8466382
Eastover 58814282
Davidson 88910682
Torrence Cr 118711479
Beverly Wds 74714579
Olde Providence 67313478
JV Washam 93412778
Huntersville 79914877
Sharon 71915576
Elizabeth Lane 10359476
Bain 103314775
Polo Ridge 8499473
McKee Rd 50013573
Cornelius 699141270
Hawk Ridge 83012770
Barnette 73222867
Matthews 102319867
McAlpine 513191165
Elon Park 89116564
Park Road 42728563
Ballantyne 77818760
Myers Park 73836458
Endhaven 694181257
Highland Cr 122232656
Chantilly 25237654
Cotswold 587371052
Clear Creek701361448
Lansdowne 564411147
Croft 69043546
Blythe 910351744
Winget Park 913331744
Mountain Is 83446544
River Gate 681351942
Pineville 672282641
Long Creek 48650640
Smith Language 1189362040
Metro 227511037
Crown Point 733371937
Smithfield 561322637
Elizabeth Trad 55559336
Lake Wylie 715382429
Lebanon Rd 753423323
Berryhill 329185022
Mallard Cr 665541121
Greenway Pk 580512820
Whitewater 464591519
Paw Creek 558581919
Highland Mill 23072719
Collinswood 529235719
David Cox Rd 906651018
Rama Rd 523562218
Villa Heights 30468118
Dilworth 538711017
Reedy Creek 793601917
Berewick 524492517
Oakhurst 576681116
Pinewood 529404216
River Oaks 554701115
Steele Creek 725463314
Stoney Creek 665621714
J H Gunn 700503314
Piney Grove 759483514
Hunt'towne Fms 728424213
Tuckaseegee 810542512
Univ Meadows 641651812
Idlewild 801553010
Oakdale 62674139
Barringer 5618028
Pawtuckett 22072148
Newell 66745438
Shamrock Gar 33865236
Hornets Nest 86767266
Morehead 70273146
Statesville Rd 52278115
Windsor Pk 75236505
Winding Springs 57667245
Albemarle Rd 96043465
Grier 84961305
University Pk 5258575
Westerly Hills 2787944
Montclaire 45021724
Thomasboro 3127584
Briarwood 67955374
Billingsville 45261224
Sedgefield 38571233
Winterfield 54949463
Allenbrook 42167163
Hickory Grove 97260353
Merry Oaks 55537523
Lincoln Hts 27776193
Nations Ford 60044533
Sterling 47259362
Highland Ren 47764312
Irwin Avenue 4789062
Buers 3939062
Oaklawn Ave33567302
Ashley Park 2459242
Devonshire 50453421
Hidden Valley 61151461
First Ward 3769711
Reid Park 5589431
Druid Hills 3928970
Bruns Ave 5289170
Bailey 119514877
South Charlotte 94417868
Robinson 113117767
Crestdale 100820767
Alex Graham 115030563
Community House 153418962
Carmel 1128261556
Davidson IB 24831555
Bradley 119834954
Mint Hill1289281553
Smith Language 1189362040
Northwest Arts 109254538
Metro 227511037
Northeast 851451734
J M Alexander 57354933
Quail Hollow 891432529
Randolph 928471628
Southwest 1298472127
Ridge Road 968601025
Coulwood 836681118
Piedmont 90972516
Marie G. Davis 388681415
McClintock 621592312
Whitewater 561671411
Kennedy 618532910
Sedgefield 38150388
Albemarle Rd 81655337
Wilson 58166186
Northridge 90168226
Martin 126572185
Eastway 77749355
Ranson 117179134
Nath Alexander 101470204
Cochrane 61068243
Spaugh 5338553
ML King 86962323
J T Williams 5279031
Providence 207210479
Butler 234520767
Ardrey Kell 202117765
North Meck 216127861
Myers Park 294826957
South Meck 1875241755
Perf. Learning 10440848
Olympic Math 404301447
Hopewell 251943846
Olympic Ren 378391839
Northwest Arts 109254538
Mallard Creek 198759728
Morgan 9469427
East Meck 2132521626
Cato College 10060925
Olympic Biotech 378471822
Independence 2577592116
Olympic Global 373492416
Marie G Davis 388681415
Garinger Tech 427582411
West Meck 2213701111
Olympic Intl Biz 37062279
Berry Academy 122878119
E E Waddell 96954378
Vance 179869216
Turning Point 24183125
Garinger Lead 36270224
Garinger Intl 37257364
Garinger Biz 36470214
Garinger Math 34563283
Hawthorne 2578893
Midwood 2099233
Harding Univ 10439132
West Charlotte 20788671