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.
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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.
|David Cox Rd||906||65||10||18|
|J H Gunn||700||50||33||14|
|J M Alexander||573||54||9||33|
|Marie G. Davis||388||68||14||15|
|J T Williams||527||90||3||1|
|Marie G Davis||388||68||14||15|
|Olympic Intl Biz||370||62||27||9|
|E E Waddell||969||54||37||8|