PAA co-founder Pamela Grundy has a son in fifth grade in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
So we finally won the Broad Prize. After two stints as a finalist, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools took home this year’s prize, which the Charlotte Observer termed “the nation’s top award for urban education.” CMS leaders celebrated. Our mayor called the prize “a huge shot in the arm.”
I have mixed feelings.
I don’t care for Eli Broad or the movement he is part of. His support for privatizing public education, his disdain for elected school boards and his push for disruptive policies unsupported by either research or common sense are doing a lot of damage to our nation’s schools.
Such heavy handed policies hit CMS full force last year.
Last fall saw a bruising battle in which CMS leaders used dubious reasoning to close down schools in several low-income neighborhoods, opening old racial wounds and polarizing our community.
The spring produced an badly bungled pay-for-performance scheme that sent teacher morale plummeting, as well as a massive expansion of standardized testing that disrupted learning across the system and angered many parents.
I’d hate for the Broad Prize to be seen as a vindication of those damaging policies.
And in fact it isn’t. The Broad team evaluated CMS based on a set of data that ended in 2010 – data that showed small but steady gains. In 2011, after our disastrous year, test scores dropped and superintendent Peter Gorman departed, to the relief of many. We sneaked in just under the wire.
Still, it was swell to see the Charlotte Observer’s picture of celebrating CMS employees, some of whom I know. CMS is full of people who dedicate their lives to children. I’ve seen plenty of that work first-hand, and they deserve recognition.
CMS has also done some things worth emulating. Peter Gorman came to Charlotte five years ago promising to institute “efficiencies” that would save huge gobs of money. In his first few years, he learned a lot.
First and foremost, he learned how important staffing is at high-poverty schools – not just quality, but quantity as well. In Mecklenburg County, unlike in most communities, high-poverty schools generally have smaller classes and higher per-pupil funding than low-poverty schools, thanks to a system we call weighted student staffing.
Under the system, each child in poverty receives a staff allocation that’s 30 percent higher than a child not in poverty (for example, a school where all the kids were poor would get 30 percent more staff than a school where none of the kids were poor).
This year, when state budget cuts hit CMS hard, Gorman championed weighted student staffing as one of the system’s most important programs. Turns out money did matter after all.
I’ve seen that first hand at Shamrock Gardens, the high-poverty elementary school where my son has spent the past five years. For most of that time, we’ve been able to keep our classes small – generally under 20 – and that’s played a major role in stabilizing our staff and boosting our achievement. Shamrock representatives participated in the meetings held by the Broad Prize team, and I know they had plenty of good things to say.
CMS has also used a variety of strategies to try to bring strong, experienced teachers and principals to high-poverty schools. Some of these strategies have worked better than others, and I think they have relied too much on the revolving door of TFA, but there’s been a definite focus on putting together strong staffs.
And CMS leaders haven’t succumbed to the illusion that charters and competition are the answer to all a school system’s ills. They’ve focused their efforts on standard public schools, the kind that serve a whole community, not just a select group.
The Broad Prize comes at a turning point for CMS. As the Observer noted, we’re in the middle of a crucial school board race, as well as a superintendent search. The new board and superintendent will decide which of Peter Gorman’s policies to keep and which to abandon.
If the prize blinds school system and community leaders to the problems of this past year, encouraging them to steamroll a flawed agenda over parents, teachers and children, it will mark a low point for our system.
But if it encourages greater support for those policies that have genuinely worked, not just in theory but in practice, it could be the boost that everyone who cares about our public schools hopes it will be.
Sadly, there are already hints that unless things change, the steamroller scenario is the more likely one. Our school board chairman, Eric Davis, backed Peter Gorman in every step on last year’s disastrous path, stubbornly averting his gaze from the divisions and disruptions his policies were creating. After the Broad Prize was awarded, he called it “a testament to consistent, relentless focus on results.” Not the kind of statement that suggests discerning reflection, or the possibility of change.
So although Eli Broad would likely not approve, the decision about which path our schools will take depends on democracy. Our school board election matters. We all need to roll up our sleeves and go to work.