Making Schools Work with Hederick Smith district wide reform

New York City Charlotte, NC San Diego, CA

district wide reform

by Corey Ford

Charlotte-Mecklenburg school is closing the achievement gap between white and minority students

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district is closing the achievement gap between white and minority students.

In 1995, right before he began his job as superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Eric Smith and his wife visited East Mecklenburg High School. They dropped by an Advanced Placement class. It was great – extremely challenging material being taught by a talented teacher to a room packed with bright students. But Smith hardly noticed.

“My wife and I just looked at each other,” recalls Smith. “There was a complete absence of minority students. What was the problem here?”

The problem, Smith would soon find, was inequity – a dangerous combination of low expectations and inadequate resources.

Smith knew that to get minority students to succeed he would have to sell Charlotte on a simple idea – demand high expectations and high performance from all students, no matter what their social background or circumstances. “The success of a school isn't dependent on the children we serve,” he asserted. “We are the ones who will compensate for any deficiencies or additional needs children bring to us.”

With that, Charlotte's pursuit of equity was born.

Eric Smith, a business-like educator who sought objective truth through data analysis, had his team run the numbers. The data revealed the problem: despite having similar or better scores on fifth grade and PSAT ability assessments, many black students were consistently being put in basic-level classes while their white peers were consistently selected for high-level ones. Placement decisions were made on subjective recommendations.

“It was totally based on assumptions… We'd made assumptions about expectations of kids' levels, and those expectations were too low,” says Smith. “Call it racism, bias, low expectations, whatever. The impact is huge.”

It was huge – on the scale of a 39 percentage point achievement gap in reading. That meant that across the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, while 78% of white, mostly middle- to upper-income students performed at or above grade level on reading assessments, only 39% of black, mostly low-income students did. In math, the achievement gap was 40 percentage points. Charlotte, the birthplace of school integration by busing, had failed to educate its minority students on par with whites.

“I saw huge discrepancies,” says Smith. “We found that the expectations were different for inner city kids versus the suburban. We found that the pace of instruction, the speed with which content was being delivered was different. Totally different expectations.”

Charlotte essentially had two distinct school systems. One system had experienced teachers supported by adequate resources teaching challenging courses in new facilities to students who were pushed to graduate and excel in college. The other system had inexperienced teachers with inadequate resources trying to teach basic courses to students who were hardly expected to graduate, much less go to college. One system was for suburban kids; the other for inner city kids. And this was the case despite more than three decades of busing meant to forcibly prevent this problem.

Smith was determined to fix this inequity, but he didn't have much time. A looming federal lawsuit threatened to end busing. Schools could be re-segregated, ripping the achievement gap wide open. It was Smith's worst nightmare.

“We could not go through the struggle that Charlotte had gone through and come out the other side and not have students performing at a comparable level. To me that was unthinkable,” says Smith. “We had to solve this problem once and for all… We had to get dead serious about the business that we're in.”

To Smith, it was all about clarity: reestablish the mission of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and then redesign the school system around it.

“Our job is to educate children to a comparable level, to a competitive level,” says Smith. “ If we're doing our job, then we should be able to get kids to play in the big game before they leave us. ”

Getting minority students to play in “the big game” – to get them into college – required that they be prepared with that specific goal in mind. It required that students have access to the educational practice field, with the appropriate “coaching” and “training” to raise their skills to the level needed for “the big game.”

“Equity wasn't making sure that everyone had numerically the same number of test tubes in every chemistry lab,” concluded Smith. “We had to make sure that equity was more defined by the outcome.”

Equity would require two things – high expectations for all students and a targeted distribution of district resources.

Smith needed to redesign the entire Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system around the core value of high expectations for all students. He started with the end goal – college – and focused on the key hurdles Charlotte's students would need to clear to get there.

“I first drafted out where I wanted kids to be at the end and specifically by what time frame and what measure of performance,” explains Smith. “I didn't want to simply meet the requirements under state accountability. I wanted to see the cross section of children from all backgrounds perform at an extraordinarily high level as defined by some outside body. And so I looked at advanced placement, I looked at international baccalaureate and I looked at the SAT as three ways that we could measure our performance.”

With the end goal set, Smith worked backwards. He looked for the key moments during a student's educational development that would indicate whether or not that child was on track to succeed on the AP, the International Baccalaureate (IB) and the SAT.

“I wanted a kind of dipstick. I wanted to have points of measure over the course of a child's kindergarten through twelfth grade experience, and I wanted to see whether or not we were on target for that achievement,” says Smith. “So I moved from SAT, IB and AP performance and then I wrote specific goals for algebra one performance in middle school, for third grade reading and third grade mathematics.”

Smith calls these key moments “gateways.” They're the hurdles that line the racetrack of public education. If a child can't clear each increasingly difficult hurdle on time, he'll never make it to the finish line.

The district developed a stopwatch to set students' educational pace. Pacing Guides clearly set out for teachers what students needed to learn and by when. Now all students would be taught all the material they needed to know to succeed.

But students would inevitably trip up on some hurdles, so Charlotte developed a scheduling system that allows teachers to re-teach concepts to kids without slowing down normal class time. Struggling kids get the one-on-one attention they need while the whole class stays on pace. Students would no longer be stuck in remedial tracks for the rest of their education.

Having put in place a structure that pushed every child in the district towards achievement, Smith had to target the district's resources to where they were most needed – in schools that serve the children who are the furthest behind when they walk in the schoolhouse door. These were the inner city schools, long neglected and under-served, with children whose parents had not prepared them to succeed academically.

Children from poverty are usually behind when the starting gun goes off. “We had to find a way to compensate for that,” says Smith. “That's what we meant by equity.”

If the district used its resources wisely and focused them on students in need, Smith reasoned, it could make up for what the children lacked at home.

“In order to achieve equity, we put a significant amount of resources…into low-income schools that wouldn't have been there normally,” says Smith. “We had to increase the funding level. We had to increase the staffing level. We invested in their performance, in strategic ways, at a rate that was higher than we would see elsewhere.”

Charlotte set up the Equity Plus Program, providing schools in high poverty areas with the resources they needed to bring their students up to speed: reduced teacher-student ratios, additional instructional supplies and materials, added incentives for teachers, summer enrichment programs, Saturday school and more district guidance and attention.

Some in the Charlotte community questioned the fairness of this practice: if the inner city schools were getting extra district funding, didn't that mean they were taking money away from the suburban schools?

To respond, Smith ran the numbers. The data said, “No.” Even with all this new funding for inner city schools, suburban schools still received more taxpayer money per student.

“The difference was that the leading cost of running a school is personnel,” says Smith. Inner city schools were churning first- and second-year teachers who were at the bottom of the pay scale, while suburban schools carried the high salaries of teachers with 20 to 25 years of experience.

“We looked at our total operating costs,” says Smith. “Even with the supplemental additional teachers, the additional materials, the supplies… all these things to bring about equity – we still found that we were not running at a higher rate of cost to the district than the cost factor at the suburban schools.”

Even though suburban schools still received more taxpayer money, the inner city schools had won a big victory. The resources were in place, extra attention and support was available and high expectations were ingrained.

By the time Eric Smith left Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in 2002, the school district was on the verge of national acclaim. In seven years, the percentage of black students scoring at or above grade level in reading increased from 39% to 62% and in math increased from 42% to 70%. The achievement gap between minority students and white students closed in reading from 39 percentage points to 29 points and in math from 40 points to 24 points. And on the 2004 NAEP nationwide assessment tests, “The Nation's Report Card,” Charlotte's white and minority students outperformed their peer groups in nine other major urban school districts in reading and math.

Since 2002, the achievement gaps have continued to close because the equity-driven system Smith designed remains in force. By the end of the 2004-2005 school year, the gap in reading had been cut by an additional 9 percentage points and in math by an additional 6 points. Black students are now performing at nearly the same level where white students were performing when Smith first arrived in Charlotte.

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