Making Schools Work with Hederick Smith district wide reform

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district wide reform

Charlotte, North Carolina

Students at Highland Renaissance Academy

Students at Highland Renaissance Academy take a test in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg is an example of successful district-wide reform promoted by the standards movement and carried out by an innovative school superintendent who used the pressures of state standards to obtain the resources needed to lift achievement among poor and minority students. Pushed in the 1990s by Presidents Bush and Clinton, and applied by states like North Carolina and Texas, the standards movement held school districts accountable for showing clear improvement among all categories of students, not just the fortunate minority in affluent schools. Charlotte, with 148 schools and 121,000 children, became one of the movement's first major success stories after Eric Smith took over as superintendent in 1996.

At the same time, suburban sprawl and the district's 30-year-old court ordered busing ruling was about to end, presenting a serious challenge of integration and equity among students and schools. The district had an unusual melding of urban and suburban schools with approximately 40% low income and a near balance of minority and white students. The busing had kept the schools integrated, leveling the playing field at most schools.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg under Smith took a centralized approach to reform, adopting a district-wide curriculum, incentives for school staff, and a stiff accountability system. They instituted pacing guides, frequent testing, and constant monitoring of progress or failure at the student level, classroom level, school level and district level, to push for constant improvement. Eric Smith and his staff set high expectations for all students and then promoted Equity-plus, a concept that insured low-performing inner city schools were given sufficient resources to lift their students to district-wide levels of achievement.

After eight years of system-wide reform, Charlotte-Mecklenburg shot to the top on NAEP tests in early 2004, with each ethnic group outperforming its peers in nine other major urban school districts in reading and math. Moreover, from 1995 to 2001, the number of African American students in Charlotte schools reading on grade level more than doubled, rising from 35% to 70%. What is especially significant is that Charlotte maintained educational momentum and continuity after Eric Smiths left the district in 2002. The new team, headed by his former deputy superintendent, James Pughsley, pursued the original goals, thereby sustaining and building on the current reforms.

Contact Information

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Education Center
701 East 2 nd Street
Charlotte, NC 28202
980-343-3000 (main)

Some Research Articles and Evaluations

“Foundations for Success: Case Studies of How Urban School Systems Improve Student Achievement,” (2002), by Jason Snipes, Fred Doolittle, Corinne Herlihy, Council of the Great City Schools and the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC)
Charlotte-Mecklenburg is one of three large urban school districts highlighted in this report for its relatively rapid improvement in overall student achievement, and a narrowing of the gap between white and minority student performance. Key findings are presented along with contextual factors that affect reform. The detailed case study of Charlotte-Mecklenburg can be found in Appendix A (PDF - Adobe Reader Required)

“The Academic Consequences of Desegregation and Segregation: Evidence from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System,” (2003), by Roslyn Mickelson, University of North Carolina–Charlotte.
This article takes a close look at the connection between racial segregation/desegregation and academic achievement. It addresses the question: how can educators make good on the promise to educate all children equally? Conclusive evidence shows that children in desegregated schools benefit academically. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district is presented as a case study. (PDF - Adobe Reader Required)

School-Base Performance Awards Programs, Teacher Motivation and School Performance: Findings from a Study of Three Programs,” (2000), by Carolyn Kelly, Herbert Heneman III, Anthony Milanowski, Consortium for Policy Research in Education.
Charlotte is one of a number of districts that adopted performance based accountability as part of its overall reform strategy. This report provides an overview of the findings of the standards-based performance awards (SBPA) program in Charlotte and two other school districts in Kentucky and Maryland. It provides comprehensive information about the SBPA program and the connection between teacher incentives and school success. Overall, findings indicate success with the SBPA program. (PDF - Adobe Reader Required)

“Exploring Rapid Achievement Gains in North Carolina and Texas”, (1998) by David Grissmer and Ann Flanagan, National Education Goals Panel
This report focuses on how North Carolina and Texas were making more rapid gains than other states in the early 1990s. It examines the critical policies in place at the state level – the main one being statewide standards by grade. While this article is a bit dated, it sets the stage for what was taking place in North Carolina to help facilitate the reforms in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district under Eric Smith. (PDF - Adobe Reader Required)

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