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James Pughsley of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

James Pughsley, Eric Smith’s successor as superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, is dedicated to continuing Smith’s reform.

 
district wide reform
CHARLOTTE, NC:::JAMES PUGHSLEY INTERVIEW

INTERVIEW WITH JAMES PUGHSLEY, SUPERINTENDENT (2002-2005)
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

Hedrick Smith: Dr. Pughsley, tell me, …what is the main purpose of meeting with the principals?

James Pughsley: The purpose has to do with student achievement, making sure that there aren't any surprises at the end of the school year. We take a look at ourselves. We determine what our strengths and weaknesses are, and then regroup, if you will. Not only do we regroup the students, but we regroup ourselves in terms of how we spend our time, how we spend our energy, what kind of resources we need to make sure that we're hitting the targets at the end of the year.

Smith: How many principals in your district do you sit down with and go over the results of quarterly tests?

Pughsley: Well, we have this general session. All principals are present. There is no option. When they leave here they go into school level meetings, elementary, middle and high school, and they begin the drill down process beyond what they were exposed to at this point in time. That process means looking at individual schools, looking at individual classrooms, looking at individual students by way of the item analysis. We try and model here what we expect principals to do when they get back to their school with their staffs.

Smith: Now when you get these quarterly results, what do you, as the superintendent, get out of this? What does it tell you, and then what do you do on the basis of these tests?

Pughsley: I'm looking at the big picture. I want to see where the soft spots are; where are our weaknesses. I'm looking and concerned about strengths as well, but I want to see where those soft spots are and I want to have an idea of what our administrative team is going to do in relation to those soft spots. Before the presentation is made here it's also made at our PMOC, the Project Management Oversight Group, and that is the executive part of our administrative team.

Smith: Give me a couple of examples of weak spots. What did you see at the last quarter and what did you do about it?

Pughsley: Well keep in mind, for me, as a superintendent I'm looking at the big picture thing. Did we have soft spots as it relates to reading? Taking that a little further, what is that soft spot related to? There is some item analysis, but that'll come from Susan [Agruso] and other members of that group. But I'm wanting to see where those big soft spots are and then I'm making the determination with them of what kind of resources do we need, what kind of action do we need so that we address those soft spots so that, in fact, we are hitting the targets as I indicated at the end of the year that we set out to hit by way of our balanced score card.

Smith: So the soft spots might indicate which particular school is suddenly getting into trouble?

Pughsley: That's right – if a school is starting to fall behind, if there is a particular subject matter, if there is a particular objective that seems to be a pattern across the entire district, the question becomes: how do we regroup to address that?

Smith: Eighth grade algebra has been a big one over the years, hasn't it?

Pughsley: Well, algebra, yes, but we do a lot in the way of accelerating our students in that particular area. But we're very much interested in that and we do track it because while we may be accelerating students into eighth grade algebra – and that's high school prep – we want to make sure those kids are on track, and if not, then we need to do some regrouping. Even though they take eighth grade algebra, they also have to take the eighth grade math test. So we need to make sure that all of that is in sync in terms of the concepts and skills that are being taught.

Smith: Where does the data go from here? You've got it here at the district level. Tell me a little about the other levels.

Pughsley: As I indicated, we expect our principals to model what we do here. So they will be looking at their own specific information as they go into this next session. They will then take that information, they already have it actually, but the expectation is that they will then take that information and this process back to their individual schools where they will meet with grade level chairs, department chairs, whatever the case may be, and model what we have done here and actually get down to the point that they can tell you by name which students are not on track.

Smith: Now for you, as a manager running this whole system, how important is this meeting?

Pughsley: Well, this meeting is what we do; this meeting relates directly to our core business. This meeting is about student achievement and how do we get there, not for some kids but for all kids. This is the most important thing that we do.

Smith: At this management meeting you had this morning what are you listening for? What are you looking for?

Pughsley: Well, we have charters for each of the areas that are under review. And we have certain deliverables that are due at certain dates. I want to know process-wise are we on time? And then my question is: so what? We have done the process kind of things that the charter indicates we should do – what are the results of it? Has there been any change in behavior? Has there been any change at the school level, at the classroom level?

Smith: So what you're doing here is you're looking at the activities of the central office as they work with the schools.

Pughsley: Yes, that's the important piece. Schools should not be taking directions from multiple departments. That should come as team. It should be well coordinated and the principal, teachers, the other instructional people we have in the school should understand that there is appropriate follow-through.

Smith: You had principals in the meeting you were talking to. What are you looking for when you're listening to principals?

Pughsley: Well, obviously they are on the receiving end of the services from central office. We want to know what their satisfaction level is, what is their reaction to the kinds of services that we provide, the resources that they need. Did they get them or not? Has it made a difference, and as we heard this morning, it made a difference for two schools that are in that tier one – tier one being the schools that are really challenged.

Smith: Yellow zone.

Pughsley: That's it.

Smith: This whole thing seems enormously data driven and you guys are bananas about numbers.

Pughsley: Yes we are, but when we see the results of it, then we are encouraged by it.

Smith: Well why are the numbers so important?

Pughsley: You have to have a means of telling whether or not you are on schedule, whether or not you are on target. We do not want to assume that we are going to hit the target in May. We want to have some reasonable assurance that, in fact, we are going to hit it in May.

Smith: You mean the end of the year exams?

Pughsley: That's right.

Smith: So you're looking for benchmarks all the way. You're watching every single school, every grade, and every subject.

Pughsley: That is correct, and not every school to the same degree. Based on need, we're looking at different schools or sets of schools in different ways.

Smith: So when you see those schools in the yellow zone, what do you do here at the central office? Do you throw more resources at them? Are you sending more teams out?

Pughsley: There's a review like the one that took place this morning. But there is another review level that is the “rapid support'. We term it “rapid support” because we want immediate action to whatever concerns are raised. They are charged with making decisions, breaking through the bureaucracy and getting to the schools what they need to have an impact this year, not next year.

Smith: You've got these schools in the yellow zone. They've been flagged for having trouble, so you're going to send out teaching coaches?

Pughsley: Whatever is needed.

Smith: What kinds of things?

Pughsley: If we have a set of new teachers or lateral entry teachers – these are people who don't have education degrees but have degrees in their subject area – if they are having difficulties with classroom mastery, then we'll send people there to help them with that. If it's a… special ed. kind of situation then we'll put proper resources in there. Prior to our rapid response approach, central office would send somebody out to touch base with the principal. It may have lasted 30 minutes or half day. When we respond now, we'll put people in the building for two or three weeks until the matter is resolved.

Smith: What I get out of this, repeatedly at different levels, is this notion that schools that are in trouble need more help, need more resources, need more skills poured into them.

Pughsley: Yes, and in fact we pride ourselves on the fact that we allocate resources on a differentiated basis based on a formula not based purely on the number of kids you have, but the needs of those kids. That determines the level of resources that we'll allocate. And as we progress through the year, we're looking at quarterly information and other information we gather by way of school visits and so forth, and if we need to pump it up a bit we can. It depends on the situation. But our focus is on responding, and responding in a rapid fashion.

Smith: Talk to me about what you've been doing over the last three years for Spaugh Middle School.

Pughsley: Well, you have to understand that just two and a half years ago Spaugh was a magnet school for math and science, and had a very diverse, integrated population. Since the court decision, that school has re-segregated. Now it has a high concentration of students from a low socio-economic background, and it is a Title One school.

Smith: Big federal aid?

Pughsley: Big federal aid by way of Title One, and resources that we allocate, too, because it's one of our A+ schools. A+ schools are those schools that have high concentration of free and reduced lunch students.

Smith: So they get more resources?

Pughsley: They get more resources, absolutely. Not only from the federal level, but from the local level as well. There is a new administration in that school. The individual in charge has a high energy level, high expectations, a good instructional focus and background by way of his experience.

Smith: Are you talking about Jerry Brown?

Pughsley: I'm talking about Jerry Brown the principal, absolutely. He has done some things I think are innovative. For example, he's used “pay for performance” in that particular school. He has done some things that caused the teachers to be much more focused and on task as it relates to instruction. He has expectations in place that relate to student behavior and learning. It's the only middle school in the district where the kids wear uniforms. It's a different school, but a school that's on the move in a positive way.

Smith: So you're saying he's innovative in terms of strategy?

Pughsley: Yeah, he's innovative in terms of strategy and we are now beginning to see the results of his efforts. We expect that at the end of this year his student achievement and so on is going to be very different than last year.

Smith: Talk, for a moment, about the court decision. Charlotte has been either blessed, bedeviled, or both by court decisions for a very long time. To what extent do these court cases interfere with what you are trying to do in terms of lifting student achievement?

Pughsley: Well, it has been a challenge. When you go back to the early '70s, there's one decision, then a more recent decision two and a half years ago that said we can no longer assign students on the basis of race. And that has caused some of our schools to re-segregate. When we were preparing for the court case we made a very deliberate decision. Our business is not about court cases and what results from them. Yes, they do impact us, but our business has to do with instruction, it has do with student achievement. So that is our focus and we have been able to maintain that by way of a balanced scorecard that keeps us focused. From that we have an aligned management system that really holds all of that together.

Smith: So you're kind of like a ship on course, never mind what the weather is, how bad the waves are, you're headed in one direction.

Pughsley: That's right. We know what our destination is; we think we know how best to get there and that's where we're headed.

Smith: I know North Carolina was one of the early states to go into the standards movement. North Carolina was kind of there before Congress got there, but has No Child Left Behind had an impact on what you are doing, either helpful or harmful?

Pughsley: Sure, let me say this first of all in relation to No Child Left Behind, I agree with the concept of No Child Left Behind. I do have some problems with the mechanics, like the “F's” and targets and some other kind of things as well. Has it had an impact here? Yes. It's had an impact here that's been both good and bad. But we have not had as much difficulty as some other states simply because we had the concept in place before the federals did. Prior to No Child Left Behind we were disaggregating data by different groups. We had a very targeted accountability system – commonly referred to as our ABC system – from the state, before the federals had it.

Are there differences? Yes. Ours is a growth model. The federal has an absolute target model. So we have done some fashioning to try and make one complement the other. No Child Left Behind still has some work that needs to be done on it. But I think it helps to keep people focused.

Smith: What is the up side and what is the down side?

Pughsley: Well the down side is that you may have a school that, in fact, is progressing, but under No Child Left Behind if they don't hit that absolute target they're identified as school of low progress or low implement. If they are progressing, and they are showing adequate progress, there should be some positive recognition for that. That's the down side of No Child Left Behind.

Smith: Is Spaugh that kind of a school?

Pughsley: Yes, Spaugh is that kind of school. But Spaugh is going to be okay.

Smith: So Spaugh, to a certain extent, is showing good progress in a variety of areas.

Pughsley: Spaugh is going to be okay.

Smith: Does it hurt a school that's making headway to have a federal label that says you are failing?

Pughsley: It hurts the school because it's branded. Parents see that and they select to go someplace else.

Smith: So the parents can pull out if they miss that federal standard?

Pughsley: The parents can pull out, and that's part of No Child Left Behind as well.

Smith: And that's disruptive?

Pughsley: Well, it's disruptive but we have changed some of the mechanics of how we do our student assignment, so now we have minimized the destabilization of schools. We have a better situation, but still I'd like to see some changes in the mechanics in No Child Left Behind. But I'm still very supportive of the concept itself.

Smith: I want to bring you back to this meeting. One of the things that I heard in the middle school presentation was that three years in a row you are having problems. Kids are having trouble getting inference connection, main ideas, interpreting their reading. That's a big issue. What do you do about that?

Pughsley: Well, first of all you have to discover, by analysis, what is holding us back in that particular area. And that's why we have the drill down exercise. As you witnessed, it's a drill down of every item that a large percentage of students are consistently missing.

This means we have to go back and take a look at our curriculum instruction, take a look at how our quarterly sessions are structured, so we can do a better job of instruction in the classroom. And in that situation, it's not the result of poor classroom performance on the part of the teacher. It's the structure; it's the curriculum. That is where the problem lies. But now we've got that, we can undo it and get it right. You'll see improvement as a result of that.

Smith: Are you worried at all about teaching to a test, or are you satisfied that the test are themselves sufficiently sophisticated – that they're really checking something more than just the right answers?

Pughsley: Well I think you have to understand that when I talk about quarterlies in CMS, we're talking about a diagnostic tool and we're talking about criterion referenced. We're talking about teaching a state prescribed curriculum and this helps us to stay focused and on track.

We're teaching the curriculum, so the concern that I hear a great deal has to do with creativity being minimized. Well I know teachers in this district, quite a few of them, who are very creative in presenting the subject matter as related to our state course of study. So I don't buy into that. If you allow yourself to get into that frame of thinking, it becomes quicksand. The more you struggle with it, the more it pulls you down. But the quarterlies are diagnostic. It's the same thing that you would expect when you go to your doctor. You want your doctor to find out specifically what it is that's wrong with you, and then address that.

Smith: When you do quarterly tests every nine weeks, you construct the questions right here in Charlotte.

Pughsley: That's right.

Smith: Are you constructing your tests so they test kids' thinking and not just their ability to get the right answer?

Pughsley: Yes, but probably not to a degree that we would like. But that's going to be addressed in the future. I know that's going to be the case because there's discussion across the state that there needs to be more rigor in our ABC program itself. And I think it's part of the analysis that will be made in the state that will become a consideration and, in fact, be more reflective in what we do at the local level.

Smith: One of the things that impressed me is a set of charts that were right down the hall. All these different colored lines are going in the direction you'd like to see them. And they're all getting closer together. I'd just like to hear your take on what you see in those charts in terms of the record here in Charlotte.

Pughsley: As you say they're all moving in the right direction. We have those lines moving for each of the different ethnic groups in addition to free and reduced lunch students. They are coming more together, closing the gap, if you will. That's what we want to see.

Smith: Closing the gap between the different economic groups and the minorities?

Pughsley: Achievement wise, absolutely. What we are about now is to continue that pattern but more, so to accelerate the closing. That's what we're really focused on. I have expressed publicly many times that it's hard for us to truly close the gap. There are two things that we have to have in place. We need greater parental involvement in the educational progress, be it at home or be it at school. No longer can we operate alone in the public schools and expect to achieve the goals that we have set for ourselves. In addition, we have to have quality teachers in each and every one of our schools, no matter where that school is located in this county. We can't just have a few quality teachers. We need a critical mass of quality teachers, and we are trying to make that happen now.

I'll add one additional thing. We also have got to address some of the mechanics of our student assignment program. I have said that publicly. I believe that that's the case. Those three things. When we get those moving as I think they need to be, then we in fact will close the gap.

Smith: Do you have a big teacher turnover problem?

Pughsley: We have a big teacher turnover problem. When I say big I'm talking 22% based on the criteria of the state. We realize that that was a real problem for us, not only in terms of having quality teachers before our students, but it is a big problem for us in terms of what it was costing us in dollars.

We said, “Let's do something about it.” What we did was to change our model. We have now gone to a case manager kind of situation. A case manager approach causes compensation people and the people who are actually doing the interviewing and all those kinds of things in the HR, to operate now as a team and not in silos in HR.

We have since reduced the turnover rate to about 16%. Now, that's not fast enough for me, but moving from 22 to 16 is pretty good considering the size of our district. Now where I'd like to be is about ten or 11 % – so we continue to pursue that.

One other thing we did was put in place what we refer to as our Department of Instructional Excellence. What we have are full time mentors that work out of there, and we have content coaches that work out there. We have our Teacher Academy that is part of that operation. We have put in place a boot camp, if you will. Lateral entry people that come to us have to spend two weeks in this boot camp before they go into a classroom. So we're doing a number of different things on different fronts so that we can recruit and retain quality teachers in our schools.

Smith: In terms of showing continuing student growth and narrowing the achievement gap, how important is continuity? How important is it that Eric Smith and you together have had almost a decade?

Pughsley: That's very important. When you constantly have a churning at the superintendency level what you also have is a change in direction. That's not to say that this direction is better than that direction but you can't just be flip flopping all along the way. One of the questions that came up when there was a changing of the guard between Eric Smith and myself was, will the school district be able to sustain its continued growth, student achievement wise? Well I think we have demonstrated that, in fact, it has been sustained and we continue to move forward. The student assignment plan has now become a major consideration, but even with that, the last few years we continue to perform.

A changing of the guard, as it relates to the superintendency, brings the possibility that the system itself will be redirected. And that same kind of thing can occur with regards to the board itself. If you have a board, in my case nine members, and there is significant change in terms of the number of people or the philosophy, it can have a churning effect as well.

Smith: Has the board here in Charlotte essentially stuck with the program?

Pughsley: At this point in time I'd have to say definitely so, and that accounts, in part, for the progress that we have been able to continue to demonstrate. So yes, they have stuck, but every board wants to see its fingerprints on what's taken place, that's human nature. Every superintendent wants the same kind of thing. So that's an important consideration as it relates to stability. But if you have programs and services that have proven to be effective, and you move to institutionalize those by way of policy and practice, then there's a better chance of those things staying in place.

Smith: And you think that's what you have been able to do?

Pughsley: For two and a half years, yes.

Smith: Now you have had these changes in the board and what you are really saying is that there is turmoil at the board level. That means there's going to be turmoil at the superintendent level, and if there's turmoil at the superintendent level, in the end it's going to get all the way down to students.

Pughsley: It ripples in throughout the entire system, no doubt about it. That's leadership. And if leadership is making significant change and determining direction, when that leadership changes it ripples throughout the entire system.

Smith: So flip-flopping at the top is going to cause trouble for the kids at the bottom?

Pughsley: Yes. Let me share a real example. When I met with the principals earlier this week I indicated to them that there are a lot of things that are taking place as it relates to the student assignment, as it relates to concern about safety and so forth. But where I wanted their focus to be on what's taking place in their building as it relates to instruction and student achievement.

Now if they can maintain that, we'll continue to show progress, but if things start to happen, be it the superintendency, be it the board, whatever the case may be, if it's significant in terms of its impact then, yes, you can't keep it away from the students. But there is more stability at the school level than anything above that.

Smith: How do you explain the continuity in Charlotte? Is it business leadership? Is there community leadership? Is there a public consensus on the urgent need to upgrade schools? What is it that accounts for this coherence here in Charlotte?

Pughsley: Well it's unique, and you have obviously gotten the feeling for that. I've had the opportunity to work at three or four other districts. This district is very much interested in its public schools. We have in the neighborhood of 1700 major business partnerships. We have in excess of 44,000 volunteers that come into our schools and help us each year. We have a tremendous focus on this district from the general public and that's a good thing. It causes me to run harder and faster. And sometimes I wish they would back off, but it's a good thing when you sit down and you analyze it. The public school system simply cannot make it alone today. When I was in school that was possible. Schools operated basically in a silo and everything was fine. That's not possible today. And I wouldn't want it that way.

Smith: Got to have the public support.

Pughsley: You've got to have the public support. When you're talking about the bond issues, when you are talking about your operating budget, when you are talking about volunteers, you've got to have it.

Smith: Also, you don't have a union problem here. You haven't had, for example, the kind of confrontation they had in San Diego with the unions, is that right?

Pughsley: Well, no, we haven't had that.

Smith: Do you have a union?

Pughsley: Well, we have two teacher groups, and I sit and talk with them, and they raise issues and concerns. I meet on a monthly basis with the superintendent's teacher advisory committee. We both place items on the agenda. I provide information and I raise issues. And they do likewise. Now we get along pretty good, but not always.

Smith: But you have been able to do this by constant communication and compromise?

Pughsley: Yes, that's the only way you can get where you need to go. There is a common interest and that is the students. That's the common denominator. They want ultimately, what I want, what the school district wants, what the board wants, what this community wants. Now we may not agree on how best to get there. But we know what the destination is.

Smith: Does business practice infuse what you are doing?

Pughsley: Well, by design. We were fortunate early on because we had a partnership with what was then First Union bank. It is now Wachovia. And we didn't quite know how to get our arms wrapped around this thing so that we could manage it properly towards the goals that we had set. They made one of their top people available to us. We had some discussions. We came up with our allied management system, our balanced score card, our management approach which you witnessed this morning. We not only wanted to get our arms wrapped around it, but in doing so we wanted to change the culture of the district, change it in terms of behavior, change it in terms of the language, change it in terms of the focus. One of the outcomes was the team that you witnessed this morning.

We had people operating in silos. Supposedly we all have common objectives as it relates to student achievement, but in operating in those silos we were not all headed in the same direction. It was necessary that we head in the same direction, be able to communicate with each other and in fact be consistent in what we were doing. We weren't trying to clone people or cause people to lose their identity, but we wanted to let people know that they're here for one purpose: student achievement.

Smith: What are these charts here?

Pughsley: Well let me start you here. Sponsors are the only people that can sponsor an activity or have a chart. These individuals have the authority to give a green light to a charter, along with myself. A charter would be a major initiative for the district. We sometimes refer to them as our big rocks. That's a major initiative. We figure if we take care of the big rocks then all the other little things will fall into place.

You can see being a sponsor is color-coded. To the left there you see the name of the project itself. Then you'll see the process manager and the project manager. Those are the people that are responsible for the actual carrying out of the initiative itself.

Smith: No confusion after it's color-coded.

Pughsley: We know who is accountable for what. No confusion whatsoever. And I would also point out that it's not as evident here. We have what we call service integration teams. In other words, there are individuals for these charters that come from different departments. They are expected to be able to sit down together and do the necessary planning and they become accountable. And depending on the charter itself, the individuals that are selected for the service integration team are the ones that in some way have some involvement, some responsibility. And you can see we chart it by year and we chart it by month, and everything that's here relates to one of the overall goals of the district itself. Student achievement is always the focus, it's always number one. Everything else that we do is in support of it.

We have even carried that to the budget itself. If you were to take one of our budget documents and take a look at it, you'd see everything that's in the budget is aligned with our balanced scorecard. You would also see that we have a process that we refer to as our “sunset clause”. That means that every program comes up for review every three years. If it's adding value to the system then we take it and maintain it or expand. If it's not adding value we reduce it or eliminate it. We redirect those monies to something else in the way of an existing initiative or a new one.

Smith: This is very much business oriented practice.

Pughsley: Very much.


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