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Jan. 24, 2013

Building program seeks common ground 

Wake County’s next school construction program, regardless of size, is likely to follow a much different path from years past.

That much was apparent during the past week as local leaders began evaluating the importance of birth rates, tax rates, growth rates, unemployment trends, school locations and the effects of good old-fashioned politics.

If the leaders of the school system and county government can keep the debate on schedule, voters should know by June how much of a tax increase they will be asked to approve for new schools and renovations.

The formal discussions began simply enough with a joint meeting last week where staff members from the school system and the county presented two comprehensive overviews.

The school system report focused primarily on enrollment, building needs and past projects. The county overview looked at issues such as birth rates, employment trends, building permits and tax revenues.

At the heart of those presentations were two graphs that will clearly shape future needs.

One graph shows the falling number of births in the county since the recession of 2009.  This matters because the number of kids born today has always been a solid predictor of how many kindergartners show up five years later.

BirthRateChart

But the percentage of newborns showing up in public kindergarten classes decreased the past few years, as shown in the second graphic.

BirthEnrollmentRatios

The decline is a curious finding to school and county planners because the ratio or “market share” of students in traditional, charter, private and home schools remained virtually unchanged during that time. It appears more young families are simply leaving Wake County, although the county staff was unwilling to pinpoint that as the cause.

Regardless, it makes no sense to build schools for kids who aren’t coming. That means the day is gone – at least for now – when the county can build beyond projected needs and safely assume the classroom seats will fill quickly enough.

That already has elected officials talking about more frequent smaller bond requests to keep construction and growth in synch.

Before any decisions are made, however, the members of both boards will need to find common ground on some politically sensitive issues. That became apparent this week when county commissioners approved a 2013 legislative agenda that included a desire to own the sites that are purchased for new schools, provide construction money to charter schools and change the way school board members are elected.

A majority of the school board has already made it clear they oppose such changes, using terms like “bulldozer” and “inappropriate.”

The two boards have five joint meetings scheduled between now and June to decide on the details of a new bond. As the first meeting ended, County Manager David Cook made one of the more obvious predictions about the rest of the schedule.

“This was our easy meeting,” he told them.

 

Taking an accurate measure of quality teaching

A combination of test scores, classroom observations and student surveys can accurately predict how students will perform when assigned to specific teachers.

Released this month by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the findings are part of a three-year, $45 million project to identify fair and reliable ways to measure effective teaching practices.

Aside from the obvious practical value to students, the ability to predict a teacher’s effectiveness could be pivotal in other areas. In schools, for example, quality staff development relies on knowing what works. In board rooms, developing consensus about merit pay starts with using an evaluation system that people understand and trust.

Some of the key findings of the report include:

  • The results of student test scores should account for somewhere between 33 percent and 50 percent of a teacher’s overall evaluation. While past results are a good predictor of future scores, tests scores alone are not a reliable indicator.
  • A well-designed survey of students about their perceptions of teachers is a reliable predictor of student learning. Put another way: Good relationships matter.
  • Including the perspectives of two or more observers in a classroom evaluation significantly enhances reliability. The report also suggests that short video observations by multiple observers can be a cost-effective way to increase reliability.
  • Administrators inside a school tend to rate teachers higher than observers from outside the school when using a fixed scale. Both when they are asked to rank teachers relative to one another, both insiders and outsiders reach similar conclusions. Having insiders and outsiders use both approaches provides the fullest picture.

 
The study relied on more than 3,000 teachers who volunteered in the schools of Charlotte, Dallas, Denver, Hillsborough County (FL), Memphis, and New York City.

It’s unclear how schools will choose to use the information from the study, but the authors clearly feel they achieved the project’s goal of figuring out how to accurately assess effective teaching methods. That information, including a video library of effective practices, is now being compiled and shared.

 

Wake bus system outdated, needs oversight

Busing problems that failed to deliver thousands of Wake County students on time – or at all – at the beginning of the current school year were caused by an outdated, decentralized system that has virtually no ability to communicate in real time.

That blunt assessment of Wake County’s school bus service was delivered to board members this week by Chief Business Officer David Neter.

In a methodical review of the system’s weaknesses, Neter started by telling board members that today’s bus system hasn’t changed much since 1985 when Wake County had 78 schools and 57,000 students. Today the district has 169 schools and 150,000 students.

But the bus system runs in much the same way with 15 separate transportation districts, no centralized routing system, no customer service functions and a career path where no formal training or college degrees are required.

To give an idea of how thin the system is, Neter offered a partial list of each district manager’s responsibilities. Each has a staff of two or three people and roughly 65 buses to track.

With that staff, the manager is expected to design bus runs, coordinate routes, audit the runs, make daily adjustments, handle parents requests, train drivers, manage drivers, respond to bus accidents, inspect buses, coordinate maintenance issues, compile data, handle payroll, conduct random drug tests, conduct monthly safety training meetings, coordinate special education students’ busing needs, attend special education planning meetings and drive routes when needed.

“But this is just a partial list,” Neter said.

The problems didn’t develop overnight and could take up to two years and $2.2 million to fix, he said. Many of his recommendations were consistent with independent reviews of the bus system dating back to 2006 that were never put in place due to budget constraints.

Former Superintendent Tony Tata and former Chief Operations Officer Don Haydon acknowledged before they were fired that they were too aggressive in pulling buses off the road this year to save money. Neter did not address those changes specifically except to say 2012-2013 was a “tipping point.”

To begin fixing the problems, he recommended the board immediately consider a centralized routing system, reduced duties for district managers, hiring customer service representatives for each district, adding a 16th transportation district, adding one more area manager and moving business functions such as payroll and data collection to the district’s business office.

In the meantime, most of the buses that were pulled from service have been returned to the street and the district is still working on hiring as many as 40 vacant driving positions. The board will begin to consider each of the longer-term recommendations in coming meetings.

 

Noteworthy

… More than 160 groups filed letters of intent this month with the NC Department of Public Instruction to operate public charter schools in 2014-2015. Thirteen of those schools are in Wake County. Groups have until March 1 to submit an actual charter proposal to the state. About half are expected to do so. More details about the proposals can be found in this News & Observer blog post.  The state is also expected to consider virtual charter school applications this year following the approval of new rules those schools must follow. The rules establish standards that virtual charter schools must meet such as percentage of students tested, turnover rates among students and  teacher-student ratios.

… A study of Georgia’s pre-kindergarten program by the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute in Chapel Hill suggests that students who attended the program fare better than their peers on most indicators, according to a recent article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Georgia offers pre-k to all children regardless of family income. Money for the program comes from state lottery proceeds.

 ... “And would you like Stars and Planets or Big Cats with that Happy Meal today?” You can answer that question if you order a Happy Meal in Britain where McDonald’s instantly became that nation’s largest book distributor this month. The company agreed to distribute 15 million books with each Happy Meal by the end of next year, according to British press reports. The campaign is backed by the UK’s National Literacy Trust.

 

 

 

 

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Wake Education Partnership is a 501(c)(3) non-profit created in 1983 to support public schools, in part by educating the community on current school issues and serving as a strong advocate for student achievement and world-class academic standards. Most of its financial support comes from individuals and local businesses. Please send comments or questions to Tim Simmons, VP of Communications, at tsimmons@wakeedpartnership.org or visit our website at www.wakeedpartnership.org.