July 26, 2012
Timeline suggested for new school bond
The details of Wake County’s next school bond referendum will start taking shape next week with county commissioners formally joining the conversation next month, according to a draft timeline presented this week.
The timeline suggests a school bond referendum in May, but it does not offer details about the size of the request or how many new buildings and major renovations would be included.
Those details will be discussed by the district’s senior administrators next week and by the school board committee that handles facility issues on Aug. 7.
The overall scope of the next building program – and a decision on whether it will be approved in phases or as one unified project – will determine the size of the bond request. The final amount, in turn, will determine the size of any requested tax increase put before voters.
School leaders have said several times in the past year that it could cost $1 billion or more to meet expected enrollment growth and pay for major renovations. The last building program, approved by voters in 2006, required $970 million.
A typical building program lasts about four years, but the upcoming bond request was delayed due to the recession.
While enrollment slowed during the recession, the district still expanded by 3,000 to 4,000 new students each year – and it looks like the pace is picking up once again.
Projected enrollment for the start of the current school year is now more than 153,000 students. That would be an increase of at least 6,000 children from last year.
The district’s list of renovations and new school priorities is usually made without regard to the eventual size of the bond request. Instead, the district creates a list of needs that board members approve based on priority.
The list is then truncated based on the size of the bond request commissioners are willing to put before voters.
The final bond amount must be settled by December so the county can fill out the necessary paperwork to get the request before voters in May.
Finding a path to academic diversity
One of the most persistent questions facing the Wake County school board since three new members took office in December is whether student diversity within schools would become one of the district’s stated goals.
Part of that answer started to emerge this week when board members discussed whether to set aside seats in high-performing schools for students who are struggling academically.
Ironically, the board decided to delay any decisions on how the district might set aside seats until the 2013-2014 school year, saying anything they might approve now would be “too little, too late” to have much effect on this year’s enrollments.
But the opening statement of a document listing possible solutions drew quick support from key school board members. It reads:
“High concentrations of low-performing students in a single school have consequences for teacher recruitment and retention, resource allocation, and ultimately student achievement. If the concentration of students who are (or who are at risk of) not meeting standards is too high within a school, student achievement is likely to suffer in the absence of significant, sustained intervention. Managing that concentration across all schools in the district will help prevent any one school from getting into a situation where they cannot meet the needs of all of their students.”
“I love this statement at the top,” said Vice Chair Keith Sutton. “I think it accurately represents the belief of this system and this board.”
“I’m going to be dedicated to making sure … we incorporate some of these ideas moving forward,” added board member Susan Evans.
The statement is not a policy and does not commit the board to pursuing academic diversity. It is, however, the first written description of how diversity might be handled in the future.
But the possible solutions that followed the statement also illustrate the challenges. In one form or another, each solution ultimately uses student achievement – or predicted achievement – to determine seat availability.
That means the school system would be in the position of telling some parents there are seats available, but not for their child.
Delaying a decision on how to proceed until 2013-2014 could create more high-needs schools this fall. But rather than tackle that issue immediately, board members decided to focus on schools where they are sure additional support is needed.
That will buy them time as they try to decide the details of next year’s student assignment policies.
“We already know what schools need help now,” Sutton said. “We don’t need to be sitting here at the end of the year wondering what happened.”
Do all achievement gaps matter?
More Wake County students are considered academically proficient today compared to several years ago. That, of course, is good news.
And the proficiency gap, which historically finds low-income and minority students lagging behind middle-class children, has closed a bit. The progress is painfully slow, but the gap is decreasing.
But the progress is uneven at best when it comes to closing the gap in actual test scores and in many cases it has barely moved. A rising tide might lift all boats, but the type of kid found at the bottom of the academic rankings hasn’t changed much.
Moreover, the academic growth of middle-class and gifted students in Wake County is going up faster than the growth of low-income and minority students. This is despite the persistent belief that progress among low-income students comes at the expense of others.
Looking at gaps this way, as members of the school board’s Student Achievement Committee did last week, it’s apparent that there is nothing simple in the district’s straightforward declaration that “achievement gaps can and will be eliminated.”
Which gaps matter more? Is it possible to close some gaps without creating others? And at what point, if ever, is any gap acceptable?
These are the types of questions members of the Student Achievement Committee tried to dissect as part of a broader discussion about the draft of a new strategic plan. There is no easy answer because there is no single reason why such large gaps exist among students.
“There are many variables that affect performance,” Deputy Superintendent Cathy Moore told committee members. “We can’t know exactly what causes growth and dips.”
There is also growing interest in the idea that a sizeable portion of the difference occurs outside the classroom. From a recent column by the vice chairman of global banking at Citigroup to the conceptual foundation of a literacy program involving pediatricians, the research used suggests schools close gaps and family routines drive them apart.
So why spend so much effort on a vexing problem that might be impossible for schools to solve? That answer to that one is simple: Student achievement is improving.
Despite increasingly tougher standards, passing rates have held steady or improved since the 1990s for all groups of students. Racial achievement gaps of 30 to 40 percentage points, which were fairly common 15 years ago, are now rare.
It’s not that achievement gaps don’t matter. Student performance matters more.
… The NC Department of Public Instruction has chosen SAS to help measure student progress and the effectiveness of teachers, principals and schools. The state will use the SAS Education Value-Added Assessment System to measure student growth, one of several standards for evaluating many of the nearly 97,000 teachers and more than 5,300 school administrators in North Carolina. Student progress indicates how much students learned over the school year, regardless of where they started. SAS EVAAS for K-12 measures progress using all relevant test scores.
… Tempting as it might be to threaten kids who just don’t seem to get it, a new Duke University study suggests the best way to improve recall is through motivation. The findings, summarized in a News & Observer article, tend to split the difference when it comes to the question of how people learn best. Threats do work, according to the research. But when the goal is better recall, it turns out mom was right: Be nice.
… Here is one last item on recent studies that might be obvious to most math teachers, but is probably revealing to the rest of us. A study out of Carnegie Mellon looked at 16-year-old students taking algebra and concluded the strongest predictor of their performance was their mastery of fractions at age 10. The most likely deterrent to mastering fractions at age 10 was the lack of a “firm conceptual understanding of both fractions and division” by the teacher. Before you blame the teacher, answer this: Why is the invert and multiply algorithm a legitimate way to solve fractions division problems? This is grade school stuff in today’s classrooms.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our website at www.wakeedpartnership.org.