Oct. 1, 2009

What was that number again?  

Political campaigns often rely on a few key numbers to deliver a basic message. But in the case of public education, a second look almost always provides a sharper picture.

That is certainly true in Wake County, where 11 candidates are running for four available seats and each one is hoping to attract voters’ attention with just the right figure. When voters want to know more, they are often left to fend for themselves.

The Partnership does not endorse candidates, but it does work to provide as much information as possible on school issues. In that regard, the following information is for those who are interested in a little more than one key figure.

Graduation rates: Grad rates are relatively easy to find for every school system in the state on the web site of the state Department of Public Instruction. But graduation rates are built on an assumption that all graduates have mastered their classroom lessons.

Adding just one more measure – the passing rate of students on state-mandated end-of-course (EOC) exams – provides insight into whether that assumption is true. The DPI site that provides those figures can be found here.

When large numbers of high school students are graduating even when they fail the end-of-course exams required by the state, it’s likely those students aren’t expected to meet very high classroom standards.

In poor and rural areas such as Bertie or Halifax counties, for example, graduation rates can run 20 to 30 percentage points higher than EOC passing rates. By comparison, the difference between EOC passing rates and graduation rates in systems such as Wake and Chapel Hill are typically less than six or seven percentage points.

It’s easy to compare graduation rates among school districts, but a single number doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story.

Cutting bureaucracy: Predictably, every candidate in a school board race embraces teachers and puts on their best steely-eyed look when talking about the cost of administrators. But it’s amazing how quickly the numbers get jumbled.

The most uniform numbers are again provided by the state. (Wake County’s can be found on page 291 of this document.) The numbers are always at least one year behind, but they are quite stable from year to year.

It shows Wake employed 16,566 people full-time in 2007-2008. More than 15,000 were teachers, teacher assistants, principals, assistant principals, librarians, guidance counselors or service workers such as cafeteria employees or bus drivers. That’s consistent with the superintendent’s 2009-2010 budget showing 5 percent of the system’s staff is located outside of schools.

That means hundreds of workers aren’t assigned to a school in Wake County. On the other hand, some level of central service is necessary in a $1.2 billion operation.  

Wake County cut teaching jobs due to budget cuts. But according to numbers released several times by the school system, the number of teaching positions in most schools was reduced by slightly less than 5 percent. About 8 percent of the system’s central services jobs were eliminated.

The changes have clearly left many classrooms shorthanded this year, but when it came to deciding whether to cut teachers or administrators, it appears school board members and the superintendent also prefer teachers.
Mind the gap: One of the most difficult issues to document accurately in North Carolina is the size of the achievement gap between groups over time. That is because the standard for what it means to be at grade level keeps going up.

Consider a track meet where two teams bring 10 people each to compete in the high jump. On the first attempt, nine jumpers clear the bar for Team A and seven jumpers clear the bar for Team B.

So the judges raise the bar – they increase the standard for passing – and seven jumpers clear the bar from Team A while six clear the mark for Team B. The gap between the two teams has closed. But does that mean the jumpers from Team A are somehow jumping lower?

No, it just means the bar is higher. Measuring achievement gaps is more complex, of course, but the same premise applies. It is possible to compare gaps over time, but the results don’t tell you whether a school system is gaining ground or losing ground on another district when the standards change.

Wake enrollment up; Charlotte’s down slightly

Wake County’s public schools, already the state’s largest school system, will further distance itself from Charlotte-Mecklenburg this year.

Wake reported its 20th-day enrollment this week at 139,599, an increase of 1,893 students compared to the same time last year. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, which reported its numbers last week, saw a decline of about 400 students.

According to a story in the Charlotte Observer, school officials there reported 133,664 through the first 20 days of class.

The 20th-day enrollment figure is the one most commonly used throughout the year and is closely tied to the final number of teachers a school hires for the year.



… A complaint alleging Wake Education Partnership tried to improperly influence school board elections in its Sept. 17 issue of In Context was filed last week by Joe Ciulla. The Partnership is a non-profit that does not endorse candidates and no endorsements were made or intended. The newsletter will continue to cover current school topics in an effort to provide a fuller understanding of education issues. Ciulla is on the steering committee of a group that has endorsed candidates. In a copy of the complaint sent to the media, he said he filed his complaint on his own behalf.

… The News & Observer summarized all school board candidate positions this week on the issues of diversity, school spending and year-round schools. Click here to see the candidate summaries of those issues and here to see a map of voting districts.

…Video of all four candidate forums co-sponsored by local area chambers of commerce and the Partnership can be found here at the web site of WRAL. The full debates, videotaped by the Partnership and posted by WRAL, are currently linked at the bottom of the description provided for each district. Additional video from the forums provided by NBC17 can be found on the Partnership’s web site by clicking here.

 …The Partnership concluded its 26th Annual Meeting today attended by roughly 450 business leaders, educators and elected officials at the McKimmon Center. The focus of this year’s Annual Meeting was establishing world-class education standards for all students in Wake County. The Partnership will continue working with community leaders this year on the issue, building on the report released in June describing what a world-class school system would like in a district such as Wake County’s.


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. Most of its financial support comes from local business. Send comments to Tim Simmons, VP Communications, at  tsimmons@wakeedpartnership.org