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A School District's Rise from Mediocrity

A North Carolina district, which was plagued with underperforming schools in the 1990s, revamped its leadership, instruction and culture to be a class act for the 21st century—and an example for other districts.
Conducting a science experiment, Tamica Stubbs (middle), a biology teacher in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) Schools, has been recognized as an effective teacher in the district that has undergone a major turnaround over the last decade.

Back in the 1990s, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) in Charlotte, N.C., were plagued with racial equity issues and low academic performance. In 1996, only 66 percent of the students met state reading standards and just 40 percent of the district's black students performed at grade level in reading and math.

That same year, the board of education and school administrators started to map out a turnaround plan to ensure that all CMS students would have the chance to receive an education that would prepare them for college or for success in the workforce.

"With persistence and a great deal of hard work from many people, we began to see our efforts pay off where it mattered most—in the academic achievement levels of our students," write Arthur Griffin Jr. and James Pughsley in "Pathways to High Performance: Turning Around Underperforming Public Schools," a white paper from McGraw-Hill Education released in late September.

Griffin is senior vice president of the Urban Advisory Resource at McGraw-Hill Education, and Pughsley is a consultant to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards in designing and developing the Accomplished Principal Certification program. Griffin also served on the CMS board of education from 1985 to 1997 and was the board's chairman from 1997 to 2002. Pughsley was the district's deputy superintendent from 1996 to 2002, and superintendent of schools from 2002 to 2005.

Their efforts in the late 1990s yielded success. The percentage of African-American fifth-graders reading at grade level rose 32 points between 1995 and 2001, from 48 to 70 percent, while the percentage of white fifth-graders reading to standard rose from 80 to 94 percent. As a result, the achievement gap closed by 18 percent.

Results for math scores were similar, and the improvements extended to grades 3 and 4 for math and reading.

CMS began to attract national attention for its accomplishments, including being named as a finalist for the Broad Prize for Urban Education, the nation's largest prize given to a single school district.

Griffin and Pughsley say they released the paper recently, based on work that was done more than 10 years ago, in part because of the crisis in public education today and in part because of the need for creative and innovative solutions to turning around schools given the $4.35 billion Race to the Top federal grants. "It's not a crisis of knowing what to do," Pughsley says. "We know what to do. It's about actually doing it. This paper proves that it can be done, it has been done, and it was done in a large district. ... You can have a successful school district."

The Changes

The white paper offers three groups of "fundamental imperatives" to reinvigorate the morale and achievement records of low-performing public schools:

  • Leadership imperatives, where board members, superintendents, principals and teachers have delineated roles yet work together toward a common goal;
  • Instructional imperatives, for which development of a well-executed instructional framework has the sole objective of improving student academic achievement; and
  • Environmental imperatives, which must create, promote and maintain a culture of excellence, and that include partnerships with the community, parents, local officials, and the state and federal governments, who set and oversee standards.

The instructional framework is based on proven practices and, the white paper states, if implemented by effective teachers will engage students, help them learn, and raise their scores. There are 21 sets of expectations clustered into four components: curriculum and instruction; processes, such as data-driven decisions for interventions; assessments and accountability; and enablers, such as professional development and classroom management techniques and respect for students.

When Pughsley arrived in 1996, he says the district operated under site-based management, in part meaning that each school had its own curriculum. "But in a system that is underperforming, there has to be some structure provided," he says. So the district started to use "managed instruction" as the curriculum, which was rigorous and based on solid pedagogy and aligned to state standards. The shift allowed for more focused professional development for the district's teachers and greater accountability. "It allowed us to develop pacing guides" so teachers knew what they were expected to accomplish and when to ensure they were moving through the aligned curriculum "for all the children and not just some of them," Pughsley says.

It also focused on differentiated instruction to cater to a wide variety of student learning styles and abilities. And the district created a formal process for intervention, not only so that struggling students could keep up, but also so that students making adequate progress could maintain what they had learned and exceptional students could take advantage of enrichment opportunities.

Other portions of the plan included pioneering the use of the Balanced Scorecard, which is based on Harvard Business School's management system and is used in various forms in other districts nationwide, including in the San Francisco Unified School District. It's designed to measure and monitor various indicators of success, such as student achievement and school climate and safety. In addition to test scores, the Balanced Scorecard can include data collected from parents, teachers and other staff members, students, building and district administrators, and members of the business community to help set benchmarks for beginning continuous improvement strategies within the schools.

The term "balanced" comes from the system's four educational adapted perspectives—financial, business operations and processes, customer and student focuses, and learning and growth results—and the insistence that all four be in balance. "The scorecard brings clarity of purpose, organizational discipline and capacity, the means to measure, monitor and manage continuous improvement, and the ability to stay the course in driving the reform process onward to fidelity despite setbacks and changes," the paper states.

The district also stresses rewarding exceptional teachers and principals. At CMS, the reward structure includes successful school teams—not just individuals—so that everyone in the school shares in the reward. And school team members include custodians and cafeteria workers in addition to the principal, teachers and teacher aides. "In this way, everyone at the school has "skin in the game" and works to ensure the school is the best it can be, the white paper states.

"In a turnaround situation, a clear vision and persistent execution on the part of leaders at every level—from the board to individual teachers in the classroom—is essential," Griffin says. "To have any chance of success, district leaders must give everyone in a leadership position permission to allow innovation and new ways of looking at student achievement, and must resist accepting the status quo," he adds.

Blending Business with Proof

Griffin and Pughsley say their plan is different from other turnaround plans in that it offers certain imperatives that, if executed at a high level, would reap rewards. Specifically, Pughsley says, the Balanced Scorecard allowed the district "to execute it [the plan] to fidelity." He calls the plan "a blending of business practices with proven practices in education."

"It's just a strategy and direction that yields some great positive results for students," Griffin says. "This is not a recipe, per se, for every district."

The culture in the district also changed so that parents expected excellence and expected their children to take AP classes. There was an expectation that tutoring would be available for students, there was transparency of student performance and of the performance of individual schools and the district, and there was a change in attitude of students toward school, Griffin adds.

The white paper concludes: "The funds from federal School Improvement Grants are now making their way to support the reform of America's most challenged schools. These funds will make a difference as long as there are people at all leadership levels in the districts receiving those funds who are willing to put aside their own needs, put the students first, and work collaboratively toward the overriding goal of making sure that all students receive the education they need to compete and succeed in today's global economy."