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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' Broad Foundation award not so pretty on the inside



The Broad Foundation rewarded Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools last week for doing some things very well — things many other American public school systems struggle with, such as improving student performance in some of the neediest areas. And for a day or so, everyone was all smiles. You'd never have guessed that the very mention of the Broad Foundation makes some parents and other CMS-watchers' skin crawl, while others have mixed feelings at best.

A number of CMS parents and teachers believe the Broad Foundation, and the way CMS' successes were achieved, have had an equally negative effect on the schools, especially in terms of teacher morale and public trust — two things no successful school system can do without for very long.

That ongoing undercurrent of dissatisfaction with CMS and the Broad Foundation was hard to detect last week, as the whoops, high-fives and rowdy cheers coming from CMS HQ spilled into the city's newsrooms. And unless you went far into Ann Helms' story in The Charlotte Observer, you wouldn't know that the Broad organization is very controversial, nor that the foundation has enormous influence over CMS' operations, staffing and guiding philosophy. That influence is deep and wide enough that one cynic I know described the CMS award from Broad as being "like a trainer giving her dog a biscuit."

CMS, which receives training for administrators (and $3.3 million) from the Broad Foundation, has made some improvements that deserve recognition. As the Broad folks spelled out, the school system has shown good results in narrowing the gap in reading and math scores between black and Latino students and their white classmates. Broad also lauded CMS for providing extra money and staff for struggling schools and using recruitment bonuses to move high-quality teachers and principals into those schools; having the highest African-American participation in the SATs of all the urban districts considered; and making progress in the number of low-income students scoring above grade level in middle and high school math and reading.

Those are no mean feats; school systems nationwide are struggling with those same problems with limited success. Making those improvements is a feather in CMS' cap, even though no one is saying that work on those issues is close to being over.

The problems with the award, and with Broad itself, show up when you look at how those results were achieved: via strategies that are pushed — and rewarded — as part of the Broad Foundation's top-down, data-driven, corporate-model methods. Broad praised CMS, for instance, for its "strong use of data" and for initiating a performance pay program for teachers. Anyone paying attention to ground-level reality in Charlotte schools can tell you that "strong use of data" is widely seen by parents and teachers as "way too much testing." Complaints have been heard for years that government-mandated testing of students has led to teachers "teaching to the test." Piling on additional school system-generated tests, which the Broad Foundation promotes and even trains school administrators to do, has met with strong opposition from many parents and teachers, who essentially say enough is enough.

Opposition to the Broad Foundation's methods is widespread in the academic community nationwide, and is reflected in the growth of Parents Across America, a nonprofit group organized by activist parents. PAA opposes Broad's top-down philosophy, saying it denigrates the value of teachers and parents and is simply too authoritarian and bureaucratic. A Charlotte chapter of PAA was started by educator/author Pamela Grundy, one of the city's strongest school advocates. On the PAA website, she expresses mixed feelings about the Broad prize. Grundy says she hopes the prize "encourages greater support for those policies that have genuinely worked, not just in theory but in practice," but she also hopes it doesn't encourage CMS and Charlotte "to steamroll a flawed agenda over parents, teachers and children."

A big part of the "flawed agenda" Grundy and other Broad doubters criticize is the teacher performance pay plan, promoted relentlessly by former CMS Superintendent Peter Gorman, whom Broad essentially trained to be a superintendent. That plan, cited by Broad in its award presentation, has been a very serious sore point for many CMS supporters, and has led to more alienation among teachers and parents — and accusations of CMS tone-deafness — than was imaginable before Gorman became CMS superintendent.

The peformance pay plan links teacher pay to student achievement. Like many ideas, it sounds good at first, but its promise fades upon closer examination. For instance, CMS spent $300,000 a year — roughly equal to six teacher salaries — for administrators to oversee the performance pay plan. And that's on top of the $300,000-per-year cost of administering 52 — 52! — new tests. The kicker, though, is a scientific study of public schools that Vanderbilt University did in Nashville. It found that after three years, there was no significant difference in student performance.

The last straw for many CMS teachers, however, came when Gorman made the fatally stupid mistake of going behind the teachers' backs to the N.C. legislature. He wanted lawmakers to change state law, so that teachers would not need to approve the performance pay plan before it could be implemented. To say that teachers felt betrayed would be a gross understatement. And to report that teachers and parents are uniformly happy about the way CMS went about winning its big award last week would be a lie.

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