The contrast between Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' glowing national image and the controversy that surrounds it at home is a source of much discussion.
I suspect those of us in the thick of things do tend to fixate on problems. Up close, bumps in the road can look like mountains.
But if problems get exaggerated locally, I've also seen success exaggerated nationally. Most recent case in point: The Edutopia package on Cochrane's "turnaround" that's been widely circulated. I first saw it on the ASCD Smartbrief, a national roundup of education reporting, early this month. CMS officials played the video portion at the conclusion of a Dec. 13 report on schools in transition.
My first reaction was confusion. Cochrane, an east Charlotte middle school that's starting to add high school grades this year, hasn't been on my "success story" radar. Had I missed something?
A look at my data sheets said no. Cochrane ended 2011 with a composite pass rate of 58 percent on state exams. Of 35 CMS middle schools, only four scored lower -- and two of those, Spaugh and Williams, closed this year. More telling, only two middle schools earned a lower growth rating, a measure designed to make sure schools are judged on how much their students gain, not just how well prepared they are when they arrive.
So why is one of the district's weakest middle schools being highlighted as a school that "beats the odds every day"? David Markus, Edutopia's editorial director and the writer of the main article, hasn't responded to my message asking who suggested the story. In another part of the package, an endnote thanks The Broad Foundation for sharing research about top urban districts.
The package focuses mostly on Cochrane's significant gains in pass rates from 2008 to 2011. What's not mentioned is that the same can be said for most struggling schools in North Carolina, thanks to a change in testing that took effect in 2009. In 2008, students took the test once. Starting in 2009, those who fell below the "passing" line were required to try again, and be counted as passing if they met the mark on the second test. Generally, the more failing students a school had, the bigger the "retest" bump it showed. As CMS superintendent, Peter Gorman frequently blasted the retesting system as giving schools an artificial inflation in pass rates.
Gorman, who left CMS in June to work with education technology for Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., is featured in a dramatic opening to Markus' story. It describes Gorman visiting Cochrane in 2006, the year he started as superintendent: "Known for his no-nonsense determination to turn around the district's failing schools, Gorman minces no words in describing Cochrane: 'This may be the worst school I have ever seen.' " Gorman is later quoted as saying, five years later, "There was no instructional focus. It was the most disheartening school visit of my career."
Terry Brown, Cochrane's principal in 2006-07, called me after reading the first version of this post. While I had noted that Gorman certainly wasn't saying such things publicly at that time, and that administrators tend to give their most vivid "bad schools" accounts in hindsight, Brown, who retired in 2007, says this goes beyond dramatic reconstruction.
"Gorman never visited Cochrane the first year he was there. Not one time," Brown said. "He was scheduled and canceled. I'm appalled. None of this is true."
Bottom line: Edutopia, a publication of the George Lucas Educational Foundation, is dedicated to highlighting academic solutions that include technology, teacher development and "comprehensive assessment." CMS is well known for those approaches, and Cochrane, as noted prominently in the story, is working with Texas Instruments to use technology in math instruction. One sign that it's helping, from my spreadsheets: CMS reported that last year only 49 percent of Cochrane sixth-graders were proficient on math exams, while 65 percent of eighth-graders were. One troubling signal: That's down from 75 percent of Cochrane eighth-graders proficient in math the previous year.
I don't want to detract from the hard work and high aspirations of the faculty and students at Cochrane. I'd love to write their turnaround story sometime down the road, when I see solid evidence that it's justified. All this is just to say that improving education is complicated business, and it's wise to scrutinize naysayers and cheerleaders alike.