I got an email today from David Markus, the writer of the Edutopia package on Cochrane's "turnaround" that I wrote about yesterday.
I had re-messaged Markus, the publication's editorial director, to let him know former Cochrane Principal Terry Brown was challenging his account of then-Superintendent Peter Gorman visiting the east Charlotte middle school in 2006 and proclaiming, "This may be the worst school I have ever seen." Brown, who ended a three-year stint as Cochrane's principal at the end of the 2006-07 school year, says Gorman never visited the school while he was there. Brown said he and Gorman had several conversations during the year that the two of them shared in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, and Gorman never gave him any indication that he held such dim views of Cochrane's academic performance.
Markus stands by his reporting: "In an email to me on November 2nd, Pete Gorman corroborated the 'worst' school quote and added that his visit to Cochrane was the most disheartening school visit of his career." No word from Gorman; I haven't been able to reach him since he announced his resignation in June.
I still don't know who pitched the Cochrane turnaround story, which has gotten national and local attention, or whether Markus realized that part of the proficiency gains he cited came from a change in N.C. testing rules that bumped up most low-scoring schools. But on the general topic, Markus said:
"We believe it is a 'turnaround' for the statistics we cite. As a student of school turnarounds I am sure you know that when a school has fallen as low as Cochrane had, it will take several years to dig out. Cochrane is well on its way after only a few, but as we make plain in our package, their rise to excellence is not nearly complete. Nor is it guaranteed. That said I am very impressed with (Principal) Josh Bishop's team and the results they are achieving."
We're certainly in agreement that turnarounds are complex and slow. This got me curious enough to do my own walk down memory lane ... actually, the N.C. school report cards. Here's what the numbers show, with some context.
At the end of 2006-07, the year Gorman may or may not have proclaimed Cochrane the worst, 67 percent of its students passed the reading exam and 37 percent passed math. The school fell short of the state target for growth, generally described as an average of one year's academic gain per student.
In 2007-08, after Brown's retirement, Valarie Williams was hired to lead Cochrane. State officials also introduced an eighth-grade science exam, and bumped up the number of correct answers needed to pass the reading test. Most educators agreed the old cut-off was too low, but the change brought a plunge in pass rates across the state, especially for minority and low-income students and the schools (such as Cochrane) that served them. In 2008, Cochrane's pass rates were 32 percent in reading, 34 percent in math and 14 percent in science. Cochrane again failed to make the growth target.
In 2008-09, North Carolina started requiring students who failed state exams to try again, boosting pass rates across the state. That year Cochrane hit 47 percent in reading, 54 percent in math and 35 percent in science, and it met the "expected growth" target.
In February 2010, Gorman reassigned Williams to Vance High School as part of his "strategic staffing" plan to improve that school. Josh Bishop became interim principal (he got the permanent job at the start of 2010-11). That year ended with Cochrane at 52 percent passing reading, 67 percent passing math and 61 percent passing science. The school made "high growth."
Last year Cochrane held steady at 52 percent passing reading, declined to 59 percent passing math and rose to 63 percent passing science, with an "expected growth" rating. It was a year when many CMS schools saw some slump in scores.
The gains in math and science are impressive, even with the retesting boost. Still, it's worth noting that Cochrane continues to hover around 50 percent proficiency on reading. In 2011, only 43 percent of students passed both reading and math exams, a mark that signals readiness to move on to the tougher high school courses. And the black, Hispanic and low-income students who make up the majority of Cochrane's students had pass rates about 10 percentage points lower than the average for those same groups in CMS and statewide.