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CMS board takes a hard look at goals and sacrifices

A student reading a book
Ann Doss Helms
A student reads in class at Mint Hill Elementary.

This article originally appeared in WFAE reporter Ann Doss Helms' weekly education newsletter. To get the latest school news in your inbox first, sign up for our email newsletters here.

Watching the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board wrestle with academic goals for the next five years was exhausting, painful … and fascinating.

The board has taken a public relations beating over the last couple of years. It identified the district’s biggest academic weaknesses and highlighted them month after month, airing data that show the district falling short of goals that some considered too modest in the first place.

Now they’re trying again, with a lot of new board members and top district staff. I knew they’d struggle to find the balance between achievability and ambition, and when I saw the draft they posted going into last week’s meeting I thought they’d thrown in the towel on ambition.

For instance: The current reading goal calls for half of Black and Hispanic third-graders to have “college and career ready” reading scores by the end of this school year. (Third-graders obviously are not ready for college or careers, but it’s a benchmark that indicates they’re on track for the kind of academic future that would get them there.)

The reading goal in the draft was for barely over half — 50.5% — of all students in grades 3-8 to hit that mark by 2029. Those totals would include white and Asian students who have already topped that goal, and would allow five more years to show such minimal progress. The board has already been accused of setting its sights too low, and this seemed like lowering the bar.

Prepare for tough choices

A lot of board members had the same reaction. It turns out the draft was a starting point for a tough discussion: The modest goals were a projection of where they’d get if the district more or less holds steady, striving for three to five percentage points of growth per year. Consultant A.J. Crabill told board members that if they want to go beyond that they need to increase resources proportionately. For instance, for every $100 spent to get a three-point annual gain, you need to spend $200 if you want six points. That struck me as simplistic — doubling spending is no guarantee of results — and Crabill acknowledged as much during the discussion. He wasn’t offering a scientific formula but a way to make a point: You can’t get bigger results by wishing for them.

He also made it clear that “resources” means moving people — reducing staff in lower-priority areas to get bigger gains where the community demands growth. For instance, he said, an infusion of literacy specialists in elementary schools might mean trimming high school faculty. And it means doing this in a system where the school board must rely on state, county and federal officials to provide their budget. “If you’re thinking there’s magical money coming in, let that dream die,” he said.

Crabill reminded the board of the difference between goals and vision: “Your vision is clear: You want 100% of your students to be literate, numerate, college and career ready, on grade level, period.” Goals, he said, have to be realistic targets for the next five years, with a strategy to make it happen.

“If your goals are so far out there that it is not possible to attain them … you will just humiliate and demoralize your staff. That actually isn’t helping you improve student outcomes,” Crabill said. “But if it’s so easy that you can get there without making any difficult changes, then we’re not really serving children.”

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Can they do it?

After much wrangling, the board tentatively agreed to goals that would intensify the focus on literacy skills and reading from pre-K to eighth grade and on Math I in middle and high schools. Plus they agreed to find a way of tracking what percentage of graduates are employed, enlisted or enrolled in higher education.

Bear in mind that they’re making these plans in a climate where state lawmakers don’t seem interested in big spending increases and where an influx of federal COVID-19 aid is about to dry up. So will the board and Superintendent Crystal Hill have the will to make real changes? And if so, what will be sacrificed?

Some of that should become clearer in the coming weeks, as the board approves goals and the staff starts budget planning for 2023-24. I’m not ready to bet my life savings on success. But I give the board credit for being serious about this. In a very long meeting, I heard members listening to each other, revising their stands and trying hard to reach consensus with kids in mind. That’s got to be a good sign.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.