by Lindsay Wagner

Lisa* has dedicated her professional life to helping low-performing schools transform into buildings where students can succeed.

As she drove to one of those schools in rural North Carolina last week, Lisa described how she and her field-based colleagues who are employed by the Department of Public Instruction’s Educator Support Services division work together to help schools and districts develop strategies that will improve their students’ chances for success inside the classroom.

“We first do an intake meeting to look at a low-performing school’s improvement plan and any scores or related data,” said Lisa. “We then develop a theory of action together and train teachers and staff on how to use data to inform their instructional techniques.”

One of the most valuable aspects of this work, Lisa said, is how field teams are able to build relationships with teachers, administrators and staff at low-performing schools and districts over the course of a school year, making many on-site visits to develop personalized plans and offer individualized support based on their needs.

It’s a system of state support for low-performing schools that, over the years, has proven to be successful.

But Lisa, along with 28 of her field-based colleagues doing this intensive work, got pink slips earlier this month. Eleven similar positions that have been vacant were also eliminated.

These positions are going away because the General Assembly required $5.1 million in cuts to the state’s Department of Public Instruction this year, on top of enacting a $3.2 million reduction to DPI last year. These cuts were made despite the fact that North Carolina saw a $350 million budget surplus last year and predicts another $275 million surplus for the fiscal year that just began July 1.

“There are a lot of concerns that some of the leaders in the North Carolina General Assembly do not appear to be very interested in supporting our schools and districts,” said State Board of Education member Tricia Willoughby, who, along with the rest of the State Board and State Superintendent Mark Johnson, opposed these cuts. “There are many things that local school districts rely on the state education agency to provide, and now it’s questionable what is going to be provided for them going forward.”

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In various forms, this kind of work has been going on at North Carolina’s lowest-performing schools for well over a decade, steadily expanding over much of that time to reach hundreds of schools struggling to provide children with a sound basic education.

The direct support to low-performing schools came about in the wake of a Leandro court ruling during the mid-2000s, when Judge Howard Manning found that North Carolina’s lowest performing high schools were doing so badly they were committing “academic genocide” and must be fixed.

[Leandro is a long-running court case dating back to the late 1990s that holds that all children residing in North Carolina have a fundamental state constitutional right to the “opportunity to receive a sound basic education.”]

The basis for Judge Manning’s finding was rooted in the fact that back in 2004, only a third of North Carolina’s high schools were meeting Manning’s goal of every school having eight out of 10 students score at or above grade-level on end-of-course tests. And because the state constitution requires that it provide every child the opportunity to access a “sound basic education,” it was clear that North Carolina was falling well short of that obligation.

The state’s response was to begin providing direct support to some of the lowest performing high schools, those with proficiency rates under 50 percent. Seventeen high schools were initially included in the “High School Turnaround” initiative, which then grew to high schools under 60 percent proficient, and then was extended to their feeder middle schools.

A few years later, it became apparent a more robust and farther reaching model was needed. What was known as “High School Turnaround” expanded was led by a new division called “District and School Transformation (DST)” which, with the help of federal Race to the Top funding, included support for working not only with schools, but districts too. This initiative, called “Turning Around North Carolina’s Lowest Achieving Schools,” or TALAS,

sought to ensure that there was alignment between the two entities, with both districts and schools on the same page about different instructional approaches and how to hire the best and most talented leaders.

DST staff, which numbered around 70-75, worked directly with principals, teachers and administrators over years, not months, to turn around the state’s 118 lowest-achieving schools and school districts (the bottom 5 percent).

Dr. Gary Henry, a researcher at Vanderbilt University, studied the four year trajectory of these turnaround efforts. Calling North Carolina’s TALAS work “among the most ambitious in the nation”, he found it to have fast and significant positive effects on students, the likes of which he had not seen with other state efforts. Between 2009-10 and 2013-14, the vast majority of bottom-performing schools that received state support saw increased performance and many high schools saw large gains in graduation rates.

Jones County is an example of how the state’s district and school transformation efforts supported dramatic improvements in student achievement, said Dr. Pat Ashley, who led the DST division from 2006 to 2014.

“Jones Senior High School was one of the schools identified on Judge Manning’s original list back in 2006,” said Ashley. “Today it has one of the highest graduation rates in the state and has only been consistently improving over time, despite some principal turnover.” Ashley credits this progress to the district and the school being closely aligned on what it takes to make that school successful, especially when it comes to hiring strong leadership. That’s an outcome driven in part by state turnaround efforts.

Henry’s positive evaluation of TALAS came at a time when the General Assembly began pursuing another way to support low-performing schools: the controversial Innovative School District (ISD), which lawmakers enacted in 2015 and will allow a charter takeover of one elementary school in Robeson County this coming school year, with plans to expand to other schools in the works.

North Carolina has faced considerable pushback as the ISD has struggled to get off the ground, and among the factors contributing to the controversy is the fact that research analyzing similar efforts in other states has not been promising. Nonetheless, the General Assembly has chosen to invest in this route instead of shoring up district and school transformation efforts that have a clear track record of success.

In addition to his TALAS evaluation, Vanderbilt’s Henry also studied the “ISD” approach in Tennessee and told North Carolina lawmakers back in 2016 that the program didn’t see much in the way of results.

“Our conclusion is that the schools in the ASD [a program similar in scope and operation to North Carolina’s ISD] are doing about the same as the schools that weren’t taken into any systemic reform,” Henry told lawmakers.

When Henry released his initial positive findings about the TALAS initiative, he also cautioned that the initial improvements he saw for low-performing schools likely could not be sustained if the division of District and School Transformation was not shored up by the state as federal Race to the Top (RTTT) dollars dried up.

Henry’s concern became reality as budget cuts to the Department of Public Instruction have hit the agency hard. Since 2008, DPI has seen an estimated $29 million cut from its operating budget, which equates to approximately 300 positions, according to Philip Price, former Chief Financial Officer for the agency. Along with other divisions, District and School Transformation has seen significant reductions in staff over this time and had to scale back its provision of direct support to low-performing schools. A year ago, DST was merged with another department, Educator Effectiveness, to become Educator Support Services–and they saw more layoffs at that time, too.

In a more recent evaluation by Henry, the latest turnaround efforts at NC’s low-performing schools, which have been smaller in scale thanks to funding setbacks, did not see the same level of positive outcomes, likely attributable to decreased direct support services.

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Earlier this year, the Department of Public Instruction underwent an operational audit that was funded by the General Assembly and conducted by Ernst & Young, which provided the opportunity for an under-the-hood look at agency operations that Superintendent Johnson says he’s been advocating for since he ran for state superintendent.

Some State Board of Education members, including Chairman Bill Cobey, have publicly complained that not enough time was devoted to a thorough audit and the process did not allow for enough of their input.

The results of the audit can be found here, and they include a section that addresses the work of the division of Educator Support Services.

Noting that “DPI has faced state funding cuts and the sunsetting of federal grants,” Ernst and Young auditors found that the agency “has strived to maintain its historic level of support for the field; many NC DPI teams have field-based resources, but coordination is limited and resources are thinly spread.”

Based on this finding, it appears, the audit suggests that DPI “establish a redesigned regional structure responsible for coordinating academic supports to the field, including intensive support for low-performing LEAs/schools and more targeted, programmatic support for the remaining LEAs/schools.” [see Recommendation 6, page 45]

The audit further says that “Based on assumptions that can be found [in Recommendation #6], there are potential savings of ~$700k that [sic] would be a mix of federal and state funding; represent 5% decrease in field positions. However, these funds could be repurposed and reinvested to increase support to the field.”

But instead of increasing support to low-performing schools, the opposite appears to have happened. The bulk of the $5.1 million cut was directed at Educator Support Services; of the 61 total position eliminations that took place, 40 of them came from ESS. That’s far more than an estimated $700k that the audit suggests, and certainly the opposite of the suggestion to repurpose and reinvest funds to increase support to the field, unless something changes going forward.

Another puzzler: of the 29 employees working to provide direct services to low-performing schools that were laid off, only 1 or 2 were based in Raleigh. Essentially the division was already operating in a regional structure of sorts, something that the audit suggests moving toward.

“It’s very strange,” said Robert Sox, one of the few remaining employees in the ESS division. “Prior to the merger that took place a year ago, the four service support teams we had were doing much of the “regional work” that we’re proposing to go back to now.”

Sox expressed concern that so much of the talent and expertise that was devoted to direct services for low-performing schools has been cut and is walking out the door. But he also assumes that if the intent is to once again recreate some sort of regional support structure, some of those folks could get rehired.

In an email, a spokesperson for State Superintendent Johnson reiterated the intention to recreate a regional structure in the wake of the layoffs that took place.

“I would point you to the supporting documentation for the EY report, available here. See pages 10-14. That is the justification for the recommendation to the shift to a regional support structure,” said Drew Elliot, Communications Director for the Department of Public Instruction.

“The details of the transition are in development. It is important to remember that the timing of the staffing reductions was driven by the need to meet the budget reductions, not by the EY report. As the superintendent’s statement noted, no one at DPI wanted to make these cuts in this timeframe, but once we had to make the cuts, pursuing a data-driven strategy instead of an across-the-board type reduction was the better way to go,” added Elliott.

It’s not clear where the funds will come from to resurrect a regional support structure for low-performing schools. And how the plan will look isn’t clear, either.

“The legislature gave the Department $1 million to conduct an internal audit,” said SBE member Tricia Willoughby. “It appeared to me that the Ernst and Young audit was not in favor of doing cuts right away, but instead giving some time to develop a strategy and plan for what would happen to create a new regional structure. But before they could fully develop those recommendations, the General Assembly cut $5 million more from the budget — so you don’t have the time to necessary to develop a plan, which doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

For State Board member Eric Davis, who said in an interview he was speaking for himself and not the board, making these cuts at all doesn’t make a lot of sense, period.

“There is no logical basis for these cuts,” said Davis. “Our state has hundreds of millions of dollars of additional revenue. They passed nearly a $24 billion budget. There’s money available. And the board asked the General Assembly not to inflict these cuts on the public school system, because they knew with the restrictions they put on how to make these cuts, students in smaller, more rural and poorer districts that rely most heavily on DPI, that’s where the pain would be felt.”

“But the General Assembly ignored us and carried on with the cuts,” added Davis.

Pat Ashley, who led North Carolina’s transformation efforts, is hoping for the best going forward.

“North Carolina had a very ambitious turnaround program for a decade that served a very large number of schools and students with great success,” said Ashley. “I’m sad that DPI is losing many talented people, but I’m hopeful that those talented folks will find key leadership positions in districts across North Carolina and continue to use what they’ve learned to continue to turnaround low performing schools,” said Ashley.

*Lisa, one of the 29 employees in Educator Support Services who received a pink slip, asked not to be identified for this story.

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