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ED task force to look at math placement, Khan Academy and equity

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Middle school math placement, the Khan Academy and a policy on equity will be discussed at today's meeting of the Wake County school board's economically disadvantaged student performance task force.

School board vice chairman John Tedesco, chair of the task force, said staff will provide a detailed report on 2011-12 middle school math placement efforts. There was skepticism that some schools weren't being as diligent as others at using the new EVAAS-based criteria to place more students in advanced math classes.

Tedesco said they'll also watch a video from the non-profit Khan Academy, which has more than 2,000 videos available on YouTube. The videos cover a variety of topics to teach people math and other concepts.

Tedesco said he likes how the Khan Academy can help provide teachers with daily assessments of students as opposed to the now dropped Blue Diamond, which he said provided them less frequently.

Tedesco said they'll also get an update on the equity policy being developed by a task force subcommittee for presentation to the full board. What's of note is that school board candidate Jim Martin, a critic of Tedesco, is on that subcommittee.

The meeting starts at 4:30 p.m. at the temporary modular campus being used by Wilburn Elementary School at 3851 Spring Forest Road in North Raleigh.


Click here to vew the handouts from the meeting.


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 It is good to hear the ED Task Force group involvement is holding everyone accountable and continuing to discuss the continuous path these changes require in each school.  

Awarenes of  bias requires deeper discussion and follow-up for real change in peoples' mind set to be effective and long term. Does wcpss have the money and resources to positively change and who will keep this discussion going?

Deeper discussion allows for insight and personal growth. Who of our BOE candidates value all students and who will take the changes set forth beyond this year to see this through for long term results?  Most everyone can agree political loyalty being the driver is not what has set the right tone these past few years, or what will lead us to what is best for all students. 

 WhoWhoWhoOWho etting honest feedback from Teachers and Principals is paramount. In order for our BOE  to be that line of communication are they trying to be unbias, impartial? are they open & trustworthy? Do all Principals, teachers and parents feel they are being heard and are they encouraged to communicate? We all have something of value to offer, different backgrounds, experiences, perspectives, ideas.  Candidates must be beholden only to the children who depend on our public schools to lead, guide, and teach them as best wcpss can.

Professional Learning Time for teachers, Blue Diamond, assignment policy, all elliminated without properly surveying and regualrly being asked for input regarding how to make policy, curriculum, classroom better for them so it is better for  children.

 Our economy is squeezing out the middle class. By law, our public schools must offer each child an equitable education. This Ed task force will be an important part in holding us all accountable so no school and no student is left behind and forgotten.  

There will be challenges and strengths that come with our new assignment plan. When will we hear where our candidates stand on the assignment plan? Will our candidates be open to all citizens helping form it?

The Kahn concept is excellent. Foreign language is given in our magnet schools. It is a waste if after 12 years of lesson students are unable to have a conversation in that language. Students today need to know they are being given the tools that will help get them a job out of school. The motivation of staying in school must hold the promise of gainful employment. Form our schools themes around what the future demands.

Glorious progress & NEAR CRIMINAL discrimination all together

Wow, talk about getting clear evidence of both great progress and continued major discriminatory practices at the same time!  Even though the expected comprehensive data were not forthcoming at this meeting, the information that was presented is astounding.

First of all, thank you Keung, for so promptly posting the links to the content of this meeting.  I could hardly wait to see this stuff.  There is some electrifying material in here, with both positive and negative currents.

I want to break my comments into three parts. Overview, Postive, and Negative, nearly Criminal.


Starting about a year and a half ago the new school board, and especially the ED Task Force under the guidance of John Tedesco and Keith Sutton, began to shed light on the hidden practices that structured access to educational opportunity - access that, not surprisingly, was laced with evidence of discrimination.  This was not the old-fashioned rigid and open forms of discrimination, but the cumulative effect of subtle channeling, subjective assessments, false and genuine compassion, and  community-wide ascription to the notion that attributes linked to poverty were inherently and universally limiting. 

The upshot was a school system in which many of the tools aimed at helping disadvantaged groups were having the effect of targeting them and holding them in place as a permanent client population.  The school system's part in this is hardly negligible.  We HAVE to change.  Until this time the ED effort in Wake County was a sleepy little compassion-fest aimed at feeling good about institutionalized efforts to help people who supposedly could not really be helped very much.  OK, enough with the social rhetoric.  But lately, everything is changed.

By last summer the ED Task Force had arrived at the point of acknowledging that 8th grade Algebra was THE lynch pin in higher educational opportunity within our middle and high schools, and that something HAD to be done immediately.  This itself was the end of a 5 year battle against entrenched elements of the previous school administration who would brook NO interference with the math teachers' sacred right to subjectively choose who received 8th grade Algebra and thus many future educational opportunities.  The fact that those subjective placements automatically reflected the shape of social priviledge and excluded minorities and poor seemed only natural - Algebra placement was Wake County's own little Bell Curve.

Last year brought us to the point where a sophisticated metric (EVAAS) was going to be used to open up equal access to educational opportunity.  EVAAS could quantify who was ready for Algebra 1 without any of the usually social and subjective nonsense.  Because it was already demonstrated that both EVAAS scores and measures of simple proficiency/competency (for example, end of course scores) showed that qualified individuals were being kept from educational opportunity in ways to correlated with race and income, it was hoped that uniform adherence to this solid metric would erase the rather extreme placement biases in evidence among fully qualified individuals.

This attempt at changing placement was in itself massive progress - it was a major reversal in a long war.  Between six and two years ago any employees agitating for (and, truth be told, even accidently witnessing others agitating for) these kinds of changes rapidly and mysteriously found themselves in trouble.  Terror among staff was palpable, especially in the data and propaganda sectors.  For example, in an apparently statistically impossible event, every single WCPSS central office employee from three different departments who happened to be present in a workshop when the suitability and merits of EVAAS over the Effectiveness Index for a single placement task were merely aired was first terrorized and then soon after fired or transferred.  The workshop participants (administrators from various WCPSS schools) were subsequently read a statement to the effect that using EVAAS was not supported (read this as "severely disapproved of") and that those agitating for its use were in violation of school board policy of correcting for at-risk status in students.

One of several schools who ignored the efforts to discourage them back then, and those that came during the next two years as they attempted to implement equity changes, is now the district's poster child for equal educational opportunity (Wake Forest - Rolesville).  Make no mistake - the previous administration vigorously fought the agenda of equal educational opportunity.  People bled over this.  Apparently it was of paramount importance to maintain the common idea that the very different educational outcomes being offered to different social groups were the natural order of things rather than the result of discriminatory practices. 

I have to admit I feel like there was some tacit element of recurring evil in this, a case in point being the persistant claim that even very high scoring poor and minority students were still not eligible for advanced placement because their "at-risk" status dictated they take the more "cautious" educational trajectory.  This could hardly have been a credible delusion on anyone's part - yet we heard this very thing claimed many many times during this struggle.  We particularly heard it many many times from within E&R (I was glad to see one of the most frequent and open offenders recently discharged).  A measure of the damages done by these attitudes when writ large can be estimated from the case of the minority student who was recommended for the lower course of study at Wake Forest - Rolesville when the placement changes rescued him in 2009/2010.  He subsequently score the highest score in his grade.  So the sometimes sinister side of these thefts of opportunity must be acknowledged.

Yesterday's Positive

Now, with this year's results, we can see that the schools that went wholeheartedly along with the administration's mandate (and it WAS A MANDATE) to place children according to their EVAAS scores (allowing all those with a 94% or better chance of success in higher level Algebra) have had extraordinary success in opening up opportunity to high level courses to everyone qualified.  Several middle schools have shown unqualified success in eliminating bias and opening up opportunity. This is the great progress I want to celebrate.

Cathy Williams' Powerpoint presentation for East Garner Middle School is a SHOW STOPPER!  She worked with the usual hesitant teachers, embraced the opportunity for change, notified the parents as to what the opportunity meant, took every precaution to provide assistance, moved kids lacking the nonsense pre-requisite Pre-Algebra directly into 8th grade Algebra because of their predictions .  In short, Principal Williams did everything that was asked of her and more.  She had unqualified success moving students up to the higher track.  Where she had had only 30 middle school students in Algebra 1 she moved up to 230, with only a minor overall drop in subsequent proficiency by the entire cohort.  Just like Wake Forest - Rolesville had reported the year before, there are no inherent boundaries here, only social practices that correlate to race and income and put us in a much better place when corrected.

As a crowning glory, East Garner Middle School's success was so marked that they have moved the bar for next year.  Rather than the 70th percentile mark in EVAAS scores (estimating a 94% chance of success in Algebra 1, they have moved their new baseline to the 65th percentile.  I can't think of a stronger testimony.  I want to hear what happens with their achievement gap.  I can only imagine it will close substantially.

Yesterday's Negative, near criminal

Just to set the tone, I wan't to describe something that happened with one of the other schools that also responded favorably to the ill-fated workshop several years ago - something not in evidence in any documentation presented here.  This other Wake County middle school also started these same kinds of placement revision efforts several years earlier.  They had also radically opened up equal opportunity, and had also met with great success.  They saw their achievement gap radically close when they fixed their tracking process to correlate with standardized test scores rather than teacher recommendations.  And they had major reductions in discipline problems as they opened up opportunity. 

But this school met with a backlash from priviledged parents convinced that the influx of other social elements into "their" classes was testimony of lowered standards.  This school has now (two years) slid intentionally backwards.  This points out a major problem in all this - individual control of schools.  That middle school has been allowed to return to its previous practices - no one has stopped them.  No accountability or even documentation has been effected.  The new principal, coldly and with full foreknowledge of the successes she was undoing, sent the ED kids back to the lower tracks and reversed the gains that her predecessor had made.  Before these changes first started several years ago that particular school had been sending 85% of its minorities who were qualified for higher math instruction to the bottom track.  They fixed that, closed their achievement gap, but then reversed and have now returned to that practice and presumably that result.  Obviously this borders on the criminal. 

As with the results presented in the Holdzkom, Weinstein, and C&I team presentationation at yeasterday's meeting, this local control - this ability for principals to do as they wish on these issues now has to draw some serious attention.  The success described above testifies to the destruction that merely continued in many Wake County schools last year.

Directly in the face of clear instructions to the contrary, a number of Wake County middle schools persisted in 2010/2011 in biased and discriminatory placement practices, and now have been observed doing so.  They were not stoppedSome were merely observed and asked what the reasons for their activities were.  Consequently, some thousands of children were denied opportunities they were clearly qualified for, and those denials correspond to race, income, and handicapped status.  The magnitude of that loss has been quantified by the success of the schools that followed the mandate.  The near criminal nature of the discrimination is on open display.

For some baffling reason Weinstein's presentation combines the results of two of the schools following the guidelines (Wake Forest and East Garner) with six schools not following the guidelines.  What is revealed is that nearly half of the students kept out of advanced placement at those six schools were removed for subjective reasons - professional judgement and conflicting recommendations from the source school. These are expressly forbidden by last years guidelines.  These six schools failed to place over 600 students with qualified by their EVAAS scores.  Again, no one interferred with these decisions.  And this is just a sample.  Further, some schools are apparently eschewing EVAAS and giving their own qualifying exams.

Weinstein, with her title of Academic Auditor, is a new face in this drama.  Its my opinion she was pushed forward as a sacrificial lamb a few weeks ago when it became clear that some accountability for this year-long boondoggle was going to emerge.  Her sampling study was probably drafted sometime during the school year with the intent of pushing her in  front of yesterday's bus if it became necessary.

Holdzkom's presentation is the usual overt avoidances, minimizations, and difficult-to-penetrate tables. He spends far too much time deadening us with a nearly irrelevant handout, and proving that there is little gender discrimination to be found before finally he turns to the show stopping details about discrimination based on race and SES.  This revalation is clearly still against his will but he's finally minimally cooperating.  His tables don't make it clear that the universe compared is a breakdown of only those who are all fully qualified, which mutes the effect of the obvious race/ethnic biases that can clearly be seen.  Still, this is change - his tables actually do document bias - for the first time there is actionable information here.  My take on him lately is that his tone has slightly shifted - he's showing something akin to fear (if his species has that emotion).  With Burns and Hargens gone and his hidden suppport on the school marginalized he's become cautious and less openly distainful of this whole concept.  The golden parachute Del Burns presented him with the day he walked out the door may be all that is saving him now - he's acting differently.  His skills fall towards covering things up - he's out of his element with this administration and clearly starting to worry.  Nothing else could have driven him to revealing even this much, which falls far short of what was requested.

The C&I tables are tilting at windmills when we should be aiming cannon.  Their hand-filled form asking for voluntary feedback from Middle Schhol administrators (in an era when the EVAAS data could be easily auto-populated) testifies to the incompetence of both them and the general staff they pretend they will coax into compliance.  This is largely irrelevant posturing on C&I's part - too little and too late.

What next?

Overall, its not appropriate to be merely sampling schools for their internal logic in non-compliance, tweaking guidelines for clarity, and begging for compliance.  Its time to take control before we slide into a major lawsuit for discrimination.  BOLD ACTION.

These negative events frame the continued problems that are going to have to be rooted out quickly now.  Supt. Tata has been facing a sultry and foot-dragging middle management and he will have to get firm now that he knows his terrain.  So far there have not been any consequences for continuing or returning to discriminatory placement practices.  As the continued absence of a report to that effect shows, there has not even been a comprehensive accounting of these sins.  All this needs to change immediately now. Serious and immediate actions have to be taken in the next few weeks (if we are going to avoid a re-enactment of this latest tragedy.  There is an old Carolina saying "A bird that can sing and won't, should be made to."

So, this is a contrast of success and failure.  The point where we are today presents a great opportunity to look backwards and forwards before forgetfulness gets its typical hold on us.

curriculum audit

I have to bring the curriculum audit into this discussion, Dr. Weinstein was hired to oversee the progress on the audit that cost us >$200,000.

Recommendation 1: OPPORTUNITY

Implement district plans and goals to provide equal access to comparable programs, services and opportunities to impact student success.


Finding 4.3: Data are inconsistently used district-wide to provide feedback for systemic decision making. Monitoring the use of program evaluation results is not formalized.

Finding 3.2: Although efforts have been initiated, some inequalities exist for students in access to comparable programs, services, opportunities, and resources.

WHAT ARE WE DOING? We spent 200K to figure out where we need to improve and then we do everything possible to not improve?  I think Dr. Weinstein is the sacrificial lamb in this mess.


Whoops I said "sultry" when I meant "desultory."  There's been nothing sultry about the offfendors in this case.  If there had been it would be easier to understand.

My biggest concern

My biggest concern is that, as far as I know, we got no information yesterday about placement for this year.  (I had to leave a few minutes before the end of the meeting but can't find anything in the handouts about the upcoming year's placement data.)  Year round schools have already started and traditional calendar schools will begin soon.  Since we know from the data presented that there were still problems with placement last year as you said, we need information about the 2011-12 school year's placement so that corrective action can be taken immediately.

I don't understand why placement is viewed as such a problematic process.  Someone complained yesterday that schedules are set in the spring before EOG and EVAAS scores are known.  But if you look carefully at the math placement criteria document, that issue has been addressed.  For instance, Pre-Algebra placement can be based on the EOG from 5th grade which, of course, is known throughout the sixth grade year.  (The same is true for Algebra and 7th graders.)  Therefore, schools know for a full year in advance which students can qualify under Phase 1.  Similarly, EVAAS predictions for success in advanced math are also available for the full year ahead of placement in Pre-Algebra and Algebra under Phase 2.  There may be a few marginal students whose performance on the EOG would impact their placement eligibility positively or negatively.  But this seems to be portrayed as a huge barrier rather than the small tweaking that it actually represents.  It seems as if it is a question of the school's will to make this work rather than acutal logistical problems. 

I guess I'm not surprised

I guess I'm not surprised that there has been steady blowback and I can easily imagine why people find reasons to not get this done. 

I see a gradation -

 1. People who don't want it done and who will oppose it at every step by whatever means they can deniably muster.

 2. People who don't want to have to admit it needs to be done but will do it if they can no longer avoid knowing that.

 3. People who know it needs done and will do it, but would be happy for it to take a whole generation to achieve.

 4. People who trust that other people are pretty much like them and naturally want it to be done and therefore also trust that the excuses that people come up with about why it can't be done right now might have some validity.

As you point out, this is not really going to be that hard to achieve.  But only a strategy that sweeps all these different people in front of it will have a chance to move along at a reasonable pace.

But I have to admit I'm cynical about these things. 

After all, we're talking about a fundamental reworking of the structure of our society, to the degree that educational opportunity mediates later economic success. 

The stakes are high so deniability and inaction is at a premium.


for the perspective and great questions. I hope those are answered at the next meeting as well. Did they at least show the increase in numbers of students enrolled in higher math courses and whether the students are succeeding?  It is interesting (but sadly, not surprising) how districts are manipulating the Algebra I course-taking patterns to help the high school scores - and ignoring the needs of the students.  I'd be curious to know if Charlotte is doing this - since there is so much comparison between Wake and Charlotte regarding their systems, student assignment, etc.

tonight was

ugly. What is most disconcerting is that those 3 women from E&R were completely thrown under the bus when they were asked to present data that showed math placement was in clear violation of the math criteria set last year. Perhaps things will be better when we meet again in 2 weeks?

Not all of tonight, but certainly the end part was

I was encouraged with what Mr. Tracy, the new Principal at Wilburn, had to say about rejecting the deficit model. I have heard more than once that you can't really change a person's values or core beliefs (or at least it is very difficult), so this in my mind is key.

The Khan Academy video raised some interesting points and it was encouraging to hear that a local math teacher had tried classroom flipping and was scheduled to give a presentation to others on the subject.

Ms. Williams presentation about the success of math placement at East Garner Middle was good news. 

But, you right it was downhill from there and very frustrating. Then came the part indicating that East Garner was an exception in having placed all students predicted for success in Algebra per EVAAS (not including the six that opted out).

One very troubling issue was when the issue of some schools using their own testing rather than following the math placement criteria was raised and it was asked if this was acceptable and was the math placement criteria viewed only as a recommendation. There didn't seem to be any actual answers for that.

Right now, it appears there are huge disparities in how different middle schools approach math placement for 8th grade Algebra, which is a key gateway for so much. It is concerning how much a student's path may vary because they attend School A with a Principal and staff that decide to place all students and support them to success versus School B with a Principal and staff that have a very different philosophy and choose instead to shut that door of opportunity on students.

you are right,

the beginning was excellent. If we had more principals like Mark Tracy we would not be discussing math placement at all. I will dwell on the good, not bad ;)


There was no detailed report of the 2011-2012 math placement efforts. Instead, Mr. Holdzkom presented the report that was presented last year to show the combined algebra and pre-algebra placements, with significant data missing (data for more than 2,000 students was missing.)

Curriculum and Instruction staff reported the "compelling reasons" given at 6 schools for why students were kept out when they met the criteria. About half the reasons were "teacher professional judgement," although teacher professional judgement is to be used only to move students up. 

They do not have the data from the other schools.

Compelling reasons

I hope the handout is posted showing the statistics for the "compelling reasons".  I found it shocking that 616 students were excluded just at the schools they examined.  (Two of the eight schools had high placement percentages so the total number comes primarily from six schools.)  The most common reason was "Professional judgment based on performance and/or work ethic in prior course" (44%)  but there was another professional judgment category "Recommendation of transfer school different from EVAAS recommendation" that was given in another 4% of the cases.  I thought we had been assured that professional judgment would only be used to move students to a higher placement, not to keep qualified students from being placed in the advanced track. 

As a side note, although the presentation included as a compelling reason the fact that a student had not had the prerequisite course, it does not appear as an item in the data on the compelling reasons given by schools.  If many students are being excluded from 8th grade Algebra because they were not placed in Pre-Algebra, it becomes even more imperative that we get the 2011-12 placement data in time to ensure that qualified 7th graders get into Pre-Algebra.  Otherwise, the problem with Algebra placment will continue until at least 2012-13. 

We had been assured

When professional judgement was in the criteria, I clearly remember EDSPTF members raising the concern that it would keep qualified students from being placed and being assured that was not the case. Rather, professional judgment would only be used to place a student higher who did not meet the EVAAS recommendation. Yet, of the eight sample schools - 270 students were placed lower based on professional judgement (44% of the total not placed as you noted) and ONLY 22  were placed higher based on professional judgement (8% of total placed higher). The actual result was as EDSPTF member's concerns predicted and the opposite of the stated intention.

It was mentioned tonight that some principals were "confused" about the criteria. One question I have, which I didn't get a chance to ask tonight, is what was the source of their confusion? Was there a lack of communication? Was there communication, but some principals had trouble with comprehension?

Was there any explanation

Was there any explanation for not presenting this year's data?

Loriac, my understanding

Loriac, I'm open to correction here but my account of the way this unfolded Thursday is that Holdzkom began by pushing the other presentations under his heading of the Math Placement Report (so Weinstein and C&I math people) out in front of his.  This is something he would typically do in order to both buy time (hoping the meeting would end) and to get these others-bearing-bad-news out in "front of the bus" in case things went badly - which is how he had every reason to expect it was going to go, since he had no answers.  (This is perfectly in character for him - basically he treated them as he would treat his own mother - pushed them under the bus).  So the audience was pretty irritated by the time Holdzkom started speaking and Supt. Tata had already briskly walked out, apparently seeing where it was all going.  So Holdzkom started, and then when it became apparent he was only going to give an overview of last year's placement and that no presentation on this year's placement was going to be seen, John Tedesco abruptly terminated the meeting and saying there would be another meeting, one with some satisfactory answers, in two weeks.

We need a math overhaul. 

We need a math overhaul.  This meeting was beyond disappointing.  First of all, the data they presented states 215 students were DENIED the appropriate math placement (they were academically eligible) because they hadn't completed the Required PreAlgebra coursework (which really ISN'T REQUIRED because not ALL schools require it)   Why should parents go into school to tutor students in math when the system truly doesn't give a crap because they will deny them for whatever reasons they feel like or NO reason at all with No paperwork.  Everyone needs to read and review these handouts and I would love for EACH specific candidate to comment on what action they would take in regard to these facts.  Why do we operate middle schools on a YR calendar to prepare kids for college when we deny 174 students access to higher math classes because they became eligible AFTER the EVAAS data was released but schedules were already created or school already began.  Don't we know when school starts/ends and when EVAAS data results are released?  Do we want kids to attend college or not?   Meanwhile, 3900 students who were eligible were not placed--hmmm, that number could equal an entire small college population, twice the number of many colleges' incoming freshmen class; but for Wake Co. with 140,000 students we just missed a few.  Are they intentionally placing these kids in classes to even out the student class size on YR tracks and provide a high and low level class?  The East Garner Principal went to extreme lengths to accommodate math advancement, why don't other principals do that?  Look at the data of her math placement of students compared to other schools.  This is truly frustrating.   

Disparity between schools

I'm glad to see that you took the time to really examine these reports.  The disparity between schools in terms of placing eligible students into advanced math is one thing parents should be very concerned about.  It makes no sense for a student's chance to take advanced courses (remember math placement affects placement in other advanced courses the student takes later) to be affected by which school the student attends.  Parents of students in low-placement schools should be asking a lot of questions and demanding answers in my opinion. 


I am looking forward to hearing the report regarding math placement. Some questions that I hope will be answered are:

1. Do school counselors now have their own EVAAS accounts so that they can review whether students who meet criteria are properly placed?

2. Is pre-algebra considered a pre-requisite to algebra only in some schools and not in others? 

3. Is advanced 6th grade math considered a pre-requisite to pre-algebra, and if so, is this true across all schools or only in some schools?

4. What are schools doing to support students for success if they move them into the top track from the standard track? What has been most successful? 

5. When the middle schools are providing algebra to significant numbers of additional students, you might expect the high schools those kids feed into to have lower 9th grade algebra EOC scores simply because these bright successful kids are not taking algebra in 9th grade now. Do we see this?

EDSTAR is evaluating some grants across the state and has found some districts are reducing the number of students who take 8th grade algebra or eliminating 8th grade algebra altogether to raise their high school algebra EOC scores. This made me realize we may see high school EOC scores go down when the brightest kids are taking algebra in the middle schools. (I know this is horrible, but true. It is not in Wake.)

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About the blogger

T. Keung Hui covers Wake schools.