This article first appeared as an op-ed in the News and Observer
The New Chief and The Numbers
Gov. Beverly Perdue recently named Bill Harrison, superintendent of the Cumberland County Schools, to what the new governor calls "the most important job in North Carolina." In his new position as chief operating officer of the state’s public schools, Harrison will manage staff at the Department of Public Instruction and guide policy for the State Board of Education. The new position is intended to provide clear lines of responsibility and to improve a policymaking process currently bogged down in uncertainty and bureaucracy.
I applaud Perdue’s effort to enhance accountability. The size of the job and the complexity of the challenges facing public education demand that the new position be filled by a top-notch manager with a proven record of performance.
A news release from Perdue’s office mentions that "Dr. Harrison is currently superintendent at Cumberland Schools, the fourth-largest school system in North Carolina." The N&O’s news article credited Harrison with previously raising test scores in Hoke County, one of the state’s poorest, and noted that the Cumberland County’s 2006 graduation rate was slightly better than the state’s rate.
How have Cumberland County students benefited from Harrison’s leadership and experience? A review of recent test scores (2002-2008), graduation rates and dropout trends is instructive.
END-OF-GRADE AND END-OF-COURSE TEST SCORES: Cumberland’s state end-of-grade (EOG) results in math and reading mirror the same general trend lines of the statewide data: slight improvements in early years (2002-2005), then dramatic declines, explained in part by newly designed tests with higher standards.
Cumberland’s EOG results for grades three through eight consistently lag behind state test scores. In 2008, 52 percent of the county’s students performed at or above grade level in reading, compared to with the statewide average of 56 percent. In math, 61 percent of Cumberland students scored at or above grade level, compared with the statewide average of 70 percent.
Recent Cumberland results in state end-of-course subject tests have been mixed. Although the percentage of students scoring at or above grade level increased in seven of 10 subject areas (mirroring general state trends), local scores on specific state end-of-course tests have exceeded state averages only three times (out of approximately 70 tests) since 2002. EOC exams are administered to students in grades nine through 12.
ADEQUATE YEARLY PROGRESS (AYP) — Since 2004, the percentage of Cumberland County public schools making AYP has generally trended downward: 75.3 percent (2004); 59.3 percent (2005); 31.8 percent (2006); 28.4 percent (2007) and 25.9 percent (2008). These trends reflect the general decline in state scores. However, Cumberland percentages are significantly lower than state AYP percentages for the same years: 85.2 percent (2004); 75.3 percent (2005); 79.3 percent (2006); 80.5 percent (2007) and 69.5 percent (2008).
DROPOUT RATES: Cumberland dropout rates are better than statewide averages. The number of dropouts declined from 656 (2002) to 610 (2007). The school system’s 2007 dropout rate (3.56 percent) was less than the state rate (5.27 percent).
FOUR YEAR GRADUATION RATE: Over the past two years, Cumberland County has experienced a slight improvement in four-year cohort graduation rates. The rate increased from 67.4 percent (2007) to 71.3 percent (2008). This modest upward trend mirrors a slight improvement in four-year graduation rates statewide. The Cumberland rate for 2007 was actually slightly lower than the state average (69.5 percent), while the 2008 rate was slightly higher than the 2008 statewide average (70 percent).
While Harrison can be proud of his contributions to the Cumberland schools, his tenure lacks a record of progress and accomplishment in critical areas. For much of the last seven years, the system has been average or worse on state testing results, a little better than average on dropout rates and average or a little below on graduation rates. For a statewide public education system in need of significant improvement, average results simply aren’t good enough.
Thirty-four years of service in public education, while laudable, doesn’t necessarily qualify one to assume the state’s top education position. If the new chief operating officer position is the "most important job in North Carolina," Perdue may want to explain why Harrison is the right person for the job.