Cabarrus County Schools’ Deputy Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, Dr. Jason VanHeukelum, is not happy with the state’s new A-F school grading system.

“More than 90 percent of our teachers met or exceeded growth targets in 2013—yet 20 percent of our schools received Ds,” said VanHeukelum in an interview with N.C. Policy Watch. “Those figures just don’t match up.”

And the two schools in his district that did receive As? They are a magnet school and an early college high school.

“They’re selective programs,” said VanHeukelum of the A schools. “You have to apply to get in and you’re typically already on grade level. This metric of school grades that is so tightly tied to poverty—it’s hard to know what to do with it.”

On Thursday, North Carolina unveiled A-F letter grades for its approximately 2,500 schools, and the results were predictable, yet startling: the vast majority of schools serving poor students all received Ds or Fs, while schools in wealthier areas fared better.

Reaction from the education community has been by and large negative: the A-F school grading mechanism, which heavily favors students’ performance on standardized tests on a given day rather than improvement made over time, is a flawed formula, according to many.

VanHeukelum wrote a scathing review of the A-F grading system earlier this week.

While we welcome accountability for student achievement, I believe [the A-F school grading system] is an ill-conceived measure that is determined more by poverty than by the actual work of teachers and administrators in our schools.

In his editorial, which also appeared in the local newspaper, VanHeukelum connected the dots between poverty and student achievement, citing academic research that documents the link between socioeconomic status and student readiness for school.

In the wake of the A-F school grades’ unveiling, VanHeukelum said that school officials in his district are doing their best to manage public expectations.

“With our schools that have Cs and Ds, they [school administrators] are trying to assure their teachers and parents that they are doing good work — so they are trying to come up with other metrics to assure them,” said VanHeukelum.

“[The school grade] is a hard message to counteract. If I read in the paper that my school is a D school, and then my principal tells me we’re doing good things, I’m gonna be skeptical.”

VanHeukelum hopes that community members won’t just pick up and flee low performing schools for what appear to be better ones based on the A-F school grades, because there is often really good work and progress happening at schools that have been labeled C or D.

“I’m hopeful that our community recognizes that you’re not grading the work of the school, you’re grading the kids that come to that school—you’re grading poverty.”


School-vouchersIf it strikes you as odd and troubling that North Carolina has started bestowing “failing” grades on public schools even as it writes checks to unaccountable private schools which teach that humans and dinosaurs coexisted on the planet at the same time, you’re not alone. The idea of school vouchers remains enormously controversial in our state and rightfully so.

For better or worse, however, at this point, the only opinions that really matter on the issue are those of the seven members of the state Supreme Court. In less than two weeks, the justices will hear arguments in the case challenging the constitutionality of the state’s voucher scheme and, presumably, issue a final judgment sometime in the coming months.

If you’d like to understand where things really stand and what may happen, please join us next Tuesday February 10 as an expert panel addresses: “The constitutional challenge to school vouchers: Where do things stand? What happens next?”

Click here to register.

The luncheon will feature

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Of the nearly 30 percent of North Carolina’s schools receiving letter grades of D or F from the state, almost all of them are designated as high poverty schools with at least 50 percent of their students receiving free or reduced lunch.


“The only thing these grades tell us is where our poor children go to school and where our rich children go to school,” said Lynn Shoemaker, a 23 year veteran public school teacher representing the advocacy group Public Schools First NC at a press conference held by Senate Democrats. Read More


Civil rights groups as well as a long list of academic scholars have joined the fight to end the state’s new school voucher law, which allows families to use taxpayer dollars to send their children to private schools over which the state exercises almost no oversight.

The opponents of school vouchers, who filed amicus briefs with the N.C. Supreme Court late last week and on Monday in support of the taxpayers and school boards that are suing to end the program, present arguments that range from school vouchers don’t help poor black children as they are intended to contesting the validity of using public dollars for private, religious education.

“The voucher plan will harm the great majority of children of color who will remain in the traditional public schools,” according to the NC NAACP’s amicus brief, filed Monday.

Further, the NAACP brief adds that “[the voucher plan] will undermine North Carolina’s public education system, not just by drawing resources away from the public schools, but also by turning those schools into “discard zones” where only the poorest children remain, and by subsidizing hypersegregated private schools that are at liberty to discriminate against at risk students.”

Duke University public policy professor Helen Ladd heads up a long list of education scholars as well as the Duke Children’s Law Clinic in their friend-of-the-court brief, filed Monday, asserting that a dedicated body of scholarly research indicates that school voucher programs do not produce positive educational outcomes for students.

“While it is possible to cherry-pick a few studies that show occasional modest benefits to students using vouchers – typically those done by advocacy groups rather than independent scholars – the overwhelming thrust of the evidence is that voucher programs do not foster academic gains for children,” asserted the scholars in their brief.

The ACLU along with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State argue in their amicus brief that the state’s voucher program violates the state constitution because no public purpose is served by funding with taxpayer dollars religious education at private schools that discriminate on the basis of religion.

The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teacher’s union, also filed an amicus brief late Monday opposing North Carolina’s voucher program.

Last year, a Wake County Superior Court judge found the school voucher program to be unconstitutional, although the program has been allowed to continue while its fate is decided. The state Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the school voucher case on February 17.


Next week, the Department of Public Instruction will release for the first time letter grades for each school in North Carolina. The letter grades will largely represent how well a school’s students performed on standardized tests at one given time (that will be 80 percent of the grade), and, to a lesser degree, how much students’ performance on those tests has improved over time (20 percent of the grade).

When the A-F school grades website goes live (it will be accessible at on February 5), you can view any school’s letter grade as well as a detailed explanation of how the grade was calculated.

This is a screen shot (built with dummy data by staff at DPI) of how the grades will appear.

school grades

If you’re wondering why North Carolina has joined 15 other states on the A-F school grades bandwagon, you can thank Senate leader Phil Berger, who began championing this legislation back in 2011. And you can also thank former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who pioneered A-F school grades in the late 1990s.

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