Durham County Manager Wendell Davis may not be beating up on the public schools for low performance, as he recently told the county commissioners, but he made it clear that he expects the schools to do “better work.”
In other words, Durham Public Schools must improve pupil performance while adjusting to the reality of tight budgets in the years ahead.
Perhaps other North Carolina county managers have been sharply critical of their schools’ performance, but I can’t remember a Durham County manager who leapfrogged the commissioners on education issues.
In fact, Davis is so steamed about the high cost-low outcome matrix that is Durham Public Schools that he wants to hold an all-parties “collaborative conversation” this fall to see what can be done.
That’s what old-timers where I come from call a prayer meeting.
Davis points out that Durham County is spending $3,069 per student in local funds, the highest of our six “peer counties.” Wake and Forsythe counties spend $2,000 and get more for their money.
When state and other funds are added to the mix, Durham County is spending $9,989 per student, the highest in the state. And what are we getting with that largesse?
On 2013-14 proficiency tests, Durham’s third- and fifth-graders scored the lowest of our six peer counties. That’s right: We were in the cellar.
A cynic (or realist, depending on your view) would say we’ve been reforming the public schools for 50 years, and this is the best we can do?
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, this time with Wendell Davis as Henry V.
Davis is an enthusiast for a movement in public administration called Managing for Results. Here, he is using MFR to raise the efficiency of county government and “better address Durham County’s social and economic challenges.”
MFR is a data-driven effort. As Davis puts it, “what gets measured, gets done; if you don’t measure results, you can’t tell success from failure; if you can’t recognize failure, you can’t correct it.”
So, DPS, there’s your warning shot across the bow.
But how Managing for Results will mesh with the already test-laden public schools is beyond my ken. MFR appears to put a widget spin on an enterprise with enormous variables.
DPS’ 35,000 students are 53 percent black, 21 percent Latino and 20 percent white. Asians and other minorities account for the remainder. The majority of students, then, come from low-income households – and all too frequently from no household.
This is the raw material that Durham’s teachers work with every day. Kids show up for school speaking no or limited English. Virtually all come from families more focused on subsistence than encouraging in-home supplemental learning. Indeed, the parents themselves often have little education beyond the basics.
Davis seems to recognize that showering more and more money on DPS isn’t the answer. History proves him right.
Some in Durham still think money can cure DPS’ poor performance. If that were true, the almost one-third of the county’s $379 million budget that goes to the schools would be working wonders. But it doesn’t, and it won’t.
It’s refreshing to see a public administrator speak so candidly about the public schools. I hope the forthcoming “collaborative conversation” will delve into some of the bedrock problems that affect student performance.
The best teacher is always a good parent. The schools simply take it from there.
Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.