The true test of Charlotte's ability to drive up black performance occurred last year. In 2001, court oversight of Charlotte school desegregation ended. The following year, the number of predominantly minority schools went from 28 to 41. But black educational progress did not end. Last spring, the gap between blacks and whites continued to shrink.
Critics say a heavy reliance on testing risks stripping creativity from classrooms. But in Charlotte, educators say that the constant testing actually gives good teachers more freedom. Principals who might have looked askance at an unorthodox teaching method now have an objective tool to measure whether the approach works or not.
At Randolph Middle School, John Singletary sends his seventh graders to the board in groups of four, each working a problem on scientific notation. In a chanting voice, he urges his students to focus on the upcoming state assessment. "We have three months till the End-of-Grade Test," he announces. "We have to get ready. We have to develop skills. We are going to drill and practice. Drill and practice. Repetition makes it better." Students either answer questions thrown at them, hop up to work at the board, or solve problems at their desks with Singletary supervising. "They fight like they don't want to do it," says Singletary, "but they want to learn."
Bob Doherty's eighth-grade English class could not be more different. Doherty gets the students with the lowest scores on standardized tests. The front of his classroom has a little stage where he plays his guitar, putting student essays to music. Doherty wants his kids to stop being anxious about writing and get excited about it. Like the other eighth-grade teachers, he is working on leads and introductions. But his instructions are much less formal. "I'd like to see an interesting first sentence, something that grabs you," he says, and leaves it at that. At one girl's desk, he stops and draws a box around a sentence she has written. "You have three mistakes," he says. "Find them and I will give you $10 million." She stares, then puts a period after a "Mr.," splits a run-on sentence, and puts a comma in front of a dependent clause. Doherty hands her a photocopied "check" for $10 million--currency good in his classroom auctions, where kids bid on snacks and drinks.
Both of these teachers get results. Overall, 76 percent of Doherty's students last year showed significant improvement on the state test. Singletary, meanwhile, helped 29 percent of his students move into the highest category on the North Carolina math test.
Lessons to learn. Not surprisingly, then, experts say that the most important factor in determining whether children, black or white, will learn in a given year is the quality of their teachers. Minority students, who start out behind their white peers, are often consigned to bad schools and burned-out or brand-new teachers, says Haycock, the Education Trust director. "Kids who come in behind get less of everything we know they need," she says. Closing the achievement gap will require identifying teachers who get results and luring them to the schools that need them most.