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EdNC turns 2: Our theory of change

Thank you.

As we celebrate the beginning of year three of EdNC, thank you for being brave with us as we built a platform that would be both innovative and make a difference. A platform you would own as your architecture of participation as we wrestle with the future of education and the future of North Carolina.

Early on, as we were building EdNC, we thought a lot about impact. We looked at other models — from ProPublica to Chalkbeat. We thought about what was important to our funders. We thought about what was important to our board. We read an article that cautioned us not to confuse accountability and hope.

But our work is all about our students and our schools, building a better state and a brighter future.

Hope drives our work — and our work ethic.

We decided that most of the ways others thought about impact would take us off mission.

For our snack-sized communications world, here is the short version of our theory of change:


Our longer theory of change is that we have seven drivers of impact, which lead to change: journalism as the fourth estate in a democracy, in-depth research, reach and analytics, feedback from the people who use our work, moving the needle on policy change, responsive experimentation in the new media and nonprofit world, and increasing leadership capacity statewide.


The big reasons we do this work have to do with why journalism is important in a democracy: to provide citizens with the information to be free and self governing, giving voice to the voiceless, the disinterested pursuit of the truth, the monitoring of power, and creating a forum for debate and criticism, as we have adapted and applied for our work from The Elements of Journalism.

Our architecture of participation provides citizens with information and gives them tools to engage in policy and politics. We are proud of teachers who find the time to blog from Stuart Egan to Allison Stewart. We are proud of organizations that contribute content each month, like Disability Rights NC. We are proud of girls who have attended our boot camps and gone on to start organizations, like Girl Talk NC.

It is our privilege and responsibility to give voice to the voiceless, like the girls living in Madison County served by the PAGE program.

The disinterested pursuit of truth requires a lot of hard work on the part of our reporters. As a principal came to understand how many years it would be before she received a pay raise, she asked us, “can this pay schedule be right?” We are 50th in the nation in principal pay. There are no instances, none, of schools turning around without a great principal. EdNC’s Alex Granados will stick with this issue until North Carolina is not last in the nation — and hopefully, his reporting will push us to be a national leader.

EdNC is a watch dog, providing sunshine and transparency. After Alex began and continued to report on what was happening in Halifax County, a host of things happened. Intervention from the state into the actions of the Halifax Board of Education, including the requirement that Halifax run all hiring decisions through the state. Investigation from the the United States Department of Justice into the closing of two elementary schools. A lawsuit seeking to merge the three school districts in Halifax County. Halifax went from bottom in the state for achievement to third to last. It also moved off the list of low-achieving districts. Other factors surely played a role, but our reporting moved the needle in this community.

We are proud that in our purple state from far right to far left you can find a statewide collection of voices impacting policy and politics on our site.

In-depth research

In an era of transition for legacy news organizations and legacy think tank organizations, we envision a future where EdNC employs multimedia journalists who tell the story of what is happening in real time using the social tools of today – and tomorrow. Seasoned journalists and policy researchers will create long-form journalism, explainer pieces, and provide in-depth analysis on the news to guide and shape public policy. Facebook recently shifted its algorithm to reward this type of content.

That’s why in October 2016, The N.C. Center for Public Policy Research, a nonpartisan think tank with 40 years of experience researching the most important policy issues facing North Carolina, affiliated with EdNC.

The first meeting we had on behalf of EdNC was with Amy Mitchell, the director of journalism research for the Pew Charitable Trusts. She told us that for an organization like EdNC to thrive it would have to combine the best new media practices — including a robust platform with high-quality multimedia content — with the depth of think-tank research.

Nation Hahn’s work, and recent research, indicates that more and more individuals are consuming information through their social channels. This tracks with the fact that 60+ percent of our audience in a given week is driven through social media. His research indicates that people are not necessarily monitoring the platform from which the news comes; instead, they primarily care that someone they trust shared it.

“This era of digital communication technology has brought about significant shifts in the dissemination of journalism and policy analysis,” says Ferrel Guillory, the vice chair of EdNC. “As the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research becomes part of EdNC, our work will build a stronger base for enriching North Carolina’s public dialogue and decision making, with our school children — the future of our state — at the center of our work.”

On Friday, the Center started sending out a weekly email blast, “N.C. Insights: Friday at Five.” You can sign up here. This quarter, the Center will begin releasing in-depth articles on demographic, political, and policy trends in the nexus of education, health, and the economy. And, later this year, the Center will begin hosting CenterEd Conversations in communities across the state — Edgecombe County, Hickory, and Madison County are first on the list — exploring the need for political, policy, and philanthropic strategies that move away from one-size-fits-all solutions.

Reach aka analytics

Two years ago, Nation created a market acquisition strategy that would allow us to have statewide reach as soon as we launched. It worked.


We meet our readers where you want to consume content. Some of you come to our website. Others of you access our content via social media.

We believe that the best measure of our work is when you don’t just consume the information, but when you do something with it. Email it to a friend. Post it on your Facebook page, and start your own discussion. Tweet your reaction. Engage.

We leverage existing networks, from the Public School Forum of North Carolina to the N.C. State Kenan Fellows to the N.C. Farm Bureau to the N.C. Early Childhood Foundation.

We are ever thankful to our colleagues in legacy media: Rob Boisvert and Time Warner Cable News, John Drescher and The News & Observer, Chris William and the Carolina Business Review, Kelly Hinchcliffe and WRAL, and small newspapers across the state. One of my favorite stories is of a professor in Pennsylvania who emailed Ferrel Guillory and said, “I read your article in the Daily Advance.”


We send out almost 32,000 emails each week, and we have a strategy to increase our reach via email to more than 100,000 by year end. Our open rate is more than 20 percent.

“EdNC is such a powerful voice. Thank you for your leadership.” Freddie Williamson, Hoke Superintendent

This year, EdNC contracted with Impact Thread, a company owned by English Sall (a member of the EdNC Board of Directors) and Emery Clayton, to conduct the first survey of our community.

“Only 9.6 percent of respondents said that they have encountered a similar resource to EdNC. This is key,” says English.

“This shows us that the attraction and attachment to EdNC is due to its uniqueness. There is a special sauce in this model that is imperative in attracting and retaining readership.”

Philanthropists, teachers, the media, and policymakers use our data dashboard to inform their work. Egan, a teacher in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth Public Schools, says, “This data dashboard is fantastic. I am very impressed. Great idea.”

Anita Brown-Graham says, “You are a wonderful magnifier of good. Thank you for all the ways you are lifting up the good people and bright spots of work in this state.” And that might be our favorite thing about this work, spotlighting the good work of others from IEI’s FutureWork to the Burroughs Wellcome Scholars trip to Singapore to the Classrooms of Tomorrow in Union County.

We are proud of the bipartisan support of our work in 2016. Chuck Neely, an attorney and former legislator, says, “You have done a remarkable job with this start up — 0 to 60 overnight!”

Policy change often happens incrementally against the backdrop of our political landscape. As with election results, rarely is there a mono-causal determinant of a shift in public policy. Our work matters because we can come back to an issue again and again and again, reminding the public and policymakers of its importance, especially when it is necessary to take big steps forward in years instead of decades, like on principal pay.

Series like Focus on Forsyth and Energizing East are focused on best practices that might be scaled to other parts of the state. We would love to write a cookbook with Tammi Sutton’s recipes for student success based on her experience with KIPP.

Some issues are more personal, like the girl effect for me.

It made my year that Deborah Hicks-Rogoff, the founder and leader of PAGE in Madison County, was invited to a White House Forum. You go, girl! Her program could be scaled to every girl in every poor, rural county.

Photo Courtesy of PAGE

Photo Courtesy of PAGE

We think our reporting made a difference on a bill that would have changed math instruction, flood relief, and Senate Bill 480, which may have limited teacher voice, among other important issues. It made a difference in how DPI counts teachers leaving the profession.

We were honored to win the national Governmental Research Association’s award for most effective education of the public on an issue.

We want our schools to innovate. We believe that our schools have the aptitude and the capacity to be the best schools in the world. But we can’t expect that of them if we don’t expect it of ourselves.


This year, we built the data dashboard in six weeks.

We worked with partners to hold the first annual Carolina Food Summit.

Where else could you find top chefs, policymakers, and students in a beautiful venue talking about access to healthy food?



We built an authentic voting experience for high school students right down to the sticker! Ninety-eight percent of teachers who used the First Vote NC site with their students would recommend it to a colleague.

And we have exciting news for 2017. EdNC is thrilled to announce that we will expand our architecture of participation with a project to amplify North Carolina voices. The voices initiative will allow EdNC to survey people in communities across our state to determine individual priorities, explore the nexus of education and health, and gather stories, tying the issues facing our state to the lived realities of the public in public policy.

This project will allow EdNC to bring in and distribute information via text and messaging apps, with a plan in place to expand our reach to 12,000 people in 8-12 communities across the state, with a combined reach of almost 150,000 in year one. Accompanied by news in real time and a comprehensive set of policy briefs giving context to facts to build understanding, EdNC will use citizen engagement to drive conversation and understanding about critical issues, including student hunger, obesity, school lunch, and summertime meals, among other education issues.

The voices initiative is modeled in part on Parents’ Voice, an online network of parents who are interested in improving the food and activity environments of Australian children. The network was introduced to us by Kathy Higgins, Vice President of Corporate Affairs for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, who discovered this innovative platform during her 2005 Eisenhower Fellowship in Australia and New Zealand. This project would not have happened without a $400,000 lead investment by Blue Cross, an invaluable thought leader in the design of the initiative. We also want to thank Nation — one of Southern Living’s Southerners of the Year — for his leadership, initiative, and partnership with Blue Cross to breathe life into this project.

We hope this model of communication will become the norm for new and legacy media as well as nonprofits nationwide.

Ferrel and I worry a lot about the inter-generational transfer of knowledge, and so it is important to us to build a cadre of nonpartisan and independent reporters and policy analysts across North Carolina.

It is hard to believe that Liz Bell just graduated from the J School in May. We are proud of her reporting on many issues, but especially Edgecombe County. We are proud of Alex Granados and his work on principal pay and preparation, low performing schools, and his podcasts during the election. We are proud of Adam Rhew and his work on the anniversary of the Swann decision and youth suicide in 2016, and teacher pipeline and literacy in 2017.

Usually professional and leadership development happens for staff outside of an organization, but at EdNC our team spends about 20 percent of their time on internal leadership development. We call them lab experiments, and they grow our team and the organization. This year, Liz will add multimedia elements to her reporting. Alex will expand his work using short documentaries in reporting. Nation will continue to build out our infrastructure in pioneering ways. Nancy is working on code to transform the Center’s 40-year archive.

We are proud of leaders like Tara Kenchen of N.C. Community Development Initiative, Kayla Romero with Students for Educational Reform, and Katharine Correll with the Hope Street Group, among many others. A shout out for Jason Terrell and Profound Gentlemen, black educators and social entrepreneurs honored by Forbes 30 Under 30.

We are proud of Nate Barilich, a teacher who designed our public policy boot camp, and Molly Osborne for her research on home schools.

We believe in servant leadership, and we strive to support our team instead of our team supporting us. We continue to minimize our fixed expenses so that we can invest in our people and our work.

Our archive

The happy byproduct of all of our work is an archive. EdNC is a living, breathing archive of everything that is happening in K-12 education across North Carolina and much, much more. Our work includes daily news aggregation, podcasts, maps, and a legislation tracker.

The 2017-18 N.C. General Assembly

Heading into the legislative session, we know where our leaders stand. The Republican strategy is clear: tax reform plus regulatory reform plus spending restraint = investment and job creation. Governor Roy Cooper is also clear. His agenda includes Medicaid expansion, increasing public education funding, and repealing House Bill 2. Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson framed his reform agenda around urgency, ownership, and innovation.

In education, you will see five issues dominate the legislative session: governance, funding, talent, choice, and pre-K.

In North Carolina, we have a Governor, the Governor’s Education Cabinet, the legislature, a President Pro Tempore of the Senate Phil Berger who has a lot of influence on this issue, a State Board of Education, a chair of the State Board of Education, the Department of Public Instruction, a Superintendent of Public Instruction, 115 districts with 115 superintendents, 100 county commissions funding the districts, 167 charter schools, and a judge presiding over the Leandro case. Who is in charge? Who is in charge is going to get fleshed out a little bit — and maybe a lot — this session, but with responsibility comes accountability.

We have been doing some research on all of the funding that goes to our public schools — not just state appropriations — and when you add state receipts like the lottery, federal funds, and local funds including philanthropic investments in our schools, so far we are up to…


That’s just K-12. This session, the legislature will debate not just how much money is invested in public education, but how those funds are distributed.

This session will feature robust debates about the talent in our schools: teacher pay and teacher pipeline, and principal pay and principal prep. Adam will have a series later this month about the teacher pipeline.

National School Choice Week is later this month, and EdNC will take an in-depth look at the new era of choice we may be entering under President Trump. From pre-K to community colleges, the legislature may begin to consider expansion of the choice debate across educational settings. They may consider an expansion of the choice options.

And, investments in pre-K will also be on the minds of our legislators this session.

Hold on, and let’s hope for civility, being mindful of the difference between process, politics, and policy. We need a state where employers will want to build their businesses. We need a state where families will want to build their lives. We need a state where our children can access the American dream. A state we are all proud to call home.


It is our privilege to do this work, and we are both excited and humbled by the opportunity. Nation will tell you that I was so excited to meet with one funder this year that we showed up a month early for the meeting. And we loved this shout out on Facebook by Rose Hoban of N.C. Health News for Alex’s reporting during the special session:


And humbled. When a principal looks at you and says, pray for me. When a superintendent sends us a donation. When a teacher suggests policy changes that will make classrooms across the state better places to work that we should have thought of. Daily as we see you consume the information we provide and then go on to do great things with it.

We think there is a question that needs to be asked of our state in 2017. The election reminded us that rural communities matter. In our northeast, southeast, and southwest, we have clusters of counties facing persistent decline. Senator Bill Purcell once said to me, “There is no smell like the smell of a dying community.”

North Carolina, what are we going to do about the urbanization of our very rural state? North Carolina’s rural population is second only to Texas. Are we going to help these distressed counties manage decline? Or are we going to find ways to saturate them with opportunity? And what is our obligation to the students in those counties?

Imagine eastern North Carolina just after the flood waters crested. Imagine students at the end of a road looking at their homes underwater. What does that feel like?

And then imagine them seeing their superintendent on a boat surveying the damage, knowing he has a plan to get them back in school, which at least will normalize their lives again.

Our students experience of school leadership matters. It creates hope. It creates pride. But what happens when students don’t have that experience?

Please join us for a conversation this year about the lived realities of adolescents across North Carolina.




Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.