Thursday, June 21, 2007

City Schools Can't Afford To Fail Test To Replace Superintendent

If success is defined as the ability to know when to sell your stock at its highest value, Carol Johnson is public education’s version of Warren Buffett.

Unquestionably, she’s making a change in her job at the exact moment when her stock is peaking. In the next 18 months, her stock could only have gone down – the number of schools on the state’s failing schools list will likely go up, some principal discontent was growing and grumbling at district offices threatened the fragile veneer of success.

In this context, her decision to take the job in Boston was the most masterful career management since Roger Clemens.

It’s Always The Mayor

And yet, proving that our vein of self-loathing is endless, some blame her move on anything but her own career considerations, with Mayor Herenton at the top of the list of reasons why she’s leaving.

Before there’s any more hyperventilation, let’s remember that Dr. Johnson – at 3 years 8 months - has already been in Memphis about seven months longer than the average tenure of urban district superintendents.

The revolving door of urban superintendents is a fact of life in public education today, and it’s not all bad. If nothing else, it infuses new energy and ideas into urban districts badly in need of shaking their normal lethargy.

Preaching The Gospel

At one level, superintendents look like the preacher who comes to town, gets the church to embark on a massive expansion program and leaves town for the next job before the bills come due. However, we prefer to be optimistic about all the cross-pollination that comes from the buzzing from district to district.

The truth is that in public education today, any urban district that has had a superintendent for 10 years usually needs to ask what they did wrong. If they had gotten it right, other districts would be knocking at the door trying to lure her away. It’s sort of like the difference in having John Calipari or Wayne Yates at the helm of U of M basketball.

And that’s why other cities have been sniffing around Memphis City Schools to see if Dr. Johnson was interested in leaving. Boston was hardly the first city, or even the second for that matter, that had come knocking on her door, although in recent months, she clearly was sending out signals that she wouldn’t rule out a move.

Defying Conventional Wisdom

It’s worth remembering that four years ago, conventional wisdom was that Memphis City Schools would never be able to recruit a high-quality superintendent. Instead of accepting the predictions as fact, some leaders from the private and philanthropic sectors, Partners In Public Education (PIPE) and some school board commissioners set the bar higher, looking for an emerging superintendent with potential to become a player on the national stage.

With Dr. Johnson, they did just that, stealing her from the Minneapolis School System where she had worked for 30 years, the last six as superintendent. The fact that she was now recruited by Boston doesn’t indicate failure but a testament to how good we did.

Now, the challenge is to prove that her selection wasn’t a fluke.

Yield Not To Temptation

In the coming days, Memphis City Schools will need to resist the temptation to appoint someone as interim superintendent – and give that person a head-start toward the permanent appointment – who’s already within the city district (there is no one with qualifications for this job) or turn to someone who wouldn’t be considered except for her political connections.

Already, there are names being bandied about, and if anything, it’s a reminder of how helpful succession planning could be for an organization of this size and importance.

There’s little doubt that Dr. Johnson leaves Memphis City Schools stronger than when she found it, and probably the intangible impact – public support and credibility – is actually more important than the tangible results. Today, it’s almost impossible to conjure up the sense of hopelessness that existed four years ago, and if there is one word for Dr. Johnson’s legacy, it is hope.

The Great Communicator

It was in her role as communicator and cheerleader for the district that she fully applied her sizable ability to hypnotize audience after audience throughout Memphis, sometimes without leaving a dry eye in the house.

It is debatable that she was as successful in having the same level of impact to the administration on Memphis City Schools. Surrounded by the so-called Minnesota Mafia, it seemed impossible to transfer the accessibility that she had as a speaker to her accessibility in her district office. Information was often screened, if not blocked, by gatekeepers that came with her from Minneapolis and whose tendencies to be overprotective and insulated often undercut strong decisions.

Most of her inner circle never seemed to “get” Memphis, and as a result, Dr. Johnson encountered problems from a lack of insight into how Memphis works, how to make things happen and how to navigate the political shoals. On several occasions, the conflict that flared up often came as a surprise to the inner circle who couldn’t see it coming, feeding a sense of “us and them” that led to decisions about major initiatives frequently based on very narrow input.

The Epitaph

While there are times when it seems that Dr. Johnson’s tombstone will bear this inscription: “She got 100 Memphis schools off the failing schools list,” in recent months, even she has put some distance between herself and that claim, realizing that student performance wasn’t as responsible as her adroit execution of the arcane rules of No Child Left Behind.

As for us, when it comes to the tangibles, we’re more inclined to praise her for the closing of the achievement gap between African-American and white students, the increase in the graduation rate, the decrease in the dropout rate and the dramatic improvement in the improvement in classroom teachers. Four years ago, we would have settled for just one of these as an indicator of success.

In addition, she started a number of new programs that created a sense of movement at the district, but it’s hard to argue with observers who say that they were a disparate package of disconnected programs rather than aimed at achieving an overall strategic vision.

The Boston Bible

That’s an issue that she won’t have to address in Boston, because already, she’s been given a copy of the city district’s “Whole-School Improvement” vision. It is the Bible of Boston school improvement, and it tells what the goals are, what success will look like and what the expectations are. Few cities have such clear, well-defined direction, and it will be the standard by which she will be measured in her performance reviews as superintendent.

Despite being home to some of the nation’s loftiest educational institutions and the presence of some of the world’s greatest thinkers, Boston will feel similar to Memphis in the racially polarized environment that dates back to the days of school desegregation and busing when the city earned national headlines for the ugliness of its conflicts.

But in one important respect, Boston will be totally different. Here, she benefited from our own low expectations. That certainly won’t be the case in Boston, where media coverage already puts serious pressure on her to deliver…big time.

The Boston Benefits

Despite this, there were a number of reasons that the Boston job slowly pulled her toward accepting it. While she isn’t motivated by money alone, the substantial increase in her salary offers dramatic evidence of how much she’s wanted. In other words, she starts with a two-fer.

Next, the per pupil expenditure for Boston students is almost twice that of Memphis.

Another reason was the sheer size of our school district. It’s no secret that superintendents aren’t exactly lining up to tackle the challenges of the nation’s largest urban districts, and the opportunity to lead a school system that is roughly the size of Minneapolis (#92) was appealing.

Size Matters

Boston is about 20 percent larger (#58) than Minneapolis, but it pales in comparison to Memphis (#21), which is two times bigger than Boston.

We hope someone takes the time to conduct a thorough exit interview with Dr. Johnson, because we suspect that after almost four years of running the megalith that is Memphis City Schools, she may believe in Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton’s proposal for a decentralized four-district school structure.

The last major plus is the fact that in Boston, as a result of Mayor Thomas Menino’s takeover of direct control of the school district, there is now a highly qualified school board appointed by the mayor. Here, she has grown increasingly tired of the constant criticism lobbed her way by Memphis school board member Kenneth Whalum.

A New Era Or A Fluke

However, it’s hard to imagine that the actions of one politically ambitious board member are enough to sour her on Memphis, particularly considering some of the tough comments made in Boston by some City Council members who question her credentials and complain that they weren’t consulted about her appointment.

Soon, all of this will be history.

Hopefully, if we’re lucky, history will look back at the Johnson Administration as the beginning of a new era of innovation and progress for Memphis City Schools, but ultimately whether that happens depends on whether the Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners can rise to the task and insist on hiring a new superintendent who can be an agent for change and build on the last four years to get even more accomplished.


gatesofmemphis said...

I like and agree with your analysis for her leaving. It's a professional decision, rather than a "Memphis sucks!" decision.

The civic challenges that Memphis ... offers ... are the Super Bowl of municipal policy. If you can fix problems here, spiting the City's historic neglect of its own citizenry, you're the best there is. Unfortunately, unlike Boston, it's possible no one outside of Memphis will notice. But we should pay, and judge them, like we expect them to be the best.

Regarding Kenneth Whalum, I don't agree with many of his complaints, but they seem honest and sincere. I think gadflies like Rev. Whalum are very important to keeping programs like the Blue Ribbon Initiative and the Every Child, Every Day programs focused, and not just some PR kool-aid the executive staff passes around.

btw, why do you say "the number of schools on the state’s failing schools list will likely go up" ?

Anonymous said...

Please, let's not call them "failing schools," rather theterm is "high priority." In these schools we have too many students who are not seeing the achievement and growth necessary and expected, however, we hve some who are among the best.

The number of schools on the states "high priority" list may well go up this year as the criteria for getting on the list is once more changing as the state becomes one of the first two in the country to move to a "growth model" for determining AYP.

No one is certain what this will mean for Memphis City Schools, yet the possibility of increasing numbers on the high priority list is a distinct possibility.

Smart City Consulting said...

Gates of Memphis: Thanks for your thoughts, insightful as usual. The number of failing schools next year are expected to go up because of some new nuances of the No Child Left Behind law will kick in. Also, Memphis City Schools has been able to get the number of their schools off the list through the use of the safe harbor provisions of the law, not because the student performance had dramatically climbed.

Anonymous: Sorry about upsetting you with "failing" rather than "high priority" schools. We just don't have much patience with government euphemisms. The schools failed to achieve the mandated levels and therefore were put on the list of troubled schools. We actually thought of using the preferred "high priority" but we decided it's just a weasel word.

Anonymous said...

I hear Sara Lewis' name is being floated for interim superintendent.

Anonymous said...

4th post, I just snorted my soft drink out of my nose laughing. Good one, but make sure she gets a good chair for her big rear end.