Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Memphis City Schools Needs Board At Its Best

OK, let’s all take a couple steps back and take a deep breath.

As we do it, we’re especially hoping that the Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners will join us.

For all of our sakes, we need the board to move beyond its embattled view of the world, which transforms public discussions about important issues into “we against them” confrontations and which produces decisions that seem so logical within the cocoon of chaos.

In The Foxhole

It’s a dramatic reminder that the worst thing about a siege mentality is that you don’t even know you have it. It’s death by a thousand pinpricks, as action after action and issue after issue puncture the public confidence on which you depend for your effectiveness. Trapped within the bunker, the decisions seem so reasonable, but the problem is that the rest of us aren’t in the bunker.

Despite what some school board members may think, most of us who have criticized them lately aren’t at war with them. We’re at war with the status quo at Memphis City Schools, and they are victims as much as the 115,000 students in its classrooms.

The board also proves the axiom that everyone’s strength is also their weakness. That’s been the case with our school board.

New Faces

If they are the target for much criticism these days, it’s not because we don’t like them or respect them. It’s because we expect so much more from them.

Memphis breathed a collective sigh of relief when the board of commissioners was transformed, ushering in a host of new faces and new approaches. It was just what Memphis City Schools needed, something to threaten the bureaucratic culture and to bring fresh ideas to the district.

We also like the fact that so many of them were young and novices to the political system. After all, political life in Memphis needs nothing so much as more newcomers.

Skin Problems

Back to strengths and weaknesses. Unfortunately, because of their youth and their lack of experience, too many of the school board members lapse into an attitude that any criticism is cause for all-out war. And because their skin has not been thickened by experience in the political wars, they often are seen as prickly and obsessed with their own opinions.

This is not to say that they don’t deserve to be sensitive. As one of them pointed out in a comment to this blog, any time anything good happened at Memphis City Schools, it was because of Carol Johnson. Any time anything bad happened, it was because of the school board.

Such was the charisma and persuasive abilities of the former superintendent. Of course, it’s easier for someone in that kind of titular position to create that kind of impression, whether it’s the superintendent, the mayor or the governor. That’s because that person becomes the “face” for that agency or government and has the power to stick to the message. It’s just not possible for this to happen with public bodies like the board of commissioners - whether it’s the one for city schools or county government - because there are multiple faces sending multiple messages to the public.

Breaks In The Chain

If things aren’t pressurized enough for the board in the wake of the exit of the wildly popular former superintendent, it becomes even worse as more and more information about operational decisions and appointments seeps to the board for the first time. Already, Interim Superintendent Dan Ward is troubled by operational systems that almost seem more designed to prevent a smooth flow of information to the school board than to expedite it. As a result, board members are kept off balance as they learn information about their own school operations from constituents and bloggers.

It’s not a comfortable position to be in, and they have every right to demand better communications and more structured reporting on key issues. As one says, “What we are told one night can be contradicted completely the next night, and we never quite know what the facts are. Then, of course, there are the hundreds of things that we are never told, but when they blow up, all of a sudden, it’s our problem and our fault.”

It’s an uncomfortable position to be in at any time, but as the school board members consider the most decision they will make – who the next superintendent will be – we need them to be more clear-eyed and clear-headed than any time in their lives. They can easily reassure us if they adopted some guiding principles as they set out to hire a new superintendent, and come to think of it, it would also help if they would pledge to hire the absolutely best possible person in the country to head up Memphis City Schools.

Bureaucratic Thinking

Sometimes, in government, the atmosphere is so politically-charged and change so unbearably slow that it’s easy to forget that decisions are shaping the entire lives of people. It’s not that the people in these public positions are callous. It’s just that they are overwhelmed by the agendas and the games being played, and there’s a constant barrage of reasons to take your eye off the ball.

As a result, at Memphis City Schools, there are times when it’s almost as if we forget that ultimately, we are dealing with the lives and futures of students – as well as city itself. The children are rarely mentioned, and frequently seem to be treated as objects like the raw materials that keep the factory going.

As we think about these issues, we are reminded of something we read almost a decade ago. It’s called the “Components of Effective Governance” and was written by the California School Board Association.

Effective Districts

Here’s what it said is required for effective governance of a school district:

* The board and superintendent collectively understand and operate with implicit and explicit norms and values such as trust, honest and openness.

* The entire governance team understands, respects and adheres to ground rules that govern the internal operation of the governance team.

* All members of the governance team are perceived to be equally legitimate, no matter how different or difficult an individual may be.

* The governance team is known for its total commitment to the highest standard of student learning and achievement for all students in the district.

* The board exhibits creative thinking, knows how to handle failure as well as success, encourages risk-taking and creates a climate of support for excellence.

* The board treats all staff with dignity and respect.

* The board is respectful of all community members, even when faced with criticism and opposition.

* The board recognizes and accepts that conflicts and differences are inevitable, not necessarily “bad,” and must be faced, analyzed and managed.

* The board strives to maintain a “no secrets, no surprises” operating norm.

* The board tends to immediately turn to solutions rather than playing the “gotcha” game.

* The board assumes collective responsibility for the conduct, behavior and effectiveness of the board.

Trust And Trustees

Finally, according to the California school boards organization, the effectiveness of board members stems from their commitment to acting as trustees acting on behalf of the children in the city where they are elected.

That approach results in a board operating with a unity of purpose and within a culture of accountability and competency shared by the superintendent. And yet, “Not every one who serves on a board assumes the trustee role. Many never make the transition from being an individual with narrow interests or agendas serving on a board to being a trustee member of a governance team.”

All of us know that there is no tougher job in public life than serving on a school board. Issues are more complex, media scrutiny is more intense and criticism is never-ending.

That’s why if anything is needed right now, it is for every one to take a couple of steps back and take a deep breath. Then, let’s all figure out a way to find the next Carol Johnson, because Memphis City Schools should settle for nothing less.


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, the school board continues to make poor decisions. While I would agree that Yo! Academy was not achieving the results we want; why is it singled out for closing when there are 17 schools which have not made the goal in 6 years. In addition there are a total of 63 schools which have not made the annual yearly progress as required by NCLB legislation. This is pure symbolic politics on the part of the school baord. Take on the smallest school (107 studetns last year) and take a bold step while not addressing the larger systemic problems. Shameful!

city watch said...

Dear Smart:

The problem at MCS is not the Board, administration, principals or teachers (although some at all these levels could be replaced for the better….). The problem is the social and economic dysfunction that grips the children of the Memphis public schools (and we’re not blaming the victim)

Education in the classroom is useless if the student is going home to an environment (parents, surrounding families, and peers) that is anti-achievement; and that’s not saying anti-learning because there is probably forced homework and a push for good grades in many homes.

The anti-achievement is unspoken and subtle but it permeates the fabric of most Memphis neighborhoods. The idea of college, trade school, and a career track is alien to a majority of households in Memphis. Life lessons don’t match school lessons.

The things we learn about curiosity, responsibility, ethics and success comes from parents and social environments. We tend to mimic our social structure. The schools can provide added value, but they cannot provide an inner value about our fit in today’s global economy.

During the late 1960s some of our reflective friends talked about the extended family of communities, which were usually physical places called neighborhoods or towns. If you got out of line within these communities your parents would here about it before you got home. If you were falling behind in school your teacher would come by the house to have a talk with your parents. You and your buddies were watched by friends of your parents all over the neighborhood. There were expectations in the community about college or apprenticeship programs or trade schools and a career.

Community meant a common set of values. Community meant achievement. The schools might be weak in terms of dollars spent, but the students were strong because of community environments.

So don’t blame the MCS. Blame all of us. If MCS should lead the transformation of society, then let’s forget the Mayor’s race and let Memphis give up its charter.

P.S. Part of the problem for Memphis came from institutional racism and the cycle of poverty that was started by Jim Crow and perpetuated just long enough until the jobs went to the Pacific Rim starting in the 1960s. Today the jobs don’t fit our community’s social perspective and ability to get the value added from the public schools.

Smart City Consulting said...

City Watch:

We agree with everything you've said. And sometimes it feels like we've been saying them way too long and moving in the wrong direction anyhow, but it's a fight we can't give up on.

As we've said before, schools can't in eight hours override the desperation and the hopelessness that grips these kinds in the other 16. In the end, though, it's because of the total dysfunctionality that consumes the lives of these students that every one of us and every one of our institutions has to be working at a higher level, because this isn't MCS's problem to solve. It's MCS's and all the rest of us.

With that in mind, what should we be doing?

Anonymous said...

Spot on, city watch.

Anonymous said...

Dear City Watch,

Fascinating analysis;unfortunately no data to back it up. I would suggest that most of what you are saying here may or may not be true. You have mixed theoretical explanations and do not have a clear framework of the assumptions behind each. The result is that you provide no evidence that your assertions have data to back them up.

I would suggest further, that despite claiming that you are "not blaming the victim," the absence of structural analysis and clear data to support your statements leaves you in the BTV camp. It is kind of like "I am not a racist, but..." I fear that many would agree with your statements and have no additional data beyond the anecdotal comments that they hear. Unfortunately a bunch of anecdotes is not data.

The data may be available to make these arguments, however, you have assembled it and created the response necessary to combat the problem. Some of the best places to look for this analysis is in the works of Elijah Anderson and Jay MacLeod's book "Ain't No Makin' It." The work of these two is some of the best in placing this form of cultural analysis in a strong structural framework. Also almost anything by Wacquant or Bourdieu.

All that academic stuff said; I would agrue that, Yes, the problem is the board. The board is incapable of understanding these realities and hence incapable of providing the answers. Heck they can't even ask the right questions.

Let take another of your statements to illustrate the problem.

"Community meant a common set of values. Community meant achievement. The schools might be weak in terms of dollars spent, but the students were strong because of community environments."

This belies the notion that you are not victim blaming. It falls into what anthropoligists and sociologists refer to as a cultural explanation which is to suggests that if they were like us everything would be ok. Further the success seen in earlier "communities" were ecoonomic based not culturally based. Take the evidence of the economics of language, which I fear your analsysi would attribute to culture and not economics:

• In a typical hour, the average child would hear:

– Welfare: 616 words

– Working Class: 1,251 words

– Professional: 2,153 words

• Actual Differences in Quality of Words Heard:

– Welfare: 5 affirmations,
11 prohibitions

– Working Class: 12 affirmations,
7 prohibitions

– Professional: 32 affirmations,
5 prohibitions

Fit that into a structural analsysi and understand that it is not culture that created these differences but economic inequality or structure. One cannot mix these two forms of analysis and resolve the problem as each has a different set of assumptions driving it and hence a different set of solutions.

Anonymous said...

Dear City Watch,

I guess my response response ran on too long as it did not all get posted. Let me continue.

The analysis which does overcome the previously mentioned shortcoming has begun to emerge in the works of Elijah Anderson, Loic Wacquant, Pierre Bourdieu. In a more accessible form it can be found in a little book by Jay MacLeod, "Ain't No Makin' It."

Unfortunately the board cannot understand these works and hence is hamstrung in trying to make a difference. The result is that it is the board that is the problem. Not only do they not understand the problem, they do not know enough to ask the right questions.

Anonymous said...

Dear City Watch and others,

One final recent piece on this topic:

For too long, educators' approach to understanding the relationships between poverty, class and education has been framed by studying the behaviors and cultures of poor students and their families. So says Paul Gorski in "The Question of Class," a provocative article published in Teaching Tolerance magazine. If only we -- in the middle and upper-middle classes -- can understand their culture, why those people don't value education, why those parents don't attend our functions and meetings, why those kids are so unmotivated, perhaps we can "save" some of our economically disadvantaged students from bleak futures. And so we set about studying what Ruby Payne and others describe as the "culture of poverty," how poor people see and experience the world, how they relate to food, money, relationships, education and other aspects of life. This, despite the fact that research has shown again and again that no such culture of poverty exists. It's all too easy, for even the most well-meaning of us, to help perpetuate classism by buying into that mindset, implementing activities and strategies for "working with parents in poverty" or "teaching students in poverty" that, however subtly, suggest we must fix poor people instead of eliminating the inequities that oppress poor people. The question, of course, for any educator of privilege committed to educational equity is this: Do we choose to study supposed cultures or mindsets of poverty because doing so doesn't require an examination of our own class-based prejudices? By avoiding that question, we also avoid the messy, painful work of analyzing how classism pervades our classrooms and schools, never moving forward toward an authentic understanding of poverty, class and education. We should never, under any circumstance, make an assumption about a student or parent -- about their values or culture or mindset -- based on a single dimension of their identity. There is no more a single culture of poverty than there is a single culture of woman-ness or of African American-ness.


Gracie said...

Anon 9:17 and the other 2 times

Please, this isn't a forum for a academc discourse or to mock us common citizens. Give us all a break. Unfortunately, most of us do live in an anecdotal world.

After reading several previous posts, I don't for a minute believe City Watch is a racist or is victim blaming.

Start your own blog and help us out with facts that we can use as a base to comment. Don't mock us. Can help it if some of us are plebian neopyhtes on the subject.

Anonymous said...

Anon 8:10,

You make my point. Thanks

Anonymous said...

Thank you Gracie! While I enjoy reading what everyone has to say, I do not have time to read all of it. Please be more succinct in your writing.

Anonymous said...

Greetings! My name is Tamika, I have 15 yr., sophomore which attends Raleigh Egypt High School. Just this week alone my daughter has called home around the same time each morning regarding something about her uniform. If I remember correctly, prior to school starting we as parents were TOLD that OUR children would be required to wear uniforms in order to attend school. We all had to accept this (being that we had no voice as parents), so we did. Which brings me to my point on today, In July 2007 the Board got together and decided to revise the uniform policy,(again we had not a choice in the matter)!!! I can not speak for every parent that has a child that attends public school; but on behalf of MY CHILD I've had as much as I can hold. My daughter was told to call home because of her socks and her shoes. According to the teacher she was out of uniform. It's bad enough that they have to look-a-like as far as clothing goes but I just don't understand why the color of her socks as well as the color of her shoes are more important than her education. Again on tuesday morning I receive yet another phone call about her belt and her shoes. Two weeks after school started the administration sent home a letter with the new REVISED unifeom policy. Continue on to Part 2..............

Anonymous said...

Part 2.... In the new revised policy children can not wear colored belts, shoe, socks,Or accessaries. So if your child does not dress accordingly they will be suspended for 2 days. We as parents were told to purchase white or black shoes and belts for your child, I don't know about you but I had already purchased school over the summer. I also think that this is extremely ridiculous the reason behind the new change in policy. GANGS, thats right parents, that 5 letter word. Over the years since uniforms have been in schools the teen crime has risen, the reason that they gave to start with uniforms was fighting and other behavior problems, are on the rise as well! Parents its time that our voice be heard about issue relating to our children. Sources say that Stephanie Gatewood has personal ties with the newly revised policy!! Her child(ren) are not the only ones that attend schools in district 1, I feel that it's time that She hears our voice let me hear your voice!!! Thanks for taking the time out to read this small but vital information, I know that I am NOT alone!!!!!?