Monday, January 28, 2008

MCS: Suspending Blue Ribbon For A Day And Political Games For Six Months

Sometimes, it seems like the board of commissioners for Memphis City Schools finds it hard to take a step in the right direction without first shooting themselves in the foot.

That was certainly the case with its recent decision to launch a national search for a new superintendent that's optimistically supposed to take six months.

There’s no disputing the wisdom of the decision to begin the national search. After all, it seems a given that the 115,000 students in the city schools deserve the best possible leadership the board can find.

Conflicting Messages

Unfortunately, that’s certainly not the message that was sent by some of the board members. Overall, their comments did nothing so much as suggest to possible candidates for superintendent that the whole thing might be little more than a sham.

Commissioner Ken Whalum apparently wants to put up a sign that says only black men need apply.

Commissioner Jeff Warren garbles the purpose of search firms, suggesting that they only recruit people looking for jobs.

Commissioner Sharon Webb seems to think that anybody should be given special points for merely sharing her area code.

A Real Search?

But most disturbing of all, chairman of the search committee itself, Commissioner Martavius Jones actually undermined the integrity of his own process by saying that he favors a Memphis candidate and even went so far as to name him, Alfred Hall, who happens to be chief academic officer for our district, which, at last count, had 100 schools that are not meeting state benchmarks.

Also, that number will jump dramatically in the coming year as the Tennessee Department of Education ratchets up its standards for its tests, and the most important thing that the chief academic officer can do about now is to reveal his strategies for getting city schools in compliance.

All in all, it’s just so frustrating. We want so badly to be supportive of this board as it comes to grips with an array of challenges that are the toughest ever faced by Memphis City Schools. But this overall display of ineptitude was enough to make us throw up our hands.

Wanted: Mediocre Leader

We’ve written before about the board’s apparent lack of ambition, as exemplified by the feeble notion that the solution to superintendent turnover is to select someone from inside the district who will stay for a longer period of time. This seems to presuppose that the person would be so mediocre that no other school district would ever be tempted to hire him/her away.

The truth is that in public education today, any urban district that keeps a superintendent for 7-10 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 the superintendent away. It’s sort of like the choice of keeping Wayne Yates at the helm of U of M basketball for a lot of years or hiring John Calipari, even if he only stays for a few years.

So, here’s our modest proposal. Preference should indeed be given to local candidates for superintendent…as long as they have been recruited for the superintendent job at other districts. Otherwise, we’re admitting at the outset that we’ll settle for on-the-job training at the expense of finding someone ready to tackle the demands of the job on their first day.

The Vision Thing

Here’s the thing. Former superintendent Carol Johnson stayed for the length of time that is the norm these days in urban districts – about three and a half years. It’s not her departure that created confusion and chaos. It’s the lack of a clear vision, a set of specific priorities and cohesive strategies at Memphis City Schools, and that is the responsibility of the board of commissioners, not just the superintendent.

When districts like ours wait for superintendents to tell us what we need to be doing – or to come to Memphis with a bag full of their favorite programs - it creates whiplash as the district is jerked this way and that. To keep this from happening, it’s the board’s sense of the district’s ambitions and needs that are the thread that keeps the district on course, regardless of who’s in the superintendent’s office.

It was conventional wisdom about four years ago that we could never attract a superintendent with national credentials to head up our district, and yet, because the board refused to accept that prediction and settled for someone inside the district, they found, recruited and hired Dr. Johnson. It would seem strange in the extreme if the board now believes that it should lower its expectations, and in the process, lower the quality of leadership that will be needed in the challenging coming years.

A “Real” Search

Most of all, contrary to the faulty notion of Commissioner Warren, “real” national searches – and it’s now up to the board to prove that this is what they are embarking on – won’t simply come back to the board with a list of people looking for jobs. Rather, the search directly reflects the seriousness that the board of commissioners brings to it, and if they are serious enough, the search firm will identify the best candidates (those whose experience and skills align with the needs and aspirations of Memphis City Schools).

By the way, if we are capable of figuring out a way to pay the kind of salary that elevated our university basketball program to another level, surely we can figure out a way to pay whatever it takes to bring an agent of change to Memphis City Schools. But first and foremost, our own board of commissioners has to prove to the people who elected them that they understand that they are making the most important hiring decision in this city and prove that we should be confident in their ability to get it done.

Board members do that by sharpening their aim and by making sure that potential candidates for the superintendent’s job know that we are deadly serious about hiring the best person we can find. In other words, they need to be shown convincingly that they should ignore all of the silly rhetoric of the search committee meeting, because the board is determined to hire the best.

Suspend Blue Ribbon

If the board and interim Superintendent Dan Ward get in a corrective mode, we think they should also suspend the controversial Blue Ribbon program that recognizes that beating children is the academic equivalent to water-boarding: you may get a promise of changed behavior, but all you really do is harden resistance and break down the effectiveness of the learning environment.

But, that said, we want a one-day suspension of Blue Ribbon for the sole purpose of someone taking a paddle to Ted Anderson, now Ridgeway Middle School basketball coach and former Hamilton High School basketball coach.

Coach Anderson is a serial child beater. He did it at Hamilton High where he was legendary for paddling boys for everything from missing free throws to missing class. Apparently, he longs for the day when Blue Ribbon ends and he can return to the good old days of pounding on students again.


He told The Commercial Appeal:
“This is the South, man, and young black boys don’t respect nothing but strength…’Sit down before I whip your (butt).’ They respect that…quick, fast and in a hurry, ‘Bend over here, boy, you’ve got three licks.’”

And this was the man that Interim Supt. Ward thought deserved a second chance after being removed from his high school coaching job for paddling and degrading players. Coach Anderson makes Britney Spears look like a fast learner.

Surely, it is unmistakably clear to Superintendent Ward that he made a grievous error allowing this man in a position where he can do further damage to young people, particularly middle school students who are at a point in their schooling where these kinds of experiences can make or break their academic success.


With friends like Coach Anderson, Superintendent Ward needs no enemies.

In the newspaper report, Coach Anderson recounted his dismissal at Hamilton High School about four years ago and called it “degrading.”

Now that’s a term he doesn’t fully understand, but if he needs some help, he can just ask his players. They know exactly what it feels like.


gcdiane said...

Absolutely fantastic!!! It is hard these days to find objective statements that are eye-opening and highly informative. I, for one, am completely clueless as to why we continue to treat education as if it is a popularity contest and not a profession.

Hopefully, the board will see this a a golden opportunity to position the district for change via great leadership. I really would like Smart City to do a comparison of other cities that have turned governance over to the mayor. DC is going through a complete overhaul after Mayor Fenty hired the ex-leader of one of the major ed. reform outfits. Worth taking a look at.

Anonymous said...

You should look at the book The Education Mayor, by Ken Wong. He was a guest on Smart City radio last week and the show can be heard via podcast. SCC, I am sure, will post the link below. Also you can get more information for a recent review of the literature on the subject to be found here: This is a major decision and I personally think Commissionere Jones should recuse himself as head of the personnel committee; how can he lead a search when he has personally destroyed it?

Anonymous said...

indeed the candidate search should include people from outside the city of memphis, but should not exclude memphians just because they're local. what's often difficult is being a prophet in one's own land. one of the interesting things about hiring outsiders is that they have no dog in the fight and don't have to worry about stepping on toes. so long as they have a genuine love for and commitment to memphis and educating kids, they should be welcome in our community.

it has been suggested that a young(er) person be hired as superintendent. this is a real opportunity for MCS as well as the kids in public schools in memphis: looking for the right person to fill this important job.

a quality leader of any age would have experience outside our city and a strong understanding of what it takes to turn a school system around. this would mean a comprehensive, community-wide educational commitment. mr. hall may or may not be the right pick for the job - i have no way of knowing whether he is or isn't. however, to blame him for the shortcomings of 100 schools in the mcs district is absurd. children's academic performance which translates into school performance is indicative of community well-being. if a disproportionate number of kids are struggling at schools, it's because they are also struggling in their communities as well. schools reflect community issues, and as such, unless we address the community-wide problem of poverty, it doesn't matter who is picked for the job of superintendent. the problems will remain...

it's interesting that you included blue ribbon commentary as well. i attended some of the community forums and as i listened to the teachers talk about their experiences with blue ribbon, i saw a familiar pattern emerging.

first, corporal punishment is unacceptable. that being said, accountability through a program like blue ribbon could work if there were a. group buy-in and b. a transparent, coherent and collective process for implementing the program.

if the teachers' concerns have merit, it is the implementation of the program, not necessarily its content, that is problematic.

teachers must feel empowered to utilize the blue ribbon tools to deal with problems in their classrooms. if they don't understand the new system in place, or if they feel unsupported by the administration, it undermines their classroom authority and actually contributes to problems.

if the blue ribbon issues are indicative of how the system operates, then perhaps we have to rethink the balance between what we do and how we do it, system-wide and community-wide.

gcdiane said...

Anonymous, I will pick up the book. I agree with your thoughts. The CEO of a school system should be recruited and chased - if they are worthy of it. The board should secure the search firm and then get out of the way and be prepared to stand behind their decision.

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