Sunday, May 18, 2008

Superintendent Search Defies Predictable Script

And then there were three.

Would the last person standing please run Memphis City Schools for us?

If superintendent-wannabe Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton had written a script to move him toward the helm of the district, he couldn’t have done it any better.

All of a sudden, it seems a real possibility.

The Factors

First, there’s the oft-stated opinion that the next superintendent should be an African-American man. There’s only one candidate left who fits that profile – Kriner Cash, chief of accountability and systemwide performance for Miami-Dade Public Schools. The other African-American man in the final five was Buffalo Superintendent James Williams who bowed out after his baggage there became too much for a trip to Memphis for an interview.

Second, the Florida candidate is said to be most interested in the vacant Cincinnati superintendent’s job, but the finalists for the June interviews for that position haven’t been announced yet. The conventional wisdom is that if given a shot at the Ohio job in his hometown, Mr. Cash is likely to bow out of the Memphis hunt.

Third, that would leave only one African-American man with a stated interest in the Memphis City Schools job and the educational credentials that could finally put him at the front ranks of people to run the schools – Mayor Herenton. And, is there any city in the U.S. with a track record for conducting “national searches” and then picking an insider from Memphis?

The Favorite

While he has repeatedly said that he’s not interested in the job, Mayor Herenton’s closest advisers continue to say that if given the chance, he would snap up the chance to have the superintendent’s job book end his terms as mayor. In fact, he reportedly continues to fine tune his strategies for turning around the district.

At this point, however, Mr. Cash seems to be the prohibitive favorite for the Memphis superintendency. Most board members were impressed by his answers to their questions, albeit mostly softball ones, during his recent interview – equal parts assertive, philosophical, inspirational and confident. Of course, the fact that he’s been an understudy to school reformer and 2008 National Superintendent of the Year Rudy Crew also gets him major points (although we wonder what would happen if a Calipari-style proposal was put to Mr. Crew himself).

Mr. Crew – well-connected in political and educational circles across the U.S. and who lost his job as head of New York City Schools for the best of all reasons, opposing private school vouchers – speaks glowingly of Mr. Cash, who has worked for him for three years at the nation’s fourth largest school district.

Casting A Shadow

We predict that the board, in response to concerns about Mayor Herenton’s shadow casting a large shadow over their process, will step up the process as much as possible to find a superintendent as quickly as possible. This may effectively force a decision from Mr. Cash who may be unable to wait until the smoke clears in Cincinnati to weigh his options.

Already, Memphis City Schools’ chief of staff is collecting money to buy Interim Superintendent Dan Ward his good-bye gift, and although she suggested that his last day may be at the end of May, Mr. Ward appears to have a mid-June date in mind. At any rate, all of this puts even more urgency behind a process that was already moving at a quickened pace.

Meanwhile, the Cincinnati superintendent search has the potential for delays as a result of its board’s wise decision to create a 20-member search committee that includes grassroots leaders and organizational representatives. Already, some members are saying that the mid-June deadline for identifying finalists is too ambitious.


It seems highly possible that both candidates who have withdrawn – Mr. Williams and Montgomery County (Virginia) Superintendent Tiffany Anderson – were well-aware of Mayor Herenton’s specter over the process, and if they are media savvy at all, they knew of his television interviews about the kind of superintendent needed here as the interviews began.

Mr. Cash seemed especially savvy about such things as a result of his experience in the political cauldron that is the Miami school district. We’ll know just how smart he is if, by the time he returns for his follow-up interview, he has talked directly with Mayor Herenton, because it is well within the realm of possibilities that the mayor would be impressed and endorse him.

As the process takes a detour caused by the candidates’ withdrawals and that creates a sense of discomfort among some board members, it’s worth saluting them for launching a national search in the first place and for sticking with it. In the beginning, there was widespread suspicion that the fix was in and that a majority was determined to drive the process to select their favorite son candidate, academic director Alfred Hall.

Educational Balkans

Apparently, there will be several weeks between the departure of Mr. Ward and the arrival of the new superintendent, and if there are any hopes still harbored for Mr. Hall, they may surface in the appointment of Mr. Hall as the interim interim superintendent.

As the board determines what it wants from the next superintendent, the board will also have the opportunity to determine what it wants from itself. Perhaps, the board – as city and county governments are in the process of doing – will consider much-needed changes that can improve decisions of Memphis City Schools.

Chief among them should be a shift from district-based elections that create a balkanized board preoccupied by patronage issues. While we believe that a mayor-appointed board would be preferable to the present structure, citywide elections would be preferable to the current arrangement.

Getting The Focus Right

Other reforms are equally needed, because as Richard Elmore, education professor at Harvard University, has said, “it would be difficult to invent a more dysfunctional organization for a performance-based accountability system” than today’s public education system.

To that point, elections of members by district distract the board from the overall vision for the district as they address and respond to school loyalties and constituent services from a small part of the city, fragmenting the focus of the board, dividing its effectiveness for overall district policy-setting and injecting them into issues from teacher assignment to principal appointment to school facilities that rest more appropriately with the school administration.

In other words, elections by these districts create political connections that run into the district bureaucracy and often cloud the clear decision-making of the board itself. This is not an indictment of the current board or administration, because it is has existed for years as the nature of the structure itself.

The Right Focus

Of course, there are other board responsibilities even more important – such as a laser-like focus on performance-based, data-driven accountability measured by graduation rates, increased enrollment in college, ability to obtain and keep good jobs and not just merely by test scores.

Most of all, it is the board’s responsibility above all others to make sure that jobs are held by people based on what they know, not who they know. In this regard, in pursuit of greater transparency, the board should insist that the nepotism forms required by district policy are actually being filed.

No one should need reminders that this is a history-altering moment for Memphis City Schools, and by extension, for Memphis. But history doesn’t just happen. It requires leaders who step forward to set in motion new thinking that can define a new destiny. Every decision made in Memphis City Schools – particularly selection of a superintendent – should be made on this basis.


fieldguidetomemphis said...

The future superintendent will have his/her hands full in dealing with the myriad interconnected problems facing children in Memphis who attend public schools. And it is so incredibly important that s/he understand that all of the problems hold hands - schools are microcosms of the community.

There seem to be three interrelated key issues that keep surfacing: test scores, dropout rates and the effects of poverty. Kids in poverty tend to have lower test scores and be at risk for dropping out, and they cost more to educate.

We might consider the idea that test scores in Memphis are actually higher because 1 in 3 students does not graduate from high school. If we were to retain these students who are likely behind their peers in reading, math and science, the test scores that - while on par with the state - are somewhat discouraging might be even more so if the dropouts contributed to the achievement tests.

This is a tremendous quandary. What do we do? If we kept more kids in school, our test scores could drop, jeopardizing AYP and succeeding under NCLB. But what is the alternative? Are we supposed to let kids drop out in droves to be scooped up by the prison system? To be scooped up by social services? To end up with dead-end low-paying jobs with no career ladders? Are we supposed to lower the bar so it's easier to pass the tests, to make the grade and to graduate?

Or do we hold on to higher standards and make everyone accountable and make the processes of determining achievement more transparent and less labyrinth-like? (This gets my vote.)

We all have to acknowledge that every child is worth saving. Every child is worth our investment. The future of children in economically and racially segregated schools is intimately tied to the future of our community. This "underclass" so named by William Julius Wilson does not have to exist in perpetuity. It is possible to envision and create another future where kids thrive, and where opportunities are not a zero-sum game. Some don't have to win, succeed and thrive at the expense of many.

We must have a comprehensive educational plan that starts in the prekindergarten classrooms and extends through early adulthood so we can recapture the dropouts and give them the skills and training (through GED or vocational or on-the-job) to create a successful life that breaks the cycle of poverty.

This is the key: a comprehensive strategy that begins in early childhood and extends to early adulthood, acknowledging the interrelatedness of all the issues facing students and schools.

"Every Day, Every Child, College Bound" is a fantastic slogan that should and can be true, but it's presently unrealistic given the massive middle-class opt out from public schools in our community and the public/private chasm that continues to widen. Susan Mayer's work ("How Economic Segregation Affects Children's Educational Attainment," Social Forces; September 2002) should be mandatory reading for our new superintendent.

Kelvin Oliver said...

I have my eye on that one candidate that was interviwed today from Florida. He seems ready and prepared for the job.

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