Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Cash Era Ushers In New Hope

Can Tuesday get here soon enough?

The dawning of the Kriner Cash era at Memphis City Schools would be reason enough for hopeful thinking, but with the current disarray and chaos at Memphis City Schools, expectations are so low that he has the opportunity to be a miracle worker.

If you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, that goes double for the new superintendent. He’s in the perfect storm, and the problem at the district is there’s a tendency to deny that the wind is even blowing.

Eyes On The Prize

Because of it, Superintendent Cash’s immediate problem is the same that confronted former Superintendent Carol Johnson when she arrived. Who should you trust? In her case, it resulted in her assembling the so-called Minneapolis Mafia that ultimately kept too much of a strangle hold on decision-making, and too often was ham-handed in its handling of internal communications while keeping too much information from her. The Mafia often conveyed a lack of trust in all things Memphis and rarely did anything to inspire entrepreneurial actions.

It’s clear now in hindsight that the Johnson Era was as much an exercise in wishful thinking as anything, and we admit our own culpability in that delusion. In the end, we all wanted so hard to believe that she was making the fundamental improvements that could turn around the district that we became willing suspects for civic hypnotism.

This time around, we are clear-eyed, almost fatalistically so, but it is in this environment that Superintendent Cash will find almost anyone in this city ready and willing to help if he can promise the kind of courage and candor that can transform the culture that strangles innovation, especially from outsiders. When we say outsiders, at Memphis City Schools, they don’t have to stray so far as to come from Miami. It includes almost anyone here who expresses an opinion that threatens the conventional wisdom or the status quo or anything that threatens the patronage and nepotism that lies behind too many decisions.

Breathing New Air

So far, Superintendent Cash seems a breath of fresh air, and if he can turn his rhetoric about data-driven decision-making, accountability and transparency into real policies and programs, he will have done something long considered impossible in our district.

Sometimes, here, it almost feels that data are the enemy. Meanwhile, districts like the Hamilton County (Chattanooga) School District demonstrate how data can be used to “inform instruction, enhance leadership, and motivate students to higher levels of achievement,” according to the local education fund there.

In a partnership with the district itself, the Public Education Foundation of Chattanooga has determined the measurements that matter and the data that drives change. Because of it, there’s an entirely new discussion taking place - about the connection between data and improved instruction – and it’s changing the existing culture of the district. The evidence came when teachers and principals changed their attitude toward data, and it was complemented by the creation of a nonjudgmental environment where they could debate what the numbers meant and use them to provoke new ideas and new thinking.

Numbers Matter

Most impressive of all is that the new attitude toward data resulted from a partnership between the school district and the city local education fund, and board members here say they have a new willingness to engage in these kinds of collaborations.

We can already hear people saying, “Memphis isn’t Chattanooga,” but there is much we can learn Chattanooga, where the district is trying innovations of all kinds and showing the results that come from it. The district and the local education fund report there that the achievement gaps are closing, the dropout rate is down, more students are graduating (and without the apples to oranges comparisons that are repeated proudly here) and more are going to college.

It all started with data. If Superintendent Cash is a man of his word, in the coming months, this entire city and the school board itself will learn some startling things about our district. We’ve written in the past about the way that some information and data has been regularly kept from board members, and it is in opening up the free flow of data and the honest interpretation of them that he can show immediately that a new day is dawning at Memphis City Schools.

First Things First

But it appears these days that before Mr. Cash can execute his vision for the district, he first must return order to its operations. It’s hard to think of a time when the district was in more turmoil than today. There’s self-dealing in some salary increases, apparently without interim superintendent Dan Ward’s knowledge, and even a reported attempt to back date them to avoid his discovery. Then there are reports that access to the HR system has been pared back to prevent oversight, and in light of the memo generated by Mr. Ward that warned of job cuts, the teachers’ grapevine is filled with stories of administrative waste, such as the top manager who receives a monthly car allowance but drives a district vehicle at the same time.

Suffice it to say that the district needs nothing right now so much as a grown-up in charge. And, as we’ve learned from the disastrous interim superintendency of Mr. Ward, that isn’t something that just comes with age. In a series of bad decisions, he not only drove the district into the ditch but kept his foot on the accelerator.

Back when he was appointed, we feared that he would be a do nothing interim appointee. We had advocated the appointment of someone who had the experience and the courage to make sure that the district didn’t lose momentum. What we didn’t count on was the damage that an interim superintendent could actually cause if that person was not only a product of the old school thinking, but wed to it.

Take The Door Marked Exit

Even as he headed toward the exit, he continued to do things like issue the baneful memo about job cuts and to announce a 10 percent across-the-board cut in all department budgets. It was yet one more example of the “stuck in the past” thinking that embodied his tenure.

There’s nothing in the public sector more irritating than the “lazy man’s budgeting.” Across-the-board cuts are motivated more by politics than budget management. It’s a method used by bureaucrats as an attempt to turn up the heat on elected officials with whom they disagree (in this case, City Council’s overdue action to reduce Memphian’s double taxation for schools).

The classic example is the predictable response by the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department to any contemplated cuts. With so many programs to choose from, the Department picked rat control and mosquito spraying, because these were the two areas that would get the public up in arms the quickest.

Restoring The Missing Credibility

Back to the school district, the 10 percent across-the-board cuts are one of the most ill-conceived tactics used in the public sector. Surely, some programs and services have higher priority than everything else, and if district officials were doing their jobs, they would have a list of priorities so any budget cuts would reflect the overall priorities of services to the district.

But there’s another reason that across-the-board cuts are the lazy man’s approach to budgeting. It punishes those department heads who submit “honest” budgets, and rewards those who pad their budgets for occasions just like this. And believe it or not, in public bureaucracies, it is generally no secret about who falls into each category. Equally important, the “spread the pain” approach begun by Mr. Ward does nothing to restore the credibility of Memphis City Schools at the very time that it’s needed as the foundation for the future. We hope that Mr. Cash will reverse Mr. Ward’s across-the-board edict and get his staff to work on the real job of budgeting.

We also hope that Mr. Cash will meet with Louise Mercuro, former executive director of capital planning and transportation, until the interim superintendent, in what has been called by insiders a fit of pique, fired her summarily on the basis of erroneous information. We think Mr. Cash should meet with her to learn about her plans to make schools once again centers for community and to encourage walkable school districts. These too should be centerpieces of his plans for the future.


In the end, it should be no secret that Mr. Cash’s first order of business is to restore the credibility of the district. His second order of business is to find some short-term wins that send the unmistakable message that he’s a serious agent for change.

His third order of business is to prove to Memphians that serious school reform is gritty, long-term work. There are no magic bullets. There are no simple answers. There is no alchemy to school improvement. There is only the alchemy of systemic, long-term, grind-it-out work.

These are tough challenges, but we predict that Mr. Cash will be surprised by the outpouring of support that he will receive for trying. We’re past the time for clever public relations and squarely in the time for transformative public policy. We can only hope that he’s the vehicle to that better future.


Zippy the giver said...

What a great synopsis.
I would say that it is a bit more important due to things adding up on the runaway spending and time theft/salary theft side, it adds up to way more than you'de think, and the job cuts letter being sent to teachers is definitely old bad ways politics too.

Anonymous said...

We might want to suggest to Dr. Cash that along with the strong culture of nepotism within MCS, there is also a mid-level, and even upper-level, entrenched bureaucratic resistance to any change which might upset the employment bureaucracy which MCS has become.

Look, for instance, at the work done by The New Teacher Project (TNTP), formerly headed by the current Chancellor of Washington, D.C. Schools Michelle Rhee. TNTP worked for several years with MCS HR department for reform with great success. However, one the items they were to address, as written in the federal grant which partially funded this work, was an effort to reform work rules with the Memphis Education Association. MCS never allowed this work to be undertaken under the Johnson administration. Until the arcane work rules, specifically those involving assignment of teachers, are rewritten many problems will continue.

In addition, the work of TNTP was to move the hiring process up in a manner which allowed offers of jobs to new teachers to be made early enough in the hiring season that MCS could compete with suburban schools. This change was fought and fought until the hiring has crept back to the sluggish timeline which continues to create a plethora of "missed opportunities" in hiring.

Ed reformer said...

It was timely that the CA rolled out an article on the reform efforts driven by Chancellor Rhee and Mayor Fenty - indeed, it does make for a relevant example of how the new Superintendent could (and should shake up the inertia of a district consumed by decades of mediocrity).

The most important lesson - the usual rancor from the drones that are the middle and lower management of MCS will undoubtedly ensue. Therefore, the key is to act swiftly and decisively in removing the many poor performers in the central office and the rank and file leading the schools. The MEA (local union) should be put on notice that business as usual is over. It's time to focus on student results, and put some of the adult's selfish concerns in the backseat (some in the trunk).

Not to say Cash should come in guns blazing in wild-west fashion -he will have to use a combination of forceful decison making, deft political maneuvering, and a Reaganesque communication style.

But the bottomline message is that we are not going backward and that nothing should play second fiddle to data and student achievement results.

Anonymous said...

Dear Ed,

While I agree with your call for reform, one of the major problems that MCS will have to face as it cleans out the offices on Avery, which it desperately needs to do, is that the labor pool in Memphis is very shallow. This is, at least in part, due to the poor education obtained from MCS.

Ed reformer said...

Anonymous 12:39

Agreed - the talent pool in Memphis is meager, at best, right now.

That said, there are a number of compelling human capital initiatives(mostly nationally-focused organizations)that could infuse the local education system with the much needed talent.

The likes of TNTP, New Leaders for New Schools, Teach for America, have drawn untold numbers of bright, energetic folks into the education fray. Most of them are staying due to their passion for the work.

The real hinderance to bringing great folks/initiatives in is Memphis'long-standing distrust for anything/any person outside of the city (due to a very insular culture). An earlier poster pointed out some of the shortcomings of the TNTP project with MCS. The commentary was spot on.

If the new Superintendent embraces some of the most promising initiatives, no matter whenceforth they come, the Memphis school system will reap huge dividends.

Zippy the giver said...

Total agreement, the more people we can pull in from outside Memphis to replace the roadblocks with much much much more qualified and MOTIVATED staff will be better, but, not the be all end all.
Some people don't need replacing. There should be some kind of retraining effort for the multitude that MUST be let go so they don't get into some other kind of work and goof up another industry, and give Memphis another bad reputation to get over.

Anonymous said...

Dear Ed,

All of the shortcomings of TNTP with MCS came from MCS.

Anonymous said...

Ed Reformer,

Please tell us one positive thing NLNS has brought to Memphis. They have no positive outcome, they have no proven track record, and they have even abandoned their own business plan. The result has been that they have raided the UM education leadership program of students and suceeded in nothing. Not in Memphis, and from their inability to show any positive outcome research, not anywhere.

Ed reformer said...

Anonymous 8:50

I agree - MCS fumbled the ball with TNTP. That was the point I was trying to make when referring to Memphis' (particularly MCS) insular culture.

Ed reformer said...

Anonymous 8:56

Interesting you would defend U of M's track record. They have been in business for how long now pumping out educators? And the result - none too promising. What with all of the academic indicators coming out of the district - have U of M educators been sandbagging all this time - or my sorely misguided about the state of affairs of our public education system.

I appreciate your point in that New Leaders has a ways to go in proving out the model. That said, New Leaders has started to show promising gains. In fact, MCS schools led by New Leader's principals have outgained the district in math and reading (albeit not a lot, but
an improvement - particularly for a program that is only 4 yrs going at MCS).

So you're beating on an initiative that has been around 4 yrs here and lauding an institution that has been around for the better part of the last century - with mediocre results at best.

Lastly, let's not forget that NLNS principals parachute into a environment still dominated by lowsy union agreements and mind numbing bureacracy. Are we asking for a program to overhaul things overnight?

How about let's give some fresh ideas a chance? I can assure you that most universities are far from espousing a spirit of innovation and joining the "what works" camp.

Anonymous said...

Ed, I guess those UM leaders are in a different environment from the one you say NLNS has to overcome. Don't try tht trick it doesn't wash.

While you're at it, I suppose you want to defend TFA which has equally bad assessment nationally. And they only stick around for 2 years.

Ed reformer said...

Anonymous 9:52

Didn't want to address U of M record huh? Not much to say I guess.

And TFA - did ya catch the recent North Carolina study? (probably flawed I suppose you think). You might point me to your reports. No way, I guess, some high GPAing college grad can outdo those ed school folks, much less the likes of the veteran ranks. Oh, and did you know that over 60% of TFAers stick around in education (in many roles from political positions to school leadership to policy tanks.)

It's great to have this debate, but at least come to the table with some sort of substantiated claims.

Anonymous said...

The gotcha' post of yours is like the gotcha "research" of those driving the ed "reform" movement. The likes of Paul Hill, Checker Finn and their many students who set up their own "think tanks" and flood the market with non-peer reviewed research which supports their silver bullet dujour.

To date most of these reforms show mixed results at best; many are flat out failures still being driven by their ideological fervor and the deep pockets of those who want them to work. This is exactly why the Gates foundation is beginning to move away from the fads and going to teacher preparation and professional development as their primary focus on education.

Ed reformer said...

Anonymous 9:54

Let's go one more round on this-

What strikes me is that you're just attacking - while not offering any credible solutions. Is that the position you want to take - trying to beat up on entrepreneurs who are trying to solve extremely complex problems? The mass failings of the education system (and frustrations of many well intentioned reformers) have driven these intiatives. Certainly, everything is not perfect, but there are some promising results coming out of organizations like TFA, New Leaders and organizations of that ilk.

And I know I have been beating up on U of M - but my point here is that the long-standing educational institutions are not getting it done. The numbers are not good in the district: we have abysmal test results, an unacceptable drop out rate, and few making it through any post-secondary education route (the average ACT score is 17 and change)- not even good enough to get into U of M (the main university in the city!)

So, you're going to throw feckless jabs at folks trying to change the educational opportunities for kids strangled by few education options? You want to defend the status quo? Should we throw more money at it - (...just give U of M and other universities more money, and we promise to get better).

This is complete rubbish and what's wrong with the education system.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, That no-good UM. Let's be clear who we are slamming:

Ellen Davies-Rodgers '23
J. Millard Smith '29
H. Frank Magoffin '32, '37
Harvey F. Maxwell Sr. '46
C.L. "Billy" McComas '41
Bob T. Williams '58
Carol Cameron Darr '73, '76
Curtis S. Person Jr. '56
Ronald A. Terry '52
Brig. Gen. A. Paul Bruno '54
R. Brad Martin '76
William N. Morris '54
George E. Crone Jr. '59
Maj. Gen. H.L. Grills '24, '26
H. Pat Heffernan '63
Dr. William R. Lucas '43
R.Adm. Clinton W. Taylor '52
Dr. James W. Williams '66
James A. Hadley Jr. '52
Dr. E. Grady Bogue '57, '65, '68
William W. Farris Sr. '45
William T. Mullen '65, '67
J. Olin Atkins '57, '58
Charles K. Fisher Jr. '57
Pat Kerr Tigrett '63
Angus McEachran '63
Maj. Benjamin R. Schultze '64, '68
Barbara Truax Slover '52
Dr. W.W. Herenton '66
Dr. Kenneth T. Jackson '61
Nicholas L. Johnson '74
Dixie V. Carter '63
Bernice B. Donald '74, '79
Roy W. Black Jr. '61
Dr. Otis L. Floyd '80
Richard C. Hackett '73
Lily Peter '27
Robert Wang '75
Mj. Gen. Donald R. Gardner '60, '73
Dr. Albert C. Yates '65
Rex M. Deloach '63
Dr. Marilyn E. Newhoff '77
J. Harry Woodbury '40
R. Michael Jeter '74
Dr. Archie L. McNeal '32
Dr. J. Boyd Saunders '59
Pauline A. Weaver '71, '74
Veronica F. Coleman '75
Maj. Gen. James Hobson Jr. '75
Dr. James D. Johnson '43
Kellye Cash '87
Sara L. Lewis '72
James L. Rout Jr. '64
Fred Thompson '64
C. Cleveland Drennon Jr. '54
William B. Dunavant '54
Barbara Walker Hummel '48
E. Taylor Richardson '62
R. Jack Fishman '55
Vicki Roman Palmer '80
Dr. Charles H. Brown '68, '70
Benjamin C. Bryant '68, '95
Gail Robinson '66
Tina Santi Flaherty
J.M. "Mickey" Robinson '68
Lt. Gov. John S. Wilder '58
John C. Kelley Jr. '74
Jim Phillips '73, '75
Laurie Tucker '78, '83
Robert "Butch" Childers '71, '74
Frank Flautt '63
Allie Prescott '69, '72
Harold Byrd '71, '75
Margaret Craddock '83, '88
Dan Palmer '66
Marla Johnson Norris '81
James Thomas "Tom" Watson '70
Ken May '83
Deanie Parker '77, '88
Dorothy Johnson Pounders '76, '81
Jmes W. Ayers, '65
Marguerite B. Cooper '68, '74
Barbara K. Lipman, '83
H. Frank Ricks Jr., '77
G. Douglas Edwards, '74
Cathy Ross, '82
William Sanderson, '68, '71

Ed reformer said...

I would also list out some names - the many thousands of memphis students who have been shortchanged and whose future is in jeopardy. I'm afraid the list might be too long for this blog. And they won't have a class number by their names, because we have failed to teach them.

But, by all means, please list the distinguished alum of the university (because it's about the adults - right?) How dare we hold adults accountable for student success.

My last word on this subject - pathetic. Not worth any more exchanges on this.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 2:35:

Is that the best list you can come up with for the 50+ years covered by it. So you can proffer a handful of names while the college graduated how many tens of thousands of students. Weak.

How about trying to answer ed reformer's question?

George said...

Now boys and girls let’s not all, what was it SMC?, get our panties all in a wad. First the post is very good and raises many issues which should be of concern to Dr. Cash and everyone else in Memphis. Let me apologize in advance for the length; some of you might want to move on rather than read this.

The claims and counterclaims from Ed Reformer and Anonymous could use some sorting out. First, I want to issue the disclaimer and admit that I was previously (many years ago) and am currently employed at UM and will rightly defend it. I believe the list is the distinguished alumni list of UM and does indeed include many distinguished graduates. In addition, I would point out that some of the departments and programs at UM are world renowned, not the least of which is the Math department. But also included are other award winning departments and faculty. In fact, some of the graduates of UM go on to become teachers in Teach For America.

I am not going to defend the current state of teacher education at UM or ANYWHERE else for that matter. For years I have been an advocate of the model proposed by the Carnegie Foundation two or three decades ago, and repeated in the last few years, which suggests that all teachers should get a BA or BS degree in their disciplinary area first then get a Masters in teaching.

Yes, teaching is that difficult. If you don't think so, try it. In fact it is so difficult that most teachers entering the field do not reach their full potential until they have spent 3 to 5 years in the classroom (now that is one of the shortcomings of the two year commitment of TFA); unfortunately about 50% of teachers leave the field by they end of their fifth year. We cannot possible keep up with the current demand for good teachers under the current market circumstances. That said, I do believe UM produces some good teachers; they also produce some bad ones and the same could be said for any College of Education in the country.

The fact that some 60% of TFA folks stick around is fine if they happen to be some of the better teachers. The idea that they go into administration or education policy after two years experience is just plain scary to me. I have been around it for over 30 years and am still working to figure it all out.

The idea that the upside of TFA is that it serves as out talent magnet, an issue of great concern to the writer of this blog, is both good and questionable. It is good that we are getting some young bright college graduates to relocate to Memphis; from the budgets I have seen TFA seems an expensive talent recruitment program.

Now to the achievement merits of TFA; there are as many studies showing that TFA works as there studies which raise significant doubts. Same could be said for about any teacher preparation program. Worst case scenario we get some good teachers and some bad teachers for two years then they may or may not stay in Memphis, adding to the talent pool we so desperately need.

As for New Leaders for New Schools, I have not seen the data Ed Reformer says exists which shows NLNS principals having success in Memphis; if they are well and good. What I do know is that a national evaluation of the program was done several years ago and the results have never seen the light of day. I also feel quite confident that if the result were positive NLNS would be trumpeting them around the globe. They do tend to be shameless self-promoters; see for example the Fast Company awards they have gotten with no proven results as example of this.

As for solutions, they will be in the classroom. Yes, leadership is important, that is why we are all so hopeful regarding Dr. Cash. But teaching and learning go on in the classroom. We need strong professional development programs and mentoring for our teachers. We really don’t need silver bullets; too many of them offer only mixed results at best. We need a community which values and works to solve the problems of education and acknowledges the successes.

Not many people in the US today are aware that the largest national test given to students in K-12 is the NAEP and the scores have gone up almost every year since we began giving the exam over 20 years ago.

I have been teaching for about 30 years, I have been trying to understand education longer than that. I have taught and been an administrator at some of the best schools in the country; public (Rackham Graduate School at the University of Michigan and SPEA the number three ranked public affairs school in the country) and private (Denison University in Ohio). I am well aware of the needs to improve education I am also well aware that it is not as bad as many of the naysayers believe. There are, however, many unique challenges in Memphis and especially MCS. I hope we will all be there to make the positive contributions which will be necessary.

If you are still reading, thanks for your interest.

Anonymous said...

It's very telling that not one grad on the list was from the last 20 years.
We do need new ideas and new places to get them from and they need to have no political ties to the current structure at all. It seems that both sides are accidentally hell-bent on destroying education here and the results are in, mission accomplished.

George said...

Anonymous 10:24,

Actually, I see two from 1988, which would be twenty years ago. Keep in mind that this list appears to be the distinguished alumni. That, by definition, suggests that they will be well into their careers and well established. For that reason I am not too concerned that they have graduation dates stretching back. I do believe the UM has an alumni award, recently established, for up and coming or "newer" alum. You would probably see the more recent, or younger, distinguished alum on that list.

I believe the point was that UM has and does contrinute significantly to the talent pool in the city/region. In addition, they have done this despite the challenge of doing so without their own board and being forced to play second fiddle to UT.

Probably the most rational thing the Tennessee Board of Regents could do is merge the UT Center for Health Science with UM and then allow them to have an independent board. This move would allow both UM and UTCHSC to improve to the betterment of Memphis.

Anonymous said...

This "distinguished" list is absolutely besides the point and an obfuscation. If the university of memphis is churning out most of our teachers, why shouldn't it be held responsible for the dismal city schools record?

George said...

Dear Anonymous 4:58,

Following your logic, which is fraught with the simple error of the ecological fallacy, one might say that since George W. Bush has created an anathema with the Iraq war we should shut down Yale and Harvard. If UM is so bad in educating teachers, why is it that Shelby county school district is doing so much better with the same labor pool? We certainly need a much more nuanced analysis of the problem than to say, it is UM because that is where the teachers are educated.

Perhaps we might look at the structure and culture of MCS as the culprit before we begin to pile on UM. Many of our (the public) frustrations with MCS have risen with the current lack of administrative oversight at Avery not in the classrooms. However, what is or is not happening in the classrooms is highly correlated with what is going on in the at Avery; which way does the causal arrow point?

The list of distinguished graduates from UM points out that there are any number of highly successful alum and their success, while not entirely attributable to the UM degree, suggests that failure of some is not entirely attributable to UM either.

Much better analysis is necessary to better understand what is happening regarding edudcation than to make these suprious speculations.

Anonymous said...

It's a scare tactic to say that the teacher's jobs will be cut....the district may as well fold up if that's the case. That would be like FedEx cutting ground operation workers in the hub and the couriers. Ground operations personnel is the nuts and bolts of the Company same as teachers are the nuts and bolts of MCS. The "waste" is at the district office on Avery. If it weren't for the teachers, the staff smucks on Avery wouldn't have a job.

Zippy the giver said...

The problem RIGHT NOW is an EXTREME case of union overreach, disgruntled employees, no effective communication between staff, admin, and teachers, no motivation to have that, infighting on the board, manipulation of the system by all involved to achieve goals instead of a clear and magnetizing common goal, no common language, lack of effective oversight, manipulating stats that would have shown the developing problem, not following directions, hiding the corrosion of the disfunction, and over all
It has de-volved into a culture of idiots willing to do anything but their job while trying to avoid being fired at all cost more than anyhting else.
What results would you expect?