Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Finding The Vision For The Cash Era

No one in elected or appointed office in Memphis has ever had as many people pulling for his success as new Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash.

That’s why we know that he’s giving serious thought to how he’s introducing himself to the community. After all, you only have one chance to introduce yourself and how you do it in such a politically volatile environment sets the framework that can create momentum, or conversely, it can erode it.

There’s no question that since he took the helm of our school district, he’s been man on a mission. It’s less clear what that ultimate mission is, because he hasn’t fully taken advantage of this unique opportunity, when every person in the region is listening to hear him define his vision and describe his priorities.

Rallying The Public

Perhaps, the media have been poor in relaying this kind of information, but if Superintendent Cash will learn anything in the early days of his first top job at an urban district, he’ll learn that he needs to decide what his message is and he needs to repeat it until every one’s mouths move when he says it.

If Superintendent Cash stays at Memphis City Schools through June 30, 2012, the last day of his four-year contract, there will never be days that are more precious than today. As for us, we think – and we suspect he agrees - that his priority is to lay out a compelling vision and rally the public to join him in a historic movement of school reform.

That’s why we think that the media’s notoriously short attention span should be used to do more than roll out a laundry list of district initiatives, but an over-arching vision that represents the thrust of the Cash Era. Perhaps, it is Breakthrough Leadership/Breakthrough Results, the theme of his powerpoint presentation, but we doubt it. The problems of Memphis City Schools demand more than just better leadership. It needs a interlocking network of strategies that work together to transform the district, and leadership of course is one of them.

100 Days And 60 “Initiatives”

Superintendent Cash – in the fashion of elected officials – has unveiled a 100-day agenda that appears daunting. It includes about 60 “initiatives” that he intends to get done by October, ranging from the ambitious (develop a comprehensive plan to eliminate low-performing schools) to the mundane (complete July media tour) to the political (a strategy du jour with each board of commissioner).

In a district with needs that are as broad as Memphis City Schools and challenges as deep, this is well and good. We all know that the problems of the district will not be solved with a few initiatives on a few fronts, but with multiple programs on many fronts.

We admire the ambition of the superintendent’s list, particularly the items that deal with transforming the suffocating, self-centered approach of the central office. Most of the list feels more tactical than strategic, and we still think the superintendent could benefit from boiling them down into his a vision for the district and easy-to-remember themes that are instrumental to our schools’ success.

Keep The Main Thing The Main Thing

We need to Superintendent Cash to emblazon them on all of our minds as the priorities to turn around the district by identifying the levers of change that have the greatest impact and the clear philosophy buttressing them. We need him to appoint about a dozen top lieutenants (hopefully without any more big raises – one already being a $60,000 jump - that have so far been handed out to the new arrivals from Miami) and then we need him to rally the troops who are waiting for a well-articulated crusade for our schools.

For example, we’d be motivated if he told us how, like several school systems in other countries considered great, he plans to select teachers from the top third of college graduates rather than the bottom third. This by the way is often accomplished not just with money but through a civic culture that possesses a high respect for teachers, something the U.S. hasn’t managed since “A Nation At Risk” tarred and feathered schools 25 years ago. Some progress in teacher quality was being made by The New Teacher Project before the previous administration limited its effectiveness and reined in its work.

Also, we’d explain that safe and orderly schools aren’t measured just by law-abiding surroundings and student discipline. All of us need to understand that it’s a generally accepted set of values and norms that make the difference, not school cops and metal detectors. This, too, goes back to culture, because researchers have concluded that it is the culture of an organization that plays the dominant role in exemplary performance, and that’s why building a new culture is hard, bruising work.


The payoff is the direct link between a school’s climate and its educational outcomes. It is this ultimate payoff that taxpayers need to be reminded of daily, because Memphians are desperate to feel that someone is in charge and has a way to turn around the district.

Much of it is about getting the basics right, but it also about engaging in the “disruptive innovations” that can better prepare our students for the knowledge economy in which Memphis now occupies the lower rungs. It’s about experimenting with a school system mired in a century-old infatuation with schools as factories that stamp out the same product with the same sequence at the same age at the same grade levels. Some district is going to invent a new student-centric instruction model, and there’s no reason that it can’t be Memphis City Schools.

Finally, we think Superintendent Cash should say it over and over: He will conduct this city’s first school conversation on full, candid, and transparent information, data and accountability of the district. The only thing more malignant in Memphis than the feeling that nothing can be done to improve our schools is the malignant feeling that the public isn’t being given all the facts.

The Truth And Nothing But The Truth

But the benefit isn’t just to the public, because better data and honest debate within the district could also be used for decision-making, such as how to predict dropouts. Colleges are doing it already with the development of a “risk algorithm” that takes into account variables that correlate the risk of each student to drop out. Clearly, one of these factors here would be transience, since in 80% of city schools, more than 30% of the students move schools each year.

The stakes couldn’t be higher, because we already know from research that boosting high school graduation rates would save $127,000 for each new graduate through extra tax revenues, reduced cost of public health, crime and justice, and decreased welfare payments.

If truth and honesty is the heart of a friendship, it’s also the heart of an effective community whose citizens are joined by their confidence that what they are doing to help their schools can indeed work. There is no greater indicator of Superintendent Cash’s success than this.


Kelvin Oliver said...

I really like the way you layout all of the articles I've read (on local news websites) into one nice knitted post. Though I'm in college, there is still a concern about the school system. I do look forward to seeing all his plans pop off the paper and into action.

Zippy the giver said...

Maybe he should put a crystal skull on his desk?

SCM, you wrote, "Some district is going to invent a new student-centric instruction model, and there’s no reason that it can’t be Memphis City Schools."

That has already been done. There are very successful chools on this planet right now.
The reason Memphis should "stop trying to invent things" is because Memphi can't get it's narcissistic culture's head wrapped around the fact that it is under educated and ill equipped to invent anything that works. The results are IN. It should get up close and very intimate with Listening and Learning from OTHERS. If it can get THAT down it may have a chance.

Dr. Cash is doing fine, he is not attacking this from the standpoint of managing loss, which is the common Memphis Paradigm of Leadership, he is attacking it from the standpoint of going for an all out super-win.
The results from those two distinctly different fuels for the future are as different as losing and winning. With the former, you are still aiming at losing, with the latter, you are aiming at winning big. You have absolutely no chance of winning at all with the former. You will see a slide into business as usual with the usual formula. THAT, though the norm here, is retarded!
I hope he does exactly what he plans to do and doesn't listen to anyone from Memphis about how to do a damn thing. I hate to say it but my experience with Memphis Education System is that those guys don't know jack, and are TOO WILLING to do nothing about total abject failure of the system. They'll wait for that paycheck though and make it look like someone else's fault as if THAT was their real job.

I've taken my oldest OUT of MCS because even the best schools have let him down and failed him miserably. He was 2 years ahead and certified gifted before we moved here, now, he's dejected.

Rock on, Dr. Cash! Blow that nasty culture out of the water, the sky, and the area! Bye Bye jackleg schools, administrators, and jackleg teachers.

Ed reformer said...

Good post-

Like many Memphians (as the new Supt begins his opening act), I'm hopeful, optimistic, (and all those other warm, fuzzy feelings), that Dr. Cash will push through some hard charging, impactful initiatives.

But I am a bit puzzled about the long laundry list that comprised the 100 day plan. It was as if he took a poll among his large staff to solicit ideas and did one big merged document. Even for someone who has a good deal of patience for mining through otherwise snooze material for most, I found myself wandering off at pg 2 (somewher after the 20th bullet point).

Reality just seemed to have taken a vacation, and left in its stead a meandering, incoherent list of tasks). And most conspicuously missing was any articulation of what academic achievement/success looks like for the district?

Anonymous said...

I believe there is a national standard set to address that and I think he plans on far exceeding that and generating excellence instead of adherance. Adherance is a low goal. No point in even aiming at it.