Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash is about to make the most important decision in his new job – how to best invest the capital that he has during his honeymoon period.
The reality of public life in these high-profile jobs is that you are never as popular as the first weeks after your election or your appointment. Because of it, Supt. Cash should just about now be deciding how and where to invest his most precious commodity – the highest political and civic capital that he's likely to have as superintendent.
There's absolutely nothing like leveraging the lovefest of a honeymoon period to create momentum for the future, particularly in a bureaucracy where change is anathema and the entrenched culture creates a persistent undertow for innovation. That's why it's so important for Dr. Cash to get his first priorities right: there's never a better time to get what he wants, and whether he succeeds or stumbles out of the gate, it creates the context and expectations for all that comes later.
So far, Supt. Cash's mantra about accountability and transparency sounds like the fresh start needed to turn around Memphis City Schools. In a system with a well-deserved reputation for obfuscation and secrecy, the incomprehensible firing of the district's top planner primarily for releasing public information to the public has been a morality tale that rippled throughout the district, and along with the report of a verbal reprimand given to a manager who dared give the school board honest answers to its questions, it's produced a chilling effect on any vestiges of openness.
Meanwhile, some district officials seem to think that being honest with parents and the community only increases the risk of being blamed for lagging performance. As we've said before, we think that district leaders have missed a golden opportunity to galvanize our city to attack the crisis in our schools by spinning the data rather than releasing the unvarnished facts.
The mangled graduation rate statistics is the poster child for this tendency, as a school board member in an op-ed column in the Memphis Flyer compared two different sets of statistics to claim falsely that the rate has dramatically increased 21% in four years (those ripples would have been felt throughout Memphis) rather than a respectable 9%. However, it's difficult to be too hard on the elected officials, because appointed officials have routinely fed them misleading information and board members don't have the staff capabilities to provide an independent analysis or to frame up the critical issues on which board members should be concentrating.
But back to Mr. Cash's honeymoon, it's clear that the swooning has begun, which is customary at this point in a new superintendency. This is particularly true about our new superintendent, because he's essentially a blank slate with no track record in a similar job. It's clear in hindsight that we want improvement in our schools so badly that we have clung to wishful thinking and hopefulness when there was little strong reason for it.
Supt. Cash has a profound opportunity to chart a different path from tradition, and one that has more long-term positive impact on the district. Rather than rely on public relations, he seems willing to rely on public information. Rather than rely on a cloistered set of insiders, he seems more inclined to engage the public in a real discussion about the future of our schools and our children.
Of course, it's too early to say with any certainty that the reality will match the rhetoric, but in Memphis, hope springs eternal, and when the future of 113,000 children is being set in classrooms today, it should.
In this regard, we worry that the question about whether Memphis City Schools needs a police department may not be where the emphasis ought to be placed right now. While there is a legitimate obligation for the district to ensure that city schools are safe, there's also the concern that we are transforming them into Juvenile Court-light, replete with police, metal detectors, frisks and locker searches. Unfortunately, too many city school students are already being sent the very clear message from our city that they have no value. Otherwise, they would have higher quality learning environments. It's conceivable that with a police department in the schools, we send another malignant message – that schools are akin to detention facilities and students are destined to have police in their lives.
There are strong pros and cons about a police department for Memphis City Schools, but it certainly seems too soon to make a decision to bring in Gerald Darling, who had 25 years with the Miami-Dade Police Department and four years heading up the Miami-Dade County Public Schools Police Department, to head up a new department of school cops. This is a serious public policy question and it deserves serious research and debate. How this issue is handled could come to symbolize the way that Supt. Cash engages and involves the public in important issues in our schools, and unfortunately, so far, the message seems to be that the decision has already been made.
Hopefully, Supt. Cash understands the way that this honeymoon period will firmly communicate his working style, his priorities and his philosophy. As a result, it calls for careful calculation and skillful execution, and based on the general reputation that he had in Miami, there's no reason to think he's not up for the task.
As he develops his agenda and articulates his vision, there are three things that we all need to keep in mind if we are to maintain realistic expectations for the Cash era:
One, he faces the reality that test scores are not going to be turned around in short order. The revolutionary Washington, D.C., Superintendent Michelle Rhee has already reported a dramatic increase on student achievement tests in about two years there, but the real test is whether the increases will be sustained over time. There are always some short-term changes that can have impacts, but this isn't a war that will won with a single surge strategy or on a single front. It will take grind-it-out, day in, day out persistence from a district singularly focused on student achievement.
Two, he faces a district culture where many staff members assume that they can simply wait him out. They have seen superintendents come and they have seen superintendents go, and as a result, they can co-opt his verbiage and feign conversion without really doing anything differently. We thought Mayor Herenton was right in his state of city schools speech when he called for every one in management to submit their letters of resignation. It gives the new superintendent maximum flexibility to create an organization in his own philosophical image. It doesn't mean that there would necessarily be wholesale replacements, but it does help shake out the people who feel that they can't commit to a new agenda or those who prefer to transfer out of the Avery mothership. One of the primary ways that Supt. Rhee produced results in Washington was in her authority to attack the massive institutional malfeasance and ineffectiveness that she found in her mid-level to upper-level managers. Like Memphis City Schools, there was too much emphasis on the Washington district as an employment agency rather than an educational institution. It will take time to make the needed transformations in the culture, but it is key to success.
Three, he faces the question of how Memphis will define success. After all, even with the proficiency level for elementary students rising 11% in one year in math and 8% in science, and the level of secondary students rising 9% in both math and reading, the Washington district still had only 47 schools – about one-third of the total number of schools – make adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind. Such is the challenge of urban education in America today. We need to understand that the battle to transform Memphis City Schools will need to continue for a generation.
The Right Journey
We think that Supt. Cash's attention to accountability could be a strong first step, and it sounds like he's bringing a former Miami colleague in to head up the newly-created, but badly-run, Memphis accountability department. It's also likely that he'll change the reporting responsibility so the department answers to him, not the chief of staff.
He's getting help these days from Irving Hamer, a former deputy superintendent of school improvement for Miami schools and a consultant with Millennium Group. It's unclear at this point if Mr. Hamer is spearheading the process to create a much more effective organization structure as a consultant or whether he may be staying on in Memphis (the betting at the district is that he's staying). Mr. Hamer, like Supt. Cash, is a disciple of Rudy Crew, the reform-minded former head of the New York City school district and now at the helm in Miami.
According to Mr. Hamer's resume, his emphasis is on strategic development, organizational development and fiscal management. In writing about Miami for Education Week (where The Commercial Appeal's Dakarai Aarons will soon take up a new post), Mr. Hamer's comments about the Florida city could have just as accurately apply to Memphis: "There are no easy answers…for years, efforts had been made, without much success, to get the most vulnerable students to meet state and local standards…there was no time for pilot projects…for me, the work encompassed the most poignant social justice issue of the era…gone are the days when small, incremental gains are acceptable for the most vulnerable students.
Momentum For Change
The fact that Supt. Cash is bringing in new thinking and intellectual firepower as he gets started seems to say volumes about his seriousness to create the immediate momentum for change. It seems a safe bet that major staff moves will be made at the district, and apparently, Alfred Hall has already moved from chief academic officer to chief of staff, a shift that seems like a better fit and attitude at the top.
That takes us back to accountability and transparency. We've written often about the ways that former Supt. Carol Johnson's masterful manipulations for No Child Left Behind's "safe harbor" provisions kept dozens of schools off the list of troubled schools. We have no problem in her taking advantage of the arcane features of the law. We do have a problem in misleading the public about substantial progress at the same time that school administrators knew that many, many more schools were not meeting state benchmarks.
If Dr. Cash is to make one pledge, we think it should be that he is making the commitment to base improvements in schools and student performance on a complete, open, honest reporting of the current situation at Memphis City Schools. For example, there is no argument – at least none we hear – that qualified teachers and good teaching are the best predictors of academic success. One Tennessee study found that two groups of students started out at the same place but the group that had three ineffective teachers in a row ended up 50 points behind the other group on a 100-point scale.
This is why Memphis City Schools needs to tear down the walls that have hidden data from parents and community leaders, and instead, the district should dig deeper in the data to give the public meaningful information about performance gaps, opportunity gaps (low-achieving students are more likely to be assigned to ineffective teachers than effective teachers) and practice gaps among teachers and administrators. All of this needs to be done while assuring teachers that it's not about "gotcha" programs, but about sparking the kind of substantive discussion about teaching that can result in higher levels of achievement for their students.
Speaking of teacher quality, we hope that Dr. Cash will delve into The New Teacher Project work at Memphis City Schools. Although the nationally significant program upgraded the quality of teacher applicants in terms of their grade point averages and experience, it never reached its maximum potential because it was strangled to death by the former administration that seemed unwilling to allow the full reform of its hiring policies and programs.
We hope that Dr. Cash is a miracle worker, but the truth is that in urban American education today, there are no miracles. There is only the miraculous results that come from a compelling vision and the alignment of the entire district – administrators, principles, teachers and staff – to achieve them. And, along the way, making decisions and holding people throughout the system accountable by using measurements that clearly monitor performance of students, schools, the district and the community.
Here's the thing. Current school district structure was set a century ago, when marveled by automation and assembly lines, educators thought that they could create an educational system that could stamp out well-educated citizens. It was supposed to be a more scientific way to educate students – standardization, rather than politicization, and a belief that only a few students are meant to achieve.
It's a different world. The structure is not only a throw-back to the pre-Industrial age, but so is the thinking behind it. In particular, it punishes urban district students and ensures that innovations are frustrated at every turn, particularly ideas that do not originate within the schools themselves.
In other words, there's good reason that urban district superintendents have been said to have the "toughest job in America." That said, we refuse to believe that data-driven decisions, strong relationships with parents, high standards and expectations, high quality teachers, entrepreneurial principals, economies of scale with city government and a school-centric commitment at MCS headquarters can't set Memphis apart for its success as the urban school district where nationally significant things are taking place.