Thursday, August 21, 2008

Miami Cautionary Tale Speaks To Urban Superintendents

Being an urban superintendent is a tough job on its best day, but a fundamental fact of life about the public sector makes it even more difficult: style can trump substance, attitude can overshadow achievements and people skills can obscure technical skills.

There’s no greater proof of this than the reversal of fortunes for Miami Superintendent Rudy Crew. In February, he was honored as National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators. On August 4, he kept his job as Miami-Dade superintendent by a 5-4 vote of the Miami school board.

While his peers praised him as national superintendent for his “innovative school improvement programs” and gave him credit for making significant changes in his four years at the helm of the Miami district three times larger than Memphis City Schools. Back at home, while there were problems in the district, it seems that the momentum to remove him from his job had more to do with complaints about an “I know all the answers” attitude, an intimidating management style and an air of condescension.

Style Matters

We don’t know enough directly to make a judgment about the Miami conflict, but it is a powerful cautionary tale for urban district superintendents everywhere, including former associate of Mr. Crew, new Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash. In fact, Mr. Crew’s endorsement weighed heavily in Superintendent Cash’s appointment, and because of Mr. Crew’s history as a turnaround school leader, we too saw that as positive.

But we were reminded of the importance of style when we heard Superintendent Cash’s back-to-school phone message to parents. It was more reminiscent for many of the commandant at a military school than someone whose job is to create the kind of district that attracts back the middle class families who have abandoned it.

We heard from one such family who, despite warnings from friends, put their children in city schools as a gesture of their commitment to improving their city. After receiving the phone message, they weren’t as sure that they had made the right decision because it seemed to be a failure-as-default-setting message.

Mixed Message

We suspect that Superintendent Cash intended for his welcome and appreciation for “wonderful parents” to be the predominate message, but it came after a warning that students better be dressed appropriately, a warning that the dress code would be strictly enforced and a warning about the use of cell phones.

“It is also important that our students get plenty of rest each night and understand that school is a place of learning and development and that inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated. Parents, I ask that you have conversations with your child about what is expected of him or her when they are in school, in the community and at home,” the message said.

There’s no question that Superintendent Cash has been sending a strong message about his commitment to rules, but it might have been a chance for a more nuanced and positive delivery. We don’t mean to second guess him. We just think he needs to be sensitive to the fact that the parents of city school students aren’t a monolithic group and shouldn’t be treated as if they are.

Amped-up Rhetoric

But back to the cautionary tale of his former boss, Superintendent Crew. Its ugly racial overtones, pitting black and brown elected officials against each other, led the superintendent to clumsily quote Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and call the vote by the Miami board of education a “high-tech lynching.”

But he wasn’t through. He also said that the board engaged in a “witch hunt,” “a sad chapter of street politics” and “a bad example for our children.” It did nothing to tamp down the strident criticism of the superintendent in Spanish language media outlets.

Managing a major urban district is hard work, but it’s little fun at all when it’s done with a one-vote margin on your board. It’s worth noting that this isn’t a new phenomenon in Miami where Mr. Crew’s predecessor spent most of his administration with the same 5-4 margin.

Tide Turns

And yet, it’s a sad controversy on how tenuous superintendent jobs can be. Only a few years ago, Superintendent Crew was hailed as the savior for Miami-Dade County Public Schools. In the “what have you done lately” environment that often surrounds urban districts, some people don’t even want to give him credit for turning around many Miami schools. For the record, we give him major points though for refusing, while serving as New York City schools chancellor, to lose his job rather than back Mayor Rudy Guiliani’s plan for private school vouchers.

In both New York and Miami, however, he worked to remove independent oversight, and he was even sued by the district’s inspector general for slander and defamation for undermining investigations. Also, others say that he seems reticent to accept different points of view, leaving the impression that “he knows it all,” said a Miami school observer.

Most damaging of all is Superintendent Crew’s tendency to talk about transparency and accountability while stonewalling questions and refusing to release reports critical of his initiatives.

Our point? Style, attitude and tone do matter, and they often need as much attention as programs, plans and initiatives. That’s the main lesson that we take from the destructive drama in Miami.


Anonymous said...

Crews is NOT Cash.
I hope he does what he said and says what he'll do first. I hope he takes no prisoners and spends no time on trying to win any popularity contests. People who do that are usually of no substance, like our current crop of re-elected leaders.
We don't need a buddy for Superintendent, we need a true leader.
People should be very afraid of him and his team especially if they work for MCS in any fashion and have for years before he arrived. We've already seen where they are willing to let things fall to.

Anonymous said...

I am a middle-class parent who also received Dr. Cash's phone call. I found the message to be encouraging, on-target, and the first time that a superintendent made this call him/herself rather than delegating to another staff person. It was conversational in tone, warm, and addressed issues of importance. I found nothing to criticize.

Anonymous said...

We got the call too, and we thought he should quit trying to be a dictator to parents and a partner with them. And we thought he should be the educator. We'll be the parents.

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous 10:26:

Just for the record, although we thought we said it in the post, we're not suggesting that Supt. Cash is Rudy Crew. We were writing about how quickly things can change for a superintendent and why it's important to put relationships as high as reform. In truth, they both go hand-in-hand.

It's not a popularity contest he needs to win or even be concerned about. But he does need to have the community behind his reforms or you end up in the place where Supt. Crew has found himself.

Aaron said...

You can always loosen the reigns later. He's setting a tone or culture that is much needed in the MCS system.

As middle class parents we found ourselves also encouraged by his message.

If it was a message from a the dean of a college then perhaps that would be a bit inappropriate.

Cash's message: You want freedom and perks in your job or as a student? Earn it and I'll give it to you. It's just management/parenting 101.

Anonymous said...

Are you kidding, Aaron? My 5 year old has to earn her freedom?

I'm all for the superintendent being stern where it's appropriate (i.e., in small settings with people who have "earned"/or need a stern message), but "welcome to bootcamp" is not appropriate for a general message that goes out to all parents.

Anonymous said...

We agree with you, anonymous. I don't need anyone threatening me to teach my children how to behave and learn. It's that blanket assumption that we all need him to cajole us that irritates me.

It's time for the schooland for government to understand that we live in a world known for his individualization. Don't treat us like we're all the same.

Anonymous said...

Just is troubling is the drill sargeant mentality beinig leveled at the teaches and principals. Yes some need it, but to aim at everyone is going to create a problem. When his second in command, Hamer, tells staff that McDonald's is hiring, that is also over the top.

Zippy the giver said...

Maybe in 18 years when your kids have heard "welcome to prison" a few times you'll regret the soft touch they got at your insistence at MCS, I know there are thousands of parents in that very position right now, right here, in Memphis.
Many people in this incestuous little town who are so smart that "their way", which hasn't worked in over thirty years for nearly half the population, are sorry that they took earning their keep out of their life equation when they should have top be learning it .
No your FIVE YEAR OLD doesn't need to do anything except be a kid, and that was an inappropriate and indignant response. This isn't about you, obviously, yet. This is about the majority of situations in Memphis.
Did you know that in this country there is a school system where you can assault a teacher four times before any action is actually taken?
It's MCS! Right here, right now.
Do you always wait on the edge of conversation to be upset and take it out on people?
MCS has about 130 schools in Memphis and everyone wants to get their kid in 5 of them, the rest are to be avoided by any parent who cares about their kids.
Memphis has large areas of town where for DECADES children's education has taken a back seat to gang affiliation, where single parents (mostly women) can't keep an eye on their kids, where upwards of 75% of the neighbors are felons, ex-felons, waiting on trial, waiting on sentencing, have open warrants, and more than half of the parents can't even afford to eat, keep utilities, buy gasoline, and make sure their kids aren't in trouble, due to the lackadaisical way that education has been historically ADMINISTERED here.
Giveaways didn't fix it.
In this atmosphere, BOOT CAMP IS appropriate. STOP complaining.
If the shoe fits, they should wear it, McD's is hiring!
Wait till you see how much they discover has been stolen from the taxpayers and how far the budget and structure can be changed to be effective for all students in every school instead of what we've had which is just SICK.
If your kids aren't in trouble he isn't speaking to you, if your kids ARE in trouble, and you don't want to do what it takes anyway, there is not much hope for your family.

Anonymous said...

Our child just began at MCS. I look at it like this -- if you are doing your job as a parent, why would you feel threatened by such a message? Fact is, the vast majority of parents in MCS schools need that sort of reinforcement. Schools are not daycares. They are a place to learn. I wish more parents and more teachers and more people in the community felt empowered to remind people -- without fear of hurting feelings -- that they need to do the right thing.

What a strange universe when good parents interested in learning are bent out of shape by a superintendent hellbent on setting a tone that demands more from all.

What did you want? "Hi, parent. I am calling to ask you, pretty please, to be a good parent this year and pretty please send your darling child to us ready to learn and if you wouldn't mind, could you make sure they tuck in their shirts and let them sleep well and dream pretty dreams."

Sheesh. Can't win for losing in this city.

Anonymous said...

9:25, it's not about feeling threatened by the message -- it's about feeling unwelcome, and feeling like maybe we made the wrong choice for our 5 year old. Just when we wanted to feel some confidence that we made the right choice.

Anonymous said...

And to Aaron, if you're still chekcing in, my anonymous comment at 3:24 (esp. the first line) was reactionary and polemical and unfortunate. It's easy to take an ugly tone when posting anonymously -- I hate when others do it and I'm sorry I did.