Sunday, September 21, 2008

MCS Improvement Demands Management And Manipulation

Educational experts disagree about the wisdom of creating schools for overage students, the strategy that’s a centerpiece of Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash’s strategies to turn around the low-performing district.

There is no disagreement, however, on the wisdom of the move as a strategy for gaming No Child Left Behind.

It seems only logical that if some of the over age students who are dragging down a number of schools’ proficiency scores are concentrated into fewer schools, Memphis City Schools has a better chance to improve results under NCLB.

Facts Of Life

The same end game motivated Supt. Cash’s plan to recruit 2,000-3,000 college students who will act as tutors for 10 weeks for 9,000 elementary students who are performing one grade level behind. It will be just in time for state testing under NCLB.

Like it or not, NCLB is a fact of life in today’s public education. It’s not enough any more for a superintendent to manage teaching and learning. It’s equally important to manage, if not manipulate, NCLB so it shows improvement in the district and schools.

We haven’t always known that. Under former Supt. Carol Johnson, we were spoon-fed news releases from the district and the Tennessee Department of Education about the substantial progress that was being made by Memphis City Schools in getting schools off the state’s high-priority list.

Harboring The Truth

What we weren’t told in the midst of these celebrations was that more than 60 city schools were placed in “safe harbor” status, meaning that this sleight of hand misled parents and taxpayers into believing that students must be getting a good education if they were attending a school meeting AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress).

Safe harbor allowed Memphis City Schools to proclaim in its press release that "128 Schools (in good standing)… Most in NCLB History!" Meanwhile, then-superintendent Johnson said: "It is inspiring news for the Memphis community and all in our district to know we are closer to realizing one of our most important goals – for every school to be in Good Standing."

The fact that a sizable number of the schools were listed in good standing on a technicality went unmentioned.

The Road Less Traveled

As we’ve mentioned before, as a result of these kinds of announcements and revelations made in the wake of Ms. Johnson’s departure, the new superintendent confronts a much more jaded, if not cynical, Memphis public.

So far, Supt. Cash has not fallen into some of the same traps that eventually crippled Supt. Johnson’s effectiveness – the way the so-called Minneapolis Mafia isolated her, filtered information and blocked input, and the way that her staff established an alternate organizational chart rather than tackle the toughest task of all…changing the culture of the district.

Already, Mr. Cash has taken steps that indicate a different path. While he has brought in some Miami transplants in key positions – a couple of Millennium Group associates, including Irving Hamer (giving birth to the Millennium Mafia appellation), he also moved former academic director Alfred Hall of Memphis to chief of staff.

First, I Had To Get Its Attention

Also, he seems dead serious about transforming the district culture, based in particular on Mr. Hamer’s “take no prisoners” approach, which has been likened to the old joke about hitting the mule with a 2 X 4 to get its attention. If anything, it does appear that the Cash regime has gotten everyone’s attention. Now the test is to see if it can fundamentally change things, a task that has stumped a succession of superintendents.

Supt. Cash gives appearances of finding his rhythm, although the toughest sell of all is the private sector, which remains unconvinced that anyone can succeed in achieving significant progress at the district.

And yet, the new superintendent can’t be faulted for clearly stating what we should expect from him by next year and how we should hold him accountable. He pledged to cut the number of low-achieving schools in half, increase TCAP scores for African-American and Hispanic students by 6 percentage points, and increase the district’s ACT scores from 17.5 to 19. Meanwhile, he plans to open school-based “full-service parent centers” and “full-service health clinics” in each region of the district.

Imaginative Times

These last two ideas seem anchored in the idea of schools serving as centers of neighborhood, and there’s no question that this is a valuable objective. But, to accomplish this will require serious cooperation from the public sector, which is beset with its own financial pressures. In fact, Supt. Cash’s concepts are progenitors of earlier, similar initiatives that became victims to the budget axes of city and county governments.

The national context in which Supt. Cash’s work is cast is nothing short of unimaginable just a few years ago.

Chicago Public Schools chief Arne Duncan is looking to pilot boarding schools for students in September, 2009. Other cities are looking at restructuring their districts into mayor-led ones as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg extolled the virtues of mayoral control as school began in his city. A handful of cities are experimenting with ways to hire teachers from the top third of college graduates rather than the bottom third.

The Cash Context

Meanwhile, here, Supt. Cash has a grab bag of programs aimed at elevating expectations and improving performance at Memphis City School. And if there are guiding principles for his ideas, it’s probably these:

• Designing innovative platforms to replace existing practice is the key to radical change within one year.

• Turnaround strategies must center on teaching and learning.

• Structural changes are at the heart of urban school transformation.

• Redeployed resources are critical to sustaining turnaround after the first year of change.

• Collaborations between the community and the district are vital to eliminating low performance.

• School turnaround requires responses to all of the conditions that contribute to underachieving students.

• Increasing the application of technology can reduce the time that teachers lose with paperwork and reports.

• Stepping up the rate of achievement requires greater involvement of parents, families and communities.

These principles essentially represent the approach that proved effective in Miami. There’s no reason to expect that they aren’t the context for the Cash era and will produce similar results in Memphis.


Zippy the giver said...

This post started out acurate and ended up as guesswork. That list. Where did you get that list?
It looks like a laundry list. Did you get it from Millennium Group's site?
If it's the right Millennium group, I'm sure everything will be fine. Don't take your eye off of this whole process though, the shenanigans that will be pulled by the entrenched knuckleheads should prove hilarious if not pathetic.
Moving older non-performing kids to a consolidated area sound like a shell game but it isn't. It will reveal that the rest of the kids aren't doing much better if any better. It will get them to a pace where they can be addressed more effectively.
God Bless Dr. Kriner Cash and his whole crew!

Ed Reformer said...

Dr. Cash and Dr. Hamer are well-intentioned, so I don't want to belittle their efforts in my comments (though I'll probably fall down)...

Clearly, MCS has many troubled spots, and so the administration is honing in on one of the most disturbing of trends - overaged students who have fallen woefully behind (most of our kids are behind - it's just a matter of who is furthest behind). While on the surface, this doesn't seem to be an unreasonable strategy. His other strategies (more like a laundry list) don't seem to be unreasonable either.

But it does illustrate what we have come to expect from districts and students (and unfortunately exacerbated by NCLB) - minimum proficiency for all. For better or worse, most reform efforts are centered on a convergence to the average. In this new age of accountability, coupled with the politics that have dominated education for over a century - there is the tendency to do surface level things (that by and large don't upset many people or the status quo) but may move more youngsters to the minimum competency bar. If that's what we want or expect from the education system - then the laundry list is fine.

However, if we are to have a conversation about materially changing the future professional prospects for many thousands of kids in the district - the laundry list of initiatives will not do. There is a long list of failures well documented about urban district reform. Dr. Cash will not be the first or last to spit out vague priorities like more community involvement, improving teaching and learning from our current teaching foot soldiers, increasing technology, etc. etc. Unfortunately we know a lot more about what doesn't work than what does.

But we do know a lot about what has made some individual urban schools successful.
1. Exceptional leaders and teachers (not necessarily credentialed by useless licensing exams, but who have had a track record of academic and professional success themselves, who are dedicated to do whatever it takes to get their students to achieve at high levels, who work very long hours, and who do not operate by restrictive collective bargaining contracts.
2. Strong cultures - students have clear expectations for how they should conduct themselves and around academic achievement. Principals and teachers constantly reinforce these expectations and the school's values and do not ignore any detail however small.
3. Intensive academic instruction (longer school days and yes, Saturday school.)

If we are to drastically improve academic outcomes (such that low income and minority students have a chance at competing for higher wage jobs) - we need to figure out a system that can create schools with the above mentioned characteristics - these are called "No Excuse" schools and we don't have enough of them (though there are some scattered across our country).

To be a change agent, the MCS administration will have to take on tough, contentious issues like restrictive union agreements, more chartering and other school choice initiatives (looks like they're getting into the charter business), more thoughtful principal and teacher recruiting efforts (right now it's about bodies in the classroom, not competency).

No doubt, this is not easy stuff, and the obstacles are formidable. However, to get dramatic results - we need dramatic changes; not a long bullet list, but a few hard hitting reform initiatives - primarily around attracting and keeping talented people in the public schools (great organizations, for-profit or non-profit are made up of competent people). Education has done a bad job thus far of getting our highest performing, hardest working college graduates into public education. But nothing short of that will suffice.

I hope Dr. Cash and Dr. Hamer will take on the tough battles, despite the unpopularity that will inevitably follow.

Anonymous said...

syahoeI don't think anyone actually gave that posted list credibility as the official Dr. Cash list of improvements.
Ed Reformer, Your laundry list not much different.
The ONLY WAY you are going to get people to get on board with a successful program is to develop a culture of success oriented people. You will have to cultivate a new culture.
You have a large culture of unmotivated and disenfranchised "teaching staff" I won't call them teachers because they sold out their souls to a "common thinking" culture if hey were EVER any different. LOW Expectations.
You have doorstops and boat anchors. If you didn't you'd already have better stats.
So, if you don't transform the culture to a workable culture first, you won't have to worry about compliance issues because you will not get compliance.
STILL, there is no common unifying "magnetizing goal or new future, just second guessing, waiting for shoes to drop, and "positioning", staking a claim or position about the issues.
None of that will serve the "uncommon" or not yet common goal.
NCLB is a reality and it's not the problem.
The inflexibility of the administration, the gossip and consensus reality that evolved about NCLB at MCS and mostly in reaction to fear of it is one of the BIG problems. Until the 800 lb. gorillas and white elephants in the room are dealt with to absolute completion, and it looks like we have a stellar collection going, the rest is all academic.
Collectively it is a dysfunctional catastrophe.
There is only one solution.

Ed reformer said...

I think we were making similar points - culture and quality of people matters most - And MCS currently leaves a lot to be desired (as do most public education systems).

Zippy the giver said...

You're right, we are.