Sunday, June 07, 2009

Kriner Cash Begins His Sophomore Year

It’s been a tumultuous first year for Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash, but after a bumpy start, he seems to be finding his stride in his first job at the helm of large urban district.

While there’s always something controversial going on in the $1 billion business that is public education, there is more of a controlled feeling to it now, rather than the eruptions on all sides that characterized Dr. Cash’s first few months.

And yet, if there is a lull, it is the one before the storm.

That’s because as soon as the Tennessee Department of Education increases its standards (they are now a complete sham), most of the schools in our district will fail and end up on the troubled school list. It’s hard to imagine how the district doesn’t end up on the “high priority” list.


No one knows this better than Dr. Cash. While his elected school board seems to frequently see the world through rose-colored glasses, the superintendent himself has no delusions about the challenges that lie ahead. After all, if anything drives and defines his philosophy of education, it is data – and the data is unmistakably clear about the future.

Although he did his research before he hit the ground in Memphis, we understand that two things have astonished him: the entrenched poverty in Memphis and the entrenched culture of failure at the mother ship on Avery Avenue.

His decentralization of the district helped send an unmistakable message that people need to shape up or ship out. He’s also moved around principals and some key managers, but we’re told that it’s clear to him that his bench is awfully thin.

That some of the Memphis players have done all that they can to undermine the new regime, comparing them to heavy-handed dictators who threaten and cajole rather than convince and persuade, has not been lost on Supt. Cash. Many of these complaints seem to be connected to Deputy Superintendent Irving Hamer, whose people skills – whether aimed at principals or city leaders – result regularly in bruised feelings and frustration.

Trust And Verify

From all appearances, the staff, never known for their entrepreneurial acumen, has been slowing down decision-making even more. For example, the real estate findings announced by Dr. Cash a couple of weeks ago were essentially completed 18 months ago.

Meanwhile, anything that requires expediency and decisiveness is normally accompanied by an opening stumble. By now, Dr. Cash has learned to “trust and verify” the data presented to him, and he’s also come face-to-face with the reality that much of the perceived progress being made under the leadership of former Superintendent Carol Johnson was as much public relations as anything.

It was Dr. Johnson’s ability to bring tears to the audience wherever she spoke that set a high bar for Dr. Cash to clear. Largely, he hasn’t tried, defining success in the classroom rather than in speeches around town. At times, he seems to see these public appearances as necessary evils that take him away from the more pressing business of running the district.

Lately, he’s been getting his feet under him and seems steadier in his approach. While we agree completely with his position on city government funding of schools, we understand that he has to fight the good fight and to keep his options open. With single source funding of schools by county government appearing more and more likely, he’s kept the pressure on for a resolution that serves his students.

A Slow Go

To this point, Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton has pledged to only support funding solutions that included a weighted formula to city schools in light of its large percentage of special needs students and the intractable poverty that defines the lives of so many of its 103,000 students.

The bad news for Dr. Cash is that he faces a much more cynical public these days. The good news for him is that there’s broad understanding about this: school reform is gritty, grind-it-out, long-term work.

That’s why the ultimate test of Dr. Cash’s approach won’t come in a year or even two. It may just be coming into focus at the end of his four-year contract. To that end, if his first year has been anything, it has been on-the-job training, and in that respect, he wasn’t able to make the most of his honeymoon period.

That said, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could have done much better, considering that the incoming bombs included the nutrition services debacle, insurance change outrage, communication breakdowns with key partners, taxing authority for the district, the push for his own police department, creation of new positions paying more than $100,000, the unequal playing field for charter schools and KIPP DIAMOND Academy, removal of the popular athletic director and the opposition expressed in Nashville to relaxing state admission standards for charter students. And that’s just to name a few.

Symbolism Matters

It seemed to us that Dr. Cash was at risk of becoming part of the Memphis City Schools culture when his alter ego, Dr. Hamer, predictably treated the controversy about cell phone abuse at the district as much ado about nothing. Initially, Dr. Cash even said that the issue was blown out of proportion.

We may be inclined to agree with him to some extent, but symbolism matters, and you ignore this fact at your own risk. Because of it, he should never have treated the charges for ring tones, screen savers and long distance calls too families as insignificant. It was important because the symbolism of the cell phone expenses validated the public perception that the district is out of control.

Eventually, Dr. Cash laid out new policies and seemed to grasp the impact that this kind of issue can have when it is allowed to dominate news coverage for multiple days. It’s hard to watch these kinds of episodes and the mixed signals coming out of the district and not conclude that Dr. Cash is poorly served by his communications department. We’ve even thought he should consider setting up a war room to act quickly and decisively to these kinds of issues.

As we’ve said before, we’ve not met anyone who can sum up the Cash Administration’s ultimate goals in 20 seconds or less. Of course, when you start your new job by laying out dozens upon dozens of strategies, it’s pretty hard to find a coherent message that the public can understand and embrace.

Now For The Hard Part

When Dr. Cash took his job here, we said that if there are guiding principles for his ideas, it’s probably these:

• 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 technology applications 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

We suspect that when the year began, Dr. Cash expected to make major headway on these objectives, but looking back, he had to spend much of his firs year getting the basics right. That as much as anything is the theme for the first 12 months of the Cash era.

Now, it's about engaging in the "disruptive innovations" that can fundamentally change the trajectory of the district, and more to the point, the lives of its students.


Zippy the giver said...

..... with no money,
and an entrenched culture of evil and failure.
There was a plan to get that handled, but, poor-mouthing by speed-bumps ended up being calculated as equal to results AS USUAL.
You gotta wonder why, what do they have to gain by destroying MCS?
Losing their jobs and everyone else's?

Tom Guleff said...

Because of the amount of political capital required to destroy the current school system and to build anew, the school board must be dismissed, and the school system will have to fall under the mayor's guidance. Currently, WW is the big obstacle, but he won't be mayor forever. Start planning now.

Mayors should be graded on three things : Safety, Schools, and Jobs. For our community to be Smart, Safe & Vibrant, we've got to get this right.

Mel Spillman artwork said...

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

This is the most important to me, as a MCS teacher, but it is incredibly difficult to get many Memphis parents involved in their child's life. For example, it amazes me how a mother can have 14 kids and send them all to MCS while she is serving time in jail. It is incredibly difficult to educate children who have insufficient parental/ home role models.

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DreamMaker Kids said...

When it's all said and done, the key is to motivate and inspire the student. The question is what are we doing in that area? When all else from super to super and mayor to mayor has not provided an increased high school graduation rate. (Because none have seen the light in terms of the magic that make kids want to do their best)

We need to inspire them. If we do that, it will matter less if the parent is involved. The child will seek his own path. Some parents may not value education because they may have missed the boat themselves for whatever reason.

Proof that inspiration works can be observed with the amount of effort a young boy will put towards getting better at basketball or rapping. (They can decipher and recite the words)

It's because they have been inspired to practice. Can it be the perceived prosperity that they seek?

Show them how they can be prosperous practicing math or science and watch the magic happen.
If the reason for school is to get a job at the local warehouse and rob Peter to pay Paul like mom does, that is not incentive enough for these boys. They want the good life and there are no examples in the communities where they live of anyone that has made it using education as vehicle.

The lure of “the job” to them means that they will be just over broke J.O.B. just like their mom or dad and many of their uncles.
It’s not a pretty picture and they cannot in their minds justify the hard work.

The answer Mr. Superintendent, is simple, motivate them and you will have given them inspiration to action. What do you have to lose?

If you want a down turn in crime and an uptick in social responsibility, let them share in the good life and watch even more magic happen.

Patrick D said...

Wow I'm glad to see you defend the Cash regime so assuredly. And when I say Cash regime it can go either way, Cash or cash, because this boss is making bank right now. And after he plugs in all the ridiculous initiatives (block schedules, housing for runaways, school police armies), he will look like a innovator as he interviews for the next gig in the next city, where he will undoubtedly be payed another fat stack. You defend him for not speaking out publicly! Any elementary school student (except in Cash's MCS system) knows that he is simply hiding behind his bureaucratic curtain of b.s. Yeah he's definitely too busy with work, if by work you mean taking out Hamilton students to buy expensive pimp suits so they can get shot up at the bus stop the next day. Real suave Cash, buy the most struggling school's students some fancy clothes, win over the uninformed masses, while the top schools like White Station and Central get hushed up. This fool needs to get canned, and he can take Hamer with him.

Anonymous said...

I have known Dr. Cash for most of my life and he was and is a mentor to me. I am a Highschool educator in Washington D.C a that has its share of problems. He is a very dedicated worker and he is doing whats best for the children and the district. It will take some time for everyone to get on board, but when they do everything will workout.

Anonymous said...

Cash and his cronies from NY and Miami will destroy your school system.
One of his cronies almost did it here but because of him we came together for the benefit of the students.
Good riddance to bad rubbish!!

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At times, he seems to see these public appearances as necessary evils that take him away, To that end, if his first year has been anything, it has been on-the-job training, and in that respect.