Thursday, August 20, 2009
Culture Eats Policy For Lunch At MCS
It was no surprise to us that the highest hurdle facing Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash is changing the culture of his own central office.
But seemingly lost so far in the overhaul of the insular world of the mother ship at 2597 Avery Avenue is the fact that the strongest warhead of all is open, clear and strong communications – with the board, with the staff and with the public.
At this point, we think that the Cash Administration has concentrated too much on controlling communications and too little on getting the message out and spread by advocates for its agenda. To compound the message of chaos played out in the media this week, the Administration’s decision to discipline (and probably fire) someone allegedly for talking to The Commercial Appeal is not just self-defeating. It is egregious.
Sadly, this is not just a part of this administration, because it was done also in the abysmal transitional administration of Dan Ward, when the former head of planning was released essentially for being truthful and open. Everything at the district is the public’s business and all the records on transportation are public records, so it seems to us that if an employee did in fact communicate with the newspaper, that person might also be considered a whistle-blower. We need more of them in the public sector, not less.
Emotions Always Top Information
At any rate, the harsh attack on the alleged source has a chilling effect within the administration at a time when Superintendent Cash needs as many disciples as he can get, and this will hardly win him any friends in the news media. There’s such a natural tendency for large bureaucracies to concentrate on control and power, and in the end, it never works – especially in our digital age. As it did at the Memphis Police Department, the pressure to control can actually lead to anonymous blogs that are much more troublesome than a public employee divulging public records.
We recommended a year ago that based on the gaffes in communications, Supt. Cash should clean house in that department and start over. He needs a more assertive, comprehensive communications plan, and he needs to create a small group operating in a war room to handle the crisis de jour. But in addition, top management has to set communications as a priority and respect the communications function enough to integrate it into all decisions and all policy announcements.
There is much that Supt. Cash is saying that everyone should hear, but so often, the message is not about the program, but about the lack of communications about the program. Some in top positions in Memphis City Schools say that top management is not in the communications business, and if that’s the case, they are clearly headed for more falls that will shatter confidence their best chance to win approval for their plans.
Sound policies and well-thought-out programs mean nothing if you’re always playing defense and can’t get the message through the clutter of screaming parents and frustrated board members.
Mobilizing A Mandate
We reported a year ago that the two things that surprised Supt. Cash the most about Memphis were the depth of the entrenched poverty here and the obstinance and lack of innovation that run deep in the central office. One board member said it was expected that Supt. Cash would have a learning curve, but they did expect stronger attention and skill in communications.
What disturbs us the most is that clearly Supt. Cash’s approach is gaining some positive national attention and there is much to commend in his agenda. If it were not so, the Gates Foundation would not be strongly considering Memphis City Schools for a $100 million grant. But we can’t hear enough about that plan for all of the noise about block scheduling and changes in school bus policies, and the outcry was so loud that we’re still not sure we understand the underlying plans by Supt. Cash.
It’s all too bad because if Memphis City Schools is to be as effective as it can be, support and help from all of us is needed to give every student in every classroom opportunities for the future. Most of all, that’s why communications matters, because as Supt. Cash implements his program of change, it goes much smoother when the public is involved and informed before the plan or proposal full-blown before the school board.
To this end, we also think the administration should loosen up the screws on its key staff members and principals so they don’t cower in fear if they are even seen talking to a reporter. There are no more effective spokespersons for change than the almost 400 principals and assistant principals who should be the foundation for the Cash Agenda, and they need to be mobilized, not manacled.
Anxious To Help
We can appreciate the difficulty that Supt. Cash and his factotum Irving Hamer are having getting adjusted to the Memphis way of doing things. But if they reach out more and convincingly communicate with local leaders - who often feel that they are treated dismissively or with suspicion - they will find a surprising level of engagement.
The Cash agenda for the future is coming into clear focus and there is much that we like, notably the commitment to putting a highly-qualified teacher in every school classroom. This would be transformational to Memphis City Schools, but more to the point, it would be transformational to Memphis itself.
We can kid ourselves into thinking that the 105,000 students in city classrooms aren’t relevant to us – a variation of the Pickler dimentia – but we ignore these young people at our peril. With no in-migration of new talent and with the relocation of three 25-34 year-olds a day, we don’t have the luxury of thinking that we’ll bring in enough talent to offset our failure to educate these students.
Like only a handful of cities in the U.S., the students in our urban school district will drive everything in their path – the economy, the quality of life and our ability to compete. But before we succeed at that, Supt. Cash must change a culture that tends to strangle all innovation in its crib.
Churning The Policy
Of course, part of the problem is that every superintendent brings a new crib of solutions with them, and with the average superintendent staying 3-4 years, a student who attends Memphis City Schools from pre-K to high school graduation will have 3-4 different plans to turnaround Memphis City Schools (think Gerry House and Carol Johnson). That’s part of the problem. If Memphis City Schools (and many other urban districts) are known for anything, it is policy churn.
With each new superintendent, we throw out all that came before and this constant stopping and starting prevents any momentum for progress. In truth, it is the role of the school board to provide this level of continuity and to be the keeper of the agenda, and it is haltingly making progress in that direction.
At its most basic, the problem of the top-down culture at our school district is a no-brainer. It has to end.
In that regard, Supt. Cash has taken some important steps in the right direction, and we hope that he’s not through yet. As one long-time administration said, “The best thing would be to burn the place down and start over.” But short of a pyromaniac’s dream, the objective is to end the central office-centric attitude that characterizes the central office and to convince everyone there to remember that their jobs are to serve the schools and not the other way around.
Keys To The Kingdom
Organizational change is never easy, and that’s especially true for a large bureaucracy, and here are some keys to success:
Establish a “no excuses” philosophy. Supt. Cash is already fighting this one, because he is unwilling to allow people to use poverty and race as excuses for lack of results.
Develop a widely-owned philosophy of teaching and learning. This takes place with forums, facilitated discussions and public meetings so that the buy-in is broad and wide, and in particular, important stakeholders are behind the change.
Build trust and encourage risk-taking. This is built on a foundation of predictable behaviors and consistent messaging, but it also appreciates a culture where people are willing to innovate and experiment without the roof falling in on them.
Base decisions on data. Favoritism and politics are staples in the central office of Memphis City Schools, and it’s one of the most frustrating aspects of the district for Supt. Cash, we are told. In his system, people will be rewarded for what they know, not who they know. This data is also crucial to creating a system of shared accountability which builds trust within the community.
A Culture Of Change
Encourage a culture of continuous learning. Professional development is about a district-wide conversation about issues, about research and about priorities of the administration.
Acknowledge non-negotiables. Be clear about the essential elements to the reform program and invite discussion about ways to build a program upon them. This can’t include just the senior management but the support staff and principals whose support is key to success.
Encourage interconnectedness and cross-department problem-solving. For too long, connections have been central to the central office, but rather than political connections, this is about development connections and teamwork between various functions and roles.
Pursue collaboration inside and outside the district. Commonality and collaborative solutions and support are more important now than ever.
In the end, the goal is one we can all support: to create a culture at Memphis City Schools that is one of trust, openness, communications and continuous improvement, the keys to long-term reform and high expectations.