Here’s hoping that the hiring of the interim superintendent isn’t a precursor to Memphis City Schools’ hunt for the new superintendent.

So far, with the interim appointment, there’s been a maximum of political horse-trading and personal agendas and a minimum of vision, priorities and objectives.

Overall, the quality of the candidates for the interim superintendent’s job should be testament to the failure of this approach, so hopefully, by the time the school board turns its attention to the hiring of a new superintendent, it will get the cart before the horse. It does this by the board members deciding what they want Memphis City Schools to be and then going out and finding someone uniquely qualified to do it.

The Real Power

If this isn’t done, the natural tendency of a political organization is to gravitate to putting a friend in charge, such as current city school staffers, or to be more concerned about personal power than a shared vision for the future of Memphis City Schools.

A couple of board members harbor the opinion that the new superintendent should be appointed from within the existing district staff, but there’s no proof that any has the qualifications to run a major urban district. After all, if they were that qualified, there would be other districts coming here to recruit them already.

In a sentence, it’s the difference between Johnnie B. Watson and Carol Johnson.

More Than Cruise Control

Back to the interim superintendent’s appointment, there’s really no need to rush. The truth is that bureaucracies of this size can run without anyone at the helm for awhile. After all, the staff members who run the district day-to-day are still there, and in the normal course of business, precious few had any contact with the superintendent in the first place.

Perhaps, taking the extra time, the board could even move past its current thinking of the interim superintendent as a place holder until the real superintendent is appointed. Since it’s possible that the search for a new superintendent could take 12-18 months, the idea of appointing someone to “keep things in the road” is short-sighted and squanders momentum that’s under way.

More to the point, if the school board would elevate its sights – say, a retired superintendent or a former superintendent now working as a consultant or for a nonprofit organization – the district could do more than mark time. It could actually make sure reforms under way continue and the board members could give themselves time to conduct the research and have the discussions that would lead to a more informed decision about the future.

It’s The Teacher, Stupid

If there’s ever been a time for the school board to elevate its sights – and the discussion – this surely is it. Rather than talk about who can get the votes put together or concentrate on the normal political calculus, it’s the perfect time for the school board – as the policy-setting body for the district – to talk about what its priorities are, about what its vision is and then, about what qualifications are needed in a superintendent – interim or permanent – to address them.

For our part, we think teacher recruitment and retention is at the top of the list. The recent op-ed column in The Commercial Appeal by George Lord of Partners In Public Education (PIPE) should be an attention grabber for anyone interested in improving city schools.

A recent study by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future put the national cost of teacher turnover at $7.3 billion a year. The study looked at the costs of recruiting, hiring, processing and training teachers, and put the average cost for each lost teacher at about $8,500.

Turning Over Millions

In other words, the cost of teacher turnover for Memphis City Schools is likely more than $10 million a year. The report found that few urban districts actually know the cost of this problem, and based on the poor track record of the city district for compiling meaningful statistics, we suspect Memphis City Schools would fall into this category.

It’s a disturbing irony in our nation that the profession of teaching – shaping the lives of the next generation and determining our national ability to compete and innovate – is treated as if anybody could do it. It’s found in programs built on the belief that all that’s needed to teach is a love of learning, strong discipline, a passion for children and good grades in college (regardless of the major).

What’s been missing from Memphis City Schools’ decisions are good data and a comprehensive approach. While the New Teacher Project was a major step toward increased teacher professionalism, it appears to have done it with some district staff members kicking and screaming. In the end, the full potential of the program has been undercut by an entrenched culture that still defines success in terms of control and power.

Real Data

Of course, when Memphis City Schools – with a straight face – can release the recent survey that claimed that 89.4 percent of teachers feel safe and 80 percent of students say they never feel afraid at school, it’s clear that the district has real problems in candor and communications.

The survey seems to be the latest example of the kind of internal processes driven to preconceived conclusions, and saddest of all, these kinds of surveys only lead many in the community to question other measurements of success that are verifiable. It’s too bad, but Memphis City Schools can’t seem to craft a strategic communications program that prevents it from shooting itself in the foot.

Clearly, some board members are tone deaf. They ordered their communications department to get out the good news about the safety survey, further wounding the district’s credibility. Anytime a public agency tells citizens something that so flies in the face of their own experiences and opinions, it had better be able to point to an unquestionable, authoritative source. That doesn’t include a survey conducted by the district itself.


If the district is serious about determining opinion about safety (and other issues) in the schools, it should hire an independent, third-party professional to do it.

But, we digress. Back to the subject of teachers, the district would be wise to invest in a study of the workplace, because research in other districts indicates that supportive working conditions are key to teacher retention. Key factors include time to plan, leadership, access to resources, teacher autonomy and professional development.

Urban districts like ours need to come to grips with the fact that about 66 percent of teachers who leave the profession report that they are able to balance their personal and professional lives better in their new jobs. In thinking innovatively about the schedule, schools can create more teaching time with students and more time for teachers to plan and collaborate with their colleagues.

Reform Is A Journey

For example, to pursue this, the school board could turn its attention to answering the seminal question: How does Memphis City Schools create a teacher-centered environment based on clear expectations, support for instruction, incentives for highly effective teachers and positive and supportive principal leadership.

In other words, if the school board took the time to evaluate where it is and where it wants the district to go, it could also commit the district to a continuous journey of reform. That’s because as the board is learning, superintendents (if they’re good) come and superintendents go. Because of it, there has to be a higher purpose and a shared vision that can sustain the district as it changes management.

Research has shown that it’s not the “program of today” or the latest magic bullet that solves the problems of education. Rather, it is a sustained, continuous dedication and an unflinching course of change that make the difference. When that sustained commitment is translated into the entire structure of the school – all the way from Avery Street to every city classroom – real reform and change can take place.

All Things Are Possible

It’s in this way that the district has its best chance to transform the district’s rhetoric – like “community schools as the hub for neighborhoods” – into reality.
But the truth is, when there is a strong, shared purpose and clearly understood vision for the future, anything is possible.

That’s the kind of thing that the city school board needs to be doing right now. Armed with these fundamental decisions, board members then know exactly what kind of superintendent it’s looking for, and most importantly of all, it could begin the “reculturing” of Memphis City Schools that’s only been hinted at in the past three years.