Well, now we feel better.
Memphis City Schools Chief Operating Officer Michael Goar – as he packs his bags to join former superintendent Carol Johnson in Boston City Schools – assures us that as the Central Nutrition Services’ scandal widens, his other 10 departments are doing fine.
That’s cold comfort. After all, it was Mr. Goar who conducted the first internal review of this problem for the city schools district, and his report back to the interim superintendent led Dan Ward to label it a “glitch,” resulting in public embarrassment that caused a rift between the two.
Because of it, we suspect that his diagnosis of his departments will do nothing to dissuade Supt. Ward from taking the offensive in the current blow-up. Rather than allowing his central office staff to hunker down and wait for the next wave of investigators to arrive (both state and federal agents are now working almost on a daily basis), we hope he’ll take four firm steps that could give taxpayers hope that there’s a grown-up in charge at 2597 Avery Avenue.
So far, it’s been hard to tell. The district staff and board of commissioners appear unable to do anything as ably as to take on the role of spectators to the unfolding, widening controversies in their midst. And too often, the impulse has been to try to explain the problem away or to be clever at a time when the public would be more grateful for candor and directness.
Based on his performance so far, Interim Supt. Ward has shown sincerity in his intent to leave the district better than he found it, but of course, he could never imagined the challenges that he now faces. At the time of his appointment, the thinking was that he just needed to keep the district in the middle of the road until a fulltime superintendent could be appointed.
In The Ditch
Even the district’s harshest critics couldn’t envision how quickly it would drive into the ditch. There something else he could never have imagined – the length of time that his interim status would last.
At this point, those early estimates of his staying in the job for 6-9 months should now be doubled, because there’s little reason to launch a national search for a new superintendent while the district is embroiled in its current chaos and turmoil. Of course, there was some resistance by some board members to conducting a legitimate national search, because they cling to the misplaced belief that someone within Memphis City Schools can be mentored into the superintendent’s job.
That, too, should be a fleeting idea now, because never has external involvement in the district been more important or mandatory to restore public confidence.
Sending The Message
That’s why we hope that Superintendent Ward will send a strong message about how serious he is by immediately going outside the district to fill Mr. Goar’s job. We suspect that by now, Mr. Goar has submitted recommendations for his successor, but we suspect that at this point, that may actually work against his nominees.
The first order of business for Superintendent Ward’s new COO should be to launch a complete, thorough, comprehensive, exhaustive review of the central office – every department, every policy, every procedure. And it needs to be done by an independent external review.
At this point, internal audits count for nothing when it comes to convincing the public that the district is serious about clearing the air and getting all the facts out. And the idea that the Council of Great City Schools should do this also falls short of what’s needed. While it’s a fine organization, it’s a membership organization, and once again, its conclusions can’t – and wouldn’t – have the clout of a totally independent review.
So, we hope Mr. Ward will first appoint a new COO and second, he will find an independent outside organization to handle the comprehensive review that is needed of central office operations. While there’s some reason to suspect that the academic side of the house may have accountability problems of its own, focusing on operations is enough to get started.
Then, we hope that Superintendent Ward’s third strong action will be to advocate strongly to the board that they hire the kind of impact player needed in the permanent superintendent’s job. Hopefully, if there’s any positive side to the present painful realities, it should be that board members should shed the idea that they should lower their sights, play it safe and find someone who won’t be highly recruited and will stay at MCS for a decade.
Clearly, Memphis City Schools needs someone to shake things up, because it’s now common knowledge that the district culture tends to choke out innovation and accountability and worst of all, the central office sees itself as the center of the Memphis educational universe.
Changing The Culture
Like many bureaucracies its size, motivations at the central office center on status and power and about establishing systems that treat the schools subserviently. Again, there are hopeful signs that Supt. Ward recognizes the dimensions of this problem and that he may take some action to create a philosophy in which the central office becomes the servant for the schools instead of the other way around.
The fourth strong step that should be taken by Supt. Ward should is to convene a special team of researchers similar to the Research Partnership for New York City Schools, one that can analyze the reams of data and decide what’s working and what’s not working in our district. While there are several important reform programs under way in Memphis City Schools and there are dozens of initiatives undertaken by the district itself, we suffer from a lack of measurement and data that inject more accountability into the system.
In New York, the research program is an outgrowth of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s takeover of the management of schools, part of the national movement in which mayoral control has shown encouraging signs of progress. That said, there’s not so much magic about the mayor in charge as there is magic in the elimination of elected boards in favor of appointed ones which bring more expertise and no political motivations to their work.
It’s time for the Tennessee Legislature to give our state’s major metro areas the option to consider mayor-led school reform. Actually, now that all 95 counties in Tennessee have mayors in charge of county governments which have the constitutional obligation to fund education, the law should allow the mayor here to be the city mayor, county mayor or a partnership between them.
But back to the research team, its creation would send the strongest possible message that the district is transparent, open and honest to the point that it’s in favor of an independent group of researchers who’ll tell it like it is when it comes to all the charts, graphs and data of Memphis City Schools.
The New York group is modeled after the Consortium on Chicago School research formed in 1990 when that school was undergoing its own major changes. There, the researchers have issued dozens of reports that have informed and driven Chicago school reform decisions. In addition, they have helped to shape national thinking on student achievement, such as the link between ninth grade performance and drop-outs.
Lack of extensive research led to the decision by the Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners and its superintendent to blow up the “whole school” reforms because they thought they weren’t improving test scores. The wholesale abandonment of 50 reform programs is largely responsible for Memphis’ reputation as an educational wasteland.
These four strong actions by Supt. Ward – who appears to have built a strong cadre of support on the board of commissioners – could be the most dramatic steps that he could take toward better schools.
In the end, the single most important thing that’s needed in the city district is to change expectations. It’s a truism that children perform to expectations, and sadly, there’s a prevalent attitude in our schools that many of these kids can’t succeed and that a large failure rate is simply a fact of life for Memphis.
If Superintendent Ward could do one thing while he’s in his interim role, it would be to attack this malignant belief. Before every Memphian can believe that each student should achieve at a high level, every one of our educators must believe it first.