Nobody was hoping more for a successful launch of the Kriner Cash era at Memphis City Schools than we were; however, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he’s stumbled out of the gate.
The greatest evidence of this is that at a time when the message should be about philosophy and priorities, it is instead about people and patronage.
It was only two weeks ago that we asked how Superintendent Cash would invest the good will from his honeymoon period. He’s perilously close to squandering this golden opportunity to effectively communicate his vision for the district and to create support for his strategies.
Instead, we’ve seen time spent explaining why he’s bringing someone from Miami with a controversial past to run security for the schools and to set up a district police department, a preconceived – not to mention expensive – program in search of a justification.
We’ve seen the creation of several positions paying more than $100,000, which is now attracting the attention of some county commissioners critical of raises in Shelby County Schools.
We’ve seen the salary for the head of security increased about $65,000 and the head of academic affairs increased more than $35,000.
We’ve seen the district athletic director removed despite an overwhelmingly positive review, spurring the school grapevine to work overtime on possible reasons for the appointment with most of the betting centering on it being an effort to send a Valentine to Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton.
We can’t attest to the accuracy of such swirling reports at the district, but if there was a dollar for ever rumor there these days, Memphis City Schools could make up the cut in its budget by Memphis City Council. We can attest to the fact that in the public sector, if you are spending your time explaining why you did something, you are losing ground. Right now, Supt. Cash is losing an awful lot of ground, and more importantly, he’s losing the most precious thing he has – time – time when he should be introducing his approach and unveiling his plans to the community.
We’re sure he’s got a crowded schedule, speaking to group after group and to people wanting to plead their case. While it’s tempting to feel that you are getting your message out, it’s worth remembering that the number of viewers of television news on just one channel on one night is greater than every one he’s spoken to since his arrival.
Inside the district, despite rhetoric about accountability and transparency, little seems changed, and it appears that he’ll have to deliver this message with a sledge hammer to change the culture of the central office. Although the district continues to horde public data and to base funding priorities on race and political considerations, we think it’s too early to be dismayed, because the new superintendent does in fact seem firmly committed to two crucial traits – accountability and transparency – that need to be injected into Memphis City Schools from top to bottom.
Meanwhile, this week, the Tennessee Department of Education engaged in its annual defrauding of the public with its news release about improving state schools. Part of the report dealt with Memphis, saying that 119 Memphis schools are in “good standing,” belying the fact that there was no mention of how many are not meeting state benchmarks and are hidden in the safe harbor designation provided by No Child Left Behind.
The city schools district said the number of schools in safe harbor won’t be released by the state until November, and it’s hard to imagine that officials there don’t have some idea of the number now. After all, they have the option of appealing the findings.
The primary question to us is whether the state reduced the number of questions that had to be answered correctly for students to be considered “proficient.” It’s our understanding that there were some decreases, pointing out again that proficiency is defined by the state in a way that’s at odds with any other common understanding of the word. Essentially, Tennessee Department of Education considers anyone who can make about a D on the test to be proficient.
Spinning The Results
Tennessee Department of Education has claimed – with a straight face, no less – that our state’s students are among the top 5 in the 50 states in eighth grade math and reading, fourth grade reading and math, and high school reading.
It’s an incredible claim, especially when the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) ranks Tennessee #40 and puts its percentage of proficient students in the range of about 25 per cent (compared to about 90% according to state education officials).
Regardless, this week’s results were hardly a cause for celebration, so we’re pleased that this year, Memphis City Schools’ reaction was more calibrated than in previous years. It was good news that 11 schools were removed from high priority status, it was good news that 20 high priority schools are improving, but it was bad news that nine fewer school were making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and bad news that 18 more schools were targeted this year than last year (meaning that a total of 34 schools could be designated as high priority next year).
Getting The Message Right
One high-ranking wag at the city district had predicted last week that the results would not be damning, “because everybody in Nashville (at DOE) wants nothing to do with Memphis City Schools and if things got worse, they might actually have to do something here to help.” That said, we were encouraged that the disastrous interim superintendency of Dan Ward didn’t do more damage.
Right now, among many members of the media, the buzz on Superintendent Cash is turning negative with suggestions that “it’s looking like more of the same.” We’re unwilling to adopt this attitude, but we also are convinced that he needs to work on his message and work consistently to get it out.
Unless he does in the next 2-3 weeks, his all-too-short honeymoon will officially be over.