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.
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.