I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

In Newark, As Everywhere, Experience Matters

So Cami Anderson will be the State Superintendent of Newark's school district for at least another year. As John Mooney at NJ Spotlight notes, the announcement came at 5:23 on Friday evening: the time when all politicians dump unpopular news on their constituents.

And even Chris Christie has to acknowledge that, at this point, Anderson is deeply unpopular. The Newark clergy held yet another rally yesterday in opposition to Anderson and her restructuring plan, One Newark. At this point, protests against Anderson are a regular part of the life of the city: the students, the parents, the teachers, the mayor, business leaders, the school board, and the city council all want her gone.

And now we learn that even Anderson's own staff is turning against her:

In a series of interviews, several sources who requested anonymity told PolitickerNJ.com that dissent is not only evident outside of the city board of education's headquarters at 2 Cedar Street. It is also within its walls, creating an atmosphere that is not only not conducive to any school reform plan, but simply not conducive to business as usual

One former Newark Public Schools employee described a breakdown of factions that have emerged during Anderson's tenure that delineates four main categories of employees.
"There is a shrinking, very small group of about of four die-hard Cami supporters. This is the group that she engages with. Then there is another group of people at a senior-staff level who are just waiting Cami out, and who want to see her go," the former employee stated, describing a total group of about 300 employees. "You have another group of people who over the last six months who have flat out quit and who have gone on to other opportunities. And the fourth group, unfortunately, is the largest group of more than 200 people at the central office who are just waiting for their pink slips because they've been told [by Anderson] they're going to be let go."
"The way Cami engages the community left a lot of people uncomfortable," the former Newark Public Schools employee said. "And because of that discomfort level, people just started to leave. Some people who have been in the system long enough, and whose jobs are not at risk, they're not going anywhere and just waiting and hoping for Cami to leave sooner rather than later. Everybody else, they have nowhere else to go. They are people who have served nobly in the central office for years in areas like human resources, maintenance and making photocopies, people who live in Newark and dedicate their lives to the district. And without really any explanation, [the district] has determined that they have to go. Those pink slips are coming now, and if not now, then very soon."
"It's a fear state, characterized by scripted messages from the top down," said a longtime Newark Board of Education employee with direct knowledge of the internal atmosphere at the central office. "Cami is very dynamic, very smart, and her theories [about urban education reform] seem plausible. But her practices are impractical. Her practices are anchored only in theory, not in the community that they serve. These theories are good in books and at conferences, but are not engaging folks in the process, so no one is vested in it. Instead, [she] just steamrolls." [emphasis mine]
Believe it or not, I think there is a point of policy to be made about this:

Most superintendents in New Jersey and around the country -- whether they run districts large or small, urban or suburban, affluent or working class -- follow a certain career trajectory. You start off as a teacher, and you work five years, at a minimum, in the classroom. Maybe you bounce around a bit, working in different buildings or even different districts.

After a while, you go to school and get an administrator's certificate, usually attached to an advanced degree. You actually study things like employment practices and school law and finance and supervision and curriculum. You get hired for your first administrative job: a curriculum supervisor, or an assistant principal. Maybe you even get your own building, but usually that's an elementary school.

You work your way up. You become the principal of a high school, one of the most difficult and demanding jobs in public service. Maybe you're a director of special services; maybe you become an assistant superintendent. Eventually, you earn the chance to run a district; usually, however, you run a smaller urban or suburban system your first time out. You develop a reputation; you build relationships with other administrators. Eventually, after years of study and work and experience, you get the big job: a large suburban district, or a city school system.

Of course, that's not always how it works; we've had superintendents -- good ones -- who've taken unusual paths to their positions. And large, urban districts in the major cities have always required an additional skill set.

But a few decades ago -- and there's a good case to be made, I believe, that David Hornbeck, a man with no practical education experience but who went on lead Philadelphia's schools, was the first instance of this -- a new era of superintendency began.

It's telling that this change in attitude toward superintendents occurred at the same time as the rise of the cult of the corporate CEO. Both are built on this same notion: "talent," not experience, is what really matters. I'll save the discussion about whether this executive celebrity worship has been good for American business (it hasn't) for another time; for now, I'd like to make the case that abandoning a paradigm of valuing experience over valuing "talent" in education leadership is wreaking havoc in our schools.

And it's hard to think of a better case of this than Cami Anderson.

The reporting on this has been spotty, but by all appearances Anderson only has two years of K-12 public school teaching experience, all through Teach For America. When you haven't been in the classroom for long, you won't understand how a school becomes part of a community; it becomes, therefore, far easier for you to conceive of closing schools than it should be.

When you haven't invested yourself into a teaching career, you can't understand how disheartening it is to have superintendents change policies and curricula like they are the flavors-of-the-month. You won't understand how demoralizing it is to be subject to an arbitrary merit pay plan. You won't see the discriminatory racial patterns that emerge in employment practices that are ostensibly race-neutral.

After her short teaching stint, Cami Anderson went into the education "advocacy" sector, rather than continue to teach and work her way up the administrative ladder. She eventually landed a job in the labyrinth that is the NYCDOE -- but serving as a bureaucrat in a huge city system, while admittedly important work, is of limited value when it comes to training to take over your own district. That's especially true of New York City, where mayoral control under Mike Bloomberg ensured that school administrators had to answer to no one but the mayor's office.

Unlike a teacher who works her way up through principal and central office jobs to become a superintendent, Anderson never had to worry about building a consensus. She never had to come to terms with parent groups and teachers unions. She never had to learn to watch not only what she said but how she said it. She never learned to apologize for a dumb mistake that affected her students and their families, swallow her pride, and learn not to make it again.

To be clear: Anderson is hardly alone. Former Acting Commissioner Chris Cerf was, in my opinion, not qualified to run the state's schools; he left behind a mess that will take years to clean up. Penny MacCormack has a better resume, but too much time in state education offices and the Broad Academy Book Club and not enough time down in the trenches left her with limited experience -- and that has not served her well in Montclair (here's the latest).

The stories of Janine Caffrey and Steve Engravalle run parallel: lightly experienced superintendents whose relationships with their boards ultimately fell apart. Tim Capone's short experience in New Jersey's Regional Achievement Centers, as opposed to spending years running schools, doesn't seem to have helped him much in building community relations in Highland Park. In Belleville, Helene Feldman -- another superintendent who spent much of her career in the bowels of the NYCDOE instead of working in suburban districts like the one she now runs -- is overseeing one of the worst meltdowns in school governance and staff morale in New Jersey.

And, of course, there's Paymon Rouhanifard, state superintendent of Camden, who had a grand total of six years of education experience -- most as (big surprise) a bureaucrat in NYC -- yet now runs Camden's school system. He's barely a year into the job and already he's making threats against staff who don't toe the line, even as protests against his policies in Camden have become about as routine as protests in Newark.

I will concede that even superintendents who came up through the ranks often pull boneheaded stunts: the tenure charges brought against a Mullica kindergarten teacher are proof of that. But the fact that this incident took place in a small, K-8 district actually makes my point: better this superintendent learn her lesson now than when she's running a large district. If and when she gets her shot, she'll certainly think twice before rushing a shaky case before a tenure arbitrator.

These are experiences that Anderson and Rouhanifard should have had before taking on their big, difficult assignements. These are the defeats and embarrassments all education leaders should experience so they can learn from them. There is simply no substitute for relevant experience.

I don't want to see Cami Anderson or any other superintendent fail: the pain they can inflict on students, families, and staff due to ineptitude is just too great. But when someone like Anderson puts forward a disaster like One Newark, it tells us something.

Because no one with a solid training in school law and school finance and personnel supervision and curricular development would ever think One Newark was a good idea. And no one who had spent years learning how to build consensus would ever think it was smart to unilaterally close schools and turn them over to charter operators if that's what the community doesn't want.

Experience matters. New Jersey and the rest of the country would do well to keep this in mind when deciding who should lead our schools.

Inexperienced drivers should not get behind the wheel when the road is rough.


Unknown said...

Jazz,Another brilliant post.

P. Grunther said...

This is a brilliant post - it makes its case clearly and convincingly. What a shame that the people making decisions about who gets to run districts will never heed its excellent advice. And then there are those who believe that according to disruption theory, it makes sense to hand public school districts over to inexperienced and incompetent people since that will hasten the failure in public schools that they seek. But, in any case, great post JJ.