All of Our Eggs in One Basket

So now that the dust has settled and we know that Lawrence Superintendent Receiver Jeff Riley will be the next Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education in Massachusetts. I’ve given my statement regarding the board’s decision not to pick Angelica, now for some observations:

First off, the candidate pool: Is the really the best group of candidates we could come up with for the premiere job in public education? And yes — I’m going to actually put the question our there that everyone has been thinking:

How in the hell did Penny Schwinn make it to the final round? Are we kidding?

Nice lady. Not qualified. Not ready for prime time. This is Massachusetts.

As I sat in the front row listening to their justification for selecting Riley, I could see them mouthing the words, “We’re not picking him because just because we know him!” but then in the next breath they would say exactly that. They picked Jeff Riley because they were familiar with him from his many appearances and he’s done such a great job. I mean, sure we have a super qualified woman of color who has the exact skill set we need to attack the precise problems we’re facing in Massachusetts education, but we’re gonna pass.

Hmmmm …

So we have now literally put all of our innovation eggs in the Lawrence basket. And we don’t even know if the basket has any holes in it yet. 

But alas, here we are.

As context — we’re all aware that Riley hasn’t even been a regular superintendent of a district yet — only a receiver. Meaning he rolled into a situation where he had the absolute power and everyone had to execute his ideas — because he had the heavy hammer of the state in one of his hands. There were no other options.

I mean, it would be one thing if you told me that Jeff “Turnaround King” Riley had come to Lawrence and by the power of his charisma and personality was able to charm district staff to collaborate openly with charter schools and the teachers union fell madly in love with his innovative approaches and felt inspired to work with him for a new day in the city’s education system.

But that’s not what happened. The Board of Education voted to take over the district and put Riley in charge. It’s nice that he seemed to play the role of a benevolent dictator, but had dictatorial power nonetheless.

Riley has done some great things and had some great ideas. But I’m sure there are a ton of superintendents with great ideas that would have loved to implement them in their districts — but don’t work in receivership situations where they are given absolute authority to implement whatever program they’d like and experiment with new ideas out of desperation to save a failing district. It’s a whole different thing.

And here’s the other thing: we don’t even know if it really works once the power of the receivership is given back to the district — and now we’re going to — bring it to scale? Riley is leaving at the end of the school year after being there since 2012. We don’t know what happens when he leaves. The whole purpose of the receivership was not to put a bandaid on the situation and make Jeff Riley the hero — but to actually make lasting change for the children who were being underserved for generations. We literally have no idea how long the promising numbers we are seeing will last.

And does this mean we are going to do more things like giving superintendents more power and authority in their own districts to try innovative approaches, new curriculum, extended days/years, additional supports, etc.? Because we have those places already. They are called charter schools.

And personally, I can’t wait to start looking at the data to find out how much of the “Lawrence Miracle” is due to collaborating with charters who came in to save their asses. Oh yes, we’ll be crunching those numbers!

During the course of his short and horrifying interview at the Omni Parker House, our new commissioner said some really strange things that I’m going to be watching very closely.

Board Member Amanda Fernandez asked him about how he plans to communicate with parents and the community and his train was waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay off the tracks. He went off on a tangent about how he thinks we should use commercials and robocalls — and regional superintendent meetings. That’s not really going to cut it.

Partially because television commercials and robocalls involve the Department talking AT parents and the community — instead of engaging in a two way conversation where he will actually receive information about what we’re concerned about and what he needs to understand about our communities to actually lead our public schools.

We’re interested in forming a relationship so we can be a part of the discussion — because we NEED to be a part of the discussion — but we are not interested in being TALKED AT. Like at all.

And regional superintendent meetings? That sounds great for superintendents. We’re not going to those.

But most concerning was his rant regarding the importance of putting more weight on growth as an indicator of success — instead of proficiency — which came complete with a bizarre anectdote about some kid named Michael who was interested in drama and was really good at memorizing everyone else’s lines in the play.

“Why don’t we give him credit for that?”

Um, feel free to give him credit — but if Michael can’t read or do math — no one is going to give him a job.

There also seemed to be alot of concern about how teachers feel about being told that children are not proficient — but how they should be applauded for at least getting our kids to do a better job than last year.

And when I say, “our kids” — let me be clear: that means our black and brown kids. Because no affluent white parent is going to stand by and accept the excuse of, “Oh Johnny can’t read — but he’s not reading BETTER than he was last year.” That’s a big no.

It was fairly clear that Secretary Peyser was not happy with this exchange with Jeff, but in the end — Riley was his man.

So, we’ll see what happens.

I’m certainly hoping it all works out — I mean, if it doesn’t, my kids pretty are screwed, Governor Baker.


What do you think?

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