Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Four Pieces of Advice for Anthony Tata (and one for the Board of Ed)

I worked in DC for an educational association and for other educational companies for close to 15 years before moving down to North Carolina, and my father still lives in the District of Columbia.  Therefore, I have a lot of information on the DC schools, both past and present.  I have been following closely Michelle Rhee's endeavors, along with her downfall with her one-term mayor sponsor, Adrian Fenty.  But there hadn't been much media coverage of Rhee's COO, Anthony Tata.  He had generally been described as hard working, action oriented, and politically conservative (an anomaly in HEAVILY Democratic Washington).  Most praised him for his focus on organization and logistics, but there were some who questioned his people skills.  Michelle Rhee has been quoted as saying, "He's not a touchy-feely guy who will hold people's hands."

As I said in my first post, I want the new Superintendent to succeed, even if he wouldn't have necessarily been the one I would have picked (of course, we have no idea about the other candidates).  So I thought I would offer General Tata the following advice, based on my experience with both the DC and Wake County Schools.

1.  Capitalize on Your Fresh Food for School Lunches Initiatives
Let's face it, experience in ordering textbooks and making sure the lights work doesn't sound that impressive for the man who is supposed to be running North Carolina's largest school system.  (Of course, the people here don't know the history of how horrible the District schools were at even the most basic tasks and what accomplishment that was compared to some of your predecessors.)  Plus, one and a half years isn't really enough time to make many major improvements in an organization like the DCPS.  But one thing you can point to is the improvement that you made in the school system food service, and especially the trial programs that are to begin this fall in using fresh, locally-produced food for the meals cooked in a few experimental foods.  The whole locavore, natural foods movement is really big in this area, especially among the demographics who may be the most critical of your political leanings.  Making them aware of your efforts to create healthy, locally-produced food for the DC children may reduce some of the resistance to your appointment.

2.  Stay Off the Conservative Blogs, TV Shows, and Other Commentator Opportunities
Look, I get it.  You've got strong opinions, you've got a lot of experience, and you want to share them.  As you've famously said, after risking your life to protect Constitutional protections like the right to free speech, you would like to engage in some free speech yourself.   And so your contract allows you the right to continue your "after hours" work as a political commentator as long as you don't identify yourself as the head of the Wake County schools.  But just because you've got that right doesn't been you need to exercise it.  I promise you, if you do, you will set off a firestorm each time you appear on one of those shows, and that is NOT something you need (see my first post in this series for details).

I know that Rhee (not a media shrinking violet herself) said that your political work didn't interfere with your work with the schools.  But, Tony, you're not in DC anymore.  It's not going to work here because:

  • Now you are the top dog, not the COO, which, frankly, nobody knows.  But to your community, you are now the face of the Wake County Public Schools, even if it doesn't say that under your picture when you are speaking on Fox News.
  • In DC, you were part of a minority so small that it is almost endangered--a conservative working for the highly Democratic city government.  The people you served weren't threatened when you expressed opinions different than their own.  But in closely split Wake County (which is represented in the US Congress by both the liberal-leaning Democrat David Price and the Palin-endorsed Republican Renee Ellmers), you are risking antagonizing large portions of your community, even though you are not speaking about educational matters.
  • Finally, politics is Washington's favorite sport.  Everyone eats and breathes politics, so of course your personal opinions were going to come out.  But it's not like that here.  For many people, talking about politics is more like talking about your sex life--not something a respectable person does on TV.
3.  Don't Push the IMPACT Teacher Assessment Project
One thing you really have going for you is that you've got great teachers in this school system.  Maybe not all of them, but most of them are dedicated, capable educators.  It's not like things were in DC, where the school system, like all the city government, had large numbers of staff who got their jobs through political chronyism.  Believe in your teachers, get to know your teachers, and listen to your teachers.  Given your lack of instructional or academic leadership experience, you need to earn their trust.  Touting the highly controversial and not-yet-proven teacher assessment system Rhee launched in the DC schools (as you do in your WCPSS statement) is not a good way to get them on your side.

4.  Fix the Planning Office
Another thing you talk about in your WCPSS statement is the fact that your academic training institute, The Broad Superintendents Academy, will do three free audits of your choosing as part of their support of you as a graduate.  I don't know how I feel about that, since I don't know enough (yet) about the Broad Center to determine whether I want their input or not.  But if they are going to do anything, have them help you figure out how to do a better job of planning.  Simply put, the citizens of Wake County are tired of having their children's education being a constant revolving doors of schools as they get reassigned every other year.  I know this is a high growth area, but there are lots of high growth areas--I grew up in one--and I've never seen a system where children are moved around so frequently.  In my opinion, that is the single biggest problem for the general population in the Wake County schools.  Fix that, and you may even be able to go back to your night time commentator gig!

Finally, I have one free piece of advice for the majority on the Board of Education

You Have Your Man.  Now Back Off and Let Him Do His Job.
When I worked with the educational association, I dealt with hundreds of educational boards.  I've studied board theory, and even contributed to a book about the subject.  And the classic wisdom is that Boards set the vision, establish the policies, determine the budget...and everything else is up to the staff.  Boards DO NOT gather up the data and try to come up, on their own, with the specific operational plan about what communities should go to what schools.  Of course, we all saw how well that worked....

So, please, stick to doing your job, which is plenty hard enough.  Leave the implementation to the General.  After all, that is why you hired him.

Oh, and by the way, one other small reminder.  They way you have been acting lately, you are treating the public like we are your enemy.  We are not your enemy.  We are not even your customer.  We are your bosses.  And we remember that, even if you do not.

No comments:

Post a Comment