Opinion: Why Atlanta Superintendent Meria Carstarphen will fail

Ed Johnson is a longtime education advocate in Atlanta. In this piece, he writes about how Atlanta Public Schools is caught up in “transient corpo-politico college and career ready machinations” rather than defining a clear purpose for its staff, students and community.

Without such purpose, Johnson, who has run unsuccessfully for the APS school board, says APS will not find lasting success through Superintendent Meria Carstarphen’s ambitious turnaround plans.

By Ed Johnson

Management guru W. Edwards Deming died in 1993, at age 93.  Wisdom, principles, and teachings he left us include “Fourteen Points for the Transformation of Western Management.”  Dr. Deming published the 14 Points, as they are famously known in many parts of the world, in his book, “Out of the Crisis.”

Point 1 of the 14 Points offers: “Create constancy of purpose for improvement of product and service.”

Meria Carstarphen has outlined a campaign to bring in turnaround talent to remake failing schools.

APS school chief Meria Carstarphen has outlined a campaign to bring in turnaround talent to remake failing schools. (AJC Photo)

Now, a few years ago, the school accreditation agency AdvancED revised their Accreditation Standards for Quality, so as to transform the accrediting process to one that “recognizes and supports the journey of continuous improvement” from one about “earning a label for a one-time evaluation.”

Like Deming’s Point 1 of the 14 Points, the AdvancED Standard 1 focuses on purpose, especially “Purpose and Direction.” This is how AdvancED focused on purpose in each evaluation of an APS high school conducted between February 2013 and April 2015:

“Purpose and direction are critical to successful institutions. A study conducted in 2010 by the London-based Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) reported that ‘in addition to improving performance, the research indicates that having a sense of shared purpose also improves employee engagement’ and that ‘…lack of understanding around purpose can lead to demotivation and emotional detachment, which in turn lead to a disengaged and dissatisfied workforce.’”

Clearly, AdvancED now recognizes the pinnacle importance of purpose, as opposed to just vision and mission.

Purpose, however, does not begin and end with the individual school nor any single entity. Indeed, Atlanta school board members must know their purpose. Atlanta Public Schools must know its purpose as the public good it is. Every community should know their purpose. And principal, teacher, and student-child should know each other’s purpose for being in school.

By my experience in leadership roles, when and where purposes are understood and interact and connect, then strong, trustworthy, mutually beneficial, win-win relationships form and emerge. Thus trust exists within relationships. Trust cannot be mandated, as Carstarphen’s mission statement for APS implies: “With a caring culture of trust and collaboration, every student will graduate ready for college and career.”

Sustainable improvement of APS as the public good it is will happen only when various purposes come into optimal alignment as various purpose-connected relationships for their own sake, instead of for the sake of today’s transient corpo-politico “college and career ready” machinations.

None of shortcuts, quick fixes, bold actions, and school turnaround schemes can bring about sustainable improvement of APS.  Leadership is required – meaning, a systems-thinking kind of leadership capable to help APS onto a never-ending “journey of continuous improvement.”

APS has yet to have such leadership, a situation that is also quite clear.

Recently I asked an Atlanta school board member: Why does APS exist?  In other words, what is the purpose of APS?  The board member sidestepped the question, contending it is a philosophical question not worth the bother.

Carstarphen’s school turnaround strategy will, at worse, flat-out fail or, at best, yield short-term, non-sustainable, narrowly defined quantitative outcomes labeled “success.”  This will happen not so much because of the strategy, but because the strategy epitomizes Carstarphen.

Deming pegs Carstarphen well when, in “Out of the Crisis,” he quotes Iago to Roderigo, in Shakespeare’s Othello: “How poor are they that have not patience.”

Carstarphen keeps telling Atlanta the board hired her for not having the patience, nor the wisdom and knowledge, to lead by the pinnacle importance of purpose and purpose-connected relationships.

Listen to people when they tell what they are about, or not about.

Reader Comments 0

29 comments
Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

Wow.  And to think I left my "Buzzword Bingo" cards at work.  It all depends on your definition of "fail".  If you are Carstarphen, you will work for APS for 3-5 years, make about $1 million in salary, and move on to the next sucker, er, school system before your "initiatives" have a chance to blow up in your face.
That's what she would call a "win-win".

jerryeads
jerryeads

Given the travesty of the Hall era, Ed, I hope you're wrong. Then again, only too many times I've wished I'd been wrong and was not. The nation has been doing little else but knee-jerk turn-it-around-right-now-completely "reforms" since long before the 45 years or so I've been at this. None of them has ever helped. Our shortsighted policies have taken many decades to dig this hole, and we won't undo all that damage in a few months. Meria likely does have to yank the chain pretty hard to get things moving, but little good will come of anything without the constancy you highlight. I hope she listens to you, and I also wish her my every hope for getting things moving in a good direction.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@jerryeads


I hope the Superintendent will listen to the words and thinking of Ed Johnson, also.  He is completely on target regarding student growth; I know that from 3 1/2 decades of teaching.

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

After quoting what they say is “Thomas Jefferson on the purpose of writing the Declaration of Independence,” Texas superintendents participating in “Creating a New Vision for Public Education in Texas” commit themselves to a moral imperative as to why they, as public education leaders, must speak and act now.

An excerpt:

“The framers of the Declaration of Independence provided inspiration for this monumental task we have felt compelled to undertake. While making no claim that this work is in any way comparable to their epic accomplishment, we have used what they did to inspire us, as a metaphor to frame our own efforts, and to reflect our deeply held belief in the assertion of Thomas Jefferson that learning is essential to liberty. So in that sense, we, like them, find that we can no longer keep quiet and continue to endure the injustices the present bureaucratic school system is imposing on our youth and their future.

“External forces are creating requirements for public education that are detrimental to children and their teachers, as well as to the systems and communities in which they live and work, and, ultimately, to our democratic way of life. We assert that the major present reform efforts, in spite of some positive impacts, are resulting in a multitude of unintended negative consequences that far outweigh the benefits.

“We concur that major changes in our schools are needed, but we disagree with the present direction and major assumptions and polices in place (and similar ones that are contemplated) to achieve that end. Therefore, we assert that schools must be transformed based on a different set of assumptions and beliefs if they are to accomplish their intended purpose in this new world that is so dramatically different from the nineteenth and early twentieth century world in which their basic form and structure originated. This document reflects our sources of discontent, but more importantly it clearly conveys what we are for and declares our resolve to work toward the transformations needed.

“Our collective experience and our intensive study of what is happening in our schools and communities lead us to conclude that the future of public education is at risk and will not survive if the present direction continues. It is time to redirect this concern, energy, effort, and support for improvement to create a positive commitment to the education of our youth by transforming systems that better meet the needs of 21st century learners.”

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@EdJohnson 

". . .our deeply held belief in the assertion of Thomas Jefferson that learning is essential to liberty."

“Our collective experience and our intensive study of what is happening in our schools and communities lead us to conclude that the future of public education is at risk and will not survive if the present direction continues."

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Thank you for communicating this to the readers of this blog, Ed Johnson. I thoroughly agree.

I must state further, here, that in my opinion, the future of our democratic Republic is at risk and that it will not survive if the present direction continues, politically.  The fact that one political party would refuse even to consider an elected President's Supreme Court nomination for nearly a year is reckless and dishonorable to the U. S. Constitution, in the extreme.  This political trend of extreme and irrational partisanship must cease if we are to save the greatest self-governmental experiment in the world's history - the United States of America.

pcrabtree
pcrabtree

Simplistic solutions to a complex problem. The problem started when discipline was removed from the classroom. Teachers were blamed (blaming game). It was orchestrated to make schools fail. When teachers have standards, principals attack them for being too hard and demanding. If Carstarphen wanted to really improve schools, she would bring ALL stakeholders to the table and evaluate what works and what doesn't. If it is a community issue, then they could come up with a plan to assist. That would produce accountability. EVERYONE has to have a say in the initial planning, not Meria's plan and we accept her plan. Why are we passing off our children and schools to a for profit or non-profit charter to do what WE should be doing? She is not omniscient. Every parent should have a voice.

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

John Keltz, a researcher for the Atlanta Public Schools, and Jarod Apperson, a Graduate Research Assistant at Georgia State University, conclude Part 3 of their 2014 three-part report touting Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy Charter School chain by stating:

 “Much like there will always be those who dispute pollution’s effect on global warming, most Success Academy detractors aren’t likely to be persuaded anytime soon.  Some of their arguments are legitimate and explain a small portion of the schools’ achievement, but ultimately they miss the larger picture.  Something is working at the Success Academy schools, and educators who refuse to pay attention are missing out on an opportunity to maximize the potential of their students.”

Now comes, unsurprisingly, what surely will be an “inconvenient truth” for Keltz and Apperson…

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/13/nyregion/success-academy-teacher-rips-up-student-paper.html

More importantly, will Success Academy also prove an inconvenient truth for APS Superintendent Meria Carstarphen and “her” school board?

More at…

Alan Singer: Close Down Success Academy, Now” and

Eva’s Video: It’s the Talk of the Nation” and

…Eva Video: It Has Gone Viral

Don Won
Don Won

She has made the largest mess. She put her people in Human Resources and its been actual fights there. 

Demetria Doingme Dramafree
Demetria Doingme Dramafree

She will not last and if parents don't start getting involved nothing will ever change. Our school is a daycare they not really learning some of the school don't even use text books. Why you think Georgia is the 5th low average schools. They tell the schools not to suspend students so there is no consequences so these kids are walking around like they run the schools. Trust me I been in my child school and seen a lot to the point the school need to be shut down and principal fired.

Demetria Doingme Dramafree
Demetria Doingme Dramafree

When your kid has never been exposed to the behavior and drugs ect. When they get in a public school and learn a lot of bad habits then it's not on the parent it's on the schools. One bad apple can spoil the a bunch. With these kids killing their parents and the state tell them you can't touch them that's not good either, . I am a proud mom of three and I lost my son to a bullet and neglected of the school system. Some of these kids who do want to do right but afraid of the gangs jumping then in and threatened them. No these kids are afraid to tell trust me I know I've been in my kids school since they started. So parents need to get more involved and double check what your kids come home and say.

Bill Clements
Bill Clements

She is on right track - community support needed!

David Fige
David Fige

She's done an Outstanding job, She would be out of a job for less then an hour..

Mark Elliott Gregg
Mark Elliott Gregg

But she got her bag of money from the private school and private prison corporate criminals. She doesn't care.

Holly Mueller
Holly Mueller

Unfortunately, she probably will. People do not want to be held accountable for their, or their kids actions.It is not the schools responsibility to parent children, and that's what they end up doing. Until parents are held accountable for their actions, it will be impossible to create a school like atmosphere. That requires trust, respect, and behaving. None of which I see in too many schools these days. Atlanta NEEDS someone who can turn things around, but it will be an almost impossible task, considering we live in a society where nobody cares about anything.

Gregg Bellah
Gregg Bellah

She would have a better chance if the Beltline paid the $ 88M it owes APS

Carolyn Molyneux
Carolyn Molyneux

The schools cannot succeed until the kids/families take responsibility for their own lives. If kids come to school to fight and cause problems and not study, then what do you think will happen?

Roberta Cromlish
Roberta Cromlish

She will fail because she advocates for personal responsibility in a region which is populated by people who take no personal responsibility for their actions

pcrabtree
pcrabtree

Ed clearly states that Meria and the likes are not true leaders. They lack vision and purpose for continuous improvement. She has a top down, omniscient leadership. She will fail for she does not lead. Leading requires buy-in. Leading requires trust. Neither has she achieved as Superintendent. There is greater distrust of her than Beverly L. Hall. Blaming and firing is not leadership, but a smokescreen to fool the public into believing she is "transforming." It may work for a minute, but it is not sustainable. It is akin to a beaten dog, eventually the dog will bite back. Why was Kennedy so beloved? He had the electorate believing in his dream, a real leader. The greater question will be, "She failed, so how can we improve now that she messed up our schools?" She will be blamed, but the problem will persist. We like to blame people when the problem It is more than people. It is a system. A system of poverty, lack of jobs, lack of parenting, a lack of resources, a lack of exposure, and most of all, a lack of hope. All teachers see is a lack of a job, no matter how good they are. They are blamed even for things out of their control. Eg. I was evaluated low because of lack of attendance from my first graders. I controlled what the parents lacked, it was my fault. Was I supposed to pick up each kid every day? Get my point? Blaming, not leadership.

khd713
khd713

Nice try, but this piece reads like a bunch of pseudo-intellectual educrat nonsense. Dr. Carstarphen may indeed fail in her ambitious efforts, but this op-ed fails to provide one single concrete reason why that would be so. Mr. Johnson would be more persuasive if he would drop the ethereal rumination on Deming et. al., and cut to the chase of why he believes Dr. Carstarphen's reform effort is lacking purpose, and what he would propose as an alternative course of action. By not providing the most basic elements of a coherent argument – a premise and a conclusion – Mr. Johnson comes across as just another bloviator whose thinking and writing neglect the very advice he tries to peddle, that is, the need to define a purpose and find a point.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@khd713 

Here is Ed Johnson's "purpose and point" for having written this article, as he stated.  One simply has to follow his thinking to grasp it:

"None of shortcuts, quick fixes, bold actions, and school turnaround schemes can bring about sustainable improvement of APS.  Leadership is required – meaning, a systems-thinking kind of leadership capable to help APS onto a never-ending 'journey of continuous improvement.' "


A "journey of continuous improvement" in the advancement of every student's academic progress and emotional growth would not involve "quick fixes" nor "shortcuts," but instead would involve a steady continuous progress of every student's academic goals from years k - 12.  I have seen this approach work, in action in schools, k - 12, for a quarter of a century.  The specifics beyond this overview would involve workshops of instructional details for teachers and administrators for hours and days, and cannot be adequately described in a 750 word essay on a public educational blog.

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

@khd713 Kindly point out where I said I believe “Dr. Carstarphen's reform effort is lacking purpose?”

khd713
khd713

@EdJohnson @khd713 Right here, bud: 


"Carstarphen keeps telling Atlanta the board hired her for not having the patience, nor the wisdom and knowledge, to lead by the pinnacle importance of purpose and purpose-connected relationships.


Listen to people when they tell what they are about, or not about."


Emphasis mine. Anything else?

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

@khd713 @EdJohnson You're kidding, right?  On the other hand, I guess some folk are just inclined to make up stuff about what they read and don't like.

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

@EdJohnson @khd713 

If I may - I believe what Ed Johnson wrote was that the APS Superintendent was not fostering the type of "purposes and purpose-connected relationships" which will build trust among colleagues - which, in turn, will promote long-ranged, substantive learning in all students. 


Instead, and in contrast, Carstarphen's reform purposes have centered upon "today’s transient corpo-politico 'college and career ready' machinations."

gapeach101
gapeach101

It is my fervent hope Ms. Carstarphen stays on for the average length of time for a superintendent, and then moves on.  That would put her half way through her visit here. 

MaryElizabethSings
MaryElizabethSings

Ed Johnson is a thinker, and a writer, of depth.


Education could use more leaders of his caliber.  Education must be about long-term, substantive growth, never focusing simply on a "quick-fix" solution for appearance.

LifeLongGaResident
LifeLongGaResident

Frankly, we have heard "wait for a long-term solution" now for over 20 years. We need to change the system. We should allow a parent or parents to pick the school that they feel offers their child the best education and that child should be allowed to go to that school. Poorly performing schools will dry up. Good schools will prosper and grow. Sure, this would involve some busing, but we have bussed in the past for other reasons with no problem. School choice works in other countries very well. We refuse to do it. Why not?