Martinez: Expect a sandbox superintendent

October 2, 2012 

We all know that when someone uses the preface, “This isn’t about the money,” it’s about the money. Educators have their own “tell.” When they inject the phrase “it’s about the children” into a discussion, you know it’s really about the adults.

That’s the lesson folks should take away from the firing of Anthony Tata as superintendent of the Wake County Public School System. To hear board Chairman Kevin Hill tell it, Tata just couldn’t get along with some board members, staff and other members of the education establishment.

But how did the students fare under his reign? The evidence shows they thrived. Tata was hired in December 2010. Given that the first six months of his tenure was largely devoted to learning the ropes, student achievement in the 2010-11 academic year belongs to former superintendent Del Burns (who resigned) and interim leader Donna Hargens. Tata owns this year’s and last year’s results, since a new superintendent probably won’t be in the seat until summer.

So, as Democratic board member Jim Martin often says, let’s look at the data.

Last year, under Tata and the board’s leadership, Wake students made significant across-the-board gains in math, science and reading. District-wide proficiency (grade level or above) in all grades is in the mid-80s.

But among those with the toughest challenges to address – poor and minority kids – gains were downright historic. Economically disadvantaged students (those receiving free or reduced-price meals) scored their highest levels of proficiency in math, science and reading. The largest gains were achieved by high school students. Some of the highest performing schools were among the district’s poorest.

Barwell Road Elementary students achieved a 9.7 point gain. Nearly 70 percent of its student body qualifies for free and reduced-cost meals. Wilburn Elementary students achieved a 7.7 point gain. Sixty two percent of its kids are economically disadvantaged.

The graduation rate for Hispanics held steady at 65.3 percent, but among African-American students it rose to 69.6 overall.

Then there’s progress among special ed kids. In a powerful People’s Forum letter, parent Leslie Welch on Friday detailed the benefits and respect Tata’s leadership has brought to that group of children.

That’s an impressive rookie year.

At their news conference, I asked Chairman Hill and vice chair Keith Sutton whether these gains outweighed any problems Tata may have had in getting along with some board members and staff. The two discounted Tata’s classroom influence, instead crediting teachers and support personnel.

I doubt they’re right, since the expectations of every organization I’ve ever worked for, including the U.S. Navy, were and are set by the person at the top. But if Hill and Sutton are right, then let’s not pretend the next superintendent needs to care about the kids. As an N.C. State educational leadership professor, Lance D. Fusarelli, put it in a Point of View piece Saturday, the Wake system needs someone who can get all of the adults to play together in the sandbox.

I fear that’s exactly what this student-assignment-obsessed school board will hire – a collaborator who will ultimately be judged on his or her ability to go along to get along.

Maybe Tata was too gruff for his subordinates and the board members who fired him. I suspect he showed little patience for those who balked at embracing new approaches to tackle persistent problems. One does not rise to the rank of brigadier general in the U.S. Army, as Tata did, by kindly suffering fools. But sometimes you put up with growing pains from a person who is producing results and has the potential to produce even more impressive outcomes in the future.

Tata’s firing adds to the mounting evidence that meaningful reform, particularly when it comes to poor and minority students, is darn near impossible in public schools. That’s why I’m betting that the next Wake superintendent will be a tried and true educator who learned long ago that, in education, it’s the adults who really matter the most.

Contributing columnist Rick Martinez (rickjmartinez2@gmail.com) is news director at WPTF, NCN News and SGRToday.com

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