From the moment he became Memphis City Schools superintendent, Kriner Cash had competition.
Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash reads to Gardenview Elementary School students at a Read for the Record program. Cash, who came to Memphis in 2008 from Miami-Dade Schools in Florida, where he was director of accountability, resigned as Memphis City Schools superintendent earlier this month after five years on the job.
(Memphis News File Photo: Lance Murphey)
“I’ve been fighting since I got here,” he said in the early stages of what winds up as a five-year tenure that officially comes to an end July 31.
Cash has been fighting for an education reform agenda whose primary goal has been to quantify – as objectively as possible – what makes an excellent teacher in terms of student achievement. Then hire and offer professional development to as many as possible.
“As far back as you want to go, parents have always known who the good teacher was at a school,” Cash said in November 2009. “The students themselves have always known who the best teachers were in a school. But we as educators have found it much like the allegory of the blind men and the elephant.”
He laid out the ambitious goal as the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation awarded $90 million to Memphis City Schools over seven years to pursue the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative, the central reform measure of Cash’s tenure.
“We’re studying what … we agree to be the elements of effective teaching. We are going to reach a common definition – for the first time – not depending upon what part of the elephant you touch,” Cash added. “It’s a first time, common, agreed-on definition with teachers leading the way with input into that definition. That’s significant.”
His foes in that quest were critics of the specific reform methods. But the more formidable obstacles were historic changes in other areas: local school funding, consolidation of Shelby County’s two public school systems and state education reforms other than those based on reform work he brought to Memphis.
Cash came to Memphis from Miami-Dade Schools in Florida, where he was director of accountability, two months after Memphis City Council members cut city funding to the school system, touching off several years of court fights that the school system won at every turn.
At first, he was a mediator between a warring City Council and school board. But later, he played hardball, threatening to delay the start of the school year if the city didn’t pay what it had been ordered to pay.
Cash came to a school system whose parents are familiar with the politics of education reform and the experimental nature of that reform.
Gerry House, superintendent from 1992 to 2000, came with multiple reform models that varied from school to school and added complexity to a school system with more than 100,000 students.
And many of the reforms were referred to as experiments, a term guaranteed to add to the skepticism parents already felt about some of the new methods being tried out during their child’s only education.
Carol Johnson, superintendent from 2003 to 2007, began dismantling the reform models almost immediately. It never really became clear if she intended to build anything onto the basic school structure that was left.
Johnson’s tenure saw a shift to meeting higher student performance standards under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Under Cash, there would be no pilot of test programs for the reforms. The reforms had to be “scaleable” – able to be implemented across the school system or in a set of schools that would affect large numbers of students. Those student groups included thousands of overage students Cash counted in a sort of student population census that was among the first things he did when he got to Memphis.
His reasons were that he and other reformers have come to regard the pilot programs as widening an “achievement gap.”
The language of education reform today no longer emphasizes improvements in performance among some students or even most students. The mantra is “every student,” and growth or progress for even the highest achieving students is just as important as meeting state or federal achievement standards.
“The achievement gap in America is real,” Cash said in August 2009. “It is affecting far too many of our young people and our children. However, it can be closed without sacrificing the performance of our top performers.”
Neither House nor Johnson handled well or directly the most volatile element of public education in Memphis – the politics.
Both dealt with school boards that crossed the line that separates what the board is expected to do and what the superintendent is expected to do.
Cash was hired by a Memphis City Schools board that had already drawn a brighter line between those two areas. Cash was also more aggressive in policing that boundary than House or Johnson. As a result, it ultimately made him the most controversial superintendent since Willie Herenton.
Cash was not hesitant to tell the Gates foundation or other local nonprofits that matched the Gates funding where the boundaries were either.
But other boundaries were changing. The night in November 2010 that Cash welcomed Bill and Melinda Gates to a reception at the National Civil Rights Museum, school board member Martavius Jones told Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. that he and others would push for a surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter to consolidate the school system with Shelby County Schools.
The move was based on Republicans becoming the majority party in both chambers of the Tennessee Legislature and what that would mean for a long-held bid by county schools leaders to become a special school district like Memphis City Schools.
Cash viewed the merger as a distraction calling it “junior high street fight nonsense” and “just bad politics.”
“You want to be all civil rights all of a sudden,” he said in remarks in 2010 directed at school board member Tomeka Hart, among the first to call for the merger. “These are your schools.”
He also asked for the first time what became the central concern for the rest of his tenure.
“What will happen to our work?” he asked. “Are you ready to throw it away?”
He rarely attended sessions of the consolidation planning commission that mapped out recommendations for the merger.
And by October 2011, he was presenting city schools business seated next to Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken before a consolidated 23-member countywide school board.
Seven of the 23 board members were members of the former Shelby County Schools board where the relationship with the superintendent has been fundamentally different and superintendents were not nearly as outspoken as Cash and past Memphis City Schools superintendents.
The consolidated board later voted not to renew Cash’s contract past the August merger date.
Two months into life with the new school board, he and school board chairman Billy Orgel had a verbal confrontation that prompted the first private contract buyout talks.
Meanwhile, Aitken and his staff were already working along similar philosophical lines with statewide reforms like intervention with students based on faster evaluation of testing data before the end of the school year. And TEI is in the process of being expanded to include county schools as well as city schools by the time they merge.
Cash’s reforms came just ahead of the environment for statewide education reform changing significantly.
Cash embraced the state legislation allowing student testing data, which Tennessee has more of over a longer period of time than any other state, to be used immediately to begin charting a student’s progress and link it to teacher effectiveness.
He wasn’t necessarily a fan of the state laws that allowed it to be used in teacher tenure decisions and lengthened the three-year period to earn tenure to five years.
Cash carried the reform banner further than any of his recent predecessors in part because he remained just as wary of education consultants, education foundations and charter school operators as they have been of those running school systems. Yet, he worked with all three groups confident that he had established who was in charge.
“What’s happening in a lot of charter schools is they are turning into sweat shops,” he told the Midtown Republican Club in September 2011.
With Cash’s recommendation, the school board last year rejected the applications of more than a dozen charter schools on the basis that that many new charter schools would pose a financial hardship on the school system. State education officials overruled the school board saying its financial numbers were incomplete and did not support a finding of financial hardship.
Cash, on the other hand, battled the perception from other quarters that he was allowing too many new teachers especially from teacher residency programs into Memphis City Schools in a bid to purge any and all veteran teachers.
Cash’s style and the force with which he advocated specific reforms made him an unlikely contender for a fence straddler.
He may not have been in the middle of the road. But the line he walked went through some hazardous territory and took some turns even those on both sides of the line could never have anticipated.