Kriner Cash says there were big “distractions” that began just before he became Memphis City Schools superintendent four-and-a-half years ago that created a “perfect storm” for his efforts to “transform” the school system.
“The fiscal challenges were constant from the day I stepped off the tarmac, I had the city take away $57 million or more and every year I was fighting that,” he said.
Cash talked for the first time at length about his exit as superintendent this month and his time in Memphis on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines” hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News.
The show can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.
He made no apologies for a leadership style that sometimes made him as controversial as the reforms he pushed.
“I made it clear who was in charge of all of this because I think that is important in a large complex organization,” Cash said. “You can’t have a bunch of folks with nobody in control.”
The move to merge Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools. which began in late 2010 and climaxes this August, was another unexpected and historic shift that was not of Cash’s making.
“That changed and sort of affected the momentum of the reform work that we were doing here, which I thought was really moving in a good fast-paced direction,” he said. “Now we had to shift energies and human capital. It is what it is. … But there’s no doubt that affected the momentum and the pace of the reform work.”
The centerpiece of Cash’s reform initiatives has been the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative, an effort to quantify as objectively as possible how effective teachers are based in part on the performance of their students and also determine how to help those teachers grow professionally.
“It’s at a critical tipping point,” he said of the initiative funded over several years by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “Does it go forward? How does it go forward? What are the levers to make it go forward? I think this interim superintendent is going to be key to that. I think the message has to be early and often that this is non-negotiable.”
As Cash leaves the initiative is being expanded to the Shelby County Schools system in advance of the August merger of the two school systems.
As Tennessee moves away from the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) tests to gauge student achievement and to the higher “Common Core” state standards, Cash warned student performance numbers will probably take another dip.
The change in higher standards has moved quickly and was the third challenge Cash faced as the state tries “to go from worst to first in Tennessee overnight as opposed to gradually.”
“Memphis is going to have low-performing schools in terms of tests. Where we’re going to make gains is on the growth model. We’re going to grow fast. We’re going to grow quick,” he added. “But will we ever be 100 percent proficient on these tests – 80 percent proficient on that test? I don’t think so. Not in any near-term future.”
It is the improvements and the rate of improvements that Cash feels is more important than the benchmarks or even what is arguably the most watched ranking of schools – the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state in terms of student performance. The designation is what qualifies that school for possible takeover by the state in the Achievement School District and allows parents to qualify for transfers to other schools.
“The bottom 5 percent is not much further away from the top 25 percent in terms of performance now under the new standards,” Cash said. “Memphis will probably for quite some time have lower performing schools in terms of test scores. What we are after is how are children developing and growing in their overall potential as young people in addition to their performance.”
The Achievement School District is in its first school year and began as the state lifted any limit on the number of charter schools in the state. Cash long has had concerns about whether charter schools were “burning out” teachers in an initial bid for better student test scores that might then wane.
“What we are getting into is kind of charter schools without accountability and without any kind of nuance that they are actually different from a traditional school. That’s a danger,” he said. “We will have a littered landscape of schools that are mixed performing but they can stay in business 10, 20, 30 years because of this fanaticism around charter schools. That’s just a name. You have to actually perform and do something different.”