Saturday, August 20, 2005

No Dry Cleaning Left Behind

Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Thandiwe Peebles faces a probe into whether she had employees do personal chores and classwork she needed to complete state licensure requirements.

What separates this from the usual tales of executives who delegate dog walking, bill paying and dry cleaning pickups — while they are presumably engaged with weightier matters of state — is that Peebles is an educator. Peebles' supporters say there's another factor at play: The anonymous allegations are getting more attention because of Peebles' race.

"Now we have a bright daylight lynching. A bright daylight lynching of a black woman who has turned around a culture and a system of injustice," says the Rev. Ian Bethel.

Sorry, Rev, I don't buy the Clarence Thomas card. Peebles may be ruffling feathers as she changes a culture that needs changing, and that's to be expected. But she also should be the prime role model in an organization that demands students do their own work, and in which teachers are expected to improve results in the classroom while funding supplies out of their own pockets and getting bumped from one job to the next due to budget cuts. There's culture change, and then there's plain old culture breakdown.

Teachers I know — including those in my own family — have retired at the first opportunity. Not because of the kids, they say. It's the administration bowing to community and parental pressure, largely to dumb things down. The good classroom teachers I know have a curious combination of traits. They're like entrepreneurs, creative and restless to run their own show, but without the risk tolerance to strike out totally on their own. Crappy leadership and micromanagement are more likely to cause these teachers to leave than the hope of a bigger payday in another field.

Meanwhile, it's not so sweet for the school superintendents, either. The position has increasingly high turnover, driven by a shortage of experienced leaders, job stress, states meddling in the classroom while demanding improved results, and the leading edge of Boomer retirements, since public employees tend to retire earlier. Not to mention escalating salary offers from competing districts. Peebles started the Minneapolis job at $167,751, with no prior superintendent experience and managerial skills known to be modest. Detroit's school chief earns $244,000 and the Miami-Dade County (FL) school superintendent looks to make nearly $480,000 in first-year salary, bonus and benefits.

Last year, 49 Michigan school districts lost superintendents, for example. The search averages 11 months to fill an open position, typically through a public process that forces candidates to put themselves in play. This creates more turmoil, uncertainty about direction and changing priorities, once the new leader comes on board. Couple all this with reduced budgets, unfunded mandates, and the current trend of testing to drive educational outcomes. Then throw in a black woman from outside the state who apparently brings a non-Minnesota leadership style.

An investigation will reveal whether Peebles exploited her staff and cut corners academically or whether she indeed is just a tough change agent who was trying to keep too many balls in the air. Or maybe, whether Minneapolis brought in someone not ready for prime time to satisfy people like Rev. Ian Bethel.

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