Thursday, April 27, 2017

Cecil Brown: Want to fix schools? Fix leadership.

More than 90% of all Mississippi kids attend public schools. That means that 90% of the state’s workforce, voters, parents, and leaders come from public schools. More than 60,000 teachers and support staff work in Mississippi’s public schools, and Mississippi state government spends more than $2 billion a year on public education. In addition, local taxpayers spend untold millions more. Is it any wonder that the subject of public education is always at the forefront for most Mississippians?

It is no secret that Mississippi has struggled to improve its public school performance.  No need to go through the statistics.  We have some great public schools, but too many are failing or inadequate for the needs of their students.  Too many kids go into the workforce or to college unprepared for the challenges they will face.

Each year the legislature, the Governor, the State Department of Education, and various public interest groups propose ideas to improve educational outcomes. Some ideas work around the margins, and others make no appreciable difference. Few have resulted in significant improvements.

Most often the debate is about the level of funding and the method of distribution of dollars among competing education interests and school districts. And lack of adequate funds remains a problem in most districts.  But there is really only one fix for a broken school or school district – good leadership and community support.

Until we figure out a way to give every school district a top notch superintendent, every school a competent principal, and every classroom a qualified teacher, we will not improve the system.  It does not matter how much we spend. It will not happen.

This year the legislature began the process of making every school superintendent position an appointed one.  The argument is that moving from elected superintendents to appointments widens the pool of qualified applicants.  That may be a good first step, but it is not enough.  If the board that appoints the superintendent is incompetent or too political, they will not make a wise choice. And a bad superintendent is likely to make poor choices of principals and teachers.

In Mississippi we have both appointed and elected superintendents who are great leaders and run exemplary districts and both elected and appointed superintendents who are poor leaders who lead failing districts.  In the end, just making all superintendents appointed will make little difference in overall educational performance. We must insure that all school boards are careful in their selections, support their appointees, hire only competent teachers, manage their budgets effectively and are responsive the needs of the community. To do that we have to have parents and taxpayers who demand better schools in their districts.

In the end, whether they are appointed or elected, putting qualified, committed people in charge is the only way to insure that high quality teaching and learning are going on in our classrooms. And that effort can only come from within our communities. There are no classrooms in the state capitol.  School employees are local employees.  They do not work for the state. They work for the taxpayers of the local school districts.

Want to fix your schools?  First you have to fix your leadership.  No amount of money or Common Core or 3rd grade gate or charter schools or vouchers or merit pay or any other top down program can fix a broken system.  Just wanting better schools is not enough. Just like successful cities require competent mayors and council members, successful school districts require competent superintendents and board members.  Parents and taxpayers have to demand success from school leadership, or subpar schools will continue to produce subpar results.


Mr. Brown is the former Chairman of the House Education Committee and the Central District Public Service Commissioner.

28 comments:

1972 JPS Grad said...

The last three paragraphs pretty much say it all, but Cecil had to leave out one thing that basically can't be said: Parents have to be involved with the school, with their kids, and hold both of them accountable. The real problem, in other words, is a combination of modern culture and, in some cases, wide spread poverty and ignorance.

Anonymous said...

The people of Jackson and parents of JPS can't fix our leadership Mr. Brown. Once on the board JPS board members are accountable to NO ONE, not the Mayor who appointed them and not the City Council who confirmed their appointment. This is an intolerable situation. We need an elected school board for JPS. This change is past overdue.

Anonymous said...

Parents and taxpayers have to demand success from school leadership, or subpar schools will continue to produce subpar results.

Ding, ding, ding, we have a winner. If the parents don't care then no other input into education matters. Period. That's what makes the funding following the kids(vouchers, charters, etc.) hate so much more awful. You doom any kid with a supportive family that wants him/her to get an education to the exact same failing system as their neighbors who just don't care what their kids do as long as they're not at home that day. All because they can't afford to live in a better neighborhood.

The affluent have school choice. They can choose to move to the neighborhoods with good schools. They also very vocally deny it to those that can't afford to do the same. And if by some off chance a poor kid manages to get into a charter, they'll quickly have their future nipped in the bud by an affluent lawyer that can't stand to see their failing school district lose a single dime. Unconscionable.

Public schooling should be a blessing we bestow upon future generations, not a farm league for generational poverty. Let the market take the wheel. It's how we got from Ma Bell to these wonderful phones we carry. Government schools have shown since 1970 their model doesn't work any more, despite doubling the funding. Time to try some other things.

Anonymous said...

Last statement says it all but the people who are the voters and taxpayers that you are talking about are not capable of selecting better leaders. Must also get Feds out of local schools which will not happen either. So except for a few schools. all is lost for ever.

Anonymous said...

Schools sometimes waste a lot of money on patronage giving jobs to people who have nothing to do. When I went to school, there was a bare bones staff, but we had good schools.

That is a good analysis by Cecil Brown.

Anonymous said...

Shared misery and failure outcomes is the liberal Democrat mantra.

Anonymous said...

This says it all. I don't yet know what impact changes at the Federal level may impact, but locally, it must change if we are not to lose many of each generation.

I agree that parents should be involved but many cannot or will not. This has always been true. Think about all the absent father in WWII and Korea. Those children grew up mostly OK because everyone had respect for teachers.

The schools being "employment headquarters" in rural areas is a real problem. Whoever is on the School Board can get anyone a job that needs a job. True.

Jackson was made the offer by Jim Barksdale to find and pay for the best superintendent in the USA. The Board turned down this sterling offer (whether admitted or not) because the best might happen to be white. Shame on them.

Leadership demands accountability. This statement could even apply to the Legislature.

Anonymous said...

Someone please wake Cecil up and tell him he is a Public Service Commissioner and has more than enough to focus on in that job. Hate to see him waisting valuable time on something for which he has no authority. How about focusing on these damn unlawful robocalls.

Anonymous said...

There is a "void" of leadership in the black community. Too much infighting and accusing the very people you should work together with. I would vote Cecil for Gov.

Anonymous said...

The problem is the teachers can't teach. I would be willing to bet that 90% 0f JPS teachers could not pass a final exam for the grade above their class. When you look at the JPS initiatives it says we want to IMPROVE student and teacher attendance. Are you kidding me or the public? There should be an independent board/committee to interview each and every teacher for curriculum, language and attitude. If they want a job they should be able to show commitment and willingness to perform. They also should be able to discipline. This is a problem that should not exist. Don't worry about sports, bands, or clubs focus on academics. Immediately start Vo-tech classes and show these kids how to become self reliant and make a living at $50,000 and up. Until this happens you will reap what you sow.

Anonymous said...

This ain't rocket science, guys.

If you pay $35,000 for teachers, you get bad teachers. If pay doesn't vary based on performance, you get poor effort from bad teachers.

If you pay $55,000 for principals, you get people who lacked better options in critical leadership positions. If you keep them employed regardless of performance, you get lazy mediocrities gradually getting lazier over their careers.

The private sector figured it out a long time ago: If you want better outcomes, offer people more money and hold them accountable for producing results. You can have Bill Belichick coaching the team, but if he can only pay his players minimum wage and can't fire them, he's going to lose every game.

When you say this to people who run public education, you might as well be speaking Martian. Because conservatives hate the idea of paying the real cost of public services, and liberals hate the idea of accountability and firing poor performers. So we all keep tinkering with stupid shit at the margins, assuming that having life-tenured $35K teachers is just the way God created the world.

Anonymous said...

4:29 PM makes some good points. Most of the states with good schools spend about twice as much for teacher salaries and about twice as much per year per student than Mississippi. Those states have booming economies because they have a well educated workforce. For decades Mississippi has downsized education, healthcare, infrastructure, and other spending with the idea that things will magically get better the less money you spend. Bridges that should have been replaced 20 years ago are still open, 15 year old school buses still keep getting patched up, and the textbooks in some schools say Nixon is in the White House.The good teachers who graduate from Mississippi colleges think hard about whether they should leave for Texas or Georgia or wherever for twice what they would make in Mississippi just as nurses, physicians, lawyers, b school grads, and others do. It will cost money to ever break that cycle.

Anonymous said...

Most of the states with good schools spend about twice as much for teacher salaries and about twice as much per year per student than Mississippi.

Show us with a link where these states with "good schools" are spending "about twice as much per year per student'".

While you are at it identify those states you consider to have "booming economies" and tell us what measures you are using to make that determination.

Anonymous said...

4:29 is simply wrong. Public schools pay more than most private schools. Furthermore the public school teachers get a pension.

Not to bash the teachers though, the gargantuan levels of administration soak up far too many resources. The structure of Education in the state need tearing down.

Kingfish said...

If you are going to compare teacher's salaries, then you need to factor in cost of living per state.

Anonymous said...

The superintendent of a Mississippi school district is retiring this year. The school district invited a PERS representative to speak to employees (teachers, custodians, maintenance personnel, etc.) about retirement. The PERS rep jokingly told the audience that he was considering applying for the superintendent's position. The superintendent replied, "Well, that's where the money is!" I'm told you could hear a pin drop in that room. That one statement says a lot about the superintendent's character, but more so about the general scramble to get to the top of the heap for the money. There's not much in that statement about educating children. Therein lies the problem.

Anonymous said...

4:29 here. I'm not comparing Mississippi to other states. I'm comparing industries that see improvement and innovation with industries (like K-12 education) that don't.

Frankly, I could not care less about the salaries or cost of living in other states that are doing 5 or 10% better than us. American education as a whole is a joke.

Show me another industry in which improvement is achieved by giving your key producers low, lock-step wages and total job security, and then trying to micro-manage your way to better performance by imposing endless mandates from the upper management level.

It doesn't exist.

No sane person would ever design anything like the system we have, and yet we all talk as if it's the only model that could ever exist, and the only possible changes are a 5% raise here or a tougher standardized test there. Or a charter school that also pays teachers $35K a year.

And none of it ever works, and we all stand around looking at each other like morons, wondering why our efforts to run a Commander's Palace with McDonald's staff aren't working.

Anonymous said...

Values and instruction can never be the focus of pedagogy if the bureaucratic model is in place. The professional associations push the top heavy system. If schools were smaller and less sport-oriented, learning would have a chance. The community leaders want large industrial sized campuses because they attract political power. Families would have more power if the national and state governments backed out of their control. If lawyers, architects, coaches, administrators, security guards, public relations officers, and the array of social service professionals got the boot---the instructor would have the necessary tools to teach.

Anonymous said...

Cecil was in the legislature HOW LONG? I may have missed it, but back when he was a state rep was he bitching about robo-calls while enhancing his SLRP?

Anonymous said...

It's comical to hear people say that parents have to be involved with the children's education.

Well, that sounds good and it does make a difference, however, that's not reality.

You can't expect under-educated parents to coach up kids on subjects that barely understand themselves.

What makes it so bad, is that the legislature has the evidence, that shows what they are currently doing is not working - they are fine with the status quo.

Until we get some elected officials who are tired of seeing this state wallow in sh*t, that's when you will see improvements in the quality of education.


Anonymous said...

4:48; Other than that, what are your particular suggestions. We all agree that under or uneducated parents have no ability (and often no desire) to assist their kids with school work. It's impossible. But, it's NOT impossible to coach responsibility, work and school-ethic and lessons about the value and importance of not repeating the cycle. A parent who has never set foot in a school room can do that.

But...to the point. You are long on 'until this state realizes' bullshit. Other than the government paying for a tutor in every home, what are your specific suggestions as to what can be done when we're tired of wallowing in shit? Belly up.

Anonymous said...

Let's take a hypothetical approach here. Barksdale has decide to cut a check for 1 million dollars to you, the reader. This is a one time deal. That check and that check only. If it gets lost, you lose it, whatever...too bad. His personal secretary has just asked you how you would like your check sent. FedEx or USPS?

That's what I thought. Why does pretending that a government (damned near) monopoly on education is the key to success make any more sense? Why are we paying top dollar to lobbyists to continue this culture of failure?

Public schooling in Mississippi is a way to spread government lucre to the favored. Education is not the aim.

Anonymous said...

If you want to boost performance, segregate the smart kids from the kids that don't give a shiat if they learn or not. The stoners, the idiots, the troublemakers. We almost do this with kids, but let's do it system wide and state wide.

If johnnys mom doesn't care if johnny can solve for x, and if johnny seems incapable of learning, dump him.

And lastly, fire the tenured unioned teacher that can't teach johnny how to solve for x.

Maybe, just maybe, you'll have kids learning and caring more.

And then Jackson Prep won't be the best school in the state, followed by JA, then MRA.

/funny how private schools that don't pay much or give you a pension do so much better, eh?

Anonymous said...

9:06 -- Jackson Prep would be the third best school on Highland Colony if it were located there. MRA would be fifth, if you count St. Joe's as being on Highland.

But you do have a point: Low-quality teachers who can get rid of bad students do better on average than low-quality teachers who can't. And while most of private school performance is explained by the quality of kids who come from richer parents, it's true that letting public schools cut loose troublemakers is absolutely necessary.

Anonymous said...

... while most of private school performance is explained by the quality of kids who come from richer parents ...

So you are saying that wealth produces a higher quality of child?

Very interesting. You must be an accomplished sociologist.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't take a sociology degree to know wealthier people tend to have higher IQs, IQ tends to be inherited, and money allows greater enrichment. Does this hurt your feelings?

Anonymous said...

@ April 28, 2017 at 6:24 AM

"Other than the government paying for a tutor in every home, what are your specific suggestions as to what can be done when we're tired of wallowing in shit?"

That's a fair question

The state legislature needs to keep public funds for public education , not going to some private for-profit segregated academies - that can fudge their own statistics, hire teachers without credentials.

If people want to send their kids to private segregated academies, then let them do it on their own dime, not on the publics dollar.

Public education works, when the legislature wants it to work. But these elected officials that are running our state, want to maintain the segregated academy system, but take it up to the next level and start running it under the charter school system.

The bar is set so-low that we can move out of 50th within a 4 year window.

Parents will get more involved, when they do not have to stress over basic every day life issues - getting food on the table, keeping the lights on, keeping a car together, is the plumbing running, how am I going to get to work tomorrow, can I find a ride to the grocery store? So many people in Mississippi have to battle those real issues - so when they have kids its only magnified and they are not going to be focused on how the kids are doing in school. All they know is school is a good thing, that costs them money.

When we start addressing the poverty - high unemployment, the poor resources in public transit, the front end taxes of purchasing transportation, the cost of maintaining a vehicle in a state with roads as bad as ours. Its expensive being poor in Mississippi, LOL!

Anonymous said...

Wow, 5:12, that's a lot of derp to unpack.

Were one to take legislative funding for education since say, 1970, and plot it on a graph adjusted for inflation, would the slope of that line be positive or negative? Would the educational outcomes come anywhere close to a correlation in spending? I'll save you the work. Positive and no. Not 'fully funding MAEP' is not the same as a steady, clearly visible increase in per pupil funding. It doesn't sell as well. You intentionally don't say, 'we got more money than last year,' but instead frame it as having not 'fully funded' education. Sophistry.

Charters are all for profit segregated academies? Technically correct that they are segregated, per se, but you're intentionally using language that suggests that they are all white academies with mascots like 'rebels' or 'patriots.' The SPLC is not suing to shut down the Nathan Bedford Forrest Academy. They are suing to shut down charters in JPS. Yeah, they're segregated. They reflect the demographics of the district and you'd have a hard time convincing anyone they're KKK feeders.

But, you know these facts. You're intentional and precise with your language. You're making sure you never lie. You omit, and deceive, but not lie. And kudos on getting Bingo n your social signalling card, because public transit has so much to do with the education discussion. And frankly, were you to know the first thing about how to address poverty and unemployment, you would have done so in the last half century or so. I get you don't like another, equally incompetent group in charge, but let's be honest. They are in charge because either through inability or willful sabotage the other group never moved the needle forward either.

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