AJC background article on superintendent–elect Carstarphen – some analysis on the content [Updated]


Yesterday the AJC issued a story titled Likely Atlanta schools chief had rocky road in Texas (behind pay wall). There is a lot of good information on Carstarphen’s tenure in Austin and I think a bit of additional analysis is in order. Direct quotes from the article are in italics and any emphasis to the quotes has been added.

The probable next superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools is coming off a controversial tenure in Austin, Texas, where public ire over budget cuts and a school closing rose as much as the improved graduation rates and finances.

Comment – I find it interesting that the paragraph essentially creates an equivalency between the perceived negatives (budget cuts and school closings) and the positives (improved graduation rates and finances). However, think about it for a minute – the closing of some underperforming or under-enrolled schools is a bad thing? Also, are budget cuts that improved the district’s financial position while, at the same time, improved educational outcomes are achieved is a bad thing? Count me on board for hoping to see both of those things happen in APS!

She left it in better financial and academic shape, but riled enough voters to undermine the support of the school board.

Comment – This is true “Can’t see the forest because of the trees mentality.” The Austin ISD is in “better financial and academic shape”, but she lost support due to her efforts to improve the system. These types of critics need to be watched carefully as their own agendas often supersede what is most important in a school district – educational outcomes. Unfortunately there are many such critics in Atlanta as well who place their own political or ideological agendas over the improvement of the student’s education.

With her contract set to expire in a little over a year, there has been no vote in favor of extending it.

Comment – This is a consistent meme that the media has seized on. But before you accept the conclusion that Carstarphen was not going to be rehired at the end of her contract in 2015, let’s look at the facts. Her initial contract starting in 2009 was for three years. In 2011 and 2012 she was given a one year extension. This past December her performance was reviewed with the following results (see TWC News article here):

The school board of the Austin Independent School District sang the praises of Superintendent Meria Carstarphen during Monday evening’s board meeting, but did not extend her contract.

School Board Vincent Torres says four years in the job, Carstarphen is delivering higher test scores and graduation rates with fewer dropouts. “We cannot achieve our goal of having all students graduate from high school if they drop out along the way,” Torres said. “These are remarkable improvements that have occurred for the most part over the past four years.” Torres said the district reached a record high 82.5 percent graduation rate in 2012, which is up seven percentage points since Carstarphen arrived.

Still, trustees are waiting to extend Carstarphen’s contract beyond its current end date of June 2015. The trustees say it’s nothing indicative of their confidence in Carstarphen. The board can still move to extend her contract at any time.

Based on the sole fact that the Board did not add another year to her contract during the current assessment, does not lead to the conclusion that her contract would not be renewed next year. The Board “sang her praises” – my sense is that they will now regret their short-term view and, as a result, the loss of a superintendent that made substantial improvements at AISD. [Added] Also, in fairness to the other side on this, here is a column written by one of Carstarphen’s critics.

Critics say she rammed through changes without consulting the majority Hispanic parents in the Austin Independent School District. “Her corporate-reform-backed agenda didn’t fly here because we fought it, and that’s why she’s leaving,” said Vincent Tovar, whose wife is a teacher, and whose daughter attends Austin schools.

Comment – the inherent self-serving and ideological stupidity of this statement is beyond belief. Let me make sure I have this right – even though she was successful in improving educational outcomes, she didn’t spout the bumper sticker ideology we wanted and so we are glad she is leaving! Incredible!

Drew Scheberle, a senior vice president at the Austin Chamber of Commerce, said members of the business community pushed to hire someone like Carstarphen, and they were pleased with the results. She cut a quarter of the jobs in the central office yet improved academic outcomes, he said. “She’s left this community stronger than how she found it.”

Comment – Now this is an assessment we hope we can count on when Carstarphen assumes her duties in Atlanta. She “cut a quarter of the jobs in the central office”. Does anyone remember the story from last year that the AJC published on the district’s bloated bureaucracy (see here)? Didn’t all the Board of Education candidates run on the proposition that it was important to reduce the cost of the central office and reallocate spending to “in the classroom”? If the APS Board is true to their campaign speeches, Carstarphen will have a lot of support in replaying some of her past efforts.

But it was a 2011 proposal to close a school and reopen it as a charter operation that made the biggest waves, he said. “That caused a revolt.” That action was approved by one school board but reversed by another after an election changed the makeup of the board.

Comment – OK, in other words, elections have consequences. However, in reviewing Carstarphen’s record, this one event – along with the controversy surrounding the adoption of a budget that had to be cut back severely due to State budget cuts – seems to make up the “controversy headlines”. This is pretty ‘thin gruel’ as far as I am concerned.

Williams said controversy should be expected of any leader who makes big changes, such as cutting budgets and personnel. But he credits Carstarphen for increasing Austin’s graduation and college-ready rates, and counts one other metric as an important achievement in a high-poverty school system: “We’ve been able to keep some of our middle class in the school district, which some other districts haven’t,” he said.

Comment – Carstarphen appears to be willing to take on tough and controversial issues. This matches up well with the new APS Board that consistently said it wants to tackle the difficult issues facing APS. Let’s encourage them to work as a team to do what is necessary to improve educational outcomes in Atlanta.

Scheberle, the chamber official, said that despite the controversy surrounding her, Carstarphen managed to stay in Austin beyond the typical three-year tenure for a Texas superintendent. He said she is a “relentless” leader who would work as hard in Atlanta as she did in Austin.

Ken Zarifis, the president of Education Austin, the area’s teachers advocacy group, described her as “tenacious” and “deeply committed.”

Comment – “Relentless”, “work hard”, “tenacious” and “deeply committed”. These are very encouraging words and represent a refreshing change from the descriptions of the current APS leadership. Also, after seeing her at several presentations in Atlanta, I would add – energetic, steeped in education research, data driven, a deep thinker, personable, self-deprecating and a great communicator.

I really liked it when she recently noted that it was important that the Board and the community come together as they consider solutions to the many problems APS is facing. Why is this critical? Because as Carstarphen said,

“I can implement anything. I feel like I’ve had to do that, “she said during her introduction at Hope-Hill Elementary. “Be careful what you ask for, because it will be done.”

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5 Responses to AJC background article on superintendent–elect Carstarphen – some analysis on the content [Updated]

  1. H.A. Hurley says:

    Robert, please not so harsh on people being a bit gun-shy about the new Super’s background. We are still knee-deep in Cheating Mess and $M costs to taxpayers of a Super who was deemed the Top Super in US…the World, the Universe!?
    We should be hyper vigilant with anyone stepping in at this point. High test scores & increased EVERYTHING sounds too familiar to most of us who have been following APS for decades.
    Yes, we must question, especially, given the corporate billionaire climate and actions on the US.
    If we had more cynics the first time around, we would be in better shape. I see similar pink glasses worn by too many ATL legislators, BOE, and residents again.
    Dr. C. May be just what we need, I hope so! But, we have had a looooong history of Supers who were going to save our children, and the jury is still out on that.
    Robert, please be patient with folks who comment on your blog.

    • Thanks for the comment. Point taken and I agree that we need to be super-vigilant. It is critical that we be fully informed about her record, controversies she was involved in, how she performed in the midst of a crisis, and any criticisms she received during her past two superintendent administrations. I am now well past Google page 32 in doing the research and looking for all of the above. However, so far, the weight of my research is towards the very positive and the controversies found to-date, in my opinion, do not add up to much. I by no means am star-struck – however, it appears to me that there is a solid record of competence and achievement. But I think we can agree that she does not “walk on water” and she will have to prove herself here in Atlanta.

      Also, I do have some questions that I am doing more research on. There appears to be evidence that she did not always get full buy-in from the community on some decisions (but this may be is overshadowed by having Board consensus for her decisions). Also, I am looking into her position on charter schools, but this is a bit unclear as the Texas method for approving charters is very different than it is in GA. I am also reviewing AISD budget to see what the numbers tell us about her priorities. It would also be great if you could use your background to assess her performance in the Special Needs area.

      I will keep looking and calling it as I see it. Bob

  2. D. R. Grant says:

    Bob, I think you summed up the 2-day story arc in the AJC best with “the inherent self-serving and ideological stupidity of this … is beyond belief.”

  3. H.A. Hurley says:

    Any comments about the seriousness of choosing the next Super, due to the repeated disasters of marginal Supers in APS, the inability to properly vet Supers in ATL…period! Also, we are not only APS, we are part of the Metro area where Dekalb County Schools and Clayton County Schools impact all of us. Their quicksand is still eroding our city, as we write.
    Questions about corporate issues are a huge concern of mine. Corporate education reforms are controlling all of education today and influenced our Cheating Scandal, TFA, CommonCore and Testing Profits. Was Dr.C. a TFA teacher? Her rise to Harvard make me wonder, too. Typical public policy track. Her teaching experience is not presented in detail anywhere.
    Nothing stupid about any reactions to the selection of a new Super. It is that serious! I hope we get it right this time.

    • As usual, all good points. I agree that APS does not stand alone in the Metro – if I had the resources, I would love to do similar analysis in many of the districts you mention. The “quicksand” pits are too numerous and to the detriment of our kids.

      I also accept that “corporate issues” can be a problem. However, I totally reject the demonization of certain efforts for reform with “bumper sticker” scare words. I want facts and specific instances where the “corporatists” have had a negative impact in Atlanta. So far, I am at a loss to find them and I have not seen any reporting that is factually based that addresses the topic. However, there are lots of reports that raise scary specters, but then do not align the facts with Atlanta. Not to say there is no need for vigilance, but lets debate the facts and avoid the unsupported scary references.

      From my research, it appears that Carstarphen was a middle school Spanish teacher in Selma from 1992-96. I do not believe that TFA was in existence at the time nor is there any mention of a connection between her and the TFA organization from that period.

      I also am skeptical of placing too much confidence in educational pedigrees – however, I have a great deal of confidence in an individuals history of work performance. Let’s keep digging and ferret out all the facts – good and bad.

      Bob

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