Sunday, September 08, 2013

If You Don’t Succeed Then Plan, Plan Again

We will base decisions on what is best for students.  Richmond Public Schools Strategic Plan


Richmond Public Schools (RPS) Interim Superintendent Jonathan Lewis used the first day of the school year as a setting in which to inform the School Board that RPS is not performing well and to ask the board to approve a plan that will fix things. Wait; take that back. Actually, Mr. Lewis informed the board that there will be no “fix”. As reported in the Richmond Times Dispatch 1 Lewis said, “What we’re talking about really is not a fix, but a transformation.” Lewis went on to say, “Like all transformations, it’s a very complex process... To arrive [at] a place where we’ll be comfortable is several years away.” Lewis asked the board to support a multifaceted, multiyear approach that he admitted would not produce immediate results.

So, what is this maven to make of all this? For most of the time I have been a citizen of this almost tier one city on the James, I have been troubled and perplexed by the performance of Richmond Public Schools. If you ignore my multi-year fixation with our former mayor, I have probably written more about RPS then any other subject. I even had the audacity to think that my neighbors would elect me to the school board so I could transform things. I have praised RPS; I have criticized RPS. I have allowed myself to participate in a multitude of endeavors aimed at making RPS better. I have come away from all of them disappointed.

But, regardless of what I have said or done and regardless of how well our students have been doing, RPS has always had a multitude of plans to fix things. Back in the last decade, we had “New Directions.” Since I served as a facilitator at public meetings presenting “New Directions” to the public, I should be able to tell you what it was. But, I can't remember any of it. I suppose that what is not memorable is usually forgotten.

Then, with a new superintendent and new school board members we produced a five-year strategic plan. As it says on the RPS website, “Overall, more than 500 committed, passionate individuals contributed to this effort. They devoted more than 3,000 hours of their time in meeting, researching, deliberating, and coming to agreement on the action plans.”  I was one of those “500 committed” and some of those 3,000 hours came out of the dwindling supply of hours left in my life. As I remember it, we did meet, research and deliberate, but I am not sure we had total agreement on the action plans. In any event the school board approved the strategic plan on June 6, 2011. If you have the time and nothing better to do, you can read the strategic plan here 2.

Now we have a new superintendent (even if only “interim”) and almost entirely new school board members, and it appears that we have a new plan (the Times-Dispatch article sometimes refers to it as an approach rather than a plan). So, what is in this plan or approach? The TD says it is a 12-point plan. A few of the points are set forth in the TD article. These are:

1- Attendance: We have to get our children to spend more time in school;

2- Teachers: We need to get more outstanding teachers to supplement the ones we already have;

3- Curriculum: We need to teach the entirety of our curricula, now just part of it;

4- Staff: Everyone needs a more-defined role and decision-making needs to be decentralized.

I understand that there are eight other points in Superintendent Lewis’s new approach that TD reporter Zach Reid didn’t have space for in his story. However, this maven is wondering exactly why we need a new plan (or approach if you prefer). After investing 500 people and 3,000 hours (not counting the enormous amount of RPS staff and consultant time and effort) in a strategic plan, wouldn’t you think we had planned enough? Wouldn’t it also make sense to take a look at how that strategic plan is working before going back to the proverbial drawing board?

Some of you readers may be skeptical and think that Richmond Public Schools has done nothing to implement the five year strategic plan. Well, you are wrong. RPS staff has spent a great deal of time implementing and (alas) re-planning the five year plan. Just take a look at the links on the RPS website page I cited above. In December 2011 and June and August 2012, RPS staff reported to the school board their efforts in implementing many of the strategic plan’s myriad action plans. RPS has even extended the planning process, with three elementary and three high schools submitting their own strategic plans. 3

However, with all this emphasis on the action plans, I wonder if RPS staff have lost sight of the objectives that the strategic plan was designed to accomplish. As stated in the report, these objectives represent “An uncompromising commitment to achieve specific, measurable, observable or demonstrable results that exceed present capability and lead to accomplishing [RPS’s] mission.” These are those four objectives:
1.     Each student will graduate ready for college and career as a thoughtful reader, an effective writer, a critical thinker, and a creative problem solver.

2.    Each student will achieve personal excellence by discovering and developing extraordinary potential based on unique interests and talents.

3.    Each student will be a socially responsible citizen who leads the building of a sustainable global community.

4.    Each student will have the undeniable audacity to fulfill dreams with integrity, passion, and confidence to positively impact the world.
Some of you skeptics may think that these objectives were just flowery language and that nobody really expected our students to meet them. Well, as one of those glorious 500 who prepared the strategic plan, let me tell you that you are wrong. We looked at these four objectives as being the core of the strategic plan. We fully expected that the action plans that we formulated would bring RPS to achieving those four objectives.

We must not forget these objectives. We must not forget that RPS is not about SOL scores or about accreditation or about graduation rates. RPS is about students. These students are people, not statistics. When our scores drop, we must not forget that individual students are not receiving the quality education that we promised them. When our graduation rates are low, again we must remember that individual students are being deprived. So, instead of a new plan or approach, which based on the four points mentioned in the TD article seem to be nothing new, why don’t we hold our RPS employees, from the Superintendent down, accountable for making our current strategic plan work.

When I ran for the school board, almost every candidate, in every city district, included the word “accountability” in their campaigns. The same is probably true of those who ran in last year’s election. Yet, I believe that not many people employed by RPS are ever really held accountable for their performances. Too many people at RPS headquarters have worked there so long that they are tainted by the “this-is-good-enough-for-these-students” attitude that prevails. Yet they still keep their jobs year after year. Too many school principals are ineffective in moving their schools to excellence, yet they are there year after year. Too many teachers are not adequate, yet they teach our children every day year after year. (My HUGE apology to those administrators, principals and teachers who excel at their jobs. I am not talking about you).

In a 2007 post on this blog, Fix Our Schools Now, I set forth five items which had to be addressed “now” if Richmond Public Schools were to succeed. These were 1- Attitude (We must consider every student in RPS to be our own biological children or grandchildren); 2- Demand Excellence (At the beginning of every school year we must expect that every one of our students will achieve A’s and not C’s); 3- Teachers (We must hold all teachers accountable for their students’ achievements); 4- Budget (Every department head must establish the necessity for each taxpayer dollar of funding they request each year); and Accountability (Every person entrusted with the safety and future of our children must be held strictly accountable for their performance).

The last item, accountability, is so significant that I need to quote from it:

If members of the City Council are irresponsible in their oversight and funding of the schools, we as citizens should vote them out at the next election. If members of the School Board are not demanding excellence from students, teachers and administrators, or if they are not adequately controlling the school budget, we citizens should vote them out at the next election. If the Superintendent of Schools is not effectively and rapidly steering Richmond Public Schools toward greatness, we should insist that the School Board replace her. If teachers are not teaching their students, we should demand that their performance improve or that they be replaced.

When I wrote this I was young and naïve about how RPS functions. (Well, at least I was naïve). I left out some of the most important people who affect the performance of our children. These are the various administrators that serve in RPS headquarters and the principals and other administrators at our schools. We must have a similar standard of accountability for all these RPS staff. Our students must succeed or you need to find a new job.

To Superintendent Lewis I say, to the extent that your new approach does not produce immediate results and we have to wait “several years” to get to where we want to be, hundreds of Richmond children will go out into the world unprepared to face business, college or the military. Superintendent Lewis, the children of Richmond have been waiting more than “several years” for the first-class education we owe them. We need no more plans; we need results.