By Chris Kieffer
JACKSON – Carey Wright learned from observing Michelle Rhee’s urgency in leading the public schools in the nation’s capital.
But Wright, Mississippi’s new state superintendent of education, said her experiences are much deeper than what she gleaned from the controversial former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public school system.
“I worked with a number of high-performing superintendents and leaders in my career,” Wright said on Thursday during her first press conference in her new position. “I honestly believe we are a culmination of all of them, we are not just a replication of the most recent experience that we had.”
Rhee was named the leader of D.C. schools in 2007. What she inherited, Wright said, was “criminal.”
“Teachers not being paid, textbooks not arriving, windows not being replaced, air conditioning not working,” Wright said. “All of the things that you take for granted in a school system, she really inherited. She came in with a passion about fixing all that, and I applaud her for it because it needed to be done, and it needed to done with a sense of urgency.”
Wright, who was then serving as associate superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, joined Rhee’s staff in August 2009. She served first as deputy chief, office of teaching and learning, and later was named chief academic officer. Rhee left the district in 2010, and Wright remained there until this March.
Rhee’s aggressive style and her teacher evaluation system – which measured educators by student performance on standardized tests – drew her both praise and criticism. The system included bonuses for high-performing teachers, but also resulted in the firing of 241 educators.
Rhee has faced questions of a possible test-cheating scandal alleged to have occurred on her watch. Wright has not been connected with it.
“None of that touches her in any way,” said Hal Gage, vice chair of the Mississippi Board of Education and chair of its superintendent search.
Wright said her methods are different than those of her former boss.
“Michelle and I are different in our approach,” she said. “I think our commonalties lie in our passion for children and our passion to see that children are always put first.”
In Mississippi, Wright will find herself in the middle of new debates over teacher evaluations and pay. The state recently unveiled a new system that judges teacher performance based on both test scores and results from administrator evaluations. There also is some momentum for paying teachers based on performance, perhaps using the new evaluation model.
“Do I think student achievement should be part of teacher evaluation? Yes I do,” Wright said. “Do I think it should be the only component of teacher evaluation? No. Because I think there are other things that teachers need to be evaluated by.”
An evaluation should use metrics agreed upon by teachers and by those doing the evaluations, she said. Teachers should be heavily involved in those discussions. Also necessary will be finding ways of attracting the best teachers to the lowest-performing schools, she said.
One important component of D.C.’s system, Wright said, is that it paid high-performing teachers more money, which led to an increase of job applications.
“It used to be that the District of Columbia was one of the lowest-paying districts in the area, and now it is one of the highest-paying districts in the area,” Wright said. “And that was a draw.”
Wright also will bring to her new job an experience working with students of poverty. Only four states had a higher percentage of children living in poverty than did Washington, D.C. (27 percent in 2012), according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center. One of them was Mississippi, which ranked last with 35 percent.
“Poverty is not an excuse, and you will hear me say that again and again,” Wright said. “We have control over what we have control over and what we have control over is students during the day. So how are we using the day, what are we doing with children, how are we providing interventions to children who aren’t as successful, how are we accelerating the children who could be accelerated?”
Success, Wright said, calls for providing high-quality education programs and instruction programs to meet kids’ needs. It also includes engaging parents.
“We have a whole community of parents,” she said. “Some already know how to navigate the system and help their children and some do not. So what are we doing as a state to engage our communities across the state in order to be able to better prepare and help our children at home?
“…And not just coming to PTA meetings and bake sales. I’m talking about how do we help parents help children become more academically able.”