By Martha Cheney
Reading the paid advertisement statement by Billy Crews in Thursday’s paper was an unsettling experience for me.
I first worked with Billy when I was principal at Church Street Elementary School and he and Catherine were leaders in the PTO. They were positive parents who supported their children and the school. Billy’s resignation from his role at TPSD central office was not surprising to those of us who understand the system. As an outsider he had a crash course in what many of us have known for years – administrators at the top of the system resist accountability.
Response to the article by decision-makers within the system will be predictable. He will be called disloyal and negative. There will be speculation about his job performance and his ability to contribute. Budget constraints will be cited. Reflection on the accuracy of his statement and possible actions to address the issues will be limited. Response by teachers and principals will be muted. The diverse responses of parents and community leaders will have few systemic avenues to be heard.
Past experience reminder
This current situation reminds me of an experience I had while serving as Project Director for the Public Education Forum of Mississippi, an education advocacy organization managed by business leaders from around the state. One of the task forces (which were made up of educators and business people) was discussing accountability. Participants all agreed that the Mississippi Department of Education was not functioning well but no one knew how to hold the agency accountable. I angered the State Superintendent of Education by suggesting that the districts could be asked to evaluate the service they received from the department. (You have to wonder, “What is the function of MDE if it does not serve the schools?”) Needless to say nothing was done about it and the agency continues to perform on a questionable level although our state superintendent is reportedly the second highest paid in the nation. The major consequence of the encounter was that the superintendent never trusted me again.
Those at the top of the education bureaucracy are expert at evaluating teachers, principals and students but there is a noticeable absence of tools and procedures for evaluating their own work and value. Because of this the bureaucracy continues to grow and become more and more self-serving. The communication between those who actually interact with students and those in central administration becomes guarded and the system loses synergy.
Courageous leadership and openness are not characteristics of our Mississippi education system. People within the system quickly learn that while the leaders champion change and thinking outside the box they do not mean for anyone to change them or think outside the box about their roles and decisions. My work at the Public Education Forum taught me the value of having business leaders bring their fresh, independent perspectives to the table. They asked such logical questions! Creating avenues for those views to enrich deliberations within the system requires a collaborative administrative style that is generally missing in our state. Authoritarian leaders with political skills seem to rise to power.
I commend Billy Crews for his courage in telling the truth as he sees it. I grieve for the pain and frustration that he and his family must be feeling, and I wish I could be more hopeful about the impact of their sacrifice. Having anything but distrust and negativity come from recent TPSD events will require authentic systemic changes – not the stifling of controversy. I hope for the sake of our children and community that we are adult enough to do the work.
Martha Cheney is a retired teacher who lives near Tupelo. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.