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Opinion: Why Atlanta Superintendent Meria Carstarphen will fail

Ed Johnson is a longtime education advocate in Atlanta. In this piece, he writes about how Atlanta Public Schools is caught up in "transient corpo-politico college and career ready machinations" rather than defining a clear purpose for its staff, students and community.

Without such purpose, Johnson, who has run unsuccessfully for the APS school board, says APS will not find lasting success through Superintendent Meria Carstarphen's ambitious turnaround plans.

By Ed Johnson

Management guru W. Edwards Deming died in 1993, at age 93.  Wisdom, principles, and teachings he left us include “Fourteen Points for the Transformation of Western Management.”  Dr. Deming published the 14 Points, as they are famously known in many parts of the world, in his book, “Out of the Crisis.”

Point 1 of the 14 Points offers: “Create constancy of purpose for improvement of product and service.”

Now, a few years ago, the school accreditation agency AdvancED revised their Accreditation Standards for Quality, so as to transform the accrediting process to one that “recognizes and supports the journey of continuous improvement” from one about “earning a label for a one-time evaluation.”

Like Deming’s Point 1 of the 14 Points, the AdvancED Standard 1 focuses on purpose, especially “Purpose and Direction.” This is how AdvancED focused on purpose in each evaluation of an APS high school conducted between February 2013 and April 2015:

“Purpose and direction are critical to successful institutions. A study conducted in 2010 by the London-based Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) reported that ‘in addition to improving performance, the research indicates that having a sense of shared purpose also improves employee engagement’ and that ‘...lack of understanding around purpose can lead to demotivation and emotional detachment, which in turn lead to a disengaged and dissatisfied workforce.’"

Clearly, AdvancED now recognizes the pinnacle importance of purpose, as opposed to just vision and mission.

Purpose, however, does not begin and end with the individual school nor any single entity. Indeed, Atlanta school board members must know their purpose. Atlanta Public Schools must know its purpose as the public good it is. Every community should know their purpose. And principal, teacher, and student-child should know each other’s purpose for being in school.

By my experience in leadership roles, when and where purposes are understood and interact and connect, then strong, trustworthy, mutually beneficial, win-win relationships form and emerge. Thus trust exists within relationships. Trust cannot be mandated, as Carstarphen’s mission statement for APS implies: “With a caring culture of trust and collaboration, every student will graduate ready for college and career.”

Sustainable improvement of APS as the public good it is will happen only when various purposes come into optimal alignment as various purpose-connected relationships for their own sake, instead of for the sake of today’s transient corpo-politico “college and career ready” machinations.

None of shortcuts, quick fixes, bold actions, and school turnaround schemes can bring about sustainable improvement of APS.  Leadership is required – meaning, a systems-thinking kind of leadership capable to help APS onto a never-ending “journey of continuous improvement.”

APS has yet to have such leadership, a situation that is also quite clear.

Recently I asked an Atlanta school board member: Why does APS exist?  In other words, what is the purpose of APS?  The board member sidestepped the question, contending it is a philosophical question not worth the bother.

Carstarphen’s school turnaround strategy will, at worse, flat-out fail or, at best, yield short-term, non-sustainable, narrowly defined quantitative outcomes labeled “success.”  This will happen not so much because of the strategy, but because the strategy epitomizes Carstarphen.

Deming pegs Carstarphen well when, in “Out of the Crisis,” he quotes Iago to Roderigo, in Shakespeare’s Othello: “How poor are they that have not patience.”

Carstarphen keeps telling Atlanta the board hired her for not having the patience, nor the wisdom and knowledge, to lead by the pinnacle importance of purpose and purpose-connected relationships.

Listen to people when they tell what they are about, or not about.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.