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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 12/31/2010

A wrong-headed experiment in school leadership

By Valerie Strauss

Can you imagine the military anointing a school superintendent as a brigadier general?

Of course you can’t, but this won’t surprise you: The Board of Education in Wake County, N.C., tapped a brigadier general who has no experience in instruction or academic leadership to be the new superintendent of the 143,000-student school system.

Wake County Board of Education Chairman Ron Margiotta actually said, according to the Raleigh News & Observer, that Tata’s experience as a military strategist will complement Wake’s focus on academic achievement. Tata himself said in a written statement (see below) that "my military experience provides me a strong academic foundation."

Of course. Actual direct professional experience in teaching, or in running a school, would be viewed as a negative in today's world of education reform. Don't look for logic; there isn't much.

Gen. Anthony Tata does, however, have more experience working with public schools than did media executive Cathie Black when she was picked to run New York City’s schools: He was chief operating officer under former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee for 19 months, a job in which he managed purchasing, food service, technology and other support areas. Black, you will remember, had no experience at all. Nada. Zilch.

Tata, of course, is not the first general to head a public school system, but he may be the first who is also the author of military thrillers (the royalties go to the USO).

As educator Kenneth Bernstein observed in an email, because one former general made a good superintendent -- John Stanford in Seattle -- other districts foolishly got the idea that they could do the same. That’s how Washington D.C. got Gen. Julius Becton back in the 1990s. The Becton tenure was hardly a rousing success.

Bernstein further notes: “I suppose the argument can be made that so long as Tata has a chief educational officer under him, all is well, and given the financial stresses school districts face, his experience in D.C. is relevant -- except of course the things for which he was responsible in D.C. have not been all that well run.”

There are other, more troubling issues to consider.

I’m not referring to the News & Observer story that said Tata has been a contributor to Fox News, commenting favorably on Sarah Palin’s book, among other things.

I am referring to an open letter he issued that praised some of the work Rhee did in the District schools, specifically the controversial IMPACT teacher evaluation system which many teachers and others say was badly designed and implemented.

He wrote: “As the leader of Wake County Public School System, I will energetically reap best practices not only from DC Public Schools, but also from across the country to enhance what is already an innovative school system.”

Best practices from D.C. public schools? Nothing that Rhee instituted has been shown to be successful in the long run, and even in the short run, but already Tata is talking about IMPACT as if it actually works well. Saying it does doesn’t make it.

But then again, can you remember another time when education reform has so ignored the realities of public education?

Here’s the full Tata statement in which he introduces himself to Wake County:

My Academic Focus

I am humbled to be selected as the next superintendent of the Wake County Public School System. I intend to focus the system’s impressive resources on the academic achievement of our students and on closing the achievement gap in student performance. I will ensure our teachers and principals have the resources they need to deliver this improvement. One of my goals will be to energize all aspects of Wake County’s very large, complex organization to operate at maximum capacity and minimum cost so that we can push as many resources as possible to where they belong -- the classroom.

Because my background may seem to some as non-traditional for a school superintendent, I thought it would be helpful to describe my personal academic journey, how my 28-year military career and 19 months as Chief Operating Officer of D.C. Public Schools will contribute to my academic focus, what specific actions I will take to ensure academic rigor throughout the district, and the support that I will receive from institutions such as the Broad Center.

Academic Background

My personal academic journey began in Norfolk and Virginia Beach Public Schools as a student and as a son to two public school teachers. My father was a high school football coach, teacher, and guidance counselor in Norfolk Public Schools while my mother was a guidance counselor and teacher in Virginia Beach Public Schools. She later served two terms on the Virginia Beach school board. My father was elected a state representative in 1983 and today is the chairman of the House Education Committee in the Virginia General Assembly. With a sister who is a public school teacher and coach in Virginia, education is, in fact, the family business.

After high school graduation, I attended the United States Military Academy at West Point where I earned a Bachelor of Science. During my military career I earned a Master of Arts from The Catholic University of America and a Master of Military Arts and Science from The School of Advanced Military Studies. I also attended Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government as a National Security Fellow where I studied in the Government, Business and Law Schools.

During my transition from the military to a career in public education, I graduated from the Broad Superintendent’s Academy, a rigorous ten-month program of study. Accordingly, research, study, and writing have been part of my life’s journey. In addition to the theses and monographs I published for graduate programs, I have published columns for the Washington Post and other national online forums as well as two fiction novels with a third due for release in January 2011.

Likewise, I have appeared frequently on CBS, NBC, and Fox News as a subject matter expert to discuss United States foreign policy. All of these activities require academic discipline and rigor to execute well.

My professional academic journey began as the Chief Operating Officer of Washington, D.C. Public Schools, where I serve as a member of the management team and actively participate in our relentless efforts to achieve academic reform in one of the nation’s toughest districts. For example, we developed a Teaching and Learning Framework that focuses on modeling what excellent instruction looks like and what we expect from our teachers.

Simultaneously, we developed a teacher assessment system, IMPACT, which combines student test scores and unannounced, subjective evaluations to determine and reward teacher effectiveness. As the leader of Wake County Public School System, I will energetically reap best practices not only from DC Public Schools, but also from across the country to enhance what is already an innovative school system. Likewise, I will listen to experts within and outside of the system and make the best program and instructional decisions for our students and their academic excellence. My personal and professional academic experiences provide me solid instincts for how to approach academic leadership and reform.

Relevant Military Experience

My military experience and life-long service to the nation is also relevant to how I will lead Wake County Public School System. Americans consistently rank the military as one of their most respected institutions. The military takes America’s treasure, the mostly 17-19 year old enlistees from primarily public schools, and educates and trains them in all facets of life, to include discipline, technical skills, and academic achievement.

As a leader of these young men and women, I had the privilege of instituting active education programs in all of my combat units ranging from 150 personnel up to 18,000. Of the hundreds of soldiers I re-enlisted, I awarded nearly all of them the time and resources to pursue undergraduate or advanced degrees. The military taught me the importance of lifelong education and consistently reinforced this through its systemic approach to professional development and education. Every installation at which I served had an education department with which I worked to ensure that all of my soldiers could seek associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees.

As with public education, the military has common tasks, conditions and standards that guide the soldiers’ learning paths and the leaders’ methods. This is similar to the common core standards that we are seeing introduced in all states nationally. Throughout my career I developed and approved hundreds of training, education and professional development plans and oversaw their implementation. As a deputy commanding general at Fort Drum and in Afghanistan, I participated in the management of our unit’s instructional academies. One example is the Noncommissioned Officers Academy, which locally developed curriculum for basic, primary, and advanced level soldiers to meet Army-wide core standards.

My military experience provides me a strong academic foundation.

My Approach to Wake County Public School System

Coupling my service to the nation with my last 19 months as a member of the Washington, DC Public Schools management team, I know my strengths as an education leader. One of those strengths is to be wise enough to retain and hire the most talented team, particularly in the areas where I have comparatively less experience. Regarding human capital, my first step will be to ask Donna Hargens to remain as the Chief Academic Officer to provide continuity in that most critical domain. Meanwhile I will prioritize assessing the entire academic administrative chain from principals to chief academic officer to determine who has the energy and drive to make Wake County Public School System a high performing, world-class organization. Based upon that assessment and my instincts as a leader, I will move quickly to obtain the best talent within the teaching and learning parts of the organizational structure.

Likewise, as a Broad Superintendents Academy graduate, The Broad Center will provide me three audits of any aspects of the organization that I desire, all at no cost to Wake County. I will first review the recent curriculum audits of Wake County Public Schools and then determine what type of academic audit, if any, will be helpful. At a minimum I will want to assess my central office academic organizational structure and effectiveness. Specifically, I will want to review the previous audit and its implementation and assess Wake County’s:

* Academic standards, to ensure that they are not only aligned to North Carolina’s standards, but are at a world class level

* Curriculum, to ensure that it is powerful and aligned to high standards

* Hiring practices for principals and teachers, to ensure we are attracting and retaining world class talent

* Performance assessment practices for principals and teachers, to ensure that the practices include support and accountability

* Professional development programs for principals and teachers, to ensure that the programs are focused on the best performance of children

Having the right people and architecture will give us the energy and foundation for transformation.

I intend to ask for a second audit to assess our data and accountability systems. Knowing where we are academically will provide the starting point for the reform road map we collectively develop.

Additionally, The Broad Center will provide me a senior advisor for my first year, again at no cost to Wake County, and I will ensure that I choose an advisor with a strong academic background to advise me in this most critical area. Ultimately, I’m confident in my abilities now to focus on taking our academic performance to the next level, but also understand the value of a mentor.

I believe I have the experience, heart, resources, and vision to help Wake County Public School System accelerate its drive to become a world-class education system. I will bring a primary focus to supporting schools and teachers so that they may achieve academic success for our children in the same way I delivered unrelenting support to our troops on the front lines as they served our nation.

Thank you,
Anthony J. Tata


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By Valerie Strauss  | December 31, 2010; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Educational leadership  | Tags:  educational leadership, gen. anthony tata, non-traditional superintendents, wake county public schools  
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It makes perfect sense to me. There's a war going on against teachers and teachers unions so why not pick a military leader to lead a school system?

Posted by: MisterRog | December 31, 2010 5:58 AM | Report abuse

Tata says: "I will move quickly to obtain the best talent within the teaching and learning parts of the organizational structure."

Will he be obtaining some of this talent from DCPS? That would go against Rhee's pledge to keep the central office team whole for the sake of DC's children.

Posted by: efavorite | December 31, 2010 8:05 AM | Report abuse

Your real problem is Michell Rhee. You might want to work on that. Otherwise, your objectivity may become permanently impaired.

Lou Jackson

Posted by: begirt5754 | December 31, 2010 8:08 AM | Report abuse

The only thing IMPACT has accomplished is to allow principals to easily fire teachers and that is exactly what it was designed to do. So in that respect, it has been VERY successful.

What it has NOT done is improve instruction and dramatically raise test scores.

What is has done for those of us who were already delivering effective instruction and raising our students' test scores is box us in to an extremely rigid instructional framework which has stolen the joy and creativity out of teaching. That is why many of us who are effective instructors are now looking for jobs outside of public education. So, in effect, IMPACT is driving out the very kinds of teachers it is looking to attract and/or retain.

In addition, it is a flawed evaluation system with no consistency and it is extremely subjective. There are teachers who are receiving very low scores from their principals but very high scores from the master educators. The reverse is also true.

Master educators, when asked, also can't explain why some teachers receive poor scores on their observations yet their students score very well on standardized tests and vice versa. In other words, there is no or very little correlation between instruction and student achievement. Well, let me qualify that: no correlation between instruction as we are required to deliver it via IMPACT and TLF and student achievement. This is no surprise considered there was no vetting of either of these programs.

IMPACT is very successful in what it was designed to do: make it easy to fire teachers. As far as improving instruction and raising student achievement it is an utter failure.

Posted by: UrbanDweller | December 31, 2010 8:28 AM | Report abuse

We tried this experiment in Duval County Florida. It was a disaster. While he may have "understood" the mechanics of academia, it ended there. He continually used the Air Force mantra "Aim High." That statement in reality fails to provide guidance or a target (goal.)

My advice. This is one Tata you don't want to save!

Posted by: jbeeler | December 31, 2010 8:53 AM | Report abuse

In the recent school board elections, Republican candidates who supported the return to neighborhood schools and abandoning the attempt to integrate schools to make them have the same demographics won.

Posted by: edlharris | December 31, 2010 9:30 AM | Report abuse

This type of situation makes me glad to be teaching in MCPS, in spite of all its faults. We have been assured that the BOE is looking for an educator to be our new superintendent. Dr. Weast, whether one agrees with him or not, understands what excellent teaching is and he has always supported his teaching staff.

Posted by: musiclady | December 31, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

"Say, do I have a deal for you!" is the essence of "The Broad Effect".

Tata stated: " a Broad Superintendents Academy graduate, The Broad Center will provide me three audits of any aspects of the organization that I desire, all at no cost to Wake County." AND "The Broad Center will provide me a senior advisor for my first year, again at no cost to Wake County..."

This is exactly how the Broad Foundation controls districts across America from its headquarters in LA.

Then there's Capistrano Unified's experience with the Broad-trained Woody Carter, an Army colonel.

For Wake County public schools, the toxin has arrived -- and ugly things are sure to come.

Posted by: sharonh2 | December 31, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

This is not the first time that a former military general was named and served as school superintendent for a large school system. Retired Major General John Stanford was named superintendent of the Seattle School System in 1995. Stanford did not have a background in education. However, until his death from cancer, he turned the Seattle School System into a creditable system devoted to meeting the needs of students, parents, teachers and the community.

Posted by: youngernest28 | December 31, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

hey, youngernset28: read what Valerie quoted from me. Yes, Stanford was a success, but Julius Becton was far less than successful in DC. So was the reason for Stanford's success that he was a General, or did it have something to do with his personality and how he approached people?

Posted by: teacherken | December 31, 2010 6:47 PM | Report abuse

Happy New Year teacherken!
I did not mean to imply that being a General means being a successful educator. Many education leaders have a background in education and are poor or very poor leaders. This is not to say that a military General automatically makes a good education leader. Stanford had an excellent skills set that included effective communication with a variety of education stakeholders. I do believe that his military training was an asset to him being a focused and skillful leader. Stanford was successful because of the skills that he possessed as a General, his personality, and his excellent problem solving skills that included how he approached people.

Posted by: youngernest28 | January 1, 2011 2:52 AM | Report abuse

I think this is great! The more "non-education" people we have in education, the better our school systems will become! My kids' very best teachers were minimum wage workers in a daycare center! Their general ed teachers were good, too -- much better than the sped teachers who seemed to know nothing about either disability or teaching. So in my opinion, the less someone knows about "education" and the fewer "education" credentials they have, the more success our children will have! Just my 2 cents worth.

I predict Wake County, NC will have a great year in "education"!

Posted by: concerned36 | January 1, 2011 9:46 AM | Report abuse

concerned36: I think this is great! The more "non-education" people we have in education, the better our school systems will become! My kids' very best teachers were minimum wage workers in a daycare center! Their general ed teachers were good, too -- much better than the sped teachers who seemed to know nothing about either disability or teaching. So in my opinion, the less someone knows about "education" and the fewer "education" credentials they have, the more success our children will have! Just my 2 cents worth.

I predict Wake County, NC will have a great year in "education"!
-------------------------------------------------LOL...You are kidding, right?

Posted by: lacy41 | January 1, 2011 9:57 AM | Report abuse

lacy41, then why send kids to school at all? Just form a neighborhood school at someone's house! All they really need is a high school education to teach elementary school. Consultant's do this all the time...learn as they work...

Posted by: jbeeler | January 1, 2011 10:18 AM | Report abuse

jbeeler, we could do that, but we have to abolish compulsory attendance laws first. If we want to do this legally. Although I suppose we could call it a private school.

In Virginia, parents can homeschool their children if they have a high school diploma. It would be interesting to compare test scores of such homeschooled children (those whose parents only have a high school diploma) with those attending public schools. I feel sure the powers that be will never allow this comparison testing, or at least the results to be made public.

Posted by: concerned36 | January 1, 2011 11:01 AM | Report abuse

Bill O'Reilly also attended the Kennedy School of Government. 'Nuff said...

Posted by: bbbbmer1 | January 1, 2011 12:12 PM | Report abuse

Tata also writes like a military insider, with phraseology that does not complete a thought, expecting the reader to understand the intended implicit meaning, where that meaning is not universal. This is a very poor example of expository writing, especially for one claiming such a distinguished academic pedigree.

Posted by: bbbbmer1 | January 1, 2011 12:15 PM | Report abuse

Think how much money could be saved on primary education. Kids would be only a block or so away, except in rural areas...haven't thought that far ahead...but if someone brought 10 kids into their house for care and education, AND we paid her a salary based on day care rates - if there is an argument about day care vs. education, let's hear it!), and provide oversight by a homeschooling much could we save? Kids have the same teacher/day care for the first 6 years, parents know where their kids are at all times (unlike truancy problems,) and the complete all required courses needed to enter a 7th grade program. How many schools could be eliminated? Power and other utilities dropped? maintenance dollars? Number of children vs. need for a school building? Just saying!!!

Posted by: jbeeler | January 1, 2011 12:15 PM | Report abuse

Some commenters, as ever, are rooting for failure.

Tata isn't conventional and naturally seems a bad fit for the model of a supt in an urban system. But show us a successful supt in an urban system. They are very few, and the typical (non-successful) ones share a deep background

Tata will probably do fine, and we should wish him the best in any case.

(Linda, pls no: "would you hire a teacher to do a brain surgery" comments)

Posted by: axolotl | January 1, 2011 1:47 PM | Report abuse

Axoloti--Is Wake County, NC considered to be an urban system? I know that Montgomery Co. MD has been considered urban lately and we've only had educators as our leaders. Certainly many of our schools share some of the same characteristics as many of those in DC in terms of poverty.

While I do think that having a superintendent with educational experience is helpful, I think that having a competent school board makes a difference as well.

Posted by: musiclady | January 1, 2011 3:00 PM | Report abuse

I suppose this all comes down to personal preference. For my grandchildren and the children of others, I hope for well-qualified teachers with graduate degrees. I'd like to see the highest standards possible for the profession with an end to "emergency" credentials. If others are satisfied with less, well, that's their choice. This is still the USA.

All professions went through a period where the standards were low and "anyone" could do it, but as the expectations became higher and the job more complex, so did the standards for entering the profession. K-12 teaching is now at a crossroads. Will it become a full profession with strict standards for entry? I'm hoping so.

Happy New Year to all of you!

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | January 1, 2011 3:07 PM | Report abuse

Elizabeth Samet, in "Soldiers Heart," claims that when she began teaching literature to West Point cadets, many of the older faculty objected to the cadets wasting their time on a non-military subject. Women soldiers report rape is not taken seriously. The Army is concerned about the high rate of suicide among veterans returning from combat, yet the veterans insist they are discouraged from seeking psychiatric help. The Army's treatment of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed was a national scandal and even today the Army continues to misplace the records soldiers need to get medical discharges, treatment, or prescriptions. A general had to resign after he made disparaging remarks about his commander in chief--his superior officer--to a reporter. Other officers claim homosexuals would be a detriment to a regiment in spite of the opinions of the soldiers in the regiments and the experience of other nations. Several years ago, a study revealed that one-third of the recruiting officers openly lied to prospective recruits to get them to enlist.

And this is the background that prepares General Tata to educate students?

Posted by: sideswiththekids | January 1, 2011 4:59 PM | Report abuse

It's not about instructional leadership at the top anymore, Valarie! It makes no sense getting upset when folks like Bloomberg are going to hire their incompetent friends (e.g., Cathie Black, Joel Klein). And Eli Broad is a proponent of training and hiring good managers (not instructional leaders) to run big city school systems. It makes no sense at all! I'm totally with you.

And now Tata—a guy who used DCPS as a resume builder and revolving door to get a better paying, high end job elsewhere. What a jerk! His missive basically said: "I'll do my best although I know absolutely nothing about running a school system...But hey, my parents were educators!"

And we wonder why we lag behind the rest of the world when it comes to education? We wonder why we have achievement gaps? Look at who we are placing at the helm of our schools!

Posted by: rasheeedj | January 1, 2011 5:20 PM | Report abuse

Stanford was a great publicity generator, but I find it very difficult to identify lasting improvements he implemented. I know of several instances where he completely screwed up. One involved phony "improvements" at Meany Middle School. A second involved the remodel of Ballard High School. Both were prime examples of someone out of his element making decisions that would have been laughable if an experienced educator had made them.

Posted by: rvaliant | January 1, 2011 8:19 PM | Report abuse

Yes, because a CEO never takes over a company in a different field with success.

Having people like Strauss hate on Rhee and company only makes it more clear why it's hard to change schools systems. Repeating your lies doesn't make them true, but it does create a tautology when you just call her controversial.

By the illogic of Strauss, no one in the military should ever be able to transfer to another field at a similar rank.

Is there really no one better than this Union shill willing to write on education issues for the Washington Post?

Posted by: staticvars | January 1, 2011 10:22 PM | Report abuse

The author has it dead an embarrassed resident of Wake County, the new school board has turned our nationally renown school district into a national joke. Everyone I know (teachers included) are disgusted at what has happened to our school system. It's like a bad dream that we can't wake up from...

Posted by: parentof5 | January 2, 2011 8:57 AM | Report abuse

rasheed -- wonder why rankings w other
don't make America look good, do ya?

Few people, including experts in education (except for unionistas) would blame the prolonged failure of public schools on top executive leadership quality.

They are not the anti-change agents who got urban systems where they are today. You probably know this.

And you probably know where the main publicly paid employee allocation of responsibility goes.

Posted by: axolotl | January 2, 2011 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Tata needs to become an inner city teacher so he can learn about teaching.

I hope he takes the time to learn the truth about education. It doesn't appear he wants to.

He is just another phony being introduced as a reformer.

Posted by: educationlover54 | January 2, 2011 3:39 PM | Report abuse

To staticvars: Maybe military people SHOULDN'T be able to transfer to another field at the same level. Harry Truman reportedly said, after President-elect Eisenhower met with him, "I can't wait until he sits here and gives an order an nothing happens." History shows the famous generals who rode their military careers to the presidency tended not to be very good presidents--they simply lacked the "people" skills a president needs or were entirely too loyal to and trusting of their aides. Military skills are simply not the same skills needed in civilian businesses. It is perfectly possible to admire soldiers' courage and be greatful for them without thinking they are infallible in all areas.

Actually, maybe no one should transfer to another field at the same level. A master chef probably knows little about running a restaurant. It's very clear that the editors who produce textbooks know very little about how those books are used. Working your way up is not always a bad idea.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | January 2, 2011 7:02 PM | Report abuse

I think people think that former military leaders can lead schools because schools on military bases are generally pretty good. I think all our schools would be better if anyone had the authority to order parents to parent teacher conferences and give them time off from work to do so. This works very well for military base schools.

Posted by: Mulch5 | January 5, 2011 12:47 AM | Report abuse

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