So Kriner Cash is planning his exit strategy. Join the club, Dr. Cash. Let those who have not considered charter schools, private schools, optional schools, Mississippi schools, or suburban municipal schools for their own children cast the first stone.
Cash is one of three finalists interviewing this week for the superintendent's job in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina. He survived the cut in an initial field of 89 applicants and will be a strong contender as the only minority candidate and the only candidate with experience in a system with more than 100,000 students. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has approximately 140,000 students and is majority-minority.
Cash, remember, was opposed to the surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter, and his side lost by a single vote on the board of education. Unification through hostile surrender was not his baby. If he gets the Carolina job, he could plausibly argue that he is not leaving MCS so much as MCS left him.
Superintendents of big school systems are like high-profile coaches in this respect: They are celebrated when hired, scorned when they depart, and there is almost always someone ready to rehire them and wipe the slate clean.
Cash is in his fourth year on the job in Memphis. If he were in high school, he would be graduating. That's the same length of tenure as his predecessor, Carol Johnson, and a year longer than her predecessor, Johnnie B. Watson.
Superintendents are unlike coaches in this respect: They don't leave anything as clear-cut as a win-loss record.
So how do you determine whether someone has been a good superintendent? There are several ways.
Johnson got an offer from the Boston public schools — a smaller system but a higher-paying position than Memphis. Watson was well liked, but that was partly because he didn't close any schools, knowing from painful experience that closing schools is a recipe for ulcers and a career killer. His predecessor, Gerry House, was national Superintendent of the Year in 1999, an award sponsored by ServiceMaster, a company that had contracts with MCS. Her predecessor, Willie Herenton, had a schools offer from Atlanta and serious interest from New York City.
A reporter in Charlotte asked me this week if Cash has done a good job. I dodged the question and said he would present a hell of a resume. The Obama visit to Booker T. Washington High School. The Gates Foundation grant. The steadfast superintendent of a soon-to-be-dissolved system not of his making. The ability to say "you can't throw anything at me that I haven't seen in Memphis." No personal scandals; Cash apparently explained the resignation of his right-hand man, Irving Hamer, to the satisfaction of the search committee at a secret meeting of semifinalists at the Charlotte airport, post-Hamer.
Student performance measures are another matter. The state of Tennessee toughened up its standardized testing evaluations after Cash arrived in Memphis, so what was "proficient" in 2007 is no longer "proficient." Again, Cash and MCS could only react.
Graduation rates in MCS have supposedly improved while dropout rates have declined. This was the centerpiece of the Obama visit to BTW. But there are two problems with graduation stats. First, a graduate with a 15 or 16 on the ACT (a typical score at Memphis high schools) is not college ready. Second, Tennessee, unlike other states, doesn't report the number of students who graduate or are eligible to graduate from each high school year over year.
It's interesting that Cash is applying for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg job because four representatives from that system, including former Superintendent Pete Gorman, came to Memphis in December to meet with the Transition Planning Commission.
No matter which of the three finalists gets the Charlotte job, I think Gorman did them a favor by lowering expectations. He was pretty candid in his Memphis comments.
"Progress has been painfully slow, and at the rate we are moving in Charlotte it will still be 15 years before the achievement gap is closed," he said. He also said "you can't close schools well" and questioned whether the task is "physically possible."
Ann Doss Helms, a reporter covering education for The Charlotte Observer, told me Gorman was sort of "a rock star" superintendent in his early years. He didn't sound like a rock star when he came to Memphis. He sounded like a man who has learned from hard experience that there are few if any real rock stars in public education and that fame and popularity are fleeting.