A ‘Top-Down’ Superintendent

By William Snider — May 03, 1989 13 min read

Atlanta--When the board of education here hired J. Jerome Harris last summer to be the city’s first new superintendent in 15 years, they recognized they had chosen a strong leader and zealous advocate for children.

But they may not have been fully prepared for how quickly he would move to shake up the system. As several board members and administrators put it, “We may have gotten more than we bargained for.”

At a time when many urban districts are turning to a “bottom-up” approach to school reform, Mr. Harris has set out to prove that top-down leadership can spark badly needed improvements in a major city school system.

“It doesn’t sound good when you put it in the press, but I believe in the top-down system,” he said during a recent interview. “That’s the American way. The percolating-up theory is alien to our culture.”

Within weeks of arriving in Atlanta, Mr. Harris launched a school-improvement plan similar to those being proposed in several states--with more intervention in low-performing schools and more freedom for successful schools.

He also proposed several other new initiatives, including an attempt to tie a 0.5 percent salary increase for school personnel to measurable improvement in the district’s standardized-test scores.

Several of the superintendent’s ideas have stirred controversy, and he has become embroiled in a public feud with the local press over coverage of his actions.

But many of the district’s employees, as well as interested observers, applaud the hands-on leadership style that has him spending nearly half of his working hours walking the halls of district schools.

‘Basic Management’

On a recent tour of seven schools, Mr. Harris pointed out some of the smaller changes that have come about as a result of his first-hand monitoring. At one school, for instance, he made note of a new wall built to block off what had been a favorite hiding place for students.

At another school, the parking lot is now locked at the beginning of the school day, preventing access to outsiders and forcing students who arrive late to park on the lawn.

“That gate was never locked before, but it is just basic management,” he said. “You only have that kind of a feeling for what’s going on when you’re in the schools.”

On several occasions, he stopped students in the halls and gently reminded them that gum-chewing is permitted only in the cafeteria.

The ban on chewing gum and similar prohibitions on radios and hats “is part of the whole discipline procedure that trains kids for the real world,” he said.

“You can’t tell them it’s alright to do it for 12 years in school and when they get out they find out about the way it really is,” he said.

That Mr. Harris’s reputation has won him some ardent supporters became evident at one school when a worker came up to ask for the superintendent’s autograph, saying, “I’ve been hearing so much good talk about you.”

Feud With the Press

The superintendent’s leadership style has also provoked a large dose of criticism, most notably a running feud with The Atlanta Journal and Constitution.

“The Atlanta press is racist,” Mr. Harris said. “They’re subtle in their ways,” the superintendent said, but in their choice of headlines and photographs in particular, he believes, the newspapers have conveyed the impression that black leaders have mismanaged the school system.

The feud reached a peak in early April, when the Constitution ran several articles on alleged mismanagement of the district’s unused property. Mr. Harris charged that the articles reflected badly on his administration, which had inherited the problem and had been taking steps to address it.

The Constitution printed a news story on the superintendent’s charges against the paper and, two days later, a column taking Mr. Harris to task for building adversarial relationships.

“Dr. Harris, fresh from New York City, one of the most corrupt and disastrous public-school systems in the nation, should understand that Atlantans want educated children--not a cult of personality,” wrote the columnist Dick Williams.

Others in the community expressed admiration and enthusiasm for the superintendent’s stated goals, but questioned whether the reactions provoked by his tactics would prevent him from reaching them.

“He might feel that he must come in and be very tough in order to change the system, but he doesn’t have to be so intimidating because he’s dragging folks down,” said Bobbie J. Sharp, Uniserv director for the Atlanta Association of Educators, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

Atlanta’s teachers do not have collective-bargaining rights, but many district employees are members of either the nea or the rival American Federation of Teachers.

Difficult Board Politics

The school board has on several occasions rejected or modified the superintendent’s proposals, saying he had not followed a proper or thorough procedure in developing them.

In one instance last month, the board refused to hire Mr. Harris’s choice for an associate superintendent post because, several members said, they first wanted an organizational chart that would delineate the reponsibilities of all top administrators.

The board last month also rejected Mr. Harris’s first merit-pay proposal, which would have granted district employees a 3 percent raise with an additional 1.5 percent increase tied to test scores.

Board members said both the merit-pay proposal and the relatively low base-salary increase would have been harmful to teacher morale.

The superintendent shrugs off his run-ins with the board, saying, “I will work in the ballpark they give me to play in. I’m not going to waste a lot of time fighting and arguing with them.”

Mr. Harris’s experience in Community District 13 in Brooklyn did not fully prepare him for the administrative details of running a major urban school system, said Robert Waymer, a school-board member.

“He’d rather be out teaching,” Mr. Waymer said. “Don’t get me wrong, we love him for it. We’re going to spend $500,000 [on additional administrators and other expenses] to let him be the master-master teacher.”

Mr. Harris presents a stark contrast to his predecessor, Alonzo Crim, whose negotiating skills earned significant support, both verbal and material, from Atlanta’s business leaders, and who almost always gained the board’s approval for his agenda.

The Rev. Preston Williams, a board member, summed up a sentiment often expressed here when he said that Mr. Harris, who was born in Raleigh, N.C., “had been away from the way Southerners do things for too long.”

“You don’t catch flies with vinegar, you catch them with honey,” he explained.

During his school visits, the superintendent tries to motivate staff members to work harder by listening to them and giving a quick response to requests he can fill.

‘They’ll Work Harder’

Several staff members noted that they either had not been visited by previous superintendents or had simply been part of a well-planned and orchestrated program that allowed the schools to show off their best side.

During his first visit to the Atlanta Juvenile Treatment Center, which houses a school for incarcerated youths run by the district, staff members seemed genuinely pleased by Mr. Harris’s personal attention.

The school had long been ignored by district officials, the staff said, to the point where a lack of sufficient supplies had forced them to turn away potential students.

Mr. Harris gave the school two used typewriters that were in the trunk of his car, and after leaving, called a district official on his car phone to order that desks and tables be delivered within 24 hours.

“Now they know that I know where they are, and that I care,” he said. “They’ll work harder, even if I can’t give them everything they need.”

A more fundamental difference he has brought to the district was reflected on the blackboard of virtually every classroom, where the day’s learning objective for each class was prominently posted.

The requirement was initiated so that both teachers and students understand what is supposed to be taught and learned that day, he said.

Mr. Harris says his primary responsibility is to safeguard the interests of the district’s children, which means he must “make teachers teach what they’re supposed to teach when they are supposed to teach it. How they teach it is up to them.”

School boards and administrators “have always defined what teachers should teach,” he added. “Where they have failed is they have never monitored what is actually taught.”

Thus, a major focus of his school-improvement strategy will be testing, to ensure that the district’s curriculum is rigidly adhered to, he said.

“We will by next year have criterion-referenced tests for all subject areas, we will periodically test all subject areas, and we will make those results public,” he said.

“If the average school scores a 15, and if any school scores a 3,” he said, “then we will expect the principal to wonder why his school scored a 3, we will expect the teachers to wonder why, and we will expect the students to wonder why. That will be the driving force of things.”

The superintendent, however, clearly does not intend to count on the self-scrutiny of principals and teachers to act as the only pressure for improved performance.

The school board has already approved a proposal that will allow Mr. Harris to directly take over the six schools in the district--two at each grade level--that rank the lowest after this year’s testing cycle.

Although the details of the takeovers have not been fully worked out, he said, the schools will probably be redesigned and a volunteer staff will be recruited to carry out their new educational mission.

The superintendent is also asking the board to consider a one-half percent “appreciation bonus” that would be added to an already agreed upon 5 percent pay raise if students’ test scores increase.

To counter charges that a classel10lroom-by-classroom or school-by-school bonus system would be unfair to employees, who have little control over the diverse backgrounds of their students, the superintendent has proposed that the incentive increase go to nearly all district employees based on the system’s overall improvement in test scores.

The board was expected to consider the appreciation bonus this week, but the superintendent acknowledged that it had little chance of approval.

“I put it out there because it simply raises the outside extreme when it comes to conversation,” he said. “I do a lot of that so that, eventually, what I want becomes acceptable.”

“People tend to do best and first those things that are in their own self-interest,” he said. “My job is to try to help them see that it’s in their best interest to help kids. Therefore, I have to tie rewards into that.”

“If I am to be successful,” he added, “it will be because I will learn how to hug and massage those people who best respond to hugging and massaging, and will learn how to kick and stomp those people who are most responsive to kicking and stomping.”

‘Don’t Want To Be the Bottom’

That Atlanta is near the bottom on Georgia’s ranking of districts by standardized-test scores clearly rankles Mr. Harris. “I don’t want to be in the bottom five,” he said. “That’s my barometer for this year.”

But many school employees and observers worry that the superintendent may be overemphasizing test scores to the exclusion of other important indicators of student achievement.

“We would certainly agree that our children need to score well on tests,” said Mary Lou Romaine, president of the Atlanta Federation of Teachers. “But when [Mr. Harris] says things like he wants to give an appreciation bonus based on test scores, to me that trivializes what we’re trying to do.”

When asked whether tests are a fair indicator of a student’s progress, Mr. Harris responded: “That’s not a question that I spend any time dealing with. They’re a reality and I can’t do anything about them.”

“If everybody else can do something with them,” he added, “then we can do something with them too.”

School-Improvement Plan

The most novel move by Mr. Harris this year has been his school-improvement plan. It targets intensive help to 18 of the system’s chronically lowest-performing schools, now called “central-focus” schools, and relaxes supervision of the 25 most successful schools, or “area-focus” schools.

The area-focus schools are known informally as “butterfly” schools, the superintendent said, “because we’ve freed them up and they can fly away and do everything they want to do.”

“They’re free,” he added, “until they mess up and I remind them I’ve got a butterfly net and I’ll come get them.”

A principal of one area-focus school, who asked not to be identified, was effusive in his praise of Mr. Harris’s leadership but said he had noted “no great reduction in paperwork or any great latitude” since being designated a butterfly school.

Many of the central-focus schools, on the other hand, have felt the effects of their new status; they receive frequent visits from the superintendent or his high-powered school-improvement team.

“My philosophy is that these people [in the central focus schools] are nice, honorable, and doing the best they can do,” said the superintendent, “but it’s not working for kids.”

The school-improvement team “directs and trains and plans and pushes the employees,” in the central-focus schools, he said.

The principals in those schools “are no longer accountable for results,” he added. “I’m accountable. If their test scores don’t go up this year, then I can’t blame them because I took away all their authority and power.”

But some question whether the central-focus schools are receiving all the help they have been promised.

“Based on what I’ve heard, the superintendent promised a lot of additional support and resources, but they did not always materialize,” said the aft’s Ms. Romaine.

The remainder of the district’s 113 schools remain under the supervision of one of three area superintendents; they, Mr. Harris said, should be able to do a better job of oversight because they now have fewer schools under their control.

‘Gotcha Theory’?

Virtually everyone interviewed agreed that the superintendent’s unannounced visits to schools has had a major impact on classroom practices.

“Some folks are not nearly as lax about things as they were before, because they never know when he’s going to show up,” said Carolyn Crowder, a board member.

But others question whether the visits are having a negative impact on the morale of teachers.

“He shouldn’t go into schools with the ‘gotcha theory,”’ said Ms. Sharp.

“Some teachers tend to feel that he’s coming in to see what’s going wrong, to catch them in one error or mistake, instead of listening to their problems and concerns,” she said.

A principal who declined to be identified added that he had heard employees complain “that the atmosphere he has created is one of fear and intimidation. There are people even today who use the word ‘Gestapo tactics.”’

Deborah L. Battle, Atlanta’s teacher of the year for 1988, said the superintendent had “dispelled some of that by making himself available to people to get to know him on a personal basis.”

“Once people get used to his openness,” she added, “they realize he encourages people to think and be creative, and challenges them to rise to the occasion. That’s really what he’s all about.”

Mr. Harris argues that Atlanta has all of the ingredients for a major push to improve the schools, including a relatively healthy fiscal outlook and strong support from business leaders and the community.

Because the district’s enrollment has become more than 90 percent black, it has also been spared many of the desegregation battles and subsequent scarring found in other urban school systems.

The system’s ethnic make-up has given rise to a move to infuse examples of African-American culture and contributions to society throughout the curriculum, an initiative that Mr. Harris, who is president-elect of the National Alliance of Black School Educators, is accelerating.

“There is nowhere in this country that blacks have made a significant difference on the academic achievement of kids as the school systems have turned from white to black,” the superintendent said.

“That’s a dangerous precedent,” he added. “Somebody must destroy it, and that’s my mission.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 1989 edition of Education Week as A ‘Top-Down’ Superintendent