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Education Opinion

Newark’s Cami Anderson Speaks Some Simple Truths

By Rick Hess — May 17, 2013 3 min read
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I spent yesterday out in Las Vegas at the Southern Nevada Leadership Summit, where the Clark County Public Education Foundation was hosting school, system, and business leaders. (Full disclosure: I’m a senior fellow for the Foundation.) One of the speakers was Newark superintendent Cami Anderson, who drew a warm reception to her thoughts on the need to shift thinking “from what’s probable to what’s possible.”

I thought Anderson had a number of terrific things to say. And, given that it feels to me like she doesn’t say this stuff all that much in public forums, I thought a few worth sharing. Most of them boiling down to the facts that school and system leaders need to do what they think is right, can’t be intimidated by the threat of resistance or litigation, shouldn’t be paralyzed by conventional wisdom, and need to proceed with both resolve and respect. As she said, “Lawsuits are lawsuits. You’re going to get lawsuits whatever you do. We can’t let them stop us from doing the right thing for kids.”

Anderson said a lot of current efforts to improve school leadership “focus on principals but not on who’s managing them.” So, she first cleaned house on principal supervisors and then hired assistant supes who’ve demonstrated “breakthrough” performance, have “worked across schools,” and evince a “coaching mindset.”

She talked about Newark’s new collective bargaining agreement. With the aid of Mark Zuckerberg’s (in)famous $100 million gift, they were able to get a deal done. She said the three big changes were opportunities to more readily extend the school day, to let 51% of teachers at a school waive contract language, and to modify the treatment of teacher performance. She said, “Now, when most of the teachers want to do something, they can no longer be held up simply by two teachers waving the contract.” The new deal specifies that “ineffective” teachers won’t get a step increase, the increase for “partially effective” teachers is at managerial discretion, “effective” teachers will get their step, and “highly effective” teachers will get their step and a bonus. “Now,” Anderson said, “the pay is interesting, but not that interesting. What’s more interesting is the clarity” this brings to discussions of instruction and teacher performance.

Five other useful notes that struck me:

“Politics are politics, and the work is the work.” She said that was her answer to people who ask, “You’re going to sit across from him?!” in reference to the teacher union chief (who’s said some pretty harsh things about Anderson). She said, “Our kids don’t care that he said I’m a five-headed monster.”

“I don’t need compliant principals. I don’t need rule followers. I need transformational school leaders. You know the biggest reason why people say, ‘I can’t do that?’ It’s not law or regulation. It’s past practice. Well, they need to change practice.”

“You would think the more rigorous you are, the fewer people would want in. In fact, it’s the opposite. The more you send the signal out that you’re rigorous and that the principalship is a serious thing, the more people want to come. We’ve doubled the number of people applying.”

“We’re trying to reimagine the system as a service-oriented team. That is a huge mindset shift. And honestly, two years in, we’re very much at the start of that journey.”

“Families are so tired of the school reform wars. They just want to know, ‘How can I help my kid do well or get into an awesome school?’ Yet we get so wrapped up in everything but that. So we’re trying to work on that, and to break down the barriers between school and home.”

Newark’s not a big district, and Cami’s tenure has seen its share of conflict, but her tenure is a fascinating example of trying to wrench a historically low-performing system onto a better course. And there’s much to learn from, both when it comes to how she’s proceeding and how things turn out.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.