Michelle Pierre-Farid, the chief academic officer of the 40,000-student Cleveland public schools, has her work cut out for her. The Ohio district received a D on its performance index in 2013-14, and an F for its graduation rate. Since she joined the district in August 2012—after serving as the executive director of the Washington, D.C. team of New Leaders for New Schools, and deputy CAO of Friendship Public Charter Schools—many of the accountability indicators have improved, if not yet the grades.
Now, she talks about keeping her “eye on the prize” as she works for student academic gains with her team and district CEO Eric S. Gordon, who held the CAO post for four years before her arrival.
Education Week Staff Writer Michele Molnar recently spoke with Ms. Pierre-Farid about the challenges in Cleveland.
Student scores improved under your academic leadership in District of Columbia public and charter schools. How did you effect change?
The key focus was around culture. I was very strong on having high expectations for every single child. It was a belief that every child was going to go to college, so every classroom was named after the alma mater of the teacher. We focused on what college and careers looked like, and I expected teachers to create challenging work. I gave feedback to teachers every single day.
How does that work carry over in your role in Cleveland?
We have to have high expectations for the children we serve. I call our students “scholars” because my expectation is that we have a curriculum and structure in our school system that gets every kid to have the opportunity to go to college, and if they choose to go straight to a career, they can succeed in their career.
Once again, it’s around how do we support principals to effectively manage their buildings? What do those supports look like? Through my principal managers, how do we give continuous feedback for our principals?
You have multiple new initiatives underway to test what programs work in 13 different “investment schools,” as part of the city’s Cleveland Plan. How did you decide what to try in different schools?
We used our data first, and looked at what is causing that particular school to struggle, and then we identified a partner to support the school in those areas. What do high-performing, high-needs schools do to get 90 percent of their students achieving? Based on that framework, we then identified key partners who have the ability to move that school in that key area.
What progress are you seeing in the district?
We moved our graduation rate from around 57 percent three or four years ago to 64 percent the last school year. On our state assessments, out of 24 indicators in reading, math, science, and social studies, 15 went up. Seven did decline, and two stayed the same. Even though this is the highest performance index we’ve ever had for the district, we want every indicator to go up, and we want dramatic increases in those indicators.
How do you decide how long to give a particular initiative to see whether it’s going to take root and make change, or whether to abandon it?
We don’t sit down and give something a time frame. I think in urban education that happens a lot. We say, “Oh, this is what we want to do,” and two minutes later we say that’s not working, we want to change it. That causes more frustration in the workforce and more confusion.
We are trying to understand what is working well, and for what does it work well? We have numerous programs. All are not as effective in certain populations as we want them to be. So we try to understand where [that educational technology, or human-capital-support program] does work, and have schools that are like that use that programming.
Of the areas you oversee, where do you see impact?
We are deepening our work with principal support, by changing the way our principal managers work with our principals around instructional leadership, and the professional development we provide by bringing in different national organizations to provide that support.
We’re also ramping up our support in curriculum and instruction. And I’m really proud of the great work our team is doing at closing the achievement gap with our boys of color.
How does your background in working with charter schools inform your perspective?
What I try to push within the organization is how do we make sure that you are providing the best education for children? What does your teaching and learning look like? What does your support to families look like? Because they will decide what school they go to the next school year.
We can’t blame the charter schools for taking our kids. They do not grab the children and drag them into their schools. Families make that choice, so you want to make sure they make the choice to come back to your school.
What’s the most difficult thing about being a CAO?
We’re trying to change our education system from having [students] who are doers to having them be more thinkers. We want them to be problem-solvers in the future. That is a very different way than how instruction has been provided in the American school system.
The role of the CAO is now more of a facilitator’s role, helping principals think through their problems, helping teachers think through their issues, and then having kids do the same thing.
People will say to me, “Well, every kid is not going to college.” I will say back to community partners, teachers: My job is to provide an education that allows the child to make that choice, not to provide an education that makes it for them.
Coverage of personalized learning and systems leadership in Education Week and its special reports is supported in part by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 18, 2015 edition of Education Week as Q&As: Challenges and Responsibilities for CAOs