Erroll B. Davis left industry to run Georgia’s colleges. Now, he may have the toughest challenge of his long distinguished career, revitalizing a badly damaged APS.
Davis met with AJC reporters and editors this week to discuss how he will do that. Here are highlights of the nearly two-hour freewheeling discussion: (I will be adding to this as there is a lot of information to sort.)
I will begin by saying that at the close, I asked Davis why we should believe that his vision for Atlanta schools will succeed.
Much of what he and his deputy Karen Waldon told us echoed the comments of Beverly Hall in her many meetings with the AJC over the years.
Hall, too, talked about valuing critical thinking skills over test scores, of empowering principals, of improving teaching, of honoring great teachers and of embracing site-based management. She, too, talked about meeting with APS grads now attending Ivy League schools and listening to them heap praise on the quality of their education.
Davis admitted that the rhetoric all sounds the same. The difference, he says, will be that his regime will focus intensely on outcomes and will not farm out the work. He said that he and his team have found 211 ongoing initiatives under way in APS with no one taking any account of whether the initiatives were doing any good.
APS partnered with all sorts of folks who announced that they had a $2 million grant ready to go if only the district kicked in $500,000 to make it happen, he said.
“We never met an initiative we didn’t like,” he said. APS opened its doors to everyone who claimed, “I am here and I want to help. We had 1,000 points of light, and no outcomes.”
He cited a well-respected community group that told him it had spent $5 million in APS over the last two years. “We have no idea on what outcome we got from them.”
“Excellence has to not be an aspiration or a goal. It has to be the standard.”
About having lunch earlier that day with the APS valedictorians, many of whom are bound for Yale, Georgetown, UGA, Tech and Emory:
“I was just stunned by them. Each had to get up and speak. They are very impressive young people.”
What they recommended to improve APS: More AP classes, more language classes, greater consistency in application of discipline. “They do not want disruptive students in the classrooms.”
“More than one referred to rigor. All felt they got a good eduction. All felt their teachers cared about them. It made me think we may be doing better than we think but still not in a systematic manner.”
“One thing we don’t do well is manage and develop aspirations in younger people. Any time my granddaughter says she has an interest, I have the wherewithal to mobilize resources around that…if she says she wants to be a pediatric surgeon, I have the ability to get her into NICU to observe.”
When one student shared his college choice, Davis said, “I thought they could do better than that.” But it may be the student’s family was “conditioned about people and resources from another era. They don’t understand fully how far they can go.”
The Pathways program that will offer options to four-year college: “It will put to bed that education at k-12 is either a college track or a dummy track. We can put that to bed forever. For some reason, someone in Atlanta thought everyone was going to college. APS is not offering other paths.”
“Students will now go with one elementary school to middle school, the entire cohort will move to a middle school and parents will move along with them. They will go to one high school.”
He said that stable cluster model was a factor in the success of north Atlanta schools. “Now we are going to have those stable, single feeder clusters everywhere in this city.”
The decision to keep some schools open, including D. H. Stanton Elementary:
Karen Waldon, APS Deputy Superintendent for Curriculum & Instruction, jumped into the discussion here. She talked about the decision to keep schools open based on the promise of communities to maintain their activism and advocacy beyond the redistricting hearings.
“We asked these groups, ‘When it opens, do you just fade in the background again?’”
With Stanton, it was both the community dedication and the focus of the principal. “We see tremendous opportunity there.”
Waldon addressed the need for APS to do better outreach, citing a Saturday morning program at Kennedy Middle on the new Common Core curriculum. Led by four APS staffers, the program drew only two community members. Afterward, she told the team that it needed to go where the community was, to the nearby churches and apartment complexes.
APS has 17 principal vacancies. Davis was asked if educators were leery of coming to Atlanta because of the cheating scandal.
“There are only so many ways to perfume a pig,” he replied.
But while people have questions, APS has 600 applicants for the 17 openings.
“And they are asking questions. They are aware of how the school board has functioned in the past. They are asking question about the CRCT and they are asking questions about resources. We can only postulate what we want to get done, what we stand for and do you want to join us on this journey.”
Davis wants to use one of the closed schools to house a teacher excellence institute. “…in education, there is too polite a tolerance of ineptitude. If you can’t do it, you can’t work here. It is really that simple. I want to pull problem teachers out the classroom early. We are wasting the lives of children while adults play games.”
On recognizing ineffective teachers: “Kids know it in two weeks, parents know it in about a month. It should take some steps to fire a teacher. It should take a lot steps. But it doesn’t take a lot to pull them out of the classroom.”
He wants to give those teachers help, including “avatars” that allow them to deal with virtual classrooms and have their classroom management skills appraised by dispassionate panels of experts. But if teachers cannot improve, they will not work for APS.
“They will come to you and say this is an evil man. They may be right. My goal is put effective teachers in the classroom and get ineffective teachers out.”
Why he is replacing principals in schools where cheating occurred, but the principal was not implicated:
“When principals say to me that ‘The investigators’ report said I wasn’t involved, why am I being removed from the job?’ I say, ‘Absolutely, you did not cheat but you failed. I put the malleable lives of young children in your hands and you failed. You can predict for risk and you should manage that risk. That is what a leader has to do.You have to manage the risk. You are accountable. You are responsible for everything that happens on your watch.’”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog