One thing I’ve learned over my years as an public education advocate is that being an advocate is a lot like that Charlie Brown cartoon with Lucy and the football. Every time you win one and think this is the one that’s going to make a difference, the football gets pulled away and you end up once again flat on your back wondering what the hell just happened. That’s why, while I have enjoyed the aftermath of the recent Nashville school board election results, I’ve kept one eye cocked, waiting for the other shoe to fall. This week it fell.
Nashville recently got a brand new Director of Schools, Dr. Shawn Joseph. Dr. Joseph comes to us from Prince George’s County in Maryland and most of his leadership cabinet choices reflect that. This week, he rounded out his cabinet with the selection of Jana Carlisle as his Chief of Staff, and that is the other shoe.
If you go to Carlisle’s LinkedIn page today, you won’t find the information I’m concerned about. Because it has been scrubbed. Here’s what it looks like now:
But take a look at the accomplishments that were listed there earlier in the week:
Carlisle apparently doesn’t want us to know anymore that she wrote the grant for Washington’s first charter school. Nor is she looking to publicize that she co-led Washington’s Coalition for Public Charter Schools’ efforts to secure I-1240 as Washington’s first charter school law. If you are not familiar with I-1240, it was the law that allowed charter schools into Washington despite three previous failed attempts to pass similar measures. It was later ruled unconstitutional and overturned. However, the judge that ruled the law unconstitutional, Barbara Madsen, is currently embroiled in a fierce reelection campaign with the usual suspects pouring in money.
If you watched Nashville’s school board races this summer, the campaign to enact I-1240 was run in an eerily similar way. Lots of big money. The Yes group, of which Carlisle was a leader, raised $10.8 million in just under 5 months. This is in stark contrast to the No group, which in 4 months raised just over $15 thousand. The Yes group utilized paid signature gathers to amass the needed signatures. Carlisle wasn’t just a participant in this campaign either; she was front and center as a recognized leader. After the election, Carlisle, as head of Partnership for Learning, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with her partners Shannon Campion of Stand for Children and Lisa Macfarlane of Democrats for Education Reform and took a victory lap. She also testified about what needed to be done to ensure reform happened the way she thought it should in Washington. Here’s part of her testimony to the State Board:
This was, quite honestly, a pretty big deal for her. I don’t know why she wouldn’t want to list it on her LinkedIn page. After all, if I’d changed state law and manager a 10.81 million dollar budget I’d put it front and center.
Now here I am, on my back looking at the sky, as the football has been pulled out from me once again, and I’m thinking, what the hell? Through a summer of hard work, Nashville managed to deny Stand For Children a school board seat, despite their best efforts to purchase several of them. It was a victory that reverberated nationally. And yet, the new Director of Schools opens the back door and lets the failed usurpers come right in. The Chief of Staff job is all about access and who gets it to the Director of Schools. It’s human nature to want to work with people you’ve been successful with in the past. I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that those folks would get the most access. But if your peers are the very same people who tried to corrupt the system, well, that becomes a problem.
What further baffles me and is almost equally distressing is this: why would Jana Carlisle even want this job? She has an extremely impressive resume and is currently working as the Chief Strategy Officer at NYC Leadership Academy, though she’s only been there since 2015. Why would you sacrifice that and come to Nashville and work as Chief of Staff for a superintendent in his very first gig with a large school district? I love Nashville as much as anybody and more than most, but it ain’t NYC. She has continually pursued a career path that allows her to serve the most children in need possible, so why, at this juncture in her career, would she narrow that focus?
But if you look closer at Dr. Joseph’s leadership cabinet, you realize there is nobody – save one – with local ties, and that one is the man who has controlled the money for the last several years, so of course he gets a seat. But the rest are all from the East Coast. The more I look at it, the more it looks like Nick Saban at Michigan State, weighing his options before choosing the ultimately more lucrative coaching gig down at LSU. There, Saban spent some time getting his staff together so he was ready when the Alabama job opened up. True, he spent a little time in Miami before Alabama – this isn’t a perfect analogy – but he ended up being known as the highest paid and one of the most winning college coaches of all time. The point is, he used Michigan State to gather his coaching cabinet and set himself up for the job with the real payoff.
Now I don’t want to assign ulterior motives to anybody, especially not someone who I want to succeed as much as I want Dr. Joseph to succeed; however, there is a concern here. In my opinion, for whatever it’s worth, having an entire team that is more loyal to Dr. Joseph than they are to Nashville presents a problem. If Dr. Joseph were to leave, or God forbid, something unforeseen were to happen, what would Metro Nashville Publics Schools be left with?
There has been an increased focus on succession plans in the business world over the last several years. I don’t believe that it is ever to early in a leader’s tenure to start thinking about succession or to be vigilant about potential gaps. And as it currently stands, having only one representative left from the previous regime would leave Nashville’s schools in a very precarious position should Joseph and company, for whatever reason, move on. It’s one lesson we should have learned from Dr. Mike Looney turning down the job last year, which is that things change, and the interests of MNPS should always be at the forefront.
To keep the football references going, I’ve been a Denver Broncos fan since 1969. There was a lot of losing in those early years, but I stuck with them through thick and thin. I was extremely excited about John Elway when he joined the team. For many people, Elway soon became the focus and face of the Broncos, but for me it was always about the Broncos first and then individual players second. I cheered Elway on because if he did well, then the team did well. But for me, the focus should always be on the team. Elway did great things, but he didn’t win a Super Bowl until the team had a strong running game and a dominant defense. It’s the same with MNPS. I am first and foremost an MNPS fan. Dr. Joseph has the potential to do great things for Nashville, but at the end of the day, it’s going to take the whole team to push the ball across the end zone.
In order to have continuity and a strong succession plan it is important to not just look for new talent but also utilize existing talent. This requires a great deal of team building. Team building and, by default, leadership have always been of interest to me. At the root of the successful execution of both is communication. Communication is a funny thing because it transpires on many levels. There is the message that you deliver directly that people receive and evaluate. When you are a new leader and building a team, people will usually receive that message, give you the benefit of the doubt, and not test the veracity too much. But then comes the indirect communication. People will watch what you do and compare it to what you say, and if the two don’t match, well then, you lose buy in.
Buy in is the essential component for success. As attractive an idea as it may be, you can’t build a successful team with completely new players. First of all, existing players are the source for institutional knowledge. An understanding of how and why an organization has gotten to its current place is essential to moving it forward. Secondly, there are always a lot of talented and dedicated people within any organization that with the right leadership could really shine. Losing or marginalizing them only hurts the team and negatively impacts other members who want to buy in. People watch what leaders do and based on those actions make inferences about intent.
Here’s an example. If a new leader says they love Nashville, they are going to be here a long time, and we are going to do great things together, then people would tend to believe them and get excited. But if, in the coming weeks, every time they turn around, one of their previous teammates has been released or demoted while a seemingly limitless stream of new people are introduced and elevated, opinions are going to start to change. The past successes and contributions of previous members would be ignored, and those people would start to feel undervalued. They couldn’t be blamed for becoming defensive. When a large portion of your team becomes defensive, it means they are not receptive, and then working as a team becomes difficult.
There is a need to evaluate people and, through observation, decide if they are qualified or not. There is also a need to get buy in as quickly as possible. My experience is that it’s much easier to evaluate people’s skill sets when they’ve bought into your vision. It also becomes clearer to everybody if change becomes necessary, as to why that change was necessary, because there is an established reference point. I would question the value of evaluating people in a hostile environment. An environment where team mates don’t feel their work, past or present, is valued only leads to people not going the extra mile, not thinking out of the box, and wasting valuable time trying to decipher what they are being evaluated on i.e. self preservation. It smells a whole lot like setting people up for failure. That’s something that should always be avoided.
Dr. Joseph has asked that the board instead of dealing with central office, work through him. I can understand that desire but I think, and I don’t think Dr. Joseph or the board would disagree, there is still a lot of trust building going on between them. Unfortunately strong relationships need to go through a little fire to be truly forged. As Dr. Joseph brings change the board needs an independent source of information in order to truly vet what it hears and evaluate it as well. It benefits Dr. Joseph to be answering board questions that are based on independent observation instead of having to decipher what is fact and what is rumor. It’s in this light that I would encourage the school board and Dr. Joseph to hire an ombudsman.
This ombudsman would serve in an observational role. They would have access to everything going on in the district. They would verify that best practices were indeed being implemented. They would record the culture of the district. They would be free to talk with principals, teachers, and even students in order to get a sense of what was actually happening in the district. Each week they would submit a report simultaneously to Dr. Joseph and the school board on their observations. If a board member wanted more detail, they could schedule a follow up with the ombudsman. This meeting would be recorded, transcribed, and made available to everyone. I would even suggest making reports available to the public.
This would give Dr. Joseph the room to implement his policies without interference from the school board. An ombudsman would give him greater insight into how his policies are being received and implemented through neutral eyes. The board would have the same and an independent set of eyes to give them a comparison to what they might be hearing. Is buy in truly taking place and if not what’s preventing it. Having an ombudsman would go a long way towards preventing rumors and innuendo from taking root. Team members would get a sense that somebody was watching out for them as well. It’s a win-win situation for everyone and clearly something that is needed in going forward. Hopefully this will be a consideration.
I’m also hoping that Dr. Joseph reconsiders his hire of Jana Carlisle, though I have little belief he will. I would tell Dr. Joseph that there are talented, dedicated educators already here in Nashville. I would urge him to find them quickly, embrace them and celebrate them. There is an old obscure Chinese Proverb – or maybe I just made it up – that says, “Tell me, I may listen. Teach me, I may remember. Involve me, I will do it.” Where ever they came from, those words need to be taken to heart.