Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Atlanta Superintendent Deeply Confused

Dr. Meria Castarphen, superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, thinks everyone is completely misunderstanding the situation.

APS has just announced the slashing of eighteen band and orchestra teachers from the elementary school system, and possibly the funding for those programs as well (the reportage on the latter is a little fuzzy).

That news spread pretty quickly, and Dr. Castarphen took to her personal blog to offer an explanation. Kind of.

Yes, eighteen positions were cut. That was just part of a district "right-sizing" (lordy, but I just live for the day that some boss announces "right-sizing" as an explanation for hiring more people). This right-sizing included cutting 368 positions, including a chunk from the central office. But cutting music?! No!! Well, maybe. Sort of. Yes.

In our cluster planning and our move to a new operating system, APS has given clusters and schools more freedom and flexibility to choose how they staff their schools in order to meet the specific needs of their students. This includes the decision about which arts and music instruction to offer students.

For example, if principal A observed high interest in band over orchestra in their elementary school, that principal could choose to enhance the band program and remove the orchestra program. If principal B saw a growing interest in visual arts, principal B could decide to invest more in visual arts, eliminating band and orchestra. If principal C was interested in enhancing band and orchestra programs, principal C could choose to increase school class sizes in order to offer a more robust fine arts program.

See, even if the school doesn't have a band program. It could be taught by, I don't know, pixies, or regular classroom teachers on their lunch hours, or traveling street musicians who were coaxed into the building. Because students can be taught to play instruments, particularly as beginners, by pretty much anybody.

Maybe students will get really interested in a band, which I suppose could happen despite the fact that they have no band or band teacher in the building to pique that interest-- maybe they'll read about bands in books or see some compelling band music on tv or those same instrument-teaching pixies will visit them in their sleep.

Also, please note that middle school and high school band and orchestra are not being cut. Nosirree. They will still be there, thriving despite the fact that students will arrive from the elementary school without any knowledge of playing in a music ensemble or playing an instrument. Because middle and high school programs don't depend on feeder programs in the elementary at all.

She tried to clarify her position in other interviews

"That doesn't mean you eliminate programming because you eliminated a positon. You can still do the programming with one person instead of two people," said Carstarphen. "We allow those teachers and those principals to still offer band and orchestra as part of their design if they are able to do it with what they have as a student population, available resources and the interest of the school."

See? They can have a music program. Just not with enough qualified teachers or resources. We aren't taking the puppy to the pound-- we just aren't going to feed it ever, and you can still keep it once it's a dog.

Oh, yeah. And she's in charge of converting Atlanta to an all-charter system. You can read their whole presentation and application for charter status here.

Reading her plaintive pleas for understanding, I could only think of one question--

Is this woman really that clueless?

It doesn't seem possible; in her blog post, she identifies herself as an oboe player. An oboe. The kind of advanced (and expensive) instrument that students generally move onto only in high school after they have mastered a more standard instrument in elementary and middle school.

I mean, there are only two possibilities here. Either she doesn't understand the implications of these cuts, or she understands and she's trying to lie and bluff her way past this.

There are limited clues. Castarphen was hired just a year ago, to replace the superintendent who replaced the superintendent who presided over the Atlanta cheating scandal. When Castarphen was hired, "embattled" turned up often as a descriptor of APS. Previously Castarphen led the Austin school system for five years, a system twice as big as Atlanta's. According to some sources, Atlanta pursued her; but her Austin contract had not been renewed and would be running out now. In 2012, district leaders "admonished" her to build better relationships with staff, parents and community. In fact, she was the only candidate the board brought forward after a process some called "opaque."

In Austin, Castarphen came under fire for a "closed leadership style" and "And that's at the heart of what the spirit of the law is about: Transparency. Are we doing the job or not?

Before Austin, Castarphen was head of St. Paul Public Schools, where critics accused her of a combative style (the word "bullying" turns up again) and over half the administrators there in 2006 when she arrived left before her departure three years later.

Castarphen's teaching routes go back to teaching middle school Spanish. Studied at Tulane, Harvard. Affiliated with ETS, Council of Great City Schools.

I don't see it. Maybe it's just not her style to say, "We are strapped for cash, and as much as I hate to cut any program off at the knees, I've decided that instrumental music is going to take a gut shot so we can try to save the district." That might have been more honest, but I suppose it would have invited debate, and Castarphen doesn't seem to be a fan. Of course, she now finds herself embroiled in a debate about whether or not musical yetis riding on unicorns will keep Atlanta's music program alive and well. She probably should just stick to a debate about reality.  

Upon arriving in Atlanta, she told staff, "You're going to work harder than you ever have before. But we'll try to make it fun, we'll try to make it exciting and we'll try to make it rewarding."


  1. "You're going to work harder than you ever have before...."

    Very telling. "You're", not "we're".

  2. "I mean, there are only two possibilities here. Either she doesn't understand the implications of these cuts, or she understands and she's trying to lie and bluff her way past this."

    Option B

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. "We allow those teachers ... to still offer band and orchestra as part of their design..."

    Well, isn't that sweet?

    They're probably not "allowed" to take a break when they need to or make any other curriculum decisions, but offer band and orchestra - including those evening concerts, natch - as much as their little hearts desire.

  5. An oboist. That would have been my first guess, based on my previous experience with an administrator who was also an oboist.

    Seriously, people like that give double reeds a bad name. :'(

    1. : ) I thought of your previous post about oboists when I read that in Peter's post.

    2. That back pressure does something to people.

  6. All those years of high-pressure, low-flow air take their toll on the brain.

    I have a suggestion, though, that will save them even more money. College and career readiness has no need for elementary math. Addition facts? You can buy a calculator for a buck at a drugstore. All of the important stuff begins at Algebra I. And since elementary math takes more resources than elementary band, why not just do away with the former? Start up math in, say, 8th grade, when they're actually developed enough to start understanding some of the more abstract principles anyway. Hell, that Mozart guy never had a formal math class in his entire life and he did just fine...

    1. Hell, that Mozart guy never had a formal math class in his entire life and he did just fine...

      Except, to paraphrase the great Tom Lehrer, by the time Mozart was my age he'd been dead 14 years! LOL

  7. In the middle school I worked in, the electives teachers were told that they needed to recruit/grow their own programs in order to keep their positions. If the French teacher wasn't engaging enough when teaching 7th grade "World Languages," fewer students would sign up for French in 8th grade, and then that teacher's position would be cut. Within a few years, there were no German or French teachers in our building. I remember talking to my 7th graders about their elective options for 8th grade. They thought that since there were no French or German teachers in the building, that those really weren't choices available at our school. Unless there were enough students to sign up for French or German to fill a class, there would be none. We share a campus with a high school, so eventually we got enough kids to sign up for one French class to get a teacher to walk across the parking lot to teach our students one period. German has not been taught here for years. This, of course, has a ripple effect because there are fewer students interested in taking French or German at the high school.

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