I: Lorain Back in the Day
I arrived in Lorain in the fall of 1979, fresh out of college and desperate for a job within 40 miles of downtown Cleveland. It was a rough start-- Lorain was the 16th interview I landed that summer, and August was ticking away. I signed a contract on Thursday. New teacher orientation happened on Friday. Monday was set to be the first teacher day, with students arriving to start the new year on Tuesday. But on Sunday, the union met and voted about 750-6 to go out on strike. The strike lasted for six weeks.
What do I remember about Lorain in 1979. A population of about 83,000 people (I had to write a report for grad school). Several auto plants. Steel plants. At least one ship-building plant. Of the 83,000 people, roughly 82,500 were blue collar workers, with a few doctors and lawyers thrown in. Lorain was a labor town; supposedly there was a city ordinance that fined anyone who crossed a picket line to scab.
|My first teaching job was right about here.|
There was a reason for that, just as there was a reason that Lorain called itself an "international" city. Virtually every possible ethnicity was represented in Lorain. Having student taught in Cleveland Heights just seven months earlier, I was exceptionally on edge about racial tensions in a school, but Lorain Schools had remarkably little of that. I attributed it to the fact that everybody's parents worked side by side in the same factories. The only students who were held as outsiders in our school were the first-generation Latin students; I had students who had to translate for their parents in parent conferences, and students who did not speak any English themselves. Lorain has few native son or daughter success stories. Toni Morrison is from Lorain, but I didn't learn that till years later.
The reason, again, was the factories. The steel and auto makers had, from time to time, gone to small towns and villages to recruit large batches of workers. Whole groups of people moved to Ohio together, settled a neighborhood together, opened up a small grocery store just like home. There were some strip malls, but most of the big shopping was nestled between Lorain and its sister city of Elyria. Lorain is nestled against the lake, and some small parks there provided a lovely view. A section of the town, set against the Black River, was just a long long complex of industrial buildings, much of it the huge US Steel facility. The mascot of Lorain High School, where I taught, was the steelmen. In many ways, Lorain was more like a large small town than a small big city.
The school district had three high schools, seven middle schools, and some huge number of elementary schools. I taught juniors and seniors. A student who was often tired because he was working two jobs to pay for the lawyer he was using in the custody battle for his child. A student who dropped out to marry a guy older than I was. A student who interrupted a class to threaten to beat me, then returned at the end of the day to talk about what was really bothering him. The night my neighbors shot each other, alarming my downstairs neighbor so badly that she had a fatal heart attack.
Then, at the end of the year, the district laid off seventy-some teachers, including me (RIFfed, we called it in those days). At the time, it was a brutal blow at the end of a long year. But it turned out to be just as well
II: Tough Days Arrive
Within a year, I was watching an evening news series about five cities being crushed by the recession. One of the segments focused on Lorain. The Eighties marked the beginning of the rust belt, and Lorain was as rusty as any
In 2016, my wife and I made a cross country trip. I'd not been back to Lorain (no reason to-- I'd made no lasting relationships in my year, mostly because I ate, slept and drank my job), even though its a mere three hours away. The rows of factories are now rubble. My half-a-house apartment is now in a row of boarded-up empty buildings. The strip mall where I bought albums, my first luxury purchase with my own teacher-pay money is empty. My old high school is a vacant lot. Lorain's population is now around 63,000, a loss of about a quarter of their population from the mid-70s.
The drop started quickly and continued relentlessly for years. The school district adjusted. The three high schools became two, then one. But the local economy was shrinking so severely that by 2013, the school district was the second-largest employer in town, behind the hospital. By the 2010s, reportedly 90% of the student population was free and reduced lunch (the standard proxy for measuring poverty).
In 2007, Ohio created a new piece of turnaround legislation. The law created an academic distress commission, appointed by the state superintendent, the president of the school board, and the mayor of the city. ADC's were responsible for coming up with a plan. They could fire and hire administrators and create a budget for the district. Lorain fell under the control of an ADC in 2013, but despite the employment of snazzy consultants, things didn't seem to be improving. Some scores had started to creep up, but then changes in the state test-- and how harshly it would be assessed-- destroyed any forward momentum the district had developed.
It was several decades of tough challenges in the community and in the schools-- and then, in 2015, that state of Ohio stepped in again to make things even worse.
III: HB 70
If you look up House Bill 70, you find a fairly innocuous-looking piece of legislation. Its short title is "Allows school district to establish community learning centers." Keep reading, however, and you discover behind that cheery face the bill actually created a stronger mechanism for the state takeover of school districts.
Ohio's old law called for an academic distress commission, appointed by the state superintendent, the president of the school board, and the mayor of the city. ADC's were responsible for coming up with a plan. They could fire and hire administrators and create a budget for the district. Under HB 70, that changed dramatically. HB 70 is a corporate reformster's dream law.
Under the new law, the ADC was required to appoint a CEO to run the district. The list of "include but not limited to" duties of the CEO runs to seventeen items, and they include:
Replacing administration and central office staff
Assigning employees to schools
Allocating teacher class loads and class sizes
Job descriptions for employees
Setting the school calendar
Setting the district budget
Setting grade "configuration"
Determining the school curriculum
Selecting instructional materials and assessments
Making reductions in staff
Establishing employee compensation
The law is nuts; it establishes the CEO as an unchecked tsar of the district with all the powers of both the superintendent and the school board. The only job requirement under the law is "high-level management experience in the public or private sector." So he could be an education amateur. But that's not all.
The ADC must also expand "high-quality" school choice options in the district. They may appoint a "high-quality school accelerator" as an independent entity to oversee the non-district schools, including getting underperforming schools up to speed, recruiting "high-quality" sponsors, attracting new "high-quality" schools to the district and increasing the overall capacity of these schools to deliver "high-quality" education. Please note the the "high-quality" quotes are not mine, but come from the state's write-up of the law. That write-up also notes that "high-quality" is not defined by the act.
And if a building in the district keeps producing low scores within two years, the CEO can convert it to a charter.
And as one more indignity-- remember that the state had changed both the Big Standardized Test and the rules governing it? HB 70 acknowledged that by granting a waiver for most school districts in Ohio. But not Lorain.
IV: Here Comes The Tsar
Only two districts were initially under the HB 70 gun-- Lorain and Youngstown (East Cleveland is now also facing takeover). Lorain was officially under the new for the fall of 2017, and the search for a CEO for the city schools was on.
Immediately, there were questions. The duly-elected, but now essentially powerless (except for one thing, and we'll come back to that later) school board demanded information about the search process, conducted by Chicago-based Atlantic Research Partners with little-to-no transparency. ARP was co-founded by Joseph Wise, after he was fired from the superintendent post in Duval County, Florida for "serious conduct" deemed "injurious" which included "not communicating or acting in good faith with board members during budget discussions.” Wise also owns Acceleration Academies.
Of the five finalists, ARP had connections to four. One of the four was connected by virtue of attending the National Superintendents Academy, another property that Wise bought up. The National Superintendents Academy was previously known as SUPES Academy-- a name you may remember from the massive scandal involving Barbara Byrd-Bennett and her federal indictment for bribery in Chicago. The twisty background is laid out here, but it underlines another aspect of the reformster world-- multiple connections and always failing upward.
The National Superintendents Academy graduate was David Hardy, Jr., and his resume is loaded with reform credentials.
Hardy grew up in West Chester PA, the son of a teacher. He studied business at Colgate, but says an internship changed his mind about that. After graduating from Colgate with a BS in Economics and a secondary concentration in education and English, Hardy headed out for-- what else-- a Teach for America gig in Miami-Dade schools teaching reading and writing to 6th and 7th graders. After two years of that, he became the Miami-Dade Madison Middle School Language Arts Chair, where he took credit for raising the school's grade from F to C. He ran a TFA summer institute, worked as a curriculum support specialist, and then went to work for Achievement First as a Dean of Students, consulted for the Children First Network, and then became the founding principal of Achievement First East New York Middle School. Then Chris Cerf tagged him to become the executive director of one of the seven Regional Achievement Centers in Camden responsible for the turnaround of thirty schools. Then chief of academic supports in Philly, then Deputy Superintendent of Academics in St. Louis Public Schools (where they have problems of their own)-- his longest time in a single job, at a whopping four years. Hardy graduated from Colgate in 2003.
Along the way he picked up a Masters degrees in education administration, plus a masters and doctorate from Columbia in urban education leadership. And he was selected as a Future Chief by Chiefs for Change. And he's connected to the Pahara Institute, which is connected to Aspen.
So how'd he do in his sprint-through of these various jobs. Well, when he turned up in New Jersey in '13, a commenter at the Jersey Jazzman blog said he was a former employee of Hardy and offered this about his time at Achievement First
As principal of the charter school, Hardy systematically coached low performing students out, denied special ed students their mandated services, spent over $40,000 on a fancy trip for his favorite, high performing students while the school was understaffed, and often tried to ensure that teachers weren't paid their full due. He loved to say "This is a not a job, it's a mission". So . . . even though he made over $150K, he tried to pay one first year teacher $25K. Despite the fact that the pay for first year teachers at this charter network is 48K.
However, he spent the vast majority of his time in his office, and refused to interact with children. He judged teachers on test scores alone, failing to take context into account. (He fired one special ed teacher because her scores didn't match those of mainstream students).
So yes, he has worked in schools. But, if anything, that only makes him more dangerous. He is very ignorant as regards to children with special needs (insisting that they simply need to "try harder"). Because he has experience in schools, he feels he is always right. He's not. He knows literally NOTHING about how children learn. Please don't be fooled by his "experience". I saw first hand how he spent his time in schools.
They got his name wrong, but here's a story about him screwing over an autistic student.
But the Fordham Institute, which is busy in Ohio, like him just fine. As I said, the corporate reformy establishment is strong with this one.
V: The Planning Plan
HB 70 requires the CEO to come up with a Plan within 90 days. Hardy stayed in St. Louis to wrap up a few things, but signed his contract with Lorain on August 8, 2017, and that date marked the beginning of his First 90 Day Master Plan-- the plan for a plan. Though the Master Plan unveiling occurred on August 10 of 2017, Hardy would arrive later. He stepped up his arrival in Lorain by a couple of weeks because he felt some sense of urgency after looking at the district, but it was still after the school year had already begun. I'm not sure who deserves the blame here, but that's just dumb. If you're going to change the entire direction of a district, would you not want to spend the summer getting your team in place, your plan ready, and your people trained and prepped so that you could hit the ground running when school opened. But in Lorain, the district would not just be building the plane while flying it-- the plane had already taken off and they'd be chasing it with a blimp so they could drop off the guy who would start shouting instructions for dismantling the plane and rebuilding it in transit.
Like all of HB 70, it smells like the corporate Visionary CEO model of reform (a first cousin of the Gifted Young Genius model of TFA). The idea is that the people who work in education are mostly bozos, and you just need a genius with a vision and the unrestricted power to implement it.
What vision did young wunderkind Hardy bring? His previous jobs were not much of a clue; most of his press in those places was the usual vague platitudes about high expectations and doing it all For The Kids. And being "more efficient with funds."
The 90 Day Plan is also a festival of corporate-speak. It open s with a letter from Hardy in which he tells his story, and talks about his positive, will do attitude.
I have never allowed “good” or “enough” to be in the same sentence. Let alone “impossible.”
Also, in Lorain his job will be "to enable greatness."
Hardy lists his core beliefs, which are "None of us are as strong as all of us," "a healthy disregard for the impossible," and "failing to plan is planning to fail." You begin to get a picture of this guy. The plan itself focuses on six components:
1) Learning. What are the instructional priorities? The concern here is that test scores are low. The goal: Create an instructional approach that empowers students to innovate, teachers to facilitate, leaders to support, and the district to coach schools to higher expectations for student outcomes. Expect your way to higher test scores.
2) Understanding leadership. The subtext here is that Hardy sees leadership problems in the district. But he's going to create a system of excellent schools with a performance management system that holds school leaders accountable for "outcomes" aka "test scores."
3) Understanding performance and growth. Test scores show too little growth. The plan here is to develop a "talent strategy" to "hire, develop, evaluate and retain" who "meet the demands" aka "get better test scores."
4) Equity. The "proficiency gap" is large in Lorain, particularly for students with disabilities. So, make equity a priority and close the "opportunity gap," a term that Arne Duncan made up for talking about education for poor and minority students. Hardy's plan includes an item to "maximize philanthropic dollars" to help implement the "equity agenda." There's also "unpacking data" and other data crunching as if looking at test scores real hard will help fix equity issues.
5) Community. This is basically about getting a community council to nod vigorously and offer support and cover for an agenda aimed at an "outcomes driven" approach, aka "raising test scores."
6) Organizational culture. Hardy asks "How do we build a championship team?" Hardy went to college on an athletic scholarship, and he seems to be a fan of sports metaphors. Here he's talking about building a level of trust in the district (spoiler alert: this does not seem to be going well) and coming up with an "ongoing measure of organizational health and well being."
There are several things that jump out at me here. One is the tremendous focus on test scores. On the one hand, it's understandable because test scores are what got Lorain into this pickle in the first place. On the other hand, Hardy seems to have no sense of how a focus on test scores is brutalizing for a district. For one thing, it leaves a whole lot of teachers who don't teach tested subjects twiddling their thumbs like second class citizens.For another, it tells a whole bunch of teachers, "I know you went into teaching with a whole lot of big ideas about helping students and engaging young minds and opening growing intellects and all that fun stuff, but I'm here to tell you that your job is to raise scores on a Big Standardized Test. That's it." This does not get people excited.
There's also a disregard for what is actually going on in Lorain. As I've suggested in the history above, Lorain is a city and school system that has taken a forty-year beating. It's a city and system in need of healing more than it needs a swift kick in the ass. The plan feels a bit like sitting down with a woman who's been systematically abused by her husband for twenty years and opening with, "We really need to get you some new shoes. Those are ugly and impractical. Also, let's work on your posture. You'll never get a job sitting like that." You may not be wrong, exactly, but you're kind of missing the big issues.
Defenders of Hardy and the plan are going to accuse me of cherry picking and say that there are plenty of other things in the plan, or that this was just the plan for developing the plan, and that is correct. But here's the thing.
The plan, like much of Hardy's language over the years, is strikingly vague and unconnected to any specific realities (except for the parts about himself). I know I'm usually pretty careful about precise language, but Hardy's plan is striking for this particular style of omission. There's a disconnect here, the kind that usually means one of a couple of things. It can mean "I have some big concepts in my head, but no practical idea of how to make them work." It can mean "I am going to make the kind of word sounds that I know are correct, but I'll be acting a completely different way." It can mean "Prepare for a gaslighting of epic proportions." It means either "I have no idea what I'm going to do" or "I know what I'm going to do but I'm not going to be straight with you about what that actually is."
Because if you knew how to fill in those blanks, you would. If you were going to improve staff morale by taking specific sure-to-help actions, you would say so, because you would know that specific promises are the first step in improving relationships. You build trust by giving your word about concrete actions and then keeping your word. Before you put your money where your mouth is, you have to put your mouth some actual where.
If I had been sitting in a Lorain classroom in 2017, reading this plan, my thought would have been "Shit, we're in for it now."
Part of the plan included town meetings. One newspaper account offers more of the same. Parent and community concerns are very specific. What about streetcorner culture's influence on violence in the schools. Will the district hire more black teachers who can better relate to black students? Can school personnel be more responsive to parents? Hardy's responses as reported are... not very responsive. He told a story about how some school staffs in St. Louis were not very responsive to parents.
Here's an exchange with one parent concerned about teachers who don't get it:
Students often survive a home life of no breakfast or lunch, watching younger brothers and sisters all night for a mother who never came home, and then being berated by a teacher for falling asleep in class, he said.
“I want to be careful about answering this question: How we understand our young people,” Hardy said. “There are ways we can help our teachers understand our young people.”
And at one point he offered this:
“Commercials are extremely powerful,” Hardy said. “Think about how long we’re with the kids as educators, and how long they’re out of the classroom. I’m not going to give you all of the bullet points of what that commercial message is now. But what is going to make them excited about coming to school every day?”
VI: The Lorain Promise
The result of the 90 day Master Plan was a shiny new strategic plan called the Lorain Promise. The rough draft was released in October of 2017, and by February, Hardy was presenting a five-step plan for construction on the plane.
The promise is laid out over eighty-plus slick, glossy pages. And yes, I've read it so you don't have to.
The Promise (Redreaming "Possible" in the Lorain City Schools) essentially follows the same structure and outline as the 90-day plan, in a way that suggests that the listening sessions, the meetings, the surveys, the focus groups, were more about PR than about actually figuring out a plan. From out here in the cheap seats, it looks as if David Hardy already knew pretty much exactly what he intended to do from the moment he set foot in Lorain. And much of what he wanted to do was straight from the reformster playbook.
There's some preliminary touting of the pre-work and opening with another personal message from Hardy. There's a page in of "what we heard" that renders some very specific public comments into corporate vagueries and ignores others; people, for instance, were pretty clear about their concern about violence in schools, but that concern isn't one that the planner "heard." Then the Promise states the problems that it wants to solve-- families engaged too late, opportunities too unequal, studen--excuse me-- scholars who don't go to college or succeed there, teachers who feel unsupported.
And no strategic plan is complete without a vision and core values. The vision statement is too long and too vague, and the six core values are an interesting mix-- scholars first, one for all, experience joy, expect excellence, collaborate with integrity, take pride.
After all of this throat clearing, the Promise gets down to five action areas-- "commitments."
1) Support the whole child beginning at birth. The "strategy" here includes creating school and community partnerships to support "scholars" from birth. "Congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Smith-- it's a 7 lb 6 oz scholar!" I'd always thought calling human children "scholars" was just a piece of marketing, but the Promise has me questioning just how dehumanizing it is to slap this label on a human children. This item also has the strategy of providing scholars with what they need to be healthy and present.
Finally, to get rid of barriers and build bridges between the school district and families, which certainly seems necessary if the district is going to showing up on Day One to "help" parents raise their children. The fuller explanation is a little vague-- more meetings at convenient times, solicit feedback, be more welcoming. As will be the case in many, many strategies in the Promise, much space is devoted to "here's why this is important" and not so much to "here is exactly the strategy we will implement." This is a reformy staple-- really hammer home the problem rather than explain why your solution will work.
2) Invest in our early scholars. Yes, this scholar thing is never going to let up. I think what bugs me most about it is that it reduces the whole human child to a single function-- learning stuff. In fairness, the copy also includes reference to "children" and the desire they be loved and supported.
The goals here include a third grade promise-- every child literate and numerate by third grade. Access to "high-quality" pre-K. And we're going to get them all "character skills" as well. So the Promise includes SEL, too. How will this feat be accomplished? The strategy is to work with teachers to make sure students have these skills. That's it. That's the plan.
3) Promote equity. Ah, the achievement gap. The Promise lays out the challenge here. All scholars will raise achievement, and the gap will close. That means the students who are "behind" will raise their achievement more than the students on the topside of the gap. Will they get better instruction? Will top-of-gap students be kept slower?
Strategies include closing the opportunity gap, which is somehow connected to high absenteeism in the district. When students feel supported, they'll show up. There will be internships and mentors and field trips. There will be culturally sensitive leadership and training. The Promise doesn't use the r word, but racism within the teaching corps seems implied.
Finally, restorative justice and positive school culture. Because Hardy acknowledges that discipline is an issue.
Oddly enough, there really isn't anything about academics under this commitment.
4) Create schools where adults and students thrive. LCS teachers do not feel supported, nor do they think professional development is any use (in fairness, this result does not seem specific to Lorain). So, we're going to define a vision for education excellence (many teachers don't think the district has one). The closest the Promise gets to articulating a vision here is to say they're going to analyze whether money spent on programs and instructional support is "resulting in better education." If not, get out the scissors.
Career ladders. Opportunities for leadership. Coaching. Recognizing teachers who get results. And we'll involve scholars in decisions about the school.
5) Prepare scholars for the world of tomorrow. There's an awful lot of fluff packed around this simple and familiar idea-- do extra work to get those math and ELA scores up. Throw in some vocational path touches and concern about getting more grads into and through college. Raise graduation requirements. It's a pretty pedestrian set of strategies, but the Promise dresses it up.
Is it a strategic plan? Not really, but then, strategic plans exist to satisfy bureaucrats and collect dust. So that's not necessarily an issue.
The Promise is a cornucopia of reformy ideas, floating on a fluffy cloud of dreams and unicorn farts. It also signals an intention for a tight partnership with the city; Hardy is not just aiming to be a school Tsar, but a co-mayor of the city and a major civic player. As we'll see, this is going to be doubly problematic-- first, because it's a ballsy move to declare yourself a big civic wheel, and second, because Hardy doesn't really intend to deliver on his ballsy declaration.
From the Lorain City Schools Website:
“The International City” is the home of the Lorain City Titans. We are a district that will disrupt the status quo for 6,700 scholars across 15 campuses in Northeast Ohio, just outside of Cleveland. To do so, we will transform the way that we look at educating our scholars, performing as leaders, and inspiring as people, all while having fun doing it. Lorain City Schools is one of two districts in the state of Ohio who have been granted the authority to redream what is possible for our young people with the passing of House Bill 70. This house bill empowers the CEO to improve district practices and operate with a level of urgency and purpose that is unique to traditional public school systems across the country. The district’s academic improvement plan, The Lorain Promise, outlines the ambitious yet obtainable outlook for Lorain City Schools with bold statements about how we will operate as a district and a community. This innovative new direction for Titans, will not only change the way we look at public school education, but seeks to set the new standard for what is possible when we put our scholars first.
It's like a big fluffy ed reform word salad.
VII: The Big Disconnection
Here's a thing I know-- a lot of people in Lorain are unhappy with how things are going. They have a whole facebook group, and I've got emails from them and, as we'll see, they aren't just fringy cranks.
Now at this point in the story, I could get into the whole list of complaints, many of which seem rather minor on their face. But underlying and connecting them are some larger issues which, again, seem rather emblematic of corporate reformy approaches.
It's not simply the hubris involved in this mega-turnaround approach to schools, this half-baked buckeye notion that one guy can come swooping into town and singlehandedly commandeer a school district, transforming it into a district of awesomeness. Add extra hubris if you think that magical guy can be someone with barely any school or classroom experience.
No, that's bad enough. But in this case, there is a really weird disconnect between Hardy's touchy-feely message of collaboratey teamwork and how he actually has conducted himself in Lorain.
One might have expected him to live in the smaller part of Lorain that's east of the Black River, where most of the nicer homes were located. But Hardy didn't settle in Lorain at all.
He told parents that he lived in Avon, town just up the road from Lorain, but in August of 2018, he bought a home in Lakewood, a town just outside of Cleveland, and so about a half hour away from Lorain. The topic came up at more than one town hall meeting.
Thursday afternoon, when questioned on why he said he lived in Avon, despite the Lakewood purchase, he said he was happy to answer questions on students, but not those based on his personal life.
“So when I come to school every single day, I focus on the academic outcomes of kids,” he said.
“And that’s all I need to talk about, I don’t have to answer to adults about where I live. That’s very personal. So the job that I do is about kids. If there’s questions about that, we can talk about that.”
The next time the topic came up, he acknowledged that he expected it. And this is what he had for that forum:
“So in that sacrifice, I have a CEO at my home, which happens to be my wife and — exactly — happy wife, happy life,” he said. “And I like happy lives. And so at this point, I am cognizant that it is not about me, when I go home I am dad, when I go home, I am husband. And I want to go home to a place where people feel comfortable being where they are.”
He went on to say his decision to live outside of Lorain and not send his children to Lorain schools — his oldest son is of preschool age — is in part for their protection.
“They have no idea what daddy deals with every day,” he said. “And I would hate for them, even directly or indirectly, to have to see and/or feel any of that. So for the safety of my kids, and the well-being of my family, I want to make sure that they feel comfortable, and therefore that is why I unfortunately cannot live in the city of Lorain.”
I had a friend who took management classes who said they were told to live at least fifty miles away from the facility they managed, that living with the people who worked there would interfere with cool, clear managerial judgment. But there's a terrific disconnect in Hardy's managerial style. On the one hand, he wrote in an op-ed "I write today as a leader in the community and to the community I love." On the other hand-- he doesn't live there, and he doesn't think it's safe for his family to live there.
On the one hand, his plan is loaded with community building and community partnerships. But on the other hand, Hardy has had troubled relationships with many of the parties during his time. The school board was an early opponent-- not entirely a surprise given that HB 70 stripped them of all powers but one-- and they passed a unanimous resolution of "no confidence in March, saying that Hardy "has irresponsibly spent taxpayer money on administration and out of state firms and has made zero investment in the classroom." They have also complained about the lack of communication, information and cooperation. The board invited Hardy to meetings, but he declined, indicating that he doesn't have to attend board meetings because he doesn't answer to them. By November the board president was asking the state to investigate, listing fourteen separate bones of contention.
Things have only gotten worse. At the end of January, the school board asked Mayor Chase Ritenauer to call a meeting between Hardy, the board and the Academic Distress Commission. Ritenaur sent out a letter scheduling the meeting for February 26, and within four hours, Hardy had refused the invitation.
“With respectful understanding that Mayor Chase Ritenauer has submitted a request to bring all parties together, I am thankful for his leadership in doing so,” he wrote in a statement released through the district’s communications team. “But as Chief Executive Officer of the district, I am confident that the communication between myself and School Board President Mark Ballard has become the strongest and most consistent communication — between myself and any sitting board member — that has occurred during my tenure. It is with that confidence I believe we can, and will continue to, move this district forward.”
The mayor was apparently unimpressed by the non-response response.
“I didn’t ask about David’s relationship with Mark,” Ritenauer said after Hardy’s letter. “I asked for a meeting of all parties after School Board approval.”
On his Facebook page, Ballard himself seems puzzled:
I must admit that I am confused by Mr. Hardy’s February 13th letter to the Titan Community. In the first paragraph, he states that “with renewed hope and determination [he], CEO David Hardy Jr., [is] committed to working together with the Lorain City School Board of Education...” However, I interpret his second paragraph to state that he will only do that by having individual conversations with me and excluding the other elected members of the Board of Education. In addition, he will continue to refuse Mayor Ritenauer’s proposal to meet with him and all of the members of the ADC and Board of Education to work collectively on meeting the needs of our students.
My confusion lies in the fact that I have been very clear with him that I am only one member of the board of education and as such, I cannot and will not speak with him on their behalf. I have also been very clear on the fact that as a board of education and a community, we are unified with the Mayor in our approach to serve the children and families of Lorain.
You can catch some of the tension in this town meeting. Hardy is "looking forward" to a lot of conversations. Again, I'm struck by how the crowd is asking about nuts and bolts and Hardy responds with big fluffy conceptual stuff. This very brief video shows you two things-- one is Hardy scooting out of the meeting by ignoring that folks making one last attempt to ask him questions, and the other is the degree to which people are on edge, enough to label this relatively tame departure as further proof of his aloofness.
How messy have things gotten? After the meeting fell apart, the Lorain city council passed a resolution asking the CEO and the Board of Education to stop their public bickering.
There's more to this bad relationship with the board than just the notion that it would be nice if everyone could just get along. The elected school board still has one remaining power-- they are the group that has the power to levy a tax. Without their cooperation, Hardy gets $0.00 in new money (which may be why he made a point of announcing that his newest action plan can be achieved with no increase in spending). You would think the purse-string issues alone would motivate Hardy to get to a board meeting and make nice. But that hasn't happened.
|Hardy delivers State of the School speech|
In a separate interview with the 74, Hardy is unable to explain how he achieved success in St. Louis (literally "I wish I could put my finger on it"), but he offers an unusual view of how relationships are built:
Granted, I think we still could do more in St. Louis with accountability, but I honestly think there’s this balance between truth and honesty, and making sure you have relationships to guide that truth and honesty. I lean more on that truth and honesty, and all the relationships will [be built] after you win. Like any great team, winning makes everything a little bit easier.
I think that’s what I’ll bring to Lorain, is just an attitude of, “We’re going to do what’s best by kids first. We’re going to follow what the numbers say we need to do, and we’re gonna do it well and have some fun while we do it.”
Teach for America profiled Hardy and the town (and some other TFAers that he brought there). The article shows some sensitivity to the "rust belt town," but it's also heavy on the "teachers here just suck" narrative (in one more reformy move, Hardy brought in TNTP to evaluate the curriculum, work that I'm not convinced they have any business doing, but it gives Hardy just a few degrees of separation from She Who Will Not Be Named, disastrous former chancellor of DC schools).
The line that runs through all of this is a disconnect between what Hardy wants to envision and what he's actually doing. He wants to be the kind of important leader who can blow off a meeting with the mayor and other leaders, but he wants to live in another town and keep his own life separate from his work life. During the town meeting, he responds to a question about his possible departure (a reasonable concern, given his resume) and he asserts that Lorain is absolutely where he wants to be-- and yet he doesn't really seem to be there in any sense of the word. He uses language that acknowledges the importance of building relationships, but he hasn't built many. And if he's banking on those relationships just happening once the winning starts-- well, that seems backwards, and it's not going well.
There are a lot of complaints about him, and we'll get there, but I suspect that many of them would be unimportant if the city had taken him into its heart and he had really embraced the place as his own new home. But his overall impression is of a guy who's just passing through to fix this mess that You People made of things. And when you start from that place, every little misstep becomes a reason for someone to get out the tar and feathers. Every decision is one more paper cut.
VII: A Thousand Paper Cuts
I'll remind you that at this point, Lorain city schools have been through a ton of changes. In a generation, much of their institutional and city history has been bulldozed and abandoned. The kinds of things that many people in many towns take for granted ("Children, I can't wait till you are walking through the same high school halls that your mother and I graduated from") are no longer possible in Lorain. The job prospects are no longer there. They drive past the hollowed out remains of better times every day. The pride of a city where people from all ethnicities work side by side in the factories of the International City-- that's pretty beat up. It is reasonable to expect that the people of this city may have a few collective raw nerves when it comes to changing things around.
But then, some changes were simply handled poorly.
In the fall of 2018, the district changed from a traditional letter grading system to standards-based grading. This change was implemented halfway through the first grading period, and that involved scrubbing all previous grades from the digital gradebook (Power School or Power Teacher). This left some teachers with no record of the grades they had given so far. And on top of that, the district wasn't actually ready to move ahead with the standards based grading as an internal email suggested that the district was having trouble getting the online grading system to accept and operate with the standards-based grading system.
Standards based grading is, at first glance, a meaningless change. Students are scored with a 1-5 or a 1-3, so instead of A, B, C, D, or E, the student receives a 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5. The district's explanation is cursory, and doesn't really capture the extent to which standards-based grading represents a shift toward competency based learning. Standards based grading is about giving a student a separate rating for every single standard; the idea is to create a more detailed map of the student's progress. It also has the effect of nullifying factors like homework completion and other scores not directly related to the standards themselves. The set of standards adopted by a district are hugely important here (and if you're not an ELA, math or science teacher, you don't have a handy set already created for you).
We could spend a whole day here talking about standards-based grading and whether it's a good idea or not (I think not), but the bottom line is that it represents a major shift in how teachers approach their work. It is not just a new way to record grades. It is mind-boggling that the district tried to launch this after the year had begun rather than, say, starting major training for staff over the summer before the year began, coupled with major communication with families so that they could be prepared and make sense of the new system. But teachers expected a week of training before school started, and they didn't get it. Instead, they got about an hour's worth of training on September 11 (after students started on August 22).
The selection of turnaround principals has been contentious, with some chosen without even having the correct certification. [I am chagrinned to discover that I somehow dropped several paragraphs here. The short form is that Hardy chose several TFA hires as well as some folks who didn't have proper certification for their jobs.]
Communication has been an issue. Most of my emails from Lorain complain about a lack of communication with staff and parents. An attempt by a new ADC member to get certain documentation and data from the CEO has turned spectacularly ugly, with charges of insubordination and hatred and negativity flying back and forth. The chair of the ADC has resigned.
There have been minor flaps. A uniform policy was changed, and then changed again-- the second time after hearing parent and student reactions to the first change. And the location of commencement has been changed Wolstein Center in Cleveland, which has ruffled plenty of feathers. Hardy's explanation is that it's an issue of capacity, but it's hard to believe that the district needs to go all the way to Cleveland to find the space they need. And fights-- lots of student fights.
Hovering over all this-- at the beginning of their second year under state control, the district learned that their first year under state control had actually taken them further away from the success the state mandated. And people are worried about the future of the district.
VIII: One Scary Item
The threat of charterization is part and parcel of HB 70. And if you're a teacher in Lorain, here is a pair of budgetary line items that is not very encouraging:
From the budget projection submitted in December of 2018:
Personnel costs cut by more than half, while purchased services rise steadily.
IX: And It Just Keeps Getting Worse
This week at Monday's board meeting, the head of the teachers' union shared a survey of the teaching staff; 98% of those who responded said they had no confidence in Hardy's leadership.
Hearing that, a leader might think, "Damn. I had better do some outreach and build some bridges with my people." That is not what Hardy did.
At Thursday night's town hall, Hardy announced that all high school teachers will have to reapply for their jobs. This is part of a larger plan that involves giving schools within the district a ranking based on their performance, with lowest ranking schools subject to Extra Special Treatment which, in reformster style, does not seem to mean support so much as extra "disruption." The reapplication piece caught teachers flatfooted, as Hardy did not choose to speak to staff about any of these changed before announcing them publicly. Nor has he explained the metric used in designating the high school an "empowerment school." It's a huge act of stunning disrespect.
As for the high school teachers, those with tenure will supposedly be reassigned to other schools in the district. How exactly that will work for teachers whose certification does not qualify them for posts outside of the high school is not clear, but as we've seen, details are not David Hardy's strong suit.
There will be a school transformation task force.
Union president Jay Pickering summed up the general tone of Hardy's town hall meetings:
“Every town hall, somebody leaves thinking they’re threatened,” Pickering said. “Whether it be a parent or students or teachers or administrators, it’s just sad that anybody would think this is a way to lead a large group of people.”
It's not entirely clear if this move is even legal. Oh-- and this is the last year of the current teacher contract. How much fun are negotiations going to be?
X: Wrapping Up and HB 70
I didn't set out to do a hatchet job on David Hardy and his administration, and it would be wrong to ignore the fact that he does have some support in the city. Some residents see the opposition to Hardy as racist, and at least one school board member has said that upon reflection, she supports the embattled CEO. It's a contentious mess. When the state took over, some folks were pushed out of positions of power, and it's reasonable to assume that they would not have been impressed if Jesus Christ Himself had taken over the district.
Certain phrases keep coming up in connection with Hardy, like "in over his head." He can talk a good game (watch this interview from his St. Louis days), but if leading in a city system like Lorain requires relationship-building, Hardy is coming up short. The latest bombshell is not only a slap in the face to staff, but was handled about as poorly as it possibly could have been.
But it's important to ask if HB 70 set David Hardy up for failure.
It's a bad law. It was slipped past the legislature as an amendment in a late-night smoke-filled room arrangement that guaranteed that it would not be publicly discussed. And it is most certainly a full-on assault on public education in the state.
Youngstown, Lorain and now East Cleveland have one thing in common-- they are among the poorest school districts in the state. As such, it's unsurprising that they would have low scores on the Big Standardized Test and therefor low grades for their schools. HB 70 targeted poor communities, and it didn't target them for help. It targeted them to be taken over, dismantled, and handed off to charter operators. The Lorain I knew has taken such a beating over the years, and HB 70 is the legislative equivalent of taking a beaten puppy and saying, "Look, dammit-- fetch now or I am going to give your food to a prettier dog."
Lorain needs help and healing. It does not need to have its teachers beaten down, its parents kept in the dark, its community held at arms length, its elected officials stripped of power. There is no special mystery to why Lorain's schools are struggling, but HB 70 doesn't address any of the root issues of a struggling local economy and a loss of resources. It is a law that punishes poverty rather than trying to ameliorate it.
I am trying to imagine what kind of high-quality leadership would make it possible to sell, "Hi! I'm from the state and I've been appointed to strip you of local power and chop your community schools up for someone else's investment opportunity. Also, all the bad things that are happening are your fault, because your town sucks." No, David Hardy isn't very good at his job-- but who could be good at the job that HB 70 has created? How do you lead well when HB 70 is fundamentally a punishing act of disrespect toward a local district?
HB 70 sets a district up for every bad corporate reform idea in the book. Test Scores! Visionary CEO! Transformation! Disruption! Spank teachers! Test scores! Strip local control! Expectations! Test Scores! Kids first (but not really)! A smart person with marketworld skills from outside will be so much better than career educators! The state knows more about fixing schools than anyone! Also, test scores!
When gubernatorial candidate Dennis Kucinich visited Lorain last year, he suggested suing the state over HB 70, but that process is already under way. Youngstown has been leading the charge, and Lorain parents have gotten involved-- at least on the petition level. The law was challenged in court almost immediately, initially decided in favor of the state, and worked up to the state supreme court which agreed to hear it last October. It also creates some unique issues-- Youngstown's school CEO would not allow the Youngstown board to spend money on the appeal. Lorain teachers filed a "friend of the court" brief as a party directly affected by the outcome, and several districts ands the Ohio School Boards Association have joined the suit.
Meanwhile, new Ohio governor Mike DeWine is sympathetic to some of the issues involved:
“One of the concerns, one of the things that we have seen in Youngstown, Lorain, is the obvious loss of local control, and we’re seeing some of the dynamics that result from the loss of local control. We are a very local government state,” DeWine said. “We like it that way, most of us do. Most of us think that problems get solved locally, so I’ve got some people working on this and we are working with some legislators on this, actually, but I really can’t go into any more details at this point.”
So there is at least some small bit of hope for Lorain and Youngstown and East Cleveland and every other poor Ohio community that was going to fall under HB 70 sooner or later. But if HB 70 ever goes away, those communities will still be facing all the problems they were facing before the state stepped in to help plus all the wreckage left by HB 70. The future is not going to be all rainbows and unicorns any time soon.
And the bitter irony in all of this is that, by many accounts, Lorain was climbing when the state stepped in. We'll never know how they would have done if the state had just left them alone.
I came to really like Lorain in my brief time there. If things had worked out differently, I would have been glad to stay in that big little town. It deserved better than to be used and discarded by industry; its solid blue collar citizens deserved better as well. And they deserve better treatment by the state than to be thrown under a reform-driven bus that gives them exactly all the wrong things, everything but the support, assistance and resources that they need. This is corporate ed reform at its worst, disenfranchising citizens, trashing communities, and not even coming close to delivering what it promised as an excuse for the power grab.
I've kept up with Lorain, watching them in the news over the years ever since I left town right ahead of the industrial collapse. I'll keep watching the news, hoping for good news from that beautiful little big city on the lake.
And here's the next chapter--
Much of this post rested on reporting by the Chronicle, which has covered Lorain schools like a boss.