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Rudy Crew Q&A

This Q&A was originally published on Aug. 26, 2007

RUDY CREW 'LET'S BE HONEST HERE'

Introduction: Rudy Crew, the superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, reflects on the value of learning, the politics of education and what he says about both in his book, Only Connect: The Way to Save Our Schools. Here are some edited excerpts of a conversation with Miami Herald staff writer Tania deLuzuriaga:

By Tania deLuzuriaga tdeluzuriaga@ MiamiHerald.com

Q: You've been in education for a long time. What made you decide that now was the time for a book?

A: I think because I see the work in Miami as being deeper than I think I've been able to get in almost any other place. And it really does represent, potentially, the last superintendence that I will have. So, it's a way of being able to talk to the people coming in the door behind me. Q: So this is sort of your legacy, in a way?

A: No, I don't think of it as my legacy. I just think it's important to try to document what people have been through and what they know. I think the book really represents a way of trying to create a deeper dialogue within the American society about the value of learning.

Q: You open with some pretty bleak statistics in your book that stand in contrast to what we hear about every year when the FCAT comes out. How did we get where we are? A: In some ways, we've been focusing on individual trees rather than the actual existence of the whole forest. We haven't connected, hence the title. We haven't connected value of assessment to the need for higher level and more rigorous instruction. We haven't really examined this question of where do our kids stand in relation to the kids in the rest of the world.

It's not intended to be a nay-saying, bleak book, but it is intended to say, "Let's be honest here." Let's take no comfort in the fact that my kids are doing better than the kids in Kentucky when in fact children in other parts of the world, in, frankly, countries less developed than the United States, are doing far better.

Q: How do you reconcile what you see in the news every year -- about how college admissions are at record numbers, kids doing crazy things to get into college, FCAT scores are improving, kids are reaching new standards every day -- with what you see in your own school system and the statistics you present in your book?

A: It's a little bit like Dickens. It's the best of times and it's the worst of times. I think we have both going on. I think we have greater numbers of kids doing extraordinary work. I also think you have an enormous problem with kids dropping out of school. I think that it is America's problem to then try to create a public education system where the degree of variability is greatly reduced. To me, this variability is the problem. This is beginning to be an economic issue and an economic challenge. And to the degree it goes unanswered, I think you're going to have some real, real devilish problems in the economy.

Q: It's interesting you say that this is America's problem. I think every parent wants the best education for his or her child. How do you broaden the picture into making people think that it's not just about what your kid needs and wants, it's about the greater good?

A: I think you're right. I think parents do see schooling as local, and they want the very best for their children. But I think more and more, as America is going through its own demographic shifts, I think you're finding it isn't a problem that is "over there" -- it really affects everyone. Yes, it is about your child on a day-by-day basis, but your child is one of many, many, many thousands and millions of children that are connected to a public education system. Q: You say in your book that schools are starved for purpose, yet it seems like lawmakers and parents are giving schools more roles than ever. How do you explain that?

A: That they have largely become, sort of, balkanized. They have become the victims of bureaucracies and as a result their purpose is to serve the bureaucracy. Gone is the purpose that was deeply connected to the neighborhood, deeply connected to the local economy. I think American public schools are starved for purpose. We get confused, we get conflicted. Should we have some slavish devotion to the economy? Is there some greater good to which public schools should aspire?

Q: That said, it seems like accountability measures are here to stay. What effect does that have on your vision for what a school system should be and what those in charge say it has to be?

A: I don't think these things are mutually exclusive. I don't think we ought to walk away from the accountability era and say, "Boy, we're glad we're done with that." In fact, I think we ought to say we learned a lot about how best to assess student learning. On the other hand, there is a need for us to have higher standards, assess kids and make it rich, inviting and rigorous. Q: People here made a huge deal out of the increase in "F" schools in Miami-Dade. On the day that school grades came out, you told me something about how people need to look at schools as a whole, not just on one accountability measure. What other things should parents be looking at when asking, "Is my school serving my child?"

A: You know, you got to think about this as you would an orchestra. There are some instruments, when played alone, will sound very loud. In public education, test scores are playing almost a solo unto themselves.

Here in Florida, specifically with the advance of the science FCAT requirement, you're going to hear what I think is actually true around the nation -- which is, our kids basically don't do as well in science. So now we're going to play that note pretty loudly. We can point the finger at where the problems are, and ultimately we can fix them. Which I think, actually, is the purpose of assessment -- to identify weaknesses in student learning. I absolutely, in that case, support that you should be out there saying these things aren't where they should be. Science results are not what they should be.

On the other hand, there are other parts of the orchestra. If I was a parent, I want to know what else is happening in that school that would give me reason for concern or comfort. How is my child treated? Is any one asking him or her for a measure of other skills that I think are important for his or her ability to be a learned person? Do they have the arts? Are they given a chance to project themselves out into the larger world? I think there are quality indicators that a parent could and should be asking about.

Q: Two things that came across in your book that I think have been the cornerstones to your success in Miami-Dade are the Zone and the Parent Academy -- focusing on the areas that need help the most and engaging parents. [The School Improvement Zone is a conglomeration of Miami-Dade's lowest performing schools. Students who attend these schools get intensive academics and have a longer day and longer school year.] With the Zone entering its last year, how do you ensure continued success in those schools? What happens next for those schools?

A: There's an interesting balance between when is intervention enough, enough to be able to get it up and running On the one hand, building it enough is part of the balance. The other part of it is, reform can't be understood to be a proxy for [a school's] own ability to sustain change. People have to do this; this is what it means to be an educator. Having built new infrastructure, the other part of the balance is the system has to sustain that. I don't mean sustain it financially or structurally, but you have to sustain the effort. And I don't think the effort will always cost more money, but the initial effort will. These schools all had to press the refresh button, and that's what we did in the first couple years of the Zone. We came in and said, we're going to put you on a different structure, you're going to have a longer day, a longer year, you're going to have professional development, you're going to have after-school tutorials. Now, having gone through the rigors of that, three years later, you're on your own. There is no rightful claim to being a low-performing school; you have to continue to work.

Q: The Parent Academy is another point of pride for you; you've had thousands of parents go through it. [This is a year-round initiative designed to help parents become full partners in their children's education: Parents can enroll in classes in effective discipline or nutrition, for example.]

Yet, when I think you talk to teachers, there's still a feeling of not knowing how to engage parents, how to get them to respond. And parents e-mail me and say, "I can't get into my child's school." How do you balance the two?

A: I think parents are right when they say it's really hard to get in. Part of that is a human issue; there are a lot of principals who say, I don't want any more parents here. But generally speaking, it is a time issue for parents and an openness issue for schools. The Parent Academy was neutral territory where openness was the rule of the day.

On the other hand, the Parent Academy was really aimed at simply saying: You have to demand things. You have to know what you want. You can't go into a public school any differently than you can go into a Publix supermarket. If you don't know what you want, than pretty much any old thing will come your way, and you may end up walking out of the supermarket with things that you really had no notion of ever wanting or needing but just sort of landed in your basket. This is about trying to flip the switch from parents just being consumers to a picture of people being very pithy, very precise about what they see, what they want, what they expect. I think American education would be better served, frankly, if we had higher demand.

When I go to public schools and find that teachers don't even put their children in public schools, principals don't put their children in public schools, the most affluent, influential people in public school environments don't put their kids in public schools, sometimes school board members don't put their kids in public schools -- when I look at that, I think, well, you just shot a hole in the brand.

Q: I wanted to ask you about that. I know that partnerships are a vital part of what you do. And it seems like in Miami-Dade, a lot of the most influential people do not send their kids to public schools. How do you create buy-in and true partnerships when the people you're partnering with don't seem to believe in the system?

A: It's a hard thing here. It's a very hard thing here. There are lots of lawmakers who have gone on record and said some very negative things about public education. The issue for me is that you have to do it in spite of that; it's never been said that this was going to be easy. Which is why it puts an emphasis on pace. You have to do it quickly because the naysayers have more people on the field than you do.

Q: In your book, you talk about four qualities that kids need -- academic proficiency, personal integrity, workplace literacy and civic awareness. What have you done here in Miami-Dade to ensure that children are exposed to those four qualities?

A: We're just starting on it. We've had to really just deal with the issues of academic proficiencies first. But when you get outside the beltway of FCAT, you ask yourself: To what end? Is it OK to have schools where kids graduate thinking it's OK to cheat? Is it OK to have kids who have never completed a project? Do a partial body of work and call it a day? My answer to that is no. We've dumbed down education in some ways, and I'm bothered by that.

Q: What happens to the kids for whom today is reality -- the ones who graduate not being able to read the way they should, the eighth-graders who can't do math? Is it too late for them?

A: No, no. I don't ever think it's too late. I think it's a question of creating enough other adults in the working community who, when they meet these youngsters, actually help direct them to programs that appropriately guide their development and skill. I think that's why you have adult school, the addition of the GED, the military.

But I think you've got to have a community that wants to pay attention to the fact that there are those youngsters walking around in their midst. Communities in America will do far better when we get education in the air. That's the issue of the book. It's connecting all those dots that a community needs.

Q: Florida offers a lot of choice to parents, and it prides itself on that. You've lost a lot of kids in Miami-Dade to charter schools over the past several years. How do you keep traditional public schools relevant?

A: I don't think competition is bad at all. Florida has not, in my mind, provided a reasonable competitive basis for charter schools versus public schools. I feel as though they've starved public education financially and then asked you to compete with schools that are getting top dollar and able to take advantage of some pretty generous statutes. I think the answer to the question is, what kind of menu do you offer? At the end of the day, people vote with their feet. If you run a good public school, public schools will walk away with their enrollments intact. On the other hand, if you look at where these charter schools are going, they're going to communities that are fragmented, where schools are not rich and robust and parents are looking for a real choice. Whether it's qualitatively better or not, it's just different.

Q: You're facing the possibility of mandated budget cuts. What do you do?

A: Well, first you prepare for them. We've seen these storm clouds on the horizon, and that's why we build a contingency reserve. Number two, you do what any good business does and you tighten your belt. You obviously have the conversation with the state as to where and how some of those budget cuts can be taken. That's something we have to live with for this period of time.

Q: You talk in your book about waking up every day sure that something good is going to happen. But you've had a tough time lately with some very vocal critics in the community. How do you deal with that?

A: I think that people who do this kind of work, they're gifted in the sense that they have a patience bone. They are able as an educator to always look to the long-term gain. If you take a longer view, you'll prevail; it's just that at this moment, it feels like hell. I am betting that my patience bone will prevail. I know that people would bet on the fact that I'm just going to leave. I can't walk away from work that I think is noble.

Q: You're pretty harsh about elected school boards in your book. What's your past year been like in Miami-Dade? Do you think that makes your case?

A: This is exactly what I'm talking about. There's no particular decorum, but for the few board members who hold on to their passion for this work. But to a very large degree, this is a case of a body that does not operate like a body. In no place can a corporation survive, let alone make a profit, in an environment like that.

Q: You've spent, what, $125,000 defending yourself against a school board member's lawsuit? [In January, school board member Marta Perez sued Crew over governance issues and accused the superintendent of withholding public records. Crew won the governance part of the case; the issues with public records are still being mediated.]

A: And $350,000 on some books that were the pet of a board member that had nothing to do with anything that was part of a strategic plan. I've been here three years. If I were that illegal, if I'd done as many transgressions, if I'd lied about as much data as Dr. Perez has suggested, I'm sure there are very smart people on that board who would have discerned that by now and fired me.

Q: In your book, you advocate mayor control of school boards. Can we expect to see Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez making a move to take over the schools?

A: I don't know so much about the county. I do know that Manny Diaz had made a similar proposal to take over the schools some time ago and pointed to the bad productivity and to the dysfunctionality of the relationship between the board and the superintendent.

But I don't think this community is an environment where the mayor is going to take over. I'm simply referring to the fact that for communities to have stability, somebody's got to be in charge. You've got to have someone with enough stature and power to stabilize the boat. I have found that, in many cases, is a function of both the superintendent and the board, but generally speaking, the superintendent and the board contribute to the problem. The relationship is so dysfunctional and so frayed that it contributes to the problem. You're not making decisions based on good rigorous debate, you're making it purely as a function of a political argument.

People say that's just politics as usual, and that's OK as long as you're OK with politicking yourself out of global competition. Politics as usual got Miami an oversight board. Politics got Miami really very close to a diminished budgetary capacity. So, I'm not a fan.

The writer can be reached at tdeluzuriaga@ MiamiHerald.com

FROM 'ONLY CONNECT':

When I was young, my father used to give me a hard shake to wake me up. Then he'd stick his head right up to my ear and say, "Rudy, " in his deep voice. "Rudy, time to get up. Sun's coming up and something good is gonna happen today."

My father, Eugene, worked hard. My mother died when I was two, so he raised me and my two sisters on his own, paid the bills as a night watchman at the IBM plant in Poughkeepsie after years of playing jazz in New York City. He had a lot of reasons to stay in bed every morning, but for as long as I lived under his roof, he didn't just get himself up and out; he launched all of us out into the world full of expectations for ourselves and for the day.

Today I'm superintendent of the Miami-Dade County public school system, the fourth-largest in the country, with some 356,000 children in my care. Before that I was chancellor of the nation's largest school system, New York City, which enrolls more than 1.1 million kids. I've been superintendent or deputy superintendent in Tacoma, Sacramento and Boston. One part of my job has been to help millions of children, parents, teachers and principals all wake up and believe the same thing that my father used to tell me every morning -- that something good was going to happen today, that some light would go on in a child's head that would let him see the way into the future and maybe even someday lead others there, too. For more than thirty years I've been doing that. But six years after the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act I'm faced with facts like these:

* One-third of American eighth-graders cannot perform basic math. That means more than a million thirteen-year-olds can't do the simplest calculations needed to buy a candy bar or ride a bus.

* One-third of all teachers leave the profession in their first three years; by five years, half of them have left.

* A black child in Washington, D.C., has less than a 30 percent chance of learning how to read before he turns ten.

* The odds that any given ten-year-old in a large American city can read are about fifty-fifty, and six in ten for the nation as a whole.

* Only one in five students entering college are prepared for college-level work in math, reading, writing, and biology.

Besides running school systems, I've been a principal, a teacher, a father who put all four of his kids through public schools, and I even went to some of them myself back in the day. So let me tell you: If those statistics don't make you feel angry or ashamed or sad as an American, then at the very least they should make you scared because, beyond the disappointing things those numbers say about our national character and values, they put our future in peril.

Excerpted from Only Connect: The Way to Save Our Schools by Dr. Rudy Crew. Copyright © 2007 by Dr. Rudy Crew. Published in August 2007 by Sarah Crichton Books, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

ABOUT CREW

Dr. Rudolph F. "Rudy" Crew, age 56, is a native of Poughkeepsie, New York. He has a Ph.D in educational administration and a master of education degree in urban education from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He earned his bachelor's degree in management from Babson College in Wellesley, Mass.

Crew became superintendent of Miami-Dade County public schools on July 1, 2004. His previous experience includes being chancellor of New York City public schools, the nation's largest system, from 1995-1999.

Crew wrote his book with Thomas Dyja of New York, who wrote the novel Play for a Kingdom.

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