When Metro schools director Pedro Garcia last week asked the school board not to renew his contract, it caught even his closest confidants off guard. His PR guru, Allison Cutler, immediately realized the significance of the letter he drafted to school board chairwoman Pam Garrett, and was on the horn to Garrett about it to give her a heads up. "Allison called and said, 'I just got an e-mail from Dr. Garcia with a copy of a letter he wanted me to look over, and I felt I needed to call you and run it by you,' " Garrett recalls. "And I said, 'Ask him to give me a call and talk about this.' "
But calling ahead has never been Garcia's style. So he sent the letter to board members last Wednesday. In it, the schools director announced he's not expecting test scores to rise this yearmuch as they didn't last yearand therefore he didn't want his contract renewed past its current June 30, 2007, expiration date.
"When I was hired as director, the focus of my tenure was my commitment to improve the achievement level of our students," Garcia wrote. "After my first year, student achievement increased significantly. The second year, 2002-2003, showed no significant increases in our test scores. I do not know what 2003-2004 will bring, but in light of the length of the TCAP test, I am not anticipating an increase in student performance scores.... I prefer my contract not be extended until the majority of the Board has seen the significant increase in student achievement scores for which I was hired to deliver."
Admittedly, no one quite knew how to interpret this gesture from a brash, upwardly mobile district chief who recently flirted with flying the coop for Miami. Could it be that Garcia has designs on other jobs and wants to minimize the penalty other districts would pay to buy out his contract, thus making himself more marketable?
Perhaps. But publicly, at least, school board members are putting a smiley face on Garcia's request, noting that it was the honorable thing to do. "I think he's right to hold himself to the same level of accountability as principals and teachers," Garrett says.
Privately, the talk is a little more honest. Basically, some school board members suggest, there was a good chance that the board would have voted not to renew Garcia's contract beyond 2007 after it evaluates him next month. In anticipation of a messy fight, and cognizant of the fact that, at his level, contract non-renewal is a kiss of death, the politically savvy director took his name out of contention preemptively. That way, he doesn't have a potential no-confidence vote on his record. "What happened is he got ahead of us," one board member says.
Points for strategy.
For his part, the schools director says he's simply being fair with the district. "It's all about delivery; It's not about talk about delivery," he tells the Scene. "If I hold the principals accountable, I need to hold myself accountable." Because Garcia's not expecting test score increases when results are released in a couple of weeks ("I'm not holding my breath," are his exact words), he's not expecting a contract extension.
Low score apologists cite the length of this year's state-mandated student testa whopping nine-and-a-half hoursas the chief reason student performance isn't showing improvement. They think that the testing method is too clunky to accurately measure learning. Others believe there simply isn't any student improvement to show. Still others blame some combination of the two. They also point to interference from the state and national level, as well as the continued effects of redistricting mandated by desegregation, as obstacles to improving student achievement. "We're not expecting great things out of a nine-and-a-half hour test, to be honest," Garrett says.
If test scores for the city's 70,000-plus public school students are going to be low, expectations are being set even lower. But at the same time as Garcia and the board lament lackluster test scores, they all point to other areas in which the district has made vast improvements in the three years since the schools director arrived. They cite huge increases in teacher training, an after-school credit recovery program that allowed 198 students to graduate with their class when they otherwise wouldn't have, realigned academic standards and an improved English Language Learners program, among other things, as evidence that the system has seen limited successes.
Of course, all of this diversionary spinning is somewhat ironic, given that Garcia arrived here from California in 2001 in a bluster, saying that test scores should be the ultimate measure of his performance. So folks at the top of the school system now find themselves in the awkward position of shifting the focus away from test scores when they've spent three years, at Garcia's performance-based insistence, talking about accountability, student achievement and, yes, test scores. That's why this summer they embarked on a "Results Tour" in which Garcia, board members, the media and sometimes Mayor Bill Purcell have visited schools, talked to students and generally smiled for the camera, all while pointing out positive changes that can't be measured by test scores. Cutler, the PR lady whose job is to highlight the good news, is currently at work on a document entitled "Results for Children and Families" that promotes the positive developments in the system.
So given shifting state and federal standards and the need for school system infrastructure development, was it a mistake for Metro schools to put all the chips on student achievement in the form of test results? According to Garcia, no. "It's about the scores and it always will be," he says. "Unfortunately, that's what the media sees. It's a more objective way to measure success. Right or wrong, when you get achievement scores, it's a measurable way [to define success]."
This from the guy who came to Nashville with a four-year plan and an opening-night presentation to the school board that he called "No Excuses." Three years later, Garcia's not making any, but the people who sign his paycheck say he may have the right at least to ask for deferred judgment.
Mayor Bill Purcell isn't one of those people. He concedes that test scores shouldn't be the only standard used to judge Nashville's schools but insists that they are a "very, very important" one. "As a mayor, as a parent and as a taxpayer, ultimately the success of the system will be judged by the progress that we make at all levels," he tells the Scene. "I think all of us are not satisfied with the test scores we've been getting to this point. The improvement that we saw the first year was encouraging, but it has to be sustained."
Board members, on the other hand, say that in retrospect it may have been a little ambitious to expect huge changes in just a few years. And yes, communication problems have plagued the administration. "I think there were statements made without knowing what bad condition the system was in altogether," Nevill says. "We had so many parts of this system that were broken: transportation, facilities, special education, English Language Learners, food servicesit goes on and on. We had no standards. There are just all kinds of fundamentals that we didn't have four years ago. A lot of what we've been doing is building capacity. It took us three years to put a good team in place at the central office, but I have seen a real synergy happen in the past four or five months."
So despite static test scores, student achievement beyond the standardized test may well be on the rise. At least that's what Garrett thinks. "This system looks a whole lot better than it did four years ago," she says. "It's not all going to show up in the test scores."
Garcia agreessort of. "I think we've come a long way, I think we've put a lot of structures in place. We see a lot of great things happening. But bottom line: we've gotta see the results."
Perhaps meaningful change is gradual and laborious. And maybe quick, quantifiable fixes to complex social problems shouldn't be trusted. But as one observer says of Garcia, "He hung his hat on the test scores." He may yet hang himself on them, too.
Drink Black Coffee, problem solved.
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