AdvancED CEO Mark Elgart.
I belong to the first of three generations of Galises to benefit from our public schools. That’s my only credential for commenting on The Troubles afflicting our district—well, that and terminal dorkiness that gives me very high tolerance for the soul-crushing policies and procedures documents central to this dustup. I read some of them so you won’t have to, and I found things that I think—probably foolishly—might help readers understand what’s going on here. As for how we get out of this corner, I have nothing better to offer than the praying and singing that’s already in the hopper.
Some believe that racial animus is driving the controversy. I’m not going down that rabbit hole, other than to note that critics and supporters of the board of education and the superintendent aren’t sorting out neatly along racial lines. That shouldn’t surprise anybody. Humans, like other animals, are wired for a deeper attachment to their own offspring than other people’s. And it looks like most of the white families who think their children aren’t well served in our public schools have already exited the district one or way or another. That’s why the non-Hispanic white population of the county, according to a 2015 estimate, is about 65%, but the school population, says the district’s website, is only 20% non-Hispanic white. So it’s reasonable to think that the parents of the district’s remaining non-Hispanic white kids favor the effort to narrow the achievement gap between their children and their classmates.
My “alternative theory of the case” is that school boards and superintendents, of whatever color, are natural antagonists. If you don’t believe me, look at the CCSD Policy Manual’s entries governing board-superintendent relations. They’re full of language about how delicate those relations are, how the parties must collaborate, behave respectfully toward each other, serve as each other’s key advisors, not criticize each other in public and on and on in that vein. I’m not an expert on policy manuals (not that dorky), but this one is unique in my experience. Whoever wrote it wouldn’t have included all that Miss Manners stuff if they expected the board and the superintendent to play nice as a matter of course. Those provisions are aspirational, expressions of the nervous hope that the players won’t revert to type.
If school boards, their constituents and their superintendents are on a hair trigger these days, it’s because running a school district is exponentially harder in the age of data-saturated accountability than it used to be. We need look no further than Atlanta to see this dynamic playing out.
Tossing a complaint to AdvancED, our accreditor, into such an inherently fraught situation couldn’t help but raise everybody’s anxiety level. It’s an open question whether we’ll see any offsetting benefit.
If people are counting on AdvancED to dispatch conflict resolution experts to fix this, that’s not happening, because it’s not what AdvancED does. Their investigators are volunteers drawn from other school districts who have a narrow, focused assignment. Because accreditation “applies to an entire institution or system,” according to AdvancED Policies and Procedures for Accreditation and Certification, the investigators aren’t interested in a handful of awkward exchanges among district personnel. Their assignment is to determine whether the district as a whole is failing to comply with one or more of the 31 standards spelled out in AdvancED Performance Standards for Systems. If they find the district isn’t complying with the standards, AdvancED will tell the district what it would take to bring it back into compliance, but otherwise leave it up to the miscreants to get with the program.
When news of the complaint to AdvancED broke, people freaked as Facebookers posted a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution story about Clayton County’s decade-long struggle to recover from its accreditation loss in 2008. But nobody posted any 2008 stories reporting that the Clayton County school system was the first in nearly 40 years to lose its accreditation, a rarity that caught the attention of The New York Times. So if the complainants’ strategy is to whip our school board into shape by threatening accreditation loss, that doesn’t look promising for a couple of reasons.
First, AdvancED doesn’t even initiate an investigation unless there’s “substantial evidence… [of] matters that could seriously hinder or disrupt the educational effectiveness of the institution and ability of the institution to meet the AdvancED Policies or Standards for accreditation….” For a currently accredited system to be in danger of revocation, it has to fail to meet a “substantial number of Standards….”
Even if an investigation found our district to be violating all five standards AdvancED cited in its response to the complaint, that’s only 16% of the 31 standards AdvancED holds school systems to. AdvancED didn’t ask me, but I wouldn’t call that a “substantial” number.
Another reason it doesn’t look like our accreditation is at risk is that AdvancED’s founding president and CEO, Mark Elgart, doesn’t get up every day looking for school systems to ding. Elgart knows, as Clayton County learned the hard way, that revoking a school system’s accreditation is the economic equivalent of carpet bombing, with shock waves radiating in every direction for years. And he had to answer some very uncomfortable questions from Clayton County parents about why their children were being held hostage to the conduct of adults who should have known better. He didn’t have really great answers.
Although AdvancED is a private, nonprofit organization, in other respects it’s a standard issue corporation. It merged with another accrediting agency, Measured Progress, last year and has recently christened the new company Cognia. That’s the brand that Elgart has to protect, and he can’t do that as an avenging angel, presiding over an organization that’s quick to lay waste to communities whose schools his teams mark down. In fact, one of Cognia’s business lines is hawking Cognia-branded merchandise—umbrellas, backpacks, coffee mugs, thermos bottles, pens. I didn’t make that up. I doubt that Clayton County is a target market.
I’d like to think that the board and superintendent, having already figured all this out, realize that they can’t look to AdvancED to pull their fat out of the fire. They’re going to have to do it themselves, and my fondest hope is that they’ll have the community’s support in the effort.