Monday, February 20, 2012

Engineer brings respect for educators to Atlanta

From today's New York Times:

ATLANTA — For years, Beverly L. Hall, the former school superintendent here, ruled by fear. Principals were told that if state test scores did not go up enough, they would be fired — and 90 percent of them were removed in the decade of Dr. Hall’s reign.

Some would call this professional terrorism. I would call it that.

Underlings were humiliated during rallies at the Georgia Dome. Dr. Hall permitted principals with the highest test scores to sit up front near her, while sticking those with the lowest scores off to the side, in the bleachers.

People with large titles and people with small titles have at least this in common: They're people. People deserve respect. Professional division and public ridicule are not successful strategies to engender mutual respect.

She was chauffeured around the city, often with an entourage of aides and security guards. When she spoke publicly, questions had to be submitted beforehand for screening. “She was known as the queen in her ivory tower,” said Verdaillia Turner, president of the Atlanta teachers’ union.

Atlanta's parents paid for the superintendent to have a chauffeur?

Is there a single superintendent in all of South Carolina who is chauffeured anywhere?

But Dr. Hall got results. Test scores soared. Two national groups named her superintendent of the year. The secretary of education, Arne Duncan, hosted her at the White House.

Fear seemed to work.

No doubt. Fear is an amazing motivator.

In a recent conversation with friends, we concluded that there were two great ways to motivate people to accomplish a thing, the first being manipulation by fear. Unscrupulous politicians and ideologues are expert at this; watch their television advertisements and listen to their speeches.

The other way, of course, is through authentic leadership. But that depends upon the leader's ability and commitment to forge real relationships, rooted in mutual trust. Building trust takes a mix of four important qualities: Patience, consistency, humility and good faith. Here's the process, step-by-step: Make a commitment to your subordinates today. Empower them -- that means give them real power -- to respond with unforced commitments of their own. Follow through with yours. Celebrate their achievement, whatever they achieve. Repeat.

And, in a year or two, when you've achieved a track record of dependability and integrity, and gained some mutual trust with people whose livelihoods you influence, you may be able to motivate others to follow you. That's being an authentic leader.

Think of Gandhi, who never cracked a whip but led thousands of Indians to take beatings from the British, until the British retreated on their own.

Or Eleanor Roosevelt, who never held elective office but motivated millions around the world to subscribe to the United Nation's charter on children.

Or King, who merely exemplified Christian principle to achieve his ends.

Granted, fear works faster. Ending the careers of 90 percent of a district's principals had its desired effect: Surviving principals and new ones, and classroom educators terrorized by a totalitarian system that deprofessionalized and demoralized them, figured out ways to achieve the superintendent's goal.

Then, last summer, the Atlanta miracle collapsed. A state investigation found that 178 principals and teachers at nearly half the district’s schools — desperate to raise test scores — had cheated. Students from this poor, mostly African-American school district who could barely read were rated proficient on state tests, and they didn’t receive the remedial help they needed.

For months, the Fulton County district attorney has been investigating former school officials. Felony indictments are expected, for altering state documents, lying to investigators and theft of government funds.

People desperate to protect their livelihoods, finding no relief or support from allies with the power to match their tormentors, will resort to extreme measures -- even illegal ones.

By last spring, Gov. Nathan Deal and Mayor Kasim Reed of Atlanta knew they had to find someone to clean up the mess. They asked Erroll B. Davis Jr. to become the new superintendent when Dr. Hall left at the end of June.

Mr. Davis, who is 67, did not need the job. His wife of 43 years hoped he would not take it. He had nothing to prove. An engineer by training, he had been the chief executive of a Wisconsin-based utility company, and then, starting in 2006, the chancellor of the University System of Georgia. In October 2010, he announced he would retire from the chancellorship the following summer.

People tried to warn him off the Atlanta job. Michael Bowers, a former attorney general who was co-director of the state investigation, understood how pervasive the corruption was and how daunting it would be to change the culture. “I know Erroll. I told him, ‘You’re crazy as a bedbug to take that job at your age,’ ” Mr. Bowers recalled. “You know why he did it? He is a genuine public servant.”

For his part, Mr. Davis said, “When I look back at my life, I don’t want my contribution to have been shaving a few eighths off a bond deal to make a million dollars.”

Truly, it's stunning that someone so close to a happy retirement would take on such a thankless trial as cleaning up the human debris scattered by tyranny.

On July 1, the day he was supposed to retire, Mr. Davis was sitting at Dr. Hall’s old desk, reading the 800-page investigative report and trying to figure out which, if any, of the people in the offices surrounding him could be trusted.

Since then, he has been unbending about rooting out corruption, to the point that Richard L. Hyde, who had been the lead investigator on the commission that issued the state report, said, “He’s brought order to chaos, it’s very impressive.” Mr. Davis has removed more than the 178 teachers and principals named in the report, and he dismissed several top administrators.

He has also made himself accessible, visiting 8 to 10 schools each month unannounced. And he has been kind. During a stop at Slater Elementary last week, he walked into every classroom. “I want to thank you for what you do,” he told each teacher. “I couldn’t do your job.”

Let's look at that again:

He has also made himself accessible, visiting 8 to 10 schools each month unannounced. And he has been kind. During a stop at Slater Elementary last week, he walked into every classroom. “I want to thank you for what you do,” he told each teacher. “I couldn’t do your job.”

What a powerful statement to make, and I don't just mean the words he said. To make himself accessible in person. To demonstrate kindness. To visit every classroom, and to look every teacher in the eye. These things, coming in the wake of tyranny, are enough of a change to comfort bruised hearts and minds. But beyond that, to say to the professionals who work with children daily, "I want to thank you for what you do... I couldn’t do your job," demonstrates real awareness of leadership through empathy, a potent mixture of humility and profound respect.

Empathy, expressed in person, deliberately, face to face, one by one. The opposite of terrorism.

Our best district and school-based administrators in South Carolina demonstrate these qualities, I know. They are too few.

As he travels the district, often driving himself to meet with small groups of principals, Mr. Davis repeatedly tells them, “Education is the only industry in this country where failure is blamed on the workers, not the leadership.”

It is at this point that I begin to regret that Mr. Davis is 67, and that a comfortable retirement beckons so closely. A man of this calibre, given a decade to rebuild such a destroyed place, could accomplish anything.

Politically, he was the right choice for the job. On one level, the state investigation had been viewed as racially tinged, pitting former Gov. Sonny Perdue, a white Republican who ordered the inquiry in 2010, while still in office, against Dr. Hall, a black woman who served a Democratic constituency.

Beyond his talents, Mr. Davis offered something to both sides.

He had been chosen for the university chancellorship by Mr. Perdue. And he is African-American, a must for a school district where most of the work force and students are black.

Mr. Davis says he is not political, describing himself as “slightly left of center on social issues and slightly right of center on fiscal matters.”

His salary as superintendent is $240,000, less than half of what he made as the university system chancellor.

He is an engineer to the core, bringing office work to football games to read during breaks. “A football game takes three and a half hours,” he said, “but if you add up the actual playing time, it’s much less, so there’s a lot I can get done.” He hangs his suits on two racks, taking the first in line, wearing it for a day, putting it at the end, and repeating.

Dr. Hall and her top aides had six secretaries and receptionists; Mr. Davis and his have three.

I have to admit, my preference is always to have educators own their profession, which includes having professional educators ascend to positions of leadership. It means something to classroom professionals and classified employees to know that their district leader understands their work from personal experience. But exceptions prove the rule, and this engineer-turned-university chancellor sounds exceptional.

And he sounds like someone who understands the power of his visible and verbal statements. Taking a fifty percent cut in salary sends a message like a billboard ringed with sparklers. Cutting one's immediate secretarial pool by half made a statement that speaks volumes, I'm sure. And I wonder if he's also dispensed with the chauffeur.

People are still shellshocked from the Hall years. Ms. Turner, the union president, said she was surprised when Mr. Davis’s secretary called to set up a lunch. “I said, ‘Why does he want to do that?’” Ms. Turner recalled. “She said, ‘He wants to get to know you.’ The man is a breath of fresh air.”

Dr. Hall was viewed as inaccessible, sequestered in her office.

Has your superintendent done the same lately? Has he or she reached out to meet with your professional leaders, to discuss your professional issues and concerns, to guarantee that lines of communication remain permanently open, to reach understandings and agreements rooted in mutual trust and respect?

Or is your superintendent "inaccessible"?

Mr. Davis’s home telephone number is listed.

Is your superintendent's home telephone number listed? Do you feel invited to call it?

Recently he received a complaint that a teacher had given her students the answers to a test. After investigating, he immediately removed her from the classroom. “My policy is zero tolerance,” he said. “I do not want people who cheat teaching children. Can I do that? We’ll find out. If I lose, so be it, sue me.”

Having demonstrated patience, humility and good faith, this superintendent completes the four-point test of authentic leadership with consistency: Cheating is wrong; discovery of cheating brings a penalty; the penalty is applied.

What education professional can argue with the consistent application of a district policy against wrongdoing?

During his visit to Slater Elementary, he stopped to inspect the bathrooms. “Everything good?” asked the assistant principal, Jeffrey Copeland.

“Actually, no,” Mr. Davis said. “A toilet overflowed.”

Later, as he was leaving, Mr. Davis checked to see if it had been fixed.

“Done,” said a custodian, explaining that someone had clogged it with a whistle.

“Thank you for what you do,” Mr. Davis said.

Again, humility. Authentic leadership, not manipulation by fear.

A product of the Pittsburgh public schools, Mr. Davis finished high school at age 16. By 20, he had an engineering degree from Carnegie Mellon University, by 22 a master’s degree in business from the University of Chicago. He says he does not want a school system driven by test results.

Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna; he gets it. A child is more than a test score.

At the earliest, I'm hopeful that someone in South Carolina will invite this superintendent to visit here, to outline his views on education and administration. The best among our own will have no fear of hearing him; they'll likely welcome him as a kindred spirit. The earnest and inexperienced ones in our system will take heed gladly, and apply his lessons. Only those whose habits are refuted and undermined by this superintendent's authenthic leadership skills would ignore the opportunity and close their ears to his advice.


“That is not how education should work,” Mr. Davis said. “If you create the right kind of system, run by the right kind of people, tests scores will take care of themselves.”

Say that again, loudly:

“That is not how education should work,” Mr. Davis said. “If you create the right kind of system, run by the right kind of people, tests scores will take care of themselves.”

Thank you, Mr. Davis. Thank you.

When Dr. Hall was the superintendent, she covered one wall in her office with bar graphs showing the test results for all 100 city schools.

After Mr. Davis became superintendent, he took the test scores down and replaced them with large color photographs of Atlanta schoolchildren.

A man with priorities correctly ordered.

Atlanta, at long last, is lucky again. Here's hoping some of that luck will take wing and drift this way.


  1. Thank you Educating South Carolina for sharing the good news about what is now happening in the Atlanta Public Schools now that they have "cleaned house." Atlanta's educators are well deserving of professional respect. What a shame it is that the Sumter School District Board did not show respect to the educators of Sumter County when they put not 2 but 3 of Atlanta's fleeing administration in charge of the public schools of Sumter County. Sumter County, know that your educators had researched each one of the final three candidates. The school board knew that Atlanta was being investigated. The culture of the Atlanta school district has crossed states lines and is in Sumter County! If the voters of Sumter County didn't realize it before, all that they needed to do was read Mr. Bynum's editorial in the newspaper.

  2. For all the other traits he bring to this effort, two words stand out : courage and integrity.

  3. I can only hope that the Sumter School District Board members will read this article and see the obvious parallels between Sumter and Atlanta since hiring the three Supers from Atlanta. All anyone has to do is read about any district hit by these Broad graduates to be very afraid of what will be done to this school district and to this city. Most importantly the students will suffer, no doubt about it.

  4. Mr. Erroll Davis, you are an inspiration to parents and teachers everywhere. I know the children of Atlanta are lucky to have you there.