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March 21, 2011 at 12:11 PM

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In defense of Maria Goodloe-Johnson

Posted by Lynne Varner

Interesting commentary purportedly about retaining urban school superintendents beyond their 3 1/2 year average tenures but also clearly a defense of Maria Goodloe-Johnson, the former Seattle Public Schools superintendent who was recently fired.

Tom Payzant, a Harvard professor and former urban school district superintendent, wrote the piece. His most compelling point is that academic gains in urban schools come slowly, are hard-won and expensive and ought to be valued and preserved.

Payzant warms quickly to his central point: Seattle sent its superintendent packing too soon. She did not commit fraud nor was the district's chief legal counsel able to come up with a rationale that would withstand judicial scrutiny. (Payzant doesn't mention the superintendent's obvious failings as a communicator or a leader presiding over an environment of lax oversight and bureacratic inertia.)

This particular graph about Seattle's school children grabbed me: "No matter how you slice the data, whether you look at the degree to which students moved up across performance levels for example, below-basic to basic, basic to proficient, or proficient to advanced, the degree to which proficiency rates improved, or the degree to which Seattle rose above performance levels statistically expected of it given its high poverty levels, under Dr. Goodloe-Johnson’s leadership, the district bested other large urban districts nationwide."

Really? Seattle's academic gains are likely better and swifter than those garnered by Baltimore, Chicago or Miami-Dade school districts. But would the same be true for Portland, Denver and other districts that more accurately compare to Seattle? (The term urban school districts encompasses a wide range from Seattle to the New York City School District's 1.1 million students) .

Update: Thanks to an eagle-eyed reader I want to make clear that a comment I posted from a Broad Foundation spokeswoman was a direct quote and not reflective of my point of view at all. Here it is in its entirety: "Hi Lynne - Just got out of a meeting, thanks for your response. I forwarded your email to Tom Payzant (and saw your posting).
The student achievement data that Tom cites comes from two sources: 1) publicly available data run through an analysis conducted by MPR Associates (based in Berkeley, Calif.) comparing student achievement in 100 of the nation’s large urban school districts as well as 2) publicly available data run through an analysis we (The Broad Foundation) run each year to track student progress under graduates of The Broad Superintendents Academy (of which Maria Goodloe-Johnson is a graduate). Seattle’s outcomes in the last couple years on both of these national analyses are impressive (versus gains made in other large urban districts). I’ll track both sets of data down and email them to you (if you don’t get from Tom first)."

For the record, I reached out to Payzant who said he doesn't keep the data, Broad does. And so it goes.

Perhaps, comparisons are pointless to begin with. For students, gains are gains whether it puts them ahead of other districts or behind. A child learning to read or count doesn't care about the foot race as much as the adults.

Full disclosure: The piece was forwarded to me by a colleague who received it from a communications staffer at the Broad Foundation. Goodloe-Johnson served on a Broad leadership board. Clearly, the Los Angeles-based educational nonprofit has an interest in burnishing the image of its former fellow.

For what its worth, I don't really care about the commentary's attempt to burnish the former superintendent's legacy. I care about retaining any improvements she made in the lives of children here in the city. For that reason, I plan to track these numbers.

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