Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Gorman years through a rosy filter

"Bold" is a favorite term with education reformers.  A dose of boldness would have been a help to "Within Reach: Leadership Lessons in School Reform from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools."

The 98-page book was commissioned by former Superintendent Peter Gorman and paid for with almost $60,000 from a $250,000 grant the C.D. Spangler Foundation gave him. The five fascinating, tumultuous years he spent leading CMS are sanitized to the point of blandness:  Gorman rallied a community that had soured on CMS.  A dysfunctional board learned to work together.  Strategic staffing created remarkable gains.  Teacher performance pay created  "a great deal of nervousness and distrust,"  but "Charlotte is holding firm."  The CMS agenda  "included several strategies that were in the giving 'sweet spot' for several national foundations,"  bringing millions into the district.

Gorman's detractors may scoff at the idea that he has anything to teach the district's future leaders and others across the nation. I think he does  --  but the lessons came from the setbacks and stumbles as much as the victories,  and nothing was ever simple.  I'm willing to bet that when current and former superintendents get together,  they tell the kind of war stories that would have made this book gripping.

The account of his arrival is interesting,  especially as CMS goes through the replacement rituals again. Gorman tells the authors,  Tim Quinn and Michelle Keith,  that he followed news on CMS closely during the year the district was seeking a leader,  and brought his family to Charlotte for four days before  applying.  Between the hiring vote and his arrival,  he used the California/North Carolina time difference to lay groundwork,  making calls to key figures in Mecklenburg County from 5-8 a.m.  Pacific time before starting his job in Tustin.

"Every minute of every day during the first week was carefully mapped out,"  from a 6 a.m. meeting with support staff  (schools weren't open in July) to a walk in the Matthews Independence Day parade.  "This action spoke volumes about the new superintendent's level of interest in this part of the district and helped to overcome the talk of secession,"  he writes.

Why did he decide to leave the job he writes so glowingly about?  What was the personal toll of five years as the face of CMS?  Why did the superintendent who seemed to thrive on communication and community ties abruptly walk away without public comment or farewells?

This book doesn't give the faintest hint.  Peter Gorman the textbook leader pays tribute to all the good folks he worked with and vanishes into a rosy memory.  Peter Gorman the human being still hasn't broken his silence.

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